Ann's heart ached dully—the happiness she had had in her lover had diminished of late. Constantly unpleasant words passed between them on subjects of so little importance that Ann wondered, when she was alone, why they should have been said at all. Several times Brimbecomb had refused to further his acquaintance with the twins.
"I only wish he would like those poor children," said she. "I care so little what our other friends think!"
Shellington pondered a moment. He reflected on Flea's beseeching face as she pleaded for Flukey, and he decided that the censure of all his acquaintances could not take his protection from her.
"No, I don't care for the opinion of any of them," he replied deliberately. "I want only your happiness, Sis, and—theirs."
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could find respectable names for them?" Ann said presently. "One can't harmonize them with 'Flea' and 'Flukey.'"
After a silence of a few moments, Horace spoke:
"What do you think about calling them Floyd and Fledra, Ann?"
"Oh, but would we dare do that, Horace?"
"Why not? It wouldn't harm the Vandecars, and the children might be better for it. We could impress upon them what an honor it would be."
"But the Vandecars' own little lost children had those names."
"That's true, too; but I haven't the least idea that either one of them will take offense, if you explain that we think it will help the youngsters."
"Shall I speak with Mrs. Vandecar about it this afternoon?" asked Ann.
"Yes, just sound her, and see what she says."
"I might as well go to her right away, then, Horace. You talk with the little girl about going to school while I'm gone. You can do so much more with her than I can."
"All right," said Horace, "and I feel very sure that we won't have any trouble with her."
After seeing his sister depart, he returned to the library and, before settling himself in a chair, sent a summons to Flea.
When the girl appeared, Horace rose and cast smiling eyes of approval over her.
"That's a mighty pretty dress you have on," said he. "Was it Sister's idea to put that lacy, frilly stuff on it?"
Flea crimsoned at his praise, as she nodded affirmation.
"Sit here in this chair," invited Shellington. "I want to have a little chat with you this afternoon."
Unconsciously Flea put herself into an attitude of graceful attention and gazed at him worshipfully. At that moment Horace felt how very much he desired that she grow into a good woman.
"How do you think your brother is today?" he questioned kindly.
"He's awful sick," replied Flea.
"I fear, too, that he will be very ill for a long time. He was filled with the fever when he came here. Now, my sister and I have been talking it over—"
Flea rose half-hesitantly.
"And ye wants me to take him some'ers else?" she questioned.
Horace motioned again for her to be seated.
"Sit down, child," said he; "you're quite wrong in your hasty guess. No, of course, you're not to go away. But my sister and I desire that while you are here you should study, and that you should come in contact with other girls of your own age. We want you to go to school."
"Why, learn to read and write, and—"
"Ye mean I have to leave Flukey, and—and you?"
She had risen and had come close to him, her eyes filled with burning tears. Horace felt his throat tighten: for any emotion in this girl affected him strangely.
"Oh, no! You won't go away from home—at least, not at night; only for a few hours in the daytime. I'm awfully anxious that you should learn, Flea."
She came even closer as she said:
"I'll do anything you want me to—'cause ye be the best ole duffer in New York State!" Then she whirled and fled from the room.
* * * * *
Ann Shellington rang the Vandecar doorbell, and a few minutes later was ushered upstairs. Mrs. Vandecar was in a negligee gown, and Katherine was brushing the invalid's hair.
"Pardon me, Ann dear," said Mrs. Vandecar, "for receiving you in this way; but I'm ill today."
"I'm so sorry! It's I who ought to ask pardon for coming. But I knew that no one could aid me except you in the particular thing I am interested in."
"I shall be glad to help you, if I can, Ann.... There, Katherine, just roll my hair up. Thank you, Girly."
Ann had seated herself, and now spoke of her errand:
"You've heard of our little charges who came so strangely to us not long ago?"
Mrs. Vandecar nodded.
"Horace and I wish to do something for them. It seems as if they had been sent to us by Providence. The lad is very ill, and the girl ought to go to school. We were wondering if you could have her admitted for special lessons to Madame Duval's. The school associations would do such a lot for her." As Ann continued, she marked Mrs. Vandecar's hesitation. "I know very well, Dear, that I am asking you a serious thing; but Brother and I think that it would do her a world of good."
Mrs. Vandecar thoughtfully received the shawl Katherine brought her. Then she looked straight at Ann and said:
"Everett doesn't approve of your work, does he, Ann?"
Miss Shellington colored, and fingered her engagement ring.
"No," she replied frankly; "but it's because he refuses to know them. They're little dears! I've explained to him our views, and have promised that they shall not interfere with any plans he and I may make. I've never seen Horace vitally interested before, or at least so much so. Now, do you think that you would be willing to do this for us? Mildred's going to the school, and you being a patroness will make Madame Duval listen to such a proposal from you."
Mrs. Vandecar turned upon her visitor searchingly.
"Are you doing right, Ann, in taking these children into your home life? I appreciate your good-heartedness; but—"
"Horace and I have talked it all over," interjected Ann, "and we are both assured that we are doing what is right. Won't you think it over, and let us know what you decide? If you find you can't do it—why, we'll arrange some other way."
The plan of naming the children came into her mind; but she hesitated before broaching it. Mrs. Vandecar was a type of everything high-bred and refined. Would it offend her aristocratic sense to have the children named after her and her husband? Ann overcame her timidity and spoke:
"Fledra, there's another thing I wanted to speak of. The children came to us without proper names, and Horace suggested that we call them Floyd and Fledra. Would you mind?"
Mrs. Vandecar drew back a little, a shade passing over her face. A painful memory ever present seized her. Long ago two babies had been called after their father and mother—after her and her strong husband. Could she admit that she did not care? Could she consent to Ann's request? Ann noted her struggle, and said quickly:
"I'm sorry—forgive me, Dear!"
Mrs. Vandecar's face brightened, and she smiled.
"I thought at first that I didn't want you to; but I won't be foolish. Of course, call them whatever you wish. Floyd won't mind, either."
* * * * *
Horace met his sister expectantly.
"Did you ask her about the names, Ann?"
"Yes. At first she was not inclined to either of our plans; but she has such a tender heart."
"So she has," responded Horace.
"She consented about the names; but said that she would send me word about the school."
"And she didn't give a ready consent?"
"No; but I'm almost sure that she will do it. And now about Flea. Did you talk with her?"
"Yes. She consented to go to school, and said—that I was the best old duffer in New York State."
"Oh, Horace! She must be taught not to use such language. It's dreadful! Poor little dear!"
"It'll take sometime to alter that," replied Horace, shaking his head. "They've had a fearful time, and she's been used to talking that way always; she's heard nothing else. You can't alter life's habits in a day."
"But Madame Duval won't have her if she's impudent," said Ann.
"Oh, but she's scarcely that," expostulated Horace; "she doesn't understand. I'll try to correct her sometime."
But he felt the blood come up to his hair as he promised; for it seemed almost impossible to approach the girl with a matter so personal. For the present, he dismissed the thought.
"What about the names, Ann?" he asked.
"As you wish, Dear; Fledra doesn't care."
From that moment, the boy, struggling with fever, and the gray-eyed girl, so like him, were called Floyd and Fledra Cronk.
* * * * *
One morning in January, the day before Flea was to begin her school work, she was passing through the hall that led to the front door. Her face was grave with timidity; although for hours Ann had been trying to fortify the young spirit against the ordeal that was to confront her the following day. Only once had Flea faltered a request that she be allowed to stay at home; but Horace had melted her objections without expelling her fear. To Ann's instructions concerning conduct she had listened with a heavy heart.
Everett Brimbecomb opened the front door as Flea approached it. She stopped short before him, and he drew in a sharp, quick breath. Flea was uncertain just what to do. She knew that he was going to marry Ann, and was also aware that he hated her brother and herself. Ann, however, had taught her to bow, and she now came forward with hesitant grace, and inclined her head slightly. The beauty of Flea made Everett regret that his objections to the twins had been so strenuous; but he would immediately establish a friendship with her that would please both Ann and Horace. He vowed that at the same time he would get some amusement out of it.
"Well! You've blossomed into a girl at last," he said banteringly, "and a mighty pretty one, too! I swear I shouldn't have known that you were one of those boys!"
Flea threw her peculiar eyes over him; but did not speak.
"You're going to school tomorrow, I hear. How do you like that?"
Flea shook her head.
"I don't want to go," she admitted; "but my Prince says as how I have to."
"Your Prince! Who's your Prince?" demanded Brimbecomb.
"Him, back in there," replied Flea, casting her head backward in the direction of the library.
"You mean Mr. Shellington?"
Everett burst into a loud laugh. At the sound, Horace stepped to his study-door and looked out. His face darkened as he discerned Flea standing against the wall and Brimbecomb looking down at her. He came forward and stationed himself at the girl's side, placing one hand upon her shoulder.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Why, little Miss—I'm sure I don't know the child's name," cried Everett breaking into merriment again, "she says you're a—Prince, Horace."
Shellington lowered his eyes to Flea, who was gazing up at him fearfully. She did not look at Everett; but made an uneasy gesture with her hand toward Horace. She had never seemed so appealingly adorable, and inwardly Everett cursed the stupidity that had allowed so many weeks to pass by without his having become Flea's friend.
There was silence, during which the girl locked and unlocked her fingers. Then she relieved it with the frank statement:
"This man here didn't seem to know nothin' about ye; so I told him ye was a Prince."
Ann's voice from the drawing-room caused Everett to turn on his heel, leaving Horace alone with Flea.
For a moment they were both quiet. Flea considered the toe of her slipper. A tear dropped to the front of her dress as Horace took her hand and led her into the library.
"Fledra," he said, using the new name with loving inflection, "what are you crying for?"
"I thought you was mad at me," she shuddered. "That bright-eyed duffer what I hate laughed when I said ye was a Prince. I hate his eyes, I do, and I hate him!"
Shellington did not correct her mistakes in English as he had done so often of late. With shaded remonstrance in his tone, he said:
"Fledra, he is going to marry my sister, and he's my friend."
"He ain't good enough for Sister Ann," muttered Flea stubbornly.
"She loves him, though, and that is enough to make us all treat him with respect."
Turning the subject abruptly, he continued:
"I'm expecting you to work very hard in school, Fledra. You will, won't you?"
"Yes," replied Flea, making sure to pronounce the word carefully.
Horace smiled so tenderly into her eyes that she grew frightened at the thumping of her heart and fled precipitately.
Fledra Cronk's school days lengthened slowly into weeks. She was making rapid strides in English, and Miss Shellington's patience went far toward keeping her mind concentrated upon her work. At first some of the girls at the school were inclined to smile at her endeavors; but her sad face and questioning eyes drew many of them into firm friends. Especially did she cling to Mildred Vandecar, and raised in the golden-haired daughter of the governor an idol at whose shrine she worshiped.
One Saturday morning in the latter part of March, Mildred Vandecar persuaded her mother to allow her to go, accompanied by Katherine, to the Shellington home. They found Ann reading aloud to the twins, Flukey resting on the divan. Mildred was presented to him, and in the hour that followed the sick boy became her devoted subject.
The three young people listened eagerly to the story, and after it was finished Ann entered into conversation with Katherine.
Suddenly she heard Flukey exclaim, in answer to some question put by Mildred:
"My sister and me ain't got no mother!"
Miss Shellington colored and partly rose; but she had no chance to speak, for Mildred was saying:
"Oh, dear! how you must miss her! Is she dead? And haven't you any father, either?"
"Yep," said Flukey; "but he ain't no good. He hates us, he does, and worse than that, he's a thief!"
Mildred drew back with a shocked cry. Ann was up instantly; while Fledra got to her feet with effort. She remembered how carefully Ann had instructed her never to mention Lon Cronk or any of the episodes in their early days at Ithaca; but Flukey had never been thus warned.
"Mildred, dear," Ann said anxiously, "Floyd and Fledra were unfortunate in losing their mother, and more unfortunate in having a father who doesn't care for them as your father does for you." She passed an arm about Fledra and continued, "It would be better if we were not to talk of family troubles any more, Floyd.... Fledra, won't you ask Mildred to play something for you?"
The rest of Mildred's stay was so strained that Miss Shellington breathed a sigh of relief when Katherine suggested going. For a few seconds neither Ann nor Fledra spoke after the closing of the door. It was the latter who finally broke the silence.
"Flukey hadn't ought to have said anything about Pappy Lon; but he didn't know—he thought everybody knew about us.... Are ye going to send us away now?"
The girl's anxiety and worried look caused Ann to reassure her quickly.
* * * * *
In describing the events of the afternoon to her mother, Mildred wept bitterly. When a grave look spread over Mrs. Vandecar's face, Katherine interposed:
"Aunty, while those children undoubtedly had bad parents, they will really amount to something, I'm sure."
It was not until she was alone with Katherine that Mrs. Vandecar opened the subject.
"I'm almost afraid I was incautious to allow a friendship to spring up between this strange child and Mildred. I wish I could see her."
"Ask her here, then. She's very pretty, very gentle, and needs young friends sadly, although the Shellingtons are treating the two children beautifully. If they don't grow up to be good, it won't be Ann's fault, nor Horace's."
"I'll invite the child to come some afternoon, then." With this decision the subject dropped.
* * * * *
That evening Ann went out on a charitable mission, leaving Fledra to deliver a message to Everett and to care for Floyd. The boy was in bed, his thin white hands resting wearily at his sides. For sometime he allowed his sister to work at her lessons. Then he said impetuously:
"Flea, why be these folks always so kind to you and me? They ain't never been mad yet, and I'm allers a yowlin' 'cause my bones and my heart hurt me."
Flea looked up from her book meditatively.
"They're both good, that's why."
"It's 'cause they pray all the time, ain't it?" Floyd asked.
"I guess so."
"I'd a died those nights if Sister Ann hadn't prayed for me, wouldn't I, Flea?"
"Yes," replied Flea in abstraction.
After a silence, Floyd spoke again:
"Flea, do you like that feller what Sister Ann's going to marry?"
The girl dropped a monosyllabic negative and fell to studying.
"Why?" insisted Floyd.
Before Flea could reply, a servant appeared at the door, saying that Mr. Brimbecomb wanted Miss Shellington.
Fledra closed her book and went to the drawing-room, where she found Everett standing near the grate. His brilliant smile made her drop her eyes embarrassedly. She overlooked his extended hand, and made no move to come forward. The girl had always felt afraid of him. Now his presence in the room increased her vague fears. Why she had felt this sudden premonition of evil, she did not know, nor did she try to analyze her feelings. Young as she was, Fledra recognized in him an enemy, and yet his attitude betrayed a personal interest. She had seen him many times during the last few weeks; but had managed to escape him through the connivance of Miss Shellington. Ann had tactfully explained to the girl that Mr. Brimbecomb did not feel the same toward her and Flukey as did her brother; but had added, "It's because he does not know you both, Dear, as Horace and I do."
Once alone with him, she knew only that she wanted to give him Ann's message and return quickly to Floyd. Before she could speak, Brimbecomb passed behind her and closed the door.
"Sister Ann won't be home for an hour," said Flea, turning sharply.
Everett smiled again.
"Sit down, then," he said.
"I can't; I have to study."
Something in the girl's tones brought a low laugh from Everett. He came closer to her.
"You're a deliciously pretty child," he bantered. "Won't you take hold of my hands?"
Placing her arms behind her, Flea answered:
"No, I don't like ye!" She backed far from him, her eyes burning with anger.
"You're a very frank little maid, as well as pretty," drawled Everett. "Ever since I first saw you as a girl, I've wanted to know something about you. Who's your father?"
"None of yer business!" snapped Flea.
"Frank again," laughed the lawyer ruefully. "Now, honestly, wouldn't you like to be friends with me?"
"No! I said I didn't like ye, and I don't! I want to go now. You can sit here alone until Sister Ann comes."
She looked so tantalizingly lovely, so lithely young, as she flung the disagreeable words at him, that Brimbecomb impulsively made a step toward her. He was unused to such treatment and manners. That this girl, sprung from some unknown corner, dared to flaunt her dislike in his face, made him only the more determined to conquer her.
"If I wait until Sister Ann comes," he said coolly, "I shall not wait alone. I insist that you stay here with me!"
"I have to go back to my brother. So let me go by—please!"
Fledra made an effort to pass Brimbecomb; but he grasped her deliberately in his arms. Drawing her forcibly to him, he exclaimed:
"I've caught my pretty bird! Now I'm going to kiss you!"
Flea's mind flashed back to the day when Lem Crabbe had tried to kiss her, and the thought came to her mind that she could have borne that even better than this. She squirmed about until her face was far below his arm, and muttered:
"If you try to kiss me, I'll dig a hole in yer mug!"
Half-mocking at the threat, half-inviting its fulfilment, Everett laughed. Then, with all his strength, he forced Flea's angry, crimsoned face up to his and closed his lips over her red mouth, kissing her again and again. The girl struggled until she was free. In an uncontrollable temper she thrust her hand to Everett's face, and he felt her fingernails scrape his cheek. He released her instantly, stepping back in a gasp of rage and surprise.
Pantingly the girl rubbed her lips with her sleeve.
"If Sister Ann weren't a lovin' ye," she flashed at him, "I'd tell her how cussed mean ye be! If ye ever try to kiss me again, I'll tear yer eyes out, Mister!"
She was gone before he could stop her, and, like a young fury bounded into the presence of Flukey.
"I know why I hate that feller of Sister Ann's," she muttered; "'cause he's bad—he's a damn dog! That's what he is!"
With a startled ejaculation, Floyd half-rose; but Ann's step in the hall sent him back on the pillow gasping.
Fledra sank down at the table, by effort repressing her breath. She heard the door open, and when Miss Shellington entered her red face was bent low over the grammar.
A few seconds before, when Miss Shellington had entered the house, she had seen Everett's shadow on the drawing-room curtain; but for the moment her habitual concern for Floyd overrode her eagerness to be with her lover, and she hurried to the sickroom. As was her custom, she took the boy's hand in hers and examined him closely. With her daily observance of him, she had learned to detect the slightest change in his appearance. Now his flushed cheeks and racing pulse told her he was laboring under great excitement.
"Floyd," she exclaimed in dismay, "you've been talking too much! Your face is awfully red!... Why, Fledra, I've cautioned you many times—"
At the girl's apparent unconcern, Miss Shellington left the reproach unfinished. She perceived the scarlet cheeks and flashing eyes peering at her over the open book.
"Is there anything the matter, Fledra?"
The girl let her gaze fall.
"You haven't been quarreling with Floyd?"
"Nope, Sister Ann; Flukey and me never have words."
"I should hope not," Ann replied sincerely; "but, Fledra dear, when I speak to you, please look at me."
With a shake of the black curls, Fledra lifted her face.
"Tell me what is the matter with you," said Ann.
A glint of steel shown in the gray eyes. Flea's lips opened to speak, and for one moment Ann's happiness was threatened with destruction. The girl was on the point of telling her about Everett—then Brimbecomb's voice rang out from the reception-room.
"Ann, dear! Aren't you ever coming?"
Fledra noticed Miss Shellington's face change as if by magic, and saw a lovelight grow in her eyes.
In silence, she received Ann's sorrowful kiss.
"Little sister, I really wasn't scolding you. I was only thinking of how careful we have to be of Floyd. I—I wish you would be kind to me!"
During the painful constraint that followed, Fledra allowed Ann to leave the room; but before she had more than closed the door the girl rose and bounded after her. Impulsively she grasped Miss Shellington's arm and thrust herself in front.
"Sister Ann," she whispered, "I lied to ye! I was mad at Floyd, as mad as—"
Ann placed her finger on the trembling lips.
"Don't say what you were going to, Dear—and remember it is as great a sin to get into such a temper as it is to tell a story."
"Ye won't tell anyone that I fibbed, will ye—Flukey or yer brother, either?"
Everett's voice called Ann again, and she replied that she was coming.
Softly kissing the girl, she said:
"If I loved you less, Fledra dear, I should not be so anxious about you. But I'm so fond of you, child! Now, then, smile and kiss me!"
Fledra flung her arms about the other.
"I keep forgettin'. I'll try not to be bad any more." Flea turned back into the room, as Ann hurried away at another call from Everett, and muttered:
"If I loved ye less, Sister Ann, I wouldn't have lied to ye."
Floyd's eyes questioned her as she passed him.
"Fluke," said she, coming to a halt, "I told Sister Ann I was mad at you, and I wasn't. You won't tell her, will ye?"
"No," replied Flukey wonderingly, "I won't tell her nothin'."
Flea said no more in explanation, and sat again at the study table. She was still bent over her book when Shellington opened the door and glanced in. The boy's eyes were closed as if in sleep, and Horace beckoned to Flea. She rose languidly and walked to him.
"As your brother is sleeping, Fledra," he murmured, "come into the library and talk to me awhile."
There were traces of tears on Fledra's face when Horace ushered her into the study.
"Now, little girl, sit down and tell me about your lessons. I've been so busy lately that I haven't had time to show you my interest.... You've been crying, Fledra!"
"Yes, I got mad, and Sister Ann talked to me."
"Will you tell me why you became angry?" he queried.
Flea had not expected this, and had no time to think of a reason for her anger. Deliberating a moment, she placed her head on her arm. It would be dangerous to tell him about Brimbecomb. If the bright-eyed man in the drawing-room had only let her go before kissing her—if he had only remembered his love for Ann! She knew Horace was waiting for her to speak; but her mind refused absolutely to concoct a reasonable excuse, and she could not tell him a deliberate lie, as she had to Ann.
For what seemed many minutes Horace looked at her.
"Fledra," he said at length, "am I worthy of your confidence?"
His question brought her up with a jerk. Would she dare tell him? Would he be silent if he knew that Sister Ann was being perfidiously used? She was sure he would not.
"If I tell you something," she began, "you won't never tell anybody?"
"Never, if you don't want me to."
She leaned forward and looked straight at him.
"I just lied to Sister Ann," she said.
Horace's face paled and he grasped the arms of his chair. Presently he asked sharply:
"Why did you lie to my sister, Fledra?"
"I just did, and you said you wouldn't tell."
"Was it because you lied to her that you cried?"
She tossed his question over in her mind. She intended to be truthful to him, unless a falsehood were forced from her to shield Ann.
"I cried because Sister Ann was so good to me."
"Are you going to tell me what caused you to be untruthful?" he asked persistently.
Fledra shook her head dismally.
Immeasurable compassion for the primitive, large-eyed child flooded his soul, and his next words assumed a more tender tone.
"Of course, you don't mean that you are going to keep it from me?"
Her dark head suddenly dropped again, and a smothered storm of sobs drew him closer to her. In the silence of arrested speech, he reached for her fingers, which were twisting nervously in the webby lace on her dress. With reluctance Flea permitted herself to be drawn from her chair.
"Fledra, stand here—stand close to me!" said he.
Obediently she came to his side, hiding her face in one bended arm. He could feel the warmth of her bursting breaths, and he could have touched the lithe body had he put out his hand. And then—and not until then—did Horace know that he loved her. Yesterday she had seemed only a child; but at this moment she was transformed into a woman, and his sudden passion gave him a lover's right to pass his arm about her. In bewilderment Flea checked her tears and drew back. He had never before caressed her in any way.
Horace stood up, almost mastered by his new emotion.
"Fledra," he breathed, "Fledra, can't you trust me? Dear child, I love you so!"
Stunned by his words, Fledra stared at him. His voice had vibrated with something she had never heard before. His eyes were brilliant and pleading.
"Fledra, can't you—can't you love me?"
As if by strong cords, her tongue was tied.
"Listen to me!" pursued Horace. "I know now I loved you that first night I saw you—that night when you came into the room with Ann's—"
He stopped at the name of his sister—he had forgotten for the moment Flea's confession of the falsehood to her. Then the seeming injustice done Ann turned his mind to the probing he had begun at first for the cause of Flea's grief. Intermingled with this was a whirl of thought as to the things that the girl had accomplished. Her entire submission to Ann and himself, her devotion to Floyd, her desire to master the difficult problems of her new life, all persuaded him that for his happiness he must know the cause of her agitation. Spontaneously he pressed his open hands to her cheeks.
"Fledra, Fledra! Can I believe you?"
The girl lowered her head and nodded emphatically.
"Do you—do you love anyone else—I mean any man?"
His rapidly indrawn breath came forth with almost an ejaculation. Flea's eyes sought his for part of a minute. Then slowly she shook her head, a shadow of a smile broadening her lips. With effort she lifted her arms and whispered:
"I don't love anyone else—that is, no man! Be ye sure that ye love me?"
Like an impetuous boy he gathered her up, caressing her hair, her eyes, her lips. With sudden passion he murmured:
"Fledra! Fledra dear!"
"I do love ye!" she whispered. "Oh, I do love ye every bit of the day, and every bit of the night, jest like I did when you came to the settlement and I saw ye on the shore!"
Hitherto she had not told him that she had seen him in Ithaca, and he did not understand her allusion to a former meeting. To his astonished look, she replied by a question.
"Don't ye remember one day you came to the settlement and asked the way to Glenwood?"
Horace conjured up a vision of a child of whom he had asked his road, and remembered, in a flashing glance at the girl in his arms, that he had inwardly commented upon the sad young face. He had noted, too, the unusual shade in her eyes, and now he wondered vaguely that he had not loved her then.
"I remember—of course I remember! Oh, I want you to say again that you love me, little dearest, that you love me very much!" His lips roved in sweet freedom over her face as he continued, "You're so young, so very young, to have a sweetheart; but if you could only begin to love me—in a few years we could be married, couldn't we?"
Flea's body grew tense with tenderness. She had never heard such beautiful words; they meant that her Prince loved her as Ann loved Everett, as good men loved their wives and good wives loved their husbands. Instead of answering, she lifted a pale face intensified by womanly passion.
"Will ye kiss me?" she breathed. "Kiss me again on my hair, and on my eyes, and on my lips, because—because I love ye so!"
His strong avowal had opened a deep spring in her heart which overflowed in tears. The taut arms pressed him tightly. The words were sobbed out from a tightened young throat. The very passion in her, that abandonment which comes from the untutored, stirred all that was primeval in him, all the desperate longing in a soul newly born. His mouth covered hers again and again; it sought her closed white lids, her rounded throat, and again lingered upon her lips. After a few moments he sat down and drew her into his arms.
"Little love, my heart has never beaten for another woman—only for you, always for you! Fledra, open your eyes quick!"
The brown-flecked eyes flashed into his. Horace bent his head low and searched them silently for some seconds.
"I must be sure, Dear, that you love me. Are you very sure?"
"Yes, yes! That's why I felt so bad tonight, when I told ye about lying to Sister Ann." There was entreaty in her glance, and her figure trembled in his arms. Horace started slightly. He had again forgotten her admission.
"But you will tell me all about it now, won't you, Fledra? Then we can tell Ann and your brother about our love."
Flea stood up; but Horace still kept his arm about her. Her thoughts flew to Everett. How unfaithful he had been! Could she confide in Horace, now that she was absolutely his? No; for he would punish Everett even the more to the detriment of Ann. The thought set her teeth hard. Had she been Ann, and Horace been Everett, had the man she loved been unfaithful to the point of stealing kisses from another—She took a long breath.
But she was not Sister Ann, neither was Horace, Everett. In a twinkling everything that Horace had been to her since the first day in Ithaca flooded her heart with happiness. Her dreamy imagination, which had enshrined him king of her life, worked with a new desire that nothing should interfere with the love that he had showered upon her. He had said, "Do you love me, Dearest?"
The anxious question had thrilled her vibrant being to silence, had stilled her eager tongue with the magnitude of its passion. Horace was pleading with his eyes, imploring her to answer him. Suddenly he burst out:
"You will tell me, Dear, why you were untruthful to my sister?"
Fledra pondered for a moment.
"Something happened," she began, "and Sister Ann came in—I was mad—"
"Were you angry at what happened?"
Horace led her on.
"And did Floyd know what had happened?"
"And then?" he demanded almost sharply.
"And then Sister Ann asked me what was the matter, and I lied, and said I was mad at Floyd."
Horace still held her. This sweet possession and desire of her filled him with serious decision. He deliberated an instant on her confession.
"Now you've told me that much," said he, "I want to know what happened."
"I can't tell ye," she said slowly, "I can't, and ye said that ye wouldn't tell anybody about it."
Horace's arms loosened. Surely she could have no good reason for keeping anything from him! Suddenly he grasped her tightly to him and kissed her again and again.
"Of course you'll tell me, of course you will! Tell me all about it. I won't have this thing between us! I can't, I can't! I love you!"
It maddened her to hear him chide her thus, filled as she was with all the primeval qualities of the native woman to feel the strength of her man. How his pleading touched her, how gravely his dear face expressed an anxiety that she herself was unable to banish! Even should he send her from him, she could not be false to Ann. To this decision the strong, untutored mind clung, and again she refused him.
"No, I'm not goin' to tell you. Mebbe some day I will; but not now."
She heard him take a deep breath which tore savagely at all the best within her. It wrestled with her affection for Miss Shellington, for her duty to Floyd's friend. Not daring to glance up, she still stood in silence. Horace's voice shocked her with the sternness of it.
"You've got to tell me! I command you! Fledra, you must!" Then, tilting her chin upward, he continued reproachfully, "If you're going to keep vital things from me, you can't be my wife!"
The resistance against telling him grew faint in her heart in its battle for desirable things.
"Ye mean," she asked, with quick intaking of breath, "that I can't be your woman if I don't tell you?"
A flush crawled to his forehead as the rich young voice flung the question at him. She was so maddeningly beautiful, so young and clinging! But she must bend to his will in a thing like this! In his desire to set her right, he answered somewhat harshly.
"You must tell me; of course, you must!"
Fledra threw him a glance, pleading for leniency. She had expected him to importune, to scold, but in the end to trust. Suddenly, in the girl's imagination, Ann's gentle face bending over Floyd rose in its loving kindness.
"Then—then," she stammered, "if you won't have me, unless I tell you—then I'll go now—please!"
She left him with pathetic dignity, and her last glance showed his eyes, too, filled with a strange pain.
The next week held unutterable pain for Flea, each twenty-four hours deepening her unhappiness more and more. She made no effort to talk with Shellington, nor did she mention her sorrow to Ann. It did not seem necessary to her that she should again speak to Horace of going away. When she had last suggested it, he had said that nothing she could do would alter his decision about his home being hers until Floyd should be well. Nevertheless, an innate pride surged constantly within her. Any deprivation would be more welcome than the studied toleration that, she thought, she encountered in Horace.
One morning she stood looking questioningly down at her brother.
"How near well are ye, Fluke?"
"Ain't never goin' to get well!" he replied, shivering. "'Tain't easy to get pains out of a feller's bones when they once get in."
"If you do get well soon, I think we'd better go away."
"Why?" demanded Flukey.
"Because we wasn't asked to stay only till you got well."
"Don't ye believe it, Flea! Ye wasn't here last night. Brother Horace and Sister Ann thought I was to sleep, and I wasn't."
"What did they say?" broke in the girl, with whitening face.
"Sister Ann told Mr. Shellington about yer work at school, and he said—as how—"
Floyd waited a moment before continuing, and Flea crept closer to the bed. She was crying softly as she knelt down and bent her face over her brother. The boy passed his hands through the black curls.
"What's the matter, Flea?"
"I want to know what my Prince said to Sister Ann."
"Be ye crying about him?"
"Ye love him, I bet!"
Flea buried her face deeper into the soft counterpane; but she managed to make an affirmative gesture with her head.
Floyd was silent, and sometime passed before he heard the girl's smothered voice:
"And I'm goin' to love him always—even after we go away!"
"We ain't goin' away," said Floyd.
"Who said so?"
Fledra lifted her head and grasped the boy's thin hands in hers.
"You're sure it was last night, Fluke?"
"Yep, I be sure. I was layin' here with my face to the wall. When Sister Ann comes in nights, if I don't say anything, she thinks I be asleep, and she kisses me, and I like her to do that. Last night, when she'd done kissing me, Mr. Shellington came in, and then they talked about us."
"And he didn't say we was to go away?"
Fledra rose in sudden determination, and in her excitement spoke with swift reversion to the ancient manner.
"Flukey, ye be the best da——"
Flukey thrust up a reproving finger which stopped the oath.
"Flea!" he cautioned.
"I were only goin' to say, Flukey," said Flea humbly, "that ye be the best kid in all the world. Don't tell anybody what I said about my Prince."
She went out quickly.
* * * * *
With her hand upon her heart, Flea halted before the library. She knew that Horace was there; for she could hear the rustling of papers. At her timid knock, he bade her enter. Her tongue clove so closely to the roof of her mouth that for a minute she could not speak. She held out her fingers, and Horace took them in his. His face whitened at her touch; but he gazed steadily at her.
"You've—you've something to say to me, Fledra—sweetheart?"
The hope in his voice rang out clearly. Fledra nodded.
He was determined she should explain away the black thing that had arisen between them.
"I didn't come to tell ye about what happened," said she; "but to say that, if ye don't smile and don't touch me sometimes, I'll die—I know I will!" Her tones were disjointed with emotion, and she felt the hands holding hers tighten.
"I can't smile when I'm unhappy, Fledra. I can't! I can't! This past week has been almost unbearable."
"It's been that way with me, too," said Flea simply.
"Then why don't you make us both happy by being honest with me? If you didn't care for me, I should have no right to force your confidence; but you really do, don't you?"
"Yes; but I'm never goin' to marry ye, because mebbe I can't never tell ye. I think ye might trust me. It's easy when ye love anyone. I say, ye couldn't marry me without, could ye?" She seemed to suddenly grow old in her sagacious argument. Horace shook his head sadly.
"We'd never be happy, if I should," said he, "because—because I couldn't trust you."
"Oh, I want ye to trust me!" she wept. "I want ye to! Won't you once more? Please do! Won't ye forget that anything ever happened—won't ye?"
For a moment her supplication almost unnerved him; but he thought of their future, of the necessity of having unlimited faith and honor between them, and again slowly shook his head.
Suddenly the twisting hands worked themselves loose from his, and in another instant her feverish arms tightly encircled his neck. By the weight of Flea's body, Horace Shellington knew that her feet were no longer on the floor, each muscle in the rigid girl having so well done its part that she hung straight-limbed against him. Close to his face drew hers, and for a space of time, the length of which he could never afterward accurately measure, he forgot everything but the maddening expression in her face. Her eyelids were closed, and her breath came hot upon his lips.
"I want ye to kiss me like ye did that night—kiss me—please—please—" In her low voice was illimitable strength and passion.
Like burning rivers, his blood was driven through his veins. He flung out his arms and crushed her to him. Just then his lips found hers.
"Dear God! How I—how I love you!" he breathed.
Fledra's arms relaxed and slipped from his shoulders.
"Then forget about what happened!" she panted.
All the bitter apprehensions of the last week swept over him at her words. His love battled with him, and he wavered. How gladly would he have dispelled every doubt and listened to her pleading!
"But I want you to tell me, Fledra."
Flea backed slowly from him.
"I can't.... I can't.... I can't tell anybody!"
The man ran his fingers across his forehead in bewilderment. In his bitter disappointment he turned away.
"When you come to me," his voice broke into huskiness, "when you tell me what happened that night before you saw my sister, I shall—I shall love you—forever!"
Then came a single moment of critical silence; but it needed only the thought of Ann for the girl to toss aside his plea and turn upon her heel.
"I don't want Sister Ann to know that I love ye," she said sulkily. "Ye won't tell her?"
"No, no, of course not—not yet!" He dropped into his chair, his head falling forward in his hands. "I wouldn't have believed," he said from between his fingers, "that my love for you—"
Flea stopped him with an interruption:
"Are ye trying to stop lovin' me?"
Horace shook his shoulders, lifting swift eyes to hers. He noted her expression irrevocable in its decision of silence. She was extraordinarily lovely, and he grew suddenly angry that he had not the power to change her, to draw from her unresistingly the story she had locked from his perusal.
"Don't be foolish, Fledra!" he said quite harshly. "A man can't love and unlove at will. I feel as if I should never know another happy moment!"
* * * * *
For several days Ann watched her brother in dismay. He had grown taciturn and gloomy. The boyish energy had left him. She ventured to speak to Everett about it.
"He doesn't seem like the same boy at all," she said sadly, after explaining. "I can't imagine what has caused the change in him."
Everett remembered Shellington's face as it had bent over Fledra, and smiled slightly.
"Have you ever thought lately that he might be in love?"
"In love!" gasped Ann. "No, I know that he isn't; for it was only at the time of the Dryden Fair that he told me he cared for no one."
"He might have changed since then," Everett said quizzically.
"But he hasn't met anyone lately," argued Ann. "I know it isn't Katherine; for—for he told me so."
"I know someone he met at the fair."
Ann, startled, glanced up.
"Who? Do tell me, Everett! Don't stand there and smile so provokingly. If you could only understand how I have worried over him!"
Brimbecomb put on a grave face.
"Haven't you a very pretty girl in the house who is constantly under his eye?"
Still Ann did not betray understanding.
"Don't you think," asked Everett slowly, "that he might have fallen in love with—this little Fledra?"
An angry sparkle gleamed in Ann's eyes.
"Don't be stupid, Everett. Why, she's only a child. It would be awful! Horace has some sense of the fitness of things."
Everett thought of the evening he himself had succumbed to a desire to kiss Flea.
"No man has that," he smiled, "when he is attracted toward a pretty woman."
"But she isn't even grown up."
How little one woman understands another! In his eyes Fledra had matured; for his masculinity had sought and found the natural opposite forces of her sex. These thoughts he modified and voiced.
"Not quite from your standpoint, Ann; but possibly from Horace's."
Pale and distressed, Ann got to her feet.
"Then—then, of course, she must go," she said with decision. "I can't have him unhappy, and—Why, such a thing could—never be!"
She could scarcely wait for Everett to depart; but suppressed her anxiety and delicately turned the subject out of deference to Horace. She listened inattentively as Brimbecomb explained some new cases that he was soon to bring to court, and kissed him when he bade her goodnight. Then, with beating heart, she sought her brother.
Unsmilingly, Horace asked her to be seated. His face was so stern that she dared not at once speak of the fears Brimbecomb had raised in her mind; but at last she said:
"Horace, I've been thinking since our last talk about the children—" His sharp turn in the desk-chair interrupted her words; but she paused only a moment before going on resolutely. "Don't you think that I might put Floyd in a good private hospital where he would be taken care of, and Fledra—"
His face turned ashen. Her fears were strengthened, and, although her conscience stung her, she continued, "Fledra's getting along so well that I would be willing to put her in a boarding school."
"Are you tired of them, Ann?"
"Oh, no—no, far from that! I love them both; but I thought it might be pleasanter for you, if we had our home to ourselves again."
Horace looked at his sister intently.
"Are you keeping something back from me, Ann?" he demanded.
"Scarcely keeping anything from you, Dear; but I want you to be happy and not to—" Horace rose in agitation, and quick tears blurred Ann's sight.
"Is there anything I can do for you, Dearest?" she concluded.
Reluctantly she left him, troubled and perplexed.
Lem Crabbe had cunningly planned to keep Scraggy under his eye and follow her to the hiding place of their son. He realized that the lad was a man now; but so much the better. He would obtain money from him, or he would bring him back to the scow and make him a partner in his trade. In spite of his wickedness, Lem had a strong longing for a sight of his child. Many times he had meditated upon the days Scraggy had lived in the barge, and, although he had no remorse for his cruelty to her, he had regretted the death of his boy. To be with him, he would have to tolerate the presence of Scraggy for awhile. He felt sure that Flea had gone from him forever, and the loneliness of his home made him shiver as he entered it a few nights after his conversation with Scraggy.
He had been in the boat but a few moments when he heard Lon's whistle and called the squatter in.
"I thought we'd make them plans for Tarrytown," Cronk said presently. "We might as well get to work as to be lazin' about. Don't ye think so?"
"Well, I were a thinkin' of stayin' here for awhile," stuttered Lem.
"Ye know where that rich duffer's house be what ye heard Middy Burnes speak about?"
"Yep. It ain't far from the graveyard. I thought as how we could crawl in there while we was waitin' for night."
A strange look passed across Lon's face.
"Ye mean to hide in the cemetray?" he asked.
"Yep. Be ye afeared?"
"I ain't got no likin' for dead folks," muttered Cronk.
He added nothing to this statement; but said after a moment's silence:
"Scraggy ought to go dead herself some of these days, 'cause she's allers a runnin' about in the storms. I see her ag'in tonight a startin' out for another ja'nt. She had her bundle and her cat and was makin' a bee line for Ithaca."
Lem glanced up quickly.
"I've changed my mind, Lon," he grunted. "I'll go to Tarrytown any day yer ready."
Accordingly, they took a week to prepare their burglar's kit, which they had not used for sometime, and ten days after the slipping away of Screech Owl, Lon Cronk and Lem Crabbe left the squatter settlement and made their way to Tarrytown.
* * * * *
The once happy household of the Shellingtons had turned into a gloomy abode. Ann was nonplused at the strange behavior of her brother and the unusual reserve of Flea. Floyd from his bedroom endeavored to bring the home to its former cheerfulness; but, with all Ann's energies and the boy's tireless tact, the change did not come. At length Miss Shellington gave up trying to bring things to their usual routine. She spent her day hours in helping Fledra with her school studies and giving Floyd simple lessons at home. Everett came every evening, taking Ann from the sickroom. This left Fledra free to study quietly beside her brother.
One Thursday, after dinner, Horace went by invitation to Brimbecomb's home to play billiards. Of late the young men had not passed much of their time together; for business and the presence of Fledra and Floyd in his house had given Horace less time for recreation. After a silent game they sat down to smoke. For many minutes they puffed without speaking. Everett finally opened the conversation.
"It seems more like old times to be here together again."
"Yes, I've missed our bouts, Everett."
"You've been exasperatingly conservative with your time lately!" complained Everett. "A fellow can't get sight of you unless your nose is poked in a book or you're in court!"
"Really, I've been awfully busy since—"
"Since the coming of your wonderful charges!" finished Brimbecomb.
Horace scented a sneer. His ears grew hot with anger.
"Ann has done more than I," he explained; "although there is nothing I would not do."
"I can't understand it at all, old man! Pardon me if I seem dense, but it's almost an unheard-of thing for a fellow in your and Ann's positions to fill your home with—beggars." His voice was low, with an inquiring touch in it. Having gained no satisfaction from Miss Shellington, he was seeking information from Horace.
"We don't think of either one of them as beggars," interjected Horace. "Both Ann and I have grown very fond of them."
In former days the two young men had been on terms of intimacy. Everett presumed now upon that friendship by speaking plainly:
"Are you going to keep them much longer?" he asked.
Horace allowed his lids to droop slowly, and looked meditatively at the end of his cigarette without replying.
"I have a reason for asking," Everett added.
"And may I ask your reason?"
"Yes, I suppose so. The fact is, I'm rather interested in them myself. I thought—"
Horace lifted his eyes, and the man opposite noted that they had grown darker, that they sparkled angrily. Everett was desirous of satisfying himself whether Horace did, or did not, care for the young girl he was sheltering.
"They don't need your interest so far as a home is concerned," Horace said at last.
Everett's face darkened as he mused:
"They're lowly born, and such people were made for our servants, and not our equals. If the women are pretty, they might act as playthings."
Horace turned his eyes toward the speaker wrathfully. He wondered if he had understood correctly what was implied by the other's words.
"What did you say, Brimbecomb?"
Everett drew his left leg over his right knee deliberately.
"I think the girl pretty enough to make a capital toy for an hour," said he.
Disbelief flooded Shellington's face.
"You're joking! You're making a jest of a sacred thing, Brimbecomb!"
Everett recalled former principles of the boy Horace, and a smile flickered on his lips.
"I can't concede that," said he. "I think with a great man of whom I read once. Deal honestly with men in business, was his maxim, keep a clean record with your fellow citizens; but, as far as strange women are concerned, treat them as you wish. It's a man's privilege to—to lie to them, in fact."
Without looking up, Horace broke in:
"Ann has an excellent outlook for happiness, hasn't she?"
"We weren't talking about Ann," snapped Everett. "I was especially thinking of the girl in your home, who belongs leagues beneath where you have placed her. I won't have her there! I think my position is such that I can make certain demands on the family of the woman I'm going to marry."
"To the devil with your position! I wouldn't give a damn for it, and I'll take up your first question, Brimbecomb. You asked me how long I intended to keep those children. This is my answer! As long as they will stay, and longer if I can make them!" His voice rang vibrant with passion. "Don't let your position interfere with what I am doing; for, if you do, Ann, friendship, or anything won't deter me from—"
Brimbecomb rose to his feet and faced the other.
"Threats are not in order," said he.
His deliberate speech made Horace turn upon him.
"I, too, intend to marry!" was his answer. "I intend to marry—Fledra Cronk!"
Brimbecomb ejaculated in anger.
"If you will be a fool," said he, "it's time your friends took a hand in your affairs. I think Governor Vandecar will have something to say about that!"
"No more than you have," warned Horace. "The only regret I have is that Ann has chosen you for her husband. I'm wondering what she would say if I repeated tonight's conversation to her—as to a man lying to a woman."
"She wouldn't believe you," replied Everett.
"And you would deny that you so believed?"
"Yes. I told you it was my right to lie to a woman."
"Then, by God! you're a greater dog than I thought you! Let me get out of here before I smash your face!"
Everett's haughty countenance flamed red; but he stepped aside, and Horace, shaking with rage, left the house.
"I think I've given him something to think about," muttered Everett. "He won't be surprised by anything I do now, and I've protected myself with Ann against him, too."
* * * * *
It was only when alone with Everett that Ann felt completely at her ease. Then she threw aside the shadow that many times dismayed her and looked forward to her wedding day, which was to come in May. This evening she was sitting with her betrothed under the glow of a red chandelier.
"You know, Ann, I haven't given up the idea of finding my own family," said Brimbecomb presently. "The more I work at law, the more I believe I shall find a way to unearth them. I told Mr. and Mrs. Brimbecomb that I intended to spend part of my next year looking for them. Mrs. Brimbecomb said she didn't know the name under which I was born. I'm convinced that I shall find them."
"I hope you do, Dear."
"You don't blame me, do you, Ann, for wanting to know to whom I'm indebted for life?"
"No," answered Ann slowly; "although it might not make you any happier. That is what I most wish for you, Dearest—complete happiness."
Everett lifted her delicate fingers and kissed them.
"I shall have that when you are my wife," he said smoothly.
Later he asked, "Did you speak with Horace of the matter that worried you, Ann?"
Miss Shellington sighed.
"Not in a personal way," she replied; "but I really think there is more than either you or I know. Fledra never puts herself in Horace's way any more; in fact, they have both changed very much."
"Possibly he has told her that he cares for her, and she has—"
Ann shifted from him uneasily. "If Horace loves her, and has told her so, she could not help but love him in return. She is really growing thin with hard work, poor baby!"
"Does she love Horace?" sounded Everett.
"I can't tell, although I have watched her very closely."
A strange grip caught Everett's heart. He could not think of the small, dark girl without a pang of emotion. He had made no effort to see Fledra; yet he was constantly wishing that chance would throw her in his path. Later, he intended in some way to bring about another interview. He dared not write her a letter, although he had gone so far as to begin one to her, but in disgust at himself had torn it up. The fact that Horace was unhappy pleased him, now that they had become antagonistic.
The mystery clinging to Fledra haloed her for Everett beyond the point of interest.
"Ann," he said suddenly, "you haven't told me much about those children—I mean of their past lives."
"We know so little," she replied reservedly.
"But more than you have told me. Have they parents living?"
"A father, I think," murmured Ann.
"And no mother?"
"Do you know where their father is?"
"He lives near Ithaca, so we're told." After a silence she continued, "We want them to forget—to forget, ourselves, all about their former lives. I asked Horace if he wanted to place them in schools; but he didn't want them to go away. As long as they are as good as they have been, they're welcome to stay. Poor little things, they're nothing more than babies, not yet sixteen!"
"The girl looks older," commented Everett.
"That's because she's suffered more than most girls do. I'm afraid it'll be a long time before Floyd is completely well."
The conversation then drifted to that happy spring day when they would be married.
From the window of the drawing-room in his home Everett threw a glance into Sleepy Hollow and listened to the wind weeping its tale of death through the barren trees. The tall monuments were as spectral giants, while here and there a guarding granite figure reared its ghostly proportions. But the weird scenery caused no stir of superstition in the lawyer.
In hesitation, Everett stood for some seconds, the snow falling silently about him; for he was still under the mood that had come upon him during Ann's parrying of his curiosity concerning the squatter children. As he paused, the Great Dane, in the kennel at the back of the house, sent out a hoarse bark, followed by a deep growl. So well trained was the dog that nothing save an unfamiliar step or the sight of a stranger brought forth such demonstrations. Everett knew this, and walked into the garden, spoke softly to the animal, and, noting nothing unusual, ran up the back steps. The door opened under his touch, and he stepped in. The maids were in the chambers at the top of the house, and quietude reigned about him. The young master went into the drawing-room, stirred the grate fire, and sat down with a book. For many moments his eyes did not seek its pages. His meditations took shape after shape; until, dreaming, he allowed the book to rest on his knees.
Everett was perfectly satisfied with his success as a lawyer. He had proved to others of his profession in the surrounding county that he was an orator of no little ability and preeminently able to hold his own in the courtroom.
He could not have desired or chosen a better wife than Ann promised to be; but something riotous in his blood made him dissatisfied with affairs as they stood now. Manlike, he reflected that, if he had been allowed to caress Fledra as he had desired, he would have been content to have gone on his way. He wondered many times why his heart had turned from Ann to another. Something in every thought of Fledra Cronk sent his blood tingling and set his heart to leaping. His dreams melted into pleasurable anticipations, and he tried to imagine the windings of his future path. Chance had always been kind, and he wondered whether an opportunity to win the affections of the small, defiant girl in the Shellington home would be given him. A strain in his blood called for her absolute subjection—and, subdue her he would; for he felt that an invincible passion slept in her tempestuous spirit.
Suddenly, from the direction of the cemetery, an owl sent out a mournful cry, and a furious baying from the dog behind the house sounded. He rose, walked to the window, and surveyed the bleak view through the curtains. He again noted the tall trees threshing in the wind, and the looming monuments. Still under the spell of pleasant day-dreams, Everett silently contemplated the gloomy aspect. He had forgotten the owl and its harsh cry.
So deeply was he engrossed in his meditations that he did not hear the stealthy turning of the door-handle, and it was not until a distinct hiss reached his ears that he turned. A woman, dripping with water, her gray hair hanging in wet strings about a withered face, stole toward him. Everett was so taken aback by the sight of her and the hissing, cross-eyed cat perched on her shoulder that he could not speak. A newly born superstition rose in his heart that the woman was a wraith. Yet an indistinct memory made her black eyes familiar. He did not move from the window, and Screech Owl sank to the floor.
"Little 'un," she whispered, "I've comed for ye, little 'un!"
The sound of her hoarse voice stirred Everett's senses. He gave one step forward, and the woman spoke again:
"I telled yer pappy that I'd bring ye!"
Brimbecomb shook his shoulders, his dread deepening. What was the witch-like woman saying to him, and why was she calling him by the name he now remembered she had used before? She crept nearer on her knees, her thin hands held up as if in prayer, and, with each swaying movement of her the cat shifted its position from one stooped shoulder to the other.
Everett found his voice, and asked sharply:
"How did you get into the house?"
Scraggy put up her arm, drew the snarling cat under it, and looked stupidly at the man. She was so close that he could see the steam rising from her wet clothes, and the hisses of the animal were audible above his own heavy breathing. Screech Owl smoothed the cat's bristling back.
"Pussy ain't to hiss at my own pretty boy!" she whispered. "He's my little 'un—he's my little 'un!"
A premonition, born of her words, goaded Everett to action.
"Get up!" he ordered. "Get up and get out of here! Do you want me to have you arrested?"
"Ye wouldn't have yer own mother pinched, little 'un. I'm yer mammy! Don't ye know me?"
He moved threateningly toward her; but a snarl from the furious cat stayed him.
"You lie! You crazy fool! Get up, or I'll kick you out of the house! Get out, I say! Every word you've uttered is a lie!"
"I don't lie," cried Scraggy. "Ye be my boy. Ain't ye got a long dig on ye from—from yer neck to yer arm—a red cut yer pappy made that night I gived ye to the Brimbecomb woman? The place were a bleedin' and a bleedin' all through your baby dress. Wait! I'll show ye where it is." She scrambled up and advanced toward him.
Everett made as if to strike her.
"Get back, I say! I would hate you if you were my mother! You can't fool me with your charlatan tricks!"
The woman sank down, whimpering.
Again Everett sprang forward; but again the cat drove him back.
"Go—go—now!" he muttered. "I can't bear the sight of you!"
There were tones in his voice that reminded Scraggy of Lem, and her heart grew tender as she thought of the father waiting for his child.
"Ye won't hate yer pappy, if he does hate me. He wants ye, little 'un. I've come to take ye back to yer hum. He won't hurt ye no more."
Everett stared at her wildly. Was the delicious mystery that had surrounded him for so many years, which had occupied his mind hour upon hour, to end in this? He would not have it so!
"Get up, then," he said, his lips whitening, "and tell me what you have to say."
Scraggy lifted herself up. Her boy wanted to hear more about his father, she thought.
"I gived ye to the pretty lady with the golden hair when yer pappy hurt ye, and I knowed ye again; for the Brimbecomb's name was on the boat that took ye. Yer pappy didn't know ye were a livin' till a little while ago, and he wants ye now."
"Were you married to him, this man you call my father?" demanded Everett.
Scraggy shook her head.
"But that don't make ye none the less his'n, an' ye be goin' with me, ye be!"
Everett no longer hoped that the woman was either mistaken or lying. The stamp of truth was on all she had said. He knew in his heart that he was in the presence of his mother—this ragged human thing with wild, dark eyes and straggling hair. And somewhere he had a father who was as evil as she looked. For years Everett had struggled against the bad in his nature; but at that moment he lost all the remembrance of the lessons of his youth, of the goodness taught him by his foster father and mother. It flashed into his mind how embarrassed Mrs. Brimbecomb had been when he had constantly brought up the subject of his own family, and how impatiently Mr. Brimbecomb had waved aside his petitions for information. They should never know that he had found out the secret of his birth, and he breathed thanks that they were not now in Tarrytown. Neither Ann nor Horace should ever learn of the stain upon him; but the girl with the black curls should make good to him the suffering of his new-found knowledge! She came of a stock like himself, of blood in which there was no good.
Everett forgot the dripping woman before him as a dark thought leaped into his mind. He could now be at ease with his conscience! Of a sudden, he felt himself sink from the radius of Horace Shellington's life—down to the birth level of the boy and girl next door. It dawned upon him, as his mind swept back over his boyhood days, that Horace had ever been better than he, with a natural abhorrence against evil.
When Scraggy again spoke, he turned burning eyes upon her. How he hated her, and how he hated the man who called himself his father, wherever he might be! He shut his teeth with a grit, and, unmindful of the cat, bent over Screech Owl. He forced her head so far back that she moaned and loosened her hold upon Black Pussy, who sprang snarling into the corner.
"If you ever repeat that story to anyone, that I'm your son, I'll kill you! Now go!"
Scraggy began to cry weakly, and Black Pussy howled as if in sympathy.
"Shut up, and keep that cat quiet! You'll draw down the servants. Now listen to me! You say you're my mother—but, if you ever breathe it to anyone, or come round here again, I shall certainly kill you!"
The thoughts began to scurry wildly in Scraggy's head. Everett's threat to kill her had not penetrated the demented brain, and his rough handling had been her only fright. She could think of nothing but that Lem was waiting for them at the scow.
She dragged herself away from Everett, and with a torn skirt wiped her ghastly face. She dropped the rag to grope dazedly for the cat, and whispered:
"Ye can do anything ye want to with yer ole mammy, if ye'll come back with me to Ithaca!"
"Ithaca, Ithaca!" Everett repeated dazedly. "Was that child you spoke of born in Ithaca?"
"Yep, on Cayuga Lake."
"Get up, get up, or I'll—I'll—" His voice came faintly to Screech Owl, and she moaned.
The man's mind went back to his Cornell days when he had been considered one of the richest boys in the university. His sudden degradation, the falling of his family air-castles, made him double his fists—and with his blow Scraggy dropped into a motionless heap.
His bloodshot eyes took in her prostrate form, guarded by the fluffed black cat, and his one thought was to kill her—to obliterate her entirely from his life. He stepped nearer, and Black Pussy's ferocious yowl was the only remonstrance as he stirred Scraggy roughly with his foot.
The thought that her boy did not want to go with her coursed slowly through the woman's brain. She knew that without him Lem would not receive her. She longed for the warmth of the homely scow; she wanted Lem and the boy—oh, how she wanted them both! She half-rose and lunged forward. Brimbecomb's next blow fell upon her upturned face, stunning her as she would have made a final appeal. The woman fell to the floor unconscious, and Everett kicked Black Pussy into the hall. There was a snarling scramble, and when he opened the front door the cross-eyed cat bounded out into the night.
Everett returned hastily to the drawing-room after a covert search of the hall for disturbers. In the doorway he hovered an instant, and then advanced quickly to the figure on the floor. Lifting the limp woman, he bore her out of the house and down the slushy steps. With strength that had come through the madness of his new knowledge, he threw the body over into the graveyard and bounded after it. Once more then he took Scraggy up, and, stumbling frequently in the half-light, carried her to the upper end of the cemetery. Here he deposited the body in a snow-filled gully by a vault. Ten minutes later he was staring at his mirrored reflection in his own room, convinced that, if he had not already killed her, the woman would be dead from exposure before morning. The cat had disappeared, and all traces of the night's visitation had been removed.
* * * * *
Several hours before, Lem Crabbe and Lon Cronk had slunk into Tarrytown. The snow still fell heavily when they made their preparations to enter the home of Horace Shellington. About five in the afternoon they had worked their way against this sharp north wind to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and had entered it. Until night should fall and sleep overtake the city, they planned to remain there quietly. Not far from the fence they took up their station in an unused toolhouse, smoking the next hours away in silence.
When ten o'clock neared, Lem stole out; but he came back almost immediately, cursing the wild night in superstitious fear.
"The wind's full of shriekin' devils, Lon," he said, "and 'tain't time for us to go out. Be ye afeard to try it, old man?"
"Nope," replied the other; "but I wish we had that cuss of a Flukey to open up them doors, or else Eli was here. This climbin' in windows be hard on a big man like me and you with yer hook, Lem."
"I'll soon have a boy what'll take a hand in things, with us, Lon," he said, presently. "I ain't sayin' nothin' jest yet; but when ye see him ye'll be glad to have him."
"Whose boy be he?" demanded Lon.
"Ain't goin' to tell."
Lon ceased questioning, dismissing the subject with a suggestion that he himself should reconnoiter the ground. He left Lem, groped his way among the gravestones for several yards, and brought up abruptly at the fence. From here he eyed the Brimbecomb mansion for some minutes; then he cast his glance to the steps of the Shellington home beyond. After a few seconds a young man ran down the stairs, and Lon slunk back to Lem in the toolhouse. An instant later both men were startled by the cry of an owl. Lem rose uneasily, while Lon stared into the darkness.
"That weren't a real owl, were it, Lon?" Lem muttered.
"Nope," growled Lon; "it sounded more like Scraggy."
He looked at the one-armed man with suspicion.
"Can't prove it by me," said Lem darkly.
"Do ye know where she ever goes to?" demanded Cronk.
Lem shook his head in negation.
Crabbe dared not venture out again alone; for apprehension rose strong within him. He knew that Scraggy had left the settlement to find their boy. Had she come to Tarrytown for him? The two men crouched low, and talked no more during some minutes. Finally, Lon, bidding Lem follow him, lifted his big body, and they left the toolhouse. The squatter led the way to the fence. They stood there for a time watching in silence. Two shadows appeared upon a curtain of the house before them. A man was lifting a woman in his arms, and the downward fall of her head gave evidence of her unconsciousness. As the front door opened, the squatter and the scowman retreated to their quarters. When Everett Brimbecomb threw the body of Screech Owl into the cemetery, both were peering out. They saw the man carry the figure off into the shadows, marking that he returned alone. Neither knew that the other was Scraggy; but, with a lust for mystery and evil, they slipped out with no word. Lon made off to view the Shellington home once more, and Lem disappeared in the direction from which Everett had come, easily following the tracks in the snow. Coming within sight of the vault, Lem rounded it fearfully. On the ground he saw the woman, and as he looked she rose to a sitting position.
Screech Owl was just recovering her battered senses. She was still dazed, and had not heard the scowman's footsteps, nor did she now hear the mutterings in his throat. Faintly she called to Black Pussy; but, receiving no response from the cat, she crawled deeper into the shadows of the vault and tried to think. Her fitful whining brought Lem from his hiding place.
"Be that you, Owl?" he whispered.
"Yep. Where be the black cat?"
"I dunno. Where ye been? And how'd ye get here?"
Scraggy leaned back against the marble vault in exhaustion.
"I dunno. Where be I now?"
Lem bent nearer her, shaking her arm roughly.
"Ye be in Tarrytown. Did ye come here for the brat?"
"What brat be ye talkin' 'bout, Lem?"
"Our'n, Screechy. Weren't ye here lookin' for him?"
Through the darkness Lem could not see the crazed expression that flashed over Scraggy's face. She thrust her fingers in her hair and shivered. The blow of Everett's fist had banished all memory of the boy from her mind; but Lem lived there as vividly as in the olden days.
"We ain't got no boy, Lem," she said mournfully.
"Ye said we had, Screechy, and I know we have. Now, get up out of that there snow, or ye'll freeze."
The scowman helped Screech Owl to her feet, and supported her back over the graves to the toolhouse.
"Ye stay here till I come for ye, Scraggy, and don't ye dare go 'way no place. Do ye hear?"
Screech Owl uttered an obedient assent, and Lem left her with a threat that he would beat her if she moved from the spot. Then he crawled along the Brimbecomb fence, and saw Lon leaning against a tree, some distance down the road.
After Everett's departure, Ann tripped into Floyd's room in a happier state of mind than had been hers for several days. It had been her habit to kneel beside the boy at night and send up a petition for his recovery. Now she would thank God for his goodness to her,—Everett had come to be more like himself, and Floyd's welcoming smile sent a thrill of joy through her. As Ann entered, Fledra looked up from her book. Her pale, beseeching face drew Miss Shellington to her.
"Fledra dear, you study too late and too hard. You don't look at all well."
"I keep tellin' her that same thing, Sister Ann," said Floyd; "but she keeps mutterin' over them words till I know 'em myself."
Miss Shellington turned Fledra's face up to hers, smoothing down the dark curls.
"Go to bed, child; you're absolutely tired out. Kiss me goodnight, Dear."
Fledra loitered in the hall until she heard Miss Shellington leave Floyd; then she stole forward.
"Will you come to my room a little while, Sister Ann?"
Without a word, Ann took the girl's hand; together they entered the blue room.
Fledra wheeled about upon Miss Shellington, when the door had been, closed.
"Do you believe all those things you pray about, Sister Ann?" she appealed brokenly.
Ann questioned Fledra with a look; the girl made clearer her demand by adding:
"Do you believe that Jesus hears you when you ask Him something you want very, very bad?"
She looked so miserable, so frail and lonely, that Ann put her arms about her.
"Sit down here with me, Fledra. There! Put your little tired head right here, and I'll tell you all I can."
"I want to be helped!" murmured Fledra.
"I've known that for sometime," Ann said softly; "and I'm so happy that you've come to me!"
"It's nothin' you can do; but I was thinkin' that perhaps Jesus could do it."
Ann pressed the girl closer.
"Is it something you can't tell me?"
"And you can't tell my brother?"
The girl's nervous start filled Ann with dismay; for now she knew that the trouble rested with Horace. She waited for an answer to her question, and at length Fledra, crestfallen, blurted out:
"I can't tell anybody but—"
"Jesus?" whispered Ann.
"Yes; and I don't know how to tell Him."
Ann thought a moment.
"Fledra, if you wanted someone to do something for you, about which that person knew nothing, wouldn't you have to tell it before it could be granted?"
"Then, that's what you are to do tonight. You are to kneel down here when I am gone, and you are to feel positively sure that God will help, if you ask Him in Jesus' name. Do you think you have faith enough to do that?"
"I don't know what faith is," replied Fledra in a whisper.
"I'll tell you what it is, Dear. Now, then, don't you remember how my brother and I prayed for Floyd?"
Fledra pressed Ann's arm.
"And don't you remember, Dear, that almost immediately he was helped?"
"You had a doctor," said Fledra slowly.
"Yes, for a doctor is God's agent for the good of mankind; but we had faith, too. And in something like this—Is your trouble illness?"
"Only here," answered Flea, laying her hand upon her heart.
Ann could not force Flea's confidence; so she said:
"Then if it is impossible to confide in Horace, or in me, will you pray tonight, fully believing that you will be answered? You must remember how much Jesus loved you to come down to suffer and die for you."
"I don't believe I thought that story was true, Sister Ann." Fledra drew back, and looked up into Ann's shocked face as she spoke, "I shouldn't say I believed it if I didn't, should I?"
"No, Darling; but you must believe—you surely must! You must promise me that you will pray first for faith, then for relief, and tomorrow you will feel better."
"I promise," answered Fledra.
For many minutes after Ann had left her, the girl lay stretched out upon the bed. Her heart pained her until it seemed that she must go directly to Horace and confess her secret.
She got up slowly at last, and, kneeling, began a whispered petition. It was broken by sobs and falling tears, by writhings that tore the tender soul offering it.
Fledra prayed for Horace, and then stopped.
After a time she rose, having done all a girl could do for those she loved, and, undressing, slowly crawled into bed. Through the darkness as she lay looking upward she tried to imagine what kind of a being God was, wondering if He were kindly visaged, or if, when His earthly children sinned, He looked as Horace had looked when she confessed the lie told to Ann. In her imagination, she framed the Savior of the world like unto the man she loved when he smiled upon her, and then she believed, and believed mightily. In likening Jesus to Horace—in bringing the Savior nearer through the lineaments of her loved one—she gathered out of her unbelief a great belief that He could, and would, smooth away all the troubles that had arisen in her life.
* * * * *
That night she turned and tossed for several hours, praying and weeping, weeping and praying, until from sheer fatigue she lay perfectly quiet. Suddenly she sat up and listened. The stupor of slumber dulled her hearing, and she struggled to catch again the sound that had awakened her. From somewhere across the hall she heard a faint click, click, which sounded as though some mechanic's tool were being used.
Fledra slipped from the bed and opened the door stealthily. She crept along the hall in her bare feet, terrified by the muffled sound, and stopped before the velvet curtains that were drawn closely across the dining-room doorway. Someone was tampering with the silver chest.
For a moment terror almost forced Fledra back to her room without investigating; but the thought that somebody was stealing Ann's precious family plate caused her to slip her fingers between the curtains and peep in.
The lock of the steel safe was lighted by the rays of a dark-lantern, and Fledra could see two shadowy figures on the floor before it. One held the light, while the other turned a small hammer machine containing a slender drill. The girl did not have the courage to scream a warning to Horace and the servants, and before she could move of a sudden one of the men whispered:
"The damn thing is harder'n hell, Lem. I guess I'll take a crack at this here hinge."
The name awoke the senses of the trembling girl, and instantly she knew the man who had spoken to be Lon Cronk. A chill gathered round her heart and froze the very marrow in her bones. She dropped the curtain and fled back to her room. Standing against the door, she pressed her hands over her face to stifle the loud breathing. Lem and Lon were robbing the house! She would be forced then to let thieves have the contents of the safe; for, if Pappy Lon knew that she and Flukey were housed there, he would take them away. But, if he made off with the plate, no one would ever know who had done it, and her sick brother would still be safe in Ann's care.
"I won't go to 'em. I won't! I won't! They can take the whole thing for all of me!"
She turned sharply as though she had heard a voice that had made answer to her. With her faculties benumbed by the terror of the men in the dining-room, and yet remembering that her grief had been subdued, she turned her face upward, and fancied she saw the Christ-man, so like Horace, descending into the room. But the face, instead of smiling at her, looked melancholy and sad.
It was the dawn of a lasting belief in the Son of God, her first real vision of Him. She gazed steadily at the beautiful apparition, and then said haltingly:
"I'm goin' back to stop 'em, and if Pappy Lon takes me back to the squatter settlement then help me if ye can, dear Jesus!"
The struggle was over, and with rigid desperation Fledra again opened the door and stepped into the hall. Gliding swiftly along to the entrance of the dining-room, she flung aside the curtains and appeared like a shade before Lem and Lon.
The squatter saw her first; but in the semidarkness did not recognize her. He lifted his arm, and a flash of steel sent her trembling backward.
"Don't open yer mug, Kid, or I'll shoot yer head off!"
Then he recognized her, and stepped back to Lem's side.
"It's Flea, it's Flea Cronk!" he gasped.
The girl advanced into the room.
"What do you want here, Pappy Lon? Did you come to steal?"
She saw Lem grimacing at her through the rays of the lantern. The scowman looked so evil, so awful, as he grinningly raised his steel hook, that her faith very nearly fled. Crabbe's heavy face was working with violent emotion. His full neck moved with horrid convulsions, while a discord of low noises came from his throat. The girl, clad in her white nightgown, under which he could trace the slender body, filled him again with passionate longing.
"By God! it's little Flea!" he exclaimed at last.
"Yep," threw back Lon. "We found somethin' we didn't expect—eh, Lem?"
"Did you come to steal?" Fledra demanded again, this time looking at the canalman.
"Yep; but we didn't know that you was here, Flea."
"Then you won't take anything—now, will you?"
"We don't go till you come with us, Flea!" Lon moved nearer her as he spoke. "Ye be my brat, and ye'll come home with yer pappy!"
Fledra choked for breath.
"I can't go with you tonight," she replied, bending over in supplication. "Flukey's sick here, and I have to stay."
"Sick! Sick, ye say?" Cronk exclaimed.
"Yes, he's been in bed ever since we left home, and he can't walk, and I won't go without him."
"I'll take ye both," said Lon ferociously. "I'll come after ye, and I'll kill the man what keeps ye away from me! I'm a thinkin' a man can have his own brats!"
Fledra did not set up an argument upon this point. She wanted to get the men out of the house, so that she might think out a plan to save her brother and herself.
"Ye'll have to let Flukey stay until he gets well, and then mebbe we'll come back."
"There ain't no mebbe about it," growled Lon. "Ye'll come when I say it, and Lem ain't through with ye yet, nuther! Be ye, Lem?"
Never, since the children had left his hut, had Lon felt such a desire to torture them. The dead woman seemed to call out to him for revenge. The wish for the Shellington baubles and the money he might find was nothing compared to the delight he would feel in dragging the twins back to Ithaca. Granny Cronk was there no longer, and everything would go his way! He put out his hand and touched Crabbe.
"We ain't goin' to steal nothin' in this house, Lem," he said sullenly; "but I'll come tomorry and take the kids. Then we be done with this town. Ye'll get yer brother ready by tomorry mornin'. Ye hear, Flea?"
"Yes," answered Flea dully.
"If Flukey be too sick to walk, he can ride. I've got the money, and all I want be you two brats, and, if ye don't come when I tell ye to, then it'll be worse for them what's harborin' ye. And don't ye so much as breathe to the man what owns this house that we was here tonight—or—I'll kill Flukey when I get him back to the shanty!"
His glance took in the beautiful room, and, unable to suppress a smile, he taunted:
"I'm a thinkin' ye'll see a difference 'tween the hut and this place—eh, Flea?"
"And between this and the scow," chuckled Lem.
"Yep, 'tween this an' the scow," repeated Lon. "Come on, Lem. We'll go now, an' tomorry we'll come for ye, Flea. No man ain't no right to keep another man's kids."
Fledra's past experiences with her squatter father were still so vivid in her mind that she made no further appeal to him; for she feared to suffer again the humiliation of a blow before Lem. She stood near the table, shivering, her teeth chattering, and her body swaying with fright and cold. To whom did she dare turn? Not to Ann or to Horace; for Lon had forbidden it. To tell Flukey would only make him very ill again. Lon was advancing toward her as these thoughts raced through her mind. She drew back when he thrust out one of his horny hands.
"I ain't a goin' to hit ye, Flea; but I'm goin' to make ye know that I ain't goin' to have no foolin', and that ye belong to me, and so does Flukey, and that, when I come for ye, ye're to have yer duds ready."
Lem neared the open window, and Lon turned to follow him.
* * * * *
For fully three minutes after they had gone, the girl stood watching the black hole through which they had disappeared, where now the snow came fluttering in. Then she crept forward and lowered the window noiselessly. With swift footsteps she ran back through the hall and into the bedroom. After turning on the light, she drew on a dressing-gown and slipped her feet into a pair of red slippers.
Somewhere from the story above came the sound of footfalls, and then the creaking of stairs. The girl stood holding her hand over her beating heart. A servant, or possibly Ann, had heard the noises and was coming down. Suddenly into her mind came the prayer Floyd loved.
"Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child."
She said the words over several times; but had ceased whispering when a low knock came upon her door. She opened it, and saw Horace standing in his dressing-gown and slippers. For a moment she looked at him with almost unseeing eyes, and her lips moved tremulously, as if she would speak and could not. Horace, noticing her agitation, spoke first.
"Fledra, I thought I heard you. I looked down and saw a light shining from your window. Is anything the matter?"
Fledra could not find her voice to reply. She had not expected him, and, locking her fingers tightly together, she stood wide-lidded and trembling.
"Were you speaking to someone?" asked Horace.
"Yes, I was. I was speaking to Jesus just before you came. I was asking Him to help me."
The man looked at the red gown hanging over her white nightrobe, the tossed black curls, and the pale, sensitive face before he said:
"Fledra, whatever is the matter with you? Surely, there is something I can do."
"Sister Ann said I would be happier, and we all would, if I asked Jesus; and I was askin' Him jest now."
Horace eyed her dubiously.
"It is right to ask Him to help you, of course; but, child, it isn't right for you to act toward me as you do."
Fledra was so desirous of his love and confidence that she made as if to speak. She took two steps forward, then hesitated. Remembering Ann and the care she had given Floyd, her hand fell convulsively on the door, and she tried to close it. She dared not tell him of Lon's midnight visit to the home, and wondered if he would give her up to her squatter father, and let Flukey be taken back to the settlement.
"I told ye the truth when I said I was prayin'," she said; "but I was thinkin', too, if it was right for a father to have his own children, if he was to ask for 'em."
Horace, not understanding her enigmatical words, regarded her gravely.
"What a queer girl you are, anyway, Fledra!" he exclaimed. He spoke almost irritably. He felt like grasping her up and shaking her as one might an obstreperous child.
His moody silence made Fledra repeat her words.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Horace answered; "but, I suppose, if a father's children were being kept from him, he could take them if he wished. Fledra, look at me!"
She raised her gaze slowly, her somber eyes smiting the watching man as might a blow. Her beseeching expression arrested the bitter speech that rose to his lips. As the memory of her hard work gripped him, he bent forward and took her slim, cold hand in his.
"Fledra, I want you to pay attention to what I am going to say. I feel sure that you want to be a good girl. If I were not, I could not bear it. Even if you don't trust me, I'm going to help you all I can, anyway."
"And pray," gasped Fledra, "pray, Brother Horace, that I can be just what you want me to be, and that I can stay with Floyd in your house!"
The girl closed the door quickly in his face, and Shellington moved slowly away, racking his brain for some solution of the problem.
With their minds in a perturbed state, Lem and Lon passed silently back into the cemetery. The shock of the girl's appearance had awed them both. They were nearing the toolhouse before Scraggy came into Lem's mind.
The whole situation was changed, now that Flea was coming to him. It was the same to him whether she wanted to come or not; nor did it matter that he had promised Screech Owl that she should be in the scow. He still wanted his boy to help him with his work; but Scraggy was a person wholly out of his life.
The two men halted in front of the shed.
"There be a woman in there," said Lem in a low voice.
"What woman?" asked Lon.
"Scraggy! How'd she come in here?"
"I took her in," said Lem. "She were the woman what that guy throwed over the fence."
Lon pushed his companion aside and pressed through the small doorway. He cast the light of the lantern about; but no Screech Owl was in sight.
"If Scraggy was over here, Lem," he said doubtfully, "then she's gone. We'd better scoot and get a place to stay all night."
When Fledra entered the breakfast room it was evident to both Ann and Horace that she had had no sleep. Dark rings had settled under her eyes. The girl had decided that Lon would make good his threat against the person who should try to keep his children from him, and, if she went to school, Lem and her father might come when she was gone. As they rose from the table, she said sullenly:
"I'm not goin' to school any more. I don't like that place. I want to stay at home."
"Are you ill, Dear?" asked Ann, coming forward.
"No, I'm not sick; but I can't go to school."
Horace's brow darkened.
"That's hardly the way to speak to my sister, Fledra," he chided gently.
Ann glanced at him in appeal. Fledra was standing before them, and her eyes dropped under his words.
"If I asked you to let me stay home," she said in a low tone, "you'd both say I couldn't; so I just had to say that I won't go."
Fledra knew no other way to stand guard over the houseful of loved ones. If Lon were to come while she was gone, he might take her brother. If she told Horace that thieves had entered his home, and if she named them, that would draw fatal consequences down on Floyd. She could only hold her peace and let matters take their course. At any rate, she did not intend to go to school. Now she cast a quick glance at Ann; but kept her eyes studiously from Horace. Noting Miss Shellington's entreating face, Fledra flung out her hands.
"I didn't want to be mean," she said quickly; "but I want you to let me stay home today. Can I? Please, can I?"
"There! I knew that you'd apologize to my sister," Horace said, smiling.
At this, Fledra turned upon him. He had never felt a pair of eyes affect him as did hers. How winsomely sweet she was! It came over him in a flash that he had not dealt quite justly with her; so he smiled again and held out his hands.
* * * * *
During the morning Fledra crept ghostlike about the house. She strained her eyes, now at one window and then at another, for the first glimpse of Lon. The luncheon hour came and passed, and still the thieves gave no sign of coming. Horace had returned from his office early in the afternoon, and was smoking a cigar in the library, when suddenly a loud peal of the doorbell roused him. Fledra, too, heard it distinctly. She was sitting beside Floyd; but had not dared to breathe their danger to him. Her cheeks paled at the sound, and she rested silent until presently summoned to the drawing-room.
"What's the matter?" asked her brother.
"Nothin', Fluke, lay down, and if ye hear anyone talkin' keep still. Somebody's coming."
"Somebody comes every day," answered Floyd. "That ain't nothin'. What ye doin', Flea?"
She was standing at the door with her ear to the keyhole. She heard the servant pass her, heard the door open, and Lon's voice asking for Mr. Shellington. Then she slid back to Flukey, trembling from head to foot.
"Ye're sick, Dear," said the boy. "Get off this bed, Snatchet! Lay down here by me, Flea and rest."
The girl dropped down beside him and closed her eyes with a groan. Floyd placed his thin hand upon her, and Fledra remained silent, until she was summoned to the drawing-room.
* * * * *
"Who wanted me?" Horace asked the question of the mystified servant.
"I didn't catch the name, Sir. I didn't understand it. He's a dreadful-looking man."
Horace rose, put down his cigar, and walked into the hall.
Lon Cronk was waiting with a shabby cap in his hand. He bowed awkwardly to Shellington, and essayed to speak; but Horace interrupted:
"Do you wish to see me?"
"Yep," answered Lon, glancing sullenly over the young lawyer. "I've come for my brats."
"My kids, Flea and Flukey Cronk."
Horace felt something clutch at his heart. Fledra's radiant face rose before his mental vision, and he swallowed hard, as he thought of her relation to the brutal fellow before him.
"Walk in here, please," he said.
Then he bade the servant call his sister.
Miss Shellington obeyed the summons so quickly that her brother was indicating a chair for the squatter as she walked in. At sight of the uncouth stranger she glanced about her in dismay.
"Ann," said Horace, "this is the father—of—"
Ann's expression snapped off his statement. She knew what he would say without his finishing. She remembered the stories of terrible beatings, and the story of Fledra's fear of a wicked man who wanted her for his woman. The boy's words came back to her plainly. "And he weren't goin' to marry her nuther, Mister, and that's the truth." Nevertheless, she stepped forward, throwing a look from her brother to the squatter.
"But he can't have them—of course, he can't have them!"
Lon had come with a determination to take the twins peaceably if he could; he would fight if he had to. He had purposely applied to Shellington in his home, fearing that he might meet Governor Vandecar in Horace's office. As long as everyone thought the children his, he could hold to the point that they had to go back with him. He would make no compromise for money with the protectors of his children; for he had rather have their bodies to torment than be the richest man in the state. He had not yet avenged that woman dead and gone so many years back. At thought of her, he rose to his feet and smiled at Ann with twitching lips.
"Ye said, Ma'm, that I couldn't have my brats. I say that I will have 'em. I'm goin' to take 'em today. Do ye hear?"
"He can't have them, Horace. Oh! you can't say yes to him!"
Horace's mind turned back to Fledra, and he mentally blessed the opportunity he had to protect her.
"I don't think, Mr. Cronk, that you will take your children," he said, "even granted that they are yours. I'm not sure of that yet."
Lon's brown face yellowed. Had they discovered the secret that he had kept all the dark, revengeful years?
Horace's next words banished that fear: "I shall have to have you identified by one of them before I should even, consider your statement."
Cronk smiled in relief; and Ann shuddered, as she thought of Flukey's frail body in the man's thick, twisting fingers.
"That be easy enough to do. Jest call the gal—or the boy."
"The boy is too ill to get up," said Ann huskily; "and I beg of you to go away and leave them with us. You don't care for them—you know you don't."
"Who said as how I don't care for my own brats?"
"The little girl told me the night she came here that you hated her, and also that you abused them."
"I'll fix her for that!" muttered Lon.
"I don't believe you'll touch her while she is with me," said Horace hotly. "I shall send for the girl, and, if you are their father, then—"
"They can't go!" cried Ann.
"I haven't said that they could go, Ann. I was just going to say to Mr. Cronk that if they wanted to go of course we couldn't keep them. Otherwise, there is a remedy for him." Horace leaned over toward the squatter and threw out his next words angrily, "There's the law, Mr. Cronk! Ann, please call Fledra."