"Handsome is as handsome does," said Josie "and if he had been a little cleverer he would not have trusted that fake Swedish maid who had no word to express her nationality but bane for been.
"Listen! Mrs. Waller, you must not get excited, but I think I hear Mr. Chester Hunt's voice."
CHAPTER XVIII CHESTER HUNT CONFESSES
The dining room of the little hotel opened directly into the lobby and the proprietor's desk could be plainly seen from where our friends were seated at dinner. It was Chester Hunt leaning over the desk and demanding from the proprietor the best room and bath.
"I have been ill, man, and I must be comfortable."
"But the room with the bath is occupied," the landlord objected.
"Well, get them out of it. I telegraphed for reservations. You surely got my wire."
"I did not, but it was occupied whether you wired or not," bristled the proprietor.
Finally Chester Hunt must content himself with another room, without the bath.
Captain and Mrs. Waller's faces were as though they had been carved of stone as Hunt, all unconscious of their presence, entered the dining room with something of the superiority in his manner that Josie had felt he assumed for the benefit of those he did not consider his equals. His face showed he had been ill. He paid no attention to the other occupants of the dining room, but seated himself at a table to one side. He was facing Josie. Mrs. Waller's back was towards him and Captain Waller's profile was in his direct line of vision. Mrs. Waller raised her eyes to her husband's face. No graven image could have been more immovable. Josie gave her attention to Chester Hunt's countenance, determined not to miss his expression when first he became aware of Stephen Waller's presence. She felt reasonably certain of his not recognizing in her his one-time jewel of a general house-worker.
Having given his order for dinner Chester Hunt finally deigned to notice that there were other occupants of the hotel dining room. He gave a cursory glance in the direction of the three persons at the table near him. A spasm of terror crossed his face. There was a sound of grating on the tesselated floor, as he pushed his chair back. His mouth opened in an involuntary gasp. Josie noted his agitation but she could but admire his quick command of himself. In a moment his face had assumed its normal suavity. It was evident that he had decided that he had been startled with nothing but a resemblance. This man in the hotel dining room could not be his stepbrother. Stephen was dead.
Hunt's eyes traveled uneasily to the lady whose back was towards him. Those lines were unmistakable! That poise of the small head, the way the hair grew at the nape of the neck—it was Mary Waller, his brother's wife! Wildly he looked at the third person at the table. Where had he seen her before? He couldn't for his life remember, but that countenance was familiar.
There were certain things about Chester Hunt that Josie could not help admiring, archvillain though she knew him to be. His good looks of course she must approve of, his debonair grace and easy bearing; but what she respected about him was his quick grasp of a situation. She saw the moment he recognized the fact that he was in the same room with his long lost stepbrother and his wife he became convinced the game was up and he must make the best of it and begin salvaging what he could from the wreck he had made of his affairs through his inordinate ambition and brotherly affection was his cue. He immediately jumped from his seat and hurried across the room, his hands out and his face beaming with a joy that he assumed with the ease of a consummate actor.
"Stephen! My brother! I am overcome with joy! My boy, we thought you were dead—Mary and I. I am here now to take Mary from the sanitarium where they have effected a most marvelous cure on the poor girl. My dear brother! My dear sister!"
Funny Stephen did not respond. What could they know? He looked again at the little person seated at the table with his brother and his wife. Where on earth had he seen her before? What connection had she with this affair? He hardly expected much warmth from Mary. She had been queer of late, but Stephen had always been devoted to him.
"Tell me where you have been, dear boy. Don't be so—so mysterious. I have been looking after your affairs to the best of my ability."
"Yes?" was all Captain Waller would say.
"You might know I would. Stephen, you are unappreciative. Where have you been hiding? Why am I, your own brother, the last person to hear that you are alive and, I hope, well and returned to the bosom of your family?"
Captain Waller's face lost its frozen expression. His cheeks, which had been deadly pale from the moment he heard the voice of Chester Hunt, now flushed painfully. He sprang from his chair and stood facing the other man.
"Where are my children?" was all he said.
"Oh, they are all right—in good hands. If that is what is eating you, old fellow, you can drop your heroics and embrace your brother."
"What good hands?"
"When Mary got sick—of course you must know how very ill she has been—I hardly knew what to do with the kids. They had got a bit unruly because of their mother's being in such a bad way and naturally my first care was for her and I felt it wiser to have them away from her for the time being—"
"So you got some of our good friends at home to look after them? That was natural and right."
"No-o, I did not. The fact was Polly and Peter were pretty difficult and nobody really wanted them—that is nobody whom I might have trusted—so I sent for a cousin of mine, a very worthy, high-principled young woman, Miss Dingus. You have heard me speak of her. I saw a good deal of her after I left Atlanta. She is a cousin of my father's. Cousin Dink, we call her. I was sure she would take good care of the children and give them the proper surroundings and education until their mother could resume charge of them. I get weekly reports from her and she says they are thriving—"
"And where does this Cousin Dink live?"
"She is in Chicago. She writes me she is devoted to the kids and gives them the greatest care. Polly has had a little trouble with her throat lately but the doctor assured Cousin Dink it was not infectious."
"How long is it since you have seen them?"
"Eh—eh—some time, now!"
Captain Waller looked at Chester Hunt sadly. Josie saw pity mingled with indignation in his expression. Mrs. Waller said nothing and never once took her eyes from her husband's face. Nevertheless she was listening to every word that passed between the two men.
"I'll telegraph Cousin Dink immediately to prepare the children for the great surprise," Hunt continued.
"You need not trouble to do that," said Captain Waller. "I reckon they know we are on the way to get them by this time. Eh, Miss O'Gorman?"
When Josie was included in the conversation Chester Hunt turned and looked at her curiously. In a spirit of mischief Josie assumed the dull expression she had used as the Swedish servant girl and looked at her one-time master with dull and fishy eyes.
"By heavens, Miss Josie Larson!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"I bane dining with Captain and Mrs. Waller, sir." Josie then resumed her normal expression, which was one of keen intelligence, and with a glance at her tiny wrist watch, she answered the question concerning the children: "Yes, Captain Waller, I am sure that by this time the message is on the way to Polly and Peter and even now Mary Louise may be reading it to them. The telegraph delivery in Dorfield is very prompt."
"Dorfield? Polly and Peter in Dorfield? And how did you get in this?" Chester Hunt's manner was rude and overbearing as he addressed Josie.
"I am not such a fool as I look, Mr. Hunt. Next time you had better ask for references when you hire a Swedish maid and don't give her bowls with chickens and rabbits on them so she can go off and identify husbands and fathers who have lost their memory in the war. Don't let the fools sort your mail either. They might find out things that might make it uncomfortable for the gracious master."
"Then you are a spy!"
"Not at all! A detective!" Josie turned over the lapel of her packet, disclosing a small badge.
"Well, all I can say is a mighty good cook was ruined when you went into business."
"And a mighty fine detective would be lost to the world if our little friend here turned cook in dead earnest," said Captain Waller. "But see here, Chester, there is no use in our beating around the bush with one another. We must come to an understanding and it might just as well be here, this moment, unless you are too hungry."
"No, I am afraid my appetite for dinner is gone. It is like you, Stephen, though, to think of it. I thank you. I have been a beastly cad and I'm ready to fess up. It was the thought of having a fortune and owning the old house on Peachtree Street. I always loved it and it seemed hard for you to have everything. I loved Mary before you did—"
"Never mind that part," said Captain Waller sternly. "It so happens we know what you intended to do in regard to my wife, but the mystery to me is what was your idea about my children? Why should you have sent them traveling about the country with this impossible Dink, who is nothing but a dancer in vaudeville with no manners and few morals? She has abused the children and half starved them and finally left them ragged and hungry in an orphan asylum or some similar institution."
"What? You have been misinformed. That is nonsense. I know for certain she has the children with her in Chicago. I heard from her only last week. Here is the letter," he declared, slapping his pocket. "As for starving and ill treating the children, Dink has had a generous check from me every week. They have had money enough to live on the fat of the land."
"Well, then, this Dink must have feathered her own nest with it. Would you mind, Miss O'Gorman, telling Mr. Hunt what you know of my children?"
And then Josie told in as few words as possible all she knew of Polly and Peter and of the whereabouts of Dink.
"There is no use in my telling you how I know these things," she said, "but it is enough to tell you I do know them, and I also know that the children made their last breakfast with Miss Dingus, alias Hester Broughton, alias Margery Dubois, on a pickle and a stale cream puff. Miss Dubois is now doing a dance turn in Chicago with one Mike Brady. She fondly imagines when you want to see the children she can come to Dorfield and get them away from the Children's Home as easily as she put them there. The fact is, Miss Dingus has more sense in her heels than her head, and her heart was left out entirely when she was made. She hopes, however, that she will finally become Mrs. Chester Hunt, because otherwise she would not have kept these children with her at all. She has fooled you and you have fooled her. In both cases I am reminded of the old story in the fairy book called 'The Biter Bit.'"
Chester Hunt bowed his head. "You are right, Miss Josie Larson, alias Miss O'Gorman, alias Miss Sherlock Holmes. I am bit and stung alike. I thought at least I could depend on Cousin Dink. That honor among thieves I was sure she had. But I see she is as bad as I am. I am going now.
"Good-bye, Stephen. I won't even ask you to shake hands with me. As for you, Mary, I won't even ask you to speak to me or look at me. I know you hate me as you do a snake. Miss Josie Larson, I take off my hat to you, as being wise in your generation. Tell me something, though, if you don't think it is too frivolous. Did you put too much pepper on my chop on purpose?"
Josie grinned. "Yes, and if I had not bane such a good Lutheran I would have burnt your back when I ironed it. It was hard to keep my foot from slipping again, but I have taken a pride in my laundry work and hated to begin scorching anything—even your back."
Chester Hunt bowed his proud head again and was gone. His dinner was left untasted, much to the astonishment of the hotel proprietor.
"He must be a nut from Dr. Harper's," grumbled that individual.
CHAPTER XIX A HAPPY REUNION
Josie's telegram to Mary Louise, announcing the wonderful news that Captain and Mrs. Stephen Waller were found, united and on the eve of departing for Dorfield, was delivered at the Dexter's apartment, received by the little new maid and carefully deposited with the other mail. The mistress had gone on a short journey to a neighboring town with her young husband and expected to be away from home about twenty-four hours. The joyful tidings lay hidden in the yellow envelope of the telegraph company, and Polly and Peter serenely followed the routine of the Children's Home Society in ignorance of the happiness in store for them.
They were happy in this institution, happier than they had been since their dear mother had begun the ceaseless and uncontrollable weeping that had made it impossible to tear her children from her and incarcerate her in Dr. Harper's sanitarium. Was not everyone kind to them? Was not the food regular and wholesome with frequent delightful treats from the beautiful Mrs. Dexter, who seemed to feel that the Waller children were her especial orphans? Did not Polly have all the babies to nurse and fondle that her motherly soul craved, and did not Peter have huge piles of sand in which he might dig to his heart's content? The only thing that marred their happiness was that some kind-hearted person might insist upon adopting them and they would be separated.
"There isn't much chance of anybody wantin' me," said Polly, "cause of my hair bein' so straight. It's your curls that are the maindes' trouble, Peter."
"Yes, I know," said Peter sadly. "I don't see what the angel that fits the wigs on babies was a thinkin' 'bout when he did us so dirt. If we'd a been twinses I wouldn't er blamed him for getting' kinder mixed up an' bornin' me curly an' you straight, 'cause I reckon twinses are right confusin', but th'ain't no 'souse when there was plenty of time with nobody hurryin' 'em a bit. I don't see what anybody wants their hair all kinked up like water spaniels for. I wisht mine was as straight, as straight. I wouldn't mind a bit bein' bald headed. I tell you what, Polly, s'pose I shave my head and nobody won't know about my old curls!"
"Oh, no, no!" cried Polly. "You mustn't, Peter dear. It would o' been all right if you had done it while Cousin Dink had us, 'cause it would o' made her so mad, but we mustn't do anything to make Dr. Weston and dear Mrs. Dexter feel sad, 'cause they're so nice an' good to us. Another thing—s'posin' you shaved your head an' all of a sudden Mother came. How would you feel then, mister?"
"I reckon I'd feel pretty bald headed," said Peter. "But Mother ain't ever comin', Polly. What makes you say that?"
"I keep on a dreamin' 'bout her," answered Polly, wiping away a little tear that gathered in the corner of her eye. "Last night I dreamed and dreamed. She was laughing and happy and wasn't cryin' any more."
"Oh! Maybe she knows ol' Cousin Dink is gone off an' lef' us. I reckon that would make her smile," suggested Peter. "I wisht I could dream 'bout her an' Daddy. One time I did dream 'bout him before we come here to live but I thought that time he was a p'liceman an' was gonter git us."
"I reckon poor Daddy is a angel in heaven by now. He'd be a soldier angel in khaki," mused Polly. "He'd be a awful big handsome angel. If you could only remember him, Peter! It would be so comfortin' somehow if you could remember him the way I can,"
"Yes, him an' the vi'lets!"
The children were sitting on a bench under the old box bushes that were clustered in the corner of the Hathaway garden. Spring had come to Dorfield. The trees were budding, jonquils and tulips were blooming. The foolish peaches were sticking out their pink noses forgetful of the fact that the year before an untimely frost had nipped them in the bud. But there was no frost in the air on that evening when, after an early, wholesome tea the Waller children had sought the sweet seclusion of the box bushes there to talk on the old days.
"I wonder where ol' Cousin Dink is anyhow," ventured Polly.
"I ain't knowin' or carin'. She's a mean ol' bulwhinger wherever she is." Peter had a funny way of making up names to suit occasions. What a bulwhinger was Polly did not know but it was a pretty good name for Dink. "I just hope I ain't ever gonter see her again. I ain't scairt of her anymore though. Are you, Polly?"
"I ain't 'zactly but I hope she's gone for good—" The word froze on Polly's lips. She threw her arm around Peter as though to protect him. Coming along the garden path was none other than the dreaded Dink.
"Get a move on you, you kids," was her greeting. "I have come for you. I haven't got all day to wait, either. Never mind your hats. I'll buy you some new ones. Now don't set up a bawl. God knows it ain't any treat to me to have you tagging along after me. Mind me! Come along."
Polly and Peter clung to one another and refused to move.
"I'm not going with you and neither is Peter," declared Polly. "You are a bad, wicked woman who tells lies."
"Oh ho! So you are not coming with me. Well, we'll see about that. I don't want to raise a row but I fancy you will come when I tell you your mother has sent me to get you. Eh?"
"No, we won't come then because bur mother would never send you to get us. If she was living she would come herself if she could and if she couldn't she'd get somebody better'n you to come."
Polly's eyes were flashing and her nostrils swelling. She must protect Peter at all cost to herself, even though the hated Dink would kill her for telling her such unpleasant truths. She stood up in front of the scornful, handsome, hard-eyed woman and defied her.
"Run, Peter! Go tell Dr. Weston!" she cried to her little brother.
Peter was up and away in a flash. Dink made a dive for him but Polly grabbed her skirt and the moment's delay gave Peter a good start. Dink turned, gave Polly a wicked slap on her cheek, jerked her skirt from her grasp and flew down the walk after Peter. Peter's legs were short and Dink's extremely long. Long legs were gaining on short legs.
"She's gonter git me! She's gonter git me!" Peter told himself, but in spite of his despair he ran the faster.
The vicious slap on Polly's soft cheek had for a moment staggered the little girl, but Polly was the stuff that heroines are made of. Down the walk she ran after Dink. Whatever got Peter would have to get her as well. Dink was gaining on Peter; Polly was gaining on Dink. In imagination Peter felt long, strong, slim fingers grabbing him by the collar of his little jacket. Dink had caught him in that manner in days gone by and shaken him and slapped him—even pinched him with those long, strong fingers. She would do it again. She would surely get him. Good-bye to the sand pile and three meals a day! Good-bye to dear Mrs. Dexter and her wonderful stories and frequent treats! Better to be adopted than to have Dink get him.
Just as Peter gave up hope, knowing full well that the hated Dink was close enough to put out her hand and catch him, he ran plump into the arms of a khaki clad man who caught him to his breast with a dry sob.
"Son, little son!" Peter heard him whisper.
"Now I'm gone dead," Peter decided. "Polly said Daddy would be a soldier angel and now I'm in heaven with him. Ol' Dink scairt me to death." He closed his eyes contentedly.
"Mother! Mother!" cried Polly. In a moment she too was in heaven without having to die to get there. Her mother held her so tight it seemed as though she would never let her from her arms again.
"My darling! My darling!" was all Mrs. Waller could say.
Dink, too, was in an embrace, but not such a loving one. She had no idea who these persons were who had come upon the scene of action at such an untimely moment. She only knew that a small sandy haired girl had her by the wrists and it was useless to struggle.
"Let me go!" she said shrilly. "Who are you anyhow and what do you folks mean by interfering with me and my children?"
"To be sure, we have the advantage of you, Miss E. Dingus, alias Hester Broughton, alias Margery Dubois," said Josie cheerily. "Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Stephen Waller and Captain Stephen Waller. I fancy you had come to the Children's Home Society for your charges. Of course you left them here so informally I imagine you thought any formality in removing them would be unnecessary. It seems we arrived in the nick of time. The garden bench, where you have just had the conversation with Polly and Peter is in earshot as well as in sight of the street. I thought I might as well tell you this to save you trouble in the tale you are no doubt concocting. I am sure Captain Waller will want me to let you go and not have you arrested. He has his children and I fancy he can do very well without avenging himself. Is not that right, Captain Waller?"
A nod from the khaki angel assured Josie she was. She loosened her hold on the furious if crestfallen Dink.
"I'll walk a little way with you, however, Miss Dingus. I want to give you a little advice. You needn't bother to answer me but you must listen. I know I irritate you beyond endurance but you have caused me a great deal of trouble and expense and taken much of my valuable time and now it is up to you to give me a few moments of yours."
Miss Dingus looked at the small, sandy haired girl with astonishment. "Well, can you beat it?" was all she said. Without a word of farewell to the children she had but a moment before announced as her own, she turned on her French heels and walked out of the Hathaway garden. Josie caught step with her and continued her conversation. When Josie O'Gorman had something to say she usually said it.
"No doubt you wonder how I got in on this. I'll tell you, Miss Dingus. I got in from the moment you entered the Children's Home Society, disguised more or less in a cheap serge suit, with two poor little kiddies with dirty faces and eyes full of tears. I saw by your shoes that your dress was not the kind you usually wore and you had put it on to pretend you could not care for the children—were too poor. I saw how indifferent you were to Polly and Peter and how interested you were in yourself. You don't remember me, of course. You were too taken up with yourself—always are in fact—to notice other persons. I am the unimportant person who put you on to a shoe sale. I knew you would take advantage of it. I am also the person who sat by you when you were purchasing the shoes and flattered you about your feet. They are pretty but they have led you out of the straight and narrow path. I am going to give you some advice now. You won't follow it because, Miss Dingus, when all is told you have very little sense."
"Can you beat it?" Dink repeated.
"Mighty little sense and no heart, but you are a woman and my sympathies are with you, so I'll go ahead with my advice. In the first place, when you want to destroy letters stay with them until they are burned to ashes. A grate in a boarding house is a poor place in which to leave letters you don't want seen."
"Oh!" gasped Dink.
"In the next place, don't trust handsome, distant cousins, who get you to do the dirty work."
"You mean Chester Hunt?"
"Yes, Chester Hunt! He is on to you, Miss Dingus, and since I put him wise to your disloyalty I feel it but fair to put you on to his. Don't trust him an inch. He is even worse than you are, because he has some sense and there is no excuse for him. In the first place he has no more idea of marrying you than he has of marrying me—in fact not quite so much," declared Josie with a twinkle in her eye. "He thinks I am such a good cook he might even consider me, but he looks down upon you as beneath him socially in spite of the fact that your are distant cousins. He has merely played with you and used you to gain his ends. I can tell you on my word of honor that he intended to marry his step-brother's widow, Mrs. Stephen Waller, and nothing but the timely coming alive of Captain Waller prevented his trying to carry out his plans. Of course, I was Johnny-on-the-spot and would have saved the dear lady from such a terrible fate. There is no use in your swelling your nostrils at me and pretending you scorn me and my news. I have proof positive of it all. I have lived in Chester Hunt's home in Atlanta as a domestic and there I discovered many things."
"Who are you anyhow?" stormed Dink.
Josie turned back the lapel of her coat and one glance at what it disclosed was enough for the scornful Dink.
"You made the poor little kiddies afraid of policemen because you were afraid of them yourself, eh? Well, you can beat it now. Anyhow, when Chester Hunt looks you up, which he is sure to do, and begins to reproach you for having been false to the trust he imposed in you, you can just meet fire with fire and you can also tell him that Josie Larson sends her regards. I fancy you have come for the children because he has written he might come to see you any day."
Dink nodded miserably.
"He may be on his way to Chicago now, but I rather fancy he will stop awhile and rest up. He has been ill with lumbago and on top of that the shock of finding his much loved brother, Stephen Waller, to be alive and well has been too much for him. When he is able to travel again he will travel directly towards you and if you are any wiser now than you were ten minutes ago you will make it convenient to change your address. It would be the better part of valor not to meet Chester Hunt until he has cooled down a bit."
"Thanks!" cried Miss Dingus in ludicrous haste. "I believe you. I'll be going now." With a nonchalant nod she turned the corner walking as fast as her long legs could carry her in the direction of the railroad station.
On returning to the Hathaway house Josie found that Mary Louise and her husband, having finally received the telegram, had hastened to inform Polly and Peter of the good news contained therein. Already they were fast friends with the Wallers. Dr. Weston had joined them and came in for his share of thanks from the grateful parents.
The children looked very happy. Peter acknowledged that he was glad he wasn't dead and his father was not an angel after all.
"I'd ruther a' been dead than go back with ol' Dink, though," said Peter snuggling in his mother's arms.
The children changed laps every now and then, as though to make sure that both parents were really alive and well and belonged to them, Polly and Peter.