"Pshaw!" exclaimed Uncle John; "we are merely considering you as a friend. You must believe that we are really interested in you," he continued, laying a kindly hand on the young fellow's shoulder. "You seem in a bad way, it's true, but your condition is far from desperate. Patsy's frankness—it's her one fault and her chief virtue—led you to talk about yourself, and I'm surprised to find you so despondent and—and—what do you call it, Beth?"
"But you're wrong, sir!" said the boy with a smile; "I may not be elated over my fatal disease, but neither am I despondent. I force myself to keep going when I wonder how the miserable machine responds to my urging, and I shall keep it going, after a fashion, until the final breakdown. Fate weaves the thread of our lives, I truly believe, and she didn't use very good material when she started mine. But that doesn't matter," he added quickly. "I'm trying to do a little good as I go along and not waste my opportunities. I'm obeying my doctor's orders and facing the future with all the philosophy I can summon. So now, if you—who have given me a new lease of life—think I can use it to any better advantage, I am willing to follow your counsel."
His tone was more pathetic than his words. Maud, as she looked at the boy and tried to realize that his days were numbered, felt her eyes fill with tears. Patsy sniffed scornfully, but said nothing. It was Beth who remarked with an air of unconcern that surprised those who knew her unsympathetic nature:
"It would be presumptuous for us to interfere, either with Fate or with Nature. You're probably dead wrong about your condition, for a sick person has no judgment whatever, but I've noticed the mind has a good deal to do with one's health. If you firmly believe you're going to die, why, what can you expect?"
No one cared to contradict this and a pause followed that was growing awkward when they were all aroused by the sound of hasty footsteps approaching their corner.
THE MAGIC OF A NAME
The newcomer proved to be Goldstein, the manager of the Continental. His face was frowning and severe as he rudely marched up to the group and, without the formality of a greeting, pointedly addressed the Stanton girls.
"What does it mean?" he demanded in evident excitement, for his voice shook and the accusing finger he held out trembled. "How does it happen that my people, under contract to work for the Continental, are working for other firms?"
Maud paled and her eyes glistened with resentment as she rose and faced her manager. Florence pulled her sister's sleeve and said with a forced laugh: "Sit down, Maud; the man has probably been drinking."
He turned on the young girl fiercely, but now it was Arthur Weldon who seized the manager's arm and whirled him around.
"Sir, you are intruding," he said sternly. "If you have business with these ladies, choose the proper time and place to address them."
"I have!" cried Goldstein, blusteringly. "They have treated me shamefully—unprofessionally! They have played me a trick, and I've the right to demand why they are working for a rival firm while in my pay."
Mrs. Montrose now arose and said with quiet dignity:
"Mr. Goldstein, you are intruding, as Mr. Weldon says. But you have said so much to defame my nieces in the eyes of our friends, here assembled, that you must explain yourself more fully."
The manager seemed astonished by his reception. He looked from one to another and said more mildly:
"It is easy enough for me to explain, but how can the Stantons explain their conduct? They are under contract to act exclusively for the Continental Film Company and I pay them a liberal salary. Yet only yesterday, when I was kind enough to give them a holiday, they went down to the beach and posed for a picture for our rivals, the Corona Company!"
"You are mistaken, sir!" retorted Arthur. "The young ladies were in our company the entire afternoon and they did not pose for any picture whatever."
"Don't tell me!" cried Goldstein. "I've just seen the picture down town. I was going by one of the theatres when I noticed a placard that read: 'Sensational Film by Maud Stanton, the Queen of Motion Picture Actresses, entitled "A Gallant Rescue!" First run to-night.' I went in and saw the picture—with my own eyes!—and I saw Maud Stanton in a sea scene, rescuing a man who was drowning. Don't deny it, Miss," he added, turning upon Maud fiercely. "I saw it with my own eyes—not an hour ago!"
After a moment's amazed silence his hearers broke into a chorus of laughter, led by Flo, who was almost hysterical. Even A. Jones smiled indulgently upon the irate manager, who was now fairly bristling with indignation.
"The Corona people," remarked Arthur Weldon, "are quite enterprising. I did not know they had a camera-man at the beach yesterday, but he must have secured a very interesting picture. It was not posed, Mr. Goldstein, but taken from life."
"It was Maud Stanton!" asserted, the manager.
"Yes; she and some others. A man was really drowning and the brave girl swam to his rescue, without a thought of posing."
"I don't believe it!" cried the man rudely.
Here A. Jones struggled to his feet.
"It is true," he said. "I was the drowning man whom Miss Stanton saved."
Goldstein eyed him shrewdly.
"Perhaps you were," he admitted, "for the man in the picture was about your style of make-up. But how can you prove it was not a put-up job with the Corona people? How do I know you are not all in the employ of the Corona people?"
"I give you my word."
"Pah! I don't know you."
"I see you don't," returned the youth stiffly.
"Here is my card. Perhaps you will recognize the name."
He fumbled in his pocket, took out a card and handed it to the manager. Goldstein looked at it, started, turned red and then white and began bobbing his head with absurd deference to the youth.
"Pardon, Mr. Jones—pardon!" he gasped. "I—I heard you were in our neighborhood, but I—I did not recognize you. I—I hope you will pardon me, Mr. Jones! I was angry at what I supposed was the treachery of an employee. You will—will—understand that, I am sure. It is my duty to protect the interests of the Continental, you know, sir. But it's all right now, of course! Isn't it all right now, Mr. Jones?"
"You'd better go, Goldstein," said the boy in a weary tone, and sat down again.
The manager hesitated. Then he bowed to Maud Stanton and to the others, murmuring:
"All a mistake, you see; all a mistake. I—I beg everybody's pardon."
With this he backed away, still bowing, and finally turned and beat a hasty retreat. But no one was noticing him especially. All eyes were regarding the boy with a new curiosity.
"That Goldstein is an ill-bred boor!" remarked Uncle John in an annoyed tone.
"I suppose," said Maud, slowly, "he thought he was right in demanding an explanation. There is great rivalry between the various film manufacturers and it was rather mean of the Corona to put my name on that placard."
"It's wonderful!" exclaimed Patsy. "How did they get the picture, do you suppose?"
"They have camera-men everywhere, looking for some picture worth while." explained Mrs. Montrose. "If there's a fire, the chances are a camera-man is on the spot before the firemen arrive. If there's an accident, it is often caught by the camera before the victim realizes what has happened. Perhaps a camera-man has been at the beach for weeks, waiting patiently for some tragedy to occur. Anyway, he was on hand yesterday and quietly ran his film during the excitement of the rescue. He was in rare luck to get Maud, because she is a favorite with the public; but it was not fair to connect her name with the picture, when they know she is employed by the Continental."
Young Jones rose from his chair with a gesture of weariness.
"If you will excuse me," he said, "I will go to my room. Our little conversation has given me much pleasure; I'm so alone in the world. Perhaps you will allow me to join you again—some other time?"
They hastened to assure him his presence would always be welcome. Patsy even added, with her cheery smile, that they felt a certain proprietorship in him since they had dragged him from a watery grave. The boy showed, as he walked away, that he was not yet very steady on his feet, but whether the weakness was the result of his malady or his recent trying experience they could not determine.
"What staggers me," said Maud, looking after him, "is the effect his name had on Goldstein, who has little respect or consideration for anyone. Who do you suppose A. Jones is?"
"Why, he has told us," replied Louise. "He is an islander, on his first visit to this country."
"He must be rather more than that," declared Arthur. "Do you remember what the manager said to him?"
"Yes," said Beth. "He had heard that A. Jones was in this neighborhood, but had never met him. A. Jones was a person of sufficient importance to make the general manager of the Continental Film Company tremble in his boots."
"He really did tremble," asserted Patsy, "and he was abject in his apologies."
"Showing," added Flo Stanton, "that Goldstein is afraid of him."
"I wonder why," said Maud.
"It is all very easy of solution," remarked Arthur. "Goldstein believes that Jones is in the market to buy films. Perhaps he's going to open a motion picture theatre on his island. So the manager didn't want to antagonize a good customer."
"That's it," said Uncle John, nodding approval. "There's no great mystery about young Jones, I'm sure."
Next morning Uncle John and the Weldons—including the precious baby—went for a ride into the mountains, while Beth and Patsy took their embroidery into a sunny corner of the hotel lobby.
It was nearly ten o'clock when A. Jones discovered the two girls and came tottering toward them. Tottering is the right word; he fairly swayed as he made his way to the secluded corner.
"I wish he'd use a cane," muttered Beth in an undertone. "I have the feeling that he's liable to bump his nose any minute."
Patsy drew up a chair for him, although he endeavored to prevent her.
"Are you feeling better this morning?" she inquired.
"I—I think so," he answered doubtfully. "I don't seem to get back my strength, you see."
"Were you stronger before your accident?" asked Beth.
"Yes, indeed. I went swimming, you remember. But perhaps I was not strong enough to do that. I—I'm very careful of myself, yet I seem to grow weaker all the time."
There was a brief silence, during which the girls plied their needles.
"Are you going to stay in this hotel?" demanded Patsy, in her blunt way.
"For a time, I think. It is very pleasant here," he said.
"Have you had breakfast?"
"I took a food-tablet at daybreak."
"Huh!" A scornful exclamation. Then she glanced at the open door of the dining-hall and laying aside her work she rose with a determined air and said:
"Come with me!"
For answer she assisted him to rise. Then she took his hand and marched him across the lobby to the dining room.
He seemed astonished at this proceeding but made no resistance. Seated at a small table she called a waitress and said:
"Bring a cup of chocolate, a soft-boiled egg and some toast."
"Pardon me, Miss Doyle," he said; "I thought you had breakfasted."
"So I have," she replied. "The breakfast I've ordered is for you, and you're going to eat it if I have to ram it down your throat."
"You've told us you are doomed. Well, you're going to die with a full stomach."
"But the doctor—"
"Bother the doctor! I'm your doctor, now, and I won't send in a bill, thank your stars."
He looked at her with his sad little smile.
"Isn't this a rather high-handed proceeding, Miss Doyle?"
"I haven't employed you as my physician, you know."
"True. But you've deliberately put yourself in my power."
"In the first place, you tagged us here to this hotel."
"You don't mind, do you?"
"Not in the least. It's a public hostelry. In the second place, you confided to us your disease and your treatment of it—which was really none of our business."
"I—I was wrong to do that. But you led me on and—I'm so lonely—and you all seemed so generous and sympathetic—that I—I—"
"That you unwittingly posted us concerning your real trouble. Do you realize what it is? You're a hypo—hypo—what do they call it?—hypochondriac!"
"I am not!"
"And your doctor—your famous specialist—is a fool."
"Oh, Miss Doyle!"
"Also you are a—a chump, to follow his fool advice. You don't need sympathy, Mr. A. Jones. What you need is a slapstick."
"A slapstick. And that's what you're going to get if you don't obey orders."
Here the maid set down the breakfast, ranging the dishes invitingly before the invalid. His face had expressed all the emotions from amazement to terror during Patsy's tirade and now he gazed from her firm, determined features to the eggs and toast, in an uncertain, helpless way that caused the girl a severe effort to curb a burst of laughter.
"Now, then," she said, "get busy. I'll fix your egg. Do you want more sugar in your chocolate? Taste it and see. And if you don't butter that toast before it gets cold it won't be fit to eat."
He looked at her steadily now, again smiling.
"You're not joking, Miss Doyle?"
"I'm in dead earnest."
"Of course you realize this is the—the end?"
"Of your foolishness? I hope so. You used to eat like a sensible boy, didn't you?"
"When I was well."
"You're well now. Your only need is sustaining, strengthening food. I came near ordering you a beefsteak, but I'll reserve that for lunch."
He sipped the chocolate.
"Yes; it needs more sugar," he said quietly. "Will you please butter my toast? It seems to me such a breakfast is worth months of suffering. How delicious this egg is! It was the fragrance of the egg and toast that conquered me. That, and—"
"And one sensible, determined girl. Don't look at me as if I were a murderess! I'm your best friend—a friend in need. And don't choke down your food. Eat slowly. Fletcherize—chew your food, you know. I know you're nearly famished, but you must gradually accustom yourself to a proper diet."
He obeyed meekly. Patsy's face was calm, but her heart beat fast, with a thrill of fear she could not repress. Acting on impulse, as she had, the girl now began to consider that she was personally responsible for whatever result might follow this radical treatment for dyspepsia. Had she been positive it was dyspepsia, she would never have dared interfere with a doctor's orders; but she felt that the boy needed food and would die unless he had it. He might die from the effect of this unusual repast, in which case she would never forgive herself.
Meantime, the boy had cast aside all fear. He had protested, indeed, but his protests being overruled he accepted his food and its possible consequences with philosophic resignation and a growing satisfaction.
Patsy balked on the third slice of toast and took it away from him. She also denied him a second cup of chocolate. He leaned back in his chair with a sigh of content and said:
"Bless the hen that laid that egg! No dainty was ever more delicious. And now," he added, rising, "let us go and inquire the address of a good undertaker. I have made my will, and I'd like to be cremated—it's so much nicer than the old-fashioned burial, don't you think?"
"I'll attend to all that, if you wish," she replied, trying to repress a shudder as she followed him from the room. "Do you smoke?"
"I used to, but the doctor forbade it; so I gave it up entirely."
"Go over to that stand and buy a cigar. Then you may sit beside Beth and me and smoke it."
The girl did not wholly approve of smoking and had often chided Uncle John and her father and Arthur Weldon for indulging in the habit; but this advice to young Jones was given in desperation, because all the men of her family stoutly affirmed that a cigar after a meal assisted digestion. She resumed her former seat beside Beth, and her cousin quickly read the anxiety on her face.
"What did you do, Patricia?"
"I fed him."
"Did he really eat?"
"Like a starved cat."
"Hm-m-m," said Beth. "What next, I wonder?"
Patsy wondered, too, the cold shivers chasing one another up and down her back. The boy was coming toward them, coolly puffing a cigar. He did not seem to totter quite so much as before, but he was glad to sink into an easy chair.
"How do you feel?" asked Beth, regarding him curiously.
"Like one of those criminals who are pampered with all the good things of life before being led to the scaffold."
He shook his head.
"Not yet. I've asked the clerk, whenever I signal him, to send someone to carry me to my room. If I'm not able to say good-bye to you, please accept now my thanks for all your kindness to a stranger. You see, I'm not sure whether I'll have a sudden seizure or the pains will come on gradually."
"What pains?" demanded Patsy.
"I can't explain them. Don't you believe something is bound to happen?" he inquired, nervously removing the ash from his cigar.
"To be sure. You're going to get well."
He made no reply, but sat watching Beth's nimble fingers. Patsy was too excited to resume her embroidery.
"I wonder if you are old enough to smoke?" remarked Beth.
"I'm over twenty-one."
"Indeed! We decided you were about eighteen."
"But we are not Spanish in Sangoa."
"What are your people?"
"Formerly all Americans. The younger generation are, like myself I suppose, Sangoans by birth. But there isn't a black or yellow or brown man on our island."
"How many inhabitants has Sangoa?"
"About six hundred, all told."
There was silence for a while.
"Any pains yet?" inquired Beth.
"Not yet. But I'm feeling drowsy. With your permission I'll lie down and take a nap. I slept very little last night."
He threw away his cigar, which he had smoked nearly to the end, and rising without assistance, bowed and walked away.
"Will he ever waken, I wonder?" said Beth softly.
"Of course," declared Patsy. "He has crossed the Rubicon and is going to get well. I feel it in my bones!"
"Let us hope," responded Beth, "that Ajo also feels it in his bones, rather than in his stomach."
STILL A MYSTERY
The day advanced to luncheon time and Uncle John and the Weldons came back from their mountain trip. Hollywood is in the foothills and over the passes are superb automobile roads into the fruitful valleys of San Fernando and La Canada.
"Seen anything of the boy—A. Jones?" inquired Arthur.
"Yes; and perhaps we've seen the last of him," answered Beth.
"Oh. Has he gone?"
"No one knows. Patsy fed him and he went to sleep. What has happened since we cannot tell."
The girls then related the experiences of the morning, at which both Uncle John and Arthur looked solemn and uncomfortable. But Louise said calmly:
"I think Patsy was quite right. I wouldn't have dared such a thing myself, but I'm sure that boy needed a square meal more than anything. If he dies, that breakfast has merely hastened his end; but if he doesn't die it will do him good."
"There's another possibility," remarked Uncle John. "He may be suffering agonies with no one to help him."
Patsy's face was white as chalk. The last hour or two had brought her considerable anxiety and her uncle's horrible suggestion quite unnerved her. She stole away to the office and inquired the number of Mr. Jones' room. It was on the ground floor and easily reached by a passage. The girl tiptoed up to the door and putting her ear to the panel listened intently. A moment later a smile broke over her face; she chuckled delightedly and then turned and ran buck to her friends.
"He's snoring like a walrus!" she cried triumphantly.
"Are you sure they are not groans?" asked Arthur.
"Pah! Can't I recognize a snore when I hear it? And I'll bet it's the first sound sleep he's had in a month."
Mr. Merrick and Arthur went to the door of the boy's room to satisfy themselves that Patsy was not mistaken, and the regularity of the sounds quickly convinced them the girl was right. So they had a merry party at luncheon, calling Patsy "Doctor" with grave deference and telling her she had probably saved the life of A. Jones for a second time.
"And now," proposed Uncle John, when the repast was over, "let us drive down to the sea and have a look at that beautiful launch that came in yesterday. Everyone is talking about it and they say it belongs to some foreign prince."
So they motored to Santa Monica and spent the afternoon on the sands, watching the bathers and admiring the graceful outlines of the big yacht lying at anchor a half mile from the shore. The boat was something of a mystery to everybody. It was named the "Arabella" and had come from Hawaii via San Francisco; but what it was doing here and who the owner might be were questions no one seemed able to answer. Rumor had it that a Japanese prince had come in it to inspect the coast line, but newspaper reporters were forbidden to scale the side and no satisfaction was given their eager questioning by the bluff old captain who commanded the craft. So the girls snapped a few kodak pictures of the handsome yacht and then lost interest in it.
That evening they met Mrs. Montrose and the Stanton girls at dinner and told them about the boy, who still remained invisible. Uncle John had listened at his door again, but the snores had ceased and a deathlike silence seemed to pervade the apartment. This rendered them all a trifle uneasy and when they left the dining room Arthur went to the hotel clerk and asked:
"Have you seen Mr. Jones this evening?"
"No," was the reply. "Do you know him?"
"Well, he's the queerest guest we've ever had. The first day he ate nothing at all. This morning I hear he had a late breakfast. Wasn't around to lunch, but a little while ago we sent a meal to his room that would surprise you."
"Yes. A strange order it was! Broiled mushrooms, pancakes with maple syrup and ice cream. How is that for a mix-up—and at dinner time, too!" said the clerk, disgustedly.
Arthur went back and reported.
"All right," said Patsy, much relieved. "We've got him started and now he can take care of himself. Come, Uncle; let's all go down town and see the picture that drove Mr. Goldstein crazy."
"He was very decent to us to-day," asserted Flo Stanton.
"Did he ask any explanation about Maud's appearing in the picture of a rival company?" inquired Arthur.
"No, not a word."
"Did he mention Mr. Jones, who conquered him so mysteriously?" asked Beth.
"Not at all. Goldstein confined himself strictly to business; but he treated us with unusual courtesy," explained Maud.
They were curious to see the films of the rescue, and the entire party rode to the down-town theatre where the Corona picture was being run. Outside the entrance they found the audacious placard, worded just as Goldstein had reported, and they all agreed it was a mean trick to claim another firm's star as their own.
"I do not think the Corona Company is responsible for this announcement," said Uncle John. "It is probably an idea of the theatre proprietor, who hoped to attract big business in that way."
"He has succeeded," grumbled Arthur, as he took his place at the end of a long line of ticket buyers.
The picture, as it flashed on the screen, positively thrilled them. First was shown the crowd of merry bathers, with Patsy and Maud standing in the water a little apart from the others. Then the boy—far out beyond the rest—threw up his arms, struggling desperately. Maud swam swiftly toward him, Patsy making for the shore. The launching of the boat, the race to rescue, Maud's effort to keep the drowning one afloat, and the return to the shore, where an excited crowd surrounded them—all was clearly shown in the picture. Now they had the advantage of observing the expressions on the faces of the bathers when they discovered a tragedy was being enacted in their midst. The photographs were so full of action that the participants now looked upon their adventure in a new light and regarded it far more seriously than before.
The picture concluded with the scene where Uncle John lifted the body into the automobile and dashed away with it to the hospital.
Maud Stanton, used as she was to seeing herself in motion pictures, was even more impressed than the others when observing her own actions at a time when she was wholly unconscious that a camera-man had his lens focused upon her.
"It's a great picture!" whispered Flo, as they made their way out of the crowded theatre. "Why can't all our films be as natural and absorbing as this one?"
"Because," said her sister, "in this case there is no acting. The picture carries conviction with a force that no carefully rehearsed scene could ever accomplish."
"That is true," agreed her Aunt Jane. "The nature scenes are the best, after all."
"The most unsatisfactory pictures I have ever seen," remarked Uncle John, "were those of prominent men, and foreign kings, and the like, who stop before the camera and bow as awkwardly as a camel. They know they are posing, and in spite of their public experience they're as bashful as schoolboys or as arrogant as policemen, according to their personal characteristics."
"Did you notice the mob of children in that theatre?" asked Patsy, as they proceeded homeward. "I wish there were more pictures made that are suitable to their understandings."
"They enjoy anything in the way of a picture," said Arthur. "It isn't necessary to cater to children; they'll go anyhow, whatever is shown."
"That may be, to an extent, true," said Beth. "Children are fascinated by any sort of motion pictures, but a lot of them must be wholly incomprehensible to the child mind. I agree with Patsy that the little ones ought to have their own theatres and their own pictures."
"That will come, in time," prophesied Aunt Jane. "Already the film makers are recognizing the value of the children's patronage and are trying to find subjects that especially appeal to them."
They reached the hotel soon after ten o'clock and found "Ajo" seated in the lobby. He appeared much brighter and stronger than the day before and rose to greet Patsy with a smile that had lost much of its former sad expression.
"Congratulate me, Dr. Doyle," said he. "I'm still alive, and—thanks to your prescription—going as well as could be expected."
"I'm glad I did the right thing," she replied; "but we were all a little worried for fear I'd make a mistake."
"I have just thrown away about a thousand of those food-tablets," he informed her with an air of pride. "I am positive there is no substitute for real food, whatever the specialists may say. In fact," he continued more soberly, "I believe you have rescued me a second time from certain death, for now I have acquired a new hope and have made up my mind to get well."
"Be careful not to overdo it," cautioned Uncle John. "You ordered a queer supper, we hear."
"But it seemed to agree with me. I've had a delightful sleep—the first sound sleep in a month—and already I feel like a new man. I waited up to tell you this, hoping you would be interested."
"We are!" exclaimed Patsy, who felt both pride and pleasure. "This evening we have been to see the motion picture of your rescue from drowning."
"Oh. How did you like it?"
"It's a splendid picture. I'm not sure it will interest others as much as ourselves, yet the people present seemed to like it."
"Well it was their last chance to observe my desperate peril and my heroic rescue," said the boy. "The picture will not be shown after to-night."
"Why not?" they asked, in surprise.
"I bought the thing this afternoon. It didn't seem to me quite modest to exploit our little adventure in public."
This was a new phase of the strange boy's character and the girls did not know whether to approve it or not.
"It must have cost you something!" remarked Flo, the irrepressible. "Besides, how could you do it while you were asleep?"
"Why, I wakened long enough to use the telephone," he replied with a smile. "There are more wonderful inventions in the world than motion pictures, you know."
"But you like motion pictures, don't you?" asked Maud, wondering why he had suppressed the film in question.
"Very much. In fact, I am more interested in them than in anything else, not excepting the telephone—which makes Aladdin's lamp look like a firefly in the sunshine."
"I suppose," said Flo, staring into his face with curious interest, "that you will introduce motion pictures into your island of Sangoa, when you return?"
"I suppose so," he answered, a little absently. "I had not considered that seriously, as yet, but my people would appreciate such a treat, I'm sure."
This speech seemed to destroy, in a manner, their shrewd conjecture that he was in America to purchase large quantities of films. Why, then, should Goldstein have paid such abject deference to this unknown islander?
In his own room, after the party had separated for the night, Mr. Merrick remarked to Arthur Weldon as they sat smoking their cigars:
"Young Jones is evidently possessed of some means."
"So it seems," replied Arthur. "Perhaps his father, the scientific recluse, had accumulated some money, and the boy came to America to get rid of it. He will be extravagant and wasteful for awhile, and then go back to his island with the idea that he has seen the world."
Uncle John nodded.
"He is a rather clean-cut young fellow," said he, "and the chances are he won't become dissipated, even though he loses his money through lack of worldly knowledge or business experience. A boy brought up and educated on an island can't be expected to prove very shrewd, and whatever the extent of his fortune it is liable to melt like snow in the sunshine."
"After all," returned Arthur, "this experience won't hurt him. He will still have his island to return to."
They smoked for a time in silence.
"Has it ever occurred to you, sir," said Arthur, "that the story Jones has related to us, meager though it is, bears somewhat the stamp of a fairy tale?"
Uncle John removed his cigar and looked reflectively at the ash.
"You mean that the boy is not what he seems?"
"Scarcely that, sir. He seems like a good boy, in the main. But his story is—such as one might invent if he were loath to tell the truth."
Uncle John struck a match and relit his cigar.
"I believe in A. Jones, and I see no reason to doubt his story," he asserted. "If real life was not full of romance and surprises, the novelists would be unable to interest us in their books."
A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
The day had not started auspiciously for the Stanton sisters. Soon after they arrived at the Continental Film Company's plant Maud had wrenched her ankle by stumbling over some loose planks which had been carelessly left on the open-air stage, and she was now lying upon a sofa in the manager's room with her limb bandaged and soaked with liniment.
Flo was having troubles, too. A girl who had been selected by the producer to fall from an aeroplane in mid-air had sent word she was ill and could not work to-day, and the producer had ordered Flo to prepare for the part. Indignantly she sought the manager, to file a protest, and while she waited in the anteroom for an audience, Mr. A. Jones of Sangoa came in and greeted her with a bow and a smile.
"Good gracious! Where did you come from?" she inquired.
"My hotel. I've just driven over to see Goldstein," he replied.
"You'll have to wait, I'm afraid," she warned him. "The manager is busy just now. I've been wiggling on this bench half an hour, and haven't seen him yet—and my business is very important."
"So is mine, Miss Flo," he rejoined, looking at her with an odd expression. Then, as a stenographer came hurrying from the inner room, he stopped the girl and said:
"Please take my card to Mr. Goldstein."
"Oh, he won't see anybody now, for he's busy talking with one of our producers. You'll have to call again," she said flippantly. But even as she spoke she glanced at the card, started and turned red. "Oh, pardon me!" she added hastily and fled back to the managerial sanctum.
"That's funny!" muttered Flo, half to herself.
"Yes," he said, laughing, "my cards are charged with electricity, and they're bound to galvanize anyone in this establishment. Come in, Miss Flo," he added, as Goldstein rushed out of his office to greet the boy effusively; "your business takes precedence to mine, you know."
The manager ushered them into his office, a big room with a busy aspect. At one end were two or three girls industriously thumping typewriters; McNeil, the producer, was sorting manuscript on Goldstein's own desk; a young man who served as the manager's private secretary was poring over a voluminous record-book, wherein were listed all the films ever made by the manufacturers of the world. On a sofa in a far corner reclined the injured "star" of the company, Maud Stanton, who—being half asleep at the moment—did not notice the entrance of her sister and young Jones.
"Sit down, Mr. Jones; pray sit down!" exclaimed Goldstein eagerly, pointing to his own chair. "Would you like me to clear the room, so that our conversation may be private?"
"Not yet," replied the boy, refusing the seat of honor and taking a vacant chair. "Miss Stanton has precedence, and I believe she wishes to speak with you."
Goldstein took his seat at the desk and cast an inquiring glance at Flo.
"Well?" he demanded, impatiently.
"Mr. Werner has ordered me to do the airship stunt for his picture, because Nance Holden isn't here to-day," began the girl.
"Well, why annoy me with such trifles? Werner knows what he wants, and you'll do as well as the Holden girl."
"But I don't want to tumble out of that airship," she protested.
"There's no danger. Life nets will be spread underneath the aeroplane," said the manager. "The camera merely catches you as you are falling, so the thing won't be more than twenty or thirty feet from the ground. Now run away and don't bother. I must speak with Mr. Jones."
"But I'm afraid, Mr. Goldstein!" pleaded the girl. "I don't want to go up in the aeroplane, and these stunts are not in my line, or what I was engaged to do."
"You'll do what I tell you!" asserted the manager, with marked irritation. "I won't stand for any rebellion among my actors, and you'll do as Werner orders or you'll forfeit your week's pay."
Here Maud half rose from her sofa to address her employer.
"Please, Mr. Goldstein," she said, "don't make Flo do that fall. There are plenty of other girls to take her place, and she—"
"Silence, Miss Stanton!" roared the manager. "You'll disrupt all discipline if you interfere. A nice time we'd have here, if we allowed our actors to choose their own parts! I insist that your sister obey my producer's orders."
"Quite right, Goldstein," remarked young Jones, in his quiet voice. "You've carried your point and maintained discipline. I like that. Miss Flo Stanton will do exactly what you request her to do. But you're going to change your mind and think better of her protest. I'm almost sure, Goldstein, from the expression of your face, that you intend to issue prompt orders that another girl must take her place."
Goldstein looked at him steadily a moment and the arrogant expression changed to one of meek subservience.
"To be sure!" he muttered. "You have read my mind accurately, Mr. Jones. Here, Judd," to his secretary, "find Werner and tell him I don't approve his choice of Flo Stanton as a substitute for Nance Holden. Let's see; tell him to put that Moore girl in her place."
The young fellow bowed and left the room. McNeil smiled slyly to himself as he bent over his manuscript. Jones had gone to Maud's side to inquire anxiously after her injury.
"I don't imagine it will amount to much," she said reassuringly. "Mr. Goldstein wants me to rest quietly until this afternoon, when our new photo-play is to be produced. I'm to do the leading part, you know, and he thinks I'll be able by that time to get through all right."
Goldstein overheard this and came toward them, rubbing his hands together nervously.
"That seems unwise, Miss Maud," objected Jones. "To use your foot so soon might make it much worse. Let us postpone the play until some other time."
Goldstein's face was a study. His body twitched spasmodically.
"Oh, Mr. Jones!" he exclaimed; "that's impossible; it wouldn't do at all! We've been rehearsing this play and preparing for its production for the last two weeks, and to-day all our actors and assistants are here and ready to make the picture. I've already postponed it four hours—until this afternoon—to favor Miss Stanton, but, really—"
"Never mind the details," interrupted the boy. "I do not consider Miss Stanton able to do her work to-day. Send her back to her hotel at once and order the play postponed until she is able to attend."
Goldstein was greatly disturbed by this order, issued quietly but in a tone of command that brooked no opposition. Again he glanced shrewdly at the young man, and in the manager's face astonishment and fear were intermingled.
"Sir," he said in repressed tones, for he was really angry and had been accustomed to wield the power of an autocrat in this establishment, "you are placing me in an embarrassing position. I am expected to make every day count, so that the Continental may pay a liberal profit to its owners. To follow your instructions would burden us with an enormous expense, quite useless, I assure you, and—"
"Very well. Incur the expense, Goldstein."
"All right, Mr. Jones. Excuse me a moment while I issue instructions for the postponement."
McNeil rose and faced the manager.
"Are you really going to postpone this important play?" he demanded, in a voice of wonder.
Goldstein was glad to vent his chagrin on the producer.
"No insolence, sir!" he roared. "Come with me, and," as he dragged McNeil to the door and paused there, "if you dare lisp a word of what you've overheard, I'll fire you like a shot!"
When they had left the room Maud said with a puzzled air:
"I can't understand your power over Goldstein, Mr. Jones. He is a dictator—almost a tyrant—and in this place his word is law. At least, it was until you came, and—and—"
"Don't try to understand it, Miss Stanton," he answered in a careless manner. "Do you think you can manage to crawl to the automobile, or shall we carry you?"
"I'll bet Goldstein has murdered someone, and Mr. Jones knows all about it!" exclaimed Flo, who had been an interested witness of the scene.
Maud stood up, with her sister's support, and tested her lame ankle.
"It still hurts a little," she said, "but I can manage to hobble on it."
"Get your sister's wraps," the boy said to Flo, "and we'll send her straight home."
"I expect Goldstein will dock my salary, as well as fine Flo," remarked Maud musingly, as she waited for her hat and coat. "He obeyed you very meekly, Mr. Jones, but I could see a wicked glitter in his eye, nevertheless."
"I am sure the manager will neither dock nor fine either of you," he replied reassuringly. "On the contrary, you might sue the company for damages, for leaving that lumber where you would fall over it."
"Oh, no," she returned, laughing at the idea. "We have signed contracts waiving any damages for injuries sustained while at work on the premises. We all have to do that, you know, because the business is hazardous at its best. On the other hand, Mr. Goldstein has a physician and surgeon always within call, in case of accident, and the service is quite free to all the employees."
"I know. But the fact that you signed such a contract, under compulsion, would not prevent the court from awarding damages, if you sustained them while on duty."
"This hurt is nothing of importance," she said hastily. "In a day or two I shall be able to walk as well as ever."
Flo came running back with Maud's things. Aunt Jane followed, saying that if Maud was to go to the hotel she would accompany her and take care of her.
"I've examined the ankle," she said to young Jones, "and I assure you it is not a severe strain. But it is true that she will be better off in her own room, where she can rest quietly. So I will go with her."
"How about Miss Flo?" asked the boy.
"Flo is very self-reliant and will get along to-day very nicely without me," replied Mrs. Montrose.
Mr. Goldstein entered, frowning and still resenting the interference of this Mr. A. Jones of Sangoa. But he ventured no further protest nor did he speak until Maud, Flo and Aunt Jane had all left the room.
"You're not going, Mr. Jones?" he asked.
"Only to see Miss Stanton started for home. Then I'll come back and have a little talk with you."
"Thank you, sir."
PICTURES, GIRLS AND NONSENSE
"Well, Aunt Jane," said Maud Stanton, when their car was rolling toward the hotel and the girl had related the remarkable interview in the office, "what do you think of Ajo now?"
"He is certainly an amazing young man," was the reply. "I cannot in any way figure out his connection with Goldstein, or his power over the man. The Continental Film Manufacturing Company is a great corporation, with headquarters in New York, and Mr. Goldstein is the authorized head and manager of the concern on the Pacific coast. I understand his salary is ten thousand a year. On the other hand, young Jones has only been in this country for a year, coming from an insignificant island somewhere in the South Seas, where he was born and reared. Much of the time since he arrived in America he has been an invalid. Aside from this meager information, no one seems to know anything about him."
"Putting the case that way makes it all the more remarkable," observed Maud. "A big, experienced, important man, cowed by a mere boy. When Goldstein first met this callow, sallow youth, he trembled before him. When the boy enters the office of the great film company he dictates to the manager, who meekly obeys him. Remember, too, that A. Jones, by his interference, has caused a direct loss to the company, which Goldstein will have to explain, as best he may, in his weekly report to the New York office. A more astonishing state of affairs could not be imagined, Aunt Jane!"
"The puzzle will solve itself presently," said the lady. "Abnormal conditions seldom last long."
Maud passed the day in bed, quietly reading a book. Her injury was really slight and with rest it mended rapidly. Patsy and Beth came in to see her and in the conversation that ensued the girls were told of the latest mystery surrounding A. Jones.
"It is surely queer!" admitted Miss Doyle, impressed and thoughtful. "Uncle John and Arthur were saying this noon, at lunch, that Ajo was a helpless sort of individual and easily influenced by others—as witness his caving in to me when I opposed his doctor's treatment. Arthur thinks he has come to this country to squander what little money his father left him and that his public career outside the limits of his little island will be brief. Yet according to your story the boy is no weakling but has power and knows how to use it."
"He surely laid down the law to Goldstein," said Maud.
"He is very young," remarked Beth, ignoring the fact that she was herself no older, "and perhaps that is why we attach so much importance to his actions. A grown-up man is seldom astonishing, however eccentric he may prove to be. In a boy we expect only boyishness, and young Jones has interested us because he is unique."
After a little the conversation drifted to motion pictures, for both Patsy and Beth were eager to learn all about the business details of film making, which Maud, by reason of her months of experience, was able to explain to them in a comprehensive manner. Flo came home toward evening, but had little more to tell them, as the day had passed very quietly at the "studio." Jones had remained closeted with the manager for a full hour, and it was remarked that after he had gone away Goldstein was somewhat subdued and performed his duties less aggressively than usual.
Maud's visitors now left her to dress for dinner, at which meal she was able to rejoin them, walking with a slight limp but otherwise recovered from her accident. To their surprise, young Jones appeared as they were entering the dining room and begged for a seat at their table. Uncle John at once ordered another place laid at the big round table, which accommodated the company of nine very nicely.
Ajo sat between Patsy and Maud and although he selected his dishes with some care he partook of all the courses from soup to dessert.
The morning interview with Goldstein was not mentioned. Ajo inquired about Maud's hurt but then changed the subject and conversed upon nearly everything but motion pictures. However, after they had repaired to the hotel lobby and were seated together in a cosy, informal group, Patsy broached a project very near to her heart.
"Beth and I," said she, "have decided to build a Children's Picture Theatre."
"Where?" asked Uncle John, rather startled by the proposition.
"Here, or in Los Angeles," was the reply.
"You see," explained Beth, "there is a crying need for a place where children may go and see pictures that appeal especially to them and are, at the same time, quite proper for them to witness. A great educational field is to be opened by this venture, and Patsy and I would enjoy the work of creating the first picture theatre, exclusively for children, ever established in America."
"You may say, 'in the world,'" added Arthur. "I like this idea of yours, girls, and I hope you will carry it out."
"Oh, they'll carry it out, all right," remarked Uncle John. "I've been expecting something of this sort, ever since we came here. My girls, Mr. Jones," he said, turning to the young man, "are always doing some quaint thing, or indulging in some queer enterprise, for they're a restless lot. Before Louise married, she was usually in these skirmishes with fate, but now—"
"Oh, I shall join Patsy and Beth, of course," asserted Louise. "It will make it easier for all, to divide the expense between us, and I am as much interested in pictures as they are."
"Perhaps," said Patsy musingly, "we might build two theatres, in different parts of the city. There are so many children to be amused. And we intend to make the admission price five cents."
"Have you any idea what it costs to build one of these picture theatres?" asked Arthur.
"We're not going to build one of 'these' theatres," retorted Patsy. "Many of the dens I've been in cost scarcely anything, being mere shelters. The city is strewn with a lot of miserable, stuffy theatres that no one can enjoy sitting in, even to see a good picture. We have talked this over and decided to erect a new style of building, roomy and sanitary, with cushioned seats and plenty of broad aisles. There are one or two of this class already in Los Angeles, but we want to make our children's theatres a little better than the best."
"And the expense?"
"Well, it will cost money, of course. But it will be a great delight to the children—bless their little hearts!"
"This is really a business enterprise," added Beth gravely.
Uncle John chuckled with amusement.
"Have you figured out the profits?" he inquired.
"It really ought to pay, Uncle," declared Patsy, somewhat nettled by this flaccid reception of her pet scheme. "All the children will insist on being taken to a place like that, for we shall show just the pictures they love to see. And, allowing there is no money to be made from the venture, think of the joy we shall give to innumerable little ones!"
"Go ahead, my dears," said Uncle John, smiling approval. "And, if you girls find you haven't enough money to carry out your plans, come to me."
"Oh, thank you, Uncle!" exclaimed Beth. "But I feel sure we can manage the cost ourselves. We will build one of the theatres first, and if that is a success we will build others."
"But about those films, made especially for children," remarked Arthur. "Where will you get them?"
"Why, there are lots of firms making films," replied Patsy. "We can select from all that are made the ones most suitable for our purpose."
"I fear you cannot do that," said Mrs. Montrose, who had listened with wonder to this conversation. "There are three combinations, or 'trusts,' among the film makers, which are known as the Licensed, the Mutual and the Independents. If you purchase from one of these trusts, you cannot get films from the others, for that is their edict. Therefore you will have only about one-third of the films made to select from."
"I thought money would buy anything—in the way of merchandise," said Louise, half laughing and half indignant.
"Not from these film dictators," was the reply.
"They all make a few children's pictures," announced Maud Stanton. "Even the Continental turns out one occasionally. But there are not nearly enough, taken all together, to supply an exclusive children's theatre."
"Then we will have some made," declared Patsy. "We will order some fairy tales, such as the children like. They would be splendid in motion pictures."
"Some have already been made and exhibited," said Mrs. Montrose. "The various manufacturers have made films of the fairy tales of Hans Andersen, Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll and other well-known writers."
"And were they successful?"
"Quite so, I believe; but such films are seldom put out except at holiday time."
"I think, Beth," said Patsy to her cousin, in a businesslike tone, "that we must organize a company and make our own films. Then we can get exactly what we want."
"Oh, yes!" replied Beth, delighted with the suggestion. "And let us get Maud and Flo to act in our pictures. Won't it be exciting?"
"Pardon me, young ladies," said A. Jones, speaking for the first time since this subject had been broached. "Would it not be wise to consider the expense of making films, before you undertake it?"
Patsy looked at him inquiringly.
"Do you know what the things cost?" she asked.
"I've some idea," said he. "Feature films of fairy tales, such as you propose, cost at least two thousand dollars each to produce. You would need about three for each performance, and you will have to change your programmes at least once a week. That would mean an outlay of not less than six thousand dollars a week, which is doubtless more money than your five-cent theatre could take in."
This argument staggered the girls for a moment. Then Beth asked: "How do the ordinary theatres manage?"
"The ordinary theatre simply rents its pictures, paying about three hundred dollars a week for the service. There is a 'middleman,' called the 'Exchange,' whose business is to buy the films from the makers and rent them to the theatres. He pays a big price for a film, but is able to rent it to dozens of theatres, by turns, and by this method he not only gets back the money he has expended but makes a liberal profit."
"Well," said Patsy, not to be baffled, "we could sell several copies of our films to these middlemen, and so reduce the expense of making them for our use."
"The middleman won't buy them," asserted Jones. "He is the thrall of one or the other of the trusts, and buys only trust pictures."
"I see," said Uncle John, catching the idea; "it's a scheme to destroy competition."
"Exactly," replied young Jones.
"What does the Continental do, Maud?" asked Patsy.
"I don't know," answered the girl; "but perhaps Aunt Jane can tell you."
"I believe the Continental is a sort of trust within itself," explained Mrs. Montrose. "Since we have been connected with the company I have learned more or less of its methods. It employs a dozen or so producing companies and makes three or four pictures every week. The concern has its own Exchange, or middleman, who rents only Continental films to the theatres that patronize him."
"Well, we might do the same thing," proposed Patsy, who was loath to abandon her plan.
"You might, if you have the capital," assented Mrs. Montrose. "The Continental is an immense corporation, and I am told it has more than a million dollars invested."
"Two millions," said A. Jones.
The girls were silent a while, seriously considering this startling assertion. They had, between them, considerable money, but they realized they could not enter a field that required such an enormous investment as film making.
"I suppose," said Beth regretfully, "we shall have to give up making films."
"Then where are we to get the proper pictures for our theatre?" demanded Patsy.
"It is quite evident we can't get them," said Louise. "Therefore we may be obliged to abandon the theatre proposition."
Another silence, still more grave. Uncle John was discreet enough to say nothing. The Stantons and Mrs. Montrose felt it was not their affair. Arthur Weldon was slyly enjoying the chagrin visible upon the faces of Mr. Merrick's three pretty nieces.
As for A. Jones, he was industriously figuring upon the back of an envelope with a stubby bit of pencil.
A FOOLISH BOY
It was the youthful Sangoan who first broke the silence. Glancing at the figures he had made he said:
"It is estimated that if twenty picture theatres use any one film—copies of it, of course—that film will pay for its cost of making. Therefore, if you build twenty children's theatres, instead of the one or two you originally proposed, you would be able to manufacture your own films and they would be no expense to you."
They gazed at him in bewilderment.
"That is all simple enough!" laughed Arthur. "Twenty picture theatres at twenty thousand dollars each—a low estimate, my dears, for such as you require—would mean an investment of four hundred thousand dollars. A film factory, with several producing companies to keep it busy, and all the necessary paraphernalia of costumes and properties, would mean a million or so more. Say a million and a half, all told. Why, it's a mere bagatelle!"
"Arthur!" Severely, from Louise.
"I advise you girls to economize in other ways and devote your resources to this business, which might pay you—and might not," he continued, oblivious to stony glares.
"Really, Mr. Jones," said Beth, pouting, "we were not joking, but in real earnest."
"Have I questioned it, Miss De Graf?"
"Mr. Jones was merely trying to show you how—er—er—how impractical your idea was," explained Uncle John mildly.
"No; I am in earnest, too," said the boy. "To prove it, I will agree to establish a plant and make the pictures, if the young ladies will build the twenty theatres to show them in."
Here was another suggestion of a bewildering nature. Extravagant as the offer seemed, the boy was very serious. He blushed a little as he observed Mr. Merrick eyeing him earnestly, and continued in an embarrassed, halting way: "I—I assure you, sir, that I am able to fulfill my part of the agreement. Also I would like to do it. It would serve to interest me and keep me occupied in ways that are not wholly selfish. My—my other business does not demand my personal attention, you see."
To hear this weak, sickly youth speak of investing a million dollars in a doubtful enterprise, in spite of the fact that he lived on a far-away island and was a practical stranger in America, set them all to speculating anew in regard to his history and condition in life. Seeing that the boy had himself made an opening for a logical query, Uncle John asked:
"Do you mind telling us what this other business is, to which you refer?"
A. Jones moved uneasily in his chair. Then he glanced quickly around the circle and found every eye regarding him with eager curiosity. He blushed again, a deep red this time, but an instant later straightened up and spoke in a tone of sudden resolve.
"Most people dislike to speak of themselves," he said, "and I am no exception. But you, who have kindly received me as a friend, after having generously saved me from an untimely death, have surely the right to know something about me—if, indeed, the subject interests you."
"It is but natural that we should feel an interest in you, Mr. Jones," replied Mr. Merrick; "yet I assure you we have no desire to pry into your personal affairs. You have already volunteered a general statement of your antecedents and the object of your visit to America, and that, I assure you, will suffice us. Pardon me for asking an impertinent question."
The boy seemed perplexed, now.
"I did not consider it impertinent, sir. I made a business proposal to your nieces," he said, "and before they could accept such a proposal they would be entitled to know something of my financial standing."
For a green, inexperienced youth, he spoke with rare acumen, thought Mr. Merrick; but the old gentleman had now determined to shield the boy from a forced declaration of his finances, so he said:
"My nieces can hardly afford to accept your proposition. They are really able to build one or two theatres without inconveniencing themselves, but twenty would be beyond their means. You, of course, understand they were not seeking an investment, but trying, with all their hearts, to benefit the children. I thoroughly approve their original idea, but if it requires twenty picture theatres to render it practical, they will abandon the notion at once."
Jones nodded absently, his eyes half closed in thought. After a brief pause he replied:
"I hate to see this idea abandoned at the very moment of its birth. It's a good idea, and in no way impractical, in my opinion. So permit me to make another proposition. I will build the twenty theatres myself, and furnish the films for them, provided the young ladies will agree to assume the entire management of them when they are completed."
Dead silence followed this speech. The girls did some rapid-fire mental calculations and realized that this young man was proposing to invest something like fourteen hundred thousand dollars, in order that they might carry out their philanthropic conception. Why should he do this, even if he could afford it?
Both Mr. Merrick and Arthur Weldon were staring stolidly at the floor. Their attitudes expressed, for the first time, doubt—if not positive unbelief. As men of considerable financial experience, they regarded the young islander's proposition as an impossible one.
Jones noted this blank reception of his offer and glanced appealingly at Patsy. It was an uncomfortable moment for the girl and to avoid meeting his eyes she looked away, across the lobby. A few paces distant stood a man who leaned against a table and held a newspaper before his face. Patsy knew, however, that he was not reading. A pair of dark, glistening eyes peered over the top of the paper and were steadfastly fixed upon the unconscious features of young Jones.
Something in the attitude of the stranger, whom she had never seen before, something in the rigid pose, the intent gaze—indicating both alertness and repression—riveted the girl's attention at once and gave her a distinct shock of uneasiness.
"I wish," said the boy, in his quiet, firm way, yet with much deference in his manner and tone, "that you young ladies would consider my offer seriously, and take proper time to reach a decision. I am absolutely in earnest. I want to join you in your attempt to give pleasure to children, and I am willing and—and able—to furnish the funds required. Without your cooperation, however, I could do nothing, and my health is such that I wish to leave the management of the theatres entirely in your hands, as well as all the details of their construction."
"We will consider it, of course, Mr. Jones," answered Beth gravely. "We are a little startled just now, as you see; but when we grow accustomed to the immensity of the scheme—our baby, which you have transformed into a giant—we shall be able to consider it calmly and critically, and decide if we are competent to undertake the management of so many theatres."
"Thank you. Then, I think, I will excuse myself for this evening and return to my room. I'm improving famously, under Dr. Doyle's instructions, but am not yet a rugged example of health."
Patsy took his hand at parting, as did the others, but her attention was divided between Ajo and the strange man who had never for a moment ceased watching him. Not once did the dark eyes waver, but followed each motion of the boy as he sauntered to the desk, got his key from the clerk, and then proceeded to his room, turning up one of the corridors on the main floor.
The stranger now laid his newspaper on the table and disclosed his entire face for the first time. A middle-aged man, he seemed to be, with iron-gray hair and a smoothly shaven, rather handsome face. From his dress he appeared to be a prosperous business man and it was evident that he was a guest of the hotel, for he wandered through the lobby—in which many other guests were grouped, some chatting and others playing "bridge"—and presently disappeared down the corridor traversed by young Jones.
Patsy drew a deep breath, but said nothing to the others, who, when relieved of the boy's presence, began to discuss volubly his singular proposal.
"The fellow is crazy," commented Arthur. "Twenty picture theatres, with a film factory to supply them, is a big order even for a multi-millionaire—and I can't imagine this boy coming under that head."
"He seemed in earnest," said Maud, musingly. "What do you think, Aunt Jane?"
"I am greatly perplexed," admitted Mrs. Montrose. "Had I not known of the conquest of Goldstein by this boy, who issued orders which the manager of the Continental meekly obeyed, I would have laughed at his proposition. As it is, I'm afraid to state that he won't carry out his plan to the letter of the agreement."
"Would it not be a rash investment, ma'am?" inquired Uncle John.
"Frankly, I do not know. While all the film makers evade any attempt to discover how prosperous—financially—they are, we know that without exception they have grown very wealthy. I am wondering if this young Jones is not one of the owners of the Continental—a large stockholder, perhaps. If so, that not only accounts for his influence with Goldstein, but it proves him able to finance this remarkable enterprise. He doubtless knows what he is undertaking, for his figures, while not accurate, were logical."
"Of course!" cried Patsy. "That explains everything."
"Still," said Uncle John cautiously, "this is merely surmise on our part, and before accepting it we must reconcile it with the incongruities in the case. It is possible that the elder Jones owned an interest in the Continental and bequeathed it to his son. But is it probable? Remember, he was an islander, and a recluse."
"More likely," said Beth, "Ajo's father left him a great fortune, which the boy invested in the Continental stock."
"I have been told," remarked Aunt Jane thoughtfully, "that Continental stock cannot be bought at any price. It pays such enormous dividends that no owner will dispose of it."
"The whole thing is perplexing in the extreme," declared Arthur. "The boy tells a story that at first seems frank and straightforward, yet his statements do not dovetail, so to speak."
"I think he is holding something back," said Beth; "something that would explain all the discrepancies in his story. You were wrong, Uncle John, not to let him speak when he offered to tell you all."
"There was something in his manner that made me revolt from forcing his confidence," was the reply.
"There was something in his manner that made me think he was about to concoct a story that would satisfy our curiosity," said Louise with a shrug.
Uncle John looked around the circle of faces.
"You are not questioning the young fellow's sincerity, I hope?" said he.
"I don't, for a single second!" asserted Patsy, stoutly. "He may have a queer history, and he may not have told us all of it, but Ajo is honest. I'll vouch for him!"
"So will I, my dear," said Uncle John.
"That is more than I can do, just at present," Arthur frankly stated. "My opinion is that his preposterous offer is mere bluff. If you accepted it, you would find him unable to do his part."
"Then what is his object?" asked Maud.
"I can't figure it out, as yet. He might pose as a millionaire and a generous friend and philanthropist for some time, before the truth was discovered, and during that time he could carry out any secret plans he had in mind. The boy is more shrewd than he appears to be. We, by chance saved his life, and at once he attached himself to us like a barnacle, and we can't shake him off."
"We don't want to," said Patsy.
"My explanation is that he has fallen in love with one of us girls," suggested Flo, with a mischievous glance at her sister. "I wonder if it's me?"
"It is more likely," said Louise, "that he has discovered Uncle John to be a very—prosperous—man."
"Nonsense, my dear!" exclaimed that gentleman, evidently irritated by the insinuation. "Don't pick the boy to pieces. Give him a chance. So far he has asked nothing from us, but offers everything. He's a grateful fellow and is anxious to help you girls carry out your ambitious plans. That is how I read him, and I think it is absurd to prejudge him in the way you are doing."
The party broke up, the Stantons and Weldons going to their rooms. Beth also rose.
"Are you coming to bed, Patsy?" she inquired.
"Not just now," her cousin replied. "Between us, we've rubbed Uncle John's fur the wrong way and he won't get composed until he has smoked his good-night cigar. I'll sit with him in this corner and keep him company."
So the little man and his favorite niece were left together, and he did not seem in the least ruffled as he lit his cigar and settled down in a big chair, with Patsy beside him, to enjoy it.
ISIDORE LE DRIEUX
Perhaps the cigar was half gone when Patsy gave a sudden start and squeezed Uncle John's hand, which she had been holding in both her own.
"What is it, my dear?"
"The man I told you of. There he is, just across the lobby. The man with the gray clothes and gray hair."
"Oh, yes; the one lighting a cigar."
Uncle John gazed across the lobby reflectively. The stranger's eyes roved carelessly around the big room and then he moved with deliberate steps toward their corner. He passed several vacant chairs and settees on his way and finally paused before a lounging-chair not six feet distant from the one occupied by Mr. Merrick.
"Pardon me; is this seat engaged, sir?" he asked.
"No," replied Uncle John, not very graciously, for it was a deliberate intrusion.
The stranger sat down and for a time smoked his cigar in silence. He was so near them that Patsy forbore any conversation, knowing he would overhear it.
Suddenly the man turned squarely in their direction and addressed them.
"I hope you will pardon me, Mr. Merrick, if I venture to ask a question," said he.
"I saw you talking with Mr. Jones this evening—A. Jones, you know, who says he came from Sangoa."
"Didn't he?" demanded the old gentleman.
The stranger smiled.
"Perhaps; once on a time; allowing such a place exists. But his last journey was here from Austria."
Mr. Merrick and Patsy were both staring at the man incredulously.
"I am quite sure of that statement, sir; but I cannot prove it, as yet."
"Ah! I thought not."
Patsy had just told her uncle how she had detected this man stealthily watching Jones, and how he had followed the boy when he retired to his room. The present interview had, they both knew, something to do with this singular action. Therefore Mr. Merrick restrained his indignation at the stranger's pointed questioning. He realized quite well that the man had come to their corner determined to catechise them and gain what information he could. Patsy realized this, too. So, being forewarned, they hoped to learn his object without granting him the satisfaction of "pumping" them.
"I suppose you are friends of this Mr. A. Jones," was his next remark.
"We are acquaintances," said Mr. Merrick.
"Has he ever mentioned his adventures in Austria to you?"
"Are you a friend of Mr. Jones?" demanded uncle John.
"I am not even an acquaintance," said the man, smiling. "But I am interested in him, through a friend of mine who met him abroad. Permit me to introduce myself, sir."
He handed them a card which read:
"ISADORE LE DRIEUX Importer of Pearls and Precious Stones 36 Maiden Lane, New York City."
"I have connections abroad, in nearly all countries," continued the man, "and it is through some of them that I have knowledge of this young fellow who has taken the name of A. Jones. In fact, I have a portrait of the lad, taken in Paris, which I will show you."
He searched in his pocket and produced an envelope from which he carefully removed a photograph, which he handed to Uncle John. Patsy examined it, too, with a start of surprise. The thin features, the large serious eyes, even the closely set lips were indeed those of A. Jones. But in the picture he wore a small mustache.
"It can't be our A. Jones," murmured Patsy. "This one is older."
"That is on account of the mustache," remarked Le Drieux, who was closely watching their faces. "This portrait was taken more than a year ago."
"Oh; but he was in Sangoa then," protested Patsy, who was really bewildered by the striking resemblance.
The stranger smiled indulgently.
"As a matter of fact, there is no Sangoa." said he; "so we may doubt the young man's assertion that he was ever there."
"Why are you interested in him?" inquired Mr. Merrick.
"A natural question," said Le Drieux, after a moment of hesitation. "I know you well by reputation, Mr. Merrick, and believe I am justified in speaking frankly to you and your niece, provided you regard my statements as strictly confidential. A year ago I received notice from my friend in Austria that the young man had gone to America and he was anxious I should meet him. At the time I was too busy with my own affairs to look him up, but I recently came to California for a rest, and noticed the strong resemblance between the boy, A. Jones, and the portrait sent me. So I hunted up this picture and compared the two. In my judgment they are one and the same. What do you think, sir?"
"I believe there is a resemblance," answered Uncle John, turning the card over. "But here is a name on the back of the photograph: 'Jack Andrews.'"
"Yes; this is Jack Andrews," said Le Drieux, nodding. "Have you ever heard the name before?"
"Well, Andrews is noted throughout Europe, and it is but natural he should desire to escape his notoriety by assuming another name out here. Do you note the similarity of the initials? 'J.A.' stand for Jack Andrews. Reverse them and 'A.J.' stand for A. Jones. By the way, what does he claim the 'A' means? Is it Andrew?"
"It means nothing at all," said Patsy. "He told us so."
"I see. You caught him unprepared. That isn't like Jack. He is always on guard."
Both Patsy and Uncle John were by this time sorely perplexed. They had a feeling common to both of them, that the subject of this portrait and A. Jones were two separate and distinct persons; yet the resemblance could not be denied, if they were indeed the same, young Jones had deliberately lied to them, and recalling his various statements and the manner in which they had been made, they promptly acquitted the boy of the charge of falsehood.
"For what was Jack Andrews noted throughout Europe?" inquired Mr. Merrick, after silently considering these things.
"Well, he was a highflier, for one thing." answered Le Drieux. "He was known as a thorough 'sport' and, I am told, a clever gambler. He had a faculty of making friends, even among the nobility. The gilded youth of London, Paris and Vienna cultivated his acquaintance, and through them he managed to get into very good society. He was a guest at the splendid villa of Countess Ahmberg, near Vienna, when her magnificent collection of pearls disappeared. You remember that loss, and the excitement it caused, do you not?"
"No, sir; I have never before heard of the Countess of Ahmberg or her pearls."
"Well, the story filled the newspapers for a couple of weeks. The collection embraced the rarest and most valuable pearls known to exist."
"And you accuse this man, Andrews, of stealing them?" asked Uncle John, tapping with his finger the portrait he still held.
"By no means, sir; by no means!" cried Le Drieux hastily. "In fact, he was one of the few guests at the villa to whom no suspicion attached. From the moment the casket of pearls was last seen by the countess until their loss was discovered, every moment of Andrews' time was accounted for. His alibi was perfect and he was quite prominent in the unsuccessful quest of the thief."
"The pearls were not recovered, then?"
"No. The whole affair is still a mystery. My friend in Vienna, a pearl merchant like myself, assisted Andrews in his endeavor to discover the thief and, being much impressed by the young man's personality, sent me this photograph, asking me to meet him, as I have told you, when he reached America."
"Is his home in this country?"
"New York knows him, but knows nothing of his family or his history. He is popular there, spending money freely and bearing the reputation of an all-around good fellow. On his arrival there, a year ago, he led a gay life for a few days and then suddenly disappeared. No one knew what had become of him. When I found him here, under the name of A. Jones, the disappearance was solved."
"I think," said Uncle John, "you are laboring under a serious, if somewhat natural, mistake. The subject of this picture is like A. Jones, indeed, but he is older and his expression more—more—"
"Blase and sophisticated," said Patsy.
"Thank you, my dear; I am no dictionary, and if those are real words they may convey my meaning. I feel quite sure, Mr. Le Drieux, that the story of Andrews can not be the story of young Jones."
Le Drieux took the picture and replaced it in his pocket.
"To err is human," said he, "and I will admit the possibility of my being mistaken in my man. But you will admit the resemblance?"
"Yes. They might be brothers. But young Jones has said he has no brothers, and I believe him."
Le Drieux sat in silence for a few minutes. Then he said:
"I appealed to you, Mr. Merrick, because I was not thoroughly satisfied, in my own mind, of my conclusions. You have added to my doubts, I must confess, yet I cannot abandon the idea that the two men are one and the same. As my suspicion is only shared by you and your niece, in confidence, I shall devote myself for a few days to studying young Jones and observing his actions. In that way I may get a clue that will set all doubt at rest."
"We will introduce you to him," said Patsy. "and then you may question him as much as you like."
"Oh, no; I prefer not to make his acquaintance until I am quite sure," was the reply. "If he is not Jack Andrews he would be likely to resent the insinuation that he is here trading under a false name. Good night, Mr. Merrick. Good night, Miss Doyle. I thank you for your courteous consideration."
He had risen, and now bowed and walked away.
"Well," said Patsy. "what was he after? And did he learn anything from us?"
"He did most of the talking himself," replied Uncle John, looking after Le Drieux with a puzzled expression. "Of course he is not a jewel merchant."
"No," said Patsy, "he's a detective, and I'll bet a toothpick to a match that he's on the wrong scent."
"He surely is. Unfortunately, we cannot warn Ajo against him."
"It isn't necessary, Uncle. Why, the whole thing is absurd. Our boy is not a gambler or roysterer, nor do I think he has ever been in Europe. Mr. Le Drieux will have to guess again!"
A FEW PEARLS
The next morning Patsy, Beth and Louise met in earnest conference over the important proposition made them by young Jones, and although Uncle John and Arthur Weldon were both present the men took no part in the discussion.
"Some doubt has been expressed," said Beth judicially, "that Ajo is really able to finance this big venture. But he says he is, and that he will carry it through to the end, so I propose we let him do it."
"Why not?" asked Louise. "If he succeeds, it will be glorious. If he fails, we will suffer in no way except through disappointment."
"Well, shall we accept this offer, girls?"
"First," said Louise, "let us consider what we will have to do, on our part, when the twenty theatres are built and the film factory is in operation."
"We are to be the general managers," returned Patsy. "We must select the subjects, or plots, for the pictures, and order them made under our direction. Then we must see that all of our theatres present them in a proper manner, and we must invite children to come and see the shows. I guess that's all."
"That will be enough to keep us busy, I'm sure," said Beth. "But we will gladly undertake it, and I am sure we shall prove good managers, as soon as we get acquainted with the details of the business."
"It will give us the sort of employment we like," Patsy assured them. "Our first duty will be to plan these theatres for children, and make them as cosy and comfortable as possible, regardless of expense. Ajo will pay the bills, and when all the buildings are ready we will set to work in earnest."
So, when A. Jones appeared he was told that the girls would gladly accept his proposition. The young man seemed greatly pleased by this verdict. He appeared to be much better and stronger to-day and he entered eagerly into a discussion of the plans in detail. Together they made a list of a string of twenty theatres, to be built in towns reaching from Santa Barbara on the north to San Diego in the south. The film factory was to be located in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Hollywood.
This consumed the entire forenoon, and after lunch they met a prominent real estate man whom Jones had summoned to the hotel. This gentleman was given a copy of the list of locations and instructed to purchase in each town the best site that could be secured for a motion picture theatre. This big order made the real estate man open his eyes in surprise.
"Do you wish me to secure options, or to purchase the land outright?" he asked.
"Be sure of your locations and then close the deals at once," replied Jones. "We do not wish to waste time in useless dickering, and a location in the heart of each town, perhaps on the main street, is more important than the price. You will, of course, protect me from robbery to the best of your ability; but buy, even if the price is exorbitant. I will this afternoon place a hundred thousand dollars to your credit in the bank, with which to make advance payments, and when you notify me how much more is required I will forward my checks at once."
"That is satisfactory, sir. I will do the best I can to guard your interests," said the man.
When he had gone the girls accompanied Ajo in a motorcar to Los Angeles, to consult an architect. They visited several offices before the boy, who seemed to estimate men at a glance, found one that satisfied him. The girls explained with care to the architect their idea of a luxurious picture theatre for children, and when he had grasped their conception, which he did with enthusiasm, he suggested several improvements on their immature plans and promised to have complete drawings ready to submit to them in a few days.
From the architect's office they drove to the German-American Bank, where Ajo gave his check for a hundred thousand dollars, to be placed to the credit of Mr. Wilcox, the real estate agent. The deference shown him by the cashier seemed to indicate that this big check was not the extent of A. Jones' credit there, by any means.
As they drove back to Hollywood, Patsy could not help eyeing this youthful capitalist with wonder. During this day of exciting business deals the boy had behaved admirably, and there was no longer a shadow of doubt in the minds of any of Uncle John's nieces that he was both able and anxious to carry out his part of the agreement.
Patsy almost giggled outright as she thought of Le Drieux and his ridiculous suspicions. One would have to steal a good many pearls in order to acquire a fortune to match that of the Sangoan.
He was speaking of Sangoa now, in answer to a question of Beth's.
"Yes, indeed," said he, "Sangoa is very beautiful, and the climate is even more mild than that of your Southern California. The north coast is a high bluff, on which is a splendid forest of rosewood and mahogany. My father would never allow any of these magnificent trees to be cut, except a few that were used in building our house."
"But how do your people live? What is the principal industry of your islanders?" asked Beth.
"My people are—fishermen," he said, and then the automobile drew up before the hotel entrance and the conversation ended.
It was on the following afternoon, as they all met in the hotel lobby after lunch, that a messenger handed young Jones a neat parcel, for which a receipt was demanded. Ajo held the parcel in his hand a while, listening to the chatter of the girls, who were earnestly discussing plans for the new picture enterprise. Then very quietly and unobtrusively he unwrapped the package and laid upon the table beside him several small boxes bearing the name of a prominent jeweler.
"I hope," said he, taking advantage of a pause caused by the girls observing this action, and growing visibly confused by their involuntary stares of curiosity; "I—I hope that you, my new friends, will pardon a liberty I have taken. I wanted to—to present those who were instrumental in saving my life with—with a—a slight token of my gratitude—a sort of—of—memento of a brave and generous act that gave me back the life I had carelessly jeopardized. No," as he saw surprise and protest written on their faces, "don't refuse me this pleasure, I implore you! The little—eh—eh—mementos are from my own Island of Sangoa, with the necessary mountings by a Los Angeles jeweler, and—please accept them!"
As he spoke he handed to each of the girls a box, afterward giving one to Uncle John and another to Arthur. There remained upon the table three others. He penciled a name upon the bottom of each and then handed them to Patsy, saying:
"Will you kindly present these, with my compliments, to the Misses Stanton, and to their aunt, when they return this evening? Thank you!"
And then, before they could recover from their astonishment, he turned abruptly and fled to his room.
The girls stared at one another a moment and then began laughing. Arthur seemed crestfallen, while Uncle John handled his small box as gingerly as if he suspected it contained an explosive.
"How ridiculous!" cried Patsy, her blue eyes dancing. "And did you notice how scared poor Ajo was, and how he skipped as fearfully as though he had committed some crime? But I'm sure the poor boy meant well. Let's open our boxes, girls, and see what foolishness Ajo has been up to."
Slipping off the cover of her box, Beth uttered a low cry of amazement and admiration. Then she held up a dainty lavalliere, with a pendant containing a superb pearl. Louise had the mate to this, but the one Patsy found had a pearl of immense size, its color being an exquisite shade of pink, such as is rarely seen. Arthur displayed a ring set with a splendid white pearl, while Uncle John's box contained a stick pin set with a huge black pearl of remarkable luster. Indeed, they saw at a glance that the size and beauty of all these pearls were very uncommon, and while the others expressed their enthusiastic delight, the faces of Mr. Merrick and Patsy Doyle were solemn and perplexed. They stared at the pearls with feelings of dismay, rather than joy, and chancing to meet one another's eyes they quickly dropped their gaze to avoid exchanging the ugly suspicion that had forced itself upon their minds.
With a sudden thought Patsy raised her head to cast a searching glance around the lobby, for although their party was seated in an alcove they were visible to all in the big room of which it formed a part. Yes, Mr. Isidore Le Drieux was standing near them, as she had feared, and the slight sneer upon his lips proved that he had observed the transfer of the pearls.
So the girl promptly clasped her lavalliere around her neck and openly displayed it, as a proud defiance, if not a direct challenge, to that detestable sneer.
Arthur, admiring his ring in spite of his chagrin at receiving such a gift from a comparative stranger, placed the token on his finger.
"It is a beauty, indeed," said he, "but I don't think we ought to accept such valuable gifts from this boy."
"I do not see why," returned his wife Louise. "I think these pretty tributes for saving Mr. Jones' life are very appropriate. Of course neither Beth nor I had anything to do with that affair, but we are included in the distribution because it would be more embarrassing to leave us out of it."
"And the pearls came from Sangoa," added Beth, "so all these precious gifts have cost Ajo nothing, except for their settings."
"If Sangoa can furnish many such pearls as these," remarked Arthur, reflectively, "the island ought to be famous, instead of unknown. Their size and beauty render the gems priceless."
"Well," said Patsy soberly, "we know now where A. Jones got his money, which is so plentiful that he can build any number of film factories and picture theatres. Sangoa must have wonderful pearl fisheries—don't you remember, girls, that he told us his people were fishermen?—for each of these specimens is worth a small fortune. Mine, especially, is the largest and finest pearl I have ever seen."
"I beg your pardon!" sternly exclaimed Uncle John, as he whirled swiftly around. "Can I do anything for you, sir?"
For Mr. Le Drieux had stealthily advanced to the alcove and was glaring at the display of pearls and making notes in a small book.
He bowed, without apparent resentment, as he answered Mr. Merrick: "Thank you, sir; you have already served me admirably. Pardon my intrusion."
Then he closed the book, slipped it into his pocket and with another low bow walked away.
"What rank impertinence!" cried Arthur, staring after him. "Some newspaper reporter, I suppose. Do you know him, Uncle John?"
"He forced an introduction, a few evenings ago. It is a pearl merchant from New York, named Le Drieux, so I suppose his curiosity is but natural."
"Shall we keep our pearls, Uncle?" asked Beth.
"I shall keep mine," replied the little man, who never wore any ornament of jewelry. "It was generous and thoughtful in young Jones to present these things and we ought not offend him by refusing his 'mementos,' as he calls them."
Perhaps all the nieces were relieved to hear this verdict, for already they loved their beautiful gifts. That evening the Stanton girls and their Aunt Jane received their parcels, being fully as much surprised as the others had been, and their boxes also contained pearls. Flo and Maud had lavallieres, the latter receiving one as large and beautiful as that of Patsy Doyle, while Mrs. Montrose found a brooch set with numerous smaller pearls.
Patsy urged them all to wear the ornaments to dinner that evening, which they did, and although Jones was not there to observe the effect of the splendid pearls, Mr. Le Drieux was at his place in the dining room and made more notes in his little book.
That was exactly what Patsy wanted. "I can't stand the suspense of this thing," she whispered to Uncle John, "and if that man wants any information about these pearls I propose we give it to him. In that way he will soon discover he is wrong in suspecting the identity of Jack Andrews and A. Jones."
Mr. Merrick nodded absently and went to his corner for a smoke. Arthur soon after joined him, while Aunt Jane took her bevy of girls to another part of the loge.
"Le Drieux will be here presently," said Uncle John to young Weldon.
"Oh, the fellow with the book. Why, sir?"
"He's a detective, I think. Anyhow, he is shadowing Jones, whom he suspects is a thief."
He then told Arthur frankly of his former conversation with Le Drieux, and of the puzzling photograph.
"It really resembles the boy," he admitted, with a frown of perplexity, "yet at the same time I realized the whole thing was absurd. Neither Patsy nor I can believe that Jones is the man who robbed an Austrian countess. It's preposterous! And let me say right now, Arthur, that I'm going to stand by this young fellow, with all my influence, in case those hounds try to make him trouble."
Arthur did not reply at once. He puffed his cigar silently while he revolved the startling accusation in his mind.
"Both you and Patsy are staunch friends," he observed, after a while, "and I have noticed that your intuition as regards character is seldom at fault. But I advise you, in this instance, not to be hasty, for—"
"I know; you are going to refer to those pearls."
"Naturally. If I don't, Le Drieux will, as you have yourself prophesied. Pearls—especially such pearls as these—are rare and easy to recognize. The world does not contain many black-pearls, for instance, such as that you are wearing. An expert—a man with a photograph that strongly resembles young Jones—is tracing some stolen pearls of great value—a collection, I think you said. We find Jones, a man seemingly unknown here, giving away a number of wonderful pearls that are worthy a place in any collection. Admit it is curious, Uncle John. It may be all a coincidence, of course; but how do you account for it, sir?"