"What do you mean?"
"Well, for one thing, they don't put elbows on the table this season as much as formerly."
"Pooh! I know that! I didn't mean to,—but I forgot. I guess I know how to behave,—if I don't always do it!"
"I'm glad you do, Zaly,—and, listen, dear, you're my relative, you know, and I'm going to ask you to try to use your knowledge,—for Patty is too polite to mention such subjects!"
"Oh, I don't mind! Pick on me all you like,—either of you. I suppose there are some frills I'm not onto,—but I'm quick at catchin' on,—and I'll get there, Eli!"
Norah returned then, and the subject was not continued. Coffee was served in the library and the small cups excited Azalea's scorn.
"Skimpy, I call it!" she cried. "And where's the milk?"
"You may have cream if you wish it, Azalea," said Patty, a little tired of smiling. "Norah will bring some."
"Oh, let me get it," and Azalea jumped up. "I remember, Patty, you told me not to trouble the servants too much."
"Sit down!" Farnsworth said, in a tone that made Azalea jump. "Wait for Norah to bring it."
"Oho! you believe in making the lazy things work, don't you! What's the use of hiring a dog, and doing your own barking? That's right!"
Patty struggled with her annoyance, overcame it, and making a gesture to Bill to keep quiet, she warded off his angry explanations, and took the situation in her own hands.
"Here's cream, Azalea," she said, as the maid reappeared, "many people like it in after dinner coffee, and you're very welcome to it."
"Licking good!" was the verdict, as Azalea stirred her coffee, and drank the tiny cupful at one draught. "The sample's fine! I'll take a regular sized cup, please."
"For breakfast," smiled Patty. "That's all we serve at night. Are you fond of music, Azalea?"
"You bet! Why, we've got some records that are just bang-up!"
"I remember Uncle Thorpe was quite a singer," said Bill; "do you sing, too?"
"Not so's you'd notice it! My voice is like—"
But the description of Azalea's singing voice was interrupted by the entrance of two young people. Betty Gale and her brother Raymond stepped in at the open French window, and laughingly announced themselves as daring intruders.
"Very welcome ones," declared Patty, jumping up to greet them, and then Farnsworth introduced Azalea.
"You're the real purpose of our visit," said Betty, her charming little face alight with gay welcome. "We adore our neighbours, and they simply worship us,—so we're quite prepared to take any friends or relatives of either of them into our hearts and homes."
"My!" said Azalea, unable to think of any more fitting response, and taking Betty's outstretched hand, with her own little finger carefully extended.
Betty Gale's eyes opened wide for a fraction of a second, then she as quickly accepted the situation, and said, cordially, "I'm sure we shall be friends. And you must like my scapegrace brother, too, if only for my sake."
"At first," supplemented Raymond, as he stepped toward Azalea, "but as soon as you know me better, you'll love me for myself alone,—I feel sure of that!"
"My!" said Azalea again. Her bravado deserted her in the presence of these two merry visitors. They seemed so at ease, so knowing, so carelessly polite, that Azalea felt as if they were beings from some other sphere. The Farnsworths, she knew, made allowance for her because she was a guest in their household, but these people seemed to expect her to be like themselves, and she suddenly realised she couldn't be as they were.
A strange contradictory streak in her nature often made her assume an accomplishment she did not possess, and now, knowing she couldn't chat in their lively fashion, she took refuge in an attitude of bold hilarity, and talked loud and fast.
"I'll love you, if you make love to me good and proper," she said, with a burst of laughter. "But I've got a beau back home, who'll go for you, if he knows it!"
"Oh, we'll keep it secret," returned young Gale; "I'm awfully good at keeping secrets of that sort! Trust me. And it shall be my earnest endeavour to cut out said beau. Meet me halfway, won't you?"
"Yes, indeed, and then some! I'm a great little old halfway meeter, you bet!"
"I'm sure of it!" Gale was laughing now. "Let's go out on the verandah and talk it over."
"Don't trust him too implicitly, Miss Thorpe," warned Betty; "my brother is a first-grade scalawag,—and I want you to be forewarned!"
"There, there, Sis, I'll do my own forewarning. Come along, Miss Thorpe, we'll sit under the spreading wistaria tree."
The two disappeared, and there was a moment's silence, and then Patty said,
"Our cousin is from Arizona, and it's hard for her, at first, to adapt herself to our more formal ways. It must be great out there,—all wide spaces, and big, limitless distances—"
"God's country!" said Farnsworth, who always had a love for his Western wilds.
"Nix!" cried Betty, "I've been there, and it's just one cactus after another!"
"Well, cactuses are all right,—in their place," said Patty, smiling. "They're as much verdure as maples or redwoods."
"Quite different kind of verdure," said Betty. "Now, Patty, I want to do something for your cousin,—right away, I mean, to help you launch her."
"Oh, no, Betty; you're awfully kind, but—"
"Yes, I shall, too. I'm your nearest neighbour, and it's my right. I suppose you'll give her a luncheon or something, first, and then I'll follow it with a tea, or a dance, or whatever you like. There'll be lots of things for her later on, so I want to get my bid in first. How pretty she is."
"You're a darling, Betty," cried Patty, enthusiastically, touched by her friend's kindness, "but,—well, there's no use mincing matters,—I'm not sure Azalea is quite ready to be presented to society."
"Oh, but your cousin—"
"Indeed she isn't!" put in Farnsworth, "I want you to understand that she's my cousin,—not Patty's. And, also my wife's quite right,—Azalea is not ready for social functions,—of any sort. You see, Betty, we can't blink the facts,—she's of the West, western,—in the least attractive sense. I'm fond of my home, and unashamed of my people, but all the same, I'm not going to have Patty embarrassed by the ignorance and awkwardness of an untutored guest. And so here's where I set my foot down. We accept no invitations for Azalea until we think she is in trim to make a correct appearance in society."
"Oh, Cousin Bill, I overheard you and I think you're just horrid!" Azalea came running back into the room, while Raymond Gale followed, evidently in a dilemma how to act.
"Cousin Patty would let me go, I know, and I want to go to Miss Gale's to a party! Just because I upset a glass of water at dinner, you're mad at me! It isn't fair! I think you're real mean!"
The girl went up to Farnsworth and almost scowled at him as she awaited his response.
But he looked at her steadily,—even sternly.
"Of course it must be as Patty says," he told her, at last, "but I will say, Azalea, that I'm surprised at you—"
"Why should you be surprised at me? You invited me to come and see you. If I'm not good enough to visit you, I'll go home again. You didn't ask me any questions,—you just said come along,—and I came. I ain't a swell,—like these friends of yours,—but I am your cousin, and you've got no right to scorn me!"
"That's so, Bill," Patty said, seriously; "and here's another thing. Betty has met Azalea now,—she knows just what she is. If she still cares to ask her to her house, I shall approve of her going. I want to do all I can for our cousin, and there's no better way to teach people to swim, than to throw them into the water!"
"Bully for you, Cousin Patty!" Azalea cried, her eyes snapping at Bill. "I'm not so bad as I might be, and I'll do just what you tell me."
"I'm sure you will," agreed Betty, and Farnsworth looked at her appreciatively, feeling a deep sense of gratitude at the way she was helping Patty out.
"It seems hard on you, Azalea," he went on, "to talk of you like this,—as if you were not present,—but it is so. You need,—I'm not going to hesitate to tell you,—you need a thorough training in matters pertaining to polite society. Unless you are willing to accept our teachings and do your best to profit by them,—I am going to send you back home! For much as I want to be kind and helpful to my young cousin,—I will not even try, if it makes my wife any trouble or embarrassment."
"Oh, pshaw, Little Billee,—leave Azalea to me,—I can manage her."
"You can't, Patty, without her cooperation and willingness. Will you promise those, Azalea?"
"Sure I will! I'm a great little old promiser,—I am!"
"And will you keep your promises?"
"You bet! I don't want to go home when I've just got here! And if my learning things is my meal ticket,—then I'm ready to learn."
Farnsworth sighed. He had had, as yet, no chance to talk to Patty alone, since their misfit visitor had arrived. He had been firmly resolved to send her home again,—until now, that Patty and Betty seemed willing to take her in hand. If they were, it would be a great injustice to the Western girl not to give her the chance to learn refinement and culture from those two who were so well fitted to teach her.
And, anyway,—he continued to muse,—perhaps Azalea's worst faults were superficial. If she could be persuaded to amend her style of talk and her gauche manners, perhaps she was of a true fine nature underneath. His Uncle,—so-called,—and his Aunt Amanda, he remembered as kindly, good-hearted people, of fair education, though lacking in elegance.
"Oh, don't take it so seriously," cried the vivacious Betty, as she noted Farnsworth's thoughtful face: "leave the little girl to us for a few weeks,—and you will be surprised at the result! You'll do just as I tell you,—won't you, Azalea?"
"If you tell me the same as Cousin Patty," was the reply, and the strange girl gave Patty a look of loyalty and admiration that won her heart.
"That's right, Zaly, dear," Patty cried, "you're my girl, first, last and all the time! And we'll both do as Betty says,—because she knows it all! She knows lots more than I do."
"Indeed I do!" and the saucy Betty laughed. "Well, then, I'll arrange for a dance for Azalea very soon. Do you dance?"
"I don't know," replied Azalea, "I never tried."
Big Bill Farnsworth came into the nursery, where Patty was playing with the baby. It was the nurse's luncheon hour, and Patty always looked after Fleurette then.
"Take her, Daddy," Patty cried, holding up the soft, fragrant little bundle of happy humanity, and Farnsworth grasped the child in his strong careful way, and tossed her up high above his head.
The baby laughter that followed proved Fleurette's delight in this performance, and she mutely insisted on its repetition.
"Azalea does that," said Patty, in a troubled tone, "she is strong and very athletic, I know, but I can't bear to see anybody toss baby around but you."
"No; Azalea oughtn't to do it,—she is strong, but she isn't careful enough. Don't allow it, Patty."
"I do forbid it, but she comes in here when I don't know it,—or she picks baby out of her carriage, Winnie says, and tosses her clear up and catches her again."
"I'll speak to her about it; why, she'll drop the child some day! She must not do it!"
"I wish you would speak to her," Patty sighed. "Azalea is really a trial. I don't know what to do with her. Sometimes she is so sweet and docile that I think I'm teaching her to be a civilised person, and then she flies off at a tangent and she's as unruly and intractable as she was at first."
"How long has she been here now?"
"Nearly a month. I've tried and Betty has tried,—and, yes, Azalea has tried herself,—but we can't seem to—"
"That's just it! I want her to look like the background she's against here,—and she doesn't!"
"I should say not! Last night at dinner she threw herself back in her chair and yawned openly—"
"Openly! It was all of that! I saw her,—across the table through the flowers. And, Billee,—she's queer—that's what she is,—queer!"
"Have you noticed that, too? Yes, she is queer,—here take this Little Flower. She's nearly asleep."
"So she is,—give her to me,—there, there, mudder's pressus,—petty poppity,—yes, she's queer!"
"You know very well I don't mean Fleurette! I mean that Pride of the West,—that stranger within our gates,—that thorn in the flesh,—that awful Azalea!"
"Meaning me?" and Azalea herself popped her head in at the nursery door.
"Yes," replied Farnsworth, imperturbably, "meaning you. Come in, Azalea, I want to speak to you. When have you heard from your father?"
"Let me see—about a week ago, I think."
"Will you show me the letter?"
"Why, how inquisitive you are! What do you want to see it for?"
"I'd like to read it. I suppose it isn't distinctly a private letter."
"N-no, of course not. But, the truth is,—I haven't got it."
"What did you do with it?"
"I—I tore it up."
"Was it unpleasant?"
"No, but as I had answered it,—I didn't need to keep it."
"What was in it? Tell me,—in a general way."
"Oh,—it said—he hoped I was well,—and he—he hoped you were well,—and—"
"And he hoped Patty was well! and he hoped the baby was well,—yes,—and after those polite hopes, what else did he say?"
"Why,—why, I don't know,—I guess that was about all."
"Oh, it was! Why didn't he tell you something about himself? What he was doing,—or going to do?"
"I don't know. Papa isn't very much of a letter writer."
"Well, he used to be! It was his special forte. I've had letters from him a dozen pages long. I don't believe he's outgrown his bent of letter writing. Now, listen, to this, Azalea, the next letter you get from him, I want you to show it to me, see? If there's anything in it you don't want me to know about, cut that out,—but show me at least the beginning and the ending,—and a part of a page. You hear me?"
"Of course I hear you,—not being deaf! And I'll show you the letter,—if I think of it."
"You'll think of it,—I'll see to that, myself. You ought to get one soon, oughtn't you?"
"No,—I haven't answered his last one yet."
"Why, you just said you had!"
"Oh, I meant the one before the last—"
"You meant nothing of the sort. And, mind you, Azalea, this is a direct command,—you must show me his next letter."
"I won't take commands! How dare you? You have no right to order me about so. I hate you!"
"Don't talk so, Zaly," Patty said, gently. "Cousin Bill isn't asking anything out of the way. There's no reason you shouldn't show him your father's letter,—in part, at least,—is there now?"
"N—no,—but I don't want to."
"Of course you don't," put in Bill, "and for a very good reason!"
"What reason?" cried Azalea, her black eyes flashing.
"You know as well as I do."
"Very well, say no more about it now,—only remember I want to see the next one."
Azalea flounced out of the room, very angry, and muttering beneath her breath.
"What in the world, Little Billee, are you getting at?" asked Patty, as she cuddled Fleurette into her shoulder.
"There's something queer, Patty, something very queer about that girl!"
"You've oft repeated that assertion, Sweet William,—just what do you mean by it?"
"What I say, Faire Ladye! There's something rotten in the state of Denmark,—there is that!"
"But why are you so anxious to see her father's letters?"
"They're part of the queer element. Have you ever seen her get one,—or read one from him?"
"Not that I definitely remember; but she may easily have read them right before me, and I not have known it."
"But wouldn't she be likely to read a word or two,—or deliver some polite message he might send?"
"I should think so,—but she never has."
"That's the queerness."
"Oh, do tell me, dear, what you're getting at! Do you think Mr. Thorpe is dead,—and she never told us? There'd be no sense in that!"
"Not a bit! It's something queerer than that."
"Do you think he's married again?"
"Queerer than that."
"Will-yum Farnsworth, if you don't tell your own wife what you mean, I'll never speak to you again! There!"
"At risk of that awful condition of things, I won't tell you just yet. But you do this. Here's something you can do toward solving the mystery,—and I can't. Find out for sure,—don't ask her, but see for yourself,—if Azalea gets a letter from Horner's Corners addressed in a big, bold Spencerian hand. I remember Uncle Thorpe's handwriting perfectly, and it's unmistakable. I've not seen it since Azalea came."
"Goodness, do you call it a mystery?"
"I do, indeed. You'll find out it's a pretty startling mystery, or I miss my guess."
"Well, Azalea is a handful, I admit, but I think she's good at heart, and she is devoted to my booful little Fleury-floppet! My own Dolly-winkums,—who looks prezackly like her Daddy-winkums!"
"Patty, you'll go to the lunatic asylum some day, if you let yourself talk such gibberish!"
"Listen to him, Baby mine, my flubsy-dubsy,—my pinky-poppy-petal, listen to your dreadful Dads! Isn't he the—"
"The what?" and Farnsworth strode across the room and took his wife and child both into his big bear-like embrace.
"The dearest, sweetest man in the world!" Patty said, laughing but nearly smothered in his arms.
"All right, you're excused," and he let them go.
Nurse Winnie came then and took Fleurette, and the two elder Farnsworths went downstairs together.
They heard voices on the wistaria porch, and soon saw that Azalea was entertaining two guests.
They were strangers, and not very attractive looking people.
"Shall we step out there?" Farnsworth asked.
"No," decreed Patty; "let her alone. It's probably those people she picked up on the train coming here. She has spoken of them to me. Don't let's go out, or we may have to invite them to stay to dinner,—and judging from this long distance view of them, I don't care specially to do so."
"No. I don't either; the man looks like a drummer and the woman like a—"
"A chorus girl!" said Patty, after one more peep at the stranger.
Leaving Azalea to entertain her friends without interruption they went out on a porch on the other side of the house. And soon Raymond Gale sauntered over from his home next door and joined them there.
"Some strong-arm, your Azalea guest," he said, in the course of conversation.
"Yes," agreed Patty, a little shortly.
"She was over in our gym, this afternoon, and she put up as fine an exhibition of stunts as I've seen in a long time."
"What sort of stunts?" asked Bill.
"All sorts, from lariat or lasso work to handsprings and ground and lofty tumbling. That girl's been trained, I tell you!"
"Trained in a school?"
"No: her work is more as if self-taught,—or coached by a cowboy. She hails from Arizona, doesn't she?"
"Yes. Here she is now; I hear you're an athlete, Zaly."
"Only so-so," the girl replied, half-absently.
"Have your friends gone?" asked Patty.
"I recognised them," began young Gale: "they were—"
Azalea turned to him quickly. "Don't you say who they were!" she cried, emphatically. "I don't want you to! Don't you dare mention their names! It's a secret!"
"Oh, all right, I won't. Don't take my head off!" Ray Gale laughed carelessly, and pretended to be afraid of the excited girl.
"Why, why, Zaly," said Patty, "who can your friends be that you won't tell their names? I'm surprised!"
"Their names are—are Mr. and Mrs. Brown," said Azalea, with a defiant look at Raymond, who merely opened his eyes wide and said nothing.
It was quite evident that Brown was not the name of the people who had called on Azalea, and Patty could not imagine what reason there could be for the girl to tell such a falsehood.
"Is that the right name, Gale?" asked Bill, briefly.
But Raymond Gale only shook his head.
"Miss Thorpe says so," he replied, "surely she ought to know."
The subject was dropped and not resumed until after Gale had gone home.
Then Farnsworth asked Azalea who her friends were who had called.
"I told you they were Mr. and Mrs. Brown," she said, glibly. "I met them on the train coming from the West, and we got quite well acquainted."
"But their name is not Brown," Bill said, quietly, "tell me what it is,—or, tell me why you don't want to divulge it."
"It is Brown," persisted Azalea, but the way she spoke and the way her eyes fell before Farnsworth's steady gaze, belied her words.
"I'm sorry, but I can't believe you," he said.
"I can't help that," she returned, pertly, and ran away to her own room.
"What's she up to now?" said Patty.
"Part of the queerness," Bill vouchsafed, and said no more about it.
* * * * *
The next day, Azalea went to her room directly after breakfast, and, locking the door, remained there all the morning.
At luncheon she was quiet, and absent-minded, and as soon as the meal was over she went back to her room.
It was nearly five o'clock, when Patty, puzzled at such actions, tapped at Azalea's door.
"What's the matter, dear?" she called, through the closed door, as there was no response to her knock.
"Nothing; let me alone!" came Azalea's impatient voice.
"Are you ill? Don't you feel well?"
"Let me alone. I'm all right." The tone was ungracious, and there was no mistaking the import of her speech, so Patty went away.
At dinner time Azalea appeared. She wore the same frock she had worn all day, and Patty looked at her in amazement. Apparently she had been working hard at something. Her hair was rumpled, her collar awry, and her whole appearance untidy and unpresentable.
"Have you been busy?" Patty said; "couldn't you get time to dress?"
"Forgot it!" muttered Azalea. "Sorry. Shall I go back and dress?"
Patty hesitated. It would, of course, delay dinner, which was already announced,—and, too, in Azalea's present state of pre-occupation, she might fall to work again, and not come to dinner at all.
So Patty said, "No, come as you are," and she gave Azalea's hair a touch, and pulled her collar straight.
Farnsworth watched the "queer" girl all through dinner. Azalea had improved somewhat in manners, though her notions of table etiquette still left much to be desired.
To-night she was unlike herself. She answered in monosyllables when spoken to, and paid no attention to the conversation of the others.
"I expect my friend Elise Farrington to-morrow," said Patty; "I'm sure you'll like her, Azalea."
"Will she like me?" said the girl, indifferently.
"If she doesn't, it will be your own fault," and Patty took advantage of the opportunity for a word of warning. "Elise is a person of strong likes and dislikes. If you try to be real nice and courteous she will certainly like you, and if you're rude and blunt, I don't believe she will. Do you care, Azalea, whether she does or not?"
"No," said Azalea, calmly, and Patty gave a sigh of despair. What was the use of trying to help a girl who acted like that?
Farnsworth, too, shook his head, and glanced at Patty with a sympathetic smile, and then they talked together to the entire exclusion of Azalea, who was so wrapped in her own thoughts that she didn't even notice them.
Not waiting for coffee, when the others went to the library, Azalea, with the briefest "good-night," went up to her room, and again locked her door.
"What does ail her?" exclaimed Patty, as she and her husband sipped their coffee.
"I don't know,—but I'm going to find out. Any letter from her father to-day?"
"No; I looked over her mail. Oh, it does seem awful, to look inquisitively at another's letters!"
"It's necessary, dear, in this case. There's a big mystery about Azalea Thorpe, and we must solve it, or there'll be trouble!"
"I wish you'd tell me all about it."
"I will, soon. Trust me, darling, I'd rather not say what I suspect, until I've a little more reason for my suspicion. It's too incredible! And yet,—it must be so!"
"All right, my True Love. I can wait. Now, listen, and I'll tell you of the marvellous achievement of your daughter to-day!"
And Farnsworth listened with all his heart to the amazing tale of Fleurette's intelligent observation of a red balloon.
The next day Elise came.
"Here I am!" she cried, as she stepped from the motor, and flew into Patty's embrace. "Where's your eccentric cousin I've heard about? But first, where's my godchild? I've brought her the loveliest presents! Let me at her!"
"All right," said Patty, laughing at her impatience, "come right along to the nursery before you take your hat off."
The two went to the nursery, and Patty softly opened the door. But the room was empty.
"That's funny," Patty said, "Winnie always has baby here at this hour. She takes her morning nap about now. Where can they be?"
The bassinette was disordered, as if the child had been taken from it, and Patty looked at it in amazement. She ran around to several adjoining rooms, and returned, with a frightened face.
"Elise, there's no sign of Baby or Winnie anywhere! What does it mean?"
"Goodness! I don't know! Did the nurse go down to see her beau,—and take the baby with her?"
Just then Nurse Winnie appeared: "Here's the food, Mrs. Farnsworth," she said, showing a bowl of steaming white liquid. "It's all ready."
"What food?" said Patty, mystified.
"Miss Thorpe came here fifteen minutes ago, and said you ordered me to a make a bowl of prepared food,—that Fleurette was not getting enough nourishment."
"Why, I did nothing of the sort! Where is Miss Thorpe? And where is the baby?"
"I don't know," and Winnie looked as if she thought Patty was crazy. "Don't you know, ma'am?"
Elise gave one glance at Patty's white, scared face and one glance At Nurse Winnie's red, frightened face, and then she herself began To scream.
"Stop that, Elise!" Patty cried, "it's bad enough to have my baby kidnapped, without your yelling like a Comanche! Hush, I tell you!"
But Elise wouldn't, or couldn't hush. The word "kidnapped" upset any composure she may have had left, and she burst into hysterical sobbing.
"Of course," she said brokenly, between sobs, "she's kidnapped! You and Bill are so—so wealthy and grand—she's just the child the kidnappers would pick out for ransom—and—"
"Don't—don't, Elise," begged Patty, her voice shaking; "I don't believe she's kidnapped at all. It's far more likely Azalea took her out for a ride or something. She's crazy over the baby and she always wants to have her to herself, but, she says, Winnie won't let her."
"And indeed not!" spoke up the nurse. "Miss Thorpe,—she tosses the child about in a way that'd fair curdle your blood! That she does!"
"That's true," said Patty. "You see, Bill pitches baby around just as he likes, and so Azalea thinks she may do the same."
"Then she did do that,—and she dropped her,—and maybe killed her!"
Elise voiced her new theory with a fresh burst of grief, and the idea struck a chill to Patty's heart. She took no stock in the kidnapping theory, for Winnie had left the child with Azalea, who would have fought off a horde of marauders before she let them carry off the little one. No, whatever had happened was doubtless Azalea's doing. But Elise's notion of an accident to Fleurette might come somewhere near the truth.
"Of course that's it," Elise went on, excitedly. "The idea of a girl throwing a baby about! What did she do, Winnie? I mean did she let go of her?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am! She often would throw Fleurette clear up in the air and catch her as she came down."
"She is athletic," conceded Patty. "Over at the Gales' gymnasium she does all sorts of stunts. But I don't want her doing them with my baby!" she broke down, and cried piteously.
"Sometimes," vouchsafed Winnie, "Miss Azalea would toss the baby into the bassinette, instead of laying her down. She always pitched her straight in,—and baby liked it! You see, Miss Thorpe was very gentle with the child, and never missed her aim. But I was fair frightened to watch her."
"You ought not to have allowed it, Winnie," Patty said, severely. "Why didn't you tell me, if you couldn't make Miss Thorpe stop it?"
"Miss Thorpe told me you wanted her to do it, ma'am. She said it was good exercise for the child, and,—you know her father does it,—and,—begging your pardon,—Miss Thorpe is even more skilful than Mr. Farnsworth."
"Well,—it's his baby!" defended Patty. "Oh, Winnie, suppose an accident did happen,—and Miss Thorpe hurt Fleurette in some dreadful way,—and—"
"And ran away, in sheer fright!" suggested Elise.
"No: she'd be more likely to run to the doctor's. Our doctor lives near here. I'm going to telephone him—I'm 'most sure Azalea would do that."
Doctor Marsh was not in, but his office boy said he had not had any call from Azalea by telephone or in person.
Patty was quite calm now. Her efficient self had risen to the emergency and she was quickly considering what was best to do.
"I'm going to telephone Bill," she said, as if thinking aloud,—"but first, I'm going to call up the Gales, and see if Zaly could have taken Fleurette over there. You know Azalea is utterly lawless,—it's impossible to imagine what she will do. Oh, Elise, you've no idea what we go through with that girl! She is a terror! And yet,—well, there is something about her I can't help liking. For one thing, she's so fond of Fleurette. If she has hurt her,—well, Azalea would just about kill herself!"
A telephone call to the Gales' produced no information as to the whereabouts of Azalea or the baby. Betty replied that she hadn't seen any one from Wistaria Porch that day, and was thinking of coming over to call.
"Don't come just now," said Patty, half-absently, and then she hung up the receiver without further words.
"Well, I think I'll have to call up Bill," she said, at last. "You see, he's fearfully busy today, with a specially important matter, and he probably won't be in his own office, anyway. And I hate to intrude on a directors' meeting,—that is, if there's no necessity. And yet,—it seems as if I must!"
"Oh, do," cried Elise; "you really must, Patty! Why, Bill would reproach you if you didn't."
So Patty called Farnsworth's office. Bill's business consisted of varied interests. He was a consulting engineer, he was a mining expert, and he was still connected with government work. So, frequently, he could not be found in his office, though he usually left word where Patty could get in touch with him.
But in this instance it was not so. The confidential secretary gave Patty the address Farnsworth had left with him, but when she called that he had already gone from there.
With long-suffering patience, Patty called number after number, hoping to find Farnsworth at some of the likely places she could think of.
But number after number brought no results,—and Patty turned from the telephone in despair.
"Well, Elise," she said, forlornly, "you might as well go to your room, and get your hat off. Come on, I'll go with you,—and I may think of something else to do about Baby. For the present I seem to be at my wits' end."
Of course, in the meantime the nurse and the other servants had searched the house and grounds,—but there was really no chance of finding Fleurette that way.
It was all too certain that Azalea had taken her away somewhere. And it might be all right,—it might be that Azalea had merely taken the child out for a walk. She had been known to do this,—but never before without Patty's sanction. Of late, though, Patty had objected to it because she feared that Azalea might not return quickly enough. Twice she had been gone for two or three hours, and though the baby seemed all right, Patty didn't approve of the performance.
"That's it," she summed up, after telling Elise of this; "you see, I haven't approved of such long absences and so Zaly just walked off. Of course, she sent Winnie down for the food, in order to get a chance to put on Baby's things, and depart unseen."
"But she told the nurse you ordered the food prepared."
"Yes. I may as well own up, Elise, that Azalea is not strictly truthful."
"Why do you have her around? I think she's horrid!"
"Well, you see, I got her here. To be sure, she is Little Billee's cousin,—that is, second or third cousin,—once or twice removed—"
"I wish she was removed from here,—once, twice and all the time!" declared Elise. "Bill had no business to inflict her on you!"
"He didn't. He fairly begged me not to invite her here. But I insisted on it. You see, we neither of us had any idea of what she was like. Bill hadn't seen her since she was a baby, and she was different then!"
"I s'pose so! Well, having found out how 'different' she is now, why don't you send her home?"
"Oh, I can't. And, to tell you the truth, Elise, I want to help the girl. She's ignorant and inexperienced, but she has a sort of native quickness and wit, and I feel sure if I could teach her for a while, she could learn to be one of us,—and in time become a fine woman."
"Oh, you philanthropist! And meantime she has run off with your baby!"
"The baby carriage is gone, Mrs. Farnsworth," said Winnie, appearing suddenly. "So I expect Miss Thorpe took baby in that."
"Yes, probably," said Patty, despairingly. "Oh, Elise, this suspense is driving me crazy! If I knew that Zaly had her,—and if I knew nothing had happened, I'd feel so relieved. But suppose she did break Fleurette's little arm or leg—"
"Or back!" put in Elise; "you must not let her pitch the baby around! It's criminal!"
"But you don't know how deft she is. Why, she's almost a contortionist herself. She can turn handsprings and—"
"I don't care if she's the greatest acrobat the world ever saw! There's always chance of an accident! And with a baby, you never know. Suppose Fleurette squirmed out of her grasp, just as she—"
"Oh, hush! Elise, you drive me distracted! It can't be anything like that!"
"Yes, it can! I hope it isn't, but do let this be a lesson to you, Patty! Don't ever allow that girl to see the baby again,—much less touch her! I think you and Bill must have taken leave of your senses to give her such freedom! Why, you don't deserve to have that heavenly baby!"
"That's so, Elise, I don't!" and Patty broke into a flood of tears. "My little flower! My precious own baby! How could I ever let Azalea touch her? But, Elise, Zaly loves her as much as we do."
"That may be,—and of course, she wouldn't harm the child wilfully. But, as I said, accidents will happen,—and if it's Bill's fault, why,—of course, it's his own child,—and that's different. But Azalea has no business to take chances with other people's children."
"I know it, and if she only brings her back this time in safety,—I'll never let her see Fleurette alone again!"
All that afternoon Patty suffered agonies of suspense. Now she would cry uncontrollably,—and again, she would sit, still and dry-eyed, waiting for some sound of Azalea's arrival.
But no rolling wheels of the baby coach greeted her ears, nor any little crowing notes of glee from her baby's lips.
Several times she tried again to reach Farnsworth by telephone,—but always unsuccessfully.
At last the long hours wore away, and Farnsworth came home.
Patty flew to greet him, and was instantly wrapped in his big embrace.
"Well, Patty-maman," he said, as he kissed her, "how's things today? I had to go over to Philadelphia, on a flying trip,—wish I could have flown, literally,—and hadn't even time to let you know. Then, Rollins told me you had called up several times,—so I skittled home to see what it's all about."
His big, cheery voice comforted Patty, and her trouble suddenly seemed easier to bear, with his help near.
"Oh, Little Billee," she cried, "Azalea has run off with Fleurette."
"Good gracious, you don't say! But how much better to have Zaly do the kidnapping than some professional abductors! Hello, Elise, glad to see you! When did you arrive? This morning?"
"No; this afternoon. But, Bill, this matter is serious. Azalea took the baby away, on the sly."
"That's like her! Azalea has sly ways. And more than that,—she has queer ways! It won't do, Patty, there's something wrong,—very wrong,—about the girl. Did she get a letter to-day?"
"No; not this morning. I forgot to look this afternoon."
"What do you mean?" asked Elise, her curiosity aroused. "Do you keep tab on her letters, Patty?"
"Yes; I'm ordered to by my lord and master. He thinks—"
"Never mind, dear, drop the subject now. I've a good reason, Elise, for watching the letters,—not mere idle curiosity. Now, Patty, for details. What do you mean by taking the baby on the sly!"
So Patty told him how Azalea had ordered the baby's food prepared, saying Patty has asked her to do so.
"H'm, h'm,—looks bad. But don't worry, little mother, I'm sure nothing has happened to our Little Flower,—I mean nothing of an accidental nature. Azalea is exceedingly fond of the baby, and I can easily imagine her wanting to take her for a ride this beautiful afternoon. It's perfectly wonderful out! There's a soft breeze and the air is delightful—"
"But why didn't she ask me?" cried Patty.
"Afraid you'd say no!" and Farnsworth smiled. "You know, you've not been overly gracious of late about Azalea taking baby out."
"I know it, but I had my own reasons."
"And quite right you should have. But, don't worry, I'm sure the two wanderers will turn up all right."
Farnsworth's hearty assurance went far to relieve Patty's fears and when Elise suggested a bad fall, he only laughed, and said,
"No-sir-ee! Zaly is a terror, and a trial in lots of ways, but if she had let that child fall, she would have called Patty and Winnie and the whole household for help, and would have run for the doctor herself! She never would have run away! Not Azalea! She's no coward,—whatever other unpleasant traits she may possess."
"That's so," agreed Patty; "and she truly loves the baby. No, Elise, nothing like that happened,—I'm sure. I see it as Bill does, now. It is a heavenly day,—and Zaly felt pretty sure I wouldn't let her take Baby out by herself, without the nurse,—and she does love to do that,—and so she sneaked off, and made up that yarn about the food in order to get Fleurette's hat and coat on! Oh, she's a manoeuvrer!"
"Well, I'm glad you both feel that way about it," said Elise; "of course you know the girl better than I do,—as I've never even seen her! but if she's such a strong-arm, I think I'm rather afraid of her!"
"Oh, I imagine you can hold your own against her!" laughed Patty, happy now, since Bill's reassurance of her darling's safety. "All the same, I wish Zaly would come home! It's after six! Come on, Elise, let's dress for dinner, and then that will be done."
They went to their rooms, and soon Patty was all dressed and had returned to her post of vantage on the wistaria porch, to look for the return of the lost ones. And at last, through the gathering dusk, she saw a baby carriage being propelled along the roadway.
"Here we are!" cried a voice, which Azalea tried hard to make casual, but which showed in its quality a trace of apprehension.
"Oh!" Patty cried, and without another word flew down the steps, and fairly grabbed her baby.
The child was asleep, but Patty lifted her from the pillows and gazed into the little face. Apparently there was nothing wrong, but the golden head cuddled down on Patty's shoulder and the baby slept on.
"She's tired," vouchsafed Azalea, "but she's all right."
"Where have you been?" asked Farnsworth sternly, as he came out of the front door.
"Just for a walk," said Azalea, trying to speak pertly, but quailing before the accusing blue eyes fixed upon her.
Patty said no word to the girl, but holding Fleurette close, went at once to the nursery with her.
"She's all right, Winnie, isn't she?" the mother asked, anxiously.
"Yes, ma'am,—I think so,—but she's a little too droopy for mere sleepiness."
"Droopy! what do you mean?"
"It may be nothing,—Mrs. Farnsworth,—it may be only that she's tired out and very sleepy,—but she acts a mite as if she'd been—"
"Been what? Speak out, Winnie! What do you mean?"
"Well,—she acts to me like a baby that's had something soothing—some drops, you know."
"Something to make her sleep?"
"Oh, nonsense! Miss Thorpe couldn't give her anything like that! And why would she? Don't you make any mistake, Winnie, Miss Thorpe adores this baby!"
"I know it, she does, Mrs. Farnsworth, but all the same,—look at those eyes, now."
Patty looked, but it seemed to her that the blue eyes drooped from natural weariness, and assuring herself that no bones were broken or out of place, she drew a long sigh of relief and told Winnie to put Fleurette to bed as usual.
The nurse shook her head sagely, but said no more of her fears.
Patty returned to the porch where Farnsworth was still talking to Azalea. Apparently he had scolded her sharply, for she was crying, and that with Azalea Thorpe was a most unusual performance. She usually resented reproof and talked back in no mild-mannered way. But now she was subdued and even frightened of demeanour, and Patty knew that Bill had done all that was necessary and further reproaches from her were not needed.
"And another thing," Farnsworth was saying, "I want to know why you have had no letters from your father since I asked to see one,—that was two or three weeks ago!"
"I have had one," Azalea answered, sullenly, "I had one this morning."
"Let me see it," demanded Bill, and Azalea went up to her own room and returned with the letter.
There was no envelope on it, and Farnsworth opened the folded sheet and read:
MY DEAR CHILD:
I received your last letter and I am very glad you are having such a nice time. It must be very pleasant at the grand house where you are staying,—and I suppose you are getting grand too. I am very lonesome without you, but I am willing, for I want you to have a good time and get improvement and all that. Remember me kindly to Cousin William and his wife. I like to hear you tell about the baby. She must be a fine child. I am well, and I hope you are, too. With much affection, from your loving
"Where's the envelope?" asked Farnsworth, as he raised an unsmiling face to Azalea.
"I tore it up."
"I always do,—I never save envelopes. It was just a plain one."
"All right, Zaly. Here's your letter," and he handed it back to her.
The Farnsworths made no difference in their treatment of Azalea, after her escapade. Bill had scolded her severely for taking the baby away without leave, and sternly forbidden her ever to do so again, and the girl had promised she would not.
Patty had said nothing to her on the subject, feeling that she could best keep Azalea's friendliness by ignoring the matter, and she was trying very hard to teach the girl the amenities of social life.
And Azalea was improving. She behaved much better at table and in the presence of guests. Patty rejoiced at the improvement and, as she took strict care that Azalea should have no opportunity to see Fleurette alone, she feared no repetition of those anxious hours when the baby was missing.
Elise rather liked the Western girl. They became good friends and went for long strolls together. Elise was a good walker, and Azalea was tireless.
One day they had gone a long distance from home, when suddenly Azalea said, "I wish you'd stay here a few minutes, Elise, and wait for me."
"Why, where are you going?" asked the other, in astonishment.
"Never mind, it's a little secret,—for the present. You just sit here on the grass and wait,—there's a duck. Here's a book you can read."
Azalea offered Elise a small volume—it was a new humorous publication, and one Elise had expressed a desire to read. She took it, saying, "All right, Zaly, go ahead, but don't be too long."
Azalea left her, and Elise soon became absorbed in the book.
It was a full half hour before Azalea returned.
"Where have you been?" asked Elise, looking up, and then glancing at her watch. "It's half-past four!"
"I know it. That's not late. Come on, let's go home."
Azalea was smiling and in an excited mood, but she looked tired,—almost exhausted, as well. She was flushed, and her hair was rumpled, and her breath came quickly, as if she had been through some violent exercise.
"What have you been up to, Zaly?" Elise asked, curiously. "You look all done up!"
"I went for a walk by myself. Sometimes I have moods—"
"Fiddlesticks! Don't try to make me think you had a longing for self-communion or any foolishness of that sort! I know you, Azalea Thorpe! You went off to meet somebody—"
"I did not! How you talk, Elise Farrington!"
"Yes, you did! Somebody that you don't want Patty and Bill to know about. Oh, you don't fool me! I'm not a blind bat!"
"Well, you're way off! How could I possibly know anybody they don't know?"
"You do, though. You had some people come to see you, and the Farnsworths didn't meet them at all."
"How do you know?"
"Patty told me."
"Tattle-tale! It's none of her business if I did!"
"Now, look here! I won't stand for such talk about Patty! You stop it! She's not only your hostess but she's the best friend you ever had or ever will have! She's making you over,—and goodness knows you needed it!"
"And that's none of your business! I'm as good as you are,—this minute!"
"I didn't say you weren't! It isn't a question of goodness. You may be a saint on earth compared to me, but you don't know how to behave in decent society,—or didn't, till Patty took you in hand."
"She invited me to visit her! I didn't ask her to have me!"
"Yes, because she wanted to be kind to her husband's people, and you seemed to be the only one available."
"Well, I was. And as I'm Cousin William's only relative, I have a right to visit him as long as I please."
"I don't deny that, Azalea," and Elise couldn't help laughing at the defiant air of the speaker. "I'm not disputing your right to be here. But I do deny your right to say anything whatever against Patty, who is trying her best to do all she can for your pleasure and for your good."
"That's so," and Azalea's manner suddenly changed. "Patty is a dear, and I love her. And that baby! Oh!"
"How crazy you are over that child," Elise exclaimed. "She is a dear baby, but I don't see why you idolise her so."
"Oh, I love babies, and Fleurette is so sweet and soft and cuddly! I love to have her all to myself,—but Patty won't let me."
"I don't wonder! Where did you go with her that day, Azalea?"
"Nowhere in particular. Just for a walk in the country. I mean I walked. Baby rode in her coach."
"But you went somewhere. Nurse Winnie insists you gave the child some soothing syrup,—or whatever they call it."
"What! I did nothing of the sort! Why, Elise, I wouldn't do such a thing! I love that kiddy! I wouldn't give her a morsel to eat or drink. I know how careful Nurse and Patty are about that! You must be crazy to think I'd give Baby anything!"
Azalea's honesty was unmistakable, Elise couldn't doubt she was speaking the truth. She began to think Nurse Winnie had imagined the soothing syrup.
The two girls went home, and Elise said no word to any one of Azalea's strange disappearance for a time.
They found Patty in a state of great excitement and interest over a new project.
Betty Gale was there and the two heads were together over a list they were making and they were chattering like a couple of magpies.
"Oh, Elise," Patty cried out, "we're getting up the grandest thing! It's going to be here,—for the benefit of the Summer Fund, and it's going to be Vanity Fair!"
"What? What does that mean?"
"Just what it says! It's a big bazaar,—of course,—and we're going to call it Vanity Fair and sell only gay, dainty, dinky little contraptions, and have all sorts of pretty booths and fancy dances and flower stands, and—oh, everything that Vanity Fair suggests."
"Fine!" approved Elise. "Great name! Who thought of it? You, Betty? I'm for it,—heart and soul! How about you, Azalea?"
The Western girl stood silent. This was the sort of thing that was outside her ken. Though she had been at Wistaria Porch for some weeks now, and had become fairly conversant with the ways of Patty and her friends, this kind of a gay project was to her an unknown field.
"It must be beautiful,—to know about things like that,"—she said, at last, so wistfully, that Patty put out a hand and drew Azalea to her side.
It was this sort of a speech that made Patty feel that she was making headway in her efforts to improve the girl, and she rejoiced to have her show a desire to join in the new project.
"You can help us lots, I'm sure, Zaly," she said, kindly, "and you'll have a chance to learn about it all. There's heaps of fun in a Fair, especially when it's all novel to you. It's an old story to us, but I always love anything of the sort. We'll have it here, you see, and it will be a lawn fete and a house party and a general hullabaloo!"
"We're making out the committees," said Betty, "and, you'll be here, won't you, Elise?"
"Well, I just guess! You can't lose me! I shall be back and forth, of course, but I'll do my share of the work, and exact my share of the fun."
"Fine!" said Betty, a bit absently, as she was deeply absorbed in her list of names.
"Of course," Patty went on, partly to the others and partly as if merely thinking aloud for her own benefit, "there will be all the regulation things,—lemonade well, fortune-telling, society circus and everything, but the idea is to have every one of them just a little bit different from what it has always been before, and have it in harmony with the idea of Vanity Fair."
"The book?" asked Elise.
"No, not Thackeray. I mean, just the idea of the gay atmosphere,—the light, giddy side of life. For instance, let's have a Vanity booth and sell all sorts of aids to beauty—"
"Powder and paint!" exclaimed Azalea, in surprise.
"Well, I meant more like lacy caps and stunning negligees. And yes, of course, vanity cases and powder-puff bags and mirrors and perfumes,—oh, all sorts of foolishnesses that are pretty."
"I know," said Elise, nodding her head. "And we'll have an artificial flower booth,—that's right in line. And people love to buy 'em,—I do."
"And laces," said Patty; "and embroidered boudoir pillows, and oh,—and baby things! Why Fleurette's nursery wardrobe looks like a Vanity Fair itself!"
"Hold on," cried Betty, laughing, "don't go too far. Not everybody is interested in baby togs!"
"I s'pose not," said Patty, smiling. "All right, cut out the Baby booth."
"No," spoke up Azalea, "let's have it. Everybody knows a baby to give presents to. And the little caps and things are so pretty."
"Good for you, Zaly," cried Patty; "we'll have it, and you and I will run it, and Fleurette shall be the presiding genius, and sit enthroned among the fairy wares! Oh, it will be lovely!"
"Yes, do have it," agreed Betty. "It will be a screaming success with Fleurette in it!"
"And if you want such things," Azalea went on, losing her diffidence, "I can get a lot of Indian things from home,—baskets,—you know,—and leather, and beaded things."
"Fine, Zaly!" and Elise smiled at her. "We do want those,—real ones,—they always sell."
They went on planning, all working in harmony, and each full of suggestions, which the others approved or criticised, in frank, friendly fashion.
Then Janet appeared to call Azalea to the telephone, and the girl looked up, surprised. She blushed scarlet, and hurried from the room.
"Who could have called her?" said Elise; "she doesn't know any one you don't know,—does she, Patty?"
"No; but she knows lots of our friends. Somebody is probably asking her to go somewhere."
None of them tried to listen, but the telephone was in the next room and Azalea's voice had a peculiar carrying quality that made it difficult not to overhear snatches of her conversation.
"No," she exclaimed, positively, "I can't do it! I really can't! I'm sorry it didn't go right, but I can't do it again! It's impossible!"
A pause, and then, again, "No, I simply can't! Don't ask me—yes, of course,—I know,—but, you see, they said,—oh, I can't tell you now,—I'll write,—well, yes, I'll do that!—Oh, of course, I'll be there—but the—the other one—no, no, no!"
These remarks were at long intervals and disconnected, but they were clearly heard by the three in the next room, and though no one mentioned it, each thought it a strange conversation for Azalea to take part in.
Patty listened thoughtfully, feeling no hesitation in doing so, for she had only Azalea's good at heart and wanted to know anything that might help her understand the mystery that was certainly attached to the girl.
In the first place to whom could Azalea possibly be talking in that fashion? Moreover, her voice was troubled, and her tone was one of nervous apprehension and anxiety.
At last she returned to the group, and Patty said, pleasantly, "Who's your friend, Zaly?"
"Nobody in particular," and Azalea looked as if that were a question she had been dreading.
"You mean not a particular friend; but who was it?" Patty was persistent, even at risk of rousing Azalea's wrath, for she felt she must know.
"I won't tell you!" Azalea cried, stormily. "It's nobody's business if I answer a telephone call. I don't ask you who it is, every time you telephone!"
"All right, Zaly, forgive me,—I was a bit inquisitive."
And so the matter was dropped, but that night after Azalea had gone to her room, Patty came tapping at the door.
It was only after repeated knocking that Azalea opened the door a little way, and quite evidently resented the intrusion.
"I'm just going to bed," she said, ungraciously.
"I won't stay but a minute," and Patty insistently pushed her way in. "Now, don't fly into a rage, dear, but you must tell me who called you up on the telephone to-day."
"You've no right to ask!"
"Yes, I have, and, too, there must be some reason why you are so unwilling to tell me. Why is it?"
Azalea hesitated. Then she said, "Oh, I've no reason to make a secret of it. But I think you're very curious. It was somebody I met on the train when I came East."
"A man or a woman?"
"Are you telling the truth, Azalea?" and Patty's clear, compelling gaze was direct and accusing.
"Well—well—Patty, it's both."
"Those people who called here one day, and you saw them on the porch?"
"What are their names?"
"Oh,—oh, I forget."
"Rubbish! You don't forget. Be sensible, Azalea. You're making a mystery of something. Now if it's anything wrong, I'm going to know about it,—if it's merely a little secret of your own,—a justifiable one,—tell me so, in a convincing way, and I'll stop questioning."
"It is a secret of my own,—and it's nobody's business but mine."
"Is it a harmless, innocent matter?"
"Of course it is! What do you think I am? A thief?"
"Gracious, no! I never thought you were that!" Patty laughed. "But I do suspect you're up to some flirtation or affair of that sort, and I have a perfect right to inquire into the matter. Why didn't you let us meet your friends that day they called?"
"I didn't suppose you would care to know them. They're not your sort."
"Are they your sort? Oh, Zaly, I thought you wanted to be our 'sort,'—as you call it. You don't want to have friends Bill and I wouldn't approve of, do you?"
"Oh,—I don't know what I want! I wish you'd go 'way, and leave me alone!"
"I will in a minute. Tell me your friends' names."
"Then I shall ask Ray Gale. He knows them,—he recognised them the day they were here, and you forbade him to tell me who they were."
"Then if he knows them, isn't that enough to assure you of their respectability?"
"It isn't a question of respectability,—I want to know why they are telephoning you,—not casually,—but apparently on some important matter."
"That's my business. Oh, Patty, let me alone!"
Azalea was clearly overwrought, and in another moment would fly into an hysterical tantrum. But Patty made one more effort.
"Just tell me the name," she said, gently.
"Well—Smith. There, now are you satisfied?"
"I am not," said Patty, truthfully. "Good night, Azalea."
She went thoughtfully away, and communicated to Bill the whole conversation.
"She's a queer girl," Farnsworth remarked, after he had heard all about the afternoon telephoning. "Do you know, Patty, that letter which she pretended came from her father,—she wrote herself."
"She did; and on my own typewriter,—here in our library."
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I say. I knew it, the moment I saw it, for the writing on my machine is so familiar to me, I can recognise it instantly. The tail of the y doesn't print, and there are lots of little details that make it recognisable."
"Are you sure, dear? I thought all typewriting was just alike."
"Oh, no; it is as greatly differentiated, almost, as penwriting,—some experts think more so. I mean, it can't be forged successfully, and penwriting can. Well, anyhow, that letter Azalea showed me, as being from her father, was written on my machine. She had no envelope, for of course she couldn't reproduce the proper postmark on an envelope she had herself addressed."
"But why,—what for? I don't understand."
"I haven't got it all straightened out yet, myself,—but I shall. Another thing, Azalea is a poor speller, and she herself spells very with two r's. She did in a dinner acceptance she wrote and referred to me for approval. So, when I saw that word misspelled twice in the letter we're talking of, I knew she wrote it,—I mean, it corroborated my belief. Now, Patty, we've a peculiar case to deal with, and we must feel our way. This telephoning business is serious. Of course, Smith is not those people's name! She told you a falsehood. We know she is capable of that! Now to find out what their name is. It isn't too late to call up Gale."
Farnsworth took up the telephone and soon had Raymond Gale on the wire. He asked him frankly for the name of the two people who were calling on Azalea when he recognised them.
"Miss Thorpe asked me not to tell," said Gale, "I'm sorry, old chap, but I promised her I wouldn't."
"But it's an important matter, Ray, and a case in which I'm sure you're justified in breaking your promise—"
"Can't do it! Can't break my word given to a lady."
"But Azalea is a mere girl, and a headstrong, ignorant one, at that. She is in our care, and it is our duty to know with whom she associates. Who were those people?"
"Seriously, Farnsworth, I can't tell you. Miss Thorpe asked me definitely not to do so, and I gave her my promise. You must see,—as man to man,—I can't tell you."
"I see your point, and I quite agree, in a general way. But, Gale, this is a—well, a crisis. I'm investigating a mystery and I must know who those people are."
"Ask Miss Thorpe."
"I have, and she won't tell."
"Then you surely can't expect me to! After I promised to keep her secret!"
"Why should it be a secret?"
"Well, tell me one thing; is the name Smith?"
"It is not."
"What sort of people are they?"
"Oh, people of—why, hang it, man,—I don't know what to say to you! I refuse to betray Miss Thorpe's confidence, and so I don't know how much I ought to tell you."
"Are they people I would receive in my home?"
"Scarcely! If you mean, are they your social equals, they are not!"
"Then, I ought to know about them, and forbid Azalea their acquaintance."
"Oh, Miss Thorpe doesn't know them socially!" said Gale, and then he said a quick "good-bye" and hung up his receiver.
The next day Farnsworth made an occasion to see Azalea alone.
"Come for a stroll in the rose garden," he said to her as they left the breakfast table.
"But aren't you in a hurry to go to town?" she objected.
"No, I'm not. Come along, Zaly, I want to talk to you."
Azalea looked embarrassed. She had on a trim linen street suit, and had an air of alertness as if about to start on a trip of some sort.
"I was—I was just going for a walk," she said, hesitatingly.
"All right, I'll walk with you. Let's make it a long hike."
"Oh,—I'd love to, Cousin William,—really,—but I—I've a lot to do in my room, this morning."
"A lot to do! What do you mean? Does Patty make you take care of your room?"
"Oh, not that sort of work. I've got to—to—write letters."
"To your father?" Bill's look was significant.
"Yes—no,—oh, a lot of letters."
"Look here, Azalea, you come out with me for a few minutes,—I won't keep you long." Farnsworth took her arm, and led her gently down the verandah steps and along a garden path.
"Now, my child," he said most kindly, "tell me why you pretended that letter was from your father, when it was not?"
"Oh, yes, it was—"
"Stop, Azalea! Don't add to your list of falsehoods! You wrote that letter yourself on my typewriter, in my library. Why did you do it?"
"How do you know?" Azalea turned an astonished face to her inquisitor.
"I recognised the typing. How do you know how to use the machine so well? Were you ever a stenographer?"
"No; I don't know shorthand at all. And I didn't—"
"Stop, I say, Azalea! I know you wrote that! Now, tell me why! I can't imagine any reason for it."
The girl was stubbornly silent
"Unless you tell me why you did it, I shall be compelled to think there is some wrong reason—"
"Oh, no, there isn't!"
"Then,—come now, Zaly,—'fess up. Was it for a joke on me?"
"Yes, yes, that was it!"
"No, that wasn't it, and you only grasped at my suggestion to evade the real truth! Now, you must tell me. Out with it!"
"Well—you see, Cousin William, you are always asking me why I don't get letters from my father, and—as I didn't get any, I manufactured one to—to satisfy you. That's all."
"No, no, my girl, we haven't got the truth yet. You had more of a motive than that. And, too, why don't you get letters from your father? Is he angry with you? Are you two at odds?"
"Yes,—we are. He and I had a quarrel."
"Azalea, you have a very readable face. I know when you are telling me the truth and when you are not. Now, you are ready to grasp at anything I suggest rather than let me know the real facts of the case. So I am justified in thinking it's something pretty bad. What is it, child? Don't be afraid of me. Did you run away from home?"
"Oh, no!" Azalea looked frightened. Then she burst into tears. "Wh-what makes you think I'm doing wrong?" she sobbed; "I'm not,—I'm oh,—I'm all right!" Her air of bravado suddenly returned and she looked up defiantly, brushing her tears aside.
Farnsworth could, as he said, read her face, and he was quite ready to meet her explanations when she was in a docile mood, but this quick return to her pose of injured innocence roused him to fresh indignation.
"I daresay you are all right, Azalea, and therefore it will be easy for you to answer a few questions which I must insist on having answered. Who was it that telephoned you yesterday?"
"Oh, that was Mr. Smith."
"His name is not Smith!" Farnsworth spoke so sharply that Azalea fairly jumped.
But she insisted, "Yes, it is—"
"I know it is not! It was the man who came here to see you one day,—and whatever his name is, it is not Smith! Tell me the truth or not, as you choose, but don't try to insist on Smith!"
"All right, then I choose to tell you nothing, I have a perfect right to have friends telephone me, and I think it shows an ill-bred curiosity for you to ask their names!"
Azalea's would-be haughty face and her reference to ill-breeding struck Farnsworth so funny he laughed in spite of himself.
Azalea was quick to take advantage of this.
"Oh, Cousin William," she said, smilingly, "don't be hard on me. I'm only a wild Western girl, I know, but I'm—I'm your cousin and I claim your—your—"
Azalea didn't quite know what she was claiming, but as it was really a cessation of the interview that she most desired, she turned on her heel and walked rapidly toward the house.
"Hold on!" cried Farnsworth, "not so fast, Zaly. Before you leave me, listen to this. I am not at all satisfied with what you have told me,—or, rather, what you have refused to tell me,—and I am going to write to your father, and ask him why he doesn't write to you."
Azalea stood still, facing him, and her face turned white.
"Oh, no!" she cried, in a tone of dismay, "you mustn't do that!"
"But I will. There's no reason I shouldn't write to my relative. And I must get at the mystery of this thing."
"Don't do that, Cousin William, don't, I beg of you!" The girl was greatly excited now. Her face was drawn with terrified apprehension and her voice shook with fear.
"Why not?" Farnsworth demanded, and he grasped her arm as she tried to run away. "I'm going to have this out now, Azalea! Why shan't I write to Uncle Thorpe?"
"Be—because he isn't—he isn't there—"
"Is he dead?"
"Oh, no! He's—he's—gone away on a—a business trip."
"You're making up, Azalea,—I see it in your face. Tell me the truth about him. Has he married again?"
"Well, then, where is he?"
"He's—I don't know—"
"You don't know where he is,—and yet you claim you had a letter from him!"
"You say I wrote that letter myself—"
"And you did!"
"Well, then, it was because you insisted on my getting a letter from him,—and—and that's the only way I could think of."
Azalea gave a half-smile, hoping Farnsworth would laugh, too.
But he did not. He said, sternly, "I can't understand you, Azalea. I don't want to misjudge you, but you must admit, yourself, that you're making it very hard for me. Why won't you tell me everything? If Uncle Thorpe disowned you,—cast you off,—or anything like that,—tell me; I'll take your part,—and I'll defend you."
"Would you, Cousin William?" Azalea's voice was wistful; "would you defend me?"
The serious tone disturbed Farnsworth more than her anger had done, and he looked at her keenly.
"Yes," he answered, "but only if you are frank and truthful with me. Now, once again, Azalea, what is the real name of the man who called you up yesterday?"
"Brown," said Azalea, and Farnsworth gave a gesture of impatience.
"You're a very poor story-teller!" he exclaimed. "It is not Brown,—or Green,—or Smith. If you had said some less common name, I might have believed you. But your inventiveness doesn't go far enough. When people want to deceive, it's necessary to frame their falsehoods convincingly. If you had said Mersereau or Herncastle,—I might have swallowed it."
Azalea stared at him.
"Why would you have thought those names were right?" she asked.
"Because I should have felt sure you didn't invent them. But when you want to conceal a name, and you say Smith or Brown, it doesn't go! Also, you look as if you were fibbing. Why do you do it, Azalea? Why?"
"Oh, Cousin William," the girl looked genuinely distressed, "I wish I could tell you all,—I believe I will,—but—no,—I can't—"
Then she shrugged her shoulders, and tossed her head, and her defiant manner returned.
Farnsworth gave up in despair. "Very well, Azalea," he concluded, "I shall write to-day to Uncle Thorpe. I tell you this frankly, for I do not do things on the sly. I'm sorry you take the attitude you do, but while I'm waiting to hear from your father, I shall continue to treat you as a guest and a trusted friend. That is all."
Farnsworth stood aside, and let Azalea pass. The girl went back to the house, in deep thought.
She did not go to her room, or write any letters. She dawdled about, started the phonograph going, read a little in a magazine, and seemed generally distraught.
As she sat in the big, pleasant hall, she saw Farnsworth come in, go to the library and sit at his desk writing. Apparently this was one of the days when he did not go to New York. Patty came by—spoke cheerily to Azalea as she passed her, and then went on to speak to Bill.
The two went out of doors together. Azalea jumped at the chance, and running into the library, glanced over the letters Farnsworth had written. As she had surmised, there was one addressed to Samuel Thorpe, Horner's Corners, Arizona.
Azalea didn't touch it. She merely glanced at her wrist-watch and hurried up to her own room.
Sitting there at the pretty desk, she wrote two or three letters, and sealed and addressed them.
Then, sitting on her window-seat, she looked out over the beautiful lawns and gardens. She saw Bill and Patty walking about, pausing here and there. She knew they were selecting places for the booths and stands to be used at the forthcoming Fair.
How happy they were! And how miserable she was! She looked at them enviously, and then again she tossed her hand, in her defiant way, and turned from the window.
At luncheon Azalea was very sweet and pleasant. She talked with Farnsworth gaily, and discussed the Fair with Patty and Elise.
"I'm going to donate some lovely things for the sale," she said. "I've written home for some Indian baskets and Navajo blankets, and some beadwork."
"Good gracious, Azalea," cried Elise, "you'll outshine us all in generosity! I'm making some lace pillows and boudoir caps, but they won't sell as well as your gifts."
"It's very kind of you, dear," and Patty smiled at the Western girl with real gratitude. "I wonder what booth you'd rather serve in, Azalea," she went on. "Of course, you may take your choice."
"When is the Fair?" Azalea asked.
"We're planning it for the middle of July. I think we can get ready by that time."
"I won't be here then," and Azalea looked thoughtful.
"Won't be here! Of course you will! What nonsense!" and Patty's blue eyes opened wide in astonishment.
"I thought I might outstay my welcome," Azalea said, seeming a little confused.
"Nay, nay, Pauline," and Patty smiled at her, "stay as long as you like. As long as you can be happy with us."
But there was an uncomfortable pause, for Farnsworth didn't second Patty's invitation or make any comment on it.
"I'm going down to New York in the car this afternoon," said Elise. "Want to go, Azalea?"
"Yes,—I'd be glad to."
"All right, be ready about three. You going, Pattibelle?"
"No; not to-day. My lord and master is at home, and I can't give up a precious hour of his companionship."
"Oh, you turtle-doves! All right, then, Zaly and I will sally forth to the great metropolis."
Elise was spending a month with Patty, and was going later to the mountains with her own family. They were all anxious, therefore, to get the Fair under way, and to hold it while Elise was still there.
So things were being pushed, and the committees were hard at work. There were innumerable errands to the city, and nearly every day the big car went down and returned laden with materials for the work.
Promptly at three, Azalea was in the hall, and Elise joined her, ready for the trip.
"I mean to mail these in New York," said Elise, who carried a handful of letters.
"I will too," returned Azalea, who also had a number of them in her hand. "Let's take these that are on the hall table,—they go quicker if we mail them in the city."
"All right," said Elise, carelessly, and Azalea, with a stealthy look about, picked up the big pile of addressed mail that lay on the table.
No one was looking and she deftly slipped out from the lot the letter Farnsworth had written to Mr. Thorpe,—and pocketed it.
Going out the door, she handed the rest of the letters, with her own, to the chauffeur, to mail, and then got into the car after Elise.
Away they went, chattering blithely about the Fair, and the enormous lot of work yet to be done for it.
"There are so many working with us," observed Elise, "that it seems a big job of itself to keep them in order."
"It all amazes me," returned Azalea. "I never saw people work as hard as you and Patty do. And you accomplish such a lot! And yet, you never get flustered or hurried, or—"
"That's partly the result of long experience in these bazaar affairs, and partly because we both have a sort of natural efficiency. That's a much used word, Zaly, but it means a lot after all."
"Yes, it does. What's your booth, Elise?"
"It isn't exactly a booth. I'm going to have a log cabin,—a real one, built just as I've planned it, and in it I'm going to sell all sorts of old-fashioned things."
"Yes, of the proper sort. Old Willow china and Sheffield plate. Copper lustre tea-sets and homespun bedspreads. And samplers! Oh, Azalea, I've three or four stunning samplers! One is dated 1812. That ought to bring a fine price."
"I don't know about samplers. Of course, I know what they are,—but what makes them valuable?"
"Age, my dear. And authoritative dates. People make collections of old samplers, and those who collect will spend 'most anything for a good specimen."
"I've one that my grandmother made,—at least, I can get it. Would you like it?"
"Would I? Indeed I would! But you ought to keep that, Azalea. My, what a generous girl you are! You'd give away your head, if it weren't fastened on! No, dear child, keep your grandmother's sampler yourself. Is it a good one?"
"I don't know what a 'good' one is. It has flowers on it, and little people,—queer ones,—and a long verse of poetry and an alphabet of letters."
"And the date?"
"Yes; 1836, I think it is."
"That's fairly old. Not a collection piece,—but a good date. Is it in good condition,—or worn?"
"Good as new. I don't want it, Elise,—that is, I'd like to give it to you. You've been awful good to me."
"All right, Zaly, send for it, and we'll take a look at it, anyway."
Vanity Fair was all that its name implied. By good fortune, the weather was perfect,—ideally pleasant and sunshiny, yet not too warm. Wistaria Porch was transformed into a veritable Fairyland, and it was a bewildering vision of flowers, flags and frivolity by day, and a blaze of illuminated gaiety by night.
It was to last but two days, for, Patty said, they might hope for fair weather for that long but hardly for three days.
It was to open at noon, and all the morning everybody was running about, doing last minute errands or attending to belated decorations.
Azalea had the Indian booth. It was a wigwam, in effect, but it was so bedecked and ornamented that it is doubtful if a real Indian would have recognised it as one. However, it was filled with real Indian wares, and the beautiful baskets and pottery were sure to prove best sellers. Azalea received a large consignment from some place she had sent to in Arizona, and other people had donated appropriate gifts, until the little tent was overflowing.
Azalea herself, the attendant on the booth, was in the garb of an Indian princess, a friend of Patty's having lent the costume for the occasion. It was becoming to the girl, and she looked really handsome in the picturesque trappings, and elaborate head-dress.
Just before time for the Fair to be opened, Azalea went over to Elise's booth. As she had planned, Elise had a log cabin, and in it she had arranged a motley collection of antiques and heirlooms that were quaint and valuable. It was the design of the Fair to sell really worthwhile things at their full value; and as they expected many wealthy patrons, the committees felt pretty sure of a grand success.
"Elise," said Azalea, as she appeared at the door of the cabin, "here's my contribution to your department. I haven't had a chance to give it to you before." She handed out a parcel, which Elise opened eagerly.
It proved to be a sampler,—old, but in fine condition. It was an elaborate one, with many rows of letters, some lines of verse, and several little pictured shapes. There was a beautiful border, and the signature was Isabel Cutler, 1636!
"Oh!" exclaimed Elise, "what a gem! Where did you get it? Why, Azalea, this is a museum piece! 1636! It's worth hundreds of dollars!"
"Oh, no," said Azalea, "it can't be worth all that! But I thought you'd like an old one."
"But I don't understand! Where did you get it?"
"It was my grandmother's."
"But your grandmother didn't live in 1636!"
"N—n—no,—I s'pose not. Well,—you see, she had it from her grandmother and great-grandmother,—clear back,—you know."
"I see," said Elise, scrutinising the sampler. "It's a marvel, Azalea. You mustn't sell it at this Fair. It ought to go to a museum. 1636! That's one of the earliest sampler dates! I can't see how it's lain unknown all these years. Who had it before you did?"
"Oh, yes,—of course. Well, I'm not going to take it from you—"
"Yes, you are, Elise. I want to give it to you. I've wanted all along to give you something nice,—you've been so good to me—"
"Rubbish! don't talk like that, Zaly! If you want to make Patty a present, now,—give it to her. That would be a worth-while return for her kindness to you."
"Oh, I don't think so much of the old thing as you do. I don't even think it's pretty."
"It isn't a question of prettiness, or even of a well worked piece. It's the date. And this is genuine,—I can see that. But I can't understand it! Why,—I think this border wasn't used until—I must look it up in my book. That's home in New York. But, there's one thing sure and certain! This doesn't get put in with my bunch of wares! Mr. Greatorex may come this afternoon. He's an expert on these things. He'll know just what it's worth."
"Oh, Elise," Azalea looked troubled, "don't take it so seriously. It's just an old thing. You've others here that are far handsomer."
"As I told you, Zaly, it's the age that counts,—not the beauty. Run along to your own booth. I'll lay this aside until I can find out about it. But if it's as valuable as I think it is, you mustn't give it to Vanity Fair,—or to anybody. 1636! My!"
Azalea looked a little crestfallen. Instead of being glad at the unexpected value ascribed to her gift, she seemed decidedly put out about it. She strolled round by Patty's booth. That enterprising young matron had caused to be built for her use a little child's playhouse. It was just large enough for half a dozen children, and would perhaps hold nearly as many grown people. But it had a good-sized verandah and on this were tables piled with the loveliest fairy-like gossamer garments and comforts for tiny mites of humanity. Such exquisite blankets and afghans and tufted silk coverlets and such dainty frocks and caps and little coats and everything an infant could possibly use, from baskets to bibs and from pillows to porringers.
And dolls,—soft, cotton or woolly dolls for little babies to play with, and soft, cuddly bears and lambs. Rattles, of course, and bath-tub toys, and all sorts of infants' novelties.
Patty, happy as a butterfly, hovered over her treasures. She wore the immaculate white linen garb of a nurse, and very sweet and fair she looked. Later, Fleurette was to grace the booth and attract all observers by her marvellous baby charm.
At high noon the bazaar was opened with a flourish of trumpets and a fanfaronade by the band. Farnsworth had given the services of a first class band as his donation, and the musicians made good.
The scene was one of varied attractions. The place itself was lovely with its wealth of flower gardens and shrubbery and the unique and elaborate booths here and there among the trees made a striking picture.
Betty was queen of the soda fountain. A really, truly soda fountain had been procured, and it was attended by white uniformed servitors who were trained to the work, but Betty was the presiding genius and invited her customers to sample her beverages, with free advice as to which flavours and combinations she thought the best.
Raymond Gale was a general supervisor of several of the enterprises.
He had in charge the moving-picture men who had expressed a desire to get some scenes of the gay throngs and were willing to pay well for the privilege.
"You like the 'movies,'" he called out to Azalea, "come over here and get into the game."
"Can't," she called back. "I have to be on duty at my wigwam."
"Oh, come along; the wigwam won't run away. At least promenade up and down once with me."
So Azalea came, laughingly, and the two walked grandiloquently into the focus of the camera.
"And there is a man making phonograph records," young Gale went on. "Come over there, Zaly, and we'll have a joust of words, and record it on the sands of time!"
"What do you mean?" asked Azalea, interestedly, for she had no knowledge of some of the performances going on.
She went with Raymond and found a crowd waiting at the booth where the phonograph man was doing business. His plan was to make a record for any customer who cared to sing, recite or soliloquise for him. Mothers gladly brought their infant prodigies to "speak pieces" and went away proudly carrying the records that could be played in their homes for years to come. Aspiring young singers made records of their favourite songs. One young girl played the violin for a record.
Taking their turn, Raymond and Azalea had what he called an impromptu scrap. A few words of instruction were enough for Azalea's dramatic instinct to grasp his meaning, and they had a lively tiff followed by a sentimental "making-up" that was good enough for a vaudeville performance, and which Azalea knew would greatly amuse Patty and Bill when they should hear the record.
"Oh, what fun!" Azalea cried, "I never heard of such a thing. I want to make a lot of records. I'm going to make one of Baby!"
She ran into the house and up to the nursery where Winnie was just giving the child her dinner. "Goody!" cried Azalea, "now she'll be good-natured! Let me take her, Winnie."
Not entirely with Winnie's sanction, but in spite of her half-expressed disapproval, Azalea took the laughing child and ran back to the phonograph booth.
"Let me go in ahead of you people, won't you, please?" she begged, and the waiting line fell back to accommodate her.
But alas for her hopes. She wanted the baby to coo and gurgle in the delightful little way that Fleurette had in her happiest moments.
Instead, frightened by the strangeness of the scene and the noise and laughter of the people all about, Fleurette set up a wail of woe which developed rapidly into a storm of screams and sobs,—indeed, it was a first-class crying spell,—a thing which the good-natured child rarely indulged in.
Not willing to wait for a better-tempered moment, the man took the record and poor little Fleurette was immortalised by a squall instead of a sunny burst of laughter.
But there was no help for it, and Azalea, greatly chagrined, took the baby back to Nurse.
"Here's your naughty little kiddy," she cried ruefully, handing Fleurette over, but giving the child a loving caress, even as she spoke.
"Thank you, Miss Thorpe, I'm glad to get her back so soon."
And then Azalea ran away to her Indian booth, where she found her assistant doing a rushing business with the Indian wares.
Indeed, everybody seemed anxious to buy the baubles of Vanity Fair. The cause was a worthy one, the patrons were wealthy and generous, and the vendors were charming and wheedlesome.
So the coin fairly flowed into their coffers and as the afternoon wore on they began to fear they wouldn't have enough goods to sell the second day.
Azalea was a favourite among the young people. She looked a picture in her Indian dress and she was in rare good humour. She tried, too, to be gracious and gentle, and committed no gaucheries and made no ignorant errors.
"You've simply made that girl over," Elise said to Patty, as the two spoke of Azalea's growing popularity.
Patty sighed. "I don't know," she said, thoughtfully. "There's something queer about Azalea. Little Billee has said so from the first, and now I begin to see it, too."
"She is queer," assented Elise, "but she's so much nicer than she was at first. Ray Gale is very devoted to her."
"I know it. I like Ray, too, but sometimes,—think,—he knows something about her that he won't tell us."
"For mercy's sake,—what do you mean? knows something about your own cousin that you don't know!"
"Oh, Zaly isn't our own cousin, you know. But—well, never mind now, Elise. This isn't a good time to talk confidentially."
Crowds of people were constantly arriving, and among them were many of Patty's old friends. Many, too, of her newer acquaintances, who lived in Arden and also in the nearby towns.
Patty was charming and delightful to everybody, remembering that she was in a way hostess as well as a sales-lady.
Fleurette graced her mother's booth with her presence, later in the afternoon, and quite redeemed her reputation for good nature, by smiling impartially on everybody, and gurgling a welcome to all who looked at her.
The little garments and toys of Patty's booth were soon sold out, for they were choice bits of needlework and found ready buyers.
And then one enthusiastic young father wanted to buy the playhouse itself, in which Patty had displayed her wares.
"But I meant to keep this for my own baby!" she cried.
"Oh, you can build another by the time that little mite needs one," the young man replied. "And my youngster is four years old,—just ready to inhabit a ready made home of this kind,"
So the pretty little house was sold, and plans were made to remove it to the purchaser's estate.
So it went. Azalea had many offers for her wigwam, if she would sell it after the fair. She agreed to let it go to the highest bidder, and finally received a fine price.
Archery was one of the pretty diversions, and at this Azalea excelled. To the surprise of all, she proved exceedingly skilful with the bow and arrow and easily won the prize offered. But she magnanimously refused to accept it, and returned it to be competed for over again.
Mr. Greatorex, the expert connoisseur in the matter of antiques, arrived at Elise's log cabin and expressed delight in its construction and furnishing.
The cabin was not for sale, Elise laughingly informed him, as Mr. Farnsworth intended to keep it a permanent fixture on his own grounds. Also, Elise went on, very few things of value were left on her tables,—but she still had one piece on which she wished to ask his opinion.
From a drawer she brought out the sampler that Azalea had given her and passed it over to Mr. Greatorex, without comment.
He looked at it, at first casually and then more closely.
His face expressed mystification, and suddenly he examined the date minutely and then smiled.
"Very clever, my dear,—very cleverly done, indeed. Did you do it?"
"Oh, no; it is the property of a friend of mine,—it was done by an ancestor of hers. You see it's signed and dated."
"I see! Oh, yes, I see! But you mustn't try to impose on me,—my eyesight is not yet entirely gone!"
"What do you mean, Mr. Greatorex?" Elise was puzzled. "I'm not trying to impose on you!"
"I hope not, my girl, for I wouldn't want to believe such a thing of you. But you have been imposed upon."
"This sampler was worked in 1836, not 1636."
"How do you know?"
"Very easily. Here, you can see for yourself. You see how the figures are made,—ordinary cross stitch. Well, as you know, an eight is worked almost exactly the same as a six, except that it has two more stitches on the upper right-hand side. If those two stitches are picked out of an eight, it turns into a six! Now, I'm sure your young eyes can see that two stitches have been picked out in this instance. See the slight mark where the canvas is the least bit drawn? And see, on the back a fresh stitch was necessary to keep the ends from ravelling. It would pass to a careless observer, but to one accustomed to these things the fraud is plainly evident."
"Oh, Mr. Greatorex," and Elise looked sorrowful, "I don't care so much about the sampler being less valuable than I thought, as I do about having to think the friend who gave it to me would cheat me!"
"Perhaps she didn't. Perhaps somebody cheated her."
"No; she told me her mother gave her this, and that she had had it from her mother and grandmother—and so forth."
"Then I fear your friend knew of the fraud,—though perhaps her mother gave it to her as it is now."
"Can you judge if the stitches were picked out recently?"
"I should say very recently. The canvas is faded, of course, but, as you see, the threads beneath where the missing stitches were is quite a shade lighter. Had the picking been done years ago, the canvas would have assumed a uniform tinge,—or nearly so."
"Of course it would,—I can see that for myself. Oh, dear!—Well, Mr. Greatorex, don't say anything about this, will you?"
"Certainly not. But that's a good sampler, as it stands,—I mean as a specimen of 1836 work."
"Yes, I know it is. And yet, oughtn't the stitches to be put back?"
"Probably not,—for they could not be matched exactly—"
"But if it remains like this, everybody will think it two hundred years older than it really is."
Mr. Greatorex smiled. "Scarcely," he said. "You see, my dear, the earliest known dated sampler is one of 1643 which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in England. There are but six or seven known in that century at all. It would be remarkable, therefore, to find a work of art that would antedate all collections, and yet show the patterns and style of work common less than a hundred years ago!"
"Oh, I understand,—I've read up on the matter somewhat,—but I'm so sorry—oh, I am so sorry!"
Elise looked woe-begone indeed, for she realised that Azalea had, in all probability committed the fraud herself, and with a deliberate intention of deceiving her.
Azalea's own ignorance of the whole matter was so great, that it was not surprising that she thought the mere alteration of the date would make the sampler of greater value. But what broke Elise's heart was the knowledge of Azalea's wilful deception.
She thanked Mr. Greatorex for his explanations and, again asking him not to mention the matter to any one at all, she put the sampler back in the drawer and locked it up.
"Sold my sampler yet, Elise?" Azalea asked, when next they met.
"Yes; I bought it in myself," Elise replied. "I wanted it, so I bought it. I haven't paid for it yet, for I want to know what you consider a fair price?"
Elise looked Azalea straight in the eyes, and was not surprised to note the rising colour in the cheeks of the Indian maiden.
"Why—why," Azalea stammered, "you said it was worth hundreds of dollars—you said that yourself, Elise."
"That was before I knew of your own handiwork on the sampler."
"What do you mean?" cried Azalea, angrily.
"Just what I say. To the work on the sampler, you added a bit more,—or rather, you subtracted some!"
"What do you mean by subtracted some?"
"Now, Azalea, there's no use in your acting like that! You know perfectly well you can't fool me! If you really want to know what I mean, I'll tell you. I mean that you picked out two stitches from the eight to make it look like a six. Didn't you, now?"
"Oh, well, if you've discovered that, I may as well own up. Yes, I did."
"And aren't you ashamed of yourself? Don't you think such a deception a wrong and contemptible thing to do?"
"Oh, pshaw, it was only for a joke. Can't you take a joke, Elise?"
"It wasn't only for a joke. You hoped you would make me think the sampler two hundred years older than it really is! And you thought that would make it much more valuable. Well, you overreached yourself! There were no samplers made—so far as is known—in 1636. So your trick wouldn't fool anybody!"
"All right. There's no harm done, that I can see. My little joke fizzled out,—that's all."
"No, that isn't all. It has proved you are a deceitful girl! You don't mind telling a falsehood!"
"I didn't tell any!"
"Yes, you did! It's an untruth to pretend something is what you know it isn't! If I had sold that to some unsuspecting buyer, for a large price, you wouldn't have said a word! You'd have let it go!"
"Of course; all's fair at a Fair!"
"Oh, don't try to be funny, Azalea; I'm really angry about this matter."
"Huffy, eh? Well, get over it, then! I don't care! Some people like me! Don't they?"
The last question was asked of Raymond Gale, who came walking by.
"Sure; I do!" was the hearty reply. "Who doesn't?"
"Elise," and Azalea pouted at the girl.
"Fiddlesticks!" said Elise, gaily. "Never mind, Azalea, I'll take your joke in good part."
For Elise had suddenly decided that she didn't want to spoil Patty's Fair by having a quarrel with her guest. So, though a good deal perturbed by the sampler incident, she preferred to drop the subject.
Azalea understood, and was glad to be let off so easily, though she felt sure Elise would tell Patty all about it later.
With Azalea, however, out of sight was out of mind, and she walked away with young Gale in a merry mood.
As they strolled along, a man stepped toward them, and raising his cap in a respectful way, asked Azalea if he might have a few words with her, alone.
He had a business-like air, and though polite, was, quite evidently, not a man of social position.
Gale stared at him, and Azalea grew very red and confused.
"I—well—not just now," she said, hesitatingly. "I'll see you some other time."
"No, miss, that won't do," The man was courteous, but decided,—and had a manner that bespoke authority.
"If I'm in the way, I'll vanish," Raymond said, laughing a little.
"Well—if you will—" Azalea looked at him beseechingly. "I'll explain later."
So Gale walked off by himself and Azalea turned a troubled face to the man.
"Mr. Merritt," she said, "I can't have anything more to do with the whole affair. I'm quite sure my relatives here wouldn't approve of it, and I can't keep the matter secret any longer."
"But you must come, Miss Thorpe. By a strange coincidence you are greatly needed. Miss Frawley has broken her ankle—"
"She has!" Azalea's eyes sparkled, "Oh,—I don't mean I'm not sorry for her,—I am, indeed! But—"
"But it gives you a chance! A wonderful chance,—and if you can make good—"
"Oh, I can! I will! Shall I come now?"
"No; but you must come to-morrow morning at nine, sharp. Will you?"
"Indeed I will! I'll be there on time."
"And tell your people about it,—don't you think you'd better?"
"Oh," Azalea's face fell. "I don't know. Suppose they refuse to let me go!"
"How can they? They have no real control over you."
"No,—but I'd hate to go against their expressed disapproval."
"Nonsense! This is your first chance at a career. Don't muff it, now! Why, just your skill at archery is enough to put you over! It's the very place for you! Western doings, riding, shooting, lassoing, all sorts of bareback, daredevil stunts—"
"I know—I know. Yes, I'll be there to-morrow. You go, now,—here comes my cousin."
With a quick glance at Farnsworth, who was approaching, the man walked swiftly away.
"Who is he?" Bill asked, as he came up to Azalea.
"Friend of mine," she answered, gaily.
"What's his name?"
"I know it is, and I expect to be told."
"People don't always get all they expect."
"Don't trifle with me, Azalea; I'm not in a trifling mood. Who was that man?"
"Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies. Now, now, Cousin William, you know yourself, it's very rude to insist on prying into other folks' secrets!"
"Why is it a secret? What possible business can a man like that have with you,—that I can't know about?"
"Why do you say 'a man like that'? He's all right."
"All right is a vague term. He's not one of our sort."
"Don't be a snob! Remember you were born and brought up in the West, just as much as I was. And although you've now got to living high and mighty, you needn't look down on me or my friends!"
"You're talking rubbish, Azalea. That man is not your friend,—he was talking to you on some business matter."
"I'm not a business woman!"
"You're not a woman at all! You're a young girl, and a very silly one,—to have secret dealings with a common-looking man. Now, as your temporary guardian, I insist you tell me all about it"
"'Temporary guardian' is good! Who appointed you?"
"I'm that by reason of your being a guest in my house, and too in view of the fact that you have, apparently, nobody to look after you. Your father has mysteriously disappeared. You've had no word from him since you've been here! So far as I know, you have no other relatives, and so, as your nearest of kin, I propose to look after you,—if you will let me. Don't be foolish, Azalea, dear," Farnsworth's voice took on a tender tone, "don't be antagonistic. I want to help you, not annoy you. Why not look on me as a friend, and let me know all you're about? There can be no reason why I shouldn't."