* * * * *
The girl responded with the weight of the world on her. Had some arrangements been made for her and Floyd between Horace and Lon? She knew that Ann was there, and that Mr. Shellington had been talking with the squatter long enough to decide what should be done. She walked slowly to the door, her head spinning with anxiety and fear. For one single moment she paused on the threshold, then stepped within.
Drop by drop, the color went from her cheeks, leaving them waxen white. She threw the squatter an unbending opposing glance.
"Did you come for Fluke and me, Pappy Lon?" she stammered.
Her lips trembled perceptibly; but she went forward, and, taking Ann's hand in hers, stood facing Cronk.
Lon looked her over from head to foot. First, his gaze took in the pretty dark head; then it traveled slowly downward, until for an instant his fierce eyes rested on her small feet.
"Yep," he replied, raising a swift look, "I comed for ye both—you and Flukey, too. Go and git ready!"
Fledra dared not appeal to Horace. He stood so quietly in his place, making no motion to speak, that she felt positive that he wished her to go away. She was too dazed to count up the sum of her troubles. Her face fell into a shadow and grew immeasurably sad. Lon was glowering at her, and she read his decision like an open page. The dreadful opposition in his shaggy brown eyes spurred Fledra forward; but Ann's arms stole about her waist, and the slender figure was drawn close. A feeling of thanksgiving rushed over the girl. How glad she was that she had kept the secret of Everett's unfaithfulness!
"Sister Ann," she gasped, "can't ye keep us from him? Fluke nor me don't want to go, and Pappy Lon don't like us, either. I couldn't go—I'd ruther die, I would! He'd make me go to Lem's scow! Ye can see I can't go, can't you?" She wheeled around and looked at Horace, her eyes filled with a frightened appeal. Shellington's glance was compassionate and tender.
"I not only see that you can't go," said he; "but I will see to it that you don't go. Mr. Cronk, I shall have to ask you to leave my house."
"I don't go one step," growled Lon, "till I get them kids! Where's Flukey?" He made a move toward the door; but Horace thrust his big form in front of him.
"The boy shall not know that you are here," said he. "I shall keep it from him because he's ill, and because a great worry like this might seriously harm him. It might even kill him."
Lon's temper raced away with his judgment.
"What do I care if he dies or not? I'm goin' to have him, dead or alive!"
Shellington noted the hatred and menace in the other's tones, and he smiled in triumph.
"It's about as I thought, Mr. Cronk. You care no more for these children than if they were animals. That statement you just made will go against you at the proper time, all right. Please go now, and remember what I've said, that you have the law. And remember another thing: if you do fight, I shall bring everything I can find against you, if I have to ask the aid of Governor Vandecar. I see no other course open to you. Good-day, Sir."
Cronk glared about until his gaze rested upon the two girls. His eyes pierced into the soul of Fledra. She shuddered and drew closer to Miss Shellington. The squatter walked toward the door, and once more looked back, an evil expression crossing his face and settling in deep lines about his mouth.
"Ye remember what I told ye, Flea, the last time I seed ye! I meant what I said then, and I say it over again!"
The emphasis upon the words struck terror to Fledra's sensibilities. But, with new courage in her eyes, she advanced a step, and, raising a set face, replied:
"Ye can't have us, Pappy Lon—you can't! I'll take care of Flukey, and Mr. Shellington'll take care—of—me."
Horace set his teeth firmly as he closed the door, upon Cronk. Through the door window he saw the squatter take his lumbering way down the steps, and noticed that the man paused and looked back at the house. The heavy face was black with baffled rage, and Lon raised his fist and shook it threateningly. If Horace had been determined in the first instant that the squatter should not get possession of the twins, he was now many times more resolute to keep to his decision. For his life, he could not imagine Lon Cronk the father of his young charges.
He returned to the drawing-room, and found Ann and Fledra still together, the girl's face hidden in Miss Shellington's lap.
"Horace," cried Ann, "there can't be any way in which he can take them, can there? He didn't tell you how he found out they were here, did he?"
"No, I forgot to ask him, and it doesn't matter about that. Our only task now will be to keep them from him. Fledra, when you have finished talking with Ann, will you come to me?"
Fledra raised her head. Something in Horace's eyes frightened her. She had never seen him so pale, nor had his lips ever been so set and white.
Ann rose quickly. Of late Horace's actions had aroused her suspicions. She was now fully convinced that Everett had been right. Moreover, she had come to feel that she would willingly overlook Fledra's birth, if her brother's intentions were serious.
"Go to him now, and trust—have faith that you will not have to go away!"
Fledra kissed Ann's hands and tremblingly followed Shellington into his study.
She sat down without waiting for an invitation; for her legs seemed too weak to hold her. Her attitude was attentive, and her poise was graceful. For some minutes Horace arranged the papers on his desk, while Fledra peeped at him from under her lashes. He looked even sterner than when he had ordered Lon to leave the house, and his silence terrified her more than if he had scolded her. At last he turned quickly.
"Fledra, I've asked you to come here, because I can't stand our troubles any longer. I believe in my soul that you love me; for you have told me so, and—and have given me every reason to hope it. We are facing a new danger, both for you and for Floyd, and I am sure you want to help me all you can." He paused a moment, and went on, "Your suffering is over as far as your own people are concerned. There is no law that can force a child as old as you are to return to such a hateful place, and I shall take it upon myself to see that neither you nor your brother is forced to leave here."
Fledra uttered a cry and half-rose to her feet; but, as Horace continued speaking, she sank down.
"I think it probable that we shall have to go to law, for Mr. Cronk looks like a very determined man; but he'll find that I will fight his claim every inch of the way." Shellington bent toward her and rested a hand on the papers he had been sorting. "I'm very glad you didn't go to school today, and you must not go again until it is over. This man may try to kidnap you." He found it impossible to call Lon her father.
Fledra reached out and grasped his hands. At her touch, Horace flushed to the roots of his hair. Loosening his own fingers, he took hers into his. Finally he drew her slowly round the corner of the desk, close into his arms.
"Fledra, for God's sake, tell me what has made you so unhappy! Will you, child? Isn't it something that I ought to know? Poor little girly, don't cry that way! It breaks my heart to hear you!"
There was inexplicable weariness on the fair young face.
"I want to stay here," moaned Flea; "but what I have that hurts me is here." She drew his fingers close over her heart. "It isn't anything anybody can help—just yet."
"I could help you, Fledra," Horace insisted. "Every man has the power to help the woman he loves, and you are a woman, Fledra."
"I want to be your woman."
Young as she was, Fledra was an enigma to him. There was but one way to make her his woman,—his wife,—that was to force her confidence, and, once obtained, keep it. But his longing to caress her was stronger than his desire to conquer her,—the warmth and softness of her lips he would not exchange for the world's wealth!
"Sweetheart, Sweetheart!" he said, reddening. "I'm sorry that I spoke as I did last night,—I was angry,—but I've had such awful moods lately! Sometimes I've felt as if I could whip you to make you tell me!"
A thrill ran over Fledra from head to foot.
"Beat me—will you beat me?" she murmured, drawing his hand across her moist lips. "I'd love to have you beat me! Pappy Lon always said that a woman needed beatin' to make her stand around. Then, when I saw you, I thought as how princes never beat their women; but now I know you have to."
If the young face had been less earnest, the gray eyes less entreating, Horace would have laughed despite his anger.
"Of course, I shan't whip you, child," he said; "only I want you to prove your love for me by trusting me. You're a woman, Fledra. It would be an outrage to punish you that way. Then, too, I love you too well to hurt you."
She watched him for one tense moment. She was quivering under his firm grasp like a leaf in the wind. Her eyes were entreating him to trust her, to take her, regardless of her seeming stubbornness.
"Fledra," he whispered, "if the time ever comes that you can, will you tell me all about it?"
"And you'll not lie again?"
"I've never lied to you!" came sullenly.
"And you won't tell another untruth to Ann, either—- not even once?"
Fledra's mind flashed to Everett. She might have to lie to keep Ann's happiness for her. She slowly drew her hand away, and turned fretfully with a hatred against Brimbecomb for bringing all this misery upon them.
"I'm not going to promise you that I won't lie to Sister Ann; but I'll tell you the truth, always—always—"
Because he did not understand a woman's heart, Horace opened the door, white and angered.
"It is beyond my comprehension that you should treat a woman as you have my sister. You take advantage of her generosity, and expect me to uphold you in it!"
There was a catch of genuine sorrow in his voice. Slowly Fledra looked back over her shoulder at him.
"You've promised me that you'd never tell anybody what I told you."
Horace supplemented his last rebuke with:
"Nor will I! But I insist that you come to me the next time you are tempted to lie. Do you hear, Fledra?"
"Yes," she answered.
Suddenly she began to sob wildly, and in another instant fled down the hall.
Not more than two weeks after Lon had demanded the twins from Horace, Everett Brimbecomb sat in his office, brooding over the shadow that had so suddenly darkened his life. The dream he had dreamed of a woman he could call Mother, of some man—his father—of whom he had striven to be worthy, had dissolved into a specter with a shriveled face and shaggy hair, into a woman whom he had left in the cemetery to die. Although he was secure in the thought that he would not be connected with the tragedy, he shuddered every time he thought of her and of the coming spring, when the body would be discovered. He did not repent the crime he had committed; but the fear that the secret of his birth would be brought to life tortured him night and day. He remembered that Scraggy had said his father wanted him; that she had come to Tarrytown to take him back. Did his father know who and where he was? If so, eventual discovery was inevitable.
Everett's passion for Fledra only heightened his misery, and the girl's face haunted him continually. In his imagination he compared her with Ann, and the younger girl stood out in radiant contrast. He had daily fostered his jealous hatred for Horace, and, because of her allegiance to her brother, he had come to loathe Ann, although he was more than ever determined to marry her. The home in which he had been reared repelled him, and he could now live only for the fame that would rise from his talent and work, and for the pleasures that come to those without heart or conscience. Almost the entire morning had been consumed by these thoughts, when two men were ushered in to him.
"I'm Lon Cronk," said the taller of the two, "and this be Lem Crabbe, and we hear that ye're a good lawyer."
Everett rose frowningly.
"I am a lawyer," said he; "but I choose my clients. I don't take cases—"
"We'll pay ye well," interrupted Lon, "if it's money ye want. Ye can have as much as that Mr. Shellin'ton—"
Everett dropped back again into his chair. The mention of Horace's name silenced him. He motioned for the men to be seated, without taking his eyes from Lem. The scowman's clothes were in shreds, and, as he lifted his right arm, Brimbecomb saw the chapped red flesh, strapped to the rusted iron hook. Although Lem had not spoken, the young lawyer noted the silent convulsions going on in the dark, full throat, the unceasing movements of the goiter.
"State your case to me, then," said he tersely.
Lon Cronk settled back and began to speak.
"There's a man here in this town by the name of Shellington. He's a lawyer, too, and he's got my kids, and I want 'em. That's my case, Mister."
Brimbecomb's heart began to beat tumultuously. Chance was giving him a lead he could not have won of his own efforts, and he smiled, turning on Cronk more cordially.
"Have you demanded your children of Mr. Shellington?" he asked.
Everett bent over eagerly.
"What did he say to you?"
"He says as how I could go to the devil, and that I could git the law after him if I wanted 'em. Can I get 'em, Mister?"
The lawyer straightened up, and for many moments was deep in thought before answering Lon. The chance of which he could never have dreamed had come to him. This visit laid open a way for him to tear Fledra from Horace; in fact, he could now legally take her from him with no possibility of public discredit to himself. He narrowly observed the men before him, and knew that he should later be able to force them to do as he wished. He forgot his foster father and mother—aye, forgot even Ann—as all that was black in his nature inflamed his desire for the ebony-haired girl.
During several minutes he rapidly planned how he could bring the affair to a favorable climax with the least possible danger. But, whether by fair means or by foul, he resolved that Fledra should become his.
Presently, as if to gain time, he asked:
"Do you want them both?"
"The boy is ill, I hear," he said.
"That don't make no difference," cried Lon. "I want him jest the same. Can ye get 'em fer me, Mister?"
"I think so," replied Everett; "and, if I take the case, I shall have to ask you to keep out of it entirely, until I'm ready for you. We shall probably have to go into court."
"Yep, ye'll have to bring it into court, all right, I know ye will. How much money do ye want now?"
"Fifty dollars," replied Everett; "and it will be more if I have a suit, and still more if I win. Come here again next week Monday, and I'll lay my plans before you."
Lon clapped his shabby cap upon his head, and, with a surly leave-taking, moved to go. Lem lagged behind; but a glance at the lawyer's forbidding face sent him shuffling after the squatter.
* * * * *
Long after they were gone Everett sat planning a future course. He felt sure that Horace would not allow the children to be taken from him without a fight; he knew there were special statutes governing these things, and took down a large book and began to read.
Much to his satisfaction, Brimbecomb found a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Brimbecomb awaiting him at home that evening. In it his foster mother informed him that they had decided to return to Tarrytown immediately and make ready for a trip abroad, where they hoped that Mr. Brimbecomb would recover his health. In a postscript from the noted lawyer, Everett read:
I am glad that you are doing well, dear boy, and when my doctor said that I must have a complete rest I knew that I could leave you in charge of the office and go away satisfied.
There followed a few personalities, and after finishing the reader threw it down with a smile. He had hesitated a moment over the thought that his father would have a decided objection to the Cronk case. But his desire to work against Horace had overcome his irresolution. Now his way was clear! The sooner Mr. and Mrs. Brimbecomb were away, the better pleased he would be.
* * * * *
Floyd was suddenly taken worse.
"I think, if you were to come and speak with him, he might feel better," said Ann to Horace. "He wants to see you. Fledra is with him."
Floyd was quiet now, his large eyes closed with quivering pain.
"Floyd!" murmured Horace, touching the lad gently.
The lids lifted, and he put up his hand.
"I'm glad ye come, Brother Horace," he said in a whisper. "I've been wantin' to talk to ye. Will ye take Flea out, Sister Ann?"
Both girls left the room, as Horace drew a chair to the bed.
"I ain't goin' to get well," said Flukey slowly. "I know the doctor thinks so, too, 'cause he said there was somethin' the matter with my heart. And I have to go and leave Flea."
Shellington took the thin, white hand in his.
"You must not become downhearted, boy; that's not the way to get well. And you're certainly better than when you came, in spite of this little setback."
Floyd closed his eyes, and Horace saw silent tears rolling down the boy's cheeks. The young man bent over him.
"Floyd, are you worrying about your sister?"
Flukey nodded an affirmative.
"Because she ain't the same as she was. And she ain't happy any more, and I can't make her tell me. Have ye been ugly to her—have ye?"
Horace racked his mind for a truthful answer. Had he been unfair to Fledra?
"Floyd," he said softly, "your sister and I have had some words; but we shall soon understand each other—I know we shall!"
"What did ye say to Flea?"
"I can't tell you, Floyd, because I promised her I would not."
The boy writhed under the warm blankets.
"She's always makin' folks promise not to tell things," he moaned. "It's because you're mad at her, that's what makes her cry so, and I can't do anything for her. Can't you, Brother Horace?"
"She won't let me, Floyd."
"Did ye ask her?"
"Would she let ye if I asked her?"
"No, Floyd, you must not! I promised her that I would not speak with you about her unhappiness." Horace ejaculated his reply so emphatically that Floyd looked at him curiously.
"But I can't die and leave her that way, and I'm a goin' soon. Sometimes my heart jest stands still, and won't start again till I lose all my breath. A feller can't live that way, can he, Brother Horace?"
"It will pass off; of course, it will—it must!" Horace looked into the worn, suffering young face, and a resolution took possession of him.
"Floyd," he said huskily, "Floyd, if I tell you something, will you keep it from my sister and yours?"
"Yes," murmured Flukey.
"I love Fledra, and want to make her my wife. Does that help you any, to know that I shall always watch her and care for her?"
Flukey searched the earnest face bent over him.
"Ye love her?"
"Very much, very much indeed. But she is young yet—only a little girl."
"Did ye tell her that ye loved her?"
"Did she say she loved you?"
"Then it's something else than that, because I've known for a long time that Flea loved ye. What's the matter? What's the matter with ye both?"
"Floyd, when I tell you that I do not know," answered Horace, "will you believe me?"
"Did ye want her to tell ye somethin'—something that'll keep ye from takin' her now?" Horace's silence drew an outpouring from Flukey. "And I suppose she said she wouldn't—and ye won't take her unless she tells ye. Then ye'll never get her; for, when Flea says she won't, she won't, if she dies for it! Ain't ye lovin' her well enough to take her, anyway?"
Horace answered warmly, "Yes, of course, I am!"
* * * * *
By the dawn of day Floyd had become so much worse that a trained nurse was placed at his side, and the physician's verdict, that the boy might die at any moment, overshadowed the threats of the squatter father.
* * * * *
Lon Cronk had come alone to Everett's office on the hour set. Brimbecomb wondered vaguely where the other man was, and what was his concern in the affair.
After greeting Lon coldly, the young lawyer said:
"I should like to know about your life, Mr. Cronk, how long your children have been away from you, and all about it."
"They've been gone since September," replied Lon. "They runned away from hum, and I ain't seed 'em till I found out that they was at Shellington's."
"And how did you discover them?"
"Saw Flea goin' up the steps," lied Cronk. "I knowed her the minute I see her, in spite of her pretty clothes."
"Then you applied to Mr. Shellington for them?"
"And he refused to deliver them up?"
"Yep—damn him! But I'll take 'em, anyway."
"Don't say that outside my office," warned Everett. "The law does not want to be threatened."
Lon remained silent.
"We'll have to deal with Mr. Shellington very carefully," cautioned the lawyer; "for he is proud and stubborn, and has a great liking for your children. In fact, I think he is quite in love with the girl."
Lon started to his feet, his swart face paling.
"He won't git her!" he muttered. "I've got plans for that gal, and I ain't goin' have no young buck kickin' 'em over, I kin tell ye that!"
Brimbecomb's words put a new light upon the matter. That Flea would be protected by the young millionaire Lon knew; but that the young man thought of marrying her had never come into his mind.
"I don't believe as how he'd marry a squatter girl," he said presently. "He won't, if I get her once to Ithaca!"
The mention of Brimbecomb's college town and birthplace brought a new train of thought to the lawyer.
"Have you lived in Ithaca many years?" he demanded.
"The first thing I shall do," said the attorney deliberately, "is to make a formal demand upon Mr. Shellington in your name, and get his answer. Please remain in town where I can see you, and if anything comes up I shall write you."
Lon gave him the address of a man near the river, and Everett allowed his client to go. Some force within him had almost impelled him to ask the squatter concerning Screech Owl, and he breathed more freely when he thought that he had not given way to the temptation to learn something about his own people.
* * * * *
At eight o'clock that evening Everett met Mr. and Mrs. Brimbecomb at the station. He could not comprehend the feeling that his foster parents had become strangers to him. He kissed his mother, shook hands with Mr. Brimbecomb, and followed them into the carriage.
He went to bed content with the knowledge that their steamer would sail two days later, and that for six months he would be alone.
"I can't understand why Horace wants to keep those children indefinitely," said Governor Vandecar to his wife one evening. "It seems their own father has turned up and asked for them."
"Is Horace going to let him have them?"
"Not without a fight, I fear. He talked to me about it, and seemed perfectly decided to keep them. I told him to take no steps until papers were served upon him."
"Can they keep them, Floyd?"
Mrs. Vandecar had become suddenly interested in Fledra and Floyd.
"I'm sure I don't know," replied the governor. "Such things have to be threshed out in court, although much will depend upon what the youngsters wish to do. I fear, though, that Ann and Horace are making useless trouble for themselves."
"What process will the father have to take to get them?"
"Have habeas corpus papers issued. It will be a nuisance; but I did not try to change his mind, because he was so earnest about it."
"So is Ann," replied Mrs. Vandecar, "and then, Dear, I always think their kindness to those poor little children might make the little dears useful in life sometime. Mildred says they are very pretty and sweet."
"Well, as I said before, it's strange that such a case should be here in this peaceful little town, and I have promised Horace to advise him all I can, although I am too busy to take any active part in it."
"Oh, do everything you ought to, Floyd, if you discover that they have really been abused. It might be that they would be really harmed if they were taken back to their home. Did Horace tell you where they lived?"
"Yes, near Ithaca somewhere. I think he said they had a shanty on Cayuga Lake."
"One of the squatters?"
"I remember very well," remarked Mrs. Vandecar after a moment's thought, "when I went to Ithaca with Ann Shellington, and Horace and Everett were graduated from the university, that we went up the lake in Brimbecomb's yacht. The boys called our attention to numbers of huts on the west shore, near the head of Cayuga. I suppose it must be one of those places the children left."
"I presume so," replied the governor.
"Ann telephoned over that the boy was ill with a rheumatic heart. She seemed quite alarmed over it."
"He probably won't get well, if that's the case," murmured Vandecar. "It's a pernicious thing when it attacks the heart. Wasn't it rather strange that Ann and Horace should have used our names for them, Fledra?"
"You remember Ann asked me if I cared. She said that when they came they had some strange nicknames, and that they wanted to make them forget about their former lives, and it really pleased the poor little things to have our names. I don't mind; do you, Floyd?"
"No," was the answer. "I only wish—" He stopped quickly and turned to his wife.
Her eyes were filled with tears. Floyd Vandecar's wish had been her own, that she knew.
"I wish you had a son, too, Floyd dear!" she sobbed. "Oh, my babies, my poor, pretty little babies!"
"Don't Fledra, don't!" pleaded her husband. "It was God's will, and we must bow to it."
"It's so hard, though, Floyd, so awfully hard, and the days have been so long! Floyd, do you ever wonder and wonder where they are?"
The man shook his shoulders sharply.
"Do I ever wonder, Fledra? My hair is whitened, my life shortened, and many of my efforts of no avail, because of my sorrow and yours. If the days have been long to you, they have been longer to me; if your heart has been torn over their disappearance, mine has been doubly hurt, because—because you have depended upon me to return them to you, and I have not been able to."
He spoke drearily, shading his face with his hand.
"Floyd, dear Floyd, I'm not blaming you. I realize that if it had been possible you would have given me back my babies, and you must not say that your efforts have been of no avail. Why, dear husband, the papers are full of your great, strong doings. I'm immensely proud of you." She had leaned over him; but the despondent man did not take the hand from his eyes.
"Of all the strange cases, Fledra, ours is the strangest. You remember how I turned the state almost upside down to find those children. Yet, with all the power I could bring to bear, I made no headway."
"I did not realize that you felt it so deeply," whispered the wife. "I've been so selfish—forgive me! We'll try to be as happy as possible, and we have Mildred—"
"If we had a dozen children," replied the governor sadly, "our first babies would always have their places in our hearts."
"True," murmured the mother. "How true that is, Floyd! There is never a day but I feel the touch of their fingers, remember their sweet baby ways. And always, when I look at you, I think of them. They were so like their father."
Lon Cronk and Lem Crabbe had arranged between them that the scowman should return to Ithaca for some days, and so the big thief was alone near the Hudson, in a shanty that had been given over to him by a canal friend to use when he wished. When Lon decided to rob Horace Shellington, he had known that there would have to be some place to take the things thus obtained, and had secured the hut for the purpose. It was at this address that Everett came to him, upon his return from New York.
Lon admitted the lawyer, who found the hut reeking with the rank smoke from a short pipe that Cronk held in his hand.
"Have ye got the kids?" the squatter questioned.
Everett catechized the heavy face with a smile.
"Did you think for a moment it was possible to obtain them so quickly?"
"I hain't had no way of knowin'," grunted Lon, "and I'm in a hurry."
He seemed changed, and looked as if he had not slept. Everett wondered if his affection for the children had been so great that his loss of them had altered him thus. The lawyer did not know how Lon was tortured when he caressed the image of the dead woman, nor could he know the man's agony when her spirit left him suddenly.
"You'll have to curb your haste," said Brimbecomb, with a curl of his lip. "It takes time to set justice in motion."
"Have ye done anything?"
"Not yet. I was forced to go to New York."
"Hadn't ye better git a hustle on yerself?" snarled Lon.
"Yes, I intend to begin tomorrow; that is, to take the first steps in the matter. But I wanted to talk with you first. Are you alone?"
"Yep; there ain't nobody here. Fire ahead, and say what ye're wantin' to."
Everett bent over and looked keenly into Lon's face; then slowly he threw a question at the fellow:
"Are you fond of those two children, or have you other motives for taking them from Shellington?"
Cronk made no reply, but settled back in the rickety chair and eyed Everett from head to foot.
"Be that any of yer business?" he said at length.
The lawyer took the repulse calmly. He had not come to fight with Lon.
"It's my business as far as this is concerned. If you care for them, and intend to shield them after you have them—well, say from all harm—and do your best for them, then I don't want your case. I'm willing to return your money."
For a moment the elder man looked disconcerted; then he jumped to his feet with an oath.
"Put her there, Mister!" said he, with an evil smile. He thrust forth a great hand, and for an instant Everett placed his fingers within it.
"I thought I had not guessed wrongly," the lawyer quickly averred. "If that is how you feel, I can do better work for you."
"I see that, Mister," muttered Lon.
"Are those children really yours?" Everett took out a cigar and lighted it.
"Yep," answered Lon, dropping his gaze.
Everett decided that the man had lied to him, and he was glad.
"I think you said you had some plans for the girl," he broke forth presently.
"Yep; but no plans be any good when she's with Shellington."
"But after she has left him? Would you be willing to change your plans for her?"
Cronk did not reply, but centered his gaze full upon Everett.
"The question is, would you, for a good sum of money, be willing to give her to me?"
"Why give her to ye, Mister—why?" His voice rose to a shout.
"I want her," Everett answered quietly.
"I love her."
"Ye want to marry her?" muttered Lon vindictively.
"No," drawled Everett; "I am going to marry Miss Shellington."
"Good God! ye don't mean it! And yet ye take this case what's most interestin' to 'em? Yer gal won't like that, Mister."
"She loves me, and when I explain that it's all under the law she'll forgive me. There's nothing quite like having a woman in love with you to get her to do what you want her to."
"But her brother, he ain't lovin' ye that way. He won't forgive ye."
"He doesn't cut any ice," said Everett. "In fact, I hate him, and—"
"Be ye lovin' my Flea?" Lon's voice cracked out the question like a gunshot.
"I think so."
"Be Flea lovin' you, or him?"
"She loves him."
"Then it will hurt her like the devil to take her away from him, eh?"
The eagerness expressed in the squatter's tones confirmed Everett's suspicions. Cronk hated that boy and girl. Brimbecomb impassively overlooked Floyd; but Flea he would have!
"Yes," he said, "I think it will hurt them both."
"How much money will ye give if I hand her over to ye?" asked Cronk presently.
"How much do you want?"
"Wal, Mister, it's this way: Ye remember that feller I had with me t'other day?" Everett nodded. "I mean, the feller with the hook?" Again Everett inclined his head. "I said as how he could have Flea. Ye has to buy him off, too, and that ain't so easy as 'tis to settle with me—especially, as ye ain't goin' to marry Flea. I ain't goin' to give her to no man what's honest—ye hear?"
"I supposed as much," commented Everett, reddening.
"Lem's been waitin' for Flea for over three years, and I said as how ye'd have to buy him off, too."
"That's easy. Where is he?"
"Gone to Ithaca. He's went up to bring down his scow. It's gettin' 'long to be spring, and it's easier to lug the kids back by water, and we know that way, and it don't cost so much. I telled him when he went away that he could have the gal as soon as we got back to the settlement. Lem won't reason for a little bit of money."
"Money doesn't count in this," assured Everett. "Now, then, if I take this case, put it through without cost to you, and give you both a good sum, will you give me the girl?"
"If ye promise me ye won't marry her."
Everett laughed, his white teeth gleaming through his lips.
"Don't let that worry you, Mr. Cronk. I have no desire to place at the head of my home a girl like yours. I told you that I was going to marry Miss Shellington—and not even that damned brother of hers can prevent it!"
For a long time after Everett had left the hut Lon sat meditating over what he had heard. He wondered if Everett really loved Ann, and, if he did, how he could wish for Flea. How another woman could erase from any man's mind the picture of a loved woman, Lon with his loyal heart could not understand. He sat for an hour with his head on the old wooden table, and planned what he should do with Flukey, leaving it to the brilliant-eyed lawyer to dicker with Lem for Flea.
Horace Shellington took a long breath as he entered his office one morning in the latter part of March. The blustering wind that had raged all night had almost subsided, and he felt glad for Floyd's sake; for, no matter how warm they kept the little lad, the sound of the wind through the trees and the dismal wail of the branches at night made him shiver and fret with nervous pain. Horace had scarcely seated himself when Everett Brimbecomb entered the room.
"Hello, Horace!" said the latter jovially. "I was going to come in yesterday, but was not quite ready to see you. Haven't been able to get a word with you in several days."
Horace offered a chair, and Everett sank into it.
"You are always so busy when I run in to see Ann," Brimbecomb went on, "that one would think you were not an inmate of that house."
"Yes," said Horace, "I've been studying up on an interesting case I expect to handle very soon."
"So have I," he said, narrowing his lids and looking at Shellington.
"When one is connected with offices as we are, Everett," remarked Horace uninterestedly, "there is little time for visiting."
"I find that, too," replied Everett.
During the last few weeks Horace had seen little of his sister's fiance; in fact, since their quarrel he had drawn away from the young man as a companion; but above everything else he desired his gentle sister to be happy, and the man before him was the only one to make her so. He thought of this, and smiled a little more cordially as he said:
"Is there anything I can do for you, Everett?"
"Well, yes, there is," admitted Brimbecomb.
"I'll do anything I can," replied Horace heartily.
Brimbecomb hesitated before going on. Shellington looked so grave, so dignified, so much more manly than he had ever seen him, that he scarcely dared open his subject.
"It's something that may touch you at first, Horace," he explained; "but—"
Horace, unsuspicious, bent forward encouragingly:
"Go ahead," he said.
Everett flushed and looked at the floor.
"A case has just come into our office, and, as my father is gone from home, I have taken it on."
Horace listened expectantly. Everett could have struck the man in the face, he hated him so deeply. He groaned mentally as he thought of Scraggy and her wild-eyed cat and of his endeavor to close her lips as to her relation to him. It was a great fear within him that soon his father would appear as his mother had. The time might come when this haughty man before him would have reason to look upon him with contempt. To make Horace understand his present power was the one thought that now dominated him.
With this in mind, he began to speak again:
"A man came to us with a complaint that you were keeping his children from him."
If Horace had received the blow the other longed to give, he could not have been more shocked.
"I believe his name is Cronk," went on Everett, taking a slip from his pocket; "yes, Lon Cronk."
Horace took his paper-knife from the table and twirled it in his fingers. His face had grown ashen white, his lips were set closely over his teeth.
"I have met this Cronk," he said in a low tone.
"So I understand. He told me that he had been at your home, and had demanded his children, and that you had refused to give them up."
"I did!" There was no lack of emphasis in the words.
"And you said that he could not have them unless he went to law for them."
"I did!" said Horace again.
"And he came to me."
Horace rose to his feet, a deep frown gathering on his brow. Everett rose also, and the two men faced each other for a long moment.
"And you took the case?" Horace got out at last.
"Yes, I took the case," Everett replied.
"And yet you knew that Ann loved them?"
"I was—was sure that if you both understood—"
The speaker's hesitation brought forth an ejaculation from Shellington.
"What are we to understand?"
"That justice must be done the father," responded Everett quickly.
Horace squared his jaw and snapped out:
"Do I understand that, in spite of the near relationship of our family, you are willing to deal a blow to my sister and me that, if it falls, will be almost unbearable? You intend to fight with this squatter for his children?"
"I don't intend to fight, Horace, if you're willing to give them to me. I had much rather have our present relations go on as they are, without a breach in them. I think, if you and Ann talk it over, you will see that by giving the boy and girl into my hands—"
Horace came a step nearer, with darkening brow:
"You can go straight to hell!" he said, so fiercely that Everett started back. "And the sooner you go, the better I shall be pleased," his face reddened as he finished, "and so will Ann!"
"You're speaking for someone who has not given you authority," Everett sneered. "Your sister will give me at least one of those children—I imagine, the girl. I think the father is more particular about having her."
"I should think he would be, and you may take him this message from me: that, if he sneaks about my house at any time of day or night, I'll have him shot like a dog, for every man can protect his own; and if you—"
Everett, seeing his chance, broke in:
"He would be protecting his own, if he came to your home, for his own are there; and we are going to have those children before another month goes by!"
"Try it, and perhaps I may bring to your mind what you once said to me about that girl," muttered Horace, with set teeth. "Your errand being finished, Mr. Brimbecomb, you may go!"
Everett had received the worst of the encounter. He had expected that Horace would consider Fledra's and Floyd's case in a gentler way, would probably compromise for Ann's sake. He went out not a little disturbed.
* * * * *
Horace waited for a few moments after Brimbecomb left him before he took his hat and coat and went home. Ann was surprised to see him, and more surprised when he drew her into the drawing-room, where he mysteriously closed the door.
"Ann," he said solemnly, "I believe the turning point in your life has come. And I want you to judge for yourself and take your own stand without thinking of my happiness or comfort."
The young woman lifted startled eyes and searched his face.
"What is it, Horace—that squatter again? Has he made a move against us?"
Horace bent over and took her hands in his.
"He has not only made a move against us, as far as the children are concerned, but he has used an instrument you would never have dreamed of." Seeing his sister did not reply, he went on, "Just what legal procedure they will undertake I don't know; but that will come out in time. Cronk went to Everett Brimbecomb with the case, and I was notified this morning by Everett to give up the children."
"Everett!" breathed Ann, disbelieving. "My Everett?"
"Yes, your Everett, Ann. Don't, child, please don't! Ann, Ann, listen to me!... Yes, sit down.... Now wait!"
He held her closely in his arms until the storm of sobs had passed, and then placed a pillow under her head and went on gravely:
"Ann, I have come to this conclusion: you love Everett dearly, and I cannot understand his actions; but I'm not going to intrude upon your affection for him, nor his for you. I'm going to ask you not to take sides with either of us. I'm a lawyer, and so is he. Do you understand, Ann?"
Fearfully she clutched his fingers.
"But Fledra and Floyd—I can't let them go back, I can't! I can't!"
"They're not going back," said Horace firmly. "Mind you, Ann, even to renew my friendship with Brimbecomb, I shouldn't give them up."
"Renew your friendship!" gasped Ann. "Oh, have you quarreled with him, Horace?"
"Yes, and told him to leave my office."
Ann sobbed again.
"What a fearful tragedy is hanging over us!" she cried.
"It is worse than I imagined it could be," Horace declared; "much worse, for I never thought that the squatter could get a reputable firm to represent him. And as for Everett—well, he never entered my mind. I told him that he could not take those children, and that he might—"
He remembered plainly what he had said, but did not communicate it to his sister. She was so frail, so gently modest, that an angry man's language would hurt her.
"I told him," ended Horace, "to do whatever he thought best, and that, if Cronk came here again, I should shoot him down like a dog. I think we ought to tell Fledra, and then, too, I desire to speak to her of something else. Can you bring her to me, Ann, without frightening Floyd?"
* * * * *
It did not need Ann's quiet plucking at her sleeve to tell Fledra that the blow had fallen. She had expected it day after day; until now, when she faced Horace and looked into his tense face, she felt that her whole hope had gone.
Ann tiptoed out before her brother opened his lips.
For a moment the harassed man knew not what to say to the silent, trembling girl.
"Fledra," he began, "the first move has been made in your case by your father."
"Must we go?" burst from the quivering lips.
"No, no: not if you have told me the truth about your past life—I mean about your father being cruel to you."
The sensitive face gathered a deep flush:
"I've never lied to you, Brother Horace," she replied gently.
"If I could believe you, child, if I could place absolute confidence in your word, I should have courage to go into the struggle without losing hope."
"What's Pappy Lon done?"
"He has employed Everett Brimbecomb to take you back to Ithaca."
Fledra shrank back as if he had struck her. Swiftly into her mind came the smiling, handsome face of the lawyer whom Ann loved. His brilliant eyes seared her soul like fire. In all her life, even when facing Lem Crabbe, she had never felt as she did now. She saw Floyd fading into the graveyard beyond, while she was being torn from the only haven of rest she had ever known. Lem Crabbe could not have taken her; but Everett Brimbecomb could! She felt again his burning kisses, the clasp of his strong arms, and her own disgust. He seemed a giant of strength, and Horace's white face and set lips aggravated her fear. Fledra's desire for comfort had never been so great as the desire she had at this moment to open her tired heart to Horace and reveal to him Everett's perfidy.
"Did you tell Sister Ann about Mr. Brimbecomb?"
She stumbled over the name.
"What did she say?"
"My sister loves him—you know that. She is heartbroken that he should have accepted this case. We must make it as easy as we can for her, dear child."
The girl saw Horace's lips twitch as he spoke, and thought of the love he had for his sister, and her desire to tell him what she knew died immediately.
"Do you want me to go with Pappy Lon and not make any trouble for her?" she whispered.
"No, no, not that! You can't go, Fledra, and they can't take you, if—you have told me the truth about the man your father wanted to give you to."
"Floyd and I told the truth," she said seriously, lifting her eyes to his face; "but for Sister Ann I'd go away with Pappy Lon, and with Lem, if you'd take care of Fluke till he—"
"Don't, Fledra, don't!" groaned Horace. "It would tear me to pieces to give you up. But—but you couldn't relieve my mind, Dear, could you?"
Fledra knew what he meant, and shook her head.
"No, not now," she replied.
If it troubled Ann to have Everett take part in their going back to the squatter country, how much worse she would feel if she knew what he really had done! Horace's appeal to shield Ann from overmuch burden strengthened Fledra's courage.
"Can you keep us?" she asked, after a moment's thought.
"I am going to try."
"If you love me well, Brother Horace," said Fledra, "won't you believe that I'd do anything for Sister Ann and you?"
He nodded his head; but did not speak.
* * * * *
When he reached Ithaca, Lem Crabbe found a flood besieging the forest city. The creeks of Cascadilla and Six Mile Gorge had overflowed their banks, and the lower section of the town was under water. He had come back for the scow, and to find Scraggy. He was determined to force from her the whereabouts of his son. He wended his way toward the hut of one of his friends at the inlet, and hailed the boat that conveyed the squatters to and fro in flood-time. As the boat lapped the muddy water breaking into the weeds and brushes, Lem saw Eli Cronk perched in another boat, with a spear in his hand.
"Eli!" shouted Lem.
Eli greeted him with a wave of the pole.
The boats neared each other, and Lem shouted that he wanted to get into Cronk's craft.
"What ye doin'?" asked Crabbe, as the boat he had just left shot away toward the bridge.
"Catching frogs," replied Eli. "I sell a lot of 'em to the hotels, and this flood is jest the thing to make 'em thick." He lowered his spear and brought up a struggling frog. Throwing it into a covered box, he peered again into the water.
"Where's Lon?" he said, straightening again with another victim.
"What's he to Tarrytown fer?"
"He's a gittin' Flea and Flukey. That's where they runned to."
"He ain't found 'em, has he? Truth, now!"
"Yep, truth," answered Lem; "and he's got a fine-lookin' lawyer-pup to git 'em for him."
As Eli again and again thrust his spear into the water, Lem told the story of the finding of the twins. He refrained from speaking of his experience with Screech Owl; but said finally, as if with little interest:
"Ye ain't seen Scraggy, has ye?"
"Nope; and she ain't in her hut, nuther; or she wasn't awhile back, 'cause I stopped there, when I was a lookin' for Lon."
"When did ye git back to town?"
"I dunno jest what day it were," responded Cronk, spearing again.
"Can I git up the tracks, Eli?" inquired Lem presently.
"Ye'll have to wade in mud to yer knees fer a spell after ye leave the boat."
"I can take the hill over the tracks for a way. Will ye row me up as far as ye can?"
"Yep, I'll row ye up," replied Eli, proceeding with his work.
* * * * *
Late in the afternoon, Lem Crabbe, wet to his knees and covered with mud, entered the scow. He had stopped at Screechy's hut, knocked, and, having received no answer, clicked down the hill to the boat.
He made up his mind to stay there until Scraggy came back; then he would go back to Tarrytown and bring the twins to Ithaca. Every morning Lem mounted the hill, only to find that Screech Owl had not returned. But one day, just at dusk, as he appeared before the hut, he saw the flickering of a candle. He did not wait to knock, but entered, and found Scraggy stretched out on the old bed. She looked up as if she had expected him, noted his dark face, and lowered her head again.
"Black Pussy's gone, Lem. I've got a cold settin' on me here," she whispered, wheezing as she laid her hand on her chest.
"I hope it'll kill ye!" grunted Lem. "What did you leave the toolhouse fer, when I told ye to stay?"
"What toolhouse, Lemmy?" The dazed eyes looked up at him in surprise.
"Don't try none of yer guff on me. I want to know who ye went to see in Tarrytown, and who the man was that throwed ye over the fence, and then lugged ye off to that vault?"
Scraggy sat up painfully.
"I wasn't throwed over no fence."
"Ye was, 'cause I seed the man when he done it. I wish now that I'd a gone and settled with him. Who was he, Screechy?"
"I dunno," she answered.
Lem bent over her, his eyes blazing with wrath.
"Ye want to git yer batty head a workin' damn quick," he shouted, "or I'll slit yer throat with this!" The rusty hook was thrust near the thin, drawn face.
"I can't think tonight," muttered Screech Owl, "'cause the bats be a runnin' 'bout in my head. When I think, I'll tell ye, Lemmy."
"Where be that boy?" demanded Lem.
Scraggy shook her head. Every time she thought of Lem's questions, there was an infernal tapping of unnumbered winged creatures at the walls of her brain.
"There ain't no boy that I knows of," she said listlessly, sinking down again. "And ye wouldn't slit my neck when I ain't done nothin', would ye, Lemmy?"
"Ye has done somethin'," growled Lem. "Ye has kep' that brat from me these years past, and now he's big 'nough I'm goin' to have him! Ye hear?" Every word he uttered came forth with effort. The red mark under his chin moved relentlessly, preventing him from speaking with clearness.
Scraggy writhed beneath the tightening grasp of the man's wet fingers.
"I'll choke ye to death!" Lem gasped, between throaty convulsions.
"Lemmy, Lemmy dear—"
Another twist of Lem's fingers, and the woman sank back unconscious. Lem shook her roughly.
"Scraggy, Scraggy!" he cried wildly. "Set up! I Want to talk to ye! Set up!"
The silence in the gloomy hut, the whiteness of the seemingly dead woman, filled Lem with superstitious dread. He grasped his lantern and ran out, failing to close the door.
The frightened man made off up the hill, and, passing through the Stebbins farm by the Gothic church and dark graveyard, he tramped the Trumansburg road to Ithaca. The tracks were covered with water as they had been when Eli had given him the lift toward the settlement. But the flood had so receded that by drawing his trousers up over his boots Lem managed to get through the mud to the bridge. From there he sought the house of Middy Burnes, where he made an agreement with the tugman that the scow should be towed from Ithaca to Tarrytown.
To usher Everett into her home with the same fond heart as hitherto was more than Ann could do. Dearly as she loved him, much as she desired to be his wife, it was hard to pardon him for casting aside her interests for those of the dark-browed squatter. But, womanlike, she felt that she could break down her lover's determination, and resolved that she would not hesitate to open argument with him.
Everett met her with a smile, and her lips trembled as they received his warm kiss. After they were seated he said:
"Horace has told you, no doubt, Ann, of the children's case." She nodded her head sorrowfully. "Your brother seems to feel," went on Everett, "that I should not have taken charge of it."
"Neither should you have done so, Everett, unless you've other motives than we know of."
She looked up; but lowered her eyes as Brimbecomb glanced at her furtively. Had Fledra told her of his advances? No, or she would never have received his kisses. His fears were quieted by this thought, and he asked gently:
"What motives could I have other than that justice should be done the father? I took the case, first, because it came to me; then, because I think the man ought to have his children."
Miss Shellington's face darkened.
"Oh, Everett, you can't be so hard-hearted as to want those poor little things misused! They have been persecuted by their own people, and you certainly have more heart than to want that to happen again."
"It's not a case of feeling; it's a case of justice. I know how this man has struggled all his life to rear this boy and girl. They've had no mother, and then, as soon as they were old enough and had the chance, they ran away."
"Because he was cruel to them!"
"I don't believe it. I've had something to do with men, and I'm assured that he told me the truth. I believe, as he says, that they excused their leaving home by brazen lies. Have you never caught them lying to you, Ann?"
"No, no! They've always been truthful to me."
"And to Horace?"
"I haven't asked him. But, if they hadn't been, I am sure he would have spoken of it. Everett, let me plead with you. They have been with us a long time, and Horace and I have grown used to them. They need our care more than I can tell you. The boy is still very ill. Won't you let my love for you plead for them, and withdraw from the case? Do, Dear, and let me call Horace. Will you, Everett? He's so sad over it! Oh! may I call him?" She had risen from her chair; but a negative shake of the man's head made her resume her place again, and she continued, "It will be a dreadful thing for them, if they have to go back. Now, listen, Everett! If you will withdraw and let Horace settle it with that man, our arrangements," her face was dyed crimson,—"I mean your plans and mine for our wedding, shall remain as they are. Otherwise—"
"Otherwise, what?" breathed Everett, bending toward her.
"I—I shall have to postpone them." Her voice had strengthened as she spoke, and the last statement was clear and ringing.
"Oh, you couldn't, Ann! Because I take a perfectly legitimate case, which comes into our office, you propose to postpone our marriage?"
"But, Everett, think of what you are doing! It is as if you had taken my brother by the throat. You were the first one to suggest that he might love the girl. What if he does?"
"We will not talk of Horace, please." Everett turned from her as he spoke. "You and I are the parties interested. If you will aid me, and you should, seeing that you love me, your brother need not be considered."
Ann rose, shuddering.
"You do not mean, Everett, that you wish to gain my consent that Fledra and Floyd should go back to Ithaca?"
Brimbecomb also rose.
"Fledra and Floyd!" he mimicked smilingly. "What a farce it all is! And how foolish to give them such names! I should think the governor and his wife would feel complimented that those kids were called for them! They are but paupers, after all!"
"Everett," stammered Ann, "am I just beginning to know you? Oh, you can't mean it! You're but jesting with me, aren't you, Dear?" Her love for him impelled her forward, and her slender hands fell upon his shoulders. He slipped them off, and gathered her fingers into his.
"Ann," he said earnestly, "I'm not jesting, and I ask you, by your love for me, to aid me in this, the first thing of importance I have ever asked you."
Miss Shellington drew reluctantly away.
"I can't, I can't! My very soul revolts at the idea." Then, gaining strength of voice, the girl, marble-white, exclaimed, "If you're not jesting, and are still determined to follow out your plans," she caught her breath in a sob and whispered, "then, like my brother, I shall have to ask you to leave, please."
A frown darkened Everett's face, followed by an expression of ridicule.
"Is this your love for me? You would let two strange squatter children come between us? Am I to understand it so?"
"You may understand this: that, after knowing that their father is wicked, that he would have sacrificed his daughter to a vile man, without marriage to lessen her suffering, after knowing that he tried to make a thief of his noble-hearted boy,—I say, after knowing all this, if you can still insist upon helping him, then I would not dare—to trust—my life with you!"
Everett's rage blotted out all remembrance of how he left the house; but there was a vivid picture in his mind of a woman, pale and lovely, opening the door and dismissing him coldly. He remembered also that she had shut the door as if it were never to be opened again to him. His only consolation was that before long he would be able to face Fledra Cronk and prove his power to her. With this thought came the satisfaction of knowing that he would be able to wring Horace Shellington's heart.
After closing the door upon her lover, Ann stood breathless. The light had suddenly gone from her sun—the whole living world seemed plunged into darkness. Everett was gone, gone from her possibly forever. His face had expressed a determination that proved he would not change his mind. Why had he reasoned himself into thinking that justice could be served in the squatter's cause? Everett must have a motive. Her judgment told her to accuse the man she loved; her heart demanded that she excuse him. For one instant her generous spirit balanced the squatter children's welfare and her own future. She had promised to protect Fledra and Floyd, promised them and Horace. Only a broken prayer escaped her lips as she turned and walked quickly down the hall. She did not wait to knock, but twisted the door-handle convulsively, and appeared before her brother without a plea for pardon for her unannounced entrance.
"He's gone forever!" she said brokenly. "Oh, oh, I can't—"
She swayed forward, and suddenly a merciful oblivion rested her turbulent spirit, during which her agonized brother worked, hoping and praying that she might soon know how he pitied and loved her.
At length, when she opened her eyes and gazed at him, Ann murmured under her breath, with a world of pleading:
"Don't speak of him—don't! Dear heart, I can't—I can't bear it!"
It was not until long afterward that Horace Shellington heard of the scene through which she had passed.
* * * * *
Everett Brimbecomb's card admitted him to the governor's home. Mrs. Vandecar welcomed him with outstretched hands.
"Strange, Everett," said she, "but I was thinking only this afternoon that I should ask you to dinner. I feel ashamed that I haven't before; but I've been such an invalid for a long time! You must be lonely, now that your father and mother are gone."
"I've been busy."
The other laughed understandingly.
"Ah! I had forgotten that a young engaged man has but few free evenings on his hands."
To this Everett did not reply.
"How is dear Ann?" asked Mrs. Vandecar.
"I left her quite well; but not in the best of spirits. In fact, dear little lady," and he bent over the white hand he held, "I've come to ask a favor of you."
"Is it anything about Ann? I can't have matters disarranged between you two. I've always said you were an ideal couple."
"Thank you," murmured Everett.
Her frank words somewhat shattered his courage; for he knew her to be kind-hearted. He did not expect to have her make any impression upon the Shellington brother and sister; but wished her assistance as far as her husband was concerned.
He kept his gaze so long upon the floor that Mrs. Vandecar spoke:
"I'm glad you came to me, Everett."
"Yes, I'm glad, too, and I need your help just now. The fact is, Ann and I have had words over a case I have taken charge of in the office."
"How very strange!" exclaimed the woman, mystified.
"It's no more strange to you than to me," went on Everett, after they were seated. "First, Horace and I quarreled, and then, thinking Ann would uphold me in my work, I went to her; getting about the same reception I had received from him."
"I should never have believed it of either of them," faltered Mrs. Vandecar. "But do tell me about it."
"Horace and Ann, as you know, have a boy and a girl in their charge."
The governor's wife sat up interestedly.
"I have heard of them," said she; "but have never seen them. I asked Ann over the telephone one day this week, if I sent Katherine for the girl, would she allow her to come and spend an afternoon with Mildred. But she said that—"
"Fledra, they call her," interrupted Brimbecomb, with a keen glance at his companion.
"Yes, so I've heard. Ann said that this Fledra was not going out at all."
"Do you know why?"
"Why, I supposed that it was because their father had asked for them and they feared some foul play."
"Foul play!" cried Brimbecomb. "Why, Mrs. Vandecar, don't you think that a father ought to have his own children?" Everett's eyes pierced her gaze until it dropped.
"Not if he is bad," murmured she, "and I heard he was brutal to them."
"It is not so; of that I am sure. That is the matter I have come about. I have accepted the father's case."
"Oh, Everett, was this necessary for you to do, as long as you know Ann's heart is set upon keeping them?"
Everett twisted nervously.
"She has no right to have her heart set upon them. Now, here is what I want you to do. Ann is wearing away her health with these scrubs of humanity, for which she won't even receive gratitude, and Horace looks like a June shad. The boy has been sick constantly since he's been there. If there were no hospitals in the town, it might be different. I must make a move to separate the girl I love from the burden she can't bear."
Everett averted his face. Until that moment this excuse had not come into his mind. If Mrs. Vandecar had any affection at all for Ann, the thought that the girl was making herself ill would tempt her to interfere.
"Everett, does Ann know why you want to take them away from her?"
"Of course not; I couldn't tell her that, nor Horace, either. They would have promptly told me to attend to my own affairs; but I could come to you."
"I'm so glad—I'm so glad you did! And poor Ann, I wish she would allow her friends to help her! She's such a darling in her charitable work, though, isn't she?"
"I don't agree with you," dissented Everett.
"But you must admit, boy, that a girl who will make a hospital of her home, who will wear out her strength for two little strangers, has the heart of Christ in her."
"I admit her goodness," said Everett slowly, "or I should not want her for my wife. But you can't blame me when I say that I desire her to be herself again."
Mrs. Vandecar rose.
"Well, come in to dinner, and we can still talk. Mildred has gone to her father in Albany with Katherine for a day or two, and I'm alone."
When they were seated, Everett pressed his plea again.
"I don't think Ann would have been so stubborn in the matter, if Horace had not insisted upon it. And I know that you will be surprised to hear that he is in love with the girl, a little pauper who uses bad English and swears like a pirate."
Fledra Vandecar dropped her fork and started back from the table.
"Everett, has Horace lost his mind, or what is it? What can there be in two children—for they are very young—to have such a hold upon a man like Horace and a woman like Ann?"
"I have asked myself that a dozen times, and more," commented Everett. "But now you understand why I want to do something to relieve these misguided young people—to say nothing of my love for Ann?"
"I do understand," replied Mrs. Vandecar, "and I can't blame you. But, really, I don't see what I can do, without incurring the enmity of both of my friends."
"Your husband," breathed Everett.
"Is pledged to Horace in this very matter, and, of course, I couldn't take a stand against him. Everett, why don't you drop the case and let time take its course? I fear that you're going the wrong way."
Brimbecomb bit his lip. He might have known that Horace would apply to the governor; but he had hoped to steal a march upon him and to keep the state's official from aiding him. But Everett also knew what an influence Mrs. Vandecar had over her husband, and now rejoined:
"I have gone too far with it; and, what's more, if I have to bear the brunt of the thing alone, I'll free Ann from a presence that has completely changed her! Have you seen her lately?"
Mrs. Vandecar shook her head.
"I haven't," she admitted slowly. "I haven't been well enough to go out, and she hasn't been here. I have heard from her only now and then on the 'phone. Poor child! I must try to get over there tomorrow."
* * * * *
Next day Ann met Mrs. Vandecar with open arms.
"Oh, Fledra," said she, "I've longed for you so many days! I do appreciate your coming!"
"I knew you would, Ann. You are the first acquaintance I have called on in weeks. But, honey girl, you don't look well."
Ann's eyes filled with tears. Fledra Vandecar was one of the many bright rays of sunshine in her past life, when she had been happy and contented, when Everett had been her lover, and Horace at ease. Now her life was all chaos. Misery, fright, and a troubled heart were her constant companions.
Mrs. Vandecar leaned over and gently brushed back a lock of hair from the girl's brow.
"Ann, dear, can't you tell me what is the matter?"
"There's so very much, it would weary you."
"Indeed, no! Mayn't I stay with you just a little while?"
Ann checked back her emotion and rose.
"Pardon, Dear; I didn't dream that you could."
"Of course I can. Mildred is in Albany. How happy I should be if I could help you!"
"Time only will do that, Fledra. It will take many weeks before Horace and I are running in our old home gait. But I love to have you here, especially as Horace has gone out for a long drive. He will be away all the afternoon."
"That's too bad," interjected Mrs. Vandecar. "I hoped to see him. And, Ann, I want also to see those children."
"The girl is riding with Horace today—she gets out so little, and Brother insisted upon taking her. The boy is still very ill."
"Is he too ill for me to see him?"
"Well, his heart is affected, and anything unusual throws him into a new spell. We keep all trouble from him."
Mrs. Vandecar touched her friend gently.
"And you've had enough of his to bear, poor Ann!"
"We don't consider it a trouble to do anything for those we love. I wonder if you would like to peep at him—making no noise, remember! He is sleeping under a drug. Come, Dear, and I'll look at him first."
The governor's wife followed Ann to Floyd's door, and waited until a beckoning finger called her in. She entered the darkened chamber, and paused a moment to get her bearings. Miss Shellington was near the bed, her eyes calling.
"He's sound asleep," she whispered.
With his head thrown back a little, Floyd's face was turned toward the wall. His profile and thick black curls were sharply distinct upon the white pillow-slip. His broad brow was covered with beads of perspiration, and the lips were muttering incoherent words. Mrs. Vandecar leaned far over the bed, and peered into his face. Something so touched her in the thin, sunken cheeks, in the drawn mouth, whispering in an unnatural sleep, that she drew back weeping. Suddenly words formed on the sleeper's lips:
"Gentle Jesus, meek and mild," fell from them, "look upon—look upon—" Then the whisper trailed once more into incoherence.
Fledra Vandecar clutched at Ann's sleeve.
"He's praying, Ann! He's praying!" Miss Shellington bowed her head in assent. "Poor baby, poor little dear!" Mrs. Vandecar's voice was louder than before.
"Hush, hush!" breathed Ann. "Come away. He's so very ill!"
"Pity—pity my simplicity," murmured Floyd again, "and Lord prepare my soul a—place!"
Mrs. Vandecar straightened and flashed the rigid girl at her side an appealing glance. Ann touched her again, and the two women passed from the room, weeping.
"How very beautiful he is!" stammered Mrs. Vandecar. "Oh, Ann, dear, can't you do something for him? Can't I? Why haven't I tried before? You won't be offended, will you, Ann, when I say that until this moment I have never approved of your having him? But I've seldom seen such a face, and he was—he was praying, poor baby! Poor, little tormented boy! I wish that he had been awake, or that his sister were here—I want to see her, too."
"Yes, you should see her. She is very sweet," replied Ann so gravely that Mrs. Vandecar wept again.
Very soon she made ready for home, with no hint of the conversation she had had with Everett, and no word of advice to Ann about giving up her charges.
A letter went that night from Fledra Vandecar to her husband in Albany. It was written after the woman had paced her room for several hours in inexplicable disquietude and unrest. Puzzled, the governor read:
"I went today to see Ann Shellington, with my mind fully made up to speak to her about the boy and girl who have been with her for these last few months. Everett was here to dinner last night with me, and confided in me his trouble with Horace, which has finally culminated in a breach with Ann. It seems the difficulty arose over the case of the squatter from Ithaca who has demanded his children.
"Everett has taken the man's side, and until I called upon Ann I felt quite in sympathy with him. And still I cannot tell you, dearest Floyd, what changed my mind, unless it was the sight of that sick boy. He was sleeping when I went in, and was muttering over a babyish prayer, which quite touched me. I had no opportunity to talk with him, nor the girl either. She was riding with Horace, and Everett tells me that he (Horace) is quite infatuated with the child.
"I'm going to ask you, Floyd darling, to help Horace all you can, and if Everett comes to see you, as he said he was going to, I want you to know that it is my wish that you should keep to your policy with Ann and her brother. I cannot tell why I am writing you this, only that my heart aches for that boy, and that for years I have never felt so impelled to help a human being as I have him.
"I thought Everett might tell you that I was won to his way of thinking by his pleading how he wanted to remove Ann from contact with the boy and girl; so I hasten to write you. Kiss my precious Mildred for her mother, and, Floyd, dear, see to it that she doesn't stay up too late; for she is not strong. I cautioned Katherine about it; but I'm afraid she might yield to the child's entreaties.
"With fondest love to you, my darling, and to my baby and Katherine, I am,
"Your own loving wife, "FLEDRA."
The governor read and reread the letter, especially the part in which his wife implored him to aid Horace Shellington. He laid it down with a sigh. He well knew that Fledra's heart was tender toward all little ones since the disappearance of her own. All hope that he would ever see his twin children had left him years before, and now, for some moments, with his hand on the envelop, his mind wandered into hidden places, where he saw a boy and a girl growing to manhood and womanhood, and he groaned deeply.
* * * * *
Later, when Everett Brimbecomb was ushered into his office at the capital, the governor was primed with the sympathy that he had gathered from his wife's letter.
"This is something of a surprise, my dear boy," he said. "I did not know you were coming to Albany so soon."
"I came with a purpose," replied Everett; "for, as you know, my father is away, and I need your advice in something."
Vandecar waited for his visitor to proceed.
"Do you see any reason," Everett stammered, "why two young lawyers should not be friends, even if they have to take opposite sides in a lawsuit?"
"No," replied the governor slowly.
"Then I'll lay the whole thing before you, and let you tell me what you think of it."
"Have a cigar while we talk," broke in Vandecar, offering Everett his case.
In silence they began to smoke, and both remained quiet until the governor said:
"Now, explain it to me, please."
Everett began the story of the children's running away, as the squatter had told it to him, and of their coming to Horace. He did not forget to add that he believed Shellington had lied to him the night he came into the dining-room and discovered Fledra and Floyd with the two little animals. When a shade passed over the governor's face, Everett quickly noted that he had made a mistake in the drawing of conclusions.
"Don't be too hasty, Everett," cautioned Vandecar, shaking an ash deliberately from his cigar. "Horace is the soul of truth. If he did not tell it to you, he had good reasons."
Brimbecomb frowned. He could have bitten his tongue out for making that misstep.
"That's so," he admitted. "But, ever since last September, Horace, and I might say Ann, too, have drawn more and more away from me. For my part, I see no good that can come of their relations with squatters."
"It was the most charitable act I have ever heard of," replied Vandecar. "But you are straying from the case. Do I understand that you have taken up the side of the father?"
"And that you intend to make a move to return his children to him?"
As Everett looked at the stern, unyielding man before him, his excuse to Mrs. Vandecar seemed tame as it ran through his mind. The governor's eyes were scanning him critically, almost dazzling him with their steely gray. An expression in the steady gaze made him tremble; but he took heart as he thought of the friendship between the governor and his foster father.
"It's hardly fair to ask me why I took the case, which came to me in a legitimate manner," said he. "I can see no reason why the man, although poor, should not have his own children. Do you?"
It was a pointed question, and Vandecar waived it by saying:
"There are always circumstances surrounding these things, such as when parents are cruel to their children, which might make it advisable, almost imperative, to take the youngsters away and put them with reputable people. I think Horace is of the impression that this is true in the present case."
"Then is one man's opinion to be taken? Do you advise that?"
"No; but I do not yet understand why you should be interested against your friends. I should think that, rather than disagree with them, you would wish to have nothing to do with it."
Everett would have to use Ann again to convince the governor of his right to act. It had been far easier to explain his interest in Cronk to Mrs. Vandecar than to this quiet, powerful man opposite. The brown-flecked gray eyes looked unusually sober and truth-demanding.
"I won't have them any longer with Ann than I can help," Everett broke forth suddenly. "She is killing herself over them. Have you ever seen them, Mr. Vandecar?"
"If you had, then you would agree with me. The fact is, your wife thinks the way I do, but would not help me because you were pledged to Horace. Your influence over him is great, and I should like to keep this out of court, if possible. Mrs. Vandecar was rather exercised over Ann."
With a deliberation that baffled Everett, the governor put down his cigar and drew a letter from his pocket. He opened it in silence and glanced at it, while Everett stared uneasily at this unusual proceeding. Presently the governor looked up casually.
"You say that my wife is exercised over Ann?"
"So she told me. She—-"
"Well, just at this time," interjected Vandecar, "Mrs. Vandecar is very much in sympathy with the boy. She has seen him, since talking with you." Everett stood up abruptly. "She has changed her mind; so her letter tells me, Brimbecomb," went on the elder man, "and, as I am working with Horace, and this thing touches him so deeply, I shall have to ask you not to come to me for advice or help. You understand," and the governor rose also, "that, while I have a deep feeling of interest in you and your work, I must say that I think it would be better taste for you to withdraw while you can. It will be unpleasant all around, and, as your father is away, it is rather dangerous to connect your office with low people."
* * * * *
Everett went forth from the interview discomfited, but none the less firm in his evil purpose. Only a few days later, when Lem Crabbe's scow was slowly making its way from Ithaca to Tarrytown, habeas corpus papers were served upon Horace Shellington to produce the twins in court and to give reasons why they should not be given to their father.
Horace held a consultation with Ann, and it was decided that they should appeal to the court for time, procuring a doctor's certificate to prove that Floyd was too ill even to know of the proceedings. This having been done, it placed an unlooked-for stay upon Everett Brimbecomb; but he secured a court order instructing the sheriff to guard the children at the Shellington home until the boy was well enough to be taken out. So, a deputy was stationed in the house.
* * * * *
In the meantime Lon watched eagerly for the coming of Lem. When at last he espied the scow fastened in its accustomed place, he went down to carry the news to the owner. After explaining the matter as far as it had gone, he ventured:
"Lem, be ye carin' for Flea yet?"
"Why?" demanded Lem suspiciously.
"'Cause we can make some money outen her, if ye gives up yer claim on her."
"Ye mean to sell her?"
Lem's words sounded hoarse as he wheezed them out.
"'Tain't sellin' her," explained Lon. "A whollopin' good-lookin' feller wants her, and he says he'll buy yer off and give me money fer her. Will ye do it, Lem?"
"Nope, I won't! I want her myself. I been waiting long 'nough fer her."
"But wouldn't ye ruther have a pocketful of money? I would, I bet ye!"
"Lon, be ye goin' to do me dirt?" asked Lem darkly.
Lon straightened his shoulders.
"Nope, I told him ye had to be buyed off, afore I could say nothin'. But I thought ye liked money, Lem."
"So I do; but I like Flea better. I helped ye get 'em when they were babies, Lon, and ye said—"
Cronk flung out his arms.
"I said as how ye wasn't to mention aloud, even to me, that the kids wasn't mine. Ye has Flea, if ye say so, and I'll tell the lawyer—"
"Be it that good-lookin' feller what ye give the fifty dollars to what wants Flea?" Cronk nodded. "I thought ye wouldn't let me marry her," Lem cried, "and now ye be goin'—"
Lon interrupted the scowman fiercely:
"Nuther is he goin' to marry her—ye can bet on that! No kid of Vandecar's gets a boost up from me—a boost down, more like!"
"I'll kill the feller if he touches her," growled Lem, "and ye can make up yer mind to that, Lon!"
Lon Cronk shrugged his shoulders disdainfully.
"Take her if ye want her, Lem. I won't put no straw in yer way. But I never could see what ye wanted her fer. She's a big mouth to feed, let me tell ye!"
For some moments the two men sat in the darkening scow and smoked in silence. Suddenly Lem looked up.
"We couldn't get ahead of the nasty scamp, could we, Lon? I mean, could we git the money, and then keep the gal?"
"I don't want her," growled Lon; "she couldn't stay with me no more."
"We oughter make him pay the money, though," Lem insisted.
"Then, if ye has Flea, Lem," said Lon, looking keenly at the scowman, "and ye git yer share of money, ye has to share up yer half with me. See?"
"Yep," muttered Lem. "Will ye bring the feller down here some day, and we'll talk it over?"
Lon acquiesced by a nod of his head, saying only, "Come on out, and let's get a drink."
"When's he goin' to git 'em—Flea and Flukey, I mean?"
"I dunno. The boy's too sick to come to court. He's liable to die any minute."
Lem started forward at the unexpected word.
"If he croaks, be ye goin' to leave Flea there?"
"Not by a damn sight! We'll git her, and I don't care if the boy goes dead afore mornin'. I only want him to suffer, and die if he wants to. And, Lem," Lon smiled evilly, and, looking into the swart face of his pal, said, "and I guess ye can make the gal come to yer likin'."
Lem's throat worked visibly, his face reddened by the silent laughter that shook him.
"I only want the chance," he said. "Come on and let's git a drink."
Everett Brimbecomb had become impatient. He missed his evenings with Ann, and was tortured with the thought that Horace was with Fledra. Every day made his hatred for his former friend more deadly, more vindictive, and he not only desired to take the squatter girl away, but he felt impelled to separate Ann from her brother. He received a badly spelled note from Lon with a feeling of thanksgiving. Something had happened to make the squatter wish to see him. So, after dinner, he took the direction Lon had given, and reached the scow in a heavy rain. It was much more to his liking that the evening should be stormy; for no person of his own station in life would be apt to be abroad on such a night.
As he entered the living-room of the scow, Everett bowed frigidly to Lem Crabbe, and forgot to extend his hand to Lon.
"You sent for me," he said in a low tone, looking at the squatter.
"Yep. I knowed ye wanted to see Lem, and I thought as how ye'd ruther come here than have him come along to yer office. Ain't that right?"
"I believe I told you so," responded Everett coldly, as he took his place in a rickety chair.
"Ye said, didn't ye, Mister, that ye wanted the handlin' of Flea after we took her away from that meddlin' millionaire?"
"And I telled ye that ye had to make a bargain with Lem, 'cause he had first right to her. What ye willin' to give?"
"How much money do you want to withdraw your claim from the girl?"
"I ain't thought 'bout no price," replied Lem covertly.
"Then think and listen to me. I have an idea in my mind that we can take the girl away from that house, if not tomorrow, at least in a few days."
Lem's eyes glistened, and Lon placed his clay pipe carefully upon the table.
"Lip it out, then, Mister," said the latter; "and, if me and Lem's agreein' with ye, then we'll help ye."
Everett moved uneasily in the creaking chair. He did not desire to dicker with these ruffians; but it was necessary, if he wished to carry out his plans concerning Fledra.
"The boy is likely to die any moment. The girl is the only one who can help you, Mr. Cronk." Everett had meaning in his voice, and his words made Lem swallow hard.
"I was a thinkin' that myself," ruminated Lon.
"The girl idolizes her brother and Mr. Shellington. If you could make her understand that they would otherwise both be killed through your instrumentality, she would leave the house of her own free will, I'm sure."
Lon, grimacing with delight, bounded up and faced Lem.
"That be so! That comes of gittin' a lawyer what's got stuff in his head, ye see, Lem. I told ye that when ye said as how we could get them kids without spendin' no money."
"You will have to use great care, both of you," Everett urged, "and it only means for you to take the girl, as you first planned, to Ithaca; and I will come after her. You will both have your money, and our business together will be at an end." Lem laughed, but with no sound. "Just how to get this girl is more than I have figured out," Everett continued; "but it might be well for me to try and get a letter to her. I have been a steady visitor at Shellington's home for many years. We are hardly upon good terms now; but I could manage it, if one of you men would write it. Make the letter strong, and you will gain your ends. You may bring it to my office tomorrow, Mr. Cronk." He rose, buttoned up his raincoat, and went out, leaving two gaping men looking after him.
* * * * *
Since the papers had been served upon him, Horace had had no peace of mind. The solemn deputy loitering about the home menaced the whole future. It sickened him when he forced his imagination to dwell upon Fledra's future, if she were dragged back to Ithaca, and he had rather place Floyd in his grave than give him into the hands of the squatter. Suddenly, one morning, he took a great resolution, and no sooner had he made up his mind to take the one step that would change his whole life than he called Ann to tell her about it.
"I'm going to marry Fledra," he said, catching his breath.
Ann dropped her hands fearfully; but intense interest gathered on her face.
"I can save her no other way," he went on, almost in excuse, noting her glance. "And you must have seen, Ann, dear, that I love the child. Sit down here and let me tell you about it."
He began at the beginning, telling her of his early growing love, of his desire to make the squatter child his wife. Ann allowed him to narrate his story impulsively, without interruption.
Then she said gently:
"Horace, dear, have you told her that you love her?"
"Yes; but I am going to tell her again this morning."
"Ask her now," suggested Ann eagerly, and she rose.
Horace found Fledra with Floyd, and she lifted her eyes confidingly to his with a smile. For a long time he had been so tender, so loving, that the specter bred and fostered by Everett Brimbecomb's kisses had nearly vanished.
"Floyd is so much better this morning!" she said. Her words were well chosen, and she pronounced her brother's new name carefully.
Floyd held out his hand and raised himself slowly up.
"Look, Brother Horace!" he cried eagerly. "Look—just this morning I've been able to stand up! Sister Ann says in a few days I can walk."
Horace held the thin, white fingers in his for an instant.
"So you will, boy. It won't be long before you can get out."
The words startled Fledra. Not until the trouble of Lon's coming had she wished that Floyd might linger in the sickroom. The man outside, watching every movement in the house, frightened her. She knew that when her brother was well enough he and she would be called away for the court's decision as to their future.
"Floyd, will you spare your sister just a few moments? I want to talk with her."
"Course I will, Brother Horace. Scoot along, Fledra!"
"This way, child," whispered Horace. "I've something—oh, such a dear something!—to say to you."
They quietly passed the deputy, who only raised his eyes, smiled at Fledra, and dropped his gaze again to his paper. When Horace's door was closed, Horace took Fledra into his embrace and kissed her again and again. She loved the warmth of his arms, and the delight of his kisses caused her to rest unresisting until he chose to speak.