After a long interview with the Chief of Detectives, Mr. Merrick said impressively:
"Now, understand, sir; not a hint of this to the newspaper folks. I won't have any scandal attached to the poor child if I can help it. Set your whole force to work—at once!—but impress them with the need of secrecy. My offer is fair and square. I'll give a reward of ten thousand dollars if Miss Merrick is discovered within twenty-four hours; nine thousand if she's found during the next twenty-four hours; and so on, deducting a thousand for each day of delay. That's for the officer who finds her. For yourself, sir, I intend to express my gratitude as liberally as the service will allow me to. Is this all clear and above-board?"
"It is perfectly clear, Mr. Merrick."
"The child must be found—and found blamed quick, too! Great Caesar! Can a simple affair like this baffle your splendid metropolitan force?"
"Not for long, Mr. Merrick, believe me."
But this assurance proved optimistic. Day by day crept by without a clew to the missing girl being discovered; without development of any sort. The Inspector informed Mr. Merrick that "it began to look like a mystery."
Arthur, even after several sleepless nights, still retained his courage.
"I'm on the right track, sir," he told Uncle John. "The delay is annoying, but not at all dangerous. So long as Fogerty holds fast to Mershone Louise is safe, wherever she may be."
"Mershone may have nothing to do with the case."
"I'm positive he has."
"And Louise can't be safe while she's a prisoner, and in the hands of strangers. I want the girl home! Then I'll know she's safe."
"I want her home, too, sir. But all your men are unable to find her, it seems. They can't even discover in what direction she was taken, or how. The brown limousine seems to be no due at all."
"Of course not. There are a thousand brown limousines in New York."
"Do you imagine she's still somewhere in the city, sir?" enquired Arthur.
"That's my theory," replied Uncle John. "She must be somewhere in the city. You see it would be almost impossible to get her out of town without discovery. But I'll admit this detective force is the finest aggregation of incompetents I've ever known—and I don't believe your precious Fogerty is any better, either."
Of course Beth and Patsy had to be told of their cousin's disappearance as soon as the first endeavor to trace her proved a failure. Patsy went at once to Mrs. Merrick and devoted herself to comforting the poor woman as well as she could.
Beth frowned at the news and then sat down to carefully think out the problem. In an hour she had logically concluded that Diana Von Taer was the proper person to appeal to. If anyone knew where Louise was, it was Diana. That same afternoon she drove to the Von Taer residence and demanded an interview.
Diana was at that moment in a highly nervous state. She had at times during her career been calculating and unscrupulous, but never before had she deserved the accusation of being malicious and wicked. She had come to reproach herself bitterly for having weakly connived at the desperate act of Charlie Mershone, and her good sense assured her the result would be disastrous to all concerned in it. Contempt for herself and contempt for her cousin mingled with well-defined fears for her cherished reputation, and so it was that Miss Von Taer had almost decided to telephone Madame Cerise and order her to escort Louise Merrick to her own home when Beth's card came up with a curt demand for a personal interview.
The natures of these two girls had never harmonized in the slightest degree. Beth's presence nerved Diana to a spirit of antagonism that quickly destroyed her repentant mood. As she confronted her visitor her demeanor was cold and suspicious. There was a challenge and an accusation in Beth's eyes that conveyed a distinct warning, which Miss Von Taer quickly noted and angrily resented—perhaps because she knew it was deserved.
It would have been easy to tell Beth De Graf where her cousin Louise was, and at the same time to assure her that Diana was blameless in the affair; but she could not endure to give her antagonist this satisfaction.
Beth began the interview by saying: "What have you done with Louise Merrick?" That was, of course, equal to a declaration of war.
Diana was sneering and scornful. Thoroughly on guard, she permitted no compromising word or admission to escape her. Really, she knew nothing of Louise Merrick, having unfortunately neglected to examine her antecedents and personal characteristics before undertaking her acquaintance. One is so likely to blunder through excess of good nature. She had supposed a niece of Mr. John Merrick would be of the right sort; but the age is peculiar, and one cannot be too cautious in choosing associates. If Miss Merrick had run away from her home and friends, Miss Von Taer was in no way responsible for the escapade. And now, if Miss De Graf had nothing further to say, more important matters demanded Diana's time.
Beth was furious with anger at this baiting. Without abandoning a jot her suspicions she realized she was powerless to prove her case at this time. With a few bitter and cutting remarks—made, she afterward said, in "self-defense"—she retreated as gracefully as possible and drove home.
An hour later she suggested to Uncle John that he have a detective placed where Diana's movements could be watched; but that had already been attended to by both Mr. Merrick and Mr. Fogerty. Uncle John could hardly credit Diana's complicity in this affair. The young lady's social position was so high, her family so eminently respectable, her motive in harming Louise so inconceivable, that he hesitated to believe her guilty, even indirectly. As for her cousin, he did not know what to think, as Arthur accused him unreservedly. It did not seem possible that any man of birth, breeding and social position could be so contemptible as to perpetrate an act of this character. Yet some one had done it, and who had a greater incentive than Charlie Mershone?
Poor Mrs. Merrick was inconsolable as the days dragged by. She clung to Patsy with pitiful entreaties not to be left alone; so Miss Doyle brought her to her own apartments, where the bereft woman was shown every consideration. Vain and selfish though Mrs. Merrick might be, she was passionately devoted to her only child, and her fears for the life and safety of Louise were naturally greatly exaggerated.
The group of anxious relatives and friends canvassed the subject morning, noon and night, and the longer the mystery remained unsolved the more uneasy they all became.
"This, ma'am," said Uncle John, sternly, as he sat one evening facing Mrs. Merrick, "is the final result of your foolish ambition to get our girls into society."
"I can't see it that way, John," wailed the poor woman. "I've never heard of such a thing happening in society before, have you?"
"I don't keep posted," he growled. "But everything was moving smoothly with us before this confounded social stunt began, as you must admit."
"I can't understand why the papers are not full of it," sighed Mrs. Merrick, musingly. "Louise is so prominent now in the best circles."
"Of course," said the Major, drily; "she's so prominent, ma'am, that no one can discover her at all! And it's lucky for us the newspapers know nothing of the calamity. They'd twist the thing into so many shapes that not one of us would ever again dare to look a friend in the eye."
"I'm sure my darling has been murdered!" declared Mrs. Merrick, weeping miserably. She made the statement on an average of once to every five minutes. "Or, if she hasn't been killed yet, she's sure to be soon. Can't something be done?" That last appeal was hard to answer. They had done everything that could be thought of. And here it was Tuesday. Louise had been missing for five days.
A RIFT IN THE CLOUDS
The Tuesday morning just referred to dawned cold and wintry. A chill wind blew and for a time carried isolated snowflakes whirling here and there. Gradually, as the morning advanced, the flakes became more numerous, until by nine o'clock an old fashioned snowstorm had set in that threatened to last for some time. The frozen ground was soon covered with a thin white mantle and the landscape in city and country seemed especially forbidding.
In spite of these adverse conditions Charlie Mershone decided to go out for a walk. He felt much like a prisoner, and his only recreation was in getting out of the hotel for a daily stroll. Moreover, he had an object in going abroad to-day.
So he buttoned his overcoat up to his chin and fearlessly braved the storm. He had come to wholly disregard the presence of the detective who shadowed him, and if the youthful Fogerty by chance addressed him he was rewarded with a direct snub. This did not seem to disconcert the boy in the least, and to-day, as usual, when Mershone walked out Fogerty followed at a respectful distance. He never appeared to be watching his man closely, yet never for an instant did Mershone feel that he had shaken the fellow off.
On this especial morning the detective was nearly a block in the rear, with the snow driving furiously into his face, when an automobile suddenly rolled up to the curb beside him and two men leaped out and pinioned Fogerty in their arms. There was no struggle, because there was no resistance. The captors quickly tossed the detective into the car, an open one, which again started and turned into a side street.
Fogerty, seated securely between the two burly fellows, managed to straighten up and rearrange his clothing.
"Will you kindly explain this unlawful act, gentlemen?" he enquired.
The man on the left laughed aloud. He was the same individual who had attacked Arthur Weldon, the one who had encountered Mershone in the street the day before.
"Cold day, ain't it, Fogerty?" he remarked. "But that makes it all the better for a little auto ride. We like you, kid, we're fond of you—awful fond—ain't we, Pete?"
"We surely are," admitted the other.
"So we thought we'd invite you out for a whirl—see? We'll give you a nice ride, so you can enjoy the scenery. It's fine out Harlem way, an' the cold'll make you feel good. Eh, Pete?"
"That's the idea," responded Pete, cheerfully.
"Very kind of you," said the detective, leaning back comfortably against the cushions and pulling up his coat collar to shield him from the wind. "But are you aware that I'm on duty, and that this will allow my man to slip away from me?"
"Can't help that; but we're awful sorry," was the reply. "We just wanted company, an' you're a good fellow, Fogerty, considerin' your age an' size."
"Thank you," said Fogerty, "You know me, and I know you. You are Bill Leesome, alias Will Dutton—usually called Big Bill. You did time a couple of years ago for knocking out a policeman."
"I'm safe enough now, though," responded Big Bill. "You're not working on the reg'lar force, Fogerty, you're only a private burr."
"I am protected, just the same," asserted Fogerty. "When you knabbed me I was shadowing Mershone, who has made away with a prominent society young lady."
"Oh, he has, has he?" chuckled Big Bill, and his companion laughed so gleefully that he attracted Fogerty's attention to himself.
"Ah, I suppose you are one of the two men who lugged the girl off," he remarked; "and I must congratulate you on having made a good job of it. Isn't it curious, by the way, that the fellow who stole and hid this girl should be the innocent means of revealing her biding place?"
The two men stared at him blankly. The car, during this conversation, had moved steadily on, turning this and that corner in a way that might have confused anyone not perfectly acquainted with this section of the city.
"What d'ye mean by that talk, Fogerty?" demanded Big Bill.
"Of course it was Mershone who stole the girl," explained the detective, calmly; "we know that. But Mershone is a clever chap. He knew he was watched, and so he has never made a movement to go to his prisoner. But he grew restless in time, and when he met you, yesterday, fixed up a deal with you to carry me away, so he could escape."
Big Bill looked uncomfortable.
"You know a lot, Fogerty," he said, doggedly.
"Yes; I've found that human nature is much the same the world over," replied the detective. "Of course I suspected you would undertake to give Mershone his chance by grabbing me, and that is exactly what you have done. But, my lads, what do you suppose I have done in the meantime?"
They both looked their curiosity but said nothing.
"I've simply used your clever plot to my own advantage, in order to bring things to a climax," continued Fogerty. "While we are joy-riding here, a half dozen of my men are watching every move that Mershone makes. I believe he will lead them straight to the girl; don't you?"
Big Bill growled some words that were not very choice and then yelled to the chauffeur to stop. The other man was pale and evidently frightened.
"See here, Fogerty; you make tracks!" was the sharp command, as the automobile came to a halt. "You've worked a pretty trick on us, 'cordin' to your own showin', and we must find Mr. Mershone before it's too late—if we can."
"Good morning," said Fogerty, alighting. "Thank you for a pleasant ride—and other things."
They dashed away and left him standing on the curb; and after watching them disappear the detective walked over to a drug store and entered the telephone booth.
"That you, Hyde?—This is Fogerty."
"Yes, sir. Mr. Mershone has just crossed the ferry to Jersey. Adams is with him. I'll hear from him again in a minute: hold the wire."
Fogerty waited. Soon he learned that Mershone had purchased a ticket for East Orange. The train would leave in fifteen minutes.
Fogerty decided quickly. After looking at his watch he rushed out and arrested a passing taxicab.
"Ready for a quick run—perhaps a long one?" he asked.
"Ready for anything," declared the man.
The detective jumped in and gave hurried directions.
"Never mind the speed limit," he said. "No one will interfere with us. I'm Fogerty."
Perhaps no one—not even Mrs. Merrick—was so unhappy in consequence of the lamentable crime that had been committed as Diana Von Taer. Immediately after her interview with Beth her mood changed, and she would have given worlds to be free from complicity in the abduction. Bitterly, indeed, she reproached herself for her enmity toward the unsuspecting girl, an innocent victim of Diana's own vain desires and Charles Mershone's heartless wiles. Repenting her folly and reasoning out the thing when it was too late, Diana saw clearly that she had gained no possible advantage, but had thoughtlessly conspired to ruin the reputation of an honest, ingenuous girl.
Not long ago she had said that her life was dull, a stupid round of social functions that bored her dreadfully. She had hoped by adopting John Merrick's nieces as her protegees and introducing them to society to find a novel and pleasurable excitement that would serve to take her out of her unfortunate ennui—a condition to which she had practically been born.
But Diana had never bargained for such excitement as this; she had never thought to win self abhorrence by acts of petty malice and callous cruelties. Yet so intrenched was she in the conservatism of her class that she could not at once bring herself to the point of exposing her own guilt that she might make amends for what had been done. She told herself she would rather die than permit Louise to suffer through her connivance with her reckless, unprincipled cousin. She realized perfectly that she ought to fly, without a moment's delay, to the poor girl's assistance. Yet fear of exposure, of ridicule, of loss of caste, held her a helpless prisoner in her own home, where she paced the floor and moaned and wrung her hands until she was on the verge of nervous prostration. If at any time she seemed to acquire sufficient courage to go to Louise, a glance at the detective watching the house unnerved her and prevented her from carrying out her good intentions.
You must not believe that Diana was really bad; her lifelong training along set lines and practical seclusion from the everyday world were largely responsible for her evil impulses. Mischief is sure to crop up, in one form or another, among the idle and ambitionless. More daring wickedness is said to be accomplished by the wealthy and aimless creatures of our false society than by the poorer and uneducated classes, wherein criminals are supposed to thrive. These sins are often unpublished, although not always undiscovered, but they are no more venial because they are suppressed by wealth and power.
Diana Von Taer was a girl who, rightly led, might have been capable of developing a noble womanhood; yet the conditions of her limited environment had induced her to countenance a most dastardly and despicable act. It speaks well for the innate goodness of this girl that she at last actually rebelled and resolved to undo, insofar as she was able, the wrong that had been accomplished.
For four days she suffered tortures of remorse. On the morning of the fifth day she firmly decided to act. Regardless of who might be watching, or of any unpleasant consequences to herself, she quietly left the house, unattended, and started directly for the East Orange mansion.
A TELEPHONE CALL
Still another laggard awoke to action on this eventful Tuesday morning.
Madame Cerise had been growing more and more morose and dissatisfied day by day. Her grievance was very tangible. A young girl had been brought forcibly to the house and placed in her care to be treated as a prisoner. From that time the perpetrators of the deed had left the woman to her own resources, never communicating with her in any way.
During a long life of servitude Madame Cerise had acquiesced in many things that her own conscience did not approve of, for she considered herself a mere instrument to be used at will by the people who employed and paid her. But her enforced solitude as caretaker of the lonely house at East Orange had given her ample time to think, and her views had lately undergone a decided change.
To become the jailer of a young, pretty and innocent girl was the most severe trial her faithfulness to her employers had ever compelled her to undergo, and the woman deeply resented the doubtful position in which she had been placed.
However, the chances were that Madame Cerise might have obeyed her orders to the letter had not so long a period of waiting ensued. During these days she was constantly thrown in the society of Louise, which had a tendency to make her still more rebellious. The girl clung to Cerise in her helplessness and despair, and constantly implored her to set her free. This, indeed, the Frenchwoman might have done long ago had she not suspected such an act might cause great embarrassment to Diana Von Taer, whom she had held on her knee as an infant and sought to protect with loyal affection.
It was hard, though, to hear the pitiful appeals of the imprisoned girl, and to realize how great was the wrong that was being done her. The old woman was forced to set her jaws firmly and turn deaf ears to the pleadings in order not to succumb to them straightway. Meantime she did her duty conscientiously. She never left Louise's room without turning the key in the lock, and she steadfastly refused the girl permission to wander in the other rooms of the house. The prison was a real prison, indeed, but the turnkey sought to alleviate the prisoner's misery by every means in her power. She was indefatigable in her service, keeping the room warm and neat, attending to the girl's every want and cooking her delicious meals.
While this all tended to Louise's comfort it had little affect in soothing her misery. Between periods of weeping she sought to cajole the old woman to release her, and at times she succumbed to blank despair. Arthur was always in her mind, and she wondered why he did not come to rescue her. Every night she stole softly from her bed to try the door, hoping Cerise had forgotten to lock it. She examined her prison by stealth to discover any possible way of escape.
There were two small windows and one large one. The latter opened upon the roof of a small porch, but, there were no way to descend from it unless one used a frail lattice at one end, which in summer probably supported a rose or other vine. Louise shrank intuitively from such a desperate undertaking. Unless some dreadful crisis occurred she would never dare trust herself to that frail support. Yet it seemed the only possible way of escape.
Time finally wore out the patience of Madame Cerise, who was unable longer to withstand Louise's pleadings. She did not indicate by word or look that her attitude had changed, but she made a secret resolve to have done with the affair altogether.
Often in their conversations the girl had mentioned Arthur Weldon. She had given Cerise his address and telephone number, and implored her at least to communicate with him and tell him his sweetheart was safe, although unhappy. This had given the old woman the clever idea on which she finally acted.
By telephoning Mr. Weldon she could give him the information that would lead to his coming for Louise, without anyone knowing who it was that had betrayed the secret. This method commended itself strongly to her, as it would save her from any trouble or reproach.
Leaving Louise at breakfast on this Tuesday morning Madame Cerise went down to the telephone and was soon in communication with Arthur. She told him, in a quiet tone, that Miss Louise Merrick was being secluded in a suburban house near East Orange, and described the place so he could easily find it. The young man questioned her eagerly, but aside from the information that the girl was well and uninjured she vouchsafed no further comment.
It was enough, however. Arthur, in wild excitement, rushed to the rescue.
THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS
Madame Cerise, well knowing she had accelerated the march of events to a two-step, calmly sat herself down in the little housekeeper's room off the lower hall and, leaving Louise to her moody solitude upstairs, awaited the inevitable developments.
Outside the weather was cold and blustering. The wind whirled its burden of snowflakes in every direction with blinding, bewildering impartiality. It was a bad day to be out, thought the old Frenchwoman; but a snowstorm was not likely to deter an anxious lover. She calculated the time it would take Monsieur Weldon to arrive at the mansion: if he was prompt and energetic he could cover the distance in an hour and a half by train or three hours by motor car. But he must prepare for the journey, and that would consume some time; perhaps she need not expect him within two hours at the earliest.
She read, to pass away the time, selecting a book from a shelf of well-worn French novels. Somehow she did not care to face her tearful prisoner again until she could restore the unhappy girl to the arms of her true lover. There was still romance in the soul of Madame Cerise, however withered her cheeks might be. She was very glad that at last she had summoned courage to act according to the dictates of her heart.
Eh? What is this? A rumble of wheels over the frozen snow caused her to glance at the clock above the mantel. Not by any possibility could Monsieur Weldon arrive so soon. Who, then, could it be?
She sat motionless while the doorbell rang, and rang again. Nothing must interfere with the pretty denouement she had so fondly anticipated when Louise's faithful knight came to her.
But the one who had just now alighted was persistent. The vehicle had been sent away—she heard the sound of receding wheels—and the new arrival wanted to get in. The bell jerked and jangled unceasingly for a time and then came a crash against the door, as if a stalwart shoulder was endeavoring to break it down.
Madame Cerise laid down her book, placed her pince-nez in the case, and slowly proceeded down the hall. The door shook with another powerful impact, a voice cried out demanding admittance.
"Who is it, then?" she called shrilly.
"Open the door, confound you!" was the irritated reply.
The woman reflected. This was surely young Mershone's voice. And she had no excuse to deny him admittance. Quietly she unbolted the door and allowed it to open an inch while she peered at the man outside.
"Oh! it is Monsieur Mershone."
"Of course it is," he roared, forcing the door open and stalking in. "Who in thunder did you think it was?"
"A thousand pardons, m'sieur," said Cerise. "I must be cautious; it is your own command. That you may be protected I deny admittance to all."
"That's all right," said Mershone gruffly, while he stamped his feet upon the rug and shook the snow from his clothing. "Haven't you any fire in this beastly old refrigerator? I'm nearly frozen. Where's Miss Merrick?"
"She is occupying Ma'm'selle Diana's room, in the west wing. Will monsieur please to come this way?"
She led him to her own little room, and so engrossed were they that neither remembered he had failed to rebolt the front door.
A good fire burned in the grate of Cerise's cosy den and Mershone threw off his overcoat and warmed his hands as he showered questions upon the old caretaker.
"How is the girl behaving? Tears and hysterics?"
"At times, m'sieur."
"Takes it hard, eh?"
"She is very unhappy."
"Ever mention a man named Weldon?"
"Humph!" He did not like this report. "Has anyone been here to disturb you, or to make enquiries?"
"No one, m'sieur."
"We're safe enough, I guess. It was a mighty neat job, Cerise, taken altogether, although the fools have been watching me night and day. That's the reason I did not come sooner."
She made no comment. Mershone threw himself into a chair and stared thoughtfully at the fire.
"Has Louise—Miss Merrick, you know—mentioned my name at all?" "At times."
"In what way?"
"With loathing and contempt."
He scowled at her savagely.
"Do you think she suspects that I carried her away?"
"She seems to know it absolutely."
He stared at the fire again.
"I've got a queer job on my hands, Cerise, and I rely on you to help me," said he presently, assuming a more conciliating manner. "Perhaps I'm in a box, or a hole, or whatever else you like to call it, but it's too late too back down now—I must push ahead and win. You see the case is this: I love the girl and had her brought here to keep her from another man. By hook or crook I'm going to make her my wife. She won't take kindly to that at first, perhaps, but I'll make her happy in the end. In one way this delay has been a good thing. It must have worn her out and broken her spirits quite a bit; eh?"
"She seems very miserable," conceded the woman.
"Do you find her hard to manage? Does she show much temper? In other words, do you suppose she'll put up a fight?"
Madame Cerise regarded him wonderingly.
"She is a good girl," was her reply. "She loves with much devotion the man from whom you have stolen her. I am quite positive she will never consent to become your wife."
"Oh, you are? Well, I intend she shall marry me, and that settles it. She's unnerved and miserable now, and I mean to grind her down till she hasn't strength to resist me. That sounds hard. I know; but it's the only way to accomplish my purpose. After she's my wife I'll be very kind to her, poor thing, and teach her to love me. A man can do anything with a woman if he sets about it the right way. I'm not taking this stand because I'm cruel, Cerise, but because I'm desperate. All's fair in love and war, you know, and this is a bit of both."
He was pacing the floor by this time, his hands thrust deep in his pockets, an anxious look upon his face that belied his bombastic words.
The Frenchwoman's expression was impassive. Her scorn for the wretch before her was tempered with the knowledge that his cowardly plan was doomed to defeat. It was she who had checkmated him, and she was glad. Now and again her eyes sought the clock, while she silently calculated the time to elapse before Arthur Weldon arrived. There would be a pretty scene then, Cerise would have much enjoyment in witnessing the encounter.
"Now, then, take me to Louise," commanded Mershone, suddenly.
She shrank back in dismay.
"Oh, not yet, m'sieur!"
"The young lady is asleep. She will not waken for an hour—perhaps two."
"I can't wait. We'll waken her now, and give her an idea of the change of program."
"But no, m'sieur! It is outrageous. The poor thing has but now sobbed herself to sleep, after many bitter hours. Can you not wait a brief hour, having waited five days?"
"No. Take me to her at once." As he came toward her the woman drew away.
"I cannot," she said firmly.
"See here, Cerise, I intend to be obeyed. I won't endure any nonsense at this stage of the game, believe me," he announced fiercely. "In order to win, there's just one way to manage this affair, and I insist upon your following my instructions. Take me to Louise!"
"I will not!" she returned, the bead-like eyes glittering as they met his angry gaze.
"Then I'll go alone. Give me the key."
She did not move, nor did she answer him. At her waist hung a small bunch of household keys and this he seized with a sudden movement and jerked loose from its cord.
"You miserable hag!" he muttered, inflamed with anger at her opposition. "If you propose to defend this girl and defy me, you'll find I'm able to crush you as I will her. While I'm gone I expect you to come to your senses, and decide to obey me."
With these words he advanced to the door of the little room and opened it. Just outside stood Fogerty, smiling genially.
"Glad to meet you again, Mr. Mershone," he said. "May I come in? Thank you."
While Mershone stood bewildered by this unexpected apparition the detective entered the room, closed the door carefully, and putting his back to it bowed politely to Madame Cerise.
"Pardon this seeming intrusion, ma'am," said he. "I'm here on a little matter of business, having a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Charles Connoldy Mershone."
The grim face of Madame Cerise relaxed to allow a quaint smile to flit across it. She returned Fogerty's bow with a deep curtsy.
Mershone, after one brief exclamation of dismay, wrested from him by surprise, threw himself into the chair again and stared at the fire. For a few moments there was intense stillness in the little room.
"How easy it is," said Fogerty, in soft, musing tones, "to read one's thoughts—under certain circumstances. You are thinking, Mr. Mershone, that I'm a boy, and not very strong, while you are an athlete and can easily overpower me. I have come at a disagreeable time, and all your plans depend on your ability to get rid of me. But I've four good men within call, who are just now guarding the approaches to this house. They'd like to come in, I know, because it's very cold and disagreeable outside; but suppose we allow them to freeze for a time? Ah, I thought you'd agree with me, sir—I overheard you say you were about to visit Miss Merrick, who is confined in a room upstairs, but I'd like you to postpone that while we indulge in a little confidential chat together. You see—"
The door-bell rang violently. Fogerty glanced at Madame Cerise. "Will you see who it is?" he asked.
She arose at once and left the room. Mershone turned quickly.
"What's your price, Fogerty?" he asked, meaningly.
"For getting out of here—making tracks and leaving me alone. Every man has his price, and I'm trapped—I'm willing to pay anything—I'll—"
"Cut it out, sir. You've tried this once before. I'm not to be bribed."
"Have you really a warrant for my arrest?"
"I've carried it since Friday. It's no use, Mershone, the game's up and you may as well grin and bear it."
Mershone was about to reply when the door opened and Diana Von Taer came in with a swift, catlike tread and confronted him with flaming eyes.
"You coward! You low, miserable scoundrel! How dare you come here to annoy and browbeat that poor girl?" she cried in clear, cutting accents, without noticing the presence of Fogerty.
"Oh, shut up, Di, you're in it as deep as I am," he retorted, turning away with a flushed face.
"I'm not, sir! Never have I countenanced this wicked, criminal act," she declared. "I have come here to-day to save Louise from your wiles and carry her back to her friends. I dare you, or your confederates," with a scornful look at the detective, "to interfere with me in any way." Then she turned to Cerise and continued: "Where is Miss Merrick now?"
"In your own room, ma'm'seile."
"Come with me, then."
With a defiant glance at Mershone she turned haughtily and left the room. Cerise followed obediently, somewhat astonished at the queer turn of events.
Left alone with Mershone, Fogerty chuckled gleefully.
"Why, it seems I wasn't needed, after all," said he, "and we've both of us taken a lot of trouble for nothing, Mershone. The chances are Miss Von Taer would have turned the trick in any event, don't you think so?" "No, you don't understand her. She wouldn't have interfered if she hadn't been scared out," growled the other. "She's sacrificed me to save herself, that's all."
"You may be right about that," admitted Fogerty; and then he got up to answer the door-bell, which once more rang violently.
An automobile stood outside, and from it an excited party trooped into the hallway, disregarding the cutting wind and blinding snowflakes that assailed them as they passed in. There was Arthur Weldon and Uncle John, Patricia and Beth; and all, as they saw the detective, cried with one voice:
Fogerty had just managed to close the door against the wintry blast when the answer came from the stairway just above:
"She is gone!"
The voice was shrill and despairing, and looking up they saw Diana standing dramatically posed upon the landing, her hands clasped over her heart and a look of fear upon her face. Over her shoulder the startled black eyes of old Cerise peered down upon the group below.
The newcomers were evidently bewildered by this reception. They had come to rescue Louise, whom they imagined confined in a lonely deserted villa with no companion other than the woman who guarded her. Arthur's own detective opened the door to them and Diana Von Taer, whom they certainly did not expect to meet here, confronted them with the thrilling statement that Louise had gone.
Arthur was the first to recover his wits.
"Gone!" he repeated; "gone where?"
"She had escaped—run away!" explained Diana, in real distress.
"When?" asked Uncle John.
"Just now. Within an hour, wasn't it, Cerise?"
"At ten o'clock I left her, now she is gone," said the old woman, who appeared as greatly agitated as her mistress.
"Good gracious! you don't mean to say she's left the house in this storm?" exclaimed Patsy, aghast at the very thought.
"What shall we do? What can we do?" demanded Beth, eagerly.
Fogerty started up the stairs. Cerise turned to show him the way, and the others followed in an awed group.
The key was in the lock of the door to the missing girl's room, but the door itself now stood ajar. Fogerty entered, cast a sharp look around and walked straight to the window. As the others came in, glancing curiously about them and noting the still smouldering fire and the evidences of recent occupation, the detective unlatched the French window and stepped out into the snow that covered the roof of the little porch below. Arthur sprang out beside him, leaving the rest to shiver in the cold blast that rushed in upon them from the open window.
Fogerty, on his knees, scanned the snow carefully, and although Weldon could discover no sign of a footprint the young detective nodded his head sagaciously and slowly made his way to the trellis at the end. Here it was plain that the accumulation of snow had recently been brushed away from the frail framework. "It was strong enough to hold her, though," declared Fogerty, looking over the edge of the roof. "I'll descend the same way, sir. Go back by the stairs and meet me below."
He grasped the lattice and began cautiously to lower himself to the ground, and Arthur turned to rejoin his friends in the room.
"That is the way she escaped, without doubt," he said to them. "Poor child, she had no idea we were about to rescue her, and her long confinement had made her desperate."
"Did she have a cloak, or any warm clothes?" asked Beth. Madame Cerise hurriedly examined the wardrobe in the closets.
"Yes, ma'm'selle; she has taken a thick coat and a knit scarf," she answered. But I am sure she had no gloves, and her shoes were very thin."
"How long do you think she has been gone?" Patsy enquired.
"Not more than an hour. I was talking with Mr. Mershone, and—"
"Mershone! Is he here?" demanded Arthur.
"He is in my room downstairs—or was when you came," said the woman.
"That accounts for her sudden flight," declared the young man, bitterly. "She doubtless heard his voice and in a sudden panic decided to fly. Did Mershone see her?" he asked.
"No, m'sieur," replied Cerise.
With one accord they descended to the lower hall and the caretaker led the way to her room. To their surprise they found Mershone still seated in the chair by the fire, his hands clasped behind his head, a cigarette between his lips.
"Here is another crime for you to account for!" cried Arthur, advancing upon him angrily. "You have driven Louise to her death!"
Mershone raised one hand in mild protest.
"Don't waste time cursing me," he said. "Try to find Louise before it is too late."
The reproach seemed justified. Arthur paused and turning to Mr. Merrick said:
"He is right. I'll go help Fogerty, and you must stay here and look after the girls until we return." As he went out he passed Diana without a look. She sat in a corner of the room sobbing miserably. Beth was thoughtful and quiet, Patsy nervous and indignant. Uncle John was apparently crushed by the disaster that had overtaken them. Mershone's suggestion that Louise might perish in the storm was no idle one; the girl was not only frail and delicate but worn out with her long imprisonment and its anxieties. They all realized this.
"I believe," said Mershone, rising abruptly, "I'll go and join the search. Fogerty has arrested me, but you needn't worry about my trying to escape. I don't care what becomes of me, now, and I'm going straight to join the detective."
They allowed him to go without protest, and he buttoned his coat and set out in the storm to find the others. Fogerty and Arthur were by this time in the lane back of the grounds, where the detective was advancing slowly with his eyes fixed on the ground.
"The tracks are faint, but easily followed," he was saying, "The high heels of her shoes leave a distinct mark."
When Mershone joined them Arthur scowled at the fellow but said nothing. Fogerty merely smiled.
From the lane the tracks, already nearly obliterated by the fast falling snow, wandered along nearly a quarter of a mile to a crossroads, where they became wholly lost.
Fogerty looked up and down the roads and shook his head with a puzzled expression.
"We've surely traced her so far," said he, "but now we must guess at her further direction. You'll notice this track of a wagon. It may have passed fifteen minutes or an hour ago. The hoof tracks of the horses are covered, so I'm not positive which way they headed; I only know there are indications of hoof tracks, which proves it a farmer's wagon. The question is, whether the young lady met it, and caught a ride, or whether she proceeded along some of the other trails. I can't find any indication of those high-heeled shoes from this point, in any direction. Better get your car, Mr. Weldon, and run east a few miles, keeping sharp watch of the wagon tracks on the way. It was a heavy wagon, for the wheels cut deep. Mershone and I will go west. When you've driven far enough to satisfy yourself you're going the wrong direction, you may easily overtake us on your return. Then, if we've discovered nothing on this road, we'll try the other." Arthur ran back at once to the house and in a few minutes had started on his quest. The motor car was powerful enough to plow through the deep snow with comparative ease.
Those left together in Madam Cerise's little room were more to be pitied than the ones engaged in active search, for there was nothing to relieve their fears and anxieties. Diana, unable to bear the accusing looks of Patsy and Beth, resolved to make a clean breast of her complicity in the affair and related to them every detail of her connection with her cousin's despicable plot. She ended by begging their forgiveness, and wept so miserably that Uncle John found himself stroking her hair while Patsy came close and pressed the penitent girl's hand as if to comfort and reassure her.
Beth said nothing. She could not find it in her heart as yet to forgive Diana's selfish conspiracy against her cousin's happiness. If Louise perished in this dreadful storm the proud Diana Von Taer could not escape the taint of murder. The end was not yet.
Mershone and Fogerty plodded through the snow together, side by side. They were facing the wind, which cut their faces cruelly, yet neither seemed to mind the bitterness of the weather. "Keep watch along the roadside," suggested Mershone; "she may have fallen anywhere, you know. She couldn't endure this thing long. Poor Louise!"
"You were fond of her, Mr. Mershone?" asked Fogerty, not unsympathetically.
"Yes. That was why I made such a struggle to get her."
"It was a mistake, sir. Provided a woman is won by force or trickery she's never worth getting. If she doesn't care for you it's better to give her up."
"You're a bright fellow, Mershone, a clever fellow. It's a pity you couldn't direct your talents the right way. They'll jug you for this."
"Never mind. The game of life isn't worth playing. I've done with it, and the sooner I go to the devil the better. If only I could be sure Louise was safe I'd toss every care—and every honest thought—to the winds, from this moment."
During the silence that followed Fogerty was thoughtful. Indeed, his mind dwelt more upon the defeated and desperate man beside him than upon the waif he was searching for.
"What's been done, Mr. Mershone," he said, after a time, "can't be helped now. The future of every man is always a bigger proposition than his past—whoever he may be. With your talents and genius you could yet make of yourself a successful and prosperous man, respected by the community—if you could get out of this miserable rut that has helped to drag you down."
"But I can't," said the other, despondently.
"You can if you try. But you'll have to strike for a place a good way from New York. Go West, forget your past, and carve out an honest future under a new name and among new associates. You're equal to it."
Mershone shook his head.
"You forget," he said. "They'll give me a jail sentence for this folly, as sure as fate, and that will be the end of me."
"Not necessarily. See here, Mershone, it won't help any of those people to prosecute you. If the girl escapes with her life no real harm has been done, although you've caused a deal of unhappiness, in one way or another. For my part, I'd like to see you escape, because I'm sure this affair will be a warning to you that will induce you to give up all trickery in the future. Money wouldn't bribe me, as you know, but sympathy and good fellowship will. If you'll promise to skip right now, and turn over a new leaf, you are free."
"Where could I go?"
"There's a town a mile ahead of us; I can see the buildings now and then. You've money, for you offered it to me. I haven't any assistants here, I'm all alone on the job. That talk about four men was only a bluff. Push me over in the snow and make tracks. I'll tell Weldon you've escaped, and advise him not to bother you. It's very easy."
Mershone stopped short, seized the detective's hand and wrung it gratefully.
"You're a good fellow, Fogerty. I—I thank you. But I can't do it. In the first place, I can't rest in peace until Louise is found, or I know her fate. Secondly, I'm game to give an account for all my deeds, now that I've played the farce out, and lost. I—I really haven't the ambition, Fogerty, to make a new start in life, and try to reform. What's the use?"
Fogerty did not reply. Perhaps he realized the case was entirely hopeless. But he had done what he could to save the misguided fellow and give him a chance, and he was sorry he had not succeeded.
Meantime Arthur Weldon, almost dazed by the calamity that had overtaken his sweetheart, found an able assistant in his chauffeur, who, when the case was explained to him, developed an eager and intelligent interest in the chase. Fortunately they moved with the storm and the snow presently moderated in volume although the wind was still blowing a fierce gale. This gave them a better opportunity than the others to observe the road they followed.
Jones had good eyes, and although the trail of the heavy wagon was lost at times he soon picked it up again and they were enabled to make fairly good speed.
"I believe," said Arthur, presently, "that the marks are getting clearer."
"I know they are, sir," agreed Jones.
"Then we've come in the right direction, for it is proof that the wagon was headed this way."
"Quite right, sir."
This back section was thinly settled and the occasional farm-houses they passed were set well back from the road. It was evident from the closed gates and drifted snowbanks that no teams had either left these places or arrived during a recent period. Arthur was encouraged, moreover, by the wagon ruts growing still more clear as they proceeded, and his excitement was great when Jones abruptly halted and pointed to a place where the wheels had made a turn and entered a farm yard.
"Here's the place, sir," announced the chauffeur.
"Can you get in?"
"It's pretty deep, sir, but I'll try."
The snow was crisp and light, owing to the excessive cold, and the machine plowed through it bravely, drawing up at last to the door of an humble cottage.
As Arthur leaped out of the car a man appeared upon the steps, closing the door softly behind him.
"Looking for the young lady, sir?" he asked.
"Is she here?" cried Arthur.
The man placed his finger on his lips, although the wind prevented any sound of voices being heard within.
"Gently, sir, don't make a noise—but come in."
They entered what seemed to be a kitchen. The farmer, a man of advanced years, led him to a front room, and again cautioning him to be silent, motioned him to enter.
A sheet-iron stove made the place fairly comfortable. By a window sat a meek-faced woman, bent over some sewing. On a couch opposite lay Louise, covered by a heavy shawl. She was fast asleep, her hair disheveled and straying over her crimson cheeks, flushed from exposure to the weather. Her slumber seemed the result of physical exhaustion, for her lips were parted and she breathed deeply.
Arthur, after gazing at her for a moment with a beating-heart, for the mysterious actions of the old farmer had made him fear the worst, softly approached the couch and knelt beside the girl he loved, thanking; God in his inmost heart for her escape. Then he leaned over and pressed a kiss upon her cheek.
Louise slowly opened her eyes, smiled divinely, and threw her arms impulsively around his neck.
"I knew you would come for me, dear," she whispered.
A MATTER OF COURSE
All explanations were barred until the girl had been tenderly taken to her own home and under the loving care of her mother and cousins had recovered to an extent from the terrible experiences she had undergone. Then by degrees she told them her story, and how, hearing the voice of her persecutor Mershone in the hall below she had become frantic with fear and resolved to trust herself to the mercies of the storm rather than submit to an interview with him. Before this she had decided that she could climb down the trellis, and that part of her flight she accomplished easily. Then she ran toward the rear of the premises to avoid being seen and managed to find the lane, and later the cross-roads. It was very cold, but her excitement and the fear of pursuit kept her warm until suddenly her strength failed her and she sank down in the snow without power to move. At this juncture the farmer and his wife drove by, having been on a trip to the town. The man sprang out and lifted her in, and the woman tenderly wrapped her in the robes and blankets and pillowed her head upon her motherly bosom. By the time they reached the farm-house she was quite warm again, but so exhausted that with a brief explanation that she was lost, but somebody would be sure to find her before long, she fell upon the couch and almost immediately lost consciousness.
So Arthur found her, and one look into his eyes assured her that all her troubles were over.
They did not prosecute Charlie Mershone, after all. Fogerty pleaded for him earnestly, and Uncle John pointed out that to arrest the young man would mean to give the whole affair to the newspapers, which until now had not gleaned the slightest inkling of what had happened. Publicity was to be avoided if possible, as it would set loose a thousand malicious tongues and benefit nobody. The only thing to be gained by prosecuting Mershone was revenge, and all were willing to forego that doubtful satisfaction.
However, Uncle John had an interview with the young man in the office of the prosecuting attorney, at which Mershone was given permission to leave town quietly and pursue his fortunes in other fields. If ever he returned, or in any way molested any of the Merricks or his cousin Diana, he was assured that he would be immediately arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Mershone accepted the conditions and became an exile, passing at once out of the lives of those he had so deeply wronged.
The joyful reunion of the lovers led to an early date being set for the wedding. They met all protests by pleading their fears of another heartrending separation, and no one ventured to oppose their desire.
Mrs. Merrick quickly recovered her accustomed spirits during the excitement of those anxious weeks preceding the wedding. Cards were issued to "the very best people in town;" the trousseau involved anxiety by day and restless dreams by night—all eminently enjoyable; there were entertainments to be attended and congratulations to be received from every side.
Society, suspecting nothing of the tragedy so lately enacted in these young lives, was especially gracious to the betrothed. Louise was the recipient of innumerable merry "showers" from her girl associates, and her cousins, Patsy and Beth, followed in line with "glass showers" and "china showers" until the prospective bride was stocked with enough wares to establish a "house-furnishing emporium," as Uncle John proudly declared.
Mr. Merrick, by this time quite reconciled and palpably pleased at the approaching marriage of his eldest niece, was not to be outdone in "social stunts" that might add to her happiness. He gave theatre parties and banquets without number, and gave them with the marked success that invariably attended his efforts.
The evening before the wedding Uncle John and the Major claimed Arthur for their own, and after an hour's conference between the three that left the young fellow more happy and grateful than ever before, he was entertained at his last "bachelor dinner," where he made a remarkable speech and was lustily cheered.
Of course Beth and Patsy were the bridesmaids, and their cousin Kenneth Forbes came all the way from Elmhurst to be Arthur's best man. No one ever knew what it cost Uncle John for the wonderful decorations at the church and home, for the music, the banquet and all the other details which he himself eagerly arranged on a magnificent scale and claimed was a part of his "wedding present."
When it was all over, and the young people had driven away to begin the journey of life together, the little man put a loving arm around Beth and Patsy and said, between smiles and tears:
"Well, my dears, I've lost one niece, and that's a fact; but I've still two left. How long will they remain with me, I wonder?"
"Dear me, Uncle John," said practical Patsy; "your necktie's untied and dangling; like a shoestring! I hope it wasn't that way at the wedding."
"It was, though," declared the Major, chuckling. "If all three of ye get married, my dears, poor Uncle John will come to look like a scarecrow —and all that in the face of swell society!"
"Aren't we about through with swell society now?" asked Mr. Merrick, anxiously. "Aren't we about done with it? It caused all our troubles, you know."
"Society," announced Beth, complacently, "is an excellent thing in the abstract. It has its black sheep, of course; but I think no more than any other established class of humanity."
"Dear me!" cried Uncle John; "you once denounced society."
"That," said she, "was before I knew anything at all about it."