Never in his life had Charles Connoldy Mershone been in earnest before. After his first interview with Louise Merrick he became in deadly earnest. His second meeting with her was at Marie Delmar's bridge whist party, where they had opportunity for an extended conversation. Arthur was present this evening, but by some chance Mershone drew Louise for his partner at cards, and being a skillful player he carried her in progression from table to table, leaving poor Arthur far behind and indulging in merry repartee and mild flirtation until they felt they were quite well acquainted.
Louise found the young man a charming conversationalist. He had a dashing, confidential way of addressing the girl which impressed her as flattering and agreeable, while his spirits were so exuberant and sparkling with humor that she was thoroughly amused every moment while in his society. Indeed, Mr. Mershone was really talented, and had he possessed any manly attributes, or even the ordinary honorable instincts of mankind, there is little doubt he would have been a popular favorite. But he had made his mark, and it was a rather grimy one. From earliest youth he had been guilty of discreditable acts that had won for him the contempt of all right-minded people. That he was still accepted with lax tolerance by some of the more thoughtless matrons of the fashionable set was due to his family name. They could not forget that in spite of his numerous lapses from respectability he was still a Mershone. Not one of the careless mothers who admitted him to her house would have allowed her daughter to wed him, and the degree of tolerance extended to him was fully appreciated by Mershone himself. He knew he was practically barred from the most desirable circles and seldom imposed himself upon his former acquaintances; but now, with a distinct object in view, he callously disregarded the doubtful looks he encountered and showed himself in every drawing-room where he could secure an invitation or impudently intrude himself. He made frank avowals that he had "reformed" and abandoned his evil ways forever. Some there were who accepted this statement seriously, and Diana furthered his cause by treating him graciously whenever they met, whereas she had formerly refused to recognize her cousin.
Louise knew nothing at all of Charlie Mershone's history and permitted him to call when he eagerly requested the favor; but on the way home from the Delmars Arthur, who had glowered at the usurper all the evening, took pains to hint to Louise that Mershone was an undesirable acquaintance and had a bad record. Of course she laughed at him and teased him, thinking he was jealous and rejoicing that in Mershone she had a tool to "keep Arthur toeing the mark." As a matter of truth she had really missed her lover's companionship that evening, but forbore to apprise him of the fact.
And now the great Kermess began to occupy the minds of the three cousins, who were to share the important "Flower Booth" between them. The Kermess was to be the holiday sensation of the season and bade fair to eclipse the horse show in popularity. It was primarily a charitable entertainment, as the net receipts were to be divided among several deserving hospitals; nevertheless it was classed as a high society function and only the elect were to take active part in the affair.
The ball room at the Waldorf had been secured and many splendid booths were to be erected for the sale of novelties, notions and refreshments. There were to be lotteries and auctions, national dances given by groups of society belles, and other novel entertainments calculated to empty the pockets of the unwary.
Beth was somewhat indignant to find that she and her cousins, having been assigned to the flower booth, were expected to erect a pavilion and decorate it at their own expense, as well as to provide the stock of flowers to be sold. "There is no fund for preliminary expenses, you know," remarked Mrs. Sandringham, "and of course all the receipts are to go to charity; so there is nothing to do but stand these little bills ourselves. We all do it willingly. The papers make a good deal of the Kermess, and the advertisement we get is worth all it costs us."
Beth did not see the force of this argument. She thought it was dreadful for society—really good society—to wish to advertise itself; but gradually she was learning that this was merely a part of the game. To be talked about, to have her goings and comings heralded in the society columns and her gowns described on every possible occasion, seemed the desire of every society woman, and she who could show the biggest scrap-book of clippings was considered of highest importance.. Uncle John laughed joyously when told that the expenses of the flower booth would fall on the shoulders of his girls and there was no later recompense.
"Why not?" he cried. "Mustn't we pay the fiddler if we dance?"
"It's a hold-up game," declared Beth, angrily. "I'll have nothing to do with it."
"Yes, you will, my dear," replied her uncle; "and to avoid separating you chicks from your pin-money I'm going to stand every cent of the expense myself. Why, it's for charity, isn't it? Charity covers a multitude of sins, and I'm just a miserable sinner that needs a bath-robe to snuggle in. How can the poor be better served than by robbing the rich? Go ahead, girls, and rig up the swellest booth that money will build. I'll furnish as many flowers as you can sell, and Charity ought to get a neat little nest-egg out of the deal."
"That's nice of you," said Patsy, kissing him; "but it's an imposition, all the same."
"It's a blessing, my dear. It will help a bit to ease off that dreadful income that threatens to crush me," he rejoined, smiling at them. And the nieces made no further protest, well knowing the kindly old gentleman would derive untold pleasure in carrying out his generous plans.
The flower booth, designed by a famous architect, proved a splendid and most imposing structure. It was capped by a monster bouquet of artificial orchids in papier-mache, which reached twenty feet into the air. The three cousins had their gowns especially designed for the occasion. Beth represented a lily, Louise a Gold-of-Ophir rose, and Patricia a pansy.
The big ball room had been turned over to the society people several days in advance, that the elaborate preparations might be completed in time, and during this period groups of busy, energetic young folks gathered by day and in the evenings, decorating, flirting, rehearsing the fancy dances, and amusing themselves generally.
Arthur Weldon was there to assist Uncle John's nieces; but his pleasure was somewhat marred by the persistent presence of Charlie Mershone, who, having called once or twice upon Louise, felt at liberty to attach himself to her party. The ferocious looks of his rival were ignored by this designing young man and he had no hesitation in interrupting a tete-a-tete to monopolize the girl for himself.
Louise was amused, thinking it fun to worry Arthur by flirting mildly with Mr. Mershone, for whom she cared not a jot. Both Patsy and Beth took occasion to remonstrate with her for this folly, for having known Weldon for a long time and journeyed with him through a part of Europe, they naturally espoused his cause, liking him as much as they intuitively disliked Mershone.
One evening Arthur, his patience well-nigh exhausted, talked seriously with Louise.
"This fellow Mershone," said he, "is a bad egg, a despicable son of a decadent family. His mother was Hedrik Von Taer's sister, but the poor thing has been dead many years. Not long ago Charlie was tabooed by even the rather fast set he belonged to, and the Von Taers, especially, refused to recognize their relative. Now he seems to go everywhere again. I don't know what has caused the change, I'm sure." "Why, he has reformed," declared Louise; "Diana told me so. She said he had been a bit wild, as all young men are; but now his behavior is irreproachable."
"I don't believe a word of it," insisted Arthur. "Mershone is a natural cad; he's been guilty of all sorts of dirty tricks, and is capable of many more. If you'll watch out, Louise, you'll see that all the girls are shy of being found in his society, and all the chaperons cluck to their fledglings the moment the hawk appears. You're a novice in society just yet, my dear, and it won't do you any good to encourage Charlie Mershone, whom everyone else avoids."
"He's very nice," returned Louise, lightly.
"Yes; he must be nicer than I am," admitted the young man, glumly, and thereupon he became silent and morose and Louise found her evening spoiled.
The warning did not fall on barren ground, however. In the seclusion of her own room the girl thought it all over and decided she had teased her true lover enough. Arthur had not scolded or reproached her, despite his annoyance, and she had a feeling that his judgment of Charlie Mershone was quite right. Although the latter was evidently madly in love with her the girl had the discretion to see how selfish and unrestrained was his nature, and once or twice he had already frightened her by his impetuosity. She decided to retreat cautiously but positively from further association with him, and at once began to show the young man coolness.
Mershone must have been chagrined, but he did not allow Louise to see there was any change in their relations as far as he was concerned. He merely redoubled his attentions, sending her flowers and bonbons daily, accompanied by ardently worded but respectful notes. Really, Louise was in a quandary, and she frankly admitted to Arthur that she had brought this embarrassment upon herself. Yet Arthur could do or say little to comfort her. He longed secretly to "punch Mershone's head," but could find no occasion for such decided action.
Diana, during this time, treated both Arthur and Louise with marked cordiality. Believing her time would come to take part in the comedy she refrained from interfering prematurely with the progress of events. She managed to meet her accomplice at frequent intervals and was pleased that there was no necessity to urge Charlie to do his utmost in separating the lovers.
"I'm bound to win, Di," he said grimly, "for I love the girl even better than I do her fortune. And of one thing you may rest assured; Weldon shall never marry her."
"What will you do?" asked Diana, curiously.
"Anything! Everything that is necessary to accomplish my purpose."
"Be careful," said she warningly. "Keep a cool head, Charlie, and don't do anything foolish. Still—"
"If it is necessary to take a few chances, do it. Arthur Weldon must not marry Louise Merrick!"
THE VON TAER PEARLS
Uncle John really had more fun out of the famous Kermess than anyone else. The preparations gave him something to do, and he enjoyed doing—openly, as well as in secret ways. Having declared that he would stock the flower booth at his own expense, he confided to no one his plans. The girls may have thought he would merely leave orders with a florist; but that was not the Merrick way of doing things. Instead, he visited the most famous greenhouses within a radius of many miles, contracting for all the floral blooms that art and skill could produce. The Kermess was to be a three days' affair, and each day the floral treasures of the cast were delivered in reckless profusion at the flower booth, which thus became the center of attraction and the marvel of the public. The girls were delighted to be able to dispense such blooms, and their success as saleswomen was assured at once. Of course the fair vendors were ignorant of the value of their wares, for Uncle John refused to tell them how extravagant he had been; so they were obliged to guess at the sums to be demanded and in consequence sold priceless orchids and rare hothouse flora at such ridiculous rates that Mr. Merrick chuckled with amusement until he nearly choked.
The public being "cordially invited" Uncle John was present on that first important evening, and—wonder of wonders—was arrayed in an immaculate full-dress suit that fitted his chubby form like the skin of a banana. Mayor Doyle, likewise disguised, locked arms with his brother-in-law and stalked gravely among the throng; but neither ever got to a point in the big room where the flower booth was not in plain sight. The Major's pride in "our Patsy" was something superb; Uncle John was proud of all three of his nieces. As the sale of wares was for the benefit of charity these old fellows purchased liberally—mostly flowers and had enough parcels sent home to fill a delivery wagon.
One disagreeable incident, only, marred this otherwise successful evening—successful especially for the three cousins, whose beauty and grace won the hearts of all.
Diana Von Taer was stationed in the "Hindoo Booth," and the oriental costume she wore exactly fitted her sensuous style of beauty. To enhance its effect she had worn around her neck the famous string of Von Taer pearls, a collection said to be unmatched in beauty and unequaled in value in all New York.
The "Hindoo Booth" was near enough to the "Flower Booth" for Diana to watch the cousins, and the triumph of her late protegees was very bitter for her to endure. Especially annoying was it to find Arthur Weldon devoting himself assiduously to Louise, who looked charming in her rose gown and favored Arthur in a marked way, although Charlie Mershone, refusing to be ignored, also leaned over the counter of the booth and chatted continually, striving to draw Miss Merrick's attention to himself.
Forced to observe all this, Diana soon lost her accustomed coolness. The sight of the happy faces of Arthur and Louise aroused all the rancor and subtile wit that she possessed, and she resolved upon an act that she would not before have believed herself capable of. Leaning down, she released the catch of the famous pearls and unobserved concealed them in a handkerchief. Then, leaving her booth, she sauntered slowly over to the floral display, which was surrounded for the moment by a crowd of eager customers. Many of the vases and pottery jars which had contained flowers now stood empty, and just before the station of Louise Merrick the stock was sadly depleted. This was, of course, offset by the store of money in the little drawer beside the fair sales-lady, and Louise, having greeted Diana with a smile and nod, turned to renew her conversation with the young men besieging her.
Diana leaned gracefully over the counter, resting the hand containing the handkerchief over the mouth of an empty Doulton vase—empty save for the water which had nourished the flowers. At the same time she caught Louise's eye and with a gesture brought the girl to her side. "Those young men are wealthy," she said, carelessly, her head close to that of Louise. "Make them pay well for their purchases, my dear."
"I can't rob them, Diana," was the laughing rejoinder.
"But it is your duty to rob, at a Kermess, and in the interests of charity," persisted Diana, maintaining her voice at a whisper.
Louise was annoyed.
"Thank you," she said, and went back to the group awaiting her.
The floral booth was triangular, Beth officiated at one of the three sides, Patsy at another, and Louise at the third. Diana now passed softly around the booth, interchanging a word with the other two girls, after which she returned to her own station.
Presently, while chatting with a group of acquaintances, she suddenly clasped her throat and assuming an expression of horror exclaimed:
"What, the Von Taer pearls?" cried one.
"The Von Taer pearls," said Diana, as if dazed by her misfortune.
"And you've lost them, dear?"
"They're lost!" she echoed.
Well, there was excitement then, you may be sure. One man hurried to notify the door-keeper and the private detective employed oh all such occasions, while others hastily searched the booth—of course in vain. Diana seemed distracted and the news spread quickly through the assemblage.
"Have you left this booth at all?" asked a quiet voice, that of the official whose business it was to investigate.
"I—I merely walked over to the floral booth opposite, and exchanged a word with Miss Merrick, and the others there," she explained.
The search was resumed, and Charlie Mershone sauntered over.
"What's this, Di? Lost the big pearls, I hear," he said.
She took him aside and whispered something to him. He nodded and returned at once to the flower booth, around which a crowd of searchers now gathered, much to the annoyance of Louise and her cousins.
"It's all foolishness, you know," said Uncle John, to the Major, confidentially. "If the girl really dropped her pearls some one has picked them up, long ago."
Young Mershone seemed searching the floral booth as earnestly as the others, and awkwardly knocked the Doulton vase from the shelf with his elbow. It smashed to fragments and in the pool of water on the floor appeared the missing pearls.
There was an awkward silence for a moment, while all eyes turned curiously upon Louise, who served this side of the triangle. The girl appeared turned to stone as she gazed down at the gems. Mershone laughed disagreeably and picked up the recovered treasure, which Diana ran forward and seized.
"H-m-m!" said the detective, with a shrug; "this is a strange occurrence—a very strange occurrence, indeed. Miss Von Taer, do you wish—"
"No!" exclaimed Diana, haughtily. "I accuse no one. It is enough that an accident has restored to me the heirloom."
Stiffly she marched back to her own booth, and the crowd quietly dispersed, leaving only Arthur, Uncle John and the Major standing to support Louise and her astonished cousins.
"Why, confound it!" cried the little millionaire, with a red face, "does the jade mean to insinuate—"
"Not at all, sor," interrupted the Major, sternly; "her early education has been neglected, that's all."
"Come dear," pleaded Arthur to Louise; "let us go home."
"By no means!" announced Beth, positively; "let us stay where we belong. Why, we're not half sold out yet!"
Arthur Weldon met Mershone at a club next afternoon. "You low scoundrel!" he exclaimed. "It was your trick to accuse Miss Merrick of a theft last night."
"Was she accused?" enquired the other, blandly. "I hadn't heard, really."
"You did it yourself!"
"Dear me!" said Mershone, deliberately lighting a cigarette.
"You or your precious cousin—you're both alike," declared Arthur, bitterly. "But you have given us wisdom, Mershone. We'll see you don't trick us again."
The young man stared at him, between puffs of smoke.
"It occurs to me, Weldon, that you're becoming insolent. It won't do, my boy. Unless you guard your tongue—"
"Bah! Resent it, if you dare; you coward."
"Yes. A man who attacks an innocent girl is a coward. And you've been a coward all your life, Mershone, for one reason or another. No one believes in your pretended reform. But I want to warn you to keep away from Miss Merrick, hereafter, or I'll take a hand in your punishment myself."
For a moment the two eyed one another savagely. They were equally matched in physique; but Arthur was right, there was no fight in Mershone; that is, of the knock-down order. He would fight in his own way, doubtless, and this made him more dangerous than his antagonist supposed.
"What right have you, sir, to speak for Miss Merrick?" he demanded.
"The best right in the world," replied Arthur. "She is my promised wife."
"Indeed! Since when?"
"That is none of your affair, Mershone. As a matter of fact, however, that little excitement you created last night resulted in a perfect understanding between us." "I created!"
"You, of course. Miss Merrick does not care to meet you again. You will do well to avoid her in the future."
"I don't believe you, Weldon. You're bluffing."
"Am I? Then dare to annoy Miss Merrick again and I'll soon convince you of my sincerity."
With this parting shot he walked away, leaving Mershone really at a loss to know whether he was in earnest or not. To solve the question he called a taxicab and in a few minutes gave his card to the Merrick butler with a request to see Miss Louise.
The man returned with a message that Miss Merrick was engaged.
"Please tell her it is important," insisted Mershone.
Again the butler departed, and soon returned.
"Any message for Miss Merrick must be conveyed in writing, sir," he said, "She declines to see you."
Mershone went away white with anger. We may credit him with loving Louise as intensely as a man of his caliber can love anyone. His sudden dismissal astounded him and made him frantic with disappointment. Louise's treatment of the past few days might have warned him, but he had no intuition of the immediate catastrophe that had overtaken him. It wasn't his self-pride that was injured; that had become so battered there was little of it left; but he had set his whole heart on winning this girl and felt that he could not give her up.
Anger toward Weldon was prominent amongst his emotion. He declared between his set teeth that if Louise was lost to him she should never marry Weldon. Not on Diana's account, but for his own vengeful satisfaction was this resolve made.
He rode straight to his cousin and told her the news. The statement that Arthur was engaged to marry Louise Merrick drove her to a wild anger no less powerful because she restrained any appearance of it. Surveying her cousin steadily through her veiled lashes she asked:
"Is there no way we can prevent this thing?"
Mershone stalked up and down before her like a caged beast. His eyes were red and wicked; his lips were pressed tightly together. "Diana," said he, "I've never wanted anything in this world as I want that girl. I can't let that mollycoddle marry her!"
She flushed, and then frowned. It was not pleasant to hear the man of her choice spoken of with such contempt, but after all their disappointment and desires were alike mutual and she could not break with Charlie at this juncture.
Suddenly he paused and asked:
"Do you still own that country home near East Orange?"
"Yes; but we never occupy it now. Father does not care for the place."
"Is it deserted?"
"Practically so. Madame Cerise is there in charge."
"Old Cerise? I was going to ask you what had become of that clever female."
"She was too clever, Charlie. She knew too much of our affairs, and was always prying into things that did not concern her. So father took an antipathy to the poor creature, and because she has served our family for so long sent her to care for the house at East Orange."
"Pensioned her, eh? Well, this is good news, Di; perhaps the best news in the world. I believe it will help clear up the situation. Old Cerise and I always understood each other."
"Will you explain?" asked Diana, coldly.
"I think not, my fair cousin. I prefer to keep my own counsel. You made a bad mess of that little deal last night, and are responsible for the climax that faces us. Besides, a woman is never a good conspirator. I know what you want; and I know what I want. So I'll work this plan alone, if you please. And I'll win, Di; I'll win as sure as fate—if you'll help me."
"You ask me to help you and remain in the dark?"
"Yes; it's better so. Write me a note to Cerise and tell her to place the house and herself unreservedly at my disposal."
She stared at him fixedly, and he returned the look with an evil smile. So they sat in silence a moment. Then slowly she arose and moved to her escritoire, drawing a sheet of paper toward her and beginning to write. "Is there a telephone at the place?" enquired Mershone abruptly.
"Then telephone Cerise after I'm gone. That will make it doubly sure. And give me the number, too, so I can jot it down. I may need it."
Diana quietly tore up the note.
"The telephone is better," she said. "Being in the dark, sir, I prefer not to commit myself in writing."
"You're quite right, Di," he exclaimed, admiringly. "But for heaven's sake don't forget to telephone Madame Cerise."
"I won't Charlie. And, see here, keep your precious plans to yourself, now and always. I intend to know nothing of what you do."
"I'm merely the cats-paw, eh? Well, never mind. Is old Cerise to be depended upon, do you think?"
"Why not?" replied the girl. "Cerise belongs to the Von Taers—body and soul!"
THE BROWN LIMOUSINE
The second evening of the society Kermess passed without unusual event and proved very successful in attracting throngs of fashionable people to participate in its pleasures.
Louise and her cousins were at their stations early, and the second installment of Uncle John's flowers was even more splendid and profuse than the first. It was not at all difficult to make sales, and the little money drawer began to bulge with its generous receipts.
Many a gracious smile or nod or word was bestowed upon Miss Merrick by the society folk; for these people had had time to consider the accusation against her implied by Diana Von Taer's manner when the pearls were discovered in the empty flower vase. Being rather impartial judges—for Diana was not a popular favorite with her set—they decided it was absurd to suppose a niece of wealthy old John Merrick would descend to stealing any one's jewelry. Miss Merrick might have anything her heart desired with-out pausing to count the cost, and moreover she was credited with sufficient common sense to realize that the Von Taer heirlooms might easily be recognized anywhere. So a little gossip concerning the queer incident had turned the tide of opinion in Louise's favor, and as she was a recent debutante with a charming personality all vied to assure her she was held blameless.
A vast coterie of the select hovered about the flower booth all the evening, and the cousins joyously realized they had scored one of the distinct successes of the Kermess. Arthur could not get very close to Louise this evening; but he enjoyed her popularity and from his modest retirement was able to exchange glances with her at intervals, and these glances assured him he was seldom absent from her thoughts.
Aside from this, he had the pleasure of glowering ferociously upon Charlie Mershone, who, failing to obtain recognition from Miss Merrick, devoted himself to his cousin Diana, or at least lounged nonchalantly in the neighborhood of the Hindoo Booth. Mershone was very quiet. There was a speculative look upon his features that denoted an undercurrent of thought.
Diana's face was as expressionless as ever. She well knew her action of the previous evening had severed the cordial relations formerly existing between her and Mr. Merrick's nieces, and determined to avoid the possibility of a snub by keeping aloof from them. She greeted whoever approached her station in her usual gracious and cultured manner, and refrained from even glancing toward Louise.
Hedrik Von Taer appeared for an hour this evening. He quietly expressed his satisfaction at the complete arrangements of the Kermess, chatted a moment with his daughter, and then innocently marched over to the flower booth and made a liberal purchase from each of the three girls. Evidently the old gentleman had no inkling of the incident of the previous evening, or that Diana was not still on good terms with the young ladies she had personally introduced to society. His action amused many who noted it, and Louise blushing but thoroughly self-possessed, exchanged her greetings with Diana's father and thanked him heartily for his purchase. Mr. Von Taer stared stonily at Charlie Mershone, but did not speak to him.
Going out he met John Merrick, and the two men engaged in conversation most cordially.
"You did the trick all right, Von Taer," said the little millionaire, "and I'm much obliged, as you may suppose. You're not ashamed of my three nieces, I take it?"
"Your nieces, Mr. Merrick, are very charming young women," was the dignified reply. "They will grace any station in life to which they may be called."
When the evening's entertainment came to an end Arthur Weldon took Louise home in his new brown limousine, leaving Patsy and her father, Uncle John and Beth to comfortably fill the Doyle motor car. Now that the engagement of the young people had been announced and accepted by their friends, it seemed very natural for them to prefer their own society.
"What do you think of it, Uncle John, anyhow?" asked Patsy, as they rode home. "It's all right, dear," he announced, with a sigh. "I hate to see my girls take the matrimonial dive, but I guess they've got to come to it, sooner or later."
"Later, for me," laughed Patsy.
"As for young Weldon," continued Mr. Merrick, reflectively, "he has some mighty good points, as I found out long ago. Also he has some points that need filing down. But I guess he'll average up with most young men, and Louise seems to like him. So let's try to encourage 'em to be happy; eh, my dears?"
"Louise," said Beth, slowly, "is no more perfect than Arthur. They both have faults which time may eradicate, and as at present they are not disposed to be hypercritical they ought to get along nicely together."
"If 't was me," said the Major, oracularly, "I'd never marry Weldon."
"He won't propose to you, Daddy dear," returned Patsy, mischievously; "he prefers Louise."
"I decided long ago," said Uncle John, "that I'd never be allowed to pick out the husbands for my three girls. Husbands are a matter of taste, I guess, and a girl ought to know what sort she wants. If she don't, and makes a mistake, that's her look-out. So you can all choose for yourselves, when the time comes, and I'll stand by you, my dears, through thick and thin. If the husband won't play fair, you can always bet your Uncle John will." "Oh, we know, that," said Patsy, simply; and Beth added: "Of course, Uncle, dear."
Thursday evening, the third and last of the series, was after all the banner night of the great Kermess. All the world of society was present and such wares as remained unsold in the booths were quickly auctioned off by several fashionable gentlemen with a talent for such brigandage. Then, the national dances and songs having been given and received enthusiastically, a grand ball wound up the occasion in the merriest possible way.
Charlie Mershone was much in evidence this evening, as he had been before; but he took no active part in the proceedings and refrained from dancing, his pet amusement. Diana observed that he made frequent trips downstairs, perhaps to the hotel offices. No one paid any attention to his movements, except his cousin, and Miss Von Taer, watching him intently, decided that underneath his calm exterior lurked a great deal of suppressed excitement.
At last the crowd began to disperse. Uncle John and the Major took Beth and Patsy away early, as soon as their booth was closed; but Louise stayed for a final waltz or two with Arthur. She soon found, however, that the evening's work and excitement had tired her, and asked to be taken home.
"I'll go and get the limousine around," said Arthur. "That new chauffeur is a stupid fellow. By the time you've managed in this jam to get your wraps I shall be ready. Come down in the elevator and I'll meet you at the Thirty-second street entrance."
As he reached the street a man—an ordinary servant, to judge from his appearance—ran into him full tilt, and when they recoiled from the impact the fellow with a muttered curse raised his fist and struck young Weldon a powerful blow. Reeling backward, a natural anger seized Arthur, who was inclined to be hot-headed, and he also struck out with his fists, never pausing to consider that the more dignified act would be to call the police.
The little spurt of fistcuffs was brief, but it gave Mershone, who stood in the shadow of the door-way near by, time to whisper to a police officer, who promptly seized the disputants and held them both in a firm grip.
"What's all this?" he demanded, sternly.
"That drunken loafer assaulted me without cause" gasped Arthur, panting.
"It's a lie!" retorted the man, calmly; "he struck me first."
"Well, I arrest you both," said the officer.
"Arrest!" cried Arthur, indignantly; "why, confound it, man, I'm—"
"No talk!" was the stern command. "Come along and keep quiet."
As if the whole affair had been premeditated and prearranged a patrol wagon at that instant backed to the curb and in spite of Arthur Weldon's loud protests he was thrust inside with his assailant and at once driven away at a rapid gait.
At the same moment a brown limousine drew up quietly before the entrance.
Louise, appearing in the doorway in her opera cloak, stood hesitating on the steps, peering into the street for Arthur. A man in livery approached her.
"This way, please, Miss Merrick," he said. "Mr. Weldon begs you to be seated in the limousine. He will join you in a moment."
With this he led the way to the car and held the door open, while the girl, having no suspicion, entered and sank back wearily upon the seat. Then the door abruptly slammed, and the man in livery leaped to the seat beside the chauffeur and with a jerk the car darted away.
So sudden and astounding was this denouement that Louise did not even scream. Indeed, for the moment her wits were dazed.
And now Charlie Mershone stepped from his hiding place and with a satirical smile entered the vestibule and looked at his watch. He found he had time to show himself again at the Kermess, for a few moments, before driving to the ferry to catch the train for East Orange.
Some one touched him on the arm.
"Very pretty, sir, and quite cleverly done," remarked a quiet voice.
Mershone started and glared at the speaker, a slender, unassuming man in dark clothes.
"What do you mean, fellow?"
"I've been watching the comedy, sir, and I saw you were the star actor, although you took care to keep hidden in the wings. That bruiser who raised the row took his arrest very easily; I suppose you've arranged to pay his fine, and he isn't worried. But the gentleman surely was in hard luck pounded one minute and pinched the next. You arranged it very cleverly, indeed."
Charlie was relieved that no mention was made of the abduction of Louise. Had that incident escaped notice? He gave the man another sharp look and turned away; but the gentle touch again restrained him.
"Not yet, please, Mr. Mershone."
"Who are you?" asked the other, scowling.
"The house detective. It's my business to watch things. So I noticed you talking to the police officer; I also noticed the patrol wagon standing on the opposite side of the street for nearly an hour—my report on that will amuse them at headquarters, won't it? And I noticed you nod to the bruiser, just as your victim came out."
"Let go of my arm, sir!"
"Do you prefer handcuffs? I arrest you. We'll run over to the station and explain things."
"Do you know who I am?"
"Perfectly, Mr. Mershone. I believe I ran you in for less than this, some two years ago. You gave the name of Ryder, then. Better take another, to-night."
"If you're the house detective, why do you mix up in this affair?" enquired Mershone, his anxiety showing in his tone.
"Your victim was a guest of the house."
"Not at all. He was merely attending the Kermess."
"That makes him our guest, sir. Are you ready?"
Mershone glanced around and then lowered his voice.
"It's all a little joke, my dear fellow," said he, "and you are liable to spoil everything with your bungling. Here," drawing; a roll of bills from his pocket, "don't let us waste any more time. I'm busy."
The man chuckled and waved aside the bribe.
"You certainly are, sir; you're very busy, just now! But I think the sergeant over at the station will give you some leisure. And listen, Mr. Mershone: I've got it in for that policeman you fixed; he's a cheeky individual and a new man. I'm inclined to think this night's work will cost him his position. And the patrol, which I never can get when I want it, seems under your direct management. These things have got to be explained, and I need your help. Ready, sir?"
Mershone looked grave, but he was not wholly checkmated. Thank heaven the bungling detective had missed the departure of Louise altogether. Charlie's arrest at this critical juncture was most unfortunate, but need not prove disastrous to his cleverly-laid plot. He decided it would be best to go quietly with the "plain-clothes man."
Weldon had become nearly frantic in his demands to be released when Mershone was ushered into the station. He started at seeing his enemy and began to fear a thousand terrible, indefinite things, knowing how unscrupulous Mershone was. But the Waldorf detective, who seemed friendly with the police sergeant, made a clear, brief statement of the facts he had observed. Mershone denied the accusation; the bruiser denied it; the policeman and the driver of the patrol wagon likewise stolidly denied it. Indeed, they had quite another story to tell.
But the sergeant acted on his own judgment. He locked up Mershone, refusing bail. He suspended the policeman and the driver, pending investigation. Then he released Arthur Weldon on his own recognisance, the young man promising to call and testify when required.
The house detective and Arthur started back to the Waldorf together.
"Did you notice a young lady come to the entrance, soon after I was driven away?" he asked, anxiously.
"A lady in a rose-colored opera cloak, sir?"
"Why, she got into a brown limousine and rode away." Arthur gave a sigh of relief.
"Thank goodness that chauffeur had a grain of sense," said he. "I wouldn't have given him credit for it. Anyway, I'm glad Miss Merrick is safe."
"Huh!" grunted the detective, stopping short. "I begin to see this thing in its true light. How stupid we've been!"
"In what way?" enquired Arthur, uneasily.
"Why did Mershone get you arrested, just at that moment?"
"Because he hated me, I suppose."
"Tell me, could he have any object in spiriting away that young lady—in abducting her?" asked the detective.
"Could he?" cried Arthur, terrified and trembling. "He had every object known to villainy. Come to the hotel! Let's hurry, man—let's fly!"
At the Waldorf Arthur's own limousine was standing by the curb. The street was nearly deserted. The last of the Kermess people had gone home.
Weldon ran to his chauffeur.
"Did you take Miss Merrick home?" he eagerly enquired.
"Miss Merrick? Why, I haven't seen her, sir, I thought you'd all forgotten me."
The young man's heart sank. Despair seized him. The detective was carefully examining the car.
"They're pretty nearly mates, Mr. Weldon. as far as the brown color and general appearances go," he said. "But I'm almost positive the car that carried the young lady away was of another make."
"What make was it?"
The man shook his head.
"Can't say, sir. I was mighty stupid, and that's a fact. But my mind was so full of that assault and battery case, and the trickery of that fellow Mershone, that I wasn't looking for anything else."
"Can you get away?" asked Arthur. "Can you help me on this case?"
"No, sir; I must remain on duty at the hotel. But perhaps the young lady is now safe at home, and we've been borrowing trouble. In case she's been stolen, however, you'd better see Fogerty."
"Here's his card, sir. He's a private detective, and may be busy just now, for all I know. But if you can get Fogerty you've got the best man in all New York."
Arthur sprang into the seat beside his driver and hurried post-haste to the Merrick residence. In a few minutes Mrs. Merrick was in violent hysterics at the disappearance of her daughter. Arthur stopped long enough to telephone for a doctor and then drove to the Doyles. He routed up Uncle John and the Major, who appeared in pajamas and bath-robes, and told them the startling news.
A council of war was straightway held. Uncle John trembled with nervousness; Arthur was mentally stupefied; the Major alone was calm.
"In the first place," said he, "what object could the man have in carrying off Louise?" Arthur hesitated.
"To prevent our marriage, I suppose," he answered. "Mershone has an idea he loves Louise. He made wild love to her until she cut his acquaintance."
"But it won't help him any to separate her from her friends, or her promised husband," declared the Major. "Don't worry. We're sure to find her, sooner or later."
"How? How shall we find her?" cried Uncle John. "Will he murder her, or what?"
"Why, as for that, John, he's safe locked up in jail for the present, and unable to murder anyone," retorted the Major. "It's probable he meant to follow Louise, and induce her by fair means or foul to marry him. But he's harmless enough for the time being."
"It's not for long, though," said Arthur, fearfully. "They're liable to let him out in the morning, for he has powerful friends, scoundrel though he is. And when he is free—"
"Then he must be shadowed, of course," returned the Major, nodding wisely. "If it's true the fellow loves Louise, then he's no intention of hurting her. So make your minds easy. Wherever the poor lass has been taken to, she's probably safe enough."
"But think of her terror—her suffering!" cried Uncle John, wringing his chubby hands. "Poor child! It may be his idea to compromise her, and break her heart!"
"We'll stop all that, John, never fear," promised the Major. "The first thing to do is to find a good detective."
"Fogerty!" exclaimed Arthur, searching for the card.
"I don't know."
"Get the best man possible!" commanded Mr. Merrick. "Spare no expense; hire a regiment of detectives, if necessary; I'll—"
"Of course you will," interrupted the Major, smiling. "But we won't need a regiment. I'm pretty sure the game is in our hands, from the very start."
"Fogerty is highly recommended," explained Arthur, and related what the house detective of the Waldorf had said.
"Better go at once and hunt him up," suggested Uncle John. "What time is it?"
"After two o'clock. But I'll go at once." "Do; and let us hear from you whenever you've anything to tell us," said the Major.
"Where's Patsy?" asked Arthur.
"Sound asleep. Mind ye, not a word of this to Patsy till she has to be told. Remember that, John."
"Well, I'll go," said the young man, and hurried away.
Q. Fogerty lived on Eleventh street, according to his card. Arthur drove down town, making good time. The chauffeur asked surlily if this was to be "an all-night job," and Arthur savagely replied that it might take a week. "Can't you see, Jones, that I'm in great trouble?" he added. "But you shall be well paid for your extra time."
"All right, sir. That's no more than just," said the man. "It's none of my affair, you know, if a young lady gets stolen."
Arthur was wise enough to restrain his temper and the temptation to kick Jones out of the limousine. Five minutes later they paused before a block of ancient brick dwellings and found Fogerty's number. A card over the bell bore his name, and Arthur lit a match and read it. Then he rang impatiently.
Arthur rang a second time; waited, and rang again. A panic of fear took possession of him. At this hour of night it would be well-nigh impossible to hunt up another detective if Fogerty failed him. He determined to persist as long as there was hope. Again he rang.
"Look above, sir," called Jones from his station in the car.
Arthur stepped back on the stone landing and looked up. A round spark, as from a cigarette, was visible at the open window. While he gazed the spark glowered brighter and illumined a pale, haggard boy's face, surmounted by tousled locks of brick colored hair.
"Hi, there!" said Arthur. "Does Mr. Fogerty live here?"
"He pays the rent," answered a boyish voice, with a tinge of irony. "What's wanted?" "Mr. Fogerty is wanted. Is he at home?"
"He is," responded the boy.
"I must see him at once—on important business. Wake him up, my lad; will you?"
"Wait a minute," said the youth, and left the window. Presently he opened the front door, slipped gently out and closed the door behind him.
"Let's sit in your car," he said, in soft, quiet tones. "We can talk more freely there."
"But I must see Fogerty at once!" protested Arthur.
"Quintus Fogerty—the first and last and only individual of that name."
Arthur hesitated; he was terribly disappointed.
"Are you a detective?" he enquired.
"But you can't be very old."
The boy laughed.
"I'm no antiquity, sir," said he, "but I've shed the knickerbockers long ago. Who sent you to me?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I'm tired. I've been busy twenty-three weeks. Just finished my case yesterday and need a rest—a good long rest. But if you want a man I'll refer you to a friend."
"Gorman, of the Waldorf, sent me to you—and said you'd help me."
"Oh; that's different. Case urgent, sir?"
"Very. The young lady I'm engaged to marry was abducted less than three hours ago."
Fogerty lighted another cigarette and the match showed Arthur that the young face was deeply lined, while two cold gray eyes stared blankly into his own.
"Let's sit in your limousine, sir," he repeated.
When they had taken their places behind the closed doors the boy asked Arthur to tell him "all about it, and don't forget any details, please." So Weldon hastily told the events of the evening and gave a history of Mershone and his relations with Miss Merrick. The story was not half told when Fogerty said:
"Tell your man to drive to the police station."
On the way Arthur resumed his rapid recital and strove to post the young detective as well as he was able. Fogerty made no remarks, nor did he ask a single question until Weldon had told him everything he could think of. Then he made a few pointed enquiries and presently they had arrived at the station.
The desk sergeant bowed with great respect to the youthful detective. By the dim light Arthur was now able to examine Fogerty for the first time.
He was small, slim and lean. His face attested to but eighteen or nineteen years, in spite of its deep lines and serious expression. Although his hair was tangled and unkempt Fogerty's clothing and linen were neat and of good quality. He wore a Scotch cap and a horseshoe pin in his cravat.
One might have imagined him to be an errand boy, a clerk, a chauffeur, a salesman or a house man. You might have placed him in almost any middle-class walk in life. Perhaps, thought Arthur, he might even be a good detective! yet his personality scarcely indicated it.
"Mershone in, Billy?" the detective asked the desk sergeant.
"Room 24. Want him?"
"Not now. When is he likely to go?"
"When Parker relieves me. There's been a reg'lar mob here to get Mershone off. I couldn't prevent his using the telephone; but I'm a stubborn duck; eh, Quintus? And now the gentleman has gone to bed, vowing vengeance."
"You're all right, Billy. We both know Mershone. Gentleman scoundrel."
"Exactly. Swell society blackleg."
"What name's he docked under?"
"Will Parker let him off with a fine?"
"Yes, or without it. Parker comes on at six."
"Good. I'll take a nap on that bench. Got to keep the fellow in sight, Billy."
"Go into my room. There's a cot there."
"Thanks, old man; I will. I'm dead tired."
Then Fogerty took Arthur aside. "Go home and try to sleep," he advised. "Don't worry. The young lady's safe enough till Mershone goes to her hiding place. When he does, I'll be there, too, and I'll try to have you with me."
"Do you think you can arrange it alone, Mr. Fogerty?" asked Arthur, doubtfully. The boy seemed so very young.
"Better than if I had a hundred to assist me. Why, this is an easy job, Mr. Weldon. It 'll give me a fine chance to rest up."
"And you won't lose Mershone?"
"Never. He's mine."
"This is very important to me, sir," continued Arthur, nervously.
"Yes; and to others. Most of all it's important to Fogerty. Don't worry, sir."
The young man was forced to go away with this assurance. He returned home, but not to sleep. He wondered vaguely if he had been wise to lean upon so frail a reed as Fogerty seemed to be; and above all he wondered where poor Louise was, and if terror and alarm were breaking her heart.
Charlie Mershone had no difficulty in securing his release when Parker came on duty at six o'clock. He called up a cab and went at once to his rooms at the Bruxtelle; and Fogerty followed him.
While he discarded his dress-coat, took a bath and donned his walking suit Mershone was in a brown study. Hours ago Louise had been safely landed at the East Orange house and placed in the care of old Madame Cerise, who would guard her like an ogre. There was no immediate need of his hastening after her, and his arrest and the discovery of half his plot had seriously disturbed him. This young man was no novice in intrigue, nor even in crime. Arguing from his own stand-point he realized that the friends of Louise were by this time using every endeavor to locate her. They would not succeed in this, he was positive. His plot had been so audacious and all clews so cleverly destroyed or covered up that the most skillful detective, knowing he had abducted the girl; would be completely baffled in an attempt to find her.
The thought of detectives, in this connection, led him to decide that he was likely to be shadowed. That was the most natural thing for his opponents to do. They could not prove Mershone's complicity in the disappearance of Louise Merrick, but they might easily suspect him, after that little affair of Weldon's arrest. Therefore if he went to the girl now he was likely to lead others to her. Better be cautious and wait until he had thrown the sleuths off his track.
Having considered this matter thoroughly, Mershone decided to remain quiet. By eight o'clock he was breakfasting in the grill room, and Fogerty occupied a table just behind him.
During the meal it occurred to Charlie to telephone to Madame Cerise for assurance that Louise had arrived safely and without a scene to attract the attention of strangers. Having finished breakfast he walked into the telephone booth and was about to call his number when a thought struck him. He glanced out of the glass door. In the hotel lobby were many loungers. He saw a dozen pairs of eyes fixed upon him idly or curiously; one pair might belong to the suspected detective. If he used the telephone there would be a way of discovering the number he had asked for. That would not do—not at all! He concluded not to telephone, at present, and left the booth. His next act was to purchase a morning paper, and seating himself carelessly in a chair he controlled the impulse to search for a "scare head" on the abduction of Miss Merrick. If he came across the item, very well; he would satisfy no critical eye that might be scanning him by hunting for it with a show of eagerness. The game was in his hands, he believed, and he intended to keep it there.
Fogerty was annoyed by the man's evident caution. It would not be easy to surprise Mershone in any self-incriminating action. But, after all, reflected the boy, resting comfortably in the soft-padded cushions of a big leather chair, all this really made the case the more interesting. He was rather glad Mershone was in no hurry to precipitate a climax. A long stern chase was never a bad chase.
By and bye another idea occurred to Charlie. He would call upon his cousin Diana, and get her to telephone Madame Cerise for information about Louise. It would do no harm to enlighten Diana as to what he had done. She must suspect it already; and was she not a co-conspirator? But he could not wisely make this call until the afternoon. So meantime he took a stroll into Broadway and walked leisurely up and down that thoroughfare, pausing occasionally to make a trifling purchase and turning abruptly again and again in the attempt to discover who might be following him. No one liable to be a detective of any sort could he discern; yet he was too shrewd to be lulled into a false belief that his each and every act was unobserved.
Mershone returned to his hotel, went to his room, and slept until after one o'clock, as he had secured but little rest the night before in his primitive quarters at the police station. It was nearly two when he reappeared in the hotel restaurant for luncheon, and he took his seat and ate with excellent appetite.
During this meal Mr. Fogerty also took occasion to refresh himself, eating modestly at a retired table in a corner. Mershone's sharp eyes noted him. He remembered seeing this youth at breakfast, and thoughtfully reflected that the boy's appearance was not such as might be expected from the guest of a fashionable and high-priced hotel. Silently he marked this individual as the possible detective. He had two or three others in his mind, by this time; the boy was merely added to the list of possibilities.
Mershone was a capital actor. After luncheon he sauntered about the hotel, stared from the window for a time, looked at his watch once or twice with an undecided air, and finally stepped to the porter and asked him to call a cab. He started for Central Park; then changed his mind and ordered the man to drive him to the Von Taer residence, where on arrival Diana at once ordered him shown into her private parlor.
The young man found his cousin stalking up and down in an extremely nervous manner. She wrung her delicate fingers with a swift, spasmodic motion. Her eyes, nearly closed, shot red rays through their slits.
"What's wrong, Di?" demanded Mershone, considerably surprised by this intense display of emotion on the part of his usually self-suppressed and collected cousin.
"Wrong!" she echoed; "everything is wrong. You've ruined yourself, Charlie; and you're going to draw me into this dreadful crime, also, in spite of all I can do!"
"Bah! don't be a fool," he observed, calmly taking a chair.
"Am I the fool?" she exclaimed, turning upon him fiercely. "Did I calmly perpetrate a deed that was sure to result in disgrace and defeat?"
"What on earth has happened to upset you?" he asked, wonderingly. "It strikes me everything is progressing beautifully."
"Does it, indeed?" was her sarcastic rejoinder. "Then your information is better than mine. They called me up at three o'clock this morning to enquire after Louise Merrick—as if I should know her whereabouts. Why did they come to me for such information? Why?" she stamped her foot for emphasis.
"I suppose," said Charlie Mershone, "they called up everyone who knows the girl. It would be natural in case of her disappearance."
"Come here!" cried Diana, seizing his arm and dragging him to a window. "Be careful; try to look out without showing yourself. Do you see that man on the corner?"
"He has been patrolling this house since day-break. He's a detective!"
"What makes you think so, Di? Why on earth should they suspect you?"
"Why? Because my disreputable cousin planned the abduction, without consulting me, and—"
"Oh, come, Di; that's a little too—"
"Because the girl has been carried to the Von Taer house—my house—in East Orange; because my own servant is at this moment her jailor, and—"
"How should they know all this?" interrupted Mershone, impatiently. "And how do you happen to know it yourself, Diana?"
"Madame Cerise called me up at five o'clock, just after Louise's uncle had been here for the second time, with a crew of officers. Cerise is in an ugly mood. She said a young girl had been brought to her a prisoner, and Mr. Mershone's orders were to keep her safely until he came. She is greatly provoked at our using her in this way, but promised to follow instructions if I accepted all responsibility."
"What did you tell her?"
"That I knew nothing of the affair, but had put the house and her services at your disposal. I said I would accept no responsibility whatever for anything you might do."
Mershone looked grave, and scowled.
"The old hag won't betray us, will she?" he asked, uneasily.
"She cannot betray me, for I have done nothing. Charlie," she said, suddenly facing him, "I won't be mixed in this horrid affair. You must carry out your infamous plan in your own way. I know nothing, sir, of what you have done; I know nothing of what you intend to do. Do you understand me?"
He smiled rather grimly.
"I hardly expected, my fair cousin, that you would be frightened into retreat at this stage of the game, when the cards are all in our hands. Do you suppose I decided to carry away Louise without fully considering what I was doing, and the immediate consequences of my act? And wherein have I failed? All has gone beautifully up to this minute. Diana, your fears are absolutely foolish, and against your personal interests. All that I am doing for myself benefits you doubly. Just consider, if you will, what has been accomplished for our mutual benefit: The girl has disappeared under suspicious circumstances; before she again rejoins her family and friends she will either be my wife or Arthur Weldon will prefer not to marry her. That leaves him open to appreciate the charms of Diana Von Taer, does it not? Already, my dear cousin, your wishes are accomplished. My own task, I admit, is a harder one, because it is more delicate."
The cold-blooded brutality of this argument caused even Diana to shudder. She looked at the young man half fearfully as she asked:
"What is your task?"
"Why, first to quiet Louise's fears; then to turn her by specious arguments—lies, if you will—against Weldon; next to induce her to give me her hand in honest wedlock. I shall tell her of my love, which is sincere; I shall argue—threaten, if necessary; use every reasonable means to gain her consent."
"You'll never succeed!" cried Diana, with conviction.
"Then I'll try other tactics," said he blandly.
"If you do, you monster, I'll expose you," warned the girl.
"Having dissolved partnership, you won't be taken into my confidence, my fair cousin. You have promised to know nothing of my acts, and I'll see you don't." Then he sprang from his chair and came to her with a hard, determined look upon his face. "Look here, Di; I've gone too far in this game to back out now, I'm going to carry it through if it costs me my life and liberty—and yours into the bargain! I love Louise Merrick! I love her so well that without her the world and its mockeries can go to the devil! There's nothing worth living for but Louise—Louise. She's going to be my wife, Diana—by fair means or foul I swear to make her my wife."
He had worked himself up to a pitch of excitement surpassing that of Diana. Now he passed his hand over his forehead, collected himself with a slight shudder, and resumed his seat.
Diana was astonished. His fierce mood served to subdue her own. Regarding him curiously for a time she finally asked:
"You speak as if you were to be allowed to have your own way—as if all society was not arrayed against you. Have you counted the cost of your action? Have you considered the consequences of this crime?"
"I have committed no crime," he said stubbornly. "All's fair in love and war."
"The courts will refuse to consider that argument, I imagine," she retorted. "Moreover, the friends of this kidnaped girl are powerful and active. They will show you no mercy if you are discovered."
"If I fail," answered Mershone, slowly, "I do not care a continental what they do to me, for my life will be a blank without Louise. But I really see no reason to despair, despite your womanish croakings. All seems to be going nicely and just as I had anticipated."
"I am glad that you are satisfied," Diana returned, with scornful emphasis. "But understand me, sir; this is none of my affair in any way—except that I shall surely expose you if a hair of the girl's head is injured. You must not come here again. I shall refuse to see you. You ought not to have come to-day."
"Is there anything suspicious in my calling upon my cousin—as usual?"
"Under such circumstances, yes. You have not been received at this house of late years, and my father still despises you. There is another danger you have brought upon me. My father seemed suspicious this morning, and asked me quite pointedly what I knew of this strange affair."
"But of course you lied to him. All right, Diana; perhaps there is nothing to be gained from your alliance, and I'll let you out of the deal from this moment. The battle's mine, after all, and I'll fight it alone. But—I need more money. You ought to be willing to pay, for so far the developments are all in your favor."
She brought a handful of notes from her desk.
"This ends our partnership, Charlie," she said.
"Very well. A woman makes a poor conspirator, but is invaluable as a banker."
"There will be no more money. This ends everything between us."
"I thought you were game, Di. But you're as weak as the ordinary feminine creation."
She did not answer, but stood motionless, a defiant expression upon her face. He laughed a little, bowed mockingly, and went away.
A COOL ENCOUNTER
On leaving the house Mershone buttoned his overcoat tightly up to his chin, for the weather was cold and raw, and then shot a quick glance around him. Diana's suspect was still lounging on the corner. Charlie had little doubt he was watching the house and the movements of its in-mates—a bad sign, he reflected, with a frown. Otherwise the street seemed deserted.
He had dismissed the cab on his arrival, so now he stepped out and walked briskly around the corner, swinging his cane jauntily and looking very unlike a fugitive. In the next block he passed a youth who stood earnestly examining the conventional display in a druggist's window.
Mershone, observing this individual, gave a start, but did not alter his pace. It was the same pale, red-haired boy he had noticed twice before at the hotel. In his alert, calculating mind there was no coincidence in this meeting. Before he had taken six more steps Mershone realized the exact situation.
At the next crossing he stopped and waited patiently for a car. Up the street he still saw the youth profoundly interested in drugs—a class of merchandise that seldom calls for such close inspection. The car arrived and carried Mershone away. It also left the red-haired youth at his post before the window. Yet on arriving at the Bruxtelle some twenty minutes later Charlie found this same queer personage occupying a hotel chair in the lobby and apparently reading a newspaper with serious attention.
He hesitated a moment, then quietly walked over to a vacant chair beside the red-haired one and sat down. The youth turned the paper, glanced casually at his neighbor, and continued reading.
"A detective, I believe," said Mershone, in a low, matter of fact tone.
"Who? me?" asked Fogerty, lowering the paper.
"Yes. Your age deceived me for a time. I imagined you were a newsboy or a sporting kid from the country; but now I observe you are older than you appear. All sorts of people seem to drift into the detective business. I suppose your present occupation is shadowing me."
Fogerty smiled. The smile was genuine.
"I might even be a lawyer, sir," he replied, "and in that case I should undertake to cross-examine you, and ask your reasons for so queer a charge."
"Or you might be a transient guest at this hotel," the other returned, in the same bantering tone, "for I saw you at breakfast and luncheon. Pretty fair chef here, isn't he? But you didn't stick to that part, you know. You followed me up-town, where I made a call on a relative, and you studied the colored globes in a druggist's window when I went away. I wonder why people employ inexperienced boys in such important matters. In your case, my lad, it was easy enough to detect the detective. You even took the foolish chance of heading me off, and returned to this hotel before I did. Now, then, is my charge unfounded?"
"Why should you be under the surveillance of a detective?" asked Fogerty, slowly.
"Really, my boy, I cannot say. There was an unpleasant little affair last night at the Waldorf, in which I was not personally concerned, but suffered, nevertheless. An officious deputy caused my arrest and I spent an unpleasant night in jail. There being nothing in the way of evidence against me I was released this morning, and now I find a detective shadowing me. What can it all mean, I wonder? These stupid blunders are very annoying to the plain citizen, who, however innocent, feels himself the victim of a conspiracy."
"I understand you, sir," said Fogerty, drily.
For some moments Mershone now remained silent. Then he asked; "What are your instructions concerning me?"
To his surprise the boy made a simple, frank admission.
"I'm to see you don't get into more mischief, sir."
"And how long is this nonsense to continue?" demanded Mershone, showing a touch of anger for the first time.
"Depends on yourself, Mr. Mershone; I'm no judge, myself. I'm so young—and inexperienced."
"Who is your employer?"
"Oh, I'm just sent out by an agency."
"Is it a big paying proposition?" asked Charlie, eyeing the diffident youth beside him critically, as if to judge his true caliber.
"Not very big. You see, if I'd been a better detective you'd never have spotted me so quickly."
"I suppose money counts with you, though, as it does with everyone else in the world?"
"Of course, sir. Every business is undertaken to make money."
Mershone drew his chair a little nearer.
"I need a clever detective myself," he announced, confidentially. "I'm anxious to discover what enemy is persecuting me in this way. Would it—er—be impossible for me to employ you to—er—look after my interests?"
Fogerty was very serious.
"You see, sir," he responded, "if I quit this job they may not give me another. In order to be a successful detective one must keep in the good graces of the agencies."
"That's easy enough," asserted Mershone. "You may pretend to keep this job, but go home and take life easy. I'll send you a daily statement of what I've been doing, and you can fix up a report to your superior from that. In addition to this you can put in a few hours each day trying to find out who is annoying me in this rascally manner, and for this service I'll pay you five times the agency price. How does that proposition strike you, Mr.—"
"Riordan. Me name's Riordan," said Fogerty, with a smile. "No, Mr. Mershone," shaking his head gravely, "I can't see my way to favor you. It's an easy job now, and I'm afraid to take chances with a harder one."
Something in the tone nettled Mershone.
"But the pay," he suggested.
"Oh, the pay. If I'm a detective fifty years, I'll make an easy two thousand a year. That's a round hundred thousand. Can you pay me that much to risk my future career as a detective?"
Mershone bit his lip. This fellow was not so simple, after all, boyish as he seemed. And, worse than all, he had a suspicion the youngster was baiting him, and secretly laughing at his offers of bribery.
"They will take you off the job, now that I have discovered your identity," he asserted, with malicious satisfaction.
"Oh, no," answered Fogerty; "they won't do that. This little interview merely simplifies matters. You see, sir, I'm an expert at disguises. That's my one great talent, as many will testify. But you will notice that in undertaking this job I resorted to no disguise at all. You see me as nature made me—and 't was a poor job, I'm thinking."
"Why were you so careless?"
"It wasn't carelessness; it was premeditated. There's not the slightest objection to your knowing me. My only business is to keep you in sight, and I can do that exactly as well as Riordan as I could by disguising myself."
Mershone had it on his tongue's end to ask what they expected to discover by shadowing him, but decided it was as well not to open an avenue for the discussion of Miss Merrick's disappearance. So, finding he could not bribe the youthful detective or use him in any way to his advantage, he closed the interview by rising.
"I'm going to my room to write some letters," said he, with a yawn. "Would you like to read them before they are mailed?"
Again Fogerty laughed in his cheerful, boyish way.
"You'd make a fine detective yourself, Mr. Mershone," he declared, "and I advise you to consider the occupation. I've a notion it's safer, and better pay, than your present line."
Charlie scowled at the insinuation, but walked away without reply. Fogerty eyed his retreating figure a moment, gave a slight shrug and resumed his newspaper.
Day followed day without further event, and gradually Mershone came to feel himself trapped. Wherever he might go he found Fogerty on duty, unobtrusive, silent and watchful. It was very evident that he was waiting for the young man to lead him to the secret hiding place of Louise Merrick.
In one way this constant surveillance was a distinct comfort to Charlie Mershone, for it assured him that the retreat of Louise was still undiscovered. But he must find some way to get rid of his "shadow," in order that he might proceed to carry out his plans concerning the girl. During his enforced leisure he invented a dozen apparently clever schemes, only to abandon them again as unpractical.
One afternoon, while on a stroll, he chanced to meet the bruiser who had attacked Arthur Weldon at the Waldorf, and been liberally paid by Mershone for his excellent work. He stopped the man, and glancing hastily around found that Fogerty was a block in the rear.
"Listen," he said; "I want your assistance, and if you're quick and sure there is a pot of money, waiting for you."
"I need it, Mr. Mershone," replied the man, grinning.
"There's a detective following me; he's down the street there—a mere boy—just in front of that tobacco store. See him?"
"Sure I see him. It's Fogerty."
"His name is Riordan."
"No; it's Fogerty. He's no boy, sir, but the slickest 'tec' in the city, an' that's goin' some, I can tell you."
"Well, you must get him, whoever he is. Drag him away and hold him for three hours—two—one. Give me a chance to slip him; that's all. Can you do it? I'll pay you a hundred for the job."
"It's worth two hundred, Mr. Mershone. It isn't safe to fool with Fogerty."
"I'll make it two hundred."
"Then rest easy," said the man. "I know the guy, and how to handle him. You just watch him like he's watching you, Mr. Mershone, and if anything happens you skip as lively as a flea. I can use that two hundred in my business."
Then the fellow passed on, and Fogerty was still so far distant up the street that neither of them could see the amused smile upon his thin face.
A BEWILDERING EXPERIENCE
When Louise Merrick entered the brown limousine, which she naturally supposed to belong to Arthur Weldon, she had not the faintest suspicion of any evil in her mind. Indeed, the girl was very happy this especial evening, although tired with her duties at the Kermess. A climax in her young life had arrived, and she greeted it joyously, believing she loved Arthur well enough to become his wife.
Now that the engagement had been announced to their immediate circle of friends she felt as proud and elated as any young girl has a right to be under the circumstances.
Added to this pleasant event was the social triumph she and her cousins had enjoyed at the Kermess, where Louise especially had met with rare favor. The fashionable world had united in being most kind and considerate to the dainty, attractive young debutante, and only Diana had seemed to slight her. This was not surprising in view of the fact that Diana evidently wanted Arthur for herself, and there was some satisfaction in winning a lover who was elsewhere in prime demand. In addition to all this the little dance that concluded the evening's entertainment had been quite delightful, and all things conspired to put Louise in a very contented frame of mind. Still fluttering with the innocent excitements of the hour the girl went to join Arthur without a fear of impending misfortune. She did not think of Charlie Mershone at all. He had been annoying and impertinent, and she had rebuked him and sent him away, cutting him out of her life altogether. Perhaps she ought to have remembered that she had mildly flirted with Diana's cousin and given him opportunity for the impassioned speeches she resented; but Louise had a girlish idea that there was no harm in flirting, considering it a feminine license. She saw young Mershone at the Kermess that evening paying indifferent attentions to other women and ignoring her, and was sincerely glad to have done with him for good and all.
She obeyed readily the man who asked her to be seated in the limousine. Arthur would be with her in a minute, he said. When the door closed and the car started she had an impulse to cry out but next moment controlled it and imagined they were to pick up Mr. Weldon on some corner.
On and on they rolled, and still no evidence of the owner of the limousine. What could it mean, Louise began to wonder. Had something happened to Arthur, so that he had been forced to send her home alone? As the disquieting thought came she tried to speak with the chauffeur, but could not find the tube. The car was whirling along rapidly; the night seemed very dark, only a few lights twinkled here and there outside.
Suddenly the speed slackened. There was a momentary pause, and then the machine slowly rolled upon a wooden platform. A bell clanged, there was a whistle and the sound of revolving water-wheels. Louise decided they must be upon a ferry-boat, and became alarmed for the first time.
The man in livery now opened the door, as if to reassure her.
"Where are we? Where is Mr. Weldon?" enquired the girl, almost hysterically.
"He is on the boat, miss, and will be with you shortly now," replied the man, very respectfully. "Mr. Weldon is very sorry to have annoyed you, Miss Merrick, but says he will soon explain everything, so that you will understand why he left you."
With this he quietly closed the door again, although Louise was eager to ask a dozen more questions. Prominent was the query why they should be on a ferry-boat instead of going directly home. She knew the hour must be late.
But while these questions were revolving in her mind she still suspected no plot against her liberty. She must perforce wait for Arthur to explain his queer conduct; so she sat quietly enough in her place awaiting his coming, while the ferry puffed steadily across the river to the Jersey shore.
The stopping of the boat aroused Louise from her reflections. Arthur not here yet? Voices were calling outside; vehicles were noisily leaving their positions on the boat to clatter across the platforms. But there was no sign of Arthur.
Again Louise tried to find the speaking tube. Then she made an endeavor to open the door, although just then the car started with a jerk that flung her back against the cushions.
The knowledge that she had been grossly deceived by her conductor at last had the effect of arousing the girl to a sense of her danger. Something must be wrong. Something was decidedly wrong, and fear crept into her heart. She pounded on the glass windows with all her strength, and shouted as loudly as she could, but all to no avail.
Swiftly the limousine whirled over the dusky road and either her voice could not be heard through the glass cage in which she was confined or there was no one near who was willing to hear or to rescue her.
She now realized how wrong she had been to sit idly during the trip across the ferry, where a score of passengers would gladly have assisted her. How cunning her captors had been to lull her fears during that critical period! Now, alas, it was too late to cry out, and she had no idea where she was being taken or the reason of her going.
Presently it occurred to her that this was not Arthur's limousine at all. There was no speaking tube for one thing. She leaned forward and felt for the leathern pocket in which she kept a veil and her street gloves. No pocket of any sort was to be found.
An unreasoning terror now possessed her. She knew not what to fear, yet feared everything. She made another attempt to cry aloud for help and then fell back unconscious on the cushions.
How long she lay in the faint she did not know. When she recovered the limousine was still rattling forward at a brisk gait but bumping over ruts in a manner that indicated a country road.
Through the curtains she could see little but the black night, although there was a glow ahead cast by the searchlights of the car. Louise was weak and unnerved. She had no energy to find a way to combat her fate, if such a way were possible. A dim thought of smashing a window and hurling herself through it gave her only a shudder of repulsion. She lacked strength for such a desperate attempt.
On, on, on. Would the dreary journey never end? How long must she sit and suffer before she could know her fate, or at least find some explanation of the dreadful mystery of this wild midnight ride?
At last, when she had settled down to dull despair, the car came to a paved road and began to move more slowly. It even stopped once or twice, as if the driver was not sure of his way. But they kept moving, nevertheless, and before long entered a driveway. There was another stop now, and a long wait.
Louise lay dismally back upon the cushions, sobbing hysterically into her dripping handkerchief. The door of her prison at last opened and a light shone in upon her.
"Here we are, miss," said the man in uniform, still in quiet, respectful tones. "Shall I assist you to alight?"
She started up eagerly, her courage returning with a bound. Stepping unassisted to the ground she looked around her in bewilderment.
The car stood before the entrance to a modest country house. There was a light in the hall and another upon the broad porch. Around the house a mass of trees and shrubbery loomed dark and forbidding.
"Where am I?" demanded Louise, drawing back haughtily as the man extended a hand toward her.
"At your destination, miss," was the answer. "Will you please enter?"
"No! Not until I have an explanation of this—this—singular, high-handed proceeding," she replied, firmly.
Then she glanced at the house. The hall door had opened and a woman stood peering anxiously at the scene outside.
With sudden resolve Louise sprang up the steps and approached her. Any woman, she felt, in this emergency, was a welcome refuge.
"Who are you?" she asked eagerly, "and why have I been brought here?"
"Mademoiselle will come inside, please," said the woman, with a foreign accent. "It is cold in the night air, N'est-ce-pas?"
She turned to lead the way inside. While Louise hesitated to follow the limousine started with a roar from its cylinders and disappeared down the driveway, the two men going with it. The absence of the lamps rendered the darkness around the solitary house rather uncanny. An intense stillness prevailed except for the diminishing rattle of the receding motor car. In the hall was a light and a woman.
Louise went in.
MADAME CERISE, CUSTODIAN
The woman closed the hall door and locked it. Then she led the way to a long, dim drawing-room in which a grate fire was smouldering. A stand lamp of antique pattern but dimly illuminated the place, which seemed well furnished in an old fashioned way.
"Will not you remove your wraps, Mees—Mees—I do not know ma'm'selle's name."
"What is your own name?" asked Louise, coming closer to gaze earnestly into the other's face.
"I am called Madame Cerise, if it please you."
Her voice, while softened to an extent by the French accent, was nevertheless harsh and emotionless. She spoke as an automaton, slowly, and pausing to choose her words. The woman was of medium size, slim and straight in spite of many years. Her skin resembled brown parchment; her eyes were small, black and beady; her nose somewhat fleshy and her lips red and full as those of a young girl. The age of Madame Cerise might be anywhere between fifty and seventy; assuredly she had long been a stranger to youth, although her dark hair was but slightly streaked with gray. She wore a somber-hued gown and a maid's jaunty apron and cap.
Louise inspected her closely, longing to find a friend and protector in this curious and strange woman. Her eyes were moist and pleading—an appeal hard to resist. But Madame Cerise returned her scrutiny with a wholly impassive expression.
"You are a French maid?" asked Louise, softly.
"A housekeeper, ma'm'selle. For a time, a caretaker."
"Ah, I understand. Are your employers asleep?"
"I cannot say, ma'm'seile. They are not here."
"You are alone in this house?"
"Alone with you, ma'm'seile."
Louise had a sudden access of alarm.
"And why am I here?" she cried, wringing her hands pitifully.
"Ah, who can tell that?" returned the woman, composedly. "Not Cerise, indeed. Cerise is told nothing—except what is required of her. I but obey my orders."
Louise turned quickly, at this.
"What are your orders, then?" she asked.
"To attend ma'm'selle with my best skill, to give her every comfort and care, to—"
"To keep her safely until she is called for. That is all."
The girl drew a long breath.
"Who will call for me, then?"
"I am not inform, ma'm'selle."
"And I am a prisoner in this house?"
"Ma'm'selle may call it so, if it please her. But reflect; there is no place else to go. It is bleak weather, the winter soon comes. And here I can make you the comforts you need."
Louise pondered this speech, which did not deceive her. While still perplexed as to her abduction, with no comprehension why she should have been seized in such a summary manner and spirited to this lonely, out-of-the-way place, she realized she was in no immediate danger. Her weariness returned tenfold, and she staggered and caught the back of a chair for support.
The old woman observed this.
"Ma'm'selle is tired," said she. "See; it is past four by the clock, and you must be much fatigue by the ride and the nervous strain."
"I—I'm completely exhausted," murmured Louise, drooping her head wearily. The next moment she ran and placed her hands on Madame Cerise's shoulders, peering into the round, beady eyes with tender pleading as she continued: "I don't know why I have been stolen away from my home and friends; I don't know why this dreadful thing has happened to me; I only know that I am worn out and need rest. Will you take care of me, Madame Cerise? Will you watch over me while I sleep and guard me from all harm? I—I haven't any mother to lean on now, you know; I haven't any friend at all—but you!"
The grim features never relaxed a muscle; but a softer look came into the dark eyes and the woman's voice took on a faint tinge of compassion as she answered:
"Nothing can harm ma'm'selle. Have no fear, ma chere. I will take care of you; I will watch. Allons! it is my duty; it is also my pleasure."
"Are there no—no men in the house—none at all?" enquired the girl, peering into the surrounding gloom nervously. "There is no person at all in the house, but you and I."
"And you will admit no one?"
The woman hesitated.
"Not to your apartment," she said firmly. "I promise it."
Louise gave a long, fluttering sigh. Somehow, she felt that she could rely upon this promise.
"Then, if you please, Madame Cerise, I'd like to go to bed," she said.
The woman took the lamp and led the way upstairs, entering a large, airy chamber in which a fire burned brightly in the grate. The furniture here was dainty and feminine. In an alcove stood a snowy bed, the covers invitingly turned down.
Madame Cerise set the lamp upon a table and without a word turned to assist Louise. The beautiful Kermess costume, elaborately embroidered with roses, which the girl still wore, evidently won the Frenchwoman's approval. She unhooked and removed it carefully and hung it in a closet. Very dextrous were her motions as she took down the girl's pretty hair and braided it for the night. A dainty robe de nuit was provided.
"It is my own," she said simply. "Ma'm'selle is not prepared." "But there must be young ladies in your family," remarked Louise, thoughtfully, for in spite of the stupor she felt from want of sleep the novelty of her position kept her alert in a way. It is true she was too tired and bewildered to think clearly, but slight details were impressing themselves upon her dimly. "This room, for instance—"
"Of course, ma chere, a young lady has lived here. She has left some odd pieces of wardrobe behind her, at times, in going away. When you waken we will try to find a house-dress to replace your evening-gown. Will ma'm'selle indulge in the bath before retiring?"
"Not to-night, Madame Cerise. I'm too tired for anything but—sleep!"
Indeed, she had no sooner crawled into the enticing bed than she sank into unconscious forgetfulness. This was to an extent fortunate. Louise possessed one of those dispositions cheery and equable under ordinary circumstances, but easily crushed into apathy by any sudden adversity. She would not suffer so much as a more excitable and nervous girl might do under similar circumstances.
Her sleep, following the severe strain of the night's adventure, did little to refresh her. She awoke in broad daylight to hear a cold wind whistling shrilly outside and raindrops beating against the panes.
Madame Cerise had not slept much during the night. For an hour after Louise retired she sat in her room in deep thought. Then she went to the telephone and notwithstanding the late hour called up Diana, who had a branch telephone on a table at her bedside.
Miss Von Taer was not asleep. She had had an exciting night herself. She answered the old caretaker readily and it did not surprise her to learn that the missing girl had been taken to the East Orange house by the orders of Charlie Mershone. She enquired how Louise had accepted the situation forced upon her, and was shocked and rendered uncomfortable by the too plainly worded protest of the old Frenchwoman. Madame Cerise did not hesitate to denounce the abduction as a heartless crime, and in her communication with Diana swore she would protect the innocent girl from harm at the hands of Mershone or anyone else.
"I have ever to your family been loyal and true, Ma'm'selle Diana," said she, "but I will not become the instrument of an abominable crime at your command or that of your wicked cousin. I will keep the girl here in safety, if it is your wish; but she will be safe, indeed, as long as Cerise guards her."
"That's right, Madame," stammered Diana, hardly knowing at the moment what to say. "Be discreet and silent until you hear from me again; guard the girl carefully and see that she is not too unhappy; but for heaven's sake keep Charlie's secret until he sees fit to restore Miss Merrick to her friends. No crime is contemplated; I would not allow such a thing, as you know. Yet it is none of my affair whatever. My cousin has compromised me by taking the girl to my house, and no knowledge of the abduction must get abroad if we can help it. Do you understand me?"
"No," was the reply. "The safest way for us all is to send Miss Merrick away."
"That will be done as soon as possible."
With this the old Frenchwoman was forced to be content, and she did not suspect that her report had made Miss Von Taer nearly frantic with fear—not for Louise but for her own precious reputation. Accustomed to obey the family she had served for so many years, Madame Cerise hesitated to follow her natural impulse to set the poor young lady free and assist her to return to her friends. So she compromised with her conscience—a thing she was not credited with possessing—by resolving to make the imprisonment of the "pauvre fille" as happy as possible.
Scarcely had Louise opened her eyes the following morning when the old woman entered her chamber, unlocking the door from the outside to secure admission.
She first rebuilt the fire, and when it was crackling cheerfully she prepared a bath and brought an armful of clothing which she laid out for inspection over the back of a sofa. She produced lingerie, too, and Louise lay cuddled up in the bedclothes and watched her keeper thoughtfully until the atmosphere of the room was sufficiently warmed.
"I'll get up, now," she said, quietly.
Madame Cerise was assuredly a skilled lady's maid. She bathed the girl, wrapped her in an ample kimono and then seated her before the dresser and arranged her coiffure with dextrous skill.
During this time Louise talked. She had decided her only chance of escape lay in conciliating this stern-faced woman, and she began by relating her entire history, including her love affair with Arthur Weldon, Diana Von Taer's attempt to rob her of her lover, and the part that Charlie Mershone had taken in the affair.
Madame Cerise listened, but said nothing.
"And now," continued the girl, "tell me who you think could be so wicked and cruel as to carry me away from my home and friends? I cannot decide myself. You have more experience and more shrewdness, can't you tell me, Madame Cerise?"
The woman muttered inaudibly.
"Mr. Mershone might be an enemy, because I laughed at his love-making," continued Louise, musingly. "Would a man who loved a girl try to injure her? But perhaps his love has turned to hate. Anyhow, I can think of no one else who would do such a thing, or of any reason why Charlie Mershone should do it."
Madame Cerise merely grunted. She was brushing the soft hair with gentle care.
"What could a man gain by stealing a girl? If it was Mr. Mershone, does he imagine I could ever forget Arthur? Or cease to love him? Or that Arthur would forget me while I am away? Perhaps it's Diana, and she wants to get rid of me so she can coax Arthur back to her side. But that's nonsense; isn't it, Madame Cerise? No girl—not even Diana Von Taer—would dare to act in such a high-handed manner toward her rival. Did you ever hear of Miss Von Taer? She's quite a society belle. Have you ever seen her, Madame Cerise?"
The woman vouchsafed no reply to this direct enquiry, but busied herself dressing the girl's hair. Louise casually turned over the silver-mounted hand mirror she was holding and gave a sudden start. A monogram was engraved upon the metal: "D.v.T." She gazed at the mark fixedly and then picked up a brush that the Frenchwoman laid down. Yes, the same monogram appeared upon the brush.
The sharp eyes of Cerise had noted these movements. She was a little dismayed but not startled when Louise said, slowly: "'D.v.T.' stands for Diana Von Taer. And it isn't likely to stand for anything else. I think the mystery is explained, now, and my worst fears are realized. Tell me, Madame, is this Diana Von Taer's house?"
Her eyes shone with anger and round red patches suddenly appeared upon her pallid cheeks. Madame Cerise drew a long breath.
"It used to be," was her quiet answer. "It was left her by her grandmother; but Mr. Von Taer did not like the place and they have not been here lately—not for years. Miss Von Taer informed me, some time ago, that she had transferred the property to another."
"To her cousin—Mr. Mershone?" asked Louise quickly.
"That may be the name; I cannot remember," was the evasive reply.
"But you must know him, as he is Diana's cousin," retorted Louise. "Why will you try to deceive me? Am I not helpless enough already, and do you wish to make me still more miserable?"
"I have seen Mr. Mershone when he was a boy, many times. He was not the favorite with Ma'm'selle Diana, nor with Monsieur Von Taer. For myself, I hated him."
There was decided emphasis to the last sentence. Louise believed her and felt a little relieved.
From the melange of apparel a modest outfit was obtained to clothe the girl with decency and comfort, if not in the prevailing style. The fit left much to be desired, yet Louise did not complain, as weightier matters were now occupying her mind.
The toilet completed, Madame Cerise disappeared to get a tray containing a good breakfast. She seemed exceedingly attentive.
"If you will give me the proper directions I will start for home at once," announced Louise, with firm resolve, while eating her egg and toast.
"I am unable to give you directions, and I cannot let you go, ma'm'selle," was the equally firm reply. "The day is much too disagreeable to venture out in, unless one has proper conveyance. Here, alas, no conveyance may be had."
Louise tried other tactics.
"I have no money, but several valuable jewels," she said, meaningly. "I am quite sure they will obtain for me a conveyance."
"You are wrong, ma'm'selle; there is no conveyance to be had!" persisted the old woman, more sternly.
"Then I shall walk."
"It is impossible."
"Where is this place situated? How far is it from New York? How near am I to a street-car, or to a train?"
"I cannot tell you."
"But this is absurd!" cried Louise. "You cannot deceive me for long. I know this is Diana Von Taer's house, and I shall hold Diana Von Taer responsible for this enforced imprisonment."
"That," said Madame Cerise, coldly, "is a matter of indifference to me. But ma'm'selle must understand one thing, she must not leave this house."
"At least, until the weather moderates," added the woman, more mildly.
She picked up the tray, went to the door and passed out. Louise heard the key click in the lock.
THE MYSTERY DEEPENS
Uncle John was both astounded and indignant that so bold and unlawful an act as the abduction of his own niece could have been perpetrated in the heart of New York and directly under the eyes of the police. Urged by the Major, Mr. Merrick was at first inclined to allow Arthur Weldon to prosecute the affair and undertake the recovery of the girl, being assured this would easily be accomplished and conceding the fact that no one had a stronger interest in solving the mystery of Louise's disappearance than young Weldon. But when midday arrived and no trace of the young girl had yet been obtained the little millionaire assumed an important and decisive air and hurried down town to "take a hand in the game" himself.