Phil laughed at himself as he put the wheel over and swung back towards home. He was becoming an utter fool! Darn girls, anyway! This was the second one on whom he had wasted thought—one probably a thief and the other a gum-chewing stenographer who was going to marry somebody in Buffalo! And that, too, after each had told him quite plainly that if he would just remove himself entirely from their ken they could go on living happily! Just because he had happened to meet these two girls under exceptional circumstances was no justification for placing them on pedestals. King Solomon had the right idea. Poof! the seven seas were full of fish!
With which swaggering philosophy did this strong-minded young man sweep all womenkind from his thoughts—all but Aunt Dolly, who had no equal anywhere in the world. He had left himself just enough time to get to the station without undue haste. Sparrow Lake was a popular summer resort for those who wished to forget the noise of the city and enjoy the quiet surroundings of forest and lake, where good fishing was to be had in combination with fresh cream daily and vegetables in season. The cottage the Warings had rented for the season was on one of the islands, and two hours later Phil was rowing eagerly over from the station landing. He let out a whoop like a wild Indian to announce his arrival and his aunt came running down to meet him, her gentle face alight with pleasure and surprise. He swept her up off her feet and kissed her till her cheeks were wild-rose pink, very becoming with her fluffy aureole of snow-white hair.
Arm in arm they went towards the cottage, talking and laughing. The two were very near to each other and he had a lot of interesting things to tell her. He knew she would be delighted to learn of his new position as Ben Wade's private secretary and she was; but he was careful to keep from her any details of recent happenings that would be liable to cause her anxiety. The conversation arranged its own itinerary over such a wide range of topics that it was late that evening before they had "talked themselves to a standstill," as he put it.
Phil did not feel sleepy. Instead of retiring at once he lingered on the screened balcony just off his room and lighted a final pipe of tobacco. Back came the two mysterious young women to trouble his thoughts and he did not dismiss them. The night was in harmony with mystery; also there was a rising moon, hung low, golden like a lamp, its dull glow lighting only the outer water spaces.
In that lake and forest country Nature seemed to brood in a deep hush which but gathered accentuation from the raucous bass of the bullfrogs and occasional weird night sounds of birds and animals in the depths of the woods. The deep quiet was oppressive after the city's multitude of noises. Earlier in the evening while he talked with his aunt he had remarked upon the great distinctness with which the putt-putt of a motorboat somewhere on the lake had carried. Now when a whip-poor-will flew to a nearby tree its rapid-fire call flung wide insistently: Whip'rweel, whip'rweel, whip'rweel, whip'rweel, whip'rweel, whip'rweel. . . .
"Go to it, old boy;" murmured Phil with some amusement, his thoughts recalled at last to his surroundings.
As if insulted, the bird ceased abruptly and flew away. A dead stick snapped at the edge of the clearing. It sounded like the report of a small pistol and as Kendrick smiled at the start the sound gave him he was sub-consciously aware that the bellowings of the frogs had stopped. His glance in the direction of the sound was purely automatic, but his attention was rivetted instantly by a movement among the trees at a point where they thinned out against a silvering background of the lake.
There was no mistake about it. The slinking figure of a man was visible against the water.
For some moments Kendrick watched him as he moved cautiously from one vantage point to another, not a little surprised to discover that the intruder was spying upon the cottage. Some belated camper, probably.
But there was no harm in making sure. Phil crept noiselessly off the balcony and slipped quietly downstairs and out the back way. It was his idea to come upon the man from behind and demand what he wanted; but a careless step revealed his approach and sent the fellow running at top speed through the bush to the edge of the lake, where he jumped into a small launch which he must have paddled inshore very quietly. No such caution marked his actions now, however. He started his engine and went putt-putting madly out across the lake.
Thoroughly aroused, Kendrick ran to the little landing where the launch rented for the season was moored. He leaped for the engine, a moment later had swung clear and was off in full chase.
As he nursed the engine to top speed it soon became apparent that his was much the superior boat. Added to this he had the advantage of a complete knowledge of the inlets and topography of Sparrow Lake. He knew for instance, that the long neck of heavily wooded peninsula which jutted out for some distance in the immediate vicinity was bisected by a narrow channel of deep black water where a motor boat could negotiate a passage without difficulty.
Kendrick headed straight for the half concealed entrance to this channel. The stranger had gone tearing off to round the point. The result of the channel manoeuvre was that Phil came out into open water directly in the path of the fleeing launch just as it had rounded the point.
At once the intruder shut off his engine, put a foot on the gunwale and took a header into the lake, swimming vigorously for the shore close by. This was confession of an intense anxiety to escape and for the moment it did look as if his chances of getting away were excellent; the unexpectedness of the action made it necessary for Phil to make a wide parabola to bring his boat equally close inshore and to check its speed. Without a moment's hesitation, however, Kendrick also shut off his engine and dove overboard as he swept by. A strong swimmer, he was soon climbing ashore.
By this time the man he was after had started away, swish-wish through the underbrush; but he was only a few rods in the lead, and one of thickset build was no match for Kendrick in a footrace. As Phil overhauled him he turned suddenly and fiercely grappled with his pursuer.
This again was something at which Kendrick was proficient and he threw the man easily enough with a half-nelson. They were wrestling it out in an open space in the bushes where the light was not quite so dim, and at last Phil had the hold for which he had been playing.
"I can break your arm—quite easily," he panted in sharp warning. "Are you ready to behave if I let you up?"
Upon receiving a strangled grunt of affirmation he released his antagonist.
"Gee! 'bo, aint there nothin' y' aint good at? That's second time—y've got my nanny fer fair!"
At sound of a familiar voice Phil opened his waterproof match-safe and struck a light. He found himself gazing with some amazement into the grinning homely face of "Iron Man" McCorquodale, the ex-pugilist with whom he had exchanged sparring compliments the night of the fog.
"McCorquodale! How'd you get here?"
"On the too-too," responded the Iron Man, rapidly recovering both breath and good humor.
"Don't get fresh, McCorquodale. What were you doing just now, sneaking around our cottage over there?"
"Dry up, kid, on that 'sneak' stuff. I ain't answerin' a damn thing, see,—not till we gets over to where I'm campin'. An' if that aint suitin' you, y'knows what y'can do, don't youse?"
"You seemed keen enough to get away."
"I had m'reasons," grunted McCorquodale. "I ast you to dry up, didn't I?"
"I'd sooner dry off," smiled Phil, pulling at his wet trousers. "Where's this camp of yours?"
"Over that way," said McCorquodale, pointing. "We'd better get them boats first, 'fore they drifts too far away."
They found them floating close together, down near the point, and McCorquodale undertook to swim out and bring them in. It was a tribute to him that he was permitted without demur to have such a golden opportunity of escaping and a tribute to Kendrick's judgment that he took no advantage of it.
He had pitched his small tent back from the lake about a quarter of a mile in a gully, where it was hidden completely by thick undergrowth. A spring bubbled not far away and the music of the tiny creek that trickled from it through a bed of water-cress provided a pleasing lullaby. His visitor nodded approval of the snug arrangements. Apparently McCorquodale was an old hand at this sort of thing.
"Seem to have prepared for quite a stay," remarked Phil, turning from inspection of the "kitchen," which had been built into the embankment and which, with its sheet-iron stove-top and all, afforded culinary facilities of a practical kind. "I suppose you have your refrigerator sunk beside the spring, eh?"
"Got a tin box there—yep," confirmed McCorquodale as he fed the fire he had started in front of the tent. "I've been here goin' on two weeks an' I figger to make m'self comfortable when I goes fishin'."
"Fish much at night?" inquired Kendrick suspiciously.
"Yep. Night's best time to catch my kind o' fish," grinned his host. "You come on over here to the fire an' get dried an' if y'll promise to keep it to y'rself, I'll put you wise."
So while Kendrick sat on the opposite side of the fire McCorquodale volunteered the information that he was a detective—in short, that he was attached to the Special Service Department of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway.
"You'll be interested in that, then," said Phil as he selected an envelope from the papers which he had spread out to dry by the fire.
"Sort o' related, you an' me,—by employment," grinned McCorquodale as he passed back the credentials. "I knowed already you was Wade's new secretary. Got a letter from the Chief himself 's mornin', so advisin'. Fine man to work for, Wade is. He never overlooks nothin' an' I guess he figgered you'n me might meet up here, seein's it's my special job just now to watch your aunt's cottage."
Since Kendrick had seen him last the "Iron Man" had grown a little moustache, a weird affair of reddish bristles which a scar on his lip compelled to lean mostly in one direction with a windswept appearance. It looked like an old toothbrush which has had desperate adventures in an overpacked travelling bag. This hirsute anomaly Mr. McCorquodale now stroked complacently, enjoying the effect of his surprising speech.
"The reason I beats it just now," he went on, "is 'cause I thought 'twas Long Jawr, the butler, as was after me. I gotta keep incog with the servants, see. If I'd 'a' knowed it was you as was chasin' me—that's different, see."
Kendrick's questions came in a fusillade. He was more than surprised; he was vaguely alarmed. Wade had said nothing about having placed one of the C.L.S. detectives at Sparrow Lake and the knowledge that such a course had been deemed advisable was disturbing. Why was it necessary to watch the Waring cottage at this peaceful summer resort? The thing was ridiculous.
The detective was ready enough to answer to the best of his ability, but it was soon evident that his own information was limited. Cranston had called him in off another job to tell him that the "Old Man" wanted him for some personal work, and therefore he was excused from officially reporting for an indefinite period. Mr. Wade merely had told him to go and take a holiday at Sparrow Lake—camp out and fish; incidentally, to keep an eye on the cottage which the Warings occupied. He was to report instantly to the president personally if he noted any suspicious characters hanging around and to trail the stranger or strangers without fail. He knew nothing of the reasons for these instructions. He wished all his assignments were "as big a cinch" as this one.
Phil knew that McCorquodale was not concocting a yarn and his face showed his anxiety. He questioned the detective so closely that that worthy was moved to protest.
"Hot tamalies! Y'r auntie aint goin' to get croaked n'r nothin' like that, kid! Not with me here, lookin' after her. What's eatin' y'anyways? Everythin's ridin' along Jake, see. An' speakin' of eatin', s'pose we has a bite. I can give you toast, tea an' a Welsh rabbit or hot dogs, dill pickles——"
Phil smiled at his host's efforts to reassure him. Certainly there was something so quizzically human about the whimsical McCorquodale that in his presence it was difficult to entertain thought of impending trouble. But as Phil toasted the bread on the end of a stick his mind was busy beneath the surface of his camaraderie. He was trying to recall everything Ben Wade had told him that morning they had ridden on the back platform of the president's private car and the exact way he had said it; but there was little which could have any possible bearing upon the need of posting a man at Sparrow Lake.
"Wade's got you workin' on that Nickleby dope, aint he?" enquired McCorquodale after the fire was going beneath the kettle to his satisfaction. "He had me moochin' around on it fer a while, but they're a pretty smooth bunch, them fellers, an' I had to quit final."
"How was that?" asked Kendrick with interest. "Did they catch you at it?"
"Catch me?" repeated McCorquodale with an injured air. "Not me, kid! Y'see, I hires out to that Brady Detective Agency that Nickleby does business with, thinkin' to get right into the middle o' things—walk right in through the front door an' pick up whatever I wanted. But the very first job they puts me on gets me in bad with Brady. They ast me to trail a kid with a tan satchel from the Alderson Construction Company's office over to a lawyer's office an' I did; then they turns around an' says somebody's gone an' swiped what was in the satchel an' blames me for not lookin' after it. But there wasn't nothin' taken out o' that there satchel for I was right behind it all the way. Somethin' damn funny 'bout that."
"What was in it?—in the satchel?"
"Oh, just some legal papers o' some kind. Say, d'you like y'r tea pretty black, Mr. Kendrick?" He got out the dishes and took another look at the kitchen fire. "Wasn't my fault I had to get off that job. I'd 'a' hooked them fellers up with this here whisky-runnin' gang up north as sure as shootin' if I'd had a chanst. They're in it somewheres. But I didn't get a look-in."
"What makes you think they're in it? Who do you mean? Nickleby?"
"Nick don't work straight from the shoulder, Mr. Kendrick; but he's got a long arm with a lot o' elbows in it." McCorquodale shook his head. thoughtfully and looked serious. "There was a guy named Weiler hangin' around—I dunno. It's just one o' them hunches a feller gets now 'n' then."
"But a financier with the standing Nickleby has——"
"Excuse me, but y're startin' off with the wrong foot," corrected McCorquodale. "Nickleby aint no financier; he's a smooth pebble, that's all. His standin's faked an' behind it he's layin' low or I misses my best guess. If he aint a crook I never seen one."
Phil was silent for a moment. Apparently McCorquodale had not been informed as to the real contents of that tan satchel he had been assigned to guard. Wade and Cranston were following that line of investigation under cover for the time being. But it was likely that the bootlegging operations had no connection whatever with the missing money and that the evidence Wade wanted was merely an additional net with which to close in on this man who had usurped control of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company—misuse of trust funds or something like that.
"Listen to me, Cork. I've been thinking out a plan for getting to the bottom of this law-breaking booze business that we've got a line on, but I need another man to work it out right, and you're elected."
"Attaboy!" cried McCorquodale enthusiastically.
"We can't get busy on it till Mr. Wade gets back from Montreal in a few days. I'm going to find out what lies back of the instructions you got to come here and watch our cottage, then ask him to let you join me on the investigation. I'm going back to town to-morrow, and if anything happens here in the meantime you're to wire me at once. I can rely on you?"
"Say, kid, y'lays a bet on a sure thing when y'lays it on y'r Uncle Dudley. I aint no Little Fatima fer looks; but I knows it, see. Young McKilligan bent me bugle in a ten-round go wunst; I gets this here split whistler the time I licked Kay-O Bergey, an' I's born with this here wheeze in me pipes, an' with that bum layout I aint buttin' into no cynthia ortchesstra, believe me. But I knows it, see, an' I got a kick in each mitt an' I aint never renigged on a pal, Mr. Kendrick, an' I goes to church reg'lar every damn Sunday, see. Y'r auntie'll be safer'n if she was at home; fer there aint no danger here o' gettin' knocked down by street-cars 'n' autermobiles. Now, fer Gawd's sake, c'm on an' eat."
"All right," laughed Phil. "Toast's just done. An' while we eat perhaps you won't mind telling me why you think my uncle's a grafter."
"Aw, nix, nix! Don't go rubbin' it in, kid!" protested Mr. McCorquodale hastily. "Y'r lamp's quit smokin', aint it? Ferget it. Them two guys I was with that night was a couple o' bums as was workin' fer Nickleby on a job an' I was just stringin' 'm along nice when you comes buttin' in an' rings down the curtain on me, see. I's workin' fer Brady then. An' when I says the Honorable Milt has white wings folded acrost his back I says it sincere, believe me. Him 'n' me went fishin' together in the same punt last week!"
KENDRICK MAKES A TOUCHDOWN
Phil's first impulse in hurrying back to the city had been to deliver President Wade's letter to Nathaniel Lawson, and with that introduction to find out how much Nat Lawson knew about his friend's plans. The possibility that the financier might be able to throw some light upon Ben Wade's object in placing McCorquodale on guard at Sparrow Lake at first seemed sufficient justification for broaching the matter. But on second thoughts, Phil hesitated; if his chief had not seen fit to mention it to his own secretary who was most vitally concerned, it was unlikely that he had said anything to Lawson. In that case Wade might consider that his secretary had been very indiscreet in volunteering the facts. By the time he was ringing the doorbell at the Lawson home next evening, he had decided to say nothing about the matter.
Beneath the gentle courtesy of Old Nat's welcome Kendrick sensed a strength of character that commanded deference. The young man liked him at once. The ready pucker of the crowsfeet about those kind eyes put him quickly at ease, and as they sat on the "back piazza" that overlooked an old-fashioned flower garden they were chatting like a pair of old acquaintances. Horticulture was a hobby with Nat Lawson and Kendrick's intelligent interest in the subject placed them at once on a friendly footing. It was a little early yet to see the wonderful garden at its best, his host explained after they had made a tour of it; he must come and see it in another month or so, or even in a few weeks, when the pergola would be smothered in roses.
Among other things contained in Wade's letter, which Phil had just delivered, it was evident that his new chief had asked Lawson to post the bearer in regard to Loan Company affairs, particularly to tell all he knew about J. C. Nickleby; for of his own accord "Old Nat" began to talk freely of the past. It was soon apparent that he considered Nickleby an impostor whose motives were not to be computed by a self-respecting comptometer.
"Nickleby is a scamp and I might even qualify the statement, sir, by addition of the word, 'damnable.' There you have my opinion, sum total, and one of these new adding machines cannot give it to you more quickly or accurately." The smile with which he said this faded as he smoked for a moment in silence and a grim look settled in its place. He stood up abruptly. "Excuse me a moment while I get a photograph which will serve to illustrate a little story I'm going to tell you."
When he returned presently he thrust into Phil's hand the photo of a young man whose expression was boyishly ingenuous.
"Nothing dishonest in that face, is there?" demanded Nat Lawson. "That's Jimmy Stiles. He had to quit school to find work to support his mother when she was taken sick. He came to me and I gave him his first job. I found him loyal and trustworthy; but he made one little slip that I want to tell you about."
It appeared that the boy had been inveigled into a get-rich-quick investment which had gone the usual way of such things and left him in a desperate plight; so that he had been tempted to "borrow" a few dollars from the Interprovincial without permission. This money he began putting back secretly every week, bit by bit out of his salary. He had refunded about half of it when Nickleby discovered the small shortage in the young bookkeeper's accounts. Instead of reporting the matter, Nickleby, at that time secretary and office manager, told the boy he would let him off if it did not occur again and made a great show of befriending young Stiles.
But Stiles was so systematically reminded of his obligation to Nickleby that he worried constantly over what he had done—came to such a keen realization of his fault that one night he could stand it no longer and went to the Lawson home. With nerves at the breaking point he confessed his wrong to both Nathaniel Lawson and his daughter. The boy's contrition had been so sincere that they both forgave him on the spot, "Old Nat" patting him on the shoulder and assuring him that nothing more would be said about it. Stiles said nothing to Nickleby about this secret confession and for a time he recovered his spirits.
Then came the change in management. Nickleby's first move was to dismiss one employee after another until almost the only member of the old staff left was this young fellow, James Stiles, for whom Nickleby seemed to have taken a strange fancy. The reason was not long in doubt; for though the indebtedness long since had been wiped off the slate the new president began to threaten exposure unless Stiles did exactly as he was told, even when the instructions were contrary to honest business ethics.
"That's the kind of man Mr. Nickleby is," concluded Lawson. "Cristy and I—my daughter, Cristobel, Kendrick,—have tried to give Mrs. Stiles financial assistance in the past, she being an honest deserving woman; but of late we have not been able to do so much. For his mother's sake I hope Jimmy turns out all right. But there are times when I wonder if it would not have been better for him had he gone somewhere out of reach of a man who would take advantage of a mere boy instead of trying to help him to a fresh start."
With renewed interest Phil studied the photo in his hand before returning it. The case of Jimmy Stiles did indeed throw a sidelight upon the character of Nickleby. By adroit questioning he led the founder of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company to continue talking of the institution which represented his life's work and in the welfare of which his whole soul was wrapped. Once started in these reminiscences of his early struggles and hopes Nathaniel Lawson proved himself an interesting talker and the hour was well advanced when Kendrick finally glanced at his watch and, refusing any suggestion of refreshments, prepared to go.
"I'll have the answer to Wade's letter ready for you first thing in the morning," said Lawson as he shook hands heartily. "I've enjoyed the evening immensely, Kendrick, and I hope I haven't bored you so much that you won't come again. You'll be welcome any time."
Phil left the house with the feeling that he had spent not only a very pleasant evening, but a profitable one. He had acquired a new appreciation of "Old Nat" Lawson and, as Wade had predicted, a better understanding of the situation which would help him in his investigations. So absorbed was he in reviewing what he had learned that he had walked several blocks before he became conscious of somebody following him. What was at first merely a suspicion became a certainty when he deliberately turned several successive corners only to find the figure still in the rear.
The discovery was interesting, though entirely ridiculous. Who could be interested in his movements? He resolved to throw the fellow off the track and have a closer look at him. It should not be difficult to do this in that district of tall hedges. He broke abruptly into a run, dodged around a corner and dropped over behind the nearest hedge.
The sound of running steps ceased. But the man evidently was attempting something to which he was unaccustomed; for on reaching the corner he stopped, bewildered by the sudden disappearance of his quarry. He stood there foolishly, staring about uncertainly and grumbling to himself.
Kendrick peered out from his hiding-place with some amusement at this discomfiture. The nearest arc light was too far away for a clear look at the man; but just as Phil was about to jump the hedge and boldly demand an explanation the other lighted a cigarette and with a shrug of the shoulders went his way, leaving Kendrick sitting back on his heels, racking his memory.
Revealed in the glow of the match the face had seemed familiar. The young fellow was a full block away, however, before he recalled the features. It was James Stiles, the young chap Nat Lawson had just been telling him about and whose photo he had been studying with much interest an hour or two ago.
Over the hedge went Kendrick just in time to see Jimmy Stiles disappear around a corner. He ran rapidly down the street, keeping to the boulevard turf, and when he reached the corner he waited until his man was sufficiently in the lead to avoid discovery, then sauntered along in the same direction just far enough behind to keep the other in sight. For Phil's curiosity was now justifiably awake and he determined to find out where young Stiles went, perhaps overhaul him and ask him to explain himself.
With the situation thus reversed they progressed for several blocks without incident. Jimmy Stiles was stepping out with the briskness of one who knows exactly where he is going and is in a hurry to get there. He did not alter his stride for perhaps twenty minutes; but as they swung down towards Allan Gardens his pace became more leisurely, and opposite the park itself he abruptly halted, looking this way and that as if expecting to meet somebody here. In further support of this interpretation he began to stroll slowly back and forth, occasionally glancing at his watch.
Kendrick took up a position in the shadows where he could look on without danger of observation, and waited patiently. Before long a young woman approached from a sidestreet. Stiles raised his hat and the two went into the park and sat down on a bench, where they soon become lost in earnest conversation.
"'In the Spring a young man's fancy——'" murmured Phil with a nod of comprehension; but he did not complete the quotation. There was nothing lover-like in the actions of the pair on the park bench; in fact, the young woman appeared to be taking Stiles to task about something. Did the circumstances justify a closer approach with the object of overhearing the conversation?
Kendrick still was debating this delicate problem when he saw two men slinking cautiously behind the bench from the concealment of the park shrubbery. Before he could shout a warning they had closed in silently and swiftly upon the unsuspecting occupants. The girl's cry was smothered by one assailant and Stiles was struggling desperately with the other.
It happened so unexpectedly that Kendrick stood for an instant, held by his amazement. Then without a sound he sped across the street, vaulted the iron fence and charged into the middle of the excitement with ready fists. The man who had Stiles down was nearest and Phil paused long enough to send him reeling with a well-directed blow on the side of the head. He leaped the overturned bench, and made for the girl's attacker, who promptly took to his heels.
Phil chased him for several rods through the shrubbery before he swung back toward the bench. But in the brief interval both the other fellow and young Stiles himself had vanished and he found only the young woman, calmly dusting her skirt. She stood in a finger of light from the neighboring arc lamp and Kendrick stopped short, getting back his breath and staring at her in undisguised astonishment. It seemed as if she was always to find him staring at her—this cold and haughty and very pretty stenographer from the office of Blatchford Ferguson!
"Why, Miss Williams!" he exclaimed, and stepped forward quickly. "Are you hurt at all?" He righted the bench. "Perhaps you had better sit down," he urged with polite anxiety.
"It's Mr. Kendrick, aint it? No, I'm all right." Nevertheless she seated herself, patting nervously at a disarranged strand of hair. "It was so kind of you——"
"Nonsense!" interrupted Phil in deprecation. "I was passing along the street and luckily happened to glance over at the park just as those fellows attacked you. How many of them were there?—three?" he asked innocently. "I wasn't sure which of those two who were fighting I ought to hit," he laughed.
"It was a case of purse-snatchin'," she said hastily with a shrug of unconcern. "They—they were fightin' over it." He had hard work to maintain the proper expression of polite interest under the direct appraisal of those grave eyes. "The purse set me back on'y fifty-eight cents at Eaton's at a Friday sale and it had in it on'y some street-car tickets, a handkerchief, about thirty-five cents change an'—a nickle's worth of gum. So, you see, it really aint worth botherin' about." She smiled faintly as she stood up and held out her hand. "Thanks again, Mr. Kendrick. I must be toddlin' along."
But Kendrick was not to be dismissed in this arbitrary fashion. He insisted upon seeing her safely home and as it was so logically the thing to do, she accepted his escort with what grace she could. Throughout the short walk, however, her manner toward him was one of cold formality, and although Phil was by no means an uninteresting conversationalist on occasion, his best efforts failed to break down this reserve.
Several times he deliberately directed the conversation to afford her the opportunity of referring to the keyhole incidents only to have her ignore the opening altogether. It was equally apparent that she had no intention of mentioning Jimmy Stiles, and he was half inclined to regret the lead he had given her in this connection. Why had she been so eager to misrepresent the situation? Why had Stiles disappeared so suddenly? What was the meaning of the attack by these two ruffians? Was robbery really the motive, or was she lying about that, too? He had seen no sign of a purse. Why had she and young Stiles met by appointment at that late hour and in that particular place? It must be some very secret matter to require a clandestine meeting. And she had been scolding Jimmy Stiles—no mistake about that.
Thus ran the undercurrent of his thoughts as he tried to decide whether he had better shatter that self-contained keep-your-distance attitude of hers with plain questions. He would have to right-about-face on the whole situation to do it, and he was not sure that this was wise just then. One thing was certain, Miss Margaret Williams was worth studying very carefully and he could not afford to make any mistakes in his approach.
She settled his indecision for him somewhat unexpectedly by stopping abruptly opposite a row of old brick houses with red sandstone fronts.
"Here's where I live," she said. "'Night, Mr. Kendrick, an' thanks awfully."
Phil raised his hat. Before he could say a word she had left him and running up the steps, disappeared inside the nearest vestibule.
For a moment only he hesitated, then went far enough in the walk to make sure of the house number, jotting it down on the back of an envelope. A large white card in one of the front windows announced "Board and Rooms." He went away, determined to return next day and have a chat with the landlady. Perhaps he might even go so far as to rent a room from her for a time.
But when Kendrick called next morning in pursuance of this plan he was surprised to find that no young woman such as he described lived there. The landlady proved to be an elderly widow who was quite talkative once she had satisfied herself that the polite, good-looking young man with the pleasant smile was not an agent seeking to walk away with some of her hard-earned dollars. Miss Margaret Williams? No, there was nobody living there by that name. The only stenographer she had among her boarders at present was a Miss Turner who worked in the office of a candy factory, not a lawyer's office at all. And sometimes of a Saturday she brought home a big box of candy for Sunday, knowing that Mrs. Parker had such a sweet tooth, and she was such an obliging girl, was Miss Turner, and getting along so well at the office, she was. Only the other night she had made the remark——
Phil got away at last. He was not interested in the fortunes of Miss Turner or the gossip of Mrs. Parker's boarding-house. He was too supremely interested in the strange actions of the mysterious Miss Williams. Darn the girl anyway! She deliberately had run inside the first boarding-house they had come to, stopping calmly in the vestibule until he had gone his way, when she probably had come out again and gone home without an escort. Or perhaps she had met Stiles again. Or perhaps——
"What d'you know about it?" he muttered as he sat down on a boulevard railing and mopped his forehead in disgust.
Well, if this girl sought to avoid him she was going the wrong way about it. You bet he would make it his business now to find out exactly what was what; also what her friend, Jimmy Stiles, was up to. People here in Toronto didn't go around following other people and being set upon in the public parks—not ordinarily. The more he thought it over the more certain he became that their actions were linked up somehow with his own investigations. Why not? The girl had spied upon Podmore, who was in league with Nickleby; she had dealings with Jimmy Stiles who, according to Nathaniel Lawson, was very much under Nickleby's thumb. There was enough Nickleby mixed up in it for all sorts of possibilities. He wondered what Podmore knew about her.
There was the next move for him to make—go and see Podmore and find out. He got to his feet at once and started for the nearest street-car line. He ought to be able to catch Podmore just finishing a late breakfast at the Queen's.
"Sorry, sir, but Mr. Podmore checked out last night," the clerk informed him when at last he reached the hotel.
"Checked out?" echoed Phil in surprise. "Last night, you say? Did he leave any message for me?"
"And you don't know where he went, eh?"
"I'm sorry, sir; but he didn't say. I believe the porter took some baggage for him over to the Union Station; so he's evidently gone out of town."
Kendrick walked off slowly. It was not hard to guess whither the time-serving Mr. Podmore was bound. He was running true to form and Phil grinned as he thought of the surprise that lay awaiting in the hollow stump beside the tank at the Thorlakson siding. It would be worth something to see the expression on Podmore's face when he opened that fake envelope of Wade's with its bogus bills.
Well, he could eliminate Podmore for the present. What now? Had he better go down to Ferguson's office and boldly demand from the haughty Miss Williams answers to a few pointed questions, or had he better locate Stiles first and choke the truth out of him? He glanced at his watch. Nat Lawson would be expecting him to call for that letter to Wade and he decided to go there first. After that he would be free to follow his own investigations in his own way.
Nathaniel Lawson was at work in the garden, but went into the house at once for the letter and insisted on Phil going inside for a cigar.
"Now you sit down in that big chair there, Kendrick. I'm the celebrated inventor of a new phosphate drink that ought to hit the spot on a morning like this. Trouble nothing, sir! I was just on the point of mixing one for myself. Make yourself at home, my boy. I won't be long."
Kendrick lounged gratefully in the comfortable leather chair. He had not realized just how hot it was outside until he found himself thus ensconced in the cool interior of what his host had called "the den." A good old scout, Nat Lawson.
Phil had decided it was best to say nothing of his previous evening's experiences, but he had asked where young Jimmy Stiles was working now and learned that the bookkeeper was with the Alderson Construction Company. It was one of Nickleby's "mushroom" concerns and apparently Nathaniel Lawson did not have much respect for any side-line enterprise in which Mr. Nickleby was interested. Phil smiled as he jotted down the address. Nobody who had heard the Lawson side of the situation could blame him for that attitude.
So Stiles worked for the Alderson Construction Company, eh?—the concern that was mixed up in that campaign fund contribution that had been stolen. Question: Had Jimmy Stiles been forced by Nickleby to——? No, that was not tenable because Nickleby would not be trying to steal from himself. Well, he'd soon get the hang of things when he went to see Stiles. It was going to be an interesting little pow-wow with that young man.
Kendrick idly watched the smoke from his cigar sail towards the long box of geraniums on the sill of the open window. He whistled to the canary that swung in a brass cage above the foliage. Then his glance wandered about the room, over the bookcases, the bric-a-brac on the mantel, the——
He sat up in his chair rather suddenly. He stood up and hastily crossed the room for a closer look at a large, attractive photo which hung above the mantel in a silver frame—the photo of a beautiful young woman in a summer dress. The face was unmistakable. He was gazing at the photo of the stenographer in Blatch Ferguson's office—the girl who had listened at the keyhole, who had met Stiles in the park last night and had been attacked by the two strangers, who had taken so much trouble to get rid of her escort by the ruse of the boarding-house! The elaborate coiffure was missing; but those beautiful classic features were the same.
He turned as Lawson entered the room, stepping slowly and carefully, with a tray and two goblets which tinkled with ice.
"I was just admiring that photo in the silver frame, Mr. Lawson. It is a remarkably fine piece of photography. The tones are wonderful. Would you consider it rude if I asked who the young lady is?"
Nat Lawson slowly deposited the tray and chuckled to himself. Unconsciously he raised his head proudly.
"That is my daughter, sir,—my daughter, Cristy. I'm sorry that just now she is not at home."
AND CONVERTS A GOAL
Phil Kendrick sipped his drink with what he flattered himself was a fine show of unconcern. He even smacked his lips and complimented Mr. Lawson upon the tang of that phosphate mixture he had invented; for it was indeed of fine flavor, quite a delightful beverage.
"I believe you mentioned last night that Miss Lawson had gone in for some kind of newspaper work—was on the staff of the Recorder, if I remember rightly," said Phil with an air of one who makes conversation for the sake of politeness. "I know the sporting editor of that paper and I have heard McAllister spoken of as one of the livest and most conscientious editors in the country. His staff swears by him. Is—er—Miss Lawson still with the Recorder?"
She was. And very fond of her work. She had been inclined towards literary matters almost since she was old enough to read. She wrote her first verses when she was ten, although if she knew that her dad was giving that away she would box his ears, and Nathaniel Lawson laughed to himself reminiscently.
Two things were plain to Kendrick as he listened with interest to Old Nat's homily upon the caprices of the eternal feminine—that this high-spirited motherless girl and her father were very close to each other and, paradoxically, that he knew nothing of her present masquerade as a stenographer in Ferguson's office. For masquerade it evidently was, and Kendrick's mind raced along new channels of speculation which this realization opened up.
He was eager to get away and at the risk of discourtesy he emptied his glass rather hurriedly, refused a second one, refused an invitation to stay to lunch, and once outside the grounds fled in untoward haste.
He went up the stairs at the Recorder building two steps at a time and found himself at last in the little cubbyhole where Chic White sat, surrounded by walls that were papered with half-tone pictures of pugilists, baseball and football stars, and other athletic celebrities. Phil was rather amused to note his own picture in football togs among the rest. It served to open a desultory conversation which had no bearing at all upon the object of his visit. It was some minutes before he finally veered to the subject of women in athletics and from that to women in newspaper work and from that again to the women members of the Recorder's staff. In response to his somewhat too casual enquiry concerning Miss Lawson, Chic sat back and grinned provokingly.
"Sure Mike! She's on the staff," he admitted after indulging in that disgusting habit of his, an extra-dry spit. "She does special assignments for McAllister. Fact is, she's out of town now on one of 'em."
He eyed Kendrick shrewdly.
"Some doll, eh? But you aint got a look-in, Ken. Why say, boy, there aint a guy on this rag that wouldn't walk up a church aisle with Cris Lawson any old time she passed the high sign. She's got 'em all buffaloed. But they say she 'n' the Boss understand each other pretty well. Anyway she's sportin' a solitaire," and again White grinned and spat deliberately.
Phil got out as fast as he could. He was in a strange state of exhilaration at his discovery which not all the gossip of a hundred newspaper offices nor all the solitaire diamond rings that ever were could have dampened just then.
He hastened now to the office of Blatchford Ferguson over at the Brokers' Bank Building, buttonholed Conway and informed him that he had an important message for Miss Williams which he must deliver in person at once. Only to have Conway shake his head. Miss Williams was not there any more—had handed in her resignation last night.
"Rather sudden, wasn't it?"
"I should say so! We all knew she was here only temporarily, but she certainly left rather suddenly. Young Roy over there was awfully stuck on her; he hasn't been fit to live with all day."
"Do you know where I could catch her now? Did she leave any address?"
"Why no, she didn't," replied Conway. "I believe she expected to be married soon to a chap in Buffalo and I rather think that's where she went."
Kendrick bit his lip for a moment, considering. Then he asked for the telephone directory, thought better of it and decided to call at the office of the Alderson Construction Company unheralded. The young man who came to the counter was Jimmy Stiles himself, Kendrick surmised; but he merely asked to see Mr. James Stiles.
"That's my name," said the bookkeeper, casting a glance of quick suspicion at the caller.
"Glad to know you, Mr. Stiles," smiled Kendrick, holding out his hand, and he passed his card, dropping his voice to a more confidential tone. "I wonder if you'll do me the honor to take lunch with me in an hour's time, or if that's not convenient——?"
"Why? What do you want?" Stiles' face paled slightly, Kendrick thought. He glanced over his shoulder rather nervously, too, as if fearful of surveillance. "I—You are a stranger to me, sir. I do not see why—that is, do not know what——" Plainly he was embarrassed by the invitation.
"I want to talk to you on several important matters of considerable interest to yourself. I have some questions to ask you concerning Miss Cristy Lawson," said Kendrick directly.
"Oh, you have? How d'you know I got answers to them?" There was no question about the pallor of young Stiles now. "She aint nothin' in my young life an' I don't know 's I got the time."
"Listen here, Stiles," said Kendrick sharply. "I'd advise you to meet me as I suggest—in your own interests, let us say. I happen to know a few things which must be cleared up at once and only you can do it. Understand? You don't want me to start something and—well, spill the beans? Do you?"
"Wh—what—er—beans?" stammered Stiles, plainly frightened.
"I'm not talking about Boston baked anyway," smiled Phil. "You won't get hurt if you play fair with me." He frowned. "I guess you know what I'm referring to. Will you take lunch with me and talk it over pleasantly or do you want me to go and see—Nickleby?
"Well, we aint buyin' no more stationery just now, sir. Call again some time. Perhaps later on we may be needin' somethin'."
"Oh, very well then," nodded Kendrick easily, at once sensing the effort of a clerk to overhear the conversation—a man who had sauntered over to the counter and was making pretense of examining a directory within earshot of the two. "Our carbon paper is exceptionally fine. If I call some day about—shall we say twelve-thirty?"
"Yes, that hour will be O.K., sir," he said aloud. "Thanks. Meet me at the corner," he added in a whisper.
So Jimmy Stiles was being watched in that office, thought Phil as he went down in the elevator. What for? Who by? A couple more questions to add to his collection. Well, they'd go over to the Island residence for their lunch where they would be undisturbed. He had telephoned already to Mrs. Parlby to serve luncheon for two, and dropped into the National Club to fill in the interval till twelve-thirty.
Sharp on time Stiles put in an appearance at the appointed place, but he demurred upon learning where Kendrick was proposing to take him.
"Gee Whiz! I got to get back to the office inside an hour," he objected.
"I'll promise to get you back on time," assured Phil. "The launch is moored down at the Canoe Club and she can do forty-five under pressure."
In spite of Kendrick's efforts at conversation on the way over, it was plain that his guest was ill at ease; but it was not until they were comfortably seated in the library that he undertook to relieve the bookkeeper's anxiety to know what was in his mind.
"I think perhaps your appetite will be improved, Jimmy, if we talk before we eat," smiled Phil. He offered his cigarette-case. "There is no reason why you and I should not be good friends."
Having first satisfied himself that there was no doubt whatever of young Stiles' loyalty to Nathaniel Lawson, he proceeded to recount briefly the events which had led up to his discovery of the real identity of Miss Margaret Williams. The extent of Kendrick's evident knowledge startled Stiles, if his nervousness was any criterion.
"Miss Lawson was masquerading in Ferguson's office for some reason. I caught her listening at the keyhole while Podmore was interviewing Ferguson day before yesterday. You might begin by explaining why she should report all this to you, Stiles, and why you tried to follow me last night after I left Mr. Lawson. I know that Miss Lawson is a valued member of the Recorder staff. Now, what about it?"
"She's doin' some special stunt for the paper," Stiles nodded after a little hesitation. "We've been good friends for quite a while, but there aint no reason why she should tell me all she knows, is there? She came to me yesterday an' asked me to keep an eye on your movements for a bit. She said you were workin' with Podmore an' that you an' him had swiped some envelope from Mr. Wade, the railroad president, and hidden it."
"That's what comes of listening at keyholes. Go on."
"That's all, Mr. Kendrick. She was kind of worried over you callin' on her father an' give me Hail Columbia for losin' sight of you last night after she'd gone to the trouble of pointin' you out to me. But I aint no dime novel detective!"
"Why should she be interested in my movements?"
"Why did those two fellows jump on you last night? Don't say they were after your watch. Tell me the truth."
"Well, you seen how they was watchin' me at the office to-day, didn't you? I've been watched like that ever since——" Stiles stopped short in some confusion.
"Ever since the theft of the satchel containing fifty thousand dollars," prompted Kendrick. "I know all about that. It's all right. Go on."
But for a moment Stiles was stricken dumb by this cool speech.
"Who told you about that?" he demanded in a scared tone. "Say, how'd it be if you told me what's your side in this little gab-fest? Who you workin' for? Police? Nickleby? Say, you aint crazy enough to think I had anything to do with the disappearance of that bunch of coin, are you?"
"Hardly," smiled Phil. He handed over Benjamin Wade's letter of introduction, "to whom it may concern." The change which perusal of these credentials wrought in Jimmy Stiles was at once noticeable. He relaxed in his chair with a breath of relief and laughed.
"Why didn't you say in the first place you were Wade's private secretary?" he protested. "Gee whiz! Now I know where I'm at—if it's true," he added suspiciously, suddenly sitting erect again. "Miss Lawson said she heard Podmore tell Ferguson you hid that envelope for him in a stump up in the bush near some watertank or other after he'd pinched it from Mr. Wade's private car, and that you two fellows were friends an' had both got fired by Wade because you wouldn't tell where the envelope was."
"It isn't wise to believe everything one hears, Jimmy,—through key-holes," advised Kendrick. "That's all a bluff. It was Mr. Wade's idea that by pretending to be friendly toward Podmore I might get a line on something. We framed up the whole thing on Podmore."
"But the envelope really was swiped an' hid in the stump, wasn't it?"
"Yes, I left it there at Mr. Wade's suggestion."
"With all that money in it?"
"The bills were bogus—just stage money."
"What!" cried Stiles in excitement. "Gee-whilikins! Is that right, Mr. Kendrick?" His mouth opened in what seemed to be fear as well as astonishment. "But of course it's right. That's what he wanted me to get that duplicate envelope for. Gosh! why didn't we think of that last night?"
He got up and took a turn across the room and back in his agitation.
"You surely didn't expect—?" began Kendrick in considerable surprise.
"We haven't known what to expect," interrupted Stiles anxiously. "Anything—everything!—with fifty thousand dollars of election money kicking around loose. Why, Miss Lawson's been on the trail of this campaign fund contribution ever since that night when—that is to say——" For a second time Jimmy Stiles paused uncertainly.
Kendrick had a flash of inspiration. He sprang to his feet, reaching excitedly into his pocket.
"Has Miss Lawson ever owned a pin like this? Is this her's?" and he unfolded the dollar bill and held out the blouse pin for inspection.
"Sure, that's her's. She told me she lost one from her best hand-painted set in your canoe that night."
Kendrick sat down in the nearest chair and laughed as if Stiles had said something which was exceedingly witty. The outburst was so spontaneous and unaccountable that the bookkeeper stared at him. He could not know that Phil would laugh with equal abandon just then if somebody were to inform him that the real reason a hen crosses the road is to get to the other side.
"She seems to have taken you pretty well into her confidence, Jimmy. Perhaps you can tell me who her escort was that night of the fog—a Joe Somebody."
"Oh, that was me. I paddled her across the bay that night. We agreed to call each other by fake names in case anybody heard us talking. When she got into your canoe by mistake I was only about ten yards away, but I was scared to move. I knew she could take care of herself."
Again Phil laughed. But Stiles was growing impatient and his worried look returned.
"Say, never mind all that, Mr. Kendrick, please. We've got to do something about this other thing right away quick. Nickleby's been havin' Podmore watched an' he had a seance yesterday afternoon with the fellow that's doing it. There's liable to be others setting out with the same idea she had——"
"What do you mean?" demanded Kendrick, seriously.
"Miss Lawson took the train west last night to get that darn envelope you hid in the stump in the woods——"
"I told her she oughtn't to try it," went on Stiles earnestly. "She's liable to run into all sorts of trouble. But she wouldn't listen to me for a minute. She aint scared of anything, Miss Lawson aint, an' she thinks it's real money she's rescuing all by her lonesome."
"You don't mean to say she went all alone?" asked Phil in dismay.
"That's just it. She wouldn't have it any other way."
They gazed at each other with sober faces.
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE WINNIPEG EXPRESS
Thirty-six hours later Kendrick, aboard the Winnipeg Express, was rushing westward through the night. His watch told him that the hour was near midnight and in the open timetable beside him he was tracing the train's progress. Outside in the dark the great scenic sweep of northern wilderness was fleeing behind, mile on mile. He figured that they were within half an hour's run of the Thorlakson siding. The girl had many hours the start of him and no doubt he would find her safe and sound at the section shanty with Mrs. Thorlakson. The fast passenger train did not stop often in this part of the country; but he had persuaded the conductor to slow down so that he could jump for it.
He had taken a compartment in the observation car, but at the moment was lounging in a corner of the open reading room which at that late hour presented a vista of empty chairs and discarded magazines in their leather folders. The porter was nowhere about. One by one the other passengers had sought their berths, leaving Phil in solitary possession. He sat staring out the wide window at the racing double of the lighted coach, deep in thought.
Ordinarily the thing to have done was to head her off from this wild-goose chase by reporting the matter to her father or by having her editor wire her on board train to return at once. But Stiles had pleaded earnestly that the girl's activities be kept a secret because there was much at stake which did not appear upon the surface. Miss Lawson was anxious particularly that her father did not learn of her present assignment until the task was completed as he would have worried unnecessarily, perhaps have interfered.
What that task was Kendrick had been unable to learn. Either the bookkeeper could not or would not tell him and Phil had been in too great a hurry to get into action to waste time in futile talk. The motive which actuated her must be a strong one to drive her into the hazards of foggy nights, office espionage and actual danger. He could well credit Stiles' assurance that Miss Lawson was not afraid of anything; her calmness after the trying experience in the park was evidence of that.
But the fact of her foolhardy trip into the Algoma wilderness was the main issue to meet just now, and with so much secrecy seemingly desirable Phil had decided that the best thing to do was to go after her himself, follow her, overtake her, protect her if need be. Her paper might or might not know where she had gone and why; but he would say nothing to anybody. If Miss Lawson had some secret, cherished plans her pluck in attempting to carry them out entitled her to some consideration, and she would be grateful for his discretion.
He had need of all the finesse which he could command if he hoped to win a place in her confidence. He could not afford to throw away a single card. As the mysterious lady of the fog she had called him a "fresh Aleck," thanks to his idiotic blundering; but even before that she had chosen for some reason to exert her woman's prerogative and had informed him quite plainly that she did not desire his acquaintance. That ought to have been enough! Then as Miss Margaret Williams she naturally would visit upon him her resentment at being surprised in her eavesdropping; the very stigma of the position in which she found herself before him could be relied upon to add fuel to her dislike, if it were not already sufficiently ablaze because she was beholden to him for his silence in regard to the matter. In the role of Ferguson's stenographer she had told him a second time that she did not wish to know him. Why, she actually disliked him so much that even after his timely arrival in the park had placed her under the obligation of common civility towards him—even after that it had been impossible for her to endure his forced escort a moment longer than it could be avoided!
And finally, there was that solitaire ring on her engagement finger. It did not matter much whether she were engaged to somebody in Buffalo or to McAllister, editor-in-chief of the Recorder. She could marry whom she pleased. He wasn't in love with her. That sort of thing was all rot! It was just that he hated anybody to think ill of him, to dislike him as much as apparently she did. He wanted to apologize for—well, for anything she might want him to apologize for. He wanted her to tell him why she did not wish to number him among her friends. He wanted to be her friend; that was it—Platonic friendship! She was the first girl he had ever fancied he might like to go and talk to once in a while. Just for the pleasure of—well, chumming with her. It wasn't a good thing for a fellow who had no sister not to have a girl chum. She was—oh, what a peacherino of a girl she was!
He smiled wistfully as he conjured a mental picture of her. Once more he took out the dollar bill, unfolded it and studied the dainty hand-painted pin and when he restored it carefully to its place in his pocket-book he breathed deeply and his eyes shone. Which, of course, is the way of things Platonic!
What a deuce of a mix everything had been getting into this last little while back! It was as bad as one of those mystery yarns in the magazines with something happening on every page! He recalled with a smile a heated argument which the fellows had got into on one of the Varsity Areopagus Club nights, when Billy Thorpe had contended that strange adventures were really occurring daily and nightly under the multitudinous noses of the modern, work-a-day world. It was impossible to be a student of history, argued he, without recognizing upon what slender threads of hazard great issues often had dangled, or a reader of the newspapers without admitting that mighty queer things were creeping constantly into the experience of some men. It wasn't necessary to seek these in the distorted perspectives of the criminal underworld or the political intrigues of Continental Europe, for ordinary people were just as liable to have adventures. The trouble with most folks nowadays was that they had been trotting the thoroughfares of every-day commonplaces so long they had got dust in their eyes till they couldn't see the bridle-paths of the Unusual, but that didn't prove that Romance wasn't doing business at the same old stand.
And they all had laughed at Thorpe's bombastic figures of speech and told him to go and talk to a credulous elevator boy somewhere, and asked him if he had the girl aboard the lugger yet and Professor Peabody had wanted to know seriously if he had found any traces of pre-Shakespearian drama in East Lynne!
But by the shade of Sheherazade! Thorpe had been right and Phil hadn't dared to tell him what had happened in the fog. "Bridle paths of the Unusual" with a vengeance! He'd soon have all the ingredients to write one of those wild yarns himself! He couldn't ask for a more beautiful or accomplished heroine than Cristy, or a more interesting place to start the love story than in a dense fog at three a.m. Then there was this fifty thousand dollars vanishing so mysteriously and Podmore—with a little polishing he would work up into a first-class villain; as he stood he was a joke and it was impossible to imagine him even risking a punch on the nose to capture the girl. Nickleby might be better for the real dirty work—or Rives.
"Sixty Buckets of Blood or The Hobo's Revenge!" Phil smiled to himself.
In case Wade got back to Toronto before his new secretary's return from this jaunt Kendrick had enclosed a note with the letter from Nat Lawson, telling the railroad president where he had gone and why.
It was well that he had. For rapid events were to intervene and the first of these happened within the next five minutes. He was slumped down in his chair, which he had wheeled about so that he could rest his feet comfortably on the window-sill, and beneath his wandering thoughts he was only dreamily conscious of cinders clinking in the lamp funnels and the low monotone of the rushing train. The woman, therefore, had run past him and had reached the end of the car almost before he was aware that he was no longer alone.
He sat up and stared after her. She wore a tight-fitting woolen sweater with a Paddy green tam to match and clutched a silver-meshed reticule in one hand. He could not see her face, for she did not turn around but quickly opened the door and went out onto the brass-railed platform beneath which the track was flowing back into the darkness.
In her hasty movements was a certain definiteness of purpose which did not escape the puzzled Kendrick. Then he saw that she was tugging to lift the trap in the platform which would uncover the steps on one side. She had swung this into place and was hanging to the bottom step, with the evident intention of leaping from the train, before Phil found his voice.
"Hey!" he shouted, springing forward. "Don't do that!"
She gave him one startled look, and before he could reach her, let go without a word.
A few seconds elapsed while the dumfounded young man peered into the black void that had swallowed her. Then he too swung down the steps, poised his body as far forward towards the engine as possible and with a quick push backward—jumped.
For the face which had looked up at him and on which the light had shone distinctly for an instant was the frightened face of Miss Cristy Lawson!
The train roared away into the night on its long trail to the West, the noise of it lessening to a rumble off among the never-ending waste of trees and rock ridges. Gradually the little night birds recovered from their fright and their plaintive chorus resumed among the swamp grasses and underbrush.
Kendrick had landed luckily and except for the shaking up and a few bruises he was little the worse for his tumble. Still sitting where he had plowed up the ballasting, he rubbed his arm tenderly and tried to penetrate the gloom, his eyes not yet accustomed to the starlight after the bright interior of the observation car. With his suitcase receding at the rate of thirty miles an hour this was going to be a fine pickle as a result of his haste! They were miles from Nowhere, he knew, but that did not worry him much; he was used to walking—had walked that very piece of track with the Rutland party not so long ago. However, there was the girl——
He scrambled to his feet, put his hands on either side of his mouth and shouted. The unexpected loudness of the call startled him a little; it went echoing around and in the dead solitude of the low-lying hills seemed to carry for miles. But although he listened intently there was no answer other than the echo which soon drifted far away and got lost somewhere. The silence returned like a heavy blanket; even the little birds listened in fear.
He called again. Again there was the echo; then the heavy silence.
"Funny," grumbled Phil. "She's either mighty badly hurt or she's deliberately hiding on me. Where are you, Miss Wil——Miss Lawson, I mean?" he shouted.
"—awson, I mean—mean," mocked the double echo. The bellow flung away to distant cadences which settled softly into the night mysteries.
There was dankness in the air and the smell of skunk cabbage from a short stretch of swamp and brule directly opposite. Through the velvet gloom the fire-flies trailed. Rocky ridges were scattered around in the background and high on the right was a huge rounded pile of rock with a few white-stemmed birches clinging to it for all the world like thinning gray hairs on an almost-bald head. It was too dark to see the birches clearly, but the ex-chainman for the Rutland survey party knew they were there and how they looked; he had seen hundreds of such growths. Behind the big rock formation probably there was a lake.
Kendrick snatched up some pebbles and hurled them into the underbrush in anger at those pesky little birds with their mournful monotony of note. He knew she could not be far away and started down the track slowly, scrutinizing the ground on each side. He found her at last, lying very still among the bog reeds.
Gently he lifted her out onto the dry sandy ballast, greatly alarmed at her unconsciousness, and went in search of water. He located a tiny pool just off the right-of-way and realized for the first time that he was hatless. Hastily he sat down and removing one of his boots, dipped it in the water and came hobbling back with it as fast as he could go in an attempt to reach her before it had leaked out. He was so intent upon this that he was quite close before he realized that she was sitting up. She greeted him with an exclamation.
"Good!" cried Phil with satisfaction. "That's the stuff!" He sat down on the end of a sleeper embedded in the sand, and peered at her anxiously; but the light was rather uncertain and he was glad to note that eastward the tree-tops blackened against a silvering sky. The arrival of the moon would help a lot. "How badly hurt are you, Miss Lawson? Do you know that people have got killed, jumping from trains?" he reproved.
"Then whatever possessed you to do it?" she retorted. "I am not dense enough to believe it is just coincidence that you are here. You had no business to follow me, Mr. Kendrick, and I resent it very much."
"At least credit me with a sincere desire to be of service to you, Miss Lawson," said Phil, with a half humorous touch of opprobrium in his tone.
"Are you in the habit of changing people's names to suit the dictates of your own disordered fancy?" she demanded sarcastically. "I should think you would find that very confusing."
"I do—sometimes, Miss Williams-Lawson."
"In these days of neurasthenia it is indeed refreshing to meet one of such healthy nerve as you appear to possess," she said icily. "Since you have chosen to play the bell-boy in this large country hotel in which we find ourselves, I shall assume that I am now in my room and that you have received your tip. In other words, that will be all, garcon. I shall be able to manage very nicely, thank you. You may go! I really mean that!"
"I hope you will not find it too drafty with the window open so wide," ventured Phil, standing up at once and bowing elaborately. "You will find water just over the fence there and the passenger trains go by twice a day with a supply of clean linen. I am sorry that I cannot turn out the fireflies for you, but it is the strict rule for them to burn all night. You may find some rather ambitious bugs in the ballast of the road-bed; they belong to the order Hemiptera, and have beaked or sucking mouths. For downright earnestness of purpose, however, I would recommend the mosquitoes which will have the number of your room shortly. If the growling of the bears in the woods disturbs you, all you have to do is to light a fire in the very open grate."
"Are you trying to frighten me, Mr. Kendrick?"
"Sorry I can't ask you to ring if you want anything," Phil pursued with exaggerated politeness, "but this is a pretty large hotel, as you said, and I shall be about five miles away—at the Thorlakson siding where breakfast is served at five-thirty. Good-night, madam."
"Pardon my presumption for making the suggestion, Mr. Kendrick," she said sweetly as he bowed a second time and was turning away, "but with a five-mile walk ahead of you, don't you think it would be advisable to—put on your other boot?"
The moon, which had floated free of the tree-tops, was bathing their faces and for an instant they gazed at each other with ponderous gravity. Suddenly Phil sat down again and they joined in a peal of laughter.
The echo of it was still knocking for admittance among the hills when a strange wild laugh floated unexpectedly abroad from a point off to the right. Involuntarily the girl shrank closer to him.
"For pity's sake!" she gasped. "What was that?"
"Just a loon on the lake over there—a harmless goose of a thing," and Phil grinned at her reassuringly as he laced his boot. "But he isn't as crazy as his laugh. That's just his way of singing 'I Hear You Calling Me.'"
"Then give me John McCormack." He smiled as he caught her surreptitiously opening the silver-meshed reticule and powdering her nose, but pretended that he had not seen this bit of feminine incongruity. "My, how still everything is!" she said a moment later in a subdued voice as she swept a glance around at the silver landscape and up at the stars, fixed and dim in the infinite leagues of distance. "It would be possible to go crazy here very quickly, I suppose."
"You'd soon get used to the quiet; then the racket of the city would drive you crazy. Say, speaking of wild geese, Miss Lawson, reminds me that as soon as I learned where you had gone and what for, I followed you to tell you that this is a wild-goose chase you're on. That envelope contains a package of stage money. It's just a dummy, prepared by Mr. Wade to duplicate the one stolen not long ago from the Alderson Construction Company. Object: to fool that fellow, Podmore. Before we make any more mistakes, hadn't we better try to understand each other's position? As a starter I'm going to ask you to read this letter from the Chief. Wait, I'll scratch a match for you."
Before this speech was half completed he had Miss Cristy Lawson's undivided attention. She gazed at him in amazement, and as he shielded the burning match with glow-reddened fingers her eyes raced eagerly over the introduction of Mr. Philip Kendrick as the private secretary of the President of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway with the latter's full authority to act as his representative. There was no doubting the authenticity of it.
To relieve her embarrassment Kendrick hastened to explain in detail. It was only natural that she should have supposed him to be in league with Podmore. Had he but known she was on that train he could have told her everything and have saved her the inconveniences of the present predicament; but he had supposed her to be already at her destination.
She told him how her train had been held up by a freight wreck between Toronto and North Bay; so that she had missed connections there and had been forced to wait over for twenty-four hours.
"Hadn't we better be moving, Miss Lawson?" he suggested. "We'll have to hoof it to Thorlakson's and it's a good five miles from here. We can talk as we walk along."
He took her arm to assist her to her feet, but when she attempted to stand up she sat down again so suddenly that Kendrick thought she was going to faint.
"You are hurt!" he cried in alarm and was down beside her in a trice.
"Oh, it's nothing—just a turned ankle. It can't be very bad."
Nevertheless he would not let her stand on it until he had gone back to the rill to dip in the cold water the sleeve which he tore from his shirt; with this he bandaged the ankle tightly. As he steadied her to her feet again he could see that in spite of her attempt to smile the pain was acute for a moment. She tried the injured foot gingerly and presently was able to limp without his support.
"There, you see! It's getting stronger every minute," she laughed.
"You are a brave girl," he said.
"You wouldn't say that if you knew how dreadfully frightened I am of bugs. Are there really any bears in the woods here, Mr. Kendrick?" She shuddered slightly in spite of herself.
"Bugbears!" growled Kendrick. "I apologize for that, Miss Lawson. I should have known better. You're shivering," he cried with concern.
"Are you cold?"
"I am a li—ittle chi—illy," she admitted as she put a hand to her chin to keep her teeth from chattering.
He grasped her other hand.
"It's like ice!" he reproached. "Why didn't you tell me? The nights are cold in these northern latitudes even in summer, and I'm a proper chump to have allowed you to sit still so long." He clucked his tongue in self-abasement. "You're chilled right through."
In spite of her protests he took off his coat, slipped it across her shoulders and tucked her arms into the sleeves. When he had buttoned it and turned up the collar he locked arms with her and together they hopped up the roadbed till they had to stop finally, out of breath with exertion and laughter. But the exercise was warming and he kept her at it for another few rods.
"Warm—as toast," she panted. "Oh, what a picture!"
They had rounded a curve and found themselves unexpectedly opposite a lake vista that lay steeped in the moonlight. It was from here the loon had called. There was a chain of little lakes, clustered with wide openings between. The shores were thickly wooded close down to the water's edge and the land ran out in long arms that threw inky shadows in sharp contrast to the panorama of silver water spaces. Out in the centre was an islet where a great rock, rearing above the surface, had gathered moss and a few clinging cedars, one of which stood out in solitary silhouette against the bright sky. The scene was like some artistic conception in black and white,—high lights and deep shadows,—and the cold beauty of it held them silent.
"Isn't that a glorious moon? What a wonderful night it is!" she breathed.
"Wonderful!" he agreed, but as he smiled at her he was not referring to the landscape or the moon. Far be it from him to dispute the wonder of a night the exigencies of which worked such magic in their acquaintanceship. He gave her his arm to lean on and they limped off up the track, each glad of the other's presence in the solitude that encompassed them. The moon was well up above the rock ridges now, and its white light was gleaming along the steel rails that stretched lonesomely away into the miles of spruce and Laurentian outcroppings.
At her request he began at the beginning and related the happenings of the past three weeks—at least, he began with his surveying experiences along this very track. Then he told how he had encountered Podmore and met the railroad president and about Wade's plan for discovering certain facts concerning Podmore and Nickleby. He realized how impossible it was for him to make first mention of what had happened on that foggy night that he had paddled her across the bay; he was not supposed to know that she was the girl and the bare thought of introducing such a dangerous topic filled him with trepidation, so that he was careful to give it a wide berth. He referred to the pleasant evening he had spent with her father and the way in which he had found out that she was both Miss Cristy Lawson and Miss Margaret Williams and how he had backed Stiles into a corner and questioned him.
In her turn she told him how she had taken up her newspaper work in the hope of unearthing, under the guidance of her editor, evidence that would help to restore her father to his place at the head of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company. McAllister, editor of the Recorder, suspected a political deal in regard to some government bids and thought that Nickleby and—and some others were mixed up in a bold attempt at graft. If the Recorder's plans did not miscarry there would be a sensational exposure one of these days which would shock the whole country.
She went on to speak of President Wade, of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway, in the warmest terms. She had known him all her life as a close friend of her father and he was a frequent visitor at the Lawson home.
She stumbled on a cross-tie and would have fallen but for the strength of his supporting arm. She winced a little.
"Here, Miss Lawson, try putting your arm across my back and your hand on my left shoulder for a while. That's it."
With a thrill he slipped his arm about her waist, but she smiled up at him without protest. They made better progress after that. The steel rails streaked away in the moonlight endlessly before them, endlessly behind with uncompromising sameness.
"I suppose I deserve a good scolding for jumping off the train so far from this Thorlakson place; but the sleeping-car conductor told me the train would not stop on any account, short of a damaged track, until it reached—Indian Creek, I think he said it was. My best plan, he said, was to get off there and ride back to Thorlakson on a handcar. I was warned not to try any moving-picture stunts; but when I found out we'd have to slow up on the grade near the siding, I made up my mind to risk it. So when we slowed up back there, I thought it was the place, and sneaked to the back platform without being seen by anyone but you."
Kendrick shook his head at her, marvelling at her nerve and the foolishness of the whole thing. Not many girls would have dared it. Lucky for her he had seen her or she might have been in a pretty bad plight along these lonely reaches of track before any section hands chanced to find her. He studied her anxiously and decided that it was best to keep her talking while they trudged along.
"Will you tell me how you came to be masquerading as Miss Williams?" he asked. "Or is that something you'd rather not——?"
"Oh, no," she laughed. "That was Mr. Wade's bright suggestion. You know, he's been helping me in my work quite a lot. I have had to keep Daddy in the dark about it for fear he'd put his foot down on the whole thing; so I made a confidant of Mr. Wade."
"Then I've got a bone to pick with him," said Phil. "Why in the dickens didn't he tell me about you being at Ferguson's office when we were both on the same trail?"
"It's just like him not to, Mr. Kendrick. Probably he thought your work and my own would not cross at all and the less either of us knew about the other the safer it would be. Why, he even refused pointblank to tell me what he was going to do with that money—the envelope—that is——"
He saw that she hesitated as if she had said too much.
"You mean the fifty thousand dollars, stolen from the Alderson concern?" asked Phil quickly. "I was going to ask you about that. You mean that Mr. Wade really has that money? You can trust me, Miss Lawson. Surely you know that," he urged. "He said he was piecing together a puzzle of some kind and would tell me all about it soon. How did he come to have that money?"
She studied him keenly before she spoke.
"I gave it to him to take care of," she said slowly.
"You! And where did you get it?"
"From Jimmy Stiles."
"Jim—my Stiles? Great Scott! And where did he get it?"
THE TAN SATCHEL ONCE MORE
She told him about it. He was much cleverer than most people thought, young Jimmy Stiles, and he was overpoweringly anxious to help the Lawsons. There was no length to which his loyalty to them would not carry him. Kendrick nodded, recalling the boy's story as he had heard it from her father.
"I had no hesitation in taking Jimmy into my confidence from the first," said Cristy, "and it has been a big help to have someone watching Nickleby from the inside. He is a great, little actor, that boy, and has succeeded in fooling our friend, Nickleby, into the belief that all he has to do is to snap his fingers and the frightened Jimmy will perform his bidding without question. Daddy told you about Stiles' early indiscretion, you said. Well, Jimmy has been pretending right along that he is afraid of exposure for that, and Nickleby has felt so sure of him that there have been occasions when he has permitted Jimmy to see behind the scenes and get a peek at some methods of doing business that would not stand analysis."
"Have you tried to get a line on Nickleby's past, Miss Lawson?" asked Phil with interest. "I understand that he was less than nobody when your father befriended him, and he may have drifted up here from the States and have a police record a yard long."
"We've thought of that. There is nothing in the local police records, but I believe Mr. Wade is making some quiet investigations in the States.
"Well, anyway, to make a long story short, Stiles knew the Alderson Construction Company was planning to make a substantial contribution to the Government campaign-fund—J. C. Nickleby, that is; for he really is the Alderson Construction Company. When Jimmy reported this to me I thought I saw a good chance to get some sensational illustrations for the exposure story the Recorder was after if only we could get hold of the money long enough to photograph it. Jimmy was enthusiastic over the idea and told me to leave it to him. On thinking it over more carefully, though, I saw risks attached to the stunt which made it very unwise, and when I met Jimmy by his own appointment at the Union Station one night I asked him at once to make no attempt to obtain possession of the money, even for a short time.
"But I was too late. He was carrying a suitcase and calmly informed me that the money was inside. I was badly frightened. If we were caught with that money in our possession we would be arrested at once as a pair of ordinary thieves. I had jeopardized my editor's plans that we had been working out so secretly and regretted the foolishness a thousand times. Stiles wanted me to take the suitcase then and there—take it home and do the photographing, then have a messenger deliver it to Ferguson's office; or, if I preferred to give it back to him, he'd arrange to get the money to its destination somehow without anybody being able to trace it.
"But I was too frightened to decide and it was not long before I felt that we were being watched. You cannot imagine a more disagreeable feeling! We strolled around a bit to make sure that we really were being followed and when we found that the man we suspected was still on our trail, Jimmy was as badly scared as I was.
"While we were wondering what we'd better do I suddenly spied President Wade standing near the door of the big rotunda waiting-room and I had hard work to keep from calling out. I said good-bye to Jimmy, and walked over to him with the suitcase, blessing my stars for the good fortune. His private car was standing down on the track and as soon as he saw that I was in trouble of some kind he took me down to the car and I told him the whole story. There was nobody around except ourselves at the moment and he was not only greatly interested, but agreed to help me. We lifted out the envelope of money and he placed this in his safe aboard the car. He would not tell me what he intended to do with it, except that he promised it should be photographed for me and that it would be taken care of. He told me to ask no questions, but just leave everything to him and forget all about it. The less I knew about it the better, in case I was questioned.
"He had asked me a short time before if I thought I could obtain a place as a stenographer or office clerk of some kind in Ferguson's office for a few weeks and it had been agreed that I would try and, if I succeeded, I was to sit tight and keep my eyes and ears open. I have wondered how much of what happened he was half anticipating; he was so matter-of-fact. He escorted me out to a taxi and I went home while he sent a porter down to the parcel-room to check the empty suitcase. It may be there yet for all I know.
"You see now why I was so worried to learn that an envelope had been stolen from Mr. Wade's private car by Podmore and hidden up here at Thorlakson. I naturally jumped to the conclusion that it was the actual money that had been stolen. I should have known better, because Mr. Wade had asked me to have Stiles secure for him an envelope from the construction company's office, similar to the one containing the money. To tell you the truth, I had forgotten all about this and it did not occur to me that the envelope in the stump was a decoy. I see now, though, that Mr. Wade had plans of his own all the time."
"You're right as to that, Miss Lawson. This game is bigger than we think," said Kendrick thoughtfully. "One thing we may be sure of, Ben Wade can be trusted to act wisely. What you've just told me has interested me tremendously. Will you tell me something more? How under the sun did Stiles manage to turn the trick—get possession of that fifty thousand without getting caught?"
"It was cleverly done," laughed Cristy, "but like most clever things of that kind, it was as simple as A. B. C. Jimmy laid his plans carefully and the chief danger to threaten his success was that he would not be selected as the messenger between his own office and Ferguson's. He knew that the chances were he would be watched all the way by a detective; so he planned to make his substitution before leaving the building in which the Alderson company has its office.
"He had been keeping a close watch on Podmore for some days, for he did not trust him and felt sure that he would not hesitate to play false to Nickleby and Alderson whom he had been cultivating so carefully of late. Jimmy is shrewd. His patience was rewarded one day by the sight of Podmore in a leather-goods store around the corner, purchasing two satchels which were identical in size, shape and color. Stiles had the clerk lay aside a third satchel which was the mate of the two Podmore had just bought. When one of the satchels was delivered at the office from Podmore, Jimmy knew he had guessed right. Just how Podmore was proposing to change the satchels worried Jimmy quite a bit until he began to suspect a new arrival in town by the name of Clayton. He found out that Podmore and this Clayton were meeting in Podmore's room at different times, but ignoring each other as utter strangers in the hotel rotunda. Then when Clayton turned up quite casually at All Saints' Mission—the church Jimmy attends, you know—and began to ingratiate himself, Stiles thought he saw daylight. It turned out that he was right, too, in suspecting that Clayton was Podmore's accomplice.
"It fitted in fine with Jimmy's own plan. When he came out of the office with that tan satchel, which contained the money, his kid brother—Bertie—was sitting on the bottom step of the stairway on the same floor, watching the door. As soon as he saw Jimmy come out, the kid ran upstairs to the next floor, picked up the satchel Jimmy had bought and in which he had placed some old newspapers, and took the elevator down. Jimmy got into the same elevator and they transferred the satchels going down to the street. So, you see, when Stiles walked out onto the street he was carrying the satchel that had the old newspapers inside, while young Bertie just stayed in the elevator, went up a few floors and calmly walked down the back stairs and so on home where he chucked satchel, fifty thousand dollars and all, under Jimmy's bed."
"By George!" chuckled Kendrick.
"Jimmy was able to laugh up his sleeve all the way through. I told you he was clever. Sure enough, he found Clayton lying in wait for him at the Jessup Grill which Stiles would have to pass. He almost laughed in that professional con man's face when he was invited inside for a drink and he proved an easy victim when Clayton switched the satchels on him. Jimmy saw that Clayton had spotted the detective who was trailing along and was on his guard. With that danger over, he knew everything was safe; for Podmore could not afford to do anything else but keep quiet even after he discovered that with all his slickness somebody had beaten him out. There wasn't a shred of evidence to implicate Jimmy, you see."
"He tells me they're watching him down at the office pretty closely, though," said Kendrick when she paused for breath.
"That's to be expected, of course. Those two men who attacked us in the park were private detectives in Nickleby's pay and they probably thought Jimmy was passing something on to me and it was time to search both of us. Nickleby and the others have kept close mouths about the theft of the election money because they didn't want any investigation by the regular police. I am inclined to think they planned their election contribution for a definite purpose and could not afford any publicity about it."
"They must be a fine bunch of crooks, that outfit!" remarked Kendrick.
"The fellow who was watching Jimmy and me at the station that night was probably acting on his own initiative. It was the same detective who had made such a bungle of following Jimmy in the afternoon and I guess it nearly cost him his job. He must have been feeling pretty well worked up at the way things turned out. If it hadn't been for Mr. Wade's timely arrival there's no telling what might have happened. Can—can we—sit down for a little rest?" she gasped.
Phil glanced at her quickly, apologizing for his thoughtlessness. He had been so absorbed in her recital that he had forgotten the strain under which she was laboring with the pain in her foot. They must have covered a lot of ground while they talked. Five miles to Thorlakson's, he had told her, but it might just as easily be eight or ten.
After a short rest they went on. They passed through rock cuttings where their voices and the sound of their feet flung back hollowly from the walls. They rounded curves, looking eagerly for some sign of habitation, only to be met by the same stretch of deserted track leading off into nebulous gloom. Or perhaps they would see a dim white speck ahead or the black outlines of a rocky spur where the track disappeared and they would comfort themselves with the thought that around that particular curve or beyond that mile-post they would see buildings. But when they had hobbled down the track and gained the goal there were always more rocky spurs and more track to hobble over.
They talked of many things. Phil told her all about McCorquodale. They discussed politics and the Rives case and newspaper work and universities and music and the latest books. As the hours crept by their laughter and talk lessened and the spaces of silence between them grew longer. The girl was limping badly and leaning more heavily upon him, and for him the adventure grew more serious in his concern for her welfare.
"Aren't we nearly there, Mr. Kendrick?" she asked quietly after a long period of silence on her part.
"We must be," he answered cheerfully and held his watch close to his nose as he scrutinized the dial in the moonlight. "It's nearly four o'clock. I fancy the moon is a little paler than it was," he added, craning his neck to look at it riding high above them, "and the sky back there behind that hill—it looks lighter, too, don't you think? Daylight can't be far off now, as it comes pretty early up here and we're bound to reach the Thorlakson shanty soon, Miss Lawson."
They trudged on again while he told her about Mrs. Thorlakson, the good-hearted Icelandic woman, and the giant Swede section-hand, Svenson, who was a friendly sort of elephant. He tried to entertain her with a humorous account of his surveying experiences, information about the country and funny stories that he had picked up here and there. Occasionally they heard small animals scurrying away in the underbrush on either side as they passed by; but she had ceased to take notice of such sounds.
"I might carry you for a while, if you'd let me," he offered at last in what he hoped was a matter-of-fact tone. But she would not hear of that.
Dawn was coming quickly. The night gloom fled off the tops of the ridges and sought brief respite in the shelter of the water bottoms. The gray sky warmed to rose tints. New bird notes came twittering from the bushes on all sides, while frisky cotton-tails scampered ahead of them on the roadbed. The air seemed to take on a freshness that it had lacked before, laden with sweet scents of wild grasses, perfume of spruce and the aromatic smell of the wood mould. A wave of light crept across the hills, stole round about and it was day.
They came slowly around a long curve and when the track straightened out again Phil gave a whoop of satisfaction.
"Hallelujah! Miss Lawson, there's a light!" He pointed to where a yellow dot shone steadily, close to the track.
But the girl did not reply. She swayed a moment, then went limp in his arms.
Magnus Thorlakson was in the habit of routing out his men early. The Roadmaster had made no mistake when he handed the stolid Icelander the responsibility for nine miles of the Company's line in the middle of one of the loneliest divisions. In the discharge of his duties there was no more conscientious section foreman in the employ of the C.L.S. He timed his slumber by the sun and his waking hours were filled with the roll of hand-car wheels, the ring of spike-mauls and the tamping grate of spades.
On this particular morning the big Swede, Svenson, had polished off his second plate of fried potatoes and was grinning in anticipation of a third helping and another couple of fried eggs, when a startled exclamation from the good woman of the house, and the smash of the plate which dropped from her fingers to the floor sent her husband's chair scraping back from the table with some suddenness. Callers whose clothes stamped them as city people would have been sufficiently surprising at any time to the inhabitants of that humble dwelling in the wild country and particularly so at that early hour; but the sight of a broad-shouldered young man in his shirt-sleeves, carrying a young woman in his arms up the embankment to their door, was ample justification even for the breaking of precious porcelain.
Thorlakson muttered profanity as he stared out the window. The big Swede looked up with mild enquiry, at the same time reaching for another slice of bread, while the other two men stopped eating altogether and gazed expectantly at the door.
"Good morning, Mrs. Thorlakson," greeted Kendrick. "May we come in?"
The girl stood beside him, huddled in the coat, her face white and drawn in the cold light of early morning. The woman bobbed her head in some uncertainty, then spoke in her own language to her husband who thrust himself into the doorway and leaned a heavy, flanneled shoulder against the jamb.
"Hello, Thorlakson! There's a sprained foot here that requires rest and attention and we would like some breakfast."
Then the Icelander recognized him, turned to his wife with quick commands, waved them inside with eager hospitality, suspicion no longer mingling with curiosity in his keen, light-colored eyes.
"Farthu ut! Out!" snapped Mrs. Thorlakson, clapping her hands sharply, and a touseled head withdrew hastily from the door of the little bedroom off the kitchen. It shut with a rattle. She placed a chair for the lady close to the fire, blew out the lamp on the table and after lifting it to its place on the shelf, got a broom and began to sweep up the fragments of the broken plate.
The two Norwegians at the table stared unblinkingly. The Swede paused for an instant at his breakfast, his jaws motionless during the few seconds required for one long look. At sight of Kendrick his wide mouth had expanded to a grin of welcome which exposed the food on his tongue, but as his glance fell upon the young lady and he noted that she was smiling at him he reddened bashfully to the roots of his pale hair and, as if to make up for lost time, fell to with augmented diligence.
In spite of the painful ankle and the strangeness of her surroundings Cristy almost laughed aloud at the comical expression on the big fellow's homely face. She slipped out of Kendrick's coat and shuddered close to the fire, holding her fingers gratefully over the hot stove.
Briefly Phil explained what had happened to them, aware that the recital would not have been very convincing if he had been a complete stranger to these simple foreigners with their natural tendency to suspicion. He made no mention of the envelope that had brought him back to the scene of Podmore's capture just a few days ago. It was enough to say merely that the young lady accidentally had fallen off the step of the train and he had jumped off after her.
But Thorlakson was only anxious to show that he was grateful for the young man's recent generosity in connection with the fifty dollar reward. He nodded as he listened.
"Yaow, that vould be other side Spruce Walley. Yaow. She slow opp down thar. Wery good, Meester Kendrick. Ve glad to have you stay so long as you like. Sit down thar. Planty wittles."