"I didn't tell her much," said Betty, lifting her sea-blue eyes. "She was a stranger, too, you know."
"Well, she's a mighty good friend of yours, I'll say, and she's acted in a very wise manner. She took more precautions than an old detective would have done. She told me only that some one was trying to make you marry a man you did not wish to marry. Is that correct?"
Betty shivered involuntarily and a wave of color went over her white face.
"It sounds queer," she said, "as if I hadn't any character or force myself, but you don't understand. No one would understand unless they knew it all, and had been through it for years. At first I didn't quite understand it myself. I'd better tell you the story. I thought I never could tell any one, because they were my father's family, and I know he would shrink so from having it known, but I'm sure he wouldn't blame me now."
"He certainly would not blame you, Miss Stanhope. I have heard that your father was a wonderful man, with high principles. I feel sure he would justify you in appealing to some one who was willing to advise you in a strait like this. You know no woman need ever marry any man against her will."
"Not if it were her father's dying wish?"
"Certainly not. Miss Stanhope, did your father love you?"
"Oh, I'm sure he did. He was the most wonderful father! I've often thought that he would never have asked it of me if he had realized——"
"Did he ever during his lifetime seem to wish you to be unhappy?"
"Never! That was the strange part of it. But you see he didn't know how I felt. I think I'd better tell you all about it."
"That would be the better way, if it won't be too hard for you."
Betty clasped her small hands together tightly and began:
"My own mother died when I was quite a little girl, so father and I were a great deal to each other. He used to look after my lessons himself, and was always very careful what kind of teachers I had. He was mother and father both to me. When I was ten years old my governess died suddenly while father was away on a business trip, and one of our neighbors was very kind to me, coming in and looking after the servants and everything and keeping me over at her house for a few days till father got back. She had a widowed sister visiting her, a rather young woman who was very beautiful. At least I thought she was beautiful then, and she made a great pet of me, so that I grew fond of her, although I had not liked her at first.
"After father came home she used to slip over every day to see me while he was at his business, and he was grateful to her for making me happy. Then he found out that she was in trouble, had lost her money or something, and wanted to get a position teaching. He arranged to have her teach me, and so she came to our house to stay.
"Somehow after that I never seemed to see so much of my father as I used to do, for she was always there, but at first I didn't care, because she was nice to me, and always getting up things to keep me busy and happy. She would make my father buy expensive toys and books and games for me, and fine clothes, and so of course I was pleased. In about a year my father married her, and at first it seemed very beautiful to me to have a real mother, but little by little I began to see that she preferred to be alone with my father and did not want me around so much. It was very hard to give up the companionship of my father, but my stepmother kept me busy with other things, so that I really didn't think much about it while it was first happening.
"But one day there came a letter. I remember it came while we were at breakfast, and my father got very white and stern when he read it, and handed it over to my mother and asked whether it was true, and then she began to cry and sent me from the table. I found out a few days after that that my stepmother had two sons, both older than myself, and that she had not told my father. It was through some trouble they had got into at school which required quite a large sum of money to cover damages that my father discovered it, and he was terribly hurt that she should have concealed it from him. I learned all this from the servants, who talked when they thought I was not within hearing. There were days and days when my father scarcely spoke at the table, and when he looked at me it made a pain go through my heart, he looked so stern and sad. My stepmother stayed a great deal in her room and looked as if she had been crying. But after a few weeks things settled down a good deal as they had been, only that my father never lost that sad troubled look. There was some trouble about my stepmother's sons, too, for there was a great deal of argument between her and my father, of which I only heard snatches, and then one day they came home to stay with us. Something had happened at the school where they were that they could not stay any longer. I can remember distinctly the first night they ate dinner with us. It seemed to me that it was like a terrific thunderstorm that never quite broke. Everybody was trying to be nice and polite, but underneath it all there was a kind of lightning of all kinds of feelings, hurt feelings and wrong ones and right ones all mixed up.
"Only the two boys didn't seem to feel it much. They sort of took things for granted, as if that had always been their home, and they didn't act very polite. It seemed to trouble my father, who looked at them so severely that it almost choked me, and I couldn't go on eating my dinner. He didn't seem like my dear father when he looked like that. I always used to watch my father, and he seemed to make the day for me. If he was sad, then I was sad; and if he was glad then I was happy all over, until one day my stepmother noticed me and said: 'See, dear little Elizabeth is trembling. You ought not to speak that way before her, Charles.' And then father looked at me, and all suddenly I learned to smile when I didn't feel like it. I smiled back to him just to let him know it didn't matter what he did, I would love him anyhow!"
During the recital Reyburn had sat with courteous averted gaze as though he would not trouble her with more of his presence than was absolutely necessary. Now he gave her a swift glance.
Betty's eyes were off on distance, and she was talking from the depths of her heart, great tears welling into her eyes. All at once she remembered the stranger:
"I beg your pardon," she said, and brushed her hand across her eyes. "I haven't gone over it to any one ever, and I forgot you would not be interested in details."
"Please don't mind me. I am interested in every detail you are good enough to give me. It all makes the background of the truth, you know, and that is what I am after," said Reyburn, deeply touched. "I think you are wonderful to tell me all this. I shall regard it most sacredly."
Betty flashed a look of gratitude at him, and noticed the sympathy in his face. It almost unnerved her, but she went on:
"The oldest boy was named Bessemer, and he wasn't very good-looking. He was very tall and awkward, and always falling over things. He had little pale eyes, and hardly any chin. His teeth projected, too, and his hair was light and very straight and thin. His mother didn't seem to love him very much, even when he was a little boy. She bullied him and found fault with him continually, and quite often I felt very sorry for him, although I wasn't naturally attracted to him. He wasn't really unpleasant to me. We got along very nicely, although I never had much to do with him. There wasn't much to him.
"The other brother, Herbert, was handsome like his mother, only dark, with black curly hair, black wicked eyes, and a big, loose, cruel mouth. His mother just idolized him, and he knew it. He could make her do anything on earth. He used to force Bessemer into doing wrong things, too, things that he was afraid to do himself, because he knew father would not be so hard on Bessemer as on him. For father had taken a great dislike to Herbert, and it was no wonder. He seemed to have no idea at all that he was not owner of the house. He took anything he pleased for his own use, even father's most sacred possessions, and broke them in a fit of anger, too, sometimes, without ever saying he was sorry. He talked very disrespectfully of father and to him, and acted so to the servants that they gave notice and left. Every few days there would be a terrible time over something Herbert had done. Once I remember he went to the safe and got some money out that belonged to father and went off and spent it in some dreadful way that made father very angry. Of course I was still only a little girl, and I did not know all that went on. Father was very careful that I should not know. He guarded me more than ever, but he always looked sad when he came to kiss me good-night.
"Herbert took especial delight in tormenting me," she went on with a sad far-away look in her eyes as if she were recalling unpleasant memories. She did not see the set look on Reyburn's face nor notice his low exclamation of anger. She went steadily on: "He found out that I did not like June-bugs, and once he caught hundreds of them and locked me into a room with them with all the lights turned on. I was almost frightened to death, but it cured me of being afraid of June-bugs." A little smile trembled out on Betty's lips. "Just because I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of letting him hear me scream." She finished. "Then he caught a snake and put it in my room, and he put a lot of burdocks in my hat so they would get in my hair. Foolish things those were, of course, but he was a constant nightmare to me. Sometimes he would tie a wire across the passages in the upper hall where I had to pass to my room, and when I fell my hands went down against a lot of slimy toads in the dark, for he always somehow managed to have the light go out just as I fell. There were hundreds of things like that, but I needn't multiply them. That's the kind of boy he was. And because he discovered that my father loved me very much, and because he knew my father disliked him, he spent much time in trying to torment me in secret. I couldn't tell my father, because he always looked so sad whenever there was trouble, and there was sure to be trouble between him and my stepmother if my father found out that Herbert had done anything wrong. One day my father came upon us just as Herbert had caught me and was trying to cut my curls off. I didn't care about the curls, but I knew my father did. I began to scream. Herbert gripped me so I thought I would die with the pain, putting his big strong fingers around my throat and choking me so I could not make any noise."
Reyburn clenched his hands until the knuckles went white and uttered an exclamation, but Betty did not notice:
"There was a terrible time then, and I was sent away to a school, a good many miles from home, where I stayed for several years. Father always came up to see me every week end, for a few hours at least, and we had wonderful times together. Sometimes in vacation he would bring my stepmother along and she would bring me beautiful presents and smile and pet me, and say she missed me so much and she wished I would ask my father to let me come back and go to school in the city. But I never did, because I was afraid of Herbert. As I grew older I used to have an awful horror of him. But finally one vacation father and mother both came up and said they wanted me at home. My stepmother went to my room with me and told me I needn't be afraid of Herbert any more, that he was quite grown up and changed and would be good to me, and that it would please my father to have all his family together happily again. I believed her and I told father I would like to go. He looked very happy, and so I went home. Herbert had been away at school himself most of the time, and so had Bessemer, although they had been in trouble a good many times, so the servants told me, and had to change to new schools. They were both away when I got home. I had a very happy time for three weeks, only that I never saw father alone once. My stepmother was always there. But she was kind and I tried not to mind. Then all of a sudden one night I woke up and heard voices, and I knew that the boys were back from the camp to which they had been sent. I didn't sleep much the rest of the night, but in the morning I made up my mind that it was only a little while before I could go back to school, and I would be nice to the boys and maybe they wouldn't trouble me.
"I found that it was quite true that Herbert had grown up and changed. He didn't want to torment me any more, he wanted to make love to me, and I was only a child yet. I wasn't quite fifteen. It filled me with horror, and after he had caught me in the dark—he always loved to get people in the dark—and tried to kiss me, I asked father to let me go back to school at once. I can remember how sad he looked at me as if I had cut him to the heart when I asked him."
During this part of the tale Reyburn sat with stern countenance, his fingers clenched around the arms of the chair in which he sat, but he held himself quiet and listened with compressed lips, watching every expression that flitted across the sweet pale face.
"That was the last time I was at home with my father," she said, trying to control her quivering lips. "He took me back to school, and he came three times to see me, though not so often as before. The last time he said beautiful things to me about trying to live a right life and being kind to those about me, and he asked me to forgive him if he had ever done anything to hurt me in any way. Of course I said he hadn't. And then he said he hoped I wouldn't feel too hard at him for marrying again and bringing those boys into my life. I told him it was all right, that some day they would grow up and go away and he and I would live together again! And he said some awful words about them under his breath. But he asked me to forgive him again and kissed me and went away.
"He was taken very sick when he got home, and they never let me know until he was dead. Of course I went home to the funeral, but I didn't stay; I couldn't. I went back to school alone. My stepmother had been very kind, but she said she knew it was my father's wish that I should finish my school year. When vacation came she was traveling for her health. She wrote me a beautiful letter telling me how she missed me, and how much she needed me now in her bereavement, and how she hoped another summer would see us together; but she stayed abroad two years and the third year she went to California. I was sent to another school, and because I was not asked about it and there didn't seem anything else to do, I went. Every time I would suggest doing something else my stepmother would write and say how sorry she was she could not give her consent, but my father had left very explicit directions about me and she was only trying to carry out his wishes. She knew me well enough to be sure I would want to do anything he wished for me. And I did, of course."
Reyburn gave her a look of sympathy and getting up began to pace the little room.
"IT was not until last spring that she sent for me to come home," went on Betty, "and was very effusive about how much she needed me and how she was so much better, and meant to be a real mother to me now, helping me see the world and have a good time. She took me from one summer resort to another. Of course it was pleasant after having been shut up in school all those years, but she kept me close with her all the time, and I met only the people she chose to have me meet. All the time she kept talking about 'dear Herbert' and telling how wonderful he was and how he had grown to be 'such a dear boy.' Finally he arrived and began the very first evening he was with us to coax me to marry him. At first he was very courteous and waited upon me whenever I stirred, and I almost thought his mother was right about his being changed. But when I told him that I did not love him and could not ever marry him I caught a look on his face like an angry snarl, and I heard him tell his mother I was a crazy little fool, and that he would break my neck for me after he got me good and married. Then his mother began to come to me and cry and tell me how dear Herbert was almost heart-broken, that he would never lift up his head again, and that I would send him to ruin. It was simply awful, and I didn't know how to endure it. I began to wonder where I could go. Of course I had never been brought up to do anything, so I could not very well expect to go out into the world and make my living."
"Didn't you have any money at all?" interrupted Reyburn suddenly.
"Oh, yes," she said, looking up as if she had just remembered his presence. "I had always plenty of spending money, but if I went away where they couldn't find me, why, of course, I would have to give that up."
"Why, where did your money come from? Was it an allowance from your stepmother, or did your father leave it to you, or what?"
"I'm not just sure," said Betty, with troubled brow. "I never really knew much about the money affairs. When I asked, they always put me off and said that I was too young to be bothered with business yet, I would be told all about it when I came of age. My stepmother harped a great deal on keeping me young as long as possible. She said it was my father's wish that I should be relieved of all care until I came of age. But there were some trustees in Boston. I know that, because I had to write to them, about once or twice a year. My stepmother was most particular about that. I think they were old friends of my own mother, though I don't know when I learned that. Father told me once that mother had left me enough to keep me comfortably even without what he would leave me, so I'm sure I shall have enough to repay you if I could once get it."
"Don't worry about me!" he exclaimed. "It seems so terrible for you to have been alone in a situation like that! Wasn't there any one you could appeal to for help?"
"No, not any one whom I thought it would be right to tell. You see, in a way it was my father's honor. She was his wife, and I'm sure he loved her—at least at first—and she really was very good to me, except when it was a question of her son."
"I'm afraid I can't agree with you there!" he said sternly. "I think she was a clever actress. But excuse me. Go on, please."
"At last, when things had got so bad that I thought I must run away somewhere, my stepmother came into my room one morning and locked the door. She had been weeping, and she looked very sweet and pitiful. She said she had something to tell me. She had tried not to have to do it, for she was afraid it would grieve me and might make me have hard feelings against my father. I told her that was impossible. Then she told me that my father on his deathbed had called her to him and told her that it was his wish that I should marry one of her sons, and he wanted her to tell me. He felt that he had wronged them by hating them for my sake and he felt that I could make it all right by marrying one of them. My stepmother said that when she saw how infatuated dear Herbert was with me she hoped that she would be spared having to tell me, but now that I was treating him so she felt bound to deliver the message. Then she handed me a paper which said virtually the same thing which she had told me, and was signed by my father in his own handwriting."
"Was the paper written or printed?" interrupted Reyburn.
"I think it was typewritten, but the signature was papa's. There could be no mistake about that, and he wouldn't have signed something he didn't mean." Betty sighed as if it were a subject she had worn into her heart by much sorrowful thought.
"It might be quite possible for him to have done that under influence or delirium, or when he was too sick to realize."
"Oh, do you think so?" Betty caught at the hope. "It seems so awful to go against papa's last request."
"There is nothing awful but the idea of your being tied to that—beast!" said Reyburn with unexpected fervor. Betty looked at him gratefully and went on:
"I was simply appalled. I couldn't think, and I made my stepmother go away and leave me for a little while, but things got blacker and blacker and I thought I was going crazy. I couldn't marry Herbert even to please my father. The next day Bessemer arrived. He had been worrying his mother a lot about money, and when he arrived I couldn't help hearing what they said to him. They charged him with all sort of dreadful things. They called him a disgrace, and threatened to let him be arrested, and a great many more such things. Finally his mother ended up by telling him she never had loved him and that if he made any more trouble about money she would cut him off without a cent. I was sitting upstairs in my room with my windows open, and all their talk floated right up to me. It made me feel sick, and yet I felt sorry for Bessemer, for lately whenever he had been around he had been kind to me, and sometimes I had stayed near him to get rid of Herbert. We often talked over our troubles together and sympathized with one another. He felt sorry for me, but he was weak himself and couldn't see any way out for either of us.
"They had pretty stormy times all that day. Late in the afternoon Herbert and Bessemer went to their mother's room and were closeted with her for two hours, after which Herbert went away in the car with his suitcase and bags as if he were not coming back soon. I watched him from my window, and in great relief went down to take a little walk, for I had stayed closely in my room all day trying to plan what to do. One thing that held me from running away was that it would be such a disgrace to the family, and I knew my father would have felt it so keenly. That was always the great trouble when the boys got into scrapes at college, my father would groan and say he felt disgraced to be so conspicuous before the world. So I hesitated to do what would have been a sorrow to him had he been alive.
"Half an hour later I was sitting alone in the twilight on one of the porches, and Bessemer came out and sat down beside me.
"He looked so sort of homely and lonesome that I put my hand on his arm and told him I was awfully sorry for him, and suddenly he turned around and said:
"'Say, Betty, why don't you marry me? Then they can't say a word to either of us. Your father's wishes will be carried out and Herb'll have to whistle.'
"At first I was horrified, but we talked a long time about it, and he told me how lonely he had always been, and how nobody had ever loved him, and he knew he wasn't attractive, and all that; and then he said that if I married him we would go away and live by ourselves and he would let me do just as I wanted to. He wouldn't bother me about anything. If I didn't love him he would keep out of my sight, and things like that, till I got very sorry for him, and began to think that perhaps after all it was the best thing that would ever come for either of us. So I said I would.
"It surprised me a little that my stepmother took it so calmly when we told her. She cried a little, but did it very prettily, and kissed Bessemer, and told him he was fortunate. Then she kissed me and said I was a darling, and that she would be so happy if it only weren't for poor dear Herbert.
"But after that they began to rush things for a grand wedding, and I let them do it because I didn't see anything else in the world for me."
Betty raised her eyes and encountered the clear grave gaze of Reyburn fixed on her, and the color flew into her cheeks:
"I know you think I'm dreadful," she said, shrinking. "I've thought so myself a thousand times, but truly I didn't realize then what an awful thing it would be to marry a man I didn't love. I only wanted to hurry up and get it done before Herbert came home. They said he had been called away by important business and might be at home any day. I gave my consent to everything they wanted to do, and they fixed it all just as they pleased. One thing that happened upset me terribly. When the wedding invitations came home my stepmother carried them off to her room. I was too sad to pay much attention anyway. But the next morning I happened to be down in the kitchen looking over the papers that the maid had taken down from the waste baskets to search for a missing letter and there in the pile I found one of the invitations partly addressed and flung aside, and the invitation was still in the envelope. I pulled it out with a ghastly kind of curiosity to see how I looked on paper, and there it read, Mrs. Charles Garland Stanhope invites you to be present at the marriage of her daughter Elizabeth to Mr. Herbert Hutton!
"My heart just stood still. With the paper in my hand I rushed up to my stepmother's room and demanded to know what that meant. She smiled and said she was so sorry I had been annoyed that way, that that was a mistake, the invitations had come wrongly engraved and she had had to send them back and have them done over again. She was afraid I might be superstitious about it, so she hadn't told me. She was very gentle and sweet and tried to soothe me, and called me 'Betty,' the name my father always had for me, and at last I went back to my room feeling quite comfortable. She had said she always felt troubled for poor Bessemer, that nobody could love him right, he was so homely, and now I was going to make everything right by marrying him. She was going to try to forget what I had done to poor dear Herbert, and just be happy about Bessemer. She talked so nicely that I kissed her, a thing I hadn't done in years, not since she was first married to father. But somehow the shock of seeing Herbert's name on the invitation stayed with me, and I began to feel gloomier about it all and to wonder if perhaps I had done right. The last day I was terribly depressed and when I got to the church that night it suddenly came to me that perhaps after all I was not going to be free at all as I had hoped, but was just tying myself up to them all for life. I was thinking that as I walked up the aisle, and my throat had a big lump in it the way it always does when I am frightened, and then I looked up hoping a glimpse of poor Bessemer's face would steady me and he wasn't there at all! And right over me, waiting beside the minister, to marry me stood Herbert! My knees just gave way under me, and everything got black so I couldn't go on another step, nor even stand up. I had to drop. I wasn't unconscious as you all thought—I heard everything that went on, but I couldn't do anything about it.
"After they had carried me into the other room and given me things to drink, and I could get my breath again I saw it all clearly. Herbert hadn't given up at all. He meant to marry me anyway. He had had the invitations printed with his name on purpose and they probably hadn't been changed at all. Everybody in that great church out there was expecting me to marry Herbert Hutton, and I was not going to do it! I didn't quite know how I was going to stop it, but I knew I had to! You see I was brought up to think a great deal about what people would think of me if I did anything out of the usual, and it seemed to me I had disgraced myself forever by dropping down in the aisle. I knew Herbert well enough to be sure he would carry that wedding through now if he had to hold me up in his arms till the ceremony was over, and I was desperate. I would have given everything I had in the world if the floor had opened and swallowed me up then, but of course I knew wild thoughts like that wouldn't get me anywhere, so I just shut my eyes and tried to think of a way; and then I asked them all to go out a minute and let me be quiet. The doctor who had come out of the church told them to go. I shall always bless that man, whoever he was! Then when they were gone I opened a door that had a key in it, and I locked it behind me and ran away down some stairs and out a passage that led to the street. That girl, Jane Carson, was passing and she put her own coat on me and took me to her room and sent me here. Oh, it's been so good to get here! Do you think they can take me away against my will?"
"Certainly not!" said the young man. "Not without some foul play, but I don't intend to give them any chance for that. By the way, when do you come of age?"
"In three weeks," said Betty, looking troubled. "Why, would I be safe after I was of age?"
"You certainly would not be under their guardianship any longer," said the young lawyer, "and they would have no right to control your actions, unless of course you were incapacitated somehow and unfit to manage your own affairs."
Betty looked troubled.
"I've thought sometimes, ever since I saw that paper in which they hinted that I was temporarily insane, that they might try to shut me up in an insane asylum. Herbert wouldn't stop at anything. Could he do that?"
"They would have to get a doctor to swear that you were mentally unsound," said Reyburn, looking troubled. "Does he really love you, do you think or does he only want to get you in his power for some reason?"
"It is more like that," said Betty sorrowfully, "he couldn't really love anybody but himself."
"Well, don't you worry. I'm going at the case at once, and I'll put those people where they'll have to walk a chalk line before many hours are over. The first thing I must do is to see those trustees of yours. Can you give me the names and addresses?"
He got out his fountain pen, and Betty told him all he wanted to know, that is, all she knew herself, and then suddenly it was train time and he hurried away. On the steps he paused and said in a low tone:
"Are you perfectly comfortable with these people for a few days until I can get you better accommodations where you will be safe?"
"Entirely," said Betty eagerly. "I wouldn't want to go elsewhere."
"But it must be very hard for one like you to be thrown constantly with illiterate, uncultured people."
Betty smiled dreamily:
"I don't think they are exactly uncultured," she said slowly. "They—well, you see, they make a friend of God, and somehow I think that makes a difference. Don't you think it would?"
"I should think it would," said Warren Reyburn reverently with a light in his eyes. "I think, perhaps, if you don't mind my saying it, that you, too, have been making a friend of God."
"I've been trying to," said Betty softly, with a shy glow on her face that he remembered all the way back to the city.
CANDACE CAMERON paced her little gabled room restively, with face growing redder and more excited at every step. For several weeks now she had been virtually a prisoner—albeit a willing enough one—in the house of Stanhope. But the time had come when she felt that she must do something.
She had gone quietly enough about a proscribed part of the house, doing little helpful things, making herself most useful to the madam, slipping here and there with incredible catlike tread for so plump a body, managing to overhear important conversations, and melting away like a wraith before her presence was discovered. She had made herself so unobtrusive as to be almost forgotten by all save the maid Marie, who had been set to watch her; and she had learned that if she went to bed quite early in the evening, Marie relaxed her watch and went down to the servants' quarters, or even sometimes went out with a lover for a while, that is, if the madam herself happened to be out also. On several such occasions she had made valuable tours of investigation through the madam's desk and private papers.
That she was overstepping her privileges as a servant in the house went without saying, but she silenced her Scotch conscience, which until this period of her existence had always kept her strictly from meddling with other people's affairs, by declaring over and over again to herself that she was doing perfectly right because she was doing it for the sake of "that poor wee thing that was being cheated of her rights."
Several weeks had passed since her sudden re-establishment in the family, and the reports of Betty, so hastily readjusted and refurbished to harmonize with the newspaper reports, had not been any more satisfying. Mrs. Stanhope had explained to the servants the day after the excitement that Miss Betty had become temporarily deranged, and later that she had escaped from the private hospital where she had been taken, and they were doing all in their power to find her. In reply to Candace's gimlet-like questions she had given the name of a hospital where she said Betty had been taken at first, and everything seemed altogether plausible. But as the days went by and the horror of her absence grew into the soul of the lonely woman whose care Betty had been for years, Candace became more and more restive and suspicious. It was these suspicions which sent her on her investigations, and made her uncannily wise to pry open secret locks and cover all trace of her absence after she had gleaned what knowledge she sought.
On this particular evening her excitement was due to having come across some correspondence bearing the signature of a man to whom a certain letter had been addressed, which had been entrusted to her charge by Betty's dying father and taken from her by his wife. For years she had been worried about that, and yet she had no absolute reason to doubt that the madam had not sent it to its destination, except as she knew its contents and read Mrs. Stanhope's character beneath the excellent camouflage. But to-night, even the briefest glance through the bundle of letters showed plainly that those men in Boston never knew the master's wishes, or at least, if they knew them, they were utterly disregarding them.
Aroused on one point, her suspicions began to extend further. Where was Betty? Did her stepmother know, and was she somewhere suffering, alone, perhaps being neglected because she had not done as they wanted her to do? If the stepmother was capable of destroying a letter, was she perhaps not also capable of putting Betty out of the way? There were points of detail which of course did not harmonize with any such theory as this. Candace was no logician, but she was keen enough to feel that something was wrong. As for that theory of Betty's insanity she scouted it with a harsh laugh whenever it was mentioned in her hearing. Betty—keen, sweet, trusting little Betty insane! Nonsense! It was unthinkable. If she was in an asylum anywhere she was there without warrant, and it behoved her faithful old nurse to find a way out for her. This she meant to do against all odds, for she was thoroughly aroused now.
She went to the window and looked down into the lighted street. Over there not four blocks away rose the steeple of the church where Betty had gone to be married! Around the corner was the great brick pile of the hospital where her stepmother said she had been taken from the church, and from which she was believed by the other servants to have escaped.
Standing thus looking out into the light-starred city, Candace began to form a plan, her plump tightly garmented chest rising and falling excitedly as she thought it all out. It was up to her to find out what had become of Betty. But how was she to get away without being suspected? Somehow she must do it. She knew perfectly the address that had been on that letter. She had written it down carefully from memory as soon as it had been taken away from her. She must go to Boston and find that man to whom it had been written, and discover whether he had ever received it. But she could not go until she found out certainly whether or not Betty had ever really escaped from the hospital. Who knew but that she was shut up there yet, and the madam telling this tale all about and advertising with a five thousand dollar reward! In the movies, too! Such a disgrace on the family! How the master would have writhed at the publicity of his beloved daughter—"poor wee thing!"
Candace turned from the window with her lips set, and tiptoeing to the door, listened. Yes, it was Aileen who was coming lightly up the stairs, singing in a low tone. It was Aileen's evening out. That meant that Marie would be more than usually active on the upper floor. She must manage it before Aileen left and Marie was called upstairs, or there would be no opportunity to get away without Marie seeing her.
Hastily she gathered her silk dress, her cloak and her apoplectic hat into a bundle with her purse and her gloves, and tied them into an old apron, with the strings hanging free. Then stealthily opening the window, she dropped them out into the kitchen area below, close to the region of the ash cans. It was a risk, of course, but one must take some chances, and the servants would all be in the kitchen just now, laughing and talking. They would scarcely have heard it fall.
She listened a tense instant, then closed the window, and possessing herself of a few little things, gathered hastily about the room, which she could stuff in her pockets, she opened her door softly, closed it behind her, and trotted off down the stairs just as if she were going about her ordinary duty. Listening a minute outside the kitchen door she slipped stealthily down the cellar stairs, and tiptoed over to the area door where the ashman took out the ashes. Softly slipping the bolt she opened the door and drew in her bundle. Then standing within, she quickly slipped the black silk over her housemaid's gown, donned her coat and hat and gloves, and sallied forth. A moment more and she was in the next street with the consciousness that she "might have done the like any time sooner, if she'd wanted, in spite of that little spy-cat Marie."
"If I want to go back I'll just say I went after my insurance book," she chuckled to herself as she sped down the street in the direction of the hospital.
Arrived at the big building she asked to see the list of patients taken in on the day of Betty's wedding, and succeeded in getting a pretty accurate description of each one, sufficient at least to satisfy her that Betty was not among them. Then she asked a few more bold questions, and came away fully convinced that Betty had never been in that hospital.
By this time it was nine o'clock, and she meant to take the evening train for Boston, which left, she was sure, somewhere near midnight. She took a trolley to her old lodgings where she had been since Mrs. Stanhope had sent her away the first time, and hastily packed a small hand bag with a few necessities, made a few changes in her garments, then went to see a fellow lodger whom she knew well, and where she felt sure she could easily get a check cashed, for she had a tidy little bank account of her own, and was well known to be reliable.
Having procured the necessary funds, she made her way to the station and found that she had still an hour to spare before the Boston train left.
Settled down at last in the back seat of a common car, she made herself as comfortable as her surroundings would allow, and gave herself up to planning the campaign that was before her.
Canny Candace did not go at once to the office of the brothers, James and George McIntyre, though she looked them up in the telephone book the very first thing when the train arrived in Boston even before she had had a bite to eat, and her cup of tea which meant more to her than the "bite." She reasoned that they would be busy in the early hours and not be able to give her their undivided attention. She had not lived out all her life for nothing. She knew the ways of the world, and she had very strict ideas about the best ways of doing everything. So it happened that when she was at last shown into the office of the McIntyres, Warren Reyburn who had traveled to Boston on the sleeper of the same train that she had taken the night before, was just arising from an earnest conference with the two men. With her first glance, as the three emerged from the inner office, Candace saw that the two elder gentlemen were much disturbed and it flitted through her mind that she had come at an inopportune moment. Then her quick eye took in the younger man and her little alert head cocked to one side with a questioning attitude. Where had she seen him before? Candace had the kind of a mind that kept people and events card-indexed even to the minutest detail, and it didn't take many seconds for her to place Warren Reyburn back in the church at the wedding, standing against the wall with his arms folded. She had noticed him particularly because he was so courteous to a little old lady who came in too late to get a seat. She had studied him as he stood there, waiting for the wedding march, and she had thought how handsome he looked and how fine it would have been if her wee Betty had been getting a man like that in place of the weak-faced Bessemer Hutton. She had watched to see who he was with, and felt deep satisfaction when she noticed him lean over and speak to Mrs. Bryce Cochrane as if he belonged to her. He wasn't her husband, because she knew Mr. Cochrane, who had been a favorite with Mr. Stanhope and much at the house. This man might be Mrs. Cochrane's brother "or the likes," and she had pleased herself watching him till Betty arrived and took all her thoughts. So now she stood with her little round head in its hectic hat tilted interestedly to one side, watching, ears on the keen to catch any word, for all the world like a "bit brown sparrow" saucily perched on another man's window, where it really had no right to be.
At last one of the McIntyre's shook hands gravely with the younger man, and the other one attended him to the door, talking in low tones. The McIntyre thus set at liberty, turned questioningly toward the stranger, who was not slow in getting to her feet and coming forward.
"You will maybe be Mr. James McIntyre?" she asked, lifting her sea-blue eyes set in her apple-red face, and fixing her firm little lips in dignity. Candace was a servant and knew her place, but she felt the importance of her mission, and meant to have no disrespect done to it.
"I am Mr. George McIntyre," the gentleman replied, and, indicating the man at the door, "Mr. James McIntyre will be at liberty in a moment, but perhaps I will do as well?"
Candace cocked a glance toward the elderly back at the door; and then returned her look to Mr. George:
"You'll maybe be knowing Mr. Charles Stanhope?" she propounded, as if she were giving him a riddle, and her blue eyes looked him through and through:
"Oh, surely, surely! He was a very close friend! You—knew him?"
"I was Miss Betty's nurse who cooked the griddle cakes for you the morning after the funeral——" she said, and waited with breathless dignity to see how he would take it.
"Oh! Is that so!" He beamed on her kindly. "Yes, yes, I remember those cakes. They were delicious! And what can I do for you? Just sit down. Why, bless me, I don't know but that your coming may be very opportune! Can you tell me anything of Miss Betty?"
Candace pressed her lips together with a knowing smile as much as to say she might tell volumes if it were wise, and she cast a glance at the other brother who was shaking hands now with his visitor and promising to meet him a little later:
"Yon man'll be knowing a bit, too, I'll be thinking," she hazarded nodding toward Reyburn as he left. "He was at the wedding, I'm most sure——!"
The elder McIntyre gave her a quick glance and signalled to his brother to come near:
"This is Miss Stanhope's nurse, the one who cooked breakfast for us at the time of the funeral," he said, and to Candace, "This is Mr. James McIntyre."
Candace fixed him with another of her inquisitive little glances:
"I've some bit papers put by that I thought ye might like to see," she said with a cautious air. "I've kept them fer long because I thought they might be wanted sometime, yet I've never dared bring them to your notice before lest I would be considered meddlin', and indeed I wasn't sure but you had them already. Will you please to look over them papers and see if you've ever seen them before?" She drew forth an envelope from her bag and handed it to them. "It's a bit letter that Mr. Stanhope wrote the day he was dyin' an' then copied and give to me to mail, and his lady took it away, sayin' she would attend to it. What I want to know is, did ye ever get the letter? If ye did it's all right and none of my business further, an' I'll go on my way back home again and think no more about it; but if ye didn't then there it is, an' you ought to see it, that's sure!"
The two men drew eagerly together and studied the trembling lines:
"It's his writing all right," murmured one, under his breath, and the brother nodded gravely:
"You say that this was the original of a letter that was given to you to mail to us?"
"It's what he wrote first, and got ink on it, an' then wrote it over. I can't say what changes he made, as I didn't read it, but this he gave to me to burn, and before I gets it burned my lady comes in and takes the letter from me while he was sleepin'; and so I hid the bit papers, thinkin' they might be a help to wee Betty sometime. And oh, can ye tell me anything of my little Lady Betty? Is she safe? Did she come to you for refuge? You needn't be afraid to tell me. I'll never breathe a word——!"
The two brothers exchanged quick glances of warning and the elder man spoke:
"My good woman, we appreciate your coming, and these papers may prove very useful to us. We hope to be able to clear up this matter of Miss Stanhope's disappearance very soon. She did not come to us, however, and she is not here. But if you will step into the room just beyond and wait for a little while we may be able to talk this matter over with you."
Very courteously he ushered the plump, apprehensive little woman into the next room and established her in an easy leather chair with a quantity of magazines and newspapers about her, but she kept her little head cocked anxiously on one side, and watched the door like a dog whose master has gone in and shut the way behind him; and she never sat back in her chair nor relaxed one iota during the whole of the two hours that she had to wait before she was called at last to the inner office where she found the handsome young man whom she remembered seeing at the wedding.
She presently found that Reyburn was as keen as he was handsome, but if she hadn't remembered him at the wedding as a friend of that nice Mrs. Cochrane, she never would have made it as easy as she did for him to find out things from her, for she could be canny herself on occasion if she tried, and she did not trust everybody.
THE mysterious disappearance of Candace from the Stanhope house caused nothing short of a panic. Herbert and his mother held hourly wrangles, and frantically tried one thing and then another. Day after day the responses came in from the advertisements they had caused to be put forth. Everyone was hot-foot for the reward, but so far little of encouragement had been brought out. More and more the young man was fixing his mind on the idea that Candace had something to do with Betty's disappearance, so he was leaving no stone unturned to find the nurse as well as the girl. To this end he insisted on seeing personally and cross-examining every person who came claiming to have a clue to the lost girl.
That morning, at about the same hour when Candace walked into the office of the McIntyre Brothers in Boston, James, the butler, much against his dignity, was ushering a curious person into the presence of the son of the house. James showed by every line of his noble figure that he considered this duty beneath his dignity, and that it was only because the occasion was unusual that he tolerated it for a moment, but the man who ambled observantly behind him, stretching his neck to see everything that was to be seen in this part of the great house, that he might tell about it at the fire-house, failed to get the effect. He was wondering why in thunder such rich people as these seemed to be, couldn't afford carpets big enough to cover their whole floors, instead of just having skimpy little bits of pieces dropped around here and there, that made you liable to skid all over the place if you stepped on one of them biasly.
Herbert Hutton lifted his head and watched Abijah Gage slouch into the room. He measured him keenly and remained silent while Abijah opened up. There had been many other applicants for that reward that day, with stories cunningly woven, and facts, substantiated by witnesses, in one case a whole family brought along to swear to the fabrication; but as yet Herbert had not found a promising clue to his missing bride, and the time was going by. In a few days it would be too late, and his undisciplined spirit raged within him. It was not only his bride he wanted, it was her fortune, which was worth any trouble he might take; and every day, every hour, every minute now, it was slipping, slipping, slipping from his eager grasp.
Abijah was a little overawed in the presence of this insolent man of the world, but he felt he had, for almost the first time in his life, Truth on his side, and he was strong in the power of it. With a cunning equal to the one that matched him he dealt out his information bit by bit, giving only enough at a time to make his victim sure it was the real thing this time; and then he halted stubbornly and would say no more until that five thousand dollars was signed and sealed over to him. They had a long argument, but in the end Bi won, and was given certain documents which he was satisfied would stand in court. A little later the telephone in Reyburn's office rang sharply, and when Jimmie Ryan responded a voice that he had never heard before asked for Mr. Warren Reyburn.
"He's out of town," Jimmie replied.
"How soon will he be back?" The voice was like a snarl.
"I'm not quite sure. He's called to Boston on business," swelled Jimmie loyally.
An oath ripped over the wire, and Jimmie raged within and quailed. Was his idol then losing a great case?
"He might be back in a few hours," insinuated Jimmie. "Who shall I say called up if he should have me over long distance?"
"You needn't say anybody! I'll call up again," growled the voice, and the man hung up.
Jimmie sat for a long time in blissful reverie. "He's getting there!" he whispered to himself. "He'll get the big cases yet, and I can keep my first place. I must see Jane to-night and tell her."
Meanwhile, back at Tinsdale improvements had been going on at the Carsons'. Bob, always handy with tools, had been putting in a tank over the bathtub. They had one at the house on the hill, only it was run by a windmill. Bob had a friend who was a plumber's son, and from him had obtained some lengths of second-hand water-pipe and an old faucet. He had conceived the idea of a tank on the roof, and his first plan had been only a rainwater tank, but gradually as his vision widened he included a force pump in the outfit of desires. He hung around the plumber's until they unearthed an old force pump somewhat out of repair, and for a few days' assisting the plumber Bob acquired it, together with after-hour help to put it into operation. The next object was a tank, which seemed at first to represent the impossible; but the grocer at last offered a suggestion in the shape of several large empty hogsheads which he readily accepted at the price of four Saturdays' work in the store.
All Bob's extra time was put into these improvements, and he was as excited every night when it grew dark and he was forced to come to supper because he couldn't see any longer to work, as if he had been building an airship.
The day the hogsheads were marshaled and connected and the force pump sent its first stream into them was a great occasion. The family assembled in the yard, with Elise Hathaway, who had been allowed to come over for a few minutes with Betty. Bob and his plumber friend pumped, and Emily climbed to the attic window, which overlooked the row of hogsheads, ranged so that the water would flow from one to the other, and acted as pilot to the new enterprise. As the first stream from the force pump, which Bob had lavishly painted red, crept its way up the pipes and began to wet the bottom of the first and highest hogshead Emily gave a little squeal of delight and shouted "It's come! It's come! The water's come!" and the family below fairly held their breath with the wonder of it. Not that such a thing could be, but that their own freckled, grinning Bob should have been able to achieve it.
There was an elaborate system of tin conductors which conveyed the waste water from the bathtub out through a hole in the wall of the little laundry bathroom, and distributed it along the garden beds wherever its controller desired to irrigate. Thus the system became practical as well as a luxury. There was also an arrangement of gutter pipes for carrying off any surplus water from the hogsheads, so saving the Carson house from possible inundation at any time of heavy storms.
After the plumbing was finished Bob painted the laundry neatly inside with beautiful white paint and robin's-egg blue for the ceiling, and Betty told him it almost made one think of going swimming in the ocean. Next he began to talk about a shower bath. Betty told him what one was like and he began to spend more days down at the plumber's asking questions and picking up odd bits of pipe, making measurements, and doing queer things to an old colander for experiment's sake. The day that Warren Reyburn came for the first time Bob had the shower part finished and ready to erect, and the next day saw it complete with a rod for the rubber curtain that Betty had promised to make for him. He and she were planning how they would make further improvements on the house before Jane and Nellie should come home for their summer vacation week. Betty had thoroughly entered into the life of the little household now, and was a part of it. She saved her own small wages, and grudged all she had to spend for necessary clothes, that she might contribute further to the comfort and beauty of the general home.
After Warren Reyburn's visit the last barrier between Betty and Ma seemed to be broken down. As soon as she had closed the door she flew into the other room and flung her arms around Ma's neck, bursting into soft weeping on her motherly shoulder. Ma had done a rapid turning act when she heard her coming, for in truth she had been peeping behind the green window-shade to watch the handsome stranger go down the street, but she would have dropped the iron on her foot and pretended to be picking it up rather than let Betty suspect her interest in the visitor.
"Oh, mother," she murmured in Mrs. Carson's willing ear, "I have been so frightened——"
"I know, dearie!" soothed the mother, quite as if she had been her own. "I know!"
"But he was very kind," she said lifting her head with an April effect of tears. "He's going to try to fix things for me so that I don't need ever to be afraid of any one making trouble for me any more. You see, I sort of ran away. There was somebody I was afraid of who troubled me a great deal."
"Yes, dearie, I thought as much," said Ma. "Jane kind of gave me to understand there was something like that. I'm real glad there's somebody goin' to look into your affairs an' fix things right for you. I knew you was restless an' worried. Now it'll get all straightened out. He's got a nice face. I trusted him first off. He's a church member, an' that's somethin'. They ain't all spiritual, but they're mostly clean an' just an' kindly, when they're anythin' at all but just plain hypocrites, which, thank the Lord, there ain't so many as some would have us believe. Now wash your face, dearie, an' run back to your place so you can come home early, for we're goin' to have the old hen with dumplin's for supper to celebrate."
That was one charming thing about that household: they celebrated every blessed little trifle that came into their lives, so that living with them was like a procession of beautiful thanksgivings.
It was while Betty was eating the gala "hen," delicious in its festive gravy and dumplings, that she looked off across the little dining-room to the dark window with its twinkling village lights in the distance and thought of the stranger. A dark fear flashed across her sweet face and sparkled in the depths of her eyes for just an instant. Was it perhaps the distant bay of the hounds on her trail, coming nearer every moment? Then she remembered the heavenly Father and her new-found faith, and turned back to the cheery little room and the children's pleasant clatter, resolved to forget the fear and to trust all to Him who cared for her. Perhaps he had sent the pleasant stranger, and the thought brought a quiet little smile to settle about her lips. She laughed with Bob and Emily at how they had got wet with a sudden unexpected shower from the new bath while they were arranging the curtain on the rod, and Emily had turned the faucet on without knowing it. The patient-eyed mother watched them all and was satisfied.
How good it is that we cannot hear all the noises of the earth at the same time, nor know of every danger that lurks near as we are passing by! We grumble a great deal that God does not send us as much as we think he might, but we give scarce a thought to our escape from the many perils, lying close as our very breath, of which we never even dream.
At that moment, as they sat quietly eating their happy meal, a deadly particular peril was headed straight for Tinsdale.
Abijah Gage and Herbert Hutton boarded the evening train for Tinsdale together and entered the sleeper. Abijah shuffled behind, carrying the bags, a most extraordinary and humiliating position for him. He had never been known to carry anything, not even himself if he could help it, since the day his mother died and ceased to force him to carry in wood and water for her at the end of a hickory switch. He glanced uneasily round with a slight cackle of dismay as he arrived in the unaccustomed plush surroundings and tried to find some place to dump his load. But the well-groomed Herbert strode down the long aisle unnoticing and took possession of the section he had secured as if he owned the road.
"You can sit there!" he ordered Bi with a condescending motion, dropping into his own seat and opening a newspaper.
Bi sat down on the edge of the seat, and held on to the arm in a gingerly way as if he were afraid to trust himself to anything so different. He looked furtively up and down the car, eyed the porter, who ignored him contemptuously and finally came back and demanded his sleeper ticket with a lordliness that Bi did not feel he could take from a negro. But somehow the ticket got tangled in his pocket, and Bi had a hard time finding it, which deepened his indignation at the porter.
"I ain't takin' no sass from no one. My seat's paid fer all right," he said distinctly for the enlightenment of the other passengers, and Herbert Hutton reached out a discreet arm and dropped something in the porter's hand which sent him on his way and left Bi snorting audibly after him.
"You'd better shut up!" growled the dictator to Bi. "We don't want to be conspicuous, you know. If you can't hold your tongue and act as if you had ever traveled before, I'll get off this train at the next station and you can whistle for your reward. Do you understand?"
Bi dropped his toothless lower jaw a trifle and his little eyes grew narrow. This was no way to manage affable Bi. He loved a good visit, and he had counted on one all the way to Tinsdale. He had no idea of sitting silent.
"I understand," he drawled, "an' I'll be gormed ef I'll agree. I ain't told you yet where we get off, an' I don't have to ef I don't wantta. Ef you can't treat me like a gen'l'man you know where you can get off, an' I ain't havin' to state it."
Herbert Hutton drew his arrogant brows in a frown of annoyance, and whirled around to placate his guide:
"Now see here, you old popinjay, what's got into you?"
"No, sir, I ain't nobody's papa," babbled Bi, seeing he had scored a point. "I have enough to do to support myself without any family."
"That's all right, have it your own way, only shut up or we'll have somebody listening. Have a cigar. Take two. But you can't smoke 'em in here, you'll have to go to the smoking-room. Wait! I'll see if we can get the drawing-room."
The porter appeared and the change was effected, to the great disappointment of Bi, who kept continually poking his head out to get a glimpse of the fine ladies. He would much have preferred staying out in the main car and getting acquainted with people. His cunning had departed with the need. He had put things in the hands of this surly companion, and now he meant to have a good time and something to tell the gang about when he got home.
About midnight the train drew into a station and Herbert Hutton roused himself and looked out of the window. Bi, whose cunning had returned, followed his example. Suddenly he leaned forward excitedly and tapped the glass with a long finger:
"That's him! That's the guy," he whispered excitedly as another train drew in and passengers began to hurry down the platform and across to the waiting sleeper.
"Are you sure?"
"You mean the one with the coat over his arm, and the two men behind?" He stopped short with an exclamation.
Bi looked up cunningly. Now what was up? He saw a thunder-cloud on the face of his companion.
With embellishments Herbert Hutton asked if Bi had ever seen the two tall gray-haired men who were walking with their prey.
Bi narrowed his eyes and denied any knowledge, but perceived there were more sides than two to the enigma. Now, what could he figure out of those two guys? Were there more rewards to be offered? If so, he was a candidate. He wondered what chance there was of getting away from H. H. and sauntering through the train. He found, however, a sudden willingness on the part of his companion to vanish and let him do the scout work for the rest of the night.
With a sense of being on a vacation and a chance at catching big fish Bi swung out through the train. Bumping down among the now curtained berths, adjusting his long form to the motion of the express, lurching to right and to left as they went round a curve, falling over an occasional pair of shoes and bringing down lofty reproaches from the sleepy porter, he penetrated to the day coaches and at last located his quarry.
They were sitting in a double seat, the younger man facing the two older ones, and had evidently been unable to get sleepers. Bi hung around the water-cooler at the far end of the car until he had laid out his plans; then he sauntered up to the vacant seat behind the three men and dropped noiselessly into its depths, drawing his hat down well over his face, and apparently falling into instant slumber, with a fair sample of Tinsdale snoring brought in at moderate distances.
The conversation was earnest, in well-modulated voices, and hard to follow connectedly, for the men knew how to talk without seeming to the outside world to be saying anything intelligible. Occasionally a sentence would come out clear cut in an interval of the rhythm of the train, but for the most part Bi could make little or nothing of it.
"In all the years we've been trustees of that estate we haven't seen her but twice," said one of the older men; "once at her father's second marriage, and again at his funeral. Then we only saw her at a distance. Her stepmother said she was too grief-stricken to speak with any one, and it was by the utmost effort she could be present at the service."
"She looked very frail and young," said the other old man; "and her hair—I remember her hair!"
Bi changed his position cautiously and tried to peer over the back of his seat, but the voices were crowded together now, and the younger man was talking earnestly. He could not catch a syllable. "Trustees!" That word stayed with him. "Estate" was another promising one, and the fact that her hair had been remembered. He nodded his old head sagaciously, and later when the three men settled back in their seats more comfortably with their eyes closed he slid back to the water-cooler and so on through the sleeper to the drawing-room.
Hutton was sleeping the sleep of the unjust, which means that he woke at the slightest breath, and Bi's breath was something to wake a heavier sleeper. So they sat and planned as the train rushed on through the night. Now and again Bi took a pilgrimage up to the day coach and back to report the three travelers still asleep.
About six o'clock in the morning the train slowed down, and finally came to a thrashing halt, waking the sleepers uncomfortably and making them conscious of crunching feet in the cinders outside, and consulting voices of trainmen busy with a hammer underneath the car somewhere. Then they drowsed off to sleep again and the voices and hammering blended comfortably into their dreams.
The passengers in the day coach roused, looked at their watches, stretched their cramped limbs, squinted out to see if anything serious was the matter, and settled into a new position to sleep once more.
Bi, stretched for the nonce upon the long couch of the drawing-room while his superior occupied the more comfortable berth, roused to instant action, slipped out to the platform and took his bearings. He had lived in that part of the country all his life and he knew where they ought to be by that time. Yes, there was the old saw mill down by Hague's Crossing, and the steeple over by the soft maple grove just beyond Fox Glove. It would not be a long walk, and they had a garage at Fox Glove!
He sauntered along the cinder path; discovered that the trouble with the engine was somewhat serious, requiring to wait for help, took a glimpse into the day coach ahead to assure himself that the three men were still safely asleep, and sauntered back to the drawing-room.
His entrance roused the sleeper, who was on the alert instantly.
"Say, we got a hot box an' a broken engyne!" Bi announced. "It'll take us some time. We ain't fur from Fox Glove. We could santer over an' git a car an' beat 'em to it!"
"We could?" said Hutton. "You sure? No chances, mind you!"
"Do it easy. Those guys are asleep. They won't get to the Junction 'fore ten o'clock, mebbe later, an' they can't possibly get to our place 'fore 'leven."
"Lead the way!" ordered Hutton, cramming himself into his coat and hat.
"Better slide down on the other side," whispered Bi as they reached the platform. "We kin go back round the train an' nobody'll notice."
As if they were only come out to see what was the matter they idled along the length of the train around out of sight, slid down the bank, took a shortcut across a meadow to a road, and were soon well on their way to Fox Glove in the early cool of the spring morning, a strangely mated couple bent on mischief.
Back on the cinder track the express waited, dreamily indifferent, with a flagman ahead and behind to guard its safety, and while men slept the enemy took wings and flew down the white morning road to Tinsdale, but no one ran ahead with a little red flag to the gray cottage where slept Betty, to warn her, though perchance an angel with a flaming sword stood invisibly to guard the way.
BOB had just finished feeding the chickens when the automobile drew up at the door, and he hurried around the house to see who it might be. He was rather looking for the return of that nice lawyer again. He felt the family expected him some time soon. Perhaps he would be to breakfast and mother would want some fresh eggs.
They had dropped Bi at the edge of the village and there were only Hutton and the driver who had brought them. Bi had no mind to get mixed up in this affair too openly. He valued his standing in his home town, and did not wish to lose it. He had an instinct that what he was doing might make him unpopular if it became known. Besides, he had another ax to grind.
Bob did not like the looks of the strange dark man who got out of the car and came into the yard with the air of a thrashing machine bolting into whatever came in his way. He stood sturdily and waited until he was asked who lived there, and admitted with a stingy "yes" that it was Mrs. Carson's house. A thundering knock on the front door followed, and the other man in the car got out and came into the yard behind the first.
"Well, you needn't take the door down," snapped Bob, and scuttled around the house to warn his mother, aware that he had been rude, and glad of it.
It was Betty who came to the door, for Ma was frying bacon and eggs for breakfast, and Bob hadn't been quite soon enough. She started back with a scream, and eluding the hand that reached for her arm, fairly flew back to the kitchen, taking refuge behind Mrs. Carson, with her eyes wild with fear and her hand on her heart, while Hutton strode after her.
Mrs. Carson wheeled around with her knife in her hand and faced him:
"What do you mean by coming into my house this way, I'd like to know?" she demanded angrily, putting her arm around Betty.
"I beg your pardon," said Hutton, a poor apology for courtesy slipping into his manner. "I don't suppose you know it, but that is my wife you are harboring there, and she ran away from home several months ago! I have just discovered her whereabouts and have come to take her away!"
Ma straightened up with the air of a queen and a judge, while Betty stifled a scream and in a small voice full of terror cried: "It isn't true, Mrs. Carson, it isn't true! Oh, mother, don't let him take me!"
Mrs. Carson pushed Betty behind her, the knife still in her other hand, and answered with dignity:
"You've made a big mistake, Mr. Herbert Hutton; this isn't your wife at all. I know all about you."
Hutton put on a look of instant suavity.
"Oh, of course, madam, she has told you that, but I'm sorry to have to tell you that she is not in her right mind. She made her escape from the insane asylum."
"Oh, rats!" shouted Bob, and vanished out the kitchen door, slamming it behind him.
Emily, frightened and white, stood just outside, and he nearly knocked her over in his flight. He pulled her along with him, whispering in her ear excitedly:
"You beat it down to the fire gong and hit it for all you're worth! Quick!"
Emily gave him one frightened look and sprang to action. Her little feet sped down the path to the lot where hung the big fire gong, like two wild rabbits running for their life, and in a moment more the loud whang of alarm rang through the little town, arousing the "gang" and greatly disconcerting Bi, who was craning his neck at the station and watching the fast-growing speck down the railroad track. That sure was the train coming already. How had they made it so soon?
But Bob was on his stomach in the road scuttling the ship that was to have carried away the princess. The chauffeur was fully occupied in the house, for he had been ordered to follow and be ready to assist in carrying away an insane person, and he had no thought for his car at present. It was an ugly job, and one that he didn't like, but he was getting big pay, and such things had to be done.
Bob's knife was sharp. He always kept it in good condition. It did many of the chores about the house, and was cunning in its skill. It cut beautiful long punctures in the four tires, until there was no chance at all of that car's going on its way for some time to come. Then he squirmed his way out on the opposite side from the house, slid along by the fence to the side door, around to the back like a flash and without an instant's hesitation hauled up his elaborate system of drainage. He stuck the longest conductor pipe through the open window of the old laundry, clutched at the sill and swung inside, drawing the pipe in after him.
The altercation in the kitchen had reached white heat. Hutton's suavity was fast disappearing behind a loud angry tone. He had about sized up Ma and decided to use force.
It was a tense moment when Bob, his hasty arrangements made, silently swung open the laundry door in full range of the uninvited guests and waited for the psychological moment. Mrs. Carson had dropped her knife and seized the smoking hot frying-pan of bacon as a weapon. She was cool and collected, but one could see in her eyes the little devil of battle that sometimes sat in Bob's eyes as she swung the frying-pan back for a blow. Suddenly out flashed a cold steel eye, menacing, unanswerable, looking straight into her own.
At that instant, unannounced and unobserved, through the laundry door lumbered a long ugly tin conductor pipe, and the deluge began. Straight into the eyes of the would-be husband it gushed, battering swashingly down on the cocked revolver, sending it harmlessly to the floor, where it added to the confusion by going off with a loud report, and sending the chauffeur to the shelter of the parlor. Bob never knew how near he came to killing some one by his hasty service, and Ma never had the heart to suggest it. Instead she acted promptly and secured the weapon before the enemy had time to recover from his shock.
Bob, in the laundry, standing on a chair mounted on a board across the bathtub, sturdily held his wobbling conductor pipe and aimed it straight to the mark. Of course he knew that even a well-filled phalanx of hogsheads could not hold the enemy forever, but he was counting on the fire company to arrive in time to save the day.
Gasping, clawing the air, ducking, diving here and there to escape the stream, Herbert Hutton presented a spectacle most amusing and satisfying to Bob's boy mind.
"Beat it, Lizzie, beat it! Beat it!" he shouted above the noise of the pouring waters. But Betty, white with horror, seemed to have frozen to the spot. She could not have moved if she had tried, and her brain refused to order her to try. She felt as if the end of everything had come and she were paralyzed.
Down the street with dash and flourish, licking up excitement like a good meal, dashed the gang, the fire chief ostentatiously arraying himself in rubber coat and helmet as he stood on the side of the engine, while the hysterical little engine bell banged away, blending with the sound of the bell of the incoming train at the station. Bi, with his mouth stretched wide, and one foot holding him for the train while the other urged toward the fire and excitement, vibrated on the platform, a wild figure of uncertainty. Where Duty and Inclination both called, Cupidity still had the upper hand.
For once Bi did not have to act a part as he stood watching the three travelers descend from the train. The excitement in his face was real and his gestures were quite natural, even the ones made by his one and only long waving top-lock of gray hair that escaped all bounds as his hat blew off with the suction of the train. Bi rushed up to the three men wildly:
"Say, was you goin' down to Carson's house after that Hope girl?" he demanded loudly.
The three men surveyed him coldly, and the young one gave him a decided shove:
"That will do, my friend," he said firmly. "We don't need any of your assistance."
"But I got a line on this thing you'll want to know," he insisted, hurrying alongside. "There's a guy down there in a car goin' to take her away. He ain't been gone long, but you won't find her 'thout my help. He's goin' to take her to a insane institution. I let on I was helpin' him an' I found out all about it."
"What's all this?" said Reyburn, wheeling about and fixing the old fellow with a muscular young shake that made his toothless jaws chatter. "How long ago did he go? What kind of a looking man was he?"
"Lemme go!" whined Bi, playing to make time, one cunning eye down the road. "I ain't as young as I used to be, an' I can't stand gettin' excited. I got a rig here a purpose, an' I'll take you all right down, an' then ef he's gone, an' I s'pose he must be, 'cause your train was late, why, we'll foller."
"Well, quick, then!" said Reyburn, climbing into the shackley spring wagon that Bi indicated, the only vehicle in view. The two trustees climbed stiffly and uncertainly into the back seat as if they felt they were risking their lives, and Bi lumbered rheumatically into the driver's place and took up the lines. It appeared that the only living thing in Tinsdale that wasn't awake and keen to go to the fire was that horse, and Bi had to do quite a little urging with the stump of an old whip. So, reluctantly, they joined the procession toward the Carson house.
As the stream from the hogshead gurgled smaller, and the victim writhed out of its reach and began to get his bearings, suddenly the outside kitchen door burst open and a crew of rubber-coated citizens sprang in, preceded by a generous stream of chemicals which an ardent young member of the company set free indiscriminately in his excitement. It struck the right man squarely in the middle and sent him sprawling on the floor.
Bob dropped the conductor pipe in exhausted relief and flew to the scene of action. It had been fearful to be held from more active service so long. Emily, outside, could be seen dancing up and down excitedly and directing the procession, with frightened shouts, "In there! In the kitchen! Quick!" as the neighbors and townsmen crowded in and filled the little kitchen demanding to know where the fire was.
Mrs. Carson with dignity stepped forward to explain:
"There ain't any fire, friends, an' I don't know how you all come to get here, but I reckon the Lord sent you. You couldn't a-come at a better moment. We certainly was in some trouble, an' I'll be obliged to you all if you'll just fasten that man up so't he can't do any more harm. He came walkin' in here tryin' to take away a member of my family by force, an' he pointed this at me!"
She lifted the incriminating weapon high where they could all see.
Herbert Hutton, struggling to his feet in the crowd, began to understand that this was no place for him, and looked about for an exit, but none presented itself. The chauffeur had vanished and was trying to make out what had happened to his car.
Hutton, brought to bay, turned on the crowd like a snarling animal, although the effect was slightly spoiled by his drabbled appearance, and roared out insolently:
"The woman doesn't know what she's talking about, men; she's only frightened. I came here after my wife, and I intend to take her away with me! She escaped from an insane asylum some time ago, and we've been looking for her ever since. This woman is doing a very foolish and useless thing in resisting me, for the law can take hold of her, of course."
The crowd wavered and looked uncertainly at Mrs. Carson and at Betty cowering horrified behind her, and Hutton saw his advantage:
"Men," he went on, "there is one of your own townsmen who knows me and can vouch for me. A Mr. Gage. Abijah Gage. If you will just look him up—he was down at the station a few minutes ago. He knows that all I am saying is true!"
A low sound like a rumble went over the little audience and they seemed to bunch together and look at one another while some kind of an understanding traveled from eye to eye. An articulate syllable, "Bi!" breathed in astonishment, and then again "Bi!" in contempt. Public opinion, like a panther crouching, was forming itself ready to spring, when suddenly a new presence was felt in the room. Three strangers had appeared and somehow quietly gotten into the doorway. Behind them, stretching his neck and unable to be cautious any longer, appeared Bi's slouching form. Crouching Public Opinion caught sight of him and showed its teeth, but was diverted by the strangers.
Then suddenly, from the corner behind Ma, slipped Betty with outstretched hands, like a lost thing flying to its refuge, straight to the side of the handsome young stranger.
He put out his hands and drew her to his side with a protecting motion, and she whispered:
"Tell, them, please; oh, make them understand."
Then Reyburn, with her hand still protectingly in his, spoke:
"What that man has just said is a lie!"
Hutton looked up, went deadly white and reeled as he saw the two elderly men.
The crowd drew a united breath and stood straighter, looking relieved. Bi blanched, but did not budge. Whatever happened he was in with both crowds. Reyburn continued:
"I carry papers in my pocket which give authority to arrest him. If the sheriff is present will he please take charge of him. His name is Herbert Hutton, and he is charged with trying to make this lady marry him under false pretenses in order to get control of her property. She is not his wife, for she escaped before the ceremony was performed. I know, for I was present. These two gentlemen with me are the trustees of her estate."
The neighbors looked at Betty respectfully.
Bi dropped his jaw perceptibly and tried to figure out how that would affect him. The sheriff stepped forward to magnify his office, and the silence was impressive, almost reverent. In the midst of it broke Bob's practical suggestion:
"Shut him in the coal shed. It's got a padlock an' is good an' strong. He can't kick it down."
Then the law began to take its course, the fire gang stepped out, and Mrs. Carson set to work to clean up. In the midst of it all Reyburn looked down at Betty, and Betty looked up at Reyburn, and they discovered in some happy confusion that they still had hold of hands. They tried to cover their embarrassment by laughing, but something had been established between them that neither could forget.
THE days that followed were full of bliss and peace to Betty. With Hutton safely confined in the distant city, and a comfortable sum of her accumulated allowance in the Tinsdale bank, with a thorough understanding between herself and her trustees and the knowledge that her estate was large enough to do almost anything in reason that she wished to do with it, and would be hers in three weeks, life began to take on a different look to the poor storm-tossed child. The days in the Carson home were all Thanksgivings now, and every member of the family was as excited and happy as every other member. There were arguments long and earnest between Betty and her benefactor as to how much she might in reason be allowed to do for the family now that she had plenty of money, but in the end Betty won out, declaring that she had wished herself on this family in her distress, and they took her as a man does when he marries, for better for worse. Now that the worse had passed by she was theirs for the better, and she intended to exercise the privilege of a daughter of the house for the rest of her natural life.
Bi Gage was worried. He was still trying to get something out of the estate for his part in the exercises, and he vibrated between Tinsdale and Warren Reyburn's office working up his case. The five-thousand-dollar reward was as yet unpaid, and the papers he held didn't seem to impress the functionaries nearly so much as he had expected. It began to look as though Bi had missed his chances in life once more, and when he took his old seat in the fire-house and smoked, he said very little. Popular Opinion was still crouching with her eye in his direction and it behooved him to walk cautiously and do nothing to offend. So while he smoked he cogitated in his cunning little brain, and hatched out a plan by which he might get in with the heiress later, perhaps, when things had quieted down a little and she had her money.