"That is just what I have had in mind," she said, thoughtfully. "After reflecting, I have changed my plans somewhat, and I don't see my way quite so clearly as before."
He was looking at her attentively, but asked no questions.
"Since I came from the city," she resumed, with some hesitation, "I have thought that I would be glad to talk again with all of you. But it won't do to incur the risk of more absences, for if I do not mistake the signs, things will be pretty lively up there," nodding in the direction of Oakley, "before many days. So perhaps we had better see what our two heads can develop in the way of counterplot, and you can make known the result to Olive."
"If your own invention will not serve, I fear mine will be at an utter loss. But you know how glad I shall be to share your confidence."
"My invention must serve," she said, firmly, and quite ignoring the latter clause of his speech; "and so must yours. You see, my plan before going to the city was a comparatively simple one. I intended to work my way into the confidence of Mrs. John Arthur. Failing in that, Hagar must have been reinstated, and then the denouement would have been easy: to get possession of specimens of the medicine prescribed for Mr. Arthur; to hunt down this sham doctor they are to introduce into the house; to show John Arthur the manner of wife he has; to make my own terms with him, and then expose and turn out the whole pack. But all this must be changed."
"Changed? And how?"
"I can't turn them out of Oakley. I must keep them there, every one of them, at any cost."
Dr. Vaughan looked puzzled. "We can't allow them to kill that old man, not even to vindicate poetical justice," he said, gravely.
"No; we can't allow just that. But don't you see, if we turn these people away now, we defeat a chief end and aim—the liberation of Philip Girard?"
"Well, this is why I have changed my plan."
He looked at her with an admiration that was almost homage.
"And you will give up your own vengeance, for the sake of Olive and her happiness?"
She laughed oddly. "Not at all. I only defer it, to make it the more complete. Now, listen to what I propose to do, and see if you can suggest anything safer or better."
And then she unfolded a plan that made Clarence Vaughan start in amazement, but which, after it was fully revealed, he could not amend nor condemn. He could see no other way by which all that they aimed at could be accomplished.
"Of course, the plan has its risks," concluded the girl. "But we could try no other scheme without incurring the same, or greater. And I believe that I shall not fail."
"I wish it were not necessary that you should undergo so much; think what it will be for you," gently.
"Oh, for me, ..." indifferently; "I shall be less of a spy, and more of an actress,—that is all."
"Then I shall set the detectives at work?"
"Have you any further instructions, any clue, to give them?"
"Nothing; it is to be simply a research. Neither must know to what end the information is desired. It will be better to employ your men from different Agencies, so that one may not know of the other, or his business."
"And is there nothing more I can do?"
"Nothing, for the present. When once we get these men together, we shall all have our hands full. Then you can help me, perhaps, as I suggested."
"Well," sighing, and looking at his watch, "it's a strange business, and a difficult, for a young girl like you. But we are in your hands; you are worth a thousand such as I."
"Nonsense," she said, almost angrily. Then, abruptly, "When does Claire return to Baltimore?"
He started and flushed under her gaze. "I—I really don't know."
"Then, as my brother, I command you to know all about Claire. She is my special charge to you. And you are to tell her, from me, that I won't have her go away."
"Then I must do all in my power to detain her? Your command will have more effect than all of my prayers," he said, softly.
"Well, keep on reiterating my commands and your prayers, then; by and by she won't be able to distinguish the one from the other. What time is it?"
He smiled at the sudden change of tone and subject. "Half-past nine," he said.
While the words were on his lips, Old Hagar entered.
Clearly it was time to end the interview. Doctor Vaughan must be ready for the return train, which flew cityward soon, and Celine Leroque must not be too long absent. So there were a few words more about their plans, a few courteous sentences addressed to Hagar by Doctor Vaughan, and then they separated.
The next day two men were at work,—following like sleuth hounds the trail on which they were put, unravelling slowly, slowly, the webs of the past that had been spun by the two men who were to be hunted down.
And now came a time of comparative dullness at Oakley. Even eventful lives do not always pace onward to the inspiring clang of trumpet and drum. There is the bivouac and the time of rest, even though sleeping upon their arms, for all the hosts that were ever marshalled to battle.
Celine Leroque found life rather more dreary than she had expected during these days of inaction. After all, it is easier to be brave than to be patient. So, in spite of her courage and her self-sacrifice, she was restless and unhappy.
And she was not alone in her restlessness. It is curious to note what diverse causes produce the same effects. Cora Arthur was restless, very restless. The fruit of her labor was in her hands, but it was vapid, tasteless, unsatisfying. What her soul clamored for, was the opera, the contact of kindred spirits, the rush and whirl, the smoke and champagne, and giddiness of the city; the card-won gold, and painted folly that made the be-all and end-all of life to such as she.
She did not lose sight of the usefulness she trusted to find in Celine Leroque, however. During these days of ennui and quietude, the two came to a very good understanding; not all at once, and not at all definite. Only, by degrees, Cora became convinced that Celine Leroque cherished a very laudable contempt for her would-be-girlish mistress, and that she was becoming rather weary in her service. Once, indeed, the girl had said, as if unable to restrain herself, and while dressing Mrs. Cora's yellow hair—a task which she professed to delight in:
"Ah! madame, if only it was you who were my mistress! It is a pleasure to dress a beautiful mistress, but to be constantly at war against nature, to make an old one young—faugh! it is labor."
And Cora had been much amused and had held out a suggestion that, in case of any rupture between mistress and maid, the latter should apply to her.
But if existence was a pain to Celine, and a weariness to Cora, it was anguish unutterable to Edward Percy. He would have been glad to put a long span of miles between his inamorata and himself had he not felt that, with Cora in the same house as his fair one, it were more discreet to be on the ground, and watch over his prey pretty closely. But to this man, who made love to every pretty woman as a child eats bon bons, the task of wooing where his eye was not pleased, his ear was not soothed, and his vanity not in the least flattered, was intensely wearisome.
NOT A BAD DAY'S WORK.
The first thing that Doctor Vaughan did on returning from Bellair, was to seek an interview with Henry, the dark servant of Lucian Davlin.
It was a mixed motive that had first prompted Henry to espouse the cause of a helpless, friendless girl; a motive composed of one part inward wrath, long nourished, against the haughty and over-exacting Lucian, and one part pity for the young girl who, as his experienced eyes told him, was not such as were the women who had usually been entertained by his master.
He had expected to assist her to escape from the place, to enjoy his master's chagrin, and to see the matter end there. But Madeline's illness had changed the current of events, and strengthened his determination to stand her friend, if need be, more especially when Olive, pressing upon him a generous gift, had signified her wish that he should continue in Madeline's service. She had added that when he chose to leave his present master, she would see that he fell into no worse hands, for so long as the sick girl remained under that shelter, Olive felt that the man must be their servant, not Davlin's. And, to do him justice, Henry had long since become truly attached to the two ladies.
He lost no time in responding to the summons of Doctor Vaughan, and was eager to know of the welfare of the "young lady" and Mrs. Girard. Doctor Vaughan satisfied him on this point, and then said:
"I am authorized by Miss Payne to see you, and ask some questions that she thinks you may be able to answer. First, then," said the doctor, in his kindly manner, "how long have you been with your present master?"
"Nearly three years, sir."
"And how long has the woman whom he calls Cora been known to you?"
"She has been known to me all that time, sir," replied Henry.
"You first saw her in company with Davlin?"
"No, sir; she came to his rooms when I had been there but a few days, and ordered me about like a countess. I didn't know the ropes then, but she made me know my duty soon enough," dryly.
"Evidently, then, she and your master were friends of long standing, even at that time?"
"You used to hear them talk often, I suppose?"
"I used to hear parts of their talks. They seemed not to care to have even so much of a machine as I, hear them at all times."
"Now, will you try and recall some of these fragments of talk? Think if you heard them speak of their travels, together or separately; and if you can recall the names of any persons or places they have mentioned."
Henry pondered. "I think," he said, after a time, "that they have been in Europe together. In fact, I am sure of it."
Doctor Vaughan started. "Oh! that is to the point. You don't recall any time mentioned?"
"No, sir. They used to talk of luck with the cards, and sometimes spoke of operas or plays, and almost always disagreed. Sometimes I would hear him describing men to her, and she seemed to be getting ready for a part in some 'game' that he was trying to play."
"Once I heard them having high words about some old man that she had been fleecing, and he said that she had carried the thing too far; and that if she did not keep out of the old man's way, she might get into trouble. I heard the name," putting a forefinger to his forehead and wrinkling his brows; "it was—was—Verage; 'Old Verage,' she called him."
"That was the name; I am sure, sir."
Clarence took out a note-book, and made an entry.
"When did this conversation take place?" he asked.
"Not more than two months before the young lady was brought there, sir."
"Ah!" Evidently a fresh glimmer of light had been thrown on the subject. "And you heard nothing more about this old man?"
"No, sir. I think she must have gone away from town at that time, for I did not see her again, until—" here Henry seemed to catch at some new thought.
"Until when?" asked Doctor Vaughan, with some eagerness.
"The day before the young lady came," said Henry, in a low tone, and moving a step nearer the doctor. "Madame Cora came dashing up in a close carriage, and she wore a heavy veil. I noticed that because she was rather fond of displaying her face and hair, and I hardly ever saw her wear anything that would hide them. She came up-stairs and ordered me to send a telegram, which she had already written, to my master. I sent it, and she stayed there all day. She sent me out for her meals, and I served them in the large room. She spent the most of the time in walking up and down—that was her way when she was worried or angry—and looking out between the curtains. My master answered the telegram, but when the midnight train came in, a man who went down in the country with him, a sort of tool and hanger-on of his, came to me while I was waiting below, and told me to tell Mistress Cora that the train was a few minutes late."
"Stop a moment. This man, who was Davlin's companion,—what was his name?"
"I never heard him called anything but 'The Professor.'"
"The Professor! And how did he look?" making another entry in the note-book.
"He was a middle-aged man, sir, not so tall as master, rather square in the shoulders, and stout built. He wore no beard, and was always smoking a pipe."
"Very good," writing rapidly. "Now, then, let us return to the lady."
"Well, sir, she was very impatient until my master came, and then they had a long talk. I heard him speak of the old man Verage again, and she seemed a little afraid, or annoyed, I don't know which. Then he seemed to be telling her of some new scheme, and there was a great deal of planning and some chaffing about her going into the country. Just at daybreak they sent me for a carriage, and she went away in it, closely veiled as before. He told her he would join her without fail. I have not seen her since. That same morning he brought the beautiful young lady to his rooms, and," smiling so as to show all his white teeth, "I think you know all the rest, sir."
Clarence nodded and then appeared lost in thought. Finally, he lifted his head from the hand that had supported it, and said:
"Since your master has returned to town, how does he employ his time?"
"Very much as usual."
"And that is in—"
"Is it true, Henry, that the room below your master's apartments is fitted up for private gambling?"
Henry stirred uneasily, and looked his answer.
Doctor Vaughan smiled. "I see how it is," he said. "Well, then, this man, the Professor, do you see much of him of late?"
"A great deal, sir; he is very often with my master at his rooms, but they never go out together. They have had a great deal of privacy lately; something new is afoot."
"The man is a sort of decoy-duck, I fancy?"
"Yes; what the gamblers call a capper, or roper-in."
"Well, Henry, I think I won't detain you longer now. Take this," putting into his hand a twenty-dollar bill, "and keep your eyes and ears open. If your master leaves town, observe if the Professor disappears at the same time."
Henry expressed his gratitude and his entire willingness to keep an eye upon the doings of Mr. Davlin and the Professor, and bowed himself out, muttering as he went: "They will make it lively for my fine master before very long, and I think I am on the side that will win."
Meantime, Clarence Vaughan, quick in thought and action, was hurrying on his gloves preparatory to a sally forth on a new mission. Henry had given him a hint that might turn out of much value, for among the patients then on the young doctor's visiting list, was one Verage, old, ugly, and fabulously rich.
First of all, Clarence Vaughan called at the Agency which had been decided upon as the best one to entrust with the investigation relative to Mr. Edward Percy. He gave his man no clue to the present whereabouts of his subject, but set him back ten years or more, sending him to visit the scenes of school episode, and bidding him trace the life of the man, with the aid of such clues as he thought best to give, up to that time. Next, he visited another Agency, and placed a man upon the track of Lucian Davlin.
Then he called a carriage and drove straight to the residence of old Samuel Verage. It was early in the day for a professional visit or for a visit of any kind. Nevertheless, Doctor Vaughan was admitted without delay, to the presence of the master of the house.
Old Samuel Verage sat in his large, softly-cushioned armchair, in a gorgeously beflowered dressing gown.
He was glowering over the dainty dishes which had lately contained a bountiful breakfast. Evidently he fancied that the doctor had called in anticipation of a serious morning attack, or to choke off his too greedy appetite, for he chuckled maliciously as Clarence entered the room, and greeted him with,
"Oh! You thought you were ahead of me this time, didn't you? I say, now, did you think I would be worse this morning?"
Clarence surveyed his patient with considerable amusement.
"You won't suffer from a hearty breakfast. It is the supper that you must look out for. But my call this morning was, in part, to inquire about a lady."
"About a lady! Of course, of course; go ahead; who is she?"
"That's precisely what I want to know. The fact is, my business is rather peculiar, and delicate."
The old man rubbed his hands gleefully. "Good! very good! A mystery about a woman! Come out with it; don't be backward."
"Very well; the woman that I want to inquire about has been known as Cora Weston."
Old Verage fairly bounced out of his seat as he yelled: "Cora Weston! Where is she? What do you know about her?"
"Not quite enough, or I should not have ventured to inquire of you," said Clarence, calmly.
Old Verage tumbled into his chair again. "Then you don't know where she is?" sharply.
"What could you do if I put her in your power?"
"Lock her up in jail, if I wanted to," fiercely.
Little by little Clarence Vaughan extracted from the old man the details of the plausible scheme by which Davlin and Cora had succeeded in transferring a very considerable amount of cash from his pockets to their own. He felt elated at the result of this interview. It placed a weapon in his hands that might be wielded with telling effect when time served.
"Well, you may be able to get even with her yet," he said, rising to go, after Verage had concluded his tirade; "many thanks for giving me some information. I may be able to return the compliment soon."
"But hold on!" cried Verage, as if seized by a new thought; "I say, now, what is all this questioning about?"
"Some of her sharp practice has come to my knowledge, and she has made a little trouble for one of my friends. I want to know all that I can about her, for it may be necessary to put a stop to her career."
With a renewed expression of his thanks for the information given, Clarence bowed himself out of the old man's presence, with a sense of relief at inhaling the fresh, pure air of the outer world. Then he turned his steps homeward, assured that it had been a good day's work well done.
CLAIRE TURNS CIRCE.
There was more to tell than to learn, when Clarence called, a day or two later, at the villa.
The expert who had been dogging the steps of Lucian Davlin, had made his report, it is true. But that report was a very unsatisfactory affair:
A man, whom Clarence readily identified with the Professor, was an almost constant visitor at the rooms of the Man of Luck, but they, that is, the Professor and Davlin, were never seen on the street together, nor, indeed, anywhere else. In short, Lucian Davlin had been closely shadowed, but with no success to speak of. He came and went just as such a man usually does. And no person that might be made to answer for a doctor, had been visited by him or had visited him unless, and this began to appear possible, the Professor himself was the man.
After a long and serious discussion of the pros and cons of the case, Olive and Clarence decided they would instruct the detective to transfer his attentions to the Professor, only keeping a general surveillance over Davlin. They began to fear that they were watching the wrong man.
Those were pleasant days to Doctor Vaughan; the days when he rode down to the pretty villa to consult with Olive and to look at Claire.
And those were pleasant days to Claire as well. Once, and that not long before, she had taken but little interest in Clarence Vaughan. She had thought of him very much as had Madeline that first night of their meeting, when she looked at him sitting near her in a railway carriage, and regarded him as just a "somewhat odd young man with a good face." Now, Madeline thought him not only the noblest but the handsomest of men. And Claire was beginning to agree with her.
But on one thing she was determined. Doctor Vaughan must learn to look upon her only as a friend, and he must learn to love Madeline. So Claire and Clarence vied with each other in chanting the praises of Madeline Payne, and learned to know each other better because of her.
One day when he called, Claire chanced to be alone. Somehow she found it hard to be quite at her ease when there was no Olive at hand, behind whom to screen her personality from the eyes that might overlook that sisterly barrier, but could not overleap it. If his eyes had said less, or if she could have compelled her lips to say more! But her usually active tongue seemed to lack for words and she found herself talking in a reckless and somewhat incoherent manner upon all sorts of topics, which she dragged forward in order to keep in check the words which the look in his eyes heralded so plainly.
When she was almost at her wit's end, and tempted to flee ingloriously in search of Olive, that lady entered and Claire felt as if saved from lunacy. But she could not quite shake off the consciousness that had awakened in her, and soon framed an excuse for leaving the room. Once having escaped, she did not return, nor did Olive see her again until she came down to dinner, and Doctor Vaughan had gone.
While lingering over that meal, Olive said, after they had talked of Madeline through three courses, "I think, by-the-by, that Doctor Vaughan expected to see you again before he went."
If I were writing of impossible heroines, I might say that Claire looked conscious; but real women who are not all chalk and water, do not display their feelings so readily to their mothers and sisters. So Claire Keith looked up with the countenance of an astonished kitten.
"To see me? What for?"
"How should I know, if you don't?" smiling slightly.
"And how should I know?" carelessly.
"Well, perhaps I was mistaken. But why have you kept your room all this afternoon?"
"I have been packing. Please pass the marmalade."
"Packing!" mechanically reaching out the required dainty.
"Yes, packing. You don't think I came to spend the winter, do you?"
"But this is so sudden."
"Now, just listen, you unreasonable being!" assuming an air of grave admonition. "Don't you know that I have overstayed my time by almost a month?"
"Well, don't you know that if I tell you beforehand that I am going, you always contrive excuses and hatch plots, to keep me at least three weeks longer?"
"I plead guilty," laughed Olive.
"Well, you see I have staid out my days of grace already. And knowing your failing, and feeling sure that I could not humor it, I have just taken advantage of you, and packed my trunks."
"And you won't stay just one more little week?"
Claire laughed gleefully. "What did I say? It is your old cry. Now, dear, be reasonable. Mamma wants me, and the boys want me. You have plenty of occupation just now. It will take you one-third of the time to keep me informed of all that happens."
"Well," sighed Olive, "of course you must go sometime; but you don't mean to go to-morrow?"
"I do, though."
"What will Doctor Vaughan say?"
"Whatever Doctor Vaughan pleases. I can't lose a day to say good-by to him, can I?"
"But why didn't you tell him good-by to-day?"
Claire looked up in some surprise. "Upon my word, I never thought of it."
And she told the truth. She had thought only of how she could avoid another meeting.
Olive looked puzzled. "And I supposed that you liked Doctor Vaughan," she said, after a moment's pause.
"Why, and so I do; I was very careless. Olive, dear, pray make my adieus to him, and all the necessary excuses. I do like the doctor, and don't want him to think me rude."
And Olive accepted the commission, and was deceived by it. For she, absorbed in her own fears and hopes, was not aware of the drama of love and cross purposes that was being enacted under her very eyes.
When Clarence called, on the next day but one, he found, to his surprise and sorrow, that the bright face of the girl he loved so well was to smile upon him no more, at least for a time. Making his call an unusually brief one, he rode back to the city in a very grave and thoughtful mood. Or, rather, the gravity and thoughtfulness usual in him was tinged with sadness.
* * * * *
On the same day, almost at the same hour, Claire Keith stood in her mother's drawing-room, answering the thousand and one questions that are invariably poured into the ears of a returned traveler.
By and by, drawing back the satin curtain, that shaded the windows of the drawing-room, Claire gazed out upon the familiar street which seemed smiling her a welcome in the Autumn sunshine. Finally she uttered an exclamation of surprise, and turned to Mrs. Keith.
"Merci! Mamma! what has happened to the people across the way? Why, I can't catch even one glimpse of red and yellow damask, not one flutter of gold fringe; have the parvenus been taking lessons in good taste? Positively, every blind is closed, and there isn't a liveried being to be seen."
Mrs. Keith laughed softly. "I don't know what has happened to the parvenus, my dear, but whether good or bad it has taken them away, liveries and all. The house has a new tenant, who is not so amusing, perhaps, but is certainly more mysterious. So, after all, the exchange may not have been a gain to the neighborhood."
Claire peeped out again. "A mysterious tenant, you say, mamma? That must be an improvement. What is the Mystery like?"
Mrs. Keith smiled indulgently on her daughter.
"There is not much to tell, my love. I don't know whether the lady who has taken the house is young or old, handsome or ugly, married or single. She lives the life of a recluse; has never been seen, at least by any of us, to walk out. But she drives sometimes in a close carriage, and always with a thick veil hiding her face. She is tall, dresses richly, but always in black, although the fabric is not that usually worn as mourning. She moves from the door to her carriage with a languid gait, as if she might be an invalid. No one goes there, and I understand she is not at home to callers, although, of course, I have not made the experiment myself. There, my dear, I think that is about all."
"She seems to be a woman of wealth?"
"Evidently; her horses are very fine animals, and her carriage a costly one. Her servants wear a neat, plain livery, and apparently her house is elegantly furnished."
"And mamma," said Robbie, who had been standing quietly at her side, "you forget the flowers."
"True, Robbie. Every day, Claire, the florist leaves a basket of white flowers at her door."
"I like that," asserted Claire. "She must have refinement."
"She certainly has that air."
"Well," said Claire, laughing lightly, "I shall make a study of the woman across the way."
With that the subject dropped for the time. But as the days went on, and she settled herself once more into the home routine, Claire found that not the least among the things she chose to consider interesting was the mysterious neighbor across the way.
And now, having put considerable distance between herself and Edward Percy, she wrote him a few cool lines of dismissal.
And here again the individuality of the girl was very manifest. Many a woman would have written a scathing letter, telling the man how thoroughly unmasked he stood in her sight, letting him know that she was acquainted with all his past and his present, and bidding him make the most of the infatuation of the last victim to his empty pockets, the ancient Miss Arthur.
What Claire did was like Claire; and perhaps, after all, she best comprehended the nature she dealt with. Certainly no tirade of accusing scorn could have so wounded the self-love of the selfish, conscienceless man as did her cool farewell missive.
Edward Percy was in a very complaisant mood when Claire's letter reached him. True, he had received no reply to his two last effusions; but knowing that Claire must be soon returning to her home, if she had not already gone, he assured himself that it was owing to this that he had received no letter as yet. He never doubted her attachment to himself. That was not in his nature.
Opening a rather heavy packet, as he sat in his cosy sitting-room, out dropped two letters; two letters full of poetry and fine sentiment, that his own flexible hand had penned and addressed to Miss Claire Keith. His letters, and returned with the seals unbroken. He could scarcely believe the evidence of his senses. His handsome, treacherous, light-blue eyes darkened and widened with astonishment and anger.
He never moved in a hurry, never spoke in a hurry, never thought in a hurry. And slowly it dawned upon his mind to investigate further and find some clue that would make this unheard-of thing appear less incomprehensible. Accordingly he took up the envelope that had contained his rejected letters, and drew from them a brief note:
BALTIMORE, Saturday, 6th.
It will scarcely surprise Mr. Percy to learn that Miss Keith desires now to end an acquaintance that has been, doubtless, amusing "intellectually" and "socially" to both.
Of course, a gentleman so worldly-wise as himself can never have been misled by the semblance of attachment, that has seemed necessary in order to make such an acquaintance as ours at all interesting. A flirtation based upon a "sympathy of intellect," must of necessity end sooner or later, and has, no doubt, been as harmless to him as to CLAIRE KEITH.
Yes, without doubt Claire knew how to hurt this man most. He was not permitted to know that she felt the keen humiliation, which a proud nature must suffer when it discovers that it has trusted an unworthy object. Instead, he was to feel himself the injured one; the one humiliated. He, the deceiver, must own himself deceived. When he believed himself loved, he was laughed at. His own words were flung in his teeth in an insolent mockery. "A sympathy of intellect;" yes, he had used these words so often. He had obeyed the beckoning of a Circe, and now she held out to him his swine's reward of husks.
Edward Percy had been dissatisfied with others, with circumstances, and surroundings, many a time and oft; but to-day, for the very first time, he felt dissatisfied with himself.
And Claire had revenged her wrongs twofold.
THE CURTAIN RISES ON THE MIMIC STAGE.
Always, in life, little events pave the way for great catastrophes. The mine burns slowly until the explosive point is reached, and then—
Fate was taking a leisurely gait, seemingly, and moving affairs at Oakley with a deliberation that was almost hesitating. Nevertheless, things were moving, and in the wake of little events, great ones could already be discerned by the plotters and counter-plotters, who waited and watched.
Celine Leroque was in better spirits than usual, in these days. Indeed, considering how exceedingly probable it seemed that she would be turned adrift at any hour by her present mistress, Celine was very cheerful.
And Miss Arthur had cause to complain. Beyond a doubt her French maid was becoming careless, very careless. Sometimes Miss Arthur was inclined to think that her scant locks of well-dyed hair were pulled quite unnecessarily, while her head was under Celine's hands. But this she endured like a Spartan, only exclaiming when the torture became unbearable. And when she finally ventured a protest, disastrous was the outcome.
With many an apology, Celine fingered the curls and braids, inquiring with every touch of the hand or adjustment of a hair-pin: "Does that hurt, mademoiselle?"
Being assured, when the hair-dressing was done, that she had accomplished the task without inflicting so much as a single twinge of pain, she held open the door for her mistress, cooing her satisfaction and beaming with delight.
But alas for the poor spinster! Before she had been half an hour in the society of her beloved fiance, her unfortunate habit of tossing and wriggling her head brought Celine's gingerly architecture to grief. A sudden twist tumbled down full half of the glossy "crown of glory" from Miss Arthur's head to Mr. Percy's feet, and—we draw a veil over the confusion of the unhappy spinster.
The lady having retired to her dressing-room to relieve her feelings and repair damages, a scene was enacted in which the lady did the histrionics and the maid apologized and giggled alternately, until the one had exhausted her anthem of wrath and the other her accompaniment of penitence and giggles.
Then a truce was patched up, which lasted for several days.
Celine had advanced to the verge of disrespect, when speaking of Mr. Percy, on more than one occasion. Several times she had said that he "had a familiar look," and she fancied she had seen him somewhere. But she had always checked herself on the very border-land of impertinence, and never had been able to tell if she really had before seen the gentleman or no.
But she had put the spinster on the defensive, and had also excited her curiosity.
During this time Mrs. John Arthur was slowly dropping into her role of invalid. First, she gave up her habitual walks about the grounds and on the terrace. Then, her drives became too fatiguing. Next, she found herself too languid to appear at breakfast, and that meal was served in her room. She was not ill, she protested; only a trifle indisposed. Let no one be at all concerned for her; she should be as well as usual in a few days. And Celine, who was very sympathetic, and was the first to suggest that a physician be consulted, was laughingly assured that if madame were sick, she, Celine, should be her head nurse.
Mrs. Arthur had been absent from the family breakfast table for two days, when Miss Arthur met with a fresh grievance at the hands of Celine.
Celine had been unusually garrulous, and had been regaling her mistress with descriptions of the great people, and the magnificent toilets she had seen, while with some of her former miladis. Suddenly she dropped the subject of a grand ball which had transpired in Baltimore, where her mistress was the guest of the honorable somebody, to exclaim:
"It has just come to me, mademoiselle, where I must have seen Monsieur Percy. It was in Baltimore, and they said—" Here she became much confused, and pretended to be fully occupied with the folds of her mistress's dress.
Miss Arthur looked down upon her sharply, and asked, "What did they say?"
Celine stammered: "Oh, it was only gossip, mademoiselle; nothing worth repeating, I assure you."
The curiosity and jealousy of the spinster were fully aroused. "Don't attempt any subterfuges, Celine," she said, in her loftiest tone. "I desire to know what was said of my—Mr. Percy."
The girl arose to her feet, and with much apparent reluctance, replied:
"They said, mademoiselle—of course, it was only gossip—that he was very much of a fortune-hunter, and that he was engaged to some woman much older than himself, who was immensely rich."
Miss Arthur sat down and looked hard at her maid. "How do you know that Mr. Percy is that man?"
"Oh! I don't know, my lady—mademoiselle. I only said that I thought I have seen him in Baltimore; the Mr. Percy they used to talk of there, must have been another."
Miss Arthur looked like an ancient Sphinx. "Do you think that Mr. Percy is that man?" she asked.
"Merci! my lady, how can I tell that? It might have been he; and the old woman there might have disappointed him, you know," artlessly.
Miss Arthur was literally speechless with rage. Without replying, she rose and swept into the adjoining room, closing the door behind her with a bang.
Celine smiled comfortably, and went to minister unto Cora, to whom she confided her belief that Miss Arthur was dissatisfied with her, and meant to discharge her. "And only think, madame," she said plaintively, "it is all because, in an unguarded moment, I compared her to an old woman. It is so hard to remember, always, that you must not tell an old woman she is not young."
And Cora laughed immoderately, for she much enjoyed her sister-in-law's discomfiture.
But Miss Arthur did not dismiss the matter from her mind, when she banged the door upon Celine. Angry as she had been with that damsel, it was not anger alone that moved her. Jealousy was at work, and suspicion.
That evening, sitting beside her lover, she said to him, carelessly: "By the way, Edward, were you ever in Baltimore?"
The gentleman stroked his blonde whiskers, and smiled languidly as he answered: "In Baltimore? Oh, yes; I think there are few cities I have not visited." And then something in the face of Miss Arthur made him inquire, with a slight acceleration of speech: "But why do you ask?"
Miss Arthur considered for a moment, and replied: "My maid, Celine, thinks that she has seen you there."
She was watching him keenly, and fancied that he looked just a trifle annoyed, even when he smiled lazily at her, saying: "Indeed! And when is your maid supposed to have seen me there?"
"I don't know when,"—Miss Arthur was beginning to feel injured; "I suppose you are well known in society there?"
He smiled and still caressed his chin. "So so," he said, indifferently.
"Edward!"—the spinster could not suppress the question that was heavy on her mind—"were you ever engaged to a lady in Baltimore?"
He turned his blue eyes upon her in mild surprise. "Never," he said, nonchalantly.
She looked somewhat relieved, but still anxious, and the man, after eyeing her for a moment, placing one hand firmly upon her own, said, in a tone that was half caress, half command,
"Ellen, you have been listening to gossip about me. Now, let me hear the whole story, for I see it has troubled you, and I will not have that."
She, glad to unburden her mind, told him what Celine had said. Perhaps Celine had counted upon this, and was making, of the unconscious Mr. Percy, a tool that should serve her in just the way that he did. At all events, while he listened to the spinster, he assured himself that if the French maid were not, for some reason, an enemy, she was certainly a meddler, and that she must quit Miss Arthur's service.
He said nothing to this end that evening. But he fully satisfied Miss Arthur that he was not the person referred to by the girl. And to guard against further inquiries or accidents, he told her of several men of the name of Percy, who were much in society, and might be, any one of them, the man in question.
And his fiance was calmed and happy once more.
She was as clay in the potter's hands, and Mr. Percy found it an easy matter to convince her, a few days later, that her invaluable maid was not the proper person to have about her. Accordingly, one fine morning, Celine was informed, in the spinster's loftiest manner, that her services were no longer desired, and a month's wages were tendered her, with the assurance that Miss Arthur "had not been blind to her sly ways, and trickery, and that she had only retained her until she could suit herself better."
Celine took her conge in demure silence, and sought Mrs. Arthur forthwith. Cora was really glad that she could at last command the girl, for many reasons, and they quickly came to an understanding.
Great was the surprise and inward wrath of the spinster when, within ten minutes from the time Celine had left her presence, a maid without a mistress, she appeared again before her, and laying upon the dressing case the month's wages she had received in lieu of a warning, said:
"Mademoiselle will receive back the month's wages, as I have not been in the least a loser by her dismissal. I enter the service of madame immediately."
And then Celine had smiled blandly, bowed, and taken her departure, leaving the spinster to wonder how on earth she should manage her hair-dressing, and to wish that Edward had not insisted upon setting the girl adrift until a substitute had been found.
The fact that the girl was retained in the house annoyed Mr. Percy not a little. But it did not surprise him that Cora should wish to keep her. He had long before made the discovery that the sisters-in-law were not more fond of each other than was essential to the comfort of both.
Celine had been but two days in the service of her new mistress when that lady found herself too ill to be dressed for breakfast, even in her own room, and she kept her bed all day.
John Arthur, in some alarm, had declared his intention of calling a physician. But Cora objected so strongly that he had refrained. Before evening came, however, Celine sought him, as he was sitting in what he chose to call his "study," and said:
"Pardon my intrusion, monsieur, but I am distressed about madame. This afternoon she is not so well, and surely she should have some medicine."
The old man wrinkled his brows in perplexity, as he replied: "Yes, yes, girl; but she won't let me call a doctor."
Celine sighed, and moving a step nearer, murmured: "Monsieur, I will venture to repeat what madame but now said to me, if I may."
He signed her to proceed.
"Madame said that a stranger would only make her worse; that she would distrust anyone she did not know; but that if her dear old physician, who had attended her always in sickness, could see her, she would be glad. Alas! he was in New York, and she did not like to ask that he might be sent for. It would seem to you childish."
Of course this speech had been made at Cora's instigation, but it had the desired effect. John Arthur bounded up, and bade Celine precede him to his wife's chamber; and the result of his visit was what the invalid had intended it to be. She was so pretty, and so pathetic, and so very ill! Celine declared that she was growing more fevered every moment, and as for her pulse, it was like a trip-hammer.
John Arthur had an unutterable fear of illness, and after trying in vain to persuade Cora to see one of the village doctors, whom, he declared, were very good ones, he announced his intention to telegraph to the city for the doctor who had been her adviser in earlier days.
And to this Cora reluctantly consented. "It seems foolish," she said, plaintively, "and yet I don't think I ought to refuse to send for Doctor Le Guise. I feel as if I were really about to be very ill, hard as I have tried to fight off the weakness that is coming over me."
"And madame is so flushed, and wanders so in her sleep,"—this, of course, from Celine.
John Arthur arose from the side of the couch with considerable alacrity, saying: "I will telegraph at once. What is the address?"
Cora lay back among her pillows, with closed eyes, and made no sign that she heard. He spoke again, and the eyes unclosed slowly, and she said, with slow languor:
"Send to my brother; he will find him." Then closing her eyes, she murmured, "I want to sleep now."
Celine turned toward him an awe-struck countenance and motioned him to be silent. He tip-toed from the room, thoroughly frightened and nervous, and sent a message to Lucian Davlin forthwith.
When he was safely away, Cora awoke from her nap, and desired Celine to let in more light. This done, she propped herself up among her pillows, and taking from underneath one of them a novel, bade her maid tell everybody that she was not to be disturbed, while she read and looked more comfortable than ill.
Towards evening, John Arthur looked in, or rather tried to look in, upon his wife. But Celine assured him that her mistress was sleeping fitfully and seemed much disturbed and agitated at the slightest sound, so his alarm grew and increased.
When the evening train came he hoped almost against reason that it would bring the now eagerly looked for Dr. Le Guise.
But no one came. Later, however, a telegram from Lucian arrived, which read as follows:
Doctor can't get off to-night. Will be down by morning train.
In the morning, Cora was much worse. She did not recognize her husband, and called Miss Arthur, Lady Mallory, which made a great impression upon that spinster.
Celine, who seemed to know just what to do, turned them both out, which did not displease either greatly, as the brother and sister were equally afraid of contagion, and were nervous in a sick-room.
At length the doctor arrived, and with him Lucian Davlin, the latter looking very grave and anxious, the former looking very grave and wise.
Celine was summoned to prepare the patient for the coming of the physician. When this had been done, and the wise man arose to go to his patient, John Arthur and Lucian would have followed him. But he waved them back, saying: "Not now, gentlemen, if you please; let me examine my patient first. That is always safest and wisest."
So the three, Lucian, Arthur, and his sister, sat in solemn silence awaiting the verdict of the doctor from Europe. At last he came, and the gravity of his face was something to marvel at. Advancing toward Mr. Arthur, the doctor seemed to be looking him through and through as he asked:
"Will you tell me how lately you have been in your wife's room."
John Arthur answered him with pallid lips. "We were there this morning, my sister and I."
The doctor turned toward Miss Arthur, looking, if possible, more serious than ever.
"I am sorry, very sorry," he said. "And I hope you have incurred no risks. But it is my duty to tell you that Mrs. Arthur is attacked with a fever of a most malignant and contagious type, and you have certainly been exposed."
Mr. Arthur turned the color of chalk and dropped into the nearest chair. Miss Arthur, who could not change her color, shrieked and fell upon the sofa. Lucian groaned after the most approved fashion. And the man of medicine continued,
"Above all things, don't agitate yourselves; be calm. I would advise you to retire to your own rooms, and remain there for the present. I will immediately prepare some powders, which you will take hourly. We will begin in time, and hope that you may both escape the contagion."
Then he turned to Mr. Davlin. "My dear boy, you had better go back to the city; at least go away from the house. This is no place for you."
But Lucian shook his head, and said that he would not leave while his sister was in danger.
The following morning Dr. Le Guise presented himself at the door of Miss Arthur's dressing-room. After making many inquiries, such as doctors are wont to terrify patients with, he pronounced upon the case: She had thus far escaped contagion. But her system was not over strong; in fact, was extremely delicate. If there was any place near at hand, suited to a lady like herself, his advice was to go there without delay. She was not rugged enough to risk remaining where she was.
Before sunset, Miss Arthur was quartered at the Bellair inn. She had dispatched Mr. Percy a note the day before, bidding him delay his visit. Now she was under the same roof with him, greatly to her delight, and his disgust.
John Arthur had not fared so well at the hands of the learned physician. He had swallowed his powders faithfully and hopefully, but the morning found him languid and dismal, with aching brain and nauseated stomach.
The doctor shook his head, and bade him prepare for a slight attack of the fever. It promised to be very slight, but he must keep his room, for a few days at least, and attend to his medicine and his diet.
And so the drama had commenced in earnest.
A STARTLING EPISODE.
Claire Keith had said truly that the woman across the way would prove interesting to her.
She grew more and more fond of watching for the tall form, with its trailing robes of black, its proudly-poised, heavily-veiled head, and slow, graceful movement. Sometimes she saw a white hand pull away the heavy curtains, and knew that the owner of the hand was looking out upon the street. But the face was always in shadow. She could not catch the slightest glimpse of it.
"She has strong reasons for not wishing to be seen and recognized; I wonder what they are?" Claire would soliloquize at such times.
Then she would chide herself for being so curious. But the fits of wondering grew stronger, until she came to feel an attraction that was more than mere curiosity; a sort of proprietorship, as it were, in the strange lady. She began to wish that she might know her, and at last, in a very unexpected manner, the wish was gratified.
Claire had returned from a grand ball, weary and somewhat bored. Disrobing with unusual haste, she sought her couch. She had supposed herself very sleepy, but no sooner was her head upon the pillow, than sleep abandoned her, and she tossed restlessly, and very wide awake.
Finding sleep impossible, and herself growing nervous, Claire at length arose. Throwing on a dressing-gown, she pushed a large chair to the window, and flinging herself in it, drew back the curtain. Glancing across the way, she was startled by a light shining out from the upper windows of the mysterious house. She had looked at that house when quitting her carriage, because to look had become a habit. But there had been no light then; not one glimmer. And now the entire upper floor was brilliantly illuminated.
Claire rubbed her eyes and looked again. Then, with a cry of alarm, she sprang to her feet and rang her bell violently.
From the roof of the house a single flame had shot up, and Claire realized the cause of that strange illumination. The upper floor was in flames!
She turned up the gas and commenced making a hurried toilet. By the time the sleepy servant appeared in answer to her ring, she was wrapping a worsted shawl about her head and shoulders, preparatory to going out.
"Rouse papa and the servants, James!" she commanded, sharply. "Number two hundred is on fire! Go instantly!"
Giving the startled and bewildered James a push in the direction of her father's sleeping-room, she darted down the stairs. She unbolted and unchained the street door, and hurried straight across to number two hundred, where she rang peal after peal.
The tiny flame had grown a great one by this time, and almost simultaneously with her ring at the door, the hoarse fire-alarm bell roared out its warning.
It seemed an age to the girl before she heard bolts drawn back. Then the face of an elderly male servant peered cautiously out through a six-inch opening. In sharp, quick tones Claire told him that the roof was in flames. The statement seemed only to paralyze the man.
Claire gave the door an excited push and spoke to him again. But he never moved until a voice, that evidently belonged to the lady of the house, said: "What is it, Peter?"
Claire answered for him: "Madame, the roof of your house is in flames! Alarm your servants and make your escape!"
Through the doorway Claire saw a white hand laid on the man's shoulder, and suddenly he became galvanized into life.
Then the chain fell, and the door opened wide.
Claire and the mysterious lady were face to face.
By this time the people were moving in the street, and from the windows of Claire's home, lights were flashing.
The woman drew back at the sound of the first footstep, and seemed to hesitate, with a look of uneasiness upon her face. Instantly Claire spoke the thought that had been in her mind when she rang the bell: "Madame, your house will soon be surrounded by strangers. Secure such valuables as are at hand and come with me across to my home. There you will be safe from intruders."
The lady raised her hand, and saying, simply, "Wait," hurried up the broad stairs.
Now all was confusion. Down the street came the rushing fire engines; servants ran about frantically, and people went tearing past Claire in the crazy desire to seize something and smash it on the paving stones, thereby convincing themselves that they were "helping at a fire." Regardless of these, Claire stood at her post like a little sentinel. Just as the first engine halted before the house, the mistress of all that doomed grandeur crossed its threshold for the last time. Then she turned to Claire, and the two hurried silently through the throng, and across the street. The door was fortunately ajar. The servants and Mr. Keith were all outside, so the girl and her companion had been unobserved.
Claire led the way straight to her own room. Ushering in her companion, she closed the door upon chance intruders, and turned to look at her. The stranger had appeared at the door in a dressing-gown of dark silk, and this she still wore, having thrown over it a long cloak, and wrapped about her head, so as to almost entirely conceal her features, a costly cashmere shawl. This she now removed, and revealed to the anxious gaze of Claire the face of a woman past the prime of life;—a face that had never been handsome, but which bore unmistakable signs of refinement and culture in every feature. The eyes were large, dark-gray, and undeniably beautiful. The hair was wavy and abundant; once it had been black as midnight, but now it was plentifully streaked with gray. The face was thin and almost colorless. The hands were still beautiful, with long slender fingers and delicate veining; the very beau ideal of aristocratic hands.
This much Claire saw almost at a glance. Then the lady said, in a low, sweet voice that was in perfect unison with the hands, and eyes, and general bearing:
"I cannot tell you, dear young lady, how much I thank you for your courage and hospitality. I could not have endured the going out upon the street in that throng."
Claire laughed softly, and said, with characteristic frankness: "I guessed that, madame, for I must confess to having, on more than one occasion, seen that you do not desire observation."
The stranger looked at her with evident admiration. "You were kinder and more thoughtful for a stranger than I have found most of our sex, Miss ——; I beg your pardon; I am so much of a hermit that I don't even know your name."
"My name is Keith,—Claire Keith."
Then the girl crossed to the window and looked over at the burning building, while the stranger sank wearily into a chair.
"Your house is going fast, madame. I fear nothing can be saved," said Claire. "The upper floor is already gone."
The stranger smiled slightly, but never so much as glanced out at her disappearing home.
"I hope my landlord is well insured," she said. "As for me, I have my chiefest valuables here," drawing from underneath the cloak, which she had only partially thrown off, a small casket, and a morocco case that evidently contained papers. "I keep these always near me; as for the rest, there is nothing lost that money cannot replace."
Claire looked a trifle surprised at her indifference to the destruction of her elegant furniture, but made no answer. And the stranger fell into thoughtful silence.
A rap sounded on the door, and a gentle voice outside said: "Claire, dear, are you there?"
The girl turned upon the stranger a look of embarrassed inquiry. "That is mamma," she said.
The lady smiled half sadly at her evident perturbation, and replied, with a touch of dignity in her tone, "Admit your mother, my dear. I was about to ask for her."
Claire drew a sigh of relief and opened the door.
"My child," began Mrs. Keith, as she hurriedly entered the room, "James tells me that you—"
Here she broke off as her eyes fell upon the stranger, and Claire hastened to say: "Mamma, this is the lady whose house is burning. I ran over there as soon as I saw the first flame and asked her to come here."
Mrs. Keith was not only a lady, but a woman of good sense, and she turned courteously toward the intruder, saying, "You did quite right, my dear. I trust you have not been too seriously a loser by this misfortune, madame."
The lady had risen. Now she stepped forward and said, in her unmistakably high-bred tones, "I have suffered no material injury, I assure you. And your daughter has done me a great kindness. I was about to ask if I might see you, as I felt that it was to you, as the mistress of this house, that I owed some explanation regarding myself, before accepting further hospitality from your daughter."
Mrs. Keith bowed gravely, and the stranger continued,
"My name is Mrs. Ralston. I have lived for nearly ten years a secluded life, having been an invalid. Messrs. Allyne & Clive are my bankers, and have been for years. Mr. Allyne is an old family friend. If you will ask your husband to call upon him, you will be assured that I am not a mysterious adventuress."
Mrs. Ralston smiled slightly, and Mrs. Keith smiled in return as she said, cordially: "Your face and manner assure me of that, Mrs. Ralston. And now will you not permit me to show you a room where you can rest a little, for it is almost morning, and your night's repose has been sadly disturbed."
"I must accept your hospitality, Mrs. Keith, and ask to be allowed to intrude upon you until I can communicate with Mr. Allyne, and he can find me a suitable place of residence."
"Don't let that trouble you, pray. We shall be happy to have you remain our guest," and Mrs. Keith turned to leave the room.
Mrs. Ralston held out her hand to Claire, and that impulsive young lady clasped it in both her own, as they bade each other good-night. And so the mysterious lady was actually under the same roof with the girl who had been so much interested in her and her possible history.
Mr. Allyne was well known to Mr. Keith, and a man whom he highly esteemed. On the following day, at the request of Mrs. Ralston, he called at the banking-house of Allyne & Clive.
On learning that Mrs. Ralston was the guest of his brother banker, and of the demolition of her house, Mr. Allyne was doubly surprised. And his statement concerning the lady was not only satisfactory but highly gratifying. She had been left an orphan in her girlhood, and was from one of the oldest and proudest of Virginia's old and proud families. She had now no very near relatives, and having separated from a worthless husband, had lived mostly in Europe. She had resumed her family name, and although the husband from whom she had withdrawn herself, had squandered nearly half her fortune, she was still a wealthy woman. He spoke in highest terms of praise of her mind and accomplishments, and assured Mr. Keith that she was not only a woman of unusual refinement and culture, but one also of loftiest principles and purest Christianity. If it were not that it would be the very place where this worthless husband would be likeliest to find her, he would not allow her to occupy any home save his own. And, lastly, Mr. Allyne stated that if he, Mr. Keith, could prevail upon Mrs. Ralston to remain under his roof, he would do Mr. Allyne a great favor.
"For," concluded that gentleman, "she lives too secluded, and she is so well fitted for such society as that of your wife and daughter; she is a woman to grace any household."
Mr. Keith returned home and faithfully reported all that he had heard concerning their guest.
Claire had been very much in love with the grave, stately lady from the first, and after a morning's chat with her, Mrs. Keith was not far behind in admiration.
And the woman who had lived alone so much, found this cheery little family circle very pleasant, so when Claire and her mother begged her with much earnestness to remain with them, she did not refuse.
"I cannot resist the invitation which I feel to be so sincere," she said. "I will remain with you for a time, at least, but I am too much of a hermit to tarry long where there is such a magnet as this," turning to Claire.
And Claire laughingly declared that she would forswear society, and don a veil of any thickness, if only Mrs. Ralston would share her isolation.
So she stayed with them, and soon became as a dearly loved sister to Mrs. Keith; while between herself and Claire, an attachment, as unusual as it was strong, sprang into being. They drove together, read together, talked together by the hour, and never seemed to weary of each other's society.
Enthusiastic Claire wrote to Olive and Madeline, giving glowing descriptions of her new found friend. But because of the events that were making Olive and Madeline doubly dear to her, and because she could not speak of them to a stranger, however loved and trusted, Claire said little to Mrs. Ralston of her sister or of the little heroine of Oakley.
The expert who had been tracing out the goings and doings of Percy, made his report.
After it had been thoroughly reviewed by Clarence and Olive, they were forced to confess that they were not one whit the wiser. The detective had found how and where Percy had squandered much of his fortune, but had brought to light absolutely nothing that could be of use to his employers. And so they abandoned the investigation in that direction.
But when the report of the Professor's case was sent in, they found more cause for congratulation. First, it had been discovered that the Professor had visited three different physicians, all of them men bearing reputations not over spotless. Next he had made sundry purchases from two different chemists; and third, last and all important, he had been dogged to the bazaar of a dealer in theatrical wares, where he had purchased a wig, beard, and other articles of disguise.
Two days had passed since the above discoveries were reported. Then the detective called upon Dr. Vaughan and informed him that Mr. Davlin and the Professor, the latter disguised with wig, beard and spectacles, had taken the early morning train that very day, and that he, the detective, had been lounging so near that he heard Davlin call for two tickets to Bellair.
And then they knew that the siege had begun.
Three days later, Olive received the following letter, which speaks for itself:
OAKLEY, WEDNESDAY EVENING.
The engagement has opened in earnest.
Last evening, Mr. D. and le Docteur, between them, frightened the two maids out of the house. This morning I succeeded in scaring away the old housekeeper, which made a shortage in servants. Old Hagar happened along just then by some chance, and declared herself not at all afraid of contagion; so madame bade her brother employ her. The cook remains, as Monsieur and le Docteur must eat. My meals are served in madame's dressing-room, and shared by that lady.
Courage, my friend, our time is almost here. And I am yours till death,
This letter was perused by Olive and Clarence with almost breathless eagerness and interest. And then they found themselves once more waiting eagerly for fresh tidings from the "seat of war," as Clarence termed it.
At last came a letter from Madeline that aroused them as the clarion stirs those arrayed for battle. It ran as follows, bearing neither date nor signature:
TO ARMS, MY FRIENDS!
If you were among the village gossips to-day, this is what you would hear, for it is what is fast spreading itself through the town:
The lady up at the mansion has been very ill, but is now better. Her husband took the fever from her, and, being old and his constitution enfeebled by the dissipation of his earlier days, he came near dying. Now they hope that he will live, although the danger is not yet passed. But if he does live he will never be himself again. The fever has affected his brain, and he will be hopelessly mad.
That is what the villagers know.
What they do not know is, that Mr. D—— and the doctor have already fitted up two rooms in the most secluded part of the closed-up wing, and that the "insane" man will be removed to those rooms to-night.
One fact concerning le Docteur, your expert has failed to discover, is that at some time the man has made a study of medicine. This is only a theory of mine, not a discovery; but when I tell you what he did, I think that you both will agree with me. A few days ago the doctor walked down to the village one morning, and coolly presented himself at the door of Doctor G——'s office.
Doctor G—— is the least popular and least skillful of the three physicians here, but of course the city man was not supposed to know that. He, the city doctor, informed Doctor G—— that although his employer had not desired it, as he had perfect confidence in the present treatment of Mr. A——, still it was always his practice to consult with another physician.
So he desired Doctor G—— to accompany him to O—— and see his patient; not that he had any doubts about the disease, but because, in case of a serious termination, it was always a consolation to the friends to know that every precaution had been taken. Doctor G—— came, to find the patient in a bedrugged stupor. He endorsed everything le Docteur chose to say, and went away feeling much puffed-up because of having been called in to consult with a New York physician.
You see they are moving very carefully, and do not intend to have any doubts raised.
Miss A—— of course remains in the village, and receives reports daily concerning her brother, and her Knight is still at her elbow.
Henry has been here for a week, and does not dream of my identity.
Hagar and myself, between us, have managed to get possession of a specimen of every drug that has been administered to Mr. A——, also of the harmless nostrums that are dealt out to madame for appearance's sake.
There is but one thing more that I must accomplish, and that must be done to-night, if possible. If I succeed in this, two days more will see me en route for the city. If I fail—then I must remain here, if I can, and try again. In any case, I must make my new move within the week. So look out for the chrysalis; it remains for you to develop it into the butterfly.
This letter chanced to arrive during one of Doctor Vaughan's afternoon visits, and Olive read it aloud to him, saying at the end, and almost without taking breath,
"Something she must accomplish first. If she has secured the medicines, and they are safe not to run away in her absence, then what is it she means?"
Clarence shook his head, saying: "I have no idea. She speaks as if the thing, whatever it is, was attended with some risk."
"And this explains Henry's absence," Olive said, tapping the letter in her lap. "No doubt he was summoned without any previous warning. Of course, he is a mere tool for his master. They will hardly dare let him see their game."
"Hardly; but if they were not using him to Madeline's satisfaction, she would have revealed herself to him."
"We are approaching a crisis now. If this new movement fails,—but I hardly think it will."
Olive looked up in alarm. "Oh, don't suggest failure," she exclaimed. "She must succeed. What will become of poor Philip if she does not?"
Clarence lifted his face reverently. "I believe that the Power above us, who permits evil to be because only from pain and sorrow comes purification, has not permitted the life of this beautiful young girl to be darkened in vain. Out of her wrongs, and her sorrows, and her humiliation, He will allow her own hands to shape not only a strong, true, earnest womanhood for herself, but the weapons which shall deliver the innocent, and bring the guilty to justice."
And Olive felt comforted, and her hope took new wings.
MR. PERCY SHAKES HIMSELF.
It was noontide at Oakley, and a December sun was shining coldly in at the window of Mrs. Cora Arthur's dressing-room. Within that cozy room, however, all was warmth and brightness. A cheerful fire was blazing and crackling in the grate. Sitting before the fire, wrapped in a becoming dressing-gown of white cashmere, was Cora herself, looking a trifle annoyed, but remarkably well withal. Wonderfully well, considering how very ill she had been.
Lounging near her, his feet lazily outstretched toward the fire, was Lucian Davlin.
"What did you write to Percy?" he inquired, consulting his watch.
"Just what you told me; that I had something of importance to communicate, and desired him to call to-day at two," replied Cora.
"But—aren't you looking a little too well for a lady who has been so desperately ill? It won't do to arouse his suspicions, you know."
Cora crossed to her dressing-case, went carefully over her face with a puff-ball, and did some very artistic tracing in India ink under and over each eye. Then she turned toward him triumphantly. "There!" she exclaimed, "now I shall draw the curtains," suiting the action to the word, "and then, when I lie on this couch, my face will be entirely in the shadow, while from the further window there will come enough light to enable him to recognize you."
At this moment a rap was heard at the door. Cora threw herself upon the invalid's couch, and lay back among the pillows. When she had settled herself to her satisfaction, Mr. Davlin opened the door, admitting Celine Leroque.
"Monsieur Percy is below, madame," said the girl, glancing sharply at the form in the darkened corner.
"Come and draw these coverings over me, Celine, and then go and bring him up," replied Cora.
Then she glanced at Lucian, who said, carelessly: "Well, my dear, I will go down to the library."
Celine adjusted the wraps and pillows and then went out, closely followed by Lucian. She was not aware that Mr. Percy was expected, the message having been sent by Henry. And she was not a little anxious to know the nature of the interview that was about to be held.
Mr. Percy, conducted to Cora's door by Celine, entered the room with his usual lazy grace, and approached the recumbent figure in the darkened corner, saying, in a tone of hypocritical solicitude:
"Madame, I trust you are not overtaxing your strength in thus kindly granting me an interview."
He knew so well how to assume the manner best calculated to throw her off her guard and into a rage.
But Cora, understanding his tactics, and her own failing, was prepared for him. In tones as smooth as his own she answered:
"You are very good, and I find my strength returning quite rapidly. In fact," and here a double meaning was apparent, as she intended it should be, "I think I shall soon be stronger than before my illness."
There was silence for a moment. Evidently Mr. Percy was not inclined to help her to put into words whatever she had in her mind.
"I sent for you," she continued, "because I have something to say before you meet with a person who, as you are likely to remain one of this pleasant family, you must of necessity, and for policy's sake, meet with the outward forms of politeness." Here she paused as if from exhaustion, and he, lifting his fine eyebrows slightly, kept silence still.
Cora, beginning to find her part irksome, hurried to its conclusion. "You have heard, no doubt, of the presence of my brother in this house. I sent for you that you might meet him, and I desired my maid to show you to this room first, that I might venture a word of warning and advice. My brother is not the stranger that you evidently imagine him. Beyond the fact that you and I were once married, that I of my own will forsook you, and the reason, or part of the reason for so doing, he knows little of our affairs. For my sake he will make no use of that knowledge. But I think it best that you understand each other. Will you please ring that bell?"
He obeyed her, looking much mystified and somewhat apprehensive. Celine appeared promptly, and disappeared again in answer to Cora's command:
"Show my brother here, Celine."
When the door opened, he turned slowly and met the cool gaze of—Lucian Davlin!
That personage approached the invalid, saying: "You sent for me to introduce me to this gentleman, I suppose, Cora?"
Mr. Percy arose slowly, and the two confronted each other, while Cora nodded her head, as if unable to answer his words.
As Percy advanced the light from the one window that had been left unshrouded fell full upon the two men, who gazed upon each other with the utmost sang froid. Two handsomer scoundrels never stood at bay. And while the dark face expressed haughty insolence, the blonde features looked as if, after all, the occasion called for nothing more fatiguing than a stare of indolent surprise.
Cora's voice broke the silence: "Mr. Davlin is my brother, Mr. Percy. Please stop staring at each other, gentlemen, and come to some sort of an understanding."
"Really, this is a most agreeable surprise," drawled Percy, looking from one to the other with perfect coolness.
"And quite dramatic in effect," sneered Davlin, flinging himself into a chair. "Sit down, Percy; one may as well be comfortable. How's the fair spinster to-day?"
Percy waved away the question, and resumed his seat and his languid attitude, saying: "Upon my word this is quite dramatic."
Davlin laughed, airily. "Even so. I hope the fact that this lady is my sister will explain some things to you more satisfactorily than they have hitherto been explained. And if so, we had better let bygones drop."
Percy turned his eyes away from the speaker, and let them rest upon the face of Cora. Again ignoring the remark addressed to him, he said, slowly: "I don't see any very strong family resemblance."
"I don't suppose you ever will," retorted Davlin, coolly.
"And I don't precisely see the object of this interview," Percy continued.
Davlin made a gesture of impatience, and said, sharply: "Hang it all, man, the object is soon got at! It's a simple question and answer."
Percy brushed an imaginary particle of dust off his sleeve with the greatest care, and then lifted his eyes and said, interrogatively: "Well?"
"Will you have war or peace?"
"What do you want?"
Percy examined his finger nails, attentively, as if looking for his next idea there. "To be let alone," he said, at last.
Davlin laughed. "And to let alone?"
"Then we won't waste words. Rely upon us to help, rather than hinder you. There's no use bringing up old scores. If you vote for an alliance of forces, very good."
Percy nodded, and then rising, said: "Well, if that is all, I will take my leave. No doubt quiet is best for Mrs. Arthur," bowing ironically. "By-the-by," meaningly, "when you find yourself in the village, Davlin, it might not be amiss to show yourself at the inn."
"Quite right," said Davlin, gravely. "Possibly I may look in upon you to-morrow."
Mr. Percy nodded; made a graceful gesture of adieu to Cora, who murmured inaudibly in reply; and the two men quitted her presence.
In a few moments Davlin returned to Cora, smiling and serene. "I told you we could easily manage him," he said. "He won't trouble himself to go to war, save in his own defence. You did the invalid beautifully, Co., and I feel quite satisfied with the present state of things."
But Mr. Percy had not looked and listened for nothing. He went straight to his room, and shutting himself in, began to think diligently. Finally he summed up his case on his fingers as follows:
"First, are they brother and sister? I don't believe it. Second, taking it for granted they are not, what is their game? If the old man dies, and if I can ferret out the mystery, for I believe there is one, who knows but that two fortunes may come into my hands? I must watch them, and to do that, Ellen must go back to Oakley, and they must invite me to be their guest!"
Mr. Percy arose and shook himself, mentally and physically
But alas for Celine! She had heard almost every word of the interview, through the key-hole of a door leading into an adjoining room, and it had told her nothing, save that there was to be peace between the two men, and that there had been, perhaps, war.
A SILKEN BELT.
Mr. Percy and Miss Arthur were openly engaged now, and were anxiously waiting for the recovery of the sick at Oakley, in order to celebrate their marriage.
The spinster was in a frame of mind to grant almost any favor to her lover to-night. And when at last she, herself, led up to the subject she wished to broach, he foresaw an easy victory.
"Oh, Edward," she sighed, with a very dramatic shudder, "you cannot think how I dread to-morrow's ordeal, the visit to my brother! Suppose poor John were to rave at me,—me, his own sister!"
He took the hand that was quite as large as his own, and caressed it reassuringly. "I don't think there is the slightest danger, Ellen, dear, but I am convinced I must attend you to-morrow. I shall feel better to be with you."
"Oh, Edward!" sighed the maiden, enraptured at this declaration of tenderness, "you are so careful of me."
He smiled and still caressed her hand, saying: "Listen, darling," drawing her nearer to him, "I don't like to have you here; it is not a fit place for you. And I find that remarks are being made. This I cannot endure. Besides, I do not think it right for you or me to leave your brother so entirely at the mercy of—Mrs. Arthur. Promise me that you will consult a physician to-morrow, and as soon as the danger of contagion is past, you will go back."
"But I can't bear to leave you, Edward."
"And you shall not. I will come to Oakley too."
"You? Oh, how nice! Have they asked you to come?"
"I saw Mrs. Arthur's brother to-day, and we settled that."
"Oh, did you? Then you are good friends again?"
He turned upon her a look of inquiry. "Again?"
"Yes; Cora told me not to speak of Mr. Davlin to you, as you were not good friends, and it might make you less free to come to the house."
Mr. Percy's eyebrows went up perceptibly. "Mrs. Arthur is very thoughtful; but she was mistaken; our little misunderstanding has not made us serious enemies."
"Oh, how nice!" rapturously.
"Very nice," dryly. "Now you will be a good girl and go back soon?"
"I don't think Cora will be over anxious to have me come back," she said, looking like a meditative cat-bird. "I know she kept that Celine in the house to spite me."
"I can readily understand how she might be jealous of you, dear. Perhaps she fears your influence over your brother. At any rate, your duty lies there. When it is time to do so, don't consult her or anyone; take possession of your former apartments, and stand by your brother in his hour of need."
Miss Arthur promised to comply with her lover's request, and he managed at last to escape from her, and seek the repose which he preferred to such society.
All this time John Arthur was a prisoner in the west wing. He was attended by the doctor sometimes, by Celine occasionally, and by Henry almost constantly since the arrival of that sable individual.
Lucian Davlin, having no taste for the work, kept aloof as much as possible. Himself and Dr. Le Guise, as he called his confederate, had labored hard and, with the assistance of old Hagar, had put the rooms in proper condition for the occupancy of a lunatic. And a lunatic John Arthur certainly was. Once before his removal, and once since, he had been seized with a paroxysm of undeniable insanity.
John Arthur had been, and still was, the dupe of his supposed brother-in-law and Dr. Le Guise. We have all heard of natures that can be frightened into sickness, almost into dying; of an imaginary disease. John Arthur's was one of these. And, with a little aid from Dr. Le Guise, he had been really quite ill.
Henry had been constituted his keeper, a position which he filled with reluctance, and there was a fair prospect that sooner or later he would break into open mutiny. Although he could not guess at the nature of the game his master was playing, yet he felt assured that it was something desperate, if not dangerous.
He had promised "his young lady," as he called Madeline, to remain in Mr. Davlin's service until she bade him withdraw, and but for this would hardly have submitted to remain John Arthur's keeper on any terms. Henry had a certain pride of his own, and that pride was in revolt against this new servitude.
He had not met Cora here, and had no idea that she was an inmate of the house.
Dr. Le Guise had relieved Henry on the morning of the day that Miss Arthur ventured, for the first time since her flight, within the walls of Oakley manor, escorted by Mr. Percy. He had detected some signs of fever, although Mr. Arthur declared himself feeling better, and administered a powder to check it.
Soon the patient began to show signs of increasing restlessness, and by the time Henry appeared to announce that Miss Arthur desired an interview with Dr. Le Guise, he began to wrangle with his physician and gave expression to various vagaries.
Consigning his charge to Henry, with the remark that he "must watch him close, and not let him get hold of anything," Dr. Le Guise hurried down to the drawing-room.
The doctor listened to Miss Arthur attentively, while she made known her desire to return to the manor if the danger of contagion was at an end. Then he replied, hurriedly:
"Quite right; quite admirable. But if you will take my advice, I should say, don't come just yet. There will be no danger to you, in going to your unfortunate brother for just a few moments—a very few—and then going straight out of the house into a purer atmosphere. But to remain here now, to breathe this air just yet—my dear lady, I could not encourage that; the danger would be too great."
And then he led the way straight in to John Arthur's presence, explaining as they went that the cause of his removal from his own rooms was to escape the fever impregnations still clinging there.
John Arthur was sitting in the middle of his bed, beating his pillows wildly, and imploring Henry, between shrieks of laughter, to come and kiss him, evidently mistaking him for some blooming damsel. As the damsel declined to come, the lunatic became furious, and hurled the pillows, and afterwards his night-cap, at him, with blazing eyes and cat-like agility. This done, he began to rock himself to and fro, and shout out the words of some old song to an improvised tune that was all on one note.
Dr. Le Guise turned to Mr. Percy, whispering: "You see; that's the way he goes on, only worse at times."
Mr. Percy turned away. The fair spinster who had been clinging to him in a paroxysm of terror, attempted to faint, but remembering her complexion thought better of it and contented herself with being half led, half carried out, in a "walking swoon." And both she and Mr. Percy felt there was no longer room to doubt the insanity of her brother.
Having seen them depart, Dr. Le Guise sought out Mr. Davlin. Finding him in Cora's room, he entered and informed the pair of the desire Miss Arthur had manifested to come back to her brother's roof, and of his mode of putting off the evil day of her return.
"Humph!" ejaculated Davlin, "what does it mean? I saw Percy in the village this morning, and he told me quite plainly that he desired an invitation to quarter himself upon us."
"And what did you say?" gasped Cora.
"Told him to come, of course, as soon as it was safe to do so."
"Well!" said Cora, dryly, "I don't think it will be very safe for either of them to come just at present."
"Oh, well," said the doctor, cheerfully, "we have got seven long days to settle about that. And if they insist upon coming, and then catch the fever, they mustn't blame me."
And Dr. Le Guise looked as if he had perpetrated a good joke.
John Arthur's insanity was as short-lived as it was violent. He lay for the rest of the day quiet and half stupefied. When night came on, he sank into a heavy slumber.
At twelve o'clock that night, all was quiet in and about the manor.
Cora Arthur was sleeping soundly, dreamlessly, as such women do sleep. In the room adjoining hers, Celine Leroque sat, broad awake and listening intently. At last, satisfied that her mistress was sleeping, Celine arose and stole softly into the room where she lay.
Softly, softly, she approached the couch, passing through a river of moonlight that poured in at the broad windows. Then she drew from a pocket, something wrapped in a handkerchief.
Noiselessly, swiftly, she moved, and then the handkerchief, shaken free from the something within, was laid upon the face of the sleeper, while the odor of chloroform filled the room.
Nimbly her fingers moved, pulling away the coverings, and then the clothing, from the unconscious body. It is done in a moment. With a smothered exclamation of triumph, she draws away a silken belt, and removing the handkerchief, glides noiselessly from the room.
She steals on to her own room in the west wing. Here she locks the door and, striking a light, hurriedly rips the silken band with a tiny penknife, and draws from thence two papers.
One glance suffices. Replacing the papers, she binds the belt about her own body, and then envelopes herself in a huge water-proof, with swift, nervous fingers.
And now, for the second time, this girl is fleeing away from Oakley. Out into the night that is illuminated now by a faint, faint moon; through the bare, leafless, chilly woods, and down the path that crosses the railway track not far from the little station. Once more she follows the iron rails; once more she lingers in the shadows, until the train thunders up; the night train for New York. Then she springs on board.
For the second time, Madeline Payne is fleeing away from Oakley and all that it contains; fleeing cityward to begin, with the morrow, a new task, and a new chapter in her existence.
But no lover is beside her now; for that love is dead in her heart. And no Clarence breathes in her ear a warning, for now it is not needed. Since that first June flitting, she has learned the world and its wisdom, good and evil.
And the cloud that Hagar saw on that June night, hangs dark above the house of Oakley.
An irate pair were seated at breakfast the morning after Celine's flitting. And while they ate little, they talked much and earnestly, sometimes angrily. They had arrived at the conclusion, which, although erroneous, had been foreseen by the astute Celine, namely: That the robbery had been committed at the instigation of Mr. Percy, and that Celine had been brought over and used by him as a tool.
It was evident that something must be done, and that quickly.
While these papers were in the hands of Percy, as undoubtedly they were at that moment, it were best to keep that gentleman as much as possible under their own eye.
Yesterday, it had seemed desirable that Miss Arthur and her fiance should be kept out of the house of Oakley. To-day, they agreed that the quicker the pair took up their abode beneath its hospitable roof, the sooner they, Mr. Davlin and his accomplice, would breathe freely. If they could get the two in the same house with themselves, they might yet outwit Mr. Percy—with the aid of their friend and ally, the sham doctor, if in no other way. Meantime, they would not make the robbery known; or rather, they would inform the servants and all others whom it seemed desirable to enlighten, that the girl, Celine, had possessed herself of certain jewels and of Mrs. Arthur's purse, and fled with her spoils.
Accordingly, Hagar was summoned and told of the base ingratitude of the French maid. Whereupon she was much astonished, and ventilated her opinions of French folk in general, and that one in particular. Through Hagar, the other servants, now few in number, were informed of the defalcation, and the extent of damage done by Miss Celine Leroque. Then the kitchen cabinet held a session forthwith, and settled the fate of their departed contemporary, being ably assisted by Hagar.
The Professor was made no wiser than were the rest of the tools who served the plotters. But he was somewhat surprised upon being desired, by Mr. Davlin, to equip himself for a walk, the object of which was to allay the alarm of Miss Arthur and her friend, and invite them to the manor forthwith. Said invitations were to be followed up with the doctor's assurance that, having made a more minute examination, he was fully satisfied that there was no fear of contagion from Mrs. Arthur, and but little from her husband; none, in fact, unless they desired to be much in his room.
The worthy pair set out for the village, and were so fortunate as to meet Mr. Percy on the very threshold of the inn. Having exchanged greetings and cigars, and having discussed the weather and various other interesting topics, the gentlemen sent up their compliments to Miss Arthur.
They were soon admitted into the presence of that lady, where more skirmishing was done, during which Dr. Le Guise unburdened himself, as per programme, and then Mr. Davlin fired his first shot.
"By-the-by, Miss Arthur, you may congratulate yourself that you did not retain that impostor of a French maid longer in your service."
Lucian had purposely placed himself near the spinster, and where he could observe the face of Percy without seeming to do so. But that gentleman was glancing lazily out at the window, and his face was as expressionless as putty. Lucian uttered a mental, "Confound his sang froid," as he continued:
"She has robbed my sister of jewels and money to the tune of a couple of thousand, and has cut and run."
"Goodness gracious, Mr. Davlin!" shrieked the spinster.
But Percy only turned his head lazily, and elevated his eyebrows in mute comment.
"Yes," laughing lightly, "I suppose the hussy fancied that she had made a heavier haul still. My sister had about her person some papers, or rather duplicates of papers that are deposited in a safer place. The jade took these also, thinking, no doubt, that they were of value or, perhaps, without examining them to see that they were worse than worthless to her."
"Oh, Mr. Davlin, what an artful creature! I was sure she was not quite to be trusted. But who would have supposed that she would dare—" gushed Miss Arthur.
"Oh, she is no doubt a professional; belongs to some city 'swell mob,' begging your pardon. But I shall run up to the city to-night, I think, and try and see if the detectives can't unearth her."
Still no sign from Percy; not so much as the quiver of an eyelid.
So Mr. Davlin came straight to the issue, thinking that surely Mr. Percy would betray something here; perhaps would refuse to come to Oakley. In such case, Lucian felt that he should be tempted to spring upon and throttle him from sheer desperation.
But again he was mistaken, for no sooner was his invitation extended, than Mr. Percy accepted it with evident gratification, saying, in his easy drawl: "Shall be delighted to change my quarters. Anything must be an improvement upon this. And as your—ah, Dr. Le Guise—says there is positively no danger, Miss Arthur will of course be rejoiced to return to her proper place."
And of course Miss Arthur assented.
Before leaving, Mr. Davlin arranged that the carriage should come for Miss Arthur the next day, and that a porter should immediately transfer their luggage to Oakley.
"My faith," mused he, as he strode back to tell Cora of his mission; "but he carries it with a high hand. I didn't think there was so much real devil in him. He is playing a fine game, but I don't think he can dream that we suspect him. If we can deceive him in this, and get him into the house, we will be able to accomplish his downfall, I think."
Meantime, Edward Percy was viewing the matter from his own stand-point.
"Luck is running into my hand," he assured himself. "They are evidently a little bit afraid of me; there's nothing more awe-inspiring than a cool front, and I certainly carry that. Once at Oakley, it will be strange if I don't fathom their little mystery. If they are doing mischief there, I won't be behind in claiming the lion's share of the spoils."
According to arrangement, Miss Arthur and her lover were transferred to Oakley on the following day, and there the game of cross purposes went on.
Cora received Miss Arthur with much cordiality, averring that she had missed the society of "dear Ellen," more than she could tell, and declaring that now she should begin to get well in earnest.
Messrs. Davlin and Percy affected much friendliness, and watched each other furtively, day and night.
Dr. Le Guise reported an unfavorable change in his insane patient and forbade them, one and all, to enter his room.
Cora and Davlin protested against the doctor's cruel order, but in vain. Mr. Percy made no objections, but kept his eyes open. One evening, the second of his stay at the manor, he saw, while coming up the stairs with slippered feet, the form of Mr. Davlin as it disappeared around the angle leading to the west wing. Then Mr. Percy stole on until he stood at the door of the wing. Satisfying himself that Davlin was actually within the forbidden room, he waited for nothing further, but glided quietly back to his own door, looking as imperturbable as ever and saying to himself:
"There is a mystery; and we, rather I, am not to see Mr. Arthur at present. Well, I don't want to see him; but I hold the clue to your little game, my fair second wife."
Lucian Davlin went to the city, but he did not set a detective on the track of Celine Leroque. He chose his man, one who had served him before, and set him about something quite different. Then he returned, feeling quite satisfied and confident of success.
A SLIGHT COMPLICATION.
And what of Celine, or Madeline, as we may call her once more?
She had said, when writing to Olive, that her stay in the city must be very brief. But even her strong will could not keep off the light attack of fever that was the result of fatigue and exposure to night breezes. And the morning following her arrival at the villa, found her unable to rise from her bed.
Dr. Vaughan was summoned in haste, and his verdict anxiously waited for. "It was a slight fever attack," he said, "but the wearied-out body must not be hurried. It must rest."
And he forbade Madeline to leave her room for a week at least, unless she wished to bring upon herself a return of her summer's illness.
Much to his surprise and gratification, Madeline did not rebel, but replied, philosophically: "I can't afford to take any risks now; I will be good. But you must watch my interests."
During the first day of her "imprisonment," as she laughingly called it, Clarence and Olive were put in possession of all the facts that had not already been communicated by letter.
Upon one thing they were all agreed, namely, that it would be wise for Clarence to make another journey to Bellair.
"They won't be able to accomplish much during the week that I must remain inactive," said Madeline. "But it will be safest to know just what they are about. Besides, I have reasons for thinking that Henry is growing dissatisfied, and it is to our interest to keep him where he is for the present. Had a suitable opportunity offered, I should have made him aware of my identity. But as it did not present itself, I left it with Hagar to inform him that he was serving me by remaining."
Dr. Vaughan prepared to visit Bellair on the second day after the arrival of Madeline. But almost at the moment of starting there came a summons from one of his patients, who was taken suddenly worse. Thinking to take a later train he hastened to the sick man; but the hour for the last train arrived and passed, and still he stood at the bedside, battling with death. So it transpired that nearly three days had elapsed since the flitting of Celine Leroque, when Dr. Vaughan entered the train that should deposit him at dusk in the village of Bellair.
It had been prearranged by Madeline and Hagar that, in case of any event which should delay the return of the former on the day appointed, the latter was to visit the post-office and look for tidings through that medium. Madeline had been due at Oakley the day before, and so, of course, to-day Hagar would be in attendance at the office.
Dr. Vaughan had written, at the moment of quitting his office to visit his patient, a hasty supplement to Madeline's letter, stating that he was delayed one train, but not to give him up if he did not appear that evening. He would certainly come on the next day's train.
Clarence was somewhat fatigued as he entered the railway carriage, having spent the entire previous night at the bedside of his patient. He went forward to the smoking car, thinking to refresh himself with a weed.
Four men were engrossed in a game of cards not far from him. As they became more deeply interested, and their voices more distinct above the roar of the cars, something in the tones of one of the men caught his ear, reminding him of some voice he had sometime heard or known. The speaker sat with his back to the young man, and nothing of his countenance visible save the tips of two huge ears. These, too, had a familiar look.
Clarence arose and sauntered to the end of the car, in order to get a view of the face that, he felt assured, was not unknown to him.
The man was absorbed in his game and never once glanced up. Our hero having taken a good look at the not very prepossessing face, returned to his seat. He had recognized the man. It was Jarvis, the detective who had been recently employed by him to shadow Lucian Davlin.
It was not a remarkable thing that Jarvis should leave the city on the same train with himself, but the circumstance, nevertheless, set Clarence thinking. Could it be possible that the man had found something to arouse his suspicions, and was he following up the clue on his own account?
Clarence felt an unaccountable desire to know where the detective was going. If he were going to Bellair, then he must be bought over. If he were going to Bellair, he, Clarence, must know it before the village was reached. It was hardly probable that the man's destination was identical with his own, but he had now determined to run no risks.
Throwing back his overcoat, and setting his hat a trifle on one side, Clarence sauntered up to the group of card players, assuming an appearance of interest in the game. As he paused beside them, Jarvis swept away the last trick of a closely-contested game, and then said, consulting his watch the while:
"There's for you! I've got just three-quarters of an hour to clean you out in, so come on."
Three-quarters of an hour! The exact time it would take to run to Bellair.
Clarence shifted his position so as to put himself behind the two men seated opposite Jarvis. As he did so, the expert glanced up, encountering the eye of Dr. Vaughan.
"How are you?" said that young man, nonchalantly.
Jarvis shot him a keen glance of intelligence, and replied, in the same off-hand tone: "High, you bet!"
Jarvis was attired like a well-to-do farmer; and Clarence guessed, at a glance, that his three companions were strangers, two of them being commercial tourists, without a doubt, and the third, a ruddy-looking old gent, who might have been anything harmless. Taking his cue from the "make up" of the detective, Clarence, after giving him an expressive glance, said, easily, "Sold your stock?"