"You might not approve," and Azalea looked at him uncertainly.
"Why? Are you up to anything wrong?"
"No," but she spoke hesitatingly, "not wrong, Cousin, but—all the same, you might not approve."
"Tell me, and let me see. If it isn't wrong, I'll promise not to censure you, even if I don't entirely approve."
Azalea's attention was attracted by the man who had lately left her. He stood behind Farnsworth and made gestures that informed Azalea she was not to let his presence be known. So she continued to talk to Bill, but also kept the other man in view.
His procedure was somewhat strange. He pretended to be holding a baby, cuddling an imaginary child in his arms. Then he tossed the non-existent little one up in the air, and pretended to catch it again.
Then he nodded to Azalea. She shook her head negatively and very vigorously.
He nodded peremptorily and insistently. Again she shook her head, and as she did so Farnsworth wheeled suddenly and saw the man.
Angrily, he made a dash for him, but the stranger was agile and alert, and ran swiftly away and out of the grounds to the street.
Farnsworth looked at Azalea coldly. "So you were holding communication with him, over my shoulder! This is a little too much, Azalea, and now the crisis has been reached. Either you give me a full explanation of your business with him, or you bring your visit here to an end. I cannot have you in my house, if you are deceitful and insincere. I stand by my offer; I will listen willingly to your story, and judge you most leniently. I don't really believe you are up to anything wrong. But a secret is always mysterious and I hold that you are too young and inexperienced to have secrets from your elders."
"I have nothing to confess or confide, Cousin William," said Azalea, putting on a haughty air. "I refuse to be accused of wrong-doing, when I am not guilty of it,—and I will bring my visit here to an end at once! I will leave to-morrow!"
"Oh, pshaw, Zaly, don't go off so suddenly!" Farnsworth laughed lightly, for he had said a little more than he meant to, and he realised, too, that this was neither the time nor the place to have such a serious talk with the girl.
"Come along now, and have tea with us all in the tea-house," he said. "Forget your bad, cruel cousin's scoldy ways, and as to the mysterious man, I'll trust your word that he's all right."
"Oh, thank you, Cousin!" Azalea fairly beamed now. "How good you are! I'll tell you all about it,—some day!"
So the matter rested for the moment, and the two went to join the merry group around the tea-table.
The Fair drew to a brilliant close. The second evening was even more gay and festive than the first. Everything was sold out,—or, if not, it was disposed of by auction after the time-honoured method of Fairs.
Much money had been accumulated for the good cause, and though tired, the workers were jubilant over the success of Vanity Fair.
"I shall sleep late to-morrow morning," declared Patty, as, after all the guests were gone, the house party started for bed.
"Me, too," agreed Elise. "I'm glad you haven't anybody staying here but us. No house guests, I mean, but just Zaly and me."
"I'm glad, too," said Patty. "You see, I expected Father and Nan, but they've changed their plans and will remain in California another month."
"They're having a gorgeous trip, aren't they?"
"Yes, indeed, but I wish they'd ever get home! Just think, Father has never seen Fleurette!"
"She'll be a big girl when they do see her. She's growing like a little weed."
"Like a little flower, you mean! Don't you just love her name, Elise?"
"Fleurette? Little Flower? Of course I do. The sweetest ever. Does Bill still call you Patty Blossom?"
"Yes, at times. Oh, he calls me 'most any old thing! He makes up new names for both of us every day! Come along, Zaly, you're dropping from sheer weariness. Time for little girls like you to go beddy!"
Affectionately Patty put her arm round the girl, and led her away upstairs.
"Sleep well," she said, as she left Azalea in her own room. "And don't come downstairs in the morning before ten or eleven. I'm sure I shan't. The servants will clear everything up, and Bill will oversee it. I hate the aftermath of a Fair,—don't you?"
Azalea nodded agreement, and Patty kissed her good-night and went off.
But it was only eight o'clock the next morning when Azalea crept softly downstairs. She was neatly attired in a cloth suit, with a fresh white shirtwaist and a pretty hat.
She was not at all sleepy or weary-looking and she went out through the pantry to the kitchen.
"Please give me a cup of coffee," she said to the cook, who was just beginning her day's work.
She looked in amazement at Azalea, for she had had no orders over night to serve an early breakfast.
"I'll get you something as quick as I can," she said, good-naturedly. "I didn't know you was going to town, Miss Thorpe."
"Just decided," said Azalea, carelessly; "and I don't want breakfast,—only a cup of coffee and a bit of toast. There's a good cookie."
Smiling at the cajolery, the cook bustled about and soon had an appetising little repast ready. Azalea gratefully accepted the poached egg and the marmalade in addition to what she had requested, and in a short time had finished and prepared to depart.
But she did not ask for one of the Farnsworth motor-cars; instead, she walked swiftly out of the gate and down the street toward the trolley line.
She waited for a car and when it came she got aboard and settled down for a long ride.
At last she got out and a short walk brought her to her destination. This was nothing more nor less than a great moving-picture studio.
There were a number of people about, all very busy and intent on what they were doing.
Azalea seemed to be known, for two or three nodded pleasantly to her as she went swiftly along to the office.
There she presented herself, and was received by Mr. Bixby, the man who had one day called on her at Wistaria Porch.
"Well, Miss Thorpe," he said, briskly, "I suppose you heard the news. Miss Frawley has broken her ankle—"
"Yes, I heard that," said Azalea, with a sympathetic look.
"And we think we want to put you in her place,—at least, for a trial."
"I'm glad to try," Azalea said, earnestly. "I'll do my best to make good. But I can't bring the baby again."
"Oh, pshaw, yes you can,—just once more, anyway. But never mind that now. We must see about your own part. You know there's danger, Miss Thorpe?"
"Miss Frawley braved the danger," Azalea said, quietly.
"Yes, and Miss Frawley broke her ankle."
"I know; and I may break mine, but I'll take the chance. I am not afraid,—though I well know that accidents may happen. What was Miss Frawley doing?"
"It was in that climbing scene. You know she climbs the sheer precipice of rock. There are hidden spikes driven into the rock for her feet, of course, but she missed one, and fell."
"I'll be as careful as I can, but I may miss it, too."
"In that case, we'll have to get some one else," said Mr. Bixby, coolly. "Are you ready for work?"
"Oh, yes," and then Azalea was shown to the dressing-rooms.
This was her secret. For years she had wanted to be a moving-picture actress, and she had hoped before she left Arizona for New York that she might get an opportunity to take up the work. She had expected to begin with minor parts, and hoped by her skill and earnest efforts to attain eminence.
On the train, coming East, she had formed an acquaintance with Mr. Bixby and his wife, who were in the business. As their studio was not far from the Farnsworth home, Azalea had made plans with them to engage in the work.
She had carried out these plans, and had been over to the studios several times, taking parts in which they needed a substitute.
She had done so well and had shown such promise that Mr. Bixby urged her to become a regular actress in his company.
But Azalea was so uncertain as to how Patty and Bill would regard such a move on her part, that she had so far kept the matter to herself.
Then, when the star actress had met with an accident, and the management had concluded to offer Azalea her place, it was a great chance for the girl.
She had come over this morning to give it a trial, entirely at sea as to her subsequent attitude toward the Farnsworths.
She thought she would be guided by circumstances as to whether she would confide all to them, or whether she would continue her secrecy as to her movements.
Mrs. Bixby attended to her in the dressing-room. All of Miss Frawley's costumes, it was found, could be altered to fit Azalea.
As one in a dream, the girl stood to be fitted, while seamstresses and modistes hovered about her.
Then she was informed that the work that day would be only rehearsing and the pictures would not actually be taken until her costumes were ready.
Submissively she did exactly as she was told, and so well did she act the parts assigned her, that Mr. Bixby expressed hearty approval.
Azalea was there nearly all day, and when at last she turned her face homeward, a great dismay seized her.
"What's the matter, child?" asked kindly Mrs. Bixby, who was saying good-bye.
"Oh, I don't know what to do!" Azalea was tempted to tell the director's wife all her troubles.
But Mrs. Bixby was a busy lady, and she said, "Not now, dearie. You skittle home, and to-morrow maybe I can take a couple hours off to hear your tale of woe. You know you've already told me your swagger relatives would throw a fit if they knew what you were up to. Well, I guess it's about fit time!"
Azalea disliked her style of speech, but Mrs. Bixby was kind hearted, and she had hoped to have her for a confidante. However, there was no chance then, for Mrs. Bixby hustled her off to the trolley-car, and Azalea went home to Wistaria Porch.
"STAR OF THE WEST"
All the way home Azalea wondered how she would be received.
Both Patty and Bill were somewhat suspicious of her and would naturally question her as to where she had been all day. She was tempted to tell them the whole truth and throw herself on their mercy, and but for one thing she would have done so. This was the fact that she had previously taken the baby, Fleurette, over to the studios and had used the child in the pictures.
This she felt quite sure the Farnsworths would not forgive.
Azalea would not have done it, if it had occurred to her at first how the parents would resent such use of their child. But Mr. Bixby had needed a very young baby in a certain picture and Azalea, anxious to please, had offered to bring Fleurette over. She was herself so devoted to the little one and so careful of her, she felt no fear of any harm coming to her. Nor did it, for the infant was good and tractable, and did all that was required of her without any trouble. However, little was required except for her to coo and gurgle in one scene, and to lie quietly asleep in another.
But there was one more short scene where Azalea had to rescue the baby from a burning house. To be sure the flames were artificial and there was no danger from the fire, but the baby was thrown from an upper window, and caught by Azalea, who stood down on the ground.
So accustomed was Fleurette to being tossed about, and so familiar to her was the frolicking with Azalea that she made no objections and was a most delightful addition to the picture.
But something happened to the film, and the director was most anxious to take the scene over again.
Azalea, however, positively refused to take Fleurette again to the studio. She knew how she would be censured, should it be found out, and now Nurse Winnie and the two Farnsworths, as well as Elise, were all watching for anything mysterious that Azalea might do.
She felt almost as if she were living over a slumbering volcano, that might at any moment blow her up. For Elise, she felt sure, would not keep the sampler incident to herself, and if Farnsworth heard of it he would be newly angry at that deception.
So Azalea's delight at her success with the moving-picture company was very much tempered with dismay at her position in the Farnsworth household.
She was almost tempted to run away from them altogether and shift for herself.
Indeed, she practically decided, as she rode in the trolley-car, that if they were hard on her when she reached home, she would run away. Of a wayward disposition and without really good early training, Azalea thought only of herself, and selfishly desired her own advancement without thought or regard for other people.
But, to her pleased surprise, when she entered the gate she heard gay voices on the verandah, and knew that guests were there,—and several of them.
Unwilling to meet them in her street clothes, she slipped around to the back entrance and went in at the servants' door.
"I don't want to appear until I can dress," she explained to the cook, and went upstairs by a back way.
Half an hour later, a very different looking Azalea went down the front staircase and out onto the porch.
She wore a becoming dress of flowered organdie, with knots of bright velvet, and her pretty hair was carefully arranged.
Smiling and happy-looking, she met the guests and greeted them with a graceful cordiality.
"Where have you been?" cried Elise, but Azalea ignored the question and quickly spoke to some one else.
Mona and Roger Farrington were there, and Philip Van Reypen and Chick Channing. This quartette had motored up from New York to dine, and Patty had already persuaded them to say they would stay over night.
"I'm crazy for a house party," she said, "haven't had one for 'most a week! Oh, yes. I've a couple of house guests, but I mean a real party. Let's make it a week-end, and have lots of fun!"
The visitors were entirely willing, and after telephoning home for additional apparel, they settled down to enjoy themselves.
As they hadn't much more than accomplished this settling when Azalea arrived, there was no comment made on her absence all day.
In fact, Patty rather forgot about it, in the multitude of her conferences with the housekeeper and the maids.
Farnsworth said nothing in the presence of the guests, and Elise, after her first exclamation, subsided.
In fact, Elise was more interested in the society of Channing and Van Reypen than in the mystery of Azalea's disappearances.
Betty and Ray Gale had been telephoned for, and they came gladly, so that at dinner there was quite a big party.
"You certainly are a great little old hostess, Patty!" exclaimed Roger Farrington, as they seated themselves at table. "I liked you heaps as a girl, but as mistress of a fine house you are even more charming."
"Thank you, Sir Hubert Stanley!" smiled Patty; "and I'm glad to admit that I learned a lot about managing a house from your gifted wife. Do you remember, Mona, how we kept house down at 'Red Chimneys'?"
"Indeed I do!" Mona answered, "what fun we had that summer!"
"I'll subscribe to that!" declared Farnsworth, "for it was then and there that I met the lady who is now my wife! And,—I kissed her the moment I saw her!"
"Oh, Cousin William!" cried Azalea, "did you really? What did she say?"
"Flew at me like a small cyclone of wrath! But as I had mistaken her for my cousin Mona, she couldn't hold me very guilty."
"Yes! A lot Patty looks like me!" said Mona, who was a dark-haired beauty.
"But I didn't see her face," pleaded Bill; "I just saw a girl on the verandah of your house, Mona, and I took it for granted it was you!"
"It's all ancient history," said Patty, laughing. "And, to tell the truth, I'm glad it happened,—for otherwise, I mightn't have become interested in—Mona's cousin."
"Then I bless my mistake!" said Farnsworth, so fervently that Patty shook her head at him.
"Mustn't talk so before folks," she said, reprovingly. "Now, people all, what shall we do with this lovely evening? It's moonlight, so any who are romantically inclined can ramble about the place, and flirt in the arbours,—while those who prefer can play bridge or—the piano. Or just sit and chat."
"Me for the last!" cried Mona. "I've oceans to talk about with you, Patty. Can't we play all by ourselves for a little while?"
"Certainly," said Patty, as she rose from the table. "Mona and I are going to sit on the wistaria porch and gossip for half an hour. After that, we're all going to dance,—and maybe sing."
"Good enough programme," agreed Van Reypen. "For one half-hour, then, each may do as he or she wishes!"
"Yes, if you all promise to be back here in half an hour."
"Make it an hour, Patty," laughed Elise, who had her own plans.
"All right," said Patty, carelessly, who cared only that her guests should enjoy themselves.
"I want to tell you something," Mona said, as she and Patty at last were alone on the porch. "Who is Azalea?"
"I call that asking, not telling," laughed Patty; "however, I'll reply. She is Bill's cousin,—not first cousin, but the daughter of his father's cousin. So you see,—a distant cousin. Why?"
"I'll tell you why. Roger and I go to the 'movies' sometimes,—and in a picture, the other night, we saw Azalea."
"Saw Azalea! You mean some one who looked like her."
"No; Azalea Thorpe herself! Roger and I both knew her at once. And it was quite a new picture,—taken recently, I mean. Did you know she did such things?"
"No, and I can't think she does. It must have been only a remarkable resemblance, Mona."
"No, Patty. We're positive. And, too, she was doing Wild West stunts,—riding bareback, shooting, throwing a lariat,—all those things,—and Azalea can, you know."
"Yes, I know; and there is something queer going on. It may be that when Azalea goes off for a day or part of a day, that's where she goes. But I can hardly believe it. And why does she keep it so secret?"
"I suppose she thinks you and Bill wouldn't approve."
"And we certainly would not! I don't think it can be possible, Mona. But don't say anything to anybody,—not even to Little Billee,—until I can talk to Azalea, myself. I can do lots with her, alone, but not if anybody else is present."
"Where is she now?"
"Gone for a moonlight stroll with Phil. He's decidedly taken with her."
"Yes, I know it. He said so on the way up here. He thinks she's a fine girl—and he admires those careless, unconventional ways of hers."
"Well, I don't," Patty sighed. "I like Azalea for lots of things,—she's good company and kind-hearted,—and she's devoted to Baby,—but I can't like those free and easy manners! But she's a whole lot better than when she first came! Then she was really a wild Indian! I've been able to tone her down a little."
"You've done wonders for her, Patty. She ought to be very grateful."
Patty made a wry face. "No, she isn't grateful. People never are grateful for that sort of thing. And she doesn't even know she's different! I've had to train her without her own knowledge! But she's chameleon-like, in some ways, and she picks up a lot just from being with mannerly people."
"She does indeed! She's quite correct now,—in her actual doings. It's only in some burst of enthusiasm that she oversteps the bounds of propriety. Well, that's all. I thought I'd tell you,—for it isn't right that you shouldn't know. And there's no mistake. There's only one Azalea Thorpe."
"Was her name on the programme?"
"No; she didn't have a star part,—not even a named part. She was one of a crowd,—cowboys, ranch girls, and a general horde of 'woollies.' Don't accuse her of it, Patty; get around her and see what she says."
"Goodness, Mona, give me credit for a little tact! I'll find out in the best way. What was the name of the play?"
"'Star of the West.' A splendid thing,—have you seen it?"
"No; we almost never go."
"Oh, we go a lot, we love moving pictures."
"I'd like to see this one,—before I speak to Azalea. Is it on now?"
"Yes, at The Campanile. Let's go down to-morrow,—just you and me. We can be back in a couple of hours."
"Well, I'll see. Probably I can go."
In the meantime, Azalea and Van Reypen were talking of the same play.
"I saw a picture play last night," Phil was saying, "with a girl in it that looked exactly like you."
"What was the play?" asked Azalea, interestedly.
"'Star of the West.' It was a good play, but I was most interested in the girl I speak of. She was really your double,—but she did things that I don't believe you could compass,—athletic as you are."
"I'd like to see it," said Azalea, thoughtfully.
"Oh, go with me, will you? I'm going to stay up here over the week-end,—and we could skip down to-morrow afternoon, and be back by dinner time."
"I'd love to go,—but Patty doesn't greatly approve of the 'movies.'"
"Oh, never mind that. You've a right to go, if you choose. And you needn't say where we're going, till we get back. Say we're going to take in a matinee."
"Well, I'll go," Azalea said decidedly, "for I'm crazy to see that play. What's the girl's name?"
"Dunno. It wasn't on the bill. But, truly, Azalea, you'll be surprised to see how much like you she is!"
Azalea hesitated. She knew it was taking a great risk to go with Phil, but she was most anxious to see how she looked on the screen.
This, she knew, was the first picture released in which she had taken a part. It was only a small part, but she had done well, the manager said, and that had been the reason for her further advancement.
She had wanted to see it over at the studio, but her visits there had been so hurried, and she had been so eager to get back, she never dared take the time to see the pictures exhibited.
The two returned to the house, and Patty greeted them gaily.
"Well, wanderers, you're the last of the company to report! Where have you been?"
"Surveying your domain, ma'am," Phil replied; "it's most beautiful by moonlight,—especially when viewed in company with a fair lady."
He bowed gallantly to Azalea, who was looking her best,—a slight blush of excitement on her cheeks at the compliment.
"It is lovely," she said; "the house, from the west lawn, is a wonderful picture! Patty, Mr. Van Reypen has asked me to go to New York with him to-morrow afternoon,—to a matinee. May I?"
"Certainly, my child. And as Mona and I are going down in the early afternoon, we'll all go together in the big car."
Then all went to the hall for a dance. The large reception hall was admirably adapted for this purpose, and the strains of a fine phonograph soon set all feet in motion.
Dancing with Raymond Gale, Azalea pirouetted gaily with some fancy steps.
"Good!" he cried, falling into the spirit of the thing, and they pranced about in a mad whirl.
"How Western she is," Elise said to Phil, with whom she was sedately one-stepping.
"Clever dancer," he returned, briefly, and the subject was not continued.
"Come for a walk," said Gale to Azalea, as the dance was over.
"No; let's sit on the porch a minute," she preferred.
"Come along to this end, then, for I want to say something particular," he urged, and they found a pleasant seat, from which they could see the moon through the leafy wistaria branches.
"Look here, Azalea," Gale began, "I know what you're up to,—with the Bixbys."
"What!" Azalea's voice was full of fear.
"Yes, and there's no reason you should be so secretive about it."
"Oh, Raymond,—there is reason! Don't tell on me, will you?"
"Of course not,—if you forbid it. But when Farnsworth asks me, what am I to say?"
"What does he ask you?"
"Who the Bixbys are. And other awkward questions. You see, I know old Bixby,—and I knew as soon as I saw him here that day that he had drawn you into his snares."
"Don't put it that way—I wasn't exactly drawn in."
"Well, you're in, all right. Why, Azalea, I saw you in a picture in New York, night before last."
"Yes; in 'Star of the West.' Don't try to fib out of it—"
"Now you needn't get mad! I know you're not entirely above a little fibbing, now and then!"
"I think I'll go in the house,—I don't like you."
"Oh, Zaly, behave yourself. Be a sensible girl, and face the music! Why don't you own it all up, and tell Farnsworth the whole story? It isn't a criminal thing to act in the 'movies.'"
"They think it is,—Bill and Patty. They'd never forgive me!"
"Oh, pshaw, they would, too! Anyway, I want you to do it,—tell 'em, I mean. Won't you, Zaly,—won't you,—for my sake?"
Gale was sincere and earnest, and Azalea thrilled to the strong tenderness in his voice as he urged her.
But she hesitated to consent.
"I can't, Ray," she said, at last. "Truly, I can't. They'd—they'd turn me off—"
"Oh, Azalea, what nonsense! They'd do no such thing!"
"Yes, they would. You don't know Bill. He's good and generous and kind,—but he hates anything like deceit,—and almost worse, he hates the whole moving-picture racket. I don't mean the pictures themselves, exactly,—but the idea of anybody of his being in them. And, oh, Ray,—it isn't only myself,—but I took—I took—"
"I know,—you took the kiddy."
"Yes, I did. It didn't seem any harm, at first, and then, one day when I brought her home,—she was sleepy,—unusually so, I mean, and Nurse said she had been given soothing sirup,—and—I found out afterward she had! Mrs. Bixby had given her some, to keep her quiet in the picture, you know. Of course, I never dreamed of such a thing,—why, Ray, that little girl is as dear to me,—almost,—as she is to Patty! I wouldn't harm a hair of her blessed little curly head! And I'd never have allowed a drop of that sirup, if I'd known it! But I just gave her to Mrs. Bixby to hold, while I changed my costume,—Mrs. Bixby seems a good woman—"
"Oh, come now, I don't believe it hurt the child."
"You don't know anything about such things. I don't know much, but I know they must never have a bit of that stuff! Anyway, Ray?—we must go in now,—don't give my secret away until I give you permission, will you?"
"No; if you'll promise to think it over and try to believe what I've told you,—that it's best to tell all."
"All right, I'll promise that, and I may decide to tell. But I want to wait until after to-morrow, anyway."
AT THE PICTURE PLAY
By a little adroit manoeuvring Van Reypen managed things so that he and Azalea did not go to New York in the motor with Patty and Mona, but went down by themselves in the train.
For Azalea was most anxious that Patty should not know she was going to the moving pictures, and especially that she was going to see "Star of the West."
It had already become a popular picture and was drawing crowds. And though Azalea's part in it was a small one, yet her work was so good that one or two reviews had mentioned it approvingly.
Azalea had hoped that it would be possible to let Van Reypen continue in his mistaken impression that the girl on the screen was not herself, but some one who looked marvellously like her.
But the first sight of herself in the play so thrilled Azalea that she was unable to repress an exclamation of surprised delight.
"It is you, Azalea!" whispered Phil, realising the truth. "How did you manage it? Oh, you wonderful girl!"
Azalea looked at him in astonishment. In the dim light of the theatre she could see his face glowing with pride and pleasure.
She gave a little gasp. "Oh, Phil, aren't you—I mean—are you glad about it?"
"I don't know,—Azalea,—it seems so queer—but, oh, look at that! Did you really do that, Azalea!"
For the girl on the screen had flung herself, bareback, on a vicious, bucking pony, and holding on by his mane, went through the most hairbreadth escapes, yet was not thrown. Indeed, she finally tamed the wild creature, and dashed madly off on her errand. This was the rescue of a baby who had been left behind, when those who should have looked after the child were themselves fleeing from a cyclone.
The scene was remarkably well staged, and the illusion of the cyclone wonderfully worked out.
The baby, left to the care of servants, was in a lightly built house that rocked in the blasts. It threatened to collapse at any minute, and Azalea, racing against time, in the face of the gale, spurred on her flying steed, and reached the house just as it crashed to ruins.
Flinging herself from the horse, she dashed into the piles of debris, and, the gale nearly blowing her off her feet, contrived to find the child.
Of course, in the taking of the picture, Fleurette had been in no danger whatever; in fact, had not been in the falling house at all, until time for Azalea to find her in the ruins.
But this was not apparent to the audience. To them it seemed that the baby must have been there all the time.
Van Reypen sat breathless, watching the screen with rapt attention.
He thought little of the baby's danger, knowing the methods of making pictures, but he was lost in admiration of Azalea, her fine athletic figure, and her free, strong motions, as she battled with the winds and triumphantly snatched the baby from harm.
Then, the child in one arm, she flung herself again on the pony's back, the animal prancing wildly, but tractable beneath Azalea's determined guidance, and they were off like the wind itself to a place of safety. The wild ride was picturesque, if frightful, and there was a burst of applause from the spectators, as Azalea, panting, exhausted, but safe, at last reached her goal, and leaning down from the horse, placed the baby in the arms of its weeping, distracted mother.
Azalea's beauty was of the sort that needs excitement or physical exertion to bring out its best effects and as she stood beside the quivering, spent horse, her own heart beating quickly, her own breath coming hard, she was a picture of vivid beauty.
Her dress was disordered, her hair hung in loosened coils, her collar was half torn off by the wind, but the happy smile and the justifiable pride in her success lighted up her countenance till it was fairly radiant.
"By cricky, you're stunning!" exclaimed Phil, under his breath, as he grasped her hand in congratulation.
And so, because of his praise and appreciation Azalea forgot her fears of censure from the Farnsworths and gave herself up to the delights of the moment.
She would not have felt so comfortable had she heard Patty's remarks at sight of the picture.
Patty and Mona had come to the theatre later than Azalea, and had been given seats on the other side of the large house. The darkness, too, made it unlikely that they should see each other, and so Azalea remained in blissful ignorance of Patty's presence.
* * * * *
"Of course, it's Azalea," Patty said to Mona, the moment the girl appeared on the screen. "I—oh, I don't know what to think about it,—but, isn't she splendid!"
"She is! That rig is most becoming to her, and she has such poise,—so strong and free, yet graceful."
"She's certainly at her best."
"Of course, the director saw her possibilities and has brought out all her best points. How pretty her hair is,—loose, like that."
"Yes, she's a real beauty,—of the true breezy, Western type. But, Mona, what will Bill say? I do believe I shall feel more lenient about it all than he will! He is conservative, you know, for all his Western bringing up. Oh, my gracious, Mona, what's she doing now?"
"She'll kill herself with that wild horse! She never can get on his back!"
In a state of great excitement, they watched Azalea's skilful management of the pony and clutched each other's hands in speechless fear as she tore through the gale to rescue her brother's child.
And then—when at last Azalea emerged from the tumbled-down ruin of the little old house, with a baby in her arms, Patty gave a cry of startled fear, and then clapped her hand over her mouth, lest her dismay be too evident to those sitting near by.
"Mona!" she whispered, "it's Fleurette!"
"No! I don't believe it! You can't tell,—such a little baby—they all look alike,—you're imagining, Patty—"
"It is! it is! That's where they went when Azalea took Baby off for a whole day,—and two or three times for an afternoon or a morning! Oh, I can't stand it!"
Patty buried her face in her hands and refused to look up while Azalea rode the galloping horse, with the child held fast in one arm.
Mona felt it must be true. To be sure she couldn't really recognise Fleurette's face, but she was certain that Patty's mother heart could make no mistake, and it was small wonder that she was overcome at seeing her child in such scenes.
"Hush, Patty," said Mona, as Patty's sobs began to sound hysterical, "hush,—this is only a picture, you know,—this isn't really Fleurette,—she is safe at home—"
"But she must have been here! Azalea must have carried her, really—on that terrific horse! They couldn't have got the pictures if she hadn't!"
"Well, it's all right, anyway. It didn't hurt the baby—"
"Oh, hush, Mona! you don't know what I'm suffering! I guess if your baby had been taken off and put through such awful doings, you'd know what I feel! My baby,—my little flower baby! In that awful crashing, tumbling down old shanty! Oh, I can't stand it!"
"Let's go out, Patty, there's no reason for us to stay longer."
"Yes, let's," and gathering up her wraps, Patty rose to go.
They made their way out of the dark, crowded place, and finding the motor-car, they went straight home.
Once there, Patty flew to the nursery, and fairly snatching the baby from Nurse Winnie's arms, she held it close, and crooned loving little broken songs.
"You're all right," Mona said, laughing at her. "You've got your baby, safe and sound,—now just sit down there and enjoy her for a while."
This Patty gladly did, and Mona went in search of Farnsworth.
She finally found him, down in a distant garden, where he was looking after some planting matters.
"Come along o' me," she said, smiling at him.
Wonderingly Farnsworth looked up.
"Thought you girls went to the city," he said.
"We did,—also, we returned. Patty is in the nursery, and I want a few minutes' talk with you."
"O.K.," and the big man gave some parting instructions to a gardener and then went off with Mona. She led him to a nearby arbour, and commenced at once.
"You and I are old friends," she said, "and so I'm going to take an old friend's privilege and give you some advice, and also ask a few questions. First, who is Azalea?"
"My two or three times removed cousin."
"Are you sure?"
Farnsworth looked at her. "What do you mean, Mona?"
"What I say; are you sure?"
"Funny thing to ask. Well,—I am and—I'm not."
"Now, what do you mean?"
"I'll tell you." And then he told her how queer he thought it that Azalea had had no letters from her father since her arrival,—nor any letters at all from Horner's Corners.
"And she's so sly about it," he wound up; "why once she wrote a letter to herself, and pretended it was from her father!"
"I can't make it out," Mona mused. "If her father were dead, she'd have no reason to conceal the fact. Nor if he had remarried. And if he has done anything disgraceful—maybe that's it, Bill! Maybe he's in jail!"
"I've thought of that, Mona, and, of course, it's a possibility. That would explain her not getting letters, and her unwillingness to tell the reason. But,—somehow, it isn't very plausible. Why shouldn't she confide in me? I've begged her to,—and no matter what Uncle Thorpe may have done, it's no real reflection on Azalea."
"No; but now I've something to tell you about the girl."
Mona gave him a full account of the moving-picture play that she and Patty had visited, and told him, too, of Patty's distress over the pictures of Fleurette.
Farnsworth was greatly amazed, but, like Mona, he knew Patty could not be mistaken as to the identity of Fleurette.
"And I just thought," Mona went on, "that I'd tell you before Patty did,—for,—oh, well, this is my real reason,—Patty is so wrought up and so wild over the Fleurette matter that she can't judge Azalea fairly,—and I don't want to have injustice done to her at this stage of the game. For, Bill, Azalea has real talent,—real dramatic genius, I think, and if there's no reason against it,—except conventional ones,—I think she ought to be allowed to become a motion-picture actress. She's bound to make good,—she has the right sort of a face for the screen,—beautiful, mobile, expressive, and really, a speaking countenance. Why, she'd make fame and fortune, I'm positive."
"Oh, Mona! what utter rubbish! One of our people in the 'movies'! Impossible!"
"I knew you'd say that! And I know Patty will say—oh, good Heavens, I don't know what Patty will say! But I do know this; she would have been sensible and would have felt just as I do about it, if it hadn't been for the Fleurette part of it. Before the baby appeared on the screen Patty was really delighted with Azalea. She was enthusiastic about her talent and her beauty,—really, Bill, she looked very beautiful in the pictures."
"Oh, Zaly is good-looking enough. But her taking our baby is—why, there's no term suitable! Where is Azalea!"
"I hope nowhere near, while you look like that!" and Mona laughed. "Your expression is positively murderous!"
"I feel almost that way! Just think, Mona, Azalea is my relative! I inflicted her on Patty, poor little Patty—"
"Oh, come now, Bill, don't overdo it! Azalea was most daring and even foolish, but not criminal. You know how she loves that child, and you know she wouldn't let harm come near her."
"But accidents might happen, for all Azalea's care and watchfulness—"
"I know that, but an accident might happen to Winnie when she takes Baby out in her coach!"
"Are you standing up for Azalea?"
"That's just what I'm doing! I'm glad you've got it through your head at last. And I ask this of you, old friend. Whatever you do or say to Azalea, think it well over beforehand. If you talk to Patty, as she is feeling now you'll both be ready to tar and feather poor Zaly; and, truly, she doesn't deserve it! Please, Bill, go slow,—and be just. Be generous if you can,—but at any rate, be just. That's all I ask. And you can't be just if you act on impulse,—so, go slow. Will you?"
"Yes, Mona,—there's my hand on it We're not often over-impulsive,—Patty and I,—but in this case we may be,—might have been,—if you hadn't warned me. You're a good girl, Mona, and I thank you for your foresight and real kindness,"
And so Farnsworth went in search of Patty with a resolve to try to reason out the matter with a fair consideration of all sides of it.
He found his wife and daughter in the nursery.
Patty had sent Winnie off, feeling that she must hold Fleurette in her arms for some time, in order to realise that she was safe from the whirling winds of that awful cyclone!
When Bill appeared, Patty began at once, and launched forth a full description of the picture play, and of Azalea's and Fleurette's parts in it.
Farnsworth sat looking at her, his blue eyes full of a contented admiration. To this simple-minded, big-hearted man, his wife and child represented the whole world. All he had, all he owned, he valued only for the pleasure it might mean to them.
"Darling," he said, as she finished the tale, "what do you think about it all?"
"Mona's been talking to you!" Patty cried, with sudden intuition.
"What! How do you know? You clair-voyant!"
"Of course I know," and Patty wagged a wise head at him. "First, because you're not sufficiently surprised,—she told you all about it! And second, because you're not furious at Azalea! Mona has talked you around to her way of thinking,—which is, that Azalea is a genius,—and that—"
"That Fleurette is another! Think of being on the screen at the tender age of six months!"
"You're a wretch! you're a monster! you're a—a—dromedary!"
Patty was feeling decidedly better about the whole matter. Having sat for nearly an hour, holding and fondling her idolised child, she realised that whatever Fleurette had gone through, she was safe now,—and that whatever was to be done to Azalea by way of punishment, was more Bill's affair than hers.
"You don't care two cents for your wonder-child! Your own little buttercup,—your daffy-downdilly baby!" she cried, in pretended reproof, and then Farnsworth took Fleurette and tossed her about until she squealed with glee.
"Oh, I guess we'll keep her," he said, as he handed her back to her mother's arms. "She's the paragon baby of the whole world, even if I don't appreciate her."
"Oh, you do! you do!" exclaimed Patty, remorseful now at having teased him. "And now, Sweet William, what's your idea of a right and proper punishment for Cousin Azalea?"
"That's a matter for some thought," he responded, mindful of Mona's words. "Look here, Patty, quite aside from Fleurette's connection with this case,—what's your opinion of Zaly as a 'movie' star?"
"She's great, dear,—she really is. And—if she weren't our relative—"
"Our relative, I should advise her to go in for the thing seriously; but,—I may be over-conservative,—even snobbish, but I do hate to have our cousin's portrait all over the fences and ashbarrels, and in all the Sunday papers, and—"
"I don't mind that publicity so much as I do the possible effects on Azalea's life. I don't know that the career of a 'movie' star is as full of dangerous pitfalls as the theatrical line, but—I hate to see Azalea subjected to them,—for her own sake."
"I'm not sure we'll have anything to say in the matter," Patty observed, thoughtfully.
"She may take the bit in her own teeth. After seeing her break that bucking broncho to-day,—I don't think her as tractable and easily influenced as I did!"
"How's this plan, dearest? Suppose we don't tell Azalea, for the moment, that you saw the picture to-day, and see what she'll do next."
"All right, I'd be glad to think it over a little. We'll warn Mona not to give it away,—and nobody else knows we went there."
"Of course, I'll take up the matter of Fleurette with Azalea, separately," Farnsworth went on. "But even if she's determined on her career, I feel sure we can persuade her to leave her little assistant out of it!"
"I rather just guess we can!" and Patty cuddled the baby to her breast. "Well, the crowd will gather on the porch soon. I'll make a fresh toilette and play the serene hostess, once again."
Fleurette was given over to Winnie, and Patty, calm and happy now, ran off to dress.
"You're such a darling,—Big Billee," she whispered turning back to her husband, and she went into his embracing arms; "you always know just what is right to do."
"Especially when Mona coaches me beforehand," he laughed, unwilling to deceive her in the slightest degree.
"Pooh," said Patty, "you're so right, even Mona can't make you any righter!"
"Sur le pont D'Avignon, On y dansait, on y dansait, Sur le pont D'Avignon, On y dansait tout le rond!"
Patty's sweet, clear soprano notes rang out gaily as she trilled the little song she had picked up in France.
"What a pretty thing," cried Elise, "teach it to me, do, Patty."
"All right, I will. But there's a record of it,—my singing,—for the phonograph. You'll learn it better from that."
"All right; Chick, come and find the record for me."
The two went into the library, leaving the others on the porch.
It was Sunday afternoon, and everybody was idle and happy. Patty was a good hostess and did not bother her guests by over-entertaining them.
But at Wistaria Porch there was always enough to do, if any one wanted to do it,—and delightful lounging places, if one were indolently inclined.
Searching among the catalogued records, Chick easily found the one Elise wanted.
"What a lot of records they have of the baby's voice!" he exclaimed.
"Yes," Elise assented, "they make them on all occasions. Patty's keeping them for her, when she grows up. Clever idea."
"Yes, but she'll have to build a town hall to keep them in! The child hasn't begun to talk yet, but here are dozens—"
"Oh, well, they'll weed them out. Some of them are awful cunning,—and one is a first-class crying spell! They never could get but one of Fleurette crying, she's such a good-natured kiddy. All right, Chick,—start it off."
They listened to the pretty little chanson, and repeated it until Elise felt satisfied she had added it to her repertory.
Just as she finished Betty Gale came flying in.
"Skip into your togs, Elise, and come for a drive with us," she said. "I've corralled Bill and Patty,—and Ray wants you,—and I," she looked saucily at Channing, "I want Mr. Chick."
"We're with you to the last ditch!" Channing replied and Elise went off for her hat.
"Shall I put away these records?" Chick asked looking at several they had been using.
"No," said Betty, carelessly, "Patty has hordes of minions who do such things. Leave them, and get your duster on. We're off,—pronto!"
"Where's Azalea?" Raymond Gale inquired, as, a few moments later, he had his merry party in his car, and took hold of the wheel.
"She and Van Reypen went for a long walk," Farnsworth replied. "And the married Farringtons have gone back to town, so this is all our party—for the moment."
"All right; here we go, then." And the big car rolled down the driveway.
"I hesitated about going," Patty demurred, "for it's Winnie's Sunday out, and I had to leave baby with Janet. I've never done it before."
"Oh, well," Betty laughed, "she'll probably sleep till you get back. Don't babies always sleep all the afternoon?"
"Not always, but Fleurette often does. Oh, of course, she'll be all right"
"And Azalea isn't there," she added, in a low tone to her husband.
And indeed, just then, Azalea was far away from there.
She and Phil had gone for the sort of walk they both loved,—along woodland paths, cross-lots, now and then back on the highroad, and if they got too far to walk back, prepared to return by train or trolley.
The two were congenial spirits, which fact had rather surprised Van Reypen's friends. For he was a conservative, fastidious aristocrat, and though Azalea's rough edges had been rubbed down a bit by Patty's training, she was still of a very different type from the Van Reypen stock.
But they both loved the open, and they strode along, chatting or silent as fitted their mood.
"What's in your mind just now, Brownie?" he asked, as Azalea looked thoughtful.
"Why,—a queer sort of a notion. Did you ever have a premonition,—a sort of feeling that you ought to do something—"
"Yes; a presentiment that unless you do what you're told to do, there'll be trouble—"
"Who told you?"
"That's just it. Nobody,—except a—oh, a mysterious force, a—just an impulse, you know."
"Obey it if you like. May I go, too?"
"Well, it's this. Just before we turned that last corner a motor passed us, you know."
"Yes, I saw it. One of Farnsworth's,—with some of the servants in it."
"It was. Patty gives them rides in turn. Now, Winnie the nurse was in, and so it must be her Sunday out. And, of course, Patty is home there with the baby,—she never leaves her if Winnie's away, but still—I feel as if I must go home to look after that child!"
"Is that all? Let's go, then. We can walk back as well as to go on."
"But,—don't laugh, now,—I feel we ought to hurry. Let's take the trolley-car,—it isn't far to the line."
"You sure have got a hunch! But your will is my law. Wish we were near a garage,—I'm not a bit fond of Sunday trolley riding!"
"I'm not either,—but, Phil, you're awful good not to laugh at me."
"Bless your soul, I've no notion of laughing at you! Your presentiment may be the real thing,—for all I know. Anyway, if you want to go home, you're going."
So go they did, and, by the trolley-car route, arrived at the house in half an hour.
As they passed the Gales' place, on their way from the car-line to the house, Van Reypen said, "Guess I'll stop here a minute if you don't mind. I left my pet pipe here yesterday. Skip along home, and I'll follow."
Azalea went on and was surprised to find the house deserted.
She went straight to the nursery, and found Fleurette in the care of Janet, who was substitute nurse in Winnie's absence.
"Everything all right, Janet?" said Azalea.
"Yes, Miss Thorpe. Baby's had her milk, and I think she'll soon go to sleep."
"She doesn't look much like it now," and Azalea smiled at the gurgling, laughing child, who was wide awake and in frolicsome mood.
"Where's Mrs. Farnsworth?" Azalea asked.
"She went motoring with Miss Gale. They all went,—and all the help have gone too. I'm alone in the house with the baby."
"Glad I came home, then. Mr. Van Reypen is here too, and I think I'll take Fleurette down on the porch for half an hour. When she gets sleepy I'll bring her up here."
"Very well, Miss Thorpe. I'll be here."
Janet busied herself about the nursery and Azalea went downstairs with the baby in her arms.
On the vine-shaded porch they sat, and as Van Reypen stayed chatting with some of the Gale family, Azalea and the baby were each other's sole companions.
Their conversation was a little one-sided, but Azalea's remarks were mostly eulogies and compliments and Fleurette's engaging smiles seemed to betoken appreciation if not acknowledgment.
A footstep approaching made Azalea look up.
Before her stood Mr. Merritt, the assistant director of the film company.
"Good afternoon, Miss Thorpe," he said, politely; "I see the little one is in a sunshiny mood."
"Yes;" Azalea returned, but her very soul quaked with fear. Well she knew what was in this man's mind.
"And so, I'm going to ask you to run over to the studio just a few minutes and give us one more chance at a good picture of that scene."
"And I'm going to refuse," Azalea returned with spirit. "You know very well, Mr. Merritt, that I'm not going to let you pose this child again."
"I know you are,—and mighty quick, too," he retorted, in a low voice, but tones of great determination. "I know everybody is out,—you are practically alone in the house, and I know you're coming with me,—willing or not! It won't hurt the baby a mite,—I've my little car out in the road,—and if you don't consent,—I'll—"
He voiced no threat, but Azalea felt pretty sure he meant to take the baby himself if she refused to go with them.
She thought quickly, but no avenue of escape could she see. It would be utterly useless to call Janet, for she was a nervous, timid girl, and would probably run away at sight of this strange man.
The nursery, too, was on the other side of the house, and she couldn't make Janet hear if she tried.
The Gale house also was on the other side of the Farnsworth house, and so, indeed, if Azalea chose to call for help, it would do no good. Doubtless Phil would be along shortly, but there was no telling, for there was always a merry crowd on the Gale's piazza and he would stay there talking for a time.
But Merritt was impatient, and he finally broke out with; "Make up your mind, please, and quickly. Will you bring the baby quietly, or shall I just—take her along."
He held out his arms to Fleurette, who, always ready to make friends with strangers, smiled and leaned toward him.
Azalea had wild thoughts of running away,—anywhere,—but she knew the futility of such a plan. Merritt was a big and strong man, and though Azalea was a swift runner, she could not get a start without his intervening.
She tried pleading. She appealed to his manliness, his kindness, his generosity,—all with no success.
"Don't talk rubbish," he said, shortly; "you know as well as I do, it won't hurt the child. In fact, I came to get her to-day, myself, because I knew her nurse was out,—and I saw you go off,—and later, all the rest of the bunch. If you hadn't come back,—confound you! I'd have had that child over there by this time!"
Azalea gasped. So her premonition had been a true one after all! Had she not returned, Merritt would have easily overcome Janet and taken the baby off with him. She knew they would not harm Fleurette,—indeed, would be most careful of her. Unless, perhaps, they should give her soothing-sirup again. Well they'd get no chance, for Azalea was determined the baby should not be taken from her, and she most certainly was not going herself.
"You know what it will mean to you," Merritt threatened; "if I so advise Bixby, he'll throw you over. How'd you like to lose your job now that you've just begun to make good?"
"That's nothing to do with it," Azalea said, trying to speak calmly and not show how frightened she was.
But Merritt discerned it.
"All right," he said, "sorry you won't listen to reason,—but since you won't,—guess I'll have to use force."
He took hold of Fleurette's little arm, to lift her from Azalea's lap, and the touch roused the girl's wrath to boiling point.
"Don't you dare!" she cried, holding the baby tightly. "Leave,—leave at once! or I'll call for help!"
She rose, as if to make good her threat, though she knew there was no help within call.
Merritt knew it too, and he laughed at her.
"Stop this nonsense, now," he commanded roughly. "I'm going to accomplish what I came here for, so you may as well take it quietly. I can take the child without a whimper from her,—and you know it! So, why not be sensible and come along too, and look out for her yourself?"
"You shall not take her!" Azalea looked like an angry tigress.
"Gee! Wish I had you on the screen like that! You're some picture!"
"Please, Mr. Merritt," Azalea tried coaxing again, "please believe me,—I can't take Fleurette again. Her mother—why, Mr. Merritt, you have children of your own—"
"Sure I have! That's how I know how to treat 'em so well. If mine were only small enough, I wouldn't need this little cutie. Well, here goes, then!"
This time he laid such a definite hold on the baby, that Azalea could scarcely keep the child in her own arms.
In her utter desperation, a new idea struck her. She would try strategy.
"Oh, don't!" she cried, "rather than have you touch her, I'll go—I'll take her. Let me get her cap and coat."
"Where are they?" he asked, suspiciously.
"Right here, in the library,—just across the hall."
"Go on, then,—I trust you, 'cause I think you're sensible. I'd go along and keep you in sight, but I want to keep watch if anybody comes. But you sing, or whistle or something, so's I'll know you're right there."
"All right," and Azalea's heart beat fast, for she had a splendid scheme.
Into the library she carried Fleurette, singing as she went, and once in the room, she put the baby on a chair and flew for the record rack.
Quickly she found the record of the baby's crying spell and put it in place in the phonograph.
Then, picking up Fleurette, she set the needle going and hurried from the room.
Merritt, hearing the cries, screams and sobs, scowled with anger at the baby's fit of ill temper, but never dreamed that it was not really the child crying at all.
So Azalea had ample chance to escape by a back door from the library, and crossing the dining-room went out on a side porch that faced the Gale place.
Looking carefully to see that Merritt had not followed her, and listening a moment to learn how much longer the record,—of which she knew every familiar sound,—would last, she ran with all the speed of which she was capable over to the Gales'.
Van Reypen was just taking leave, and he, as well as the others present, looked in amazement at the flying figure coming nearer and nearer until Azalea reached the group.
"Take her," she said to Mrs. Gale, as she gave her the baby, "keep her safe—safe!"
And then Azalea went flying back.
The record was finished,—and with the sudden stop of the child's crying Merritt had started into the library to see what it meant.
There Azalea found him, and she faced him bravely.
"That baby is safe," she said, "where you can't get at her! And now I will tell you what I think of you! You are a thief and a scoundrel! You don't deserve to be allowed to carry on a reputable business! I don't want any further connection with you or your company. I am proud to be fired from such a lot of bandits as you people are!"
So angry was she, and so unguarded as to what she was saying that she fairly flung the words at him.
For a moment he was stunned at her wild tirade, and then his artist instinct was stirred,—for the picture she made was beautiful and dramatic. She had no thought of this, for she was in earnest, and her whole soul was up in arms at thought of the threatened abduction of Fleurette. And, so, knowing that the child was safe with Mrs. Gale, she let the vials of her wrath pour forth on the villain who had so aroused it, and her voice was raised in scathing obloquy.
"All right!" Merritt said, as she paused from sheer want of breath, "I'll take my beating, if you'll go over to the studio with me and repeat this scene. Let me pose you while you're in this humour,—you'll never reach such heights again!"
"Nor will I ever pose for you again! I'm through with you,—all of you, and all the moving-picture business! I was warned to keep out of it,—but I didn't know what wretches I would find in it! Go! Go at once! and never let me see your face again!"
It was at this moment that the Gale motor party returned.
Patty and Bill, hearing Azalea's loud tones, rushed to the library and found her there with Merritt.
"Where's Baby?" Patty cried, starting for the stairs.
"She's safe, Patty," Azalea said, stopping her. "She's all right,—she's over to Mrs. Gale's."
"Mrs. Gale's!" and Patty flew off like the wind, caring for nothing but the assurance of her own eyes that Fleurette was safe.
"Help me, Bill," said Azalea, going toward Farnsworth, "you said once, you'd defend me."
"I will, dear. What's this all about? Who are you?" He addressed Merritt quietly, but with a fire in his blue eyes that was disturbing.
"Merritt, of the Flicker Film Company, very much at your service," and the man drew a card from his pocket and presented it.
"Well, Mr. Merritt, leave at once, and never return. I don't care for your explanations or excuses. Simply go."
"Is that right, Zaly?" Bill said, as the crestfallen visitor left them. "I didn't want any words with him,—for I might have lost my temper. I'd rather have the story from you."
"And I'll tell it to you,—all. But, oh, Bill, I'm so glad Fleurette is all right!"
"She is so!" and Patty came dancing on, with the smilingest child in the world. Van Reypen followed, and then the whole crowd drew together anxious to know what the commotion was all about.
"Yes, I'll tell you the whole story," Azalea repeated, addressing herself to Farnsworth, but glancing now and then at the others.
"On my way East, I met Mr. and Mrs. Bixby on the train. They were pleasant people and Mrs. Bixby was very kind to me in many ways. Then, I learned that they were in the moving-picture business, and as I wanted to act myself, I cultivated their acquaintance all I could. And by the time we reached New York Mr. Bixby had agreed to give me a trial at his studio. He said I had the right type of face for the screen and if I could learn to act, my Western life had fitted me for some certain parts they were just then in need of. So I went in for it,—and I got along all right. Then they wanted a little baby in the picture and as I was so fond of Fleurette and loved her too much to let any harm come to her, I thought it all right to take her over there once or twice to get the pictures of her. But one of the films went wrong, somehow, and Mr. Merritt was determined to take it over again. I wouldn't allow it, because I found out how Patty felt about Baby being in it,—so I refused. Now, I don't suppose you know how insistent the picture people are about any scene they want. They go to any lengths to get them. I've heard Mr. Bixby say, 'Get the picture if it kills the leading man!' And though he doesn't mean that literally I think he would do anything short of murder to get his picture. Well, they thought that the whole reel was spoiled because one scene with Fleurette in it wasn't right. And they were bound to have her over there again."
"She shan't go,—so she shouldn't!" Patty crooned, as she held her child closer in her sheltering arms.
"No; and that's what I told Mr. Merritt," went on Azalea. "But he is tricky, and I felt pretty sure he'd try underhand means to get the baby. I've kept watch night and day, and I've always been certain that Fleurette was either in Winnie's care or Patty's. Patty wouldn't trust her with me any more."
Azalea spoke the last words wistfully, with a penitent look in her brown eyes.
"Small wonder!" cried Elise, who was listening interestedly. "After you took that blessed child to—"
"There, there, Elise," Farnsworth interrupted, "we do trust Azalea. Let her finish her story."
Azalea gave him a grateful look and went on.
"When I went away from the house to-day, Patty was at home, so, though I knew it was Winnie's day off, I felt all right about Baby. Then,—while we were out walking, I saw Winnie go by,—and soon after I felt a—a sort of presentiment that I must go home. I couldn't tell why,—only I felt I must come back to the house at once. So I did,—and everything seemed to be all right. I decided I had been foolishly nervous about it,—and I took Fleurette down on the porch for a little while.
"Then that man came and demanded her! I was alone, except for Janet,—who is no good in an emergency,—and Mr. Merritt was very determined. If I hadn't thought of the phonograph I don't know what I should have done, for that man is quite capable of taking Baby away from my arms by main force. But I happened to think I could fool him,—as I couldn't combat him,—so I put on the crying record to make him think we were still in the library,—and I scooted over to Gales' with the baby as fast as I could run. Then I came back—"
"Weren't you afraid of him?" asked Patty, shuddering at the thought of Azalea at the mercy of the infuriated man.
"No; I know him, and he isn't a brute or a ruffian. He was just bent on getting Fleurette for that picture,—it would take only a few minutes,—and I was just as bent that he shouldn't.
"So, when he found I had outwitted him, he accepted the situation,—why, he even wanted to take my picture in my angry mood! He is a man who thinks of nothing but a good pose for his pictures."
"He seemed a decent chap," Farnsworth said, "but I was so angry, I just fired him, for I feared otherwise I'd lose control of my own temper and give him his just deserts!"
"He'll never come again," observed Van Reypen, "I saw you, Bill, when you invited him to leave! I'm no craven, but I shouldn't care to return to any one who had looked at me like that!"
"I was a bit positive," laughed Farnsworth. "But, Azalea, I must admit I'm rather bowled over by this idea of you in the moving pictures! It—it isn't done much in our crowd, you know."
"I know it,—and I'm never going to do it again! I've had enough! I wanted to make it my career,—but," she hesitated, "that was before I knew you—you nice people. I—I never knew really nice people before,—my Western friends are—are different. But I want to be like you," her troubled glance took in Patty and Bill and then drifted to the others; and her face was wistful and only lighted up as she looked at Van Reypen. He smiled encouragingly at her, and she continued.
"I'm quite ready to give up all connection with the Bixby people and I'll promise never to go near them again,—even if they try to get me to."
"You bet you won't!" exclaimed Farnsworth. "I'm glad you've given it up of your own accord, Zaly, for if you hadn't I'd have to forbid it, anyway! I can't allow you to do such things."
"And I don't want to. It wasn't as nice as I thought it would be, and yet,—it was fun!" She smiled as thoughts of her daredevil stunts passed through her mind.
"Tell us all about it!" cried Ray Gale. "I'm awfully interested, and I'm sorry you're going to quit! By George, Farnsworth! if you'd seen our Azalea in that picture of the cyclone!"
"Never mind!" Azalea interrupted him, "I'm all over that foolish idea."
"I should hope so!" exclaimed Elise, with a withering glance. "The idea of anybody being in such company as you must have been—"
"Not at all," Azalea declared; "I wasn't mixed up with anybody unpleasant at all. In fact, I talked to no one but the Bixbys and Mr. Merritt. Mrs. Bixby was most kind and looked after me as a mother might have done,—though I never knew a mother's care."
The pretty face grew sad, and the whole attitude of Azalea was so penitent and full of resolve to be more like the people she admired that all of Patty's lingering resentment fled away. She put the baby in her father's arms, and she flew over to Azalea and gave her an embrace of full and free forgiveness and affection.
"It's all right, Zaly," she said, smiling at her, "you did cut up jinks with my baby,—but when you came home to look after her,—even when you thought I was here,—and when you put up such a great game to rescue her from the enemy's clutches,—and succeeded,—well,—I'm for you!"
Patty spoke so whole-heartedly there was no doubt of her sincerity, and Azalea looked grateful and pleased,—yet, she looked troubled too.
"Oh, Patty, you're too good to me," she said, "you don't know—I don't deserve your faith and loyalty."
"Oh, I 'spect you do," and Patty caressed the shining brown hair.
"No,—I'm all unworthy—"
"I suppose you mean about that sampler business," put in Elise, with an unkind look on her face. "I think you ought to confess that,—while you're confessing."
Farnsworth gave a reproving glance at Elise, but he said, "Out with it, Zaly,—let's clean off the slate while we're about it. What's the sampler business that sticks in Elise's throat?"
He sounded so sympathetic and helpful that Azalea spoke up bravely.
"I did do wrong, Bill, but I didn't realise how wrong when I was doing it. I had an old sampler and it was dated 1836 and I picked out some stitches so it looked like 1636."
"You didn't deceive anybody!" exclaimed Elise.
"I'm glad of it," returned Azalea, simply. "I was too ignorant to know that there were no samplers made at that earlier date,—and to tell the truth, I didn't think much about it,—I just did it hastily,—on a sudden impulse,—because I wanted to give Elise something worth-while for her booth at the fair."
"And gave me something utterly worthless!" scoffed Elise.
"Oh, come now, Elise," said Farnsworth, "it didn't hurt your sales any, even if it didn't help them. Call it a joke and let it go at that."
"But it was deceitful, Cousin William," said Azalea, "and I do confess it, and I'm sorry as I can be about it."
Her pretty face was troubled and she looked so disturbed that Phil took up the cudgels for her.
"Oh, come off, all of you," he said, laughingly, "this isn't a court of inquiry, and we're not sitting in judgment on Azalea. She has properly admitted all her escapades, and she's been forgiven by the ones most interested, now let's call it a day,—and talk about something else."
"All right,—let's talk about the 'Star of the West,'" cried the irrepressible Ray Gale. "Now the secret's out, there's no harm in mentioning it. You must see that picture, Farnsworth, and then you'll be begging Azalea to go back to screen work!"
"Never," said Azalea, her face shining with happiness that she was forgiven and reinstated in general favour, "I've had my lesson. No more films for me! From now on, I'm going to be goody-girl,—and behave like nice ladies,—like Patty and Betty—and Elise."
The slight hesitation before the last name made Elise bite her lip in chagrin, for she had seen that her attack on Azalea was not approved of by most of the audience.
Poor Elise was of an unfortunate disposition, and envy and jealousy were her besetting sins. She had never liked Azalea for the reason that the Western girl, with her frank, untutored ways, often usurped Elise's place in the limelight, and Miss Farrington greatly objected to that.
It was with malicious purpose that Elise had brought up the subject of the sampler, and when she found it passed over as of little moment, she was angry at herself for having raised the question at all.
"Don't try to be like me," she said, with an acid smile at Azalea; "if you do, nobody will like you."
"Oh, come, now, Elise," said Farnsworth, laughing at this tempest in a teapot, "play fair. We all like you, and we all like Azalea, whether she models herself on you or not; so let's all love one another,—and let it go at that!"
"Yes," said Patty, "and now, my fellow lovers and loveresses, I must take my small daughter in and send her to sleepy-by, and the rest of you have just about half an hour before it's time to dress for dinner. The two Gales may consider themselves invited,—if they will honour us."
"Delighted," replied Betty, "though not overwhelmingly surprised at the invitation. Howsumever, we must fly back home for some purple and fine linen, and then we'll return anon. I'm usually returning here, anon! I wonder what I ever did, Patty, before you came here to live as our hospitable neighbours!"
"There's half an hour, Azalea," said Van Reypen, "come for a toddle down to the brook, and let's talk things over."
The two started off, and for a few moments walked along in silence.
Azalea was in a quiet, chastened mood,—a side of her character that Phil had never before seen, and he noted with pleasure the gentle sweetness of her face and the soft tones of her voice.
"It woke me up," she said, reminiscently, "when that man tried to take Fleurette from my arms. I would have fought him like a tiger if I hadn't suddenly realised that the way to fix him was by strategy. I just happened to think that by means of the record I could fool him into believing we were in the library, when really we were flying to refuge. I knew he wouldn't come in as long as he felt sure we were there, for he was watching out for the Farnsworths' return. So, I tried the scheme, and it worked!"
"Then you went bravely back to face the music!"
"Oh, I wasn't afraid of him,—for myself. He's not at all a ruffian sort,—and he never would have hurt the baby. Only,—he was bound to get her!"
"Well, he didn't succeed,—thanks to you, and I don't think he'll ever try it again."
"Oh, I'm sure he won't! He's afraid of Bill, all right! Any one would be who had seen the gleam in Cousin William's eyes when he fired Mr. Merritt!"
Azalea laughed a little at the recollection,—then she sighed.
"Why the sigh?" asked Van Reypen, looking at the expressive face of the girl, as her smile faded and her sensitive mouth drooped at the corners.
"Oh,—nothing—and everything! Don't ask questions!" She shook her shoulders as if flinging off a troublesome thought. "I want to forget the whole subject,—let's talk of other things."
"All right,—let's. Let's talk of my unworthy self, for instance."
"Why do you say your 'unworthy self'? Because you so look on yourself? or for the sake of being contradicted? or just for nonsense?"
The brown eyes smiled into his, and Azalea looked very roguish and saucy as she demanded an answer.
"Habit, I daresay. It's considered the thing for one to look upon himself as unworthy. Of course, I'm not all to the bad!"
"No, I suppose not. I've noticed saving graces now and then."
"You have! What, for instance? You see, I love to talk about myself!"
"Well, for one thing, you've been very kind to me. I was in a sorry position to-day, and you and Cousin William backed me up so beautifully, that I pulled through. If you hadn't I'd have collapsed and given up the game, in sheer fright."
"What do you mean?"
"Yes; Patty was pretty hostile at first,—though she came round all right, later. Elise was,—oh, well, you know Elise's attitude toward me."
"Don't mind her,—she's always got a chip on her shoulder!"
"Betty was reserving decision, too; and but for the strong support of you and Cousin William,—yes, and Ray Gale,—I shouldn't have come off so well. But I deserved any fate. I have been bad,—and though I am sorry,—that doesn't wipe it all out."
"It does, as far as I'm concerned. And I'm all that matters—at least,—I wish I might be all that matters."
"My gracious! There are lots who matter more than you! Patty and Bill, and Fleurette and—"
"Stop there! That's all! I'll concede those,—but no others. Don't you dare say that Gale matters more than I do!"
"Ray Gale? Oh, I don't know. And what do you mean by 'matters'?"
"Counts. Makes a difference. Affects you. Means something to you."
"Oh, hold on! I'm floundering beyond my depth! Help! help!"
Azalea put her hands over her ears and shook her head, laughing at Van Reypen's earnest face as he racked his brain for further explanatory phrases.
"I won't stop! I'm in earnest. I want to matter—to mean something to you! I want to count with you—"
"Kipling says, 'let all men count with you, and none too much.'"
"Well, I'd rather count too much than not at all. Oh, Azalea,—you do understand me, don't you? Let me count, dear,—let me count for everything in your life—"
Azalea Thorpe couldn't believe her ears. What Van Reypen was saying seemed as if it could have but one meaning,—yet that was impossible! Philip Van Reypen, the high-born, aristocratic Philip, couldn't be seriously interested in a crude, ignorant Western girl!
"Thank you, Phil," she said, resolving to accept his words as a sign of friendship, "you're awfully good to me, and your friendship counts. I begin to think friendship is the one thing in life that does count. And it is the friends I have made—lately,—here,—that have made me see,—made me realise my own unworthiness,—and when I say that, I mean it."
"I won't let you mean it!" he cried, "I won't let you call yourself unworthy. For you count with me,—Azalea, more than the whole world! More than anything or everything in the world. Can't I count that way with you,—can't I, Azalea?"
The dark handsome face was very earnest, and as it drew nearer to her own, and she looked deep in the eloquent eyes, she could no longer fail to understand.
"What,—what,—" she murmured, drawing back in confusion, "what do you mean?"
"Don't you know what I mean, Brownie? Listen, and I will tell you, then. I love you, dear,—I love you." He held her hands in his own and gazed into her face. "I can't tell you when it came or how,—but suddenly—I knew it! I knew I loved you, and should always love you. Tell me,—tell me, Azalea, that you can learn to love me."
"Oh, don't—I can't—"
"Not just at once, dear,—I can't hope for that. But, can't you learn,—can't you try to learn—If I help you? Brownie,—that's all my own name for you,—isn't it, you nutbrown maid! Brownie, darling,—you must love me. I can't bear it if you don't!"
Azalea looked mystified,—then amazed,—and then her face lighted up with a sudden radiant happiness,—she seemed glorified, exalted.
Van Reypen caught her in his arms.
"You do love me,—you witch! you beauty! Azalea, you look transfigured! You do love me,—tell me so!"
Then her face changed. She repulsed him,—she sought to leave his encircling clasp.
"Don't!" she cried, "don't! It is horrible!"
She burst into uncontrollable tears, and her whole frame shook with her turbulent sorrow.
"Have I been too abrupt?" asked Van Reypen, filled with dismay. "Give me a little hope, dear, just say you'll let me tell you this some other time, and I'll not trouble you now."
"Oh, it isn't that," Azalea sobbed, "it's—oh, no! I can't tell you,—it's too dreadful! Let me go!" and she ran from him and hurried back to the house and up to her own room.
"Give me a few minutes of your valuable time all to myself, will you, old chap?" Phil said to Farnsworth, as the two men met in the hall just before the dinner hour.
"Take all you want, I've lots of it," returned the other, cheerily. "Want to borrow a fiver?"
"No; I'm still able to make both ends meet. But, seriously, Bill," as the two men entered Farnsworth's den, and closed the door, "I'm hard hit."
"That sounds as if you were in love,—but I can't think you mean that,—so I wisely opine you've been hit by the fall in Golconda Mining Stock."
"Your wise opinings are 'way off,—but your first suspicion was nearer the mark."
"In love? Good for you, old Phil! Of course it's Elise!"
"Of course it isn't! Had Elise been my fate, I'd have known it long ago."
"Who then? Betty Gale?"
"Wrong again. And blind, too. It's Azalea."
Farnsworth sank limply into a chair. He pretended to be dazed almost to insensibility, and as a matter of fact his surprise was nearly as great as his demonstration of it.
"Azalea!" he gasped. "Our Azalea!"
"Exactly; don't act as if I had suggested the Queen of Sheba! I know what a superior girl she is,—and I know I've not much to recommend me—"
"Oh, Phil,—oh, Van Reypen, stop! Have you lost your senses?"
"I think you have!" Phil looked decidedly annoyed. "I must say, Farnsworth, I don't quite get you."
"I beg your pardon, dear old chap, I—I was a bit astounded. You see—"
"I see that I've a right to care for the girl if I choose, and as you are her nearest relative, that I know of, I come to you for sanction of my suit. Aside from your rather inexplicable astonishment—have you any real objection to me as a new cousin-in-law?"
"No! You know I haven't!" Farnsworth held out a cordial hand which the other grasped. "In fact, I think it's fine,—a most admirable arrangement. What will Patty say?"
"I hope she'll be pleased. It's no secret that I adored Patty and tried my best to cut you out,—but, not having succeeded in that, I've been glad to be the friend of both of you, and we've had lots of good times, all together. But,—well, I never expected to know another real whole-hearted love,—and then along comes this splendid girl,—this daughter of your own big, beautiful, breezy West, and before I know it, she has taken my heart by storm!"
"But, Phil,—you—you don't know Azalea—"
"I know enough. If you mean her escapades with the picture people or her innocent joke about the patchwork sampler,—I don't care about those little things. She has a wonderful big, noble nature, that will respond quickly to loving care and gentle advice. And,—I think she cares for me, but—"
"Of course she cares for you! What girl wouldn't! Don't underestimate yourself or your attractions, Phil. But I'll speak plainly; you're a big man in lots of ways,—beside physically. You're an aristocrat,—of an old family,—and you're very rich. Now,—Azalea—"
"Please don't talk of my birth or wealth as assets. I offer Azalea a heart full of love, and a constant care for her happiness and well-being. If she does care for me, I want your permission to try to win her. I have broached the subject—"
"What did she say?"
"She—oh, I don't know,—she said—well, she ran away!"
"Surprised and a little shy, probably," Farnsworth looked thoughtful. "I may as well tell you, Phil, oh hang it! How shall I put it? Well, there's something queer about Azalea."
"What do you mean,—queer?"
"I don't know. And it may be nothing. But,—her only near relative, so far as I know, is her father. A man I knew years ago,—a cousin of mine,—and a decent, hard-working, plain man. Now, Zaly has not had a single letter from him since she has been here."
"Why? Where is he?"
"I don't know. She won't tell. I've written to him twice,—but I've had no reply. I'm telling you all I know."
"Thank you for being so straightforward. Do you—do you think there's anything dishonourable—"
"That he's in jail? That's the idea that haunts my brain. I can't think of any other explanation for his continued silence,—and for Azalea's mysterious disinclination to talk about him. Why, Phil, she forged a letter,—wrote one to herself,—and pretended to me that it was from her father!"
"Poor child! How unhappy she must be over it. If she cares for me, Bill, I'll take all that load off her poor little shoulders. I'll get her to tell me the truth, and then we'll see what can be done. But, in any case, or whatever her father may be, it won't affect my love for the girl herself. My idea of birth and breeding is that it gives one an opportunity to be tolerant and generous toward others of fewer advantages. To me, Azalea stands alone,—her family connections, whatever they may be, I accept gladly, for her dear sake."
"I say, Phil, forgive me if I express unwelcome surprise, but—why, you haven't seemed to be so deeply interested in Azalea—"
"I know; it is pretty sudden. But, she somehow bowled me over all at once. Her brave attitude to-day, when she told her little story, her sweet acceptance of Elise's remarks, made in petty spite, and her whole big spirit of fearless determination to go into the picture work,—only to have it spoiled entirely by the wicked acts of that villain Merritt,—I tell you, Farnsworth, she's a girl of a thousand! I read her, I understand her better than you do, and I see far beneath her untaught, outward manner the real girl,—the sterling traits of a fine character."
"All right, Phil, go in and win! You have my blessing,—and when Patty revives from her first shock of surprise, she'll bless you, too. It was Patty's work, getting Azalea here,—and Patty has tried every way in the world to help and improve her—"
"Patty has done wonders. And has paved the way, I admit. But it is nothing to what I shall do with and for Azalea, when I have her all to myself."
"She's not so very tractable—Zaly has a will of her own."
"She'd not be herself, if she hadn't. That's part of her big nobility of soul. But I'll take care of her manners and customs. If only she'll accept me, I've no fears for the future."
"But you must find out about her father. It's queer that she acts so mysterious about him. And, so far as I know, she's had no letters from anybody back home,—her home is at Horner's Corners. Awful place!"
"If we don't like the place, we'll buy it and make it over," said Van Reypen, serenely. "All right, Farnsworth, you've made me satisfied that I may try to win my prize,—and the rest will follow."
The two men went out to join the others on the porch. Both were in thoughtful mood. Van Reypen full of his new happiness, and eager to see Azalea again, Farnsworth still amazed, and a little uncomfortable over the whole matter. He felt a responsibility for Azalea, and yet, if Phil was willing to take her without further knowledge of her family,—why should he, Bill, object?
Azalea had not yet come downstairs, and Patty chaffed the two men on their sober faces.
"What's the matter?" she cried, gaily. "You two been quarrelling?"
"Come for a stroll on the terrace, and I'll tell you, Patty," said Phil, for he really wanted to tell Patty himself.
"You see," he said, as they passed out of earshot of the others, "I'm bowled over."
"I know! Betty Gale. And I'm so glad, Phil. I know you used to like me,—and I was and am fond of you,—but you needn't think I resent your loving another. I'm honestly glad, and I wish you all the happiness in the world!"
"Thank you, Patty, but,—wait a minute."
"Oh, I can't! I'm so excited over it! I'm going to announce it at dinner,—I wonder if I can't get the table re-decorated—with white flowers! I love an announcement party—"
"Patty,—don't,—let me tell you—"
"Oh, I know you'd hate the fuss and feathers, but Betty'll love it and—"
"But it isn't Betty!" Van Reypen managed to get in.
"Not Betty!" Patty stopped short and turned to face him. "Oh,—Phil,—Elise?"
"You've one more guess coming," he smiled.
"Oh, who? Somebody in New York? Where is she? I'll invite her here!"
"You needn't,—she's here already. Why, Patty, it's Azalea."
"Azalea!" Patty's surprise was greater than Bill's had been, and she stood looking at Van Reypen with an absolutely incredulous gaze.
"Azalea!" she said, again.
"Yes,—and I want you to help me. When I spoke to her, this afternoon, she—she acted—well, strange—"
"Oh, Phil, it was only because she was so surprised,—as I am,—as everybody will be! Imagine Elise!"
Patty's face of horror, that changed to a mischievous smile, annoyed Van Reypen.
"I don't see, Patty, why you take it like that. Bill did, too. Now, it seems to me, if I see noble traits and qualities in Azalea, you and Bill ought to have perception enough to see them too."
"It isn't that,—she has noble traits,—some,—but—oh, Phil,—you and Azalea! King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid!"
"Patty, stop! I won't let you talk like that! I admit I'm blind to her faults,—if she has any,—for I'm desperately in love,—but I do look to you and Bill for sympathy and approval. And I don't want any of that King Cophetua talk, either! Just because I happen to be born under a family tree, and happen to have as much money as I want,—that's no reason for implying that those are my chief attractions. I can give Azalea more worth-while things than that! I can give her the love and adoration that is every woman's desire and right,—I can give her loving care and help,—I can—"
"Oh, Phil, how splendid you are! You make me 'most wish—" But Patty's honest blue eyes wouldn't let her say the words. "No, I don't wish anything of the sort! You are a splendid man, and I do appreciate you, but I have my Bill, and he's all the world to me. Now, I'm more than glad you've found a your fate at last,—but—Azalea!"
"Stop it, Patty! I find I've got to forbid these repeated expressions of amazement. You must get used to the idea, and you may as well begin at once!"
"You're right, and I will! First of all, honest and hearty congratulations and may you both be very, very happy,—as happy as we are,—I can't ask more!"
"Thank you, Patty, and will you say a good word for me to Azalea?"
"Why! haven't you asked her yet?"
"Only partly,—that is, she has only partly answered me."
"What did she say?"
"I don't quite know. She was,—well, Patty, she ran away from me."
"Oh, that's all right, then, that's a time-honoured device to postpone the psychological moment! Well, may I make the announcement at dinner?"
"No; I think not. For, though I couldn't help hoping, from the look in her eyes, that she cares for me,—yet she said—"
"What did she say?"
"Nothing coherent or understandable,—but—well, she didn't—she didn't say 'yes'."
"Oh, that's nothing,—she will. But I won't make the announcement till she tells me to. There's the dinner gong,—come on."
It wasn't until the others were seated at the table that Azalea come into the dining-room. She looked quite unlike her usual self, and was very quiet. Her face showed a pathetic, wistful expression, but her eyes were cast down, and now and then the corners of her scarlet mouth trembled.
Patty had arranged that she should sit next Van Reypen, and as Azalea took the place, she found Ray Gale on her other hand.
"'Smatter, Zaly?" he said, merrily, not thinking anything was really troubling her.
"Shell shock," said Van Reypen, to save Azalea the necessity of replying. "She's had a hard day of it, and now she's not to be bothered to talk, if she doesn't want to."
Azalea gave him a grateful look, and under the influence of his gentle kindliness, and mild raillery, she partly recovered her poise, and became almost like her own gay self again.
Much later in the evening, Van Reypen drew her away from the rest and led her to a secluded corner of the great piazza, where he had her alone.
"Now, my princess,—my beloved,—you are to tell me the answer to my plea. Tell me, Azalea,—may I take you to myself? Will you be my very own?"
"I can't say yes, Phil," she replied, softly, the tears gathering in her brown eyes. "I—oh, I thought I could tell you the truth,—but I can't,—I can't! I—I love you too much!"
"You've answered me!" cried Van Reypen, his eyes shining with gladness, "if you love me,—nothing else matters! And you can't love me 'too much'! I want all there is of your love,—your dear love! Is it really mine?"
"It's really yours, as far as it's in my power to give it,—but," and Azalea's face grew very sad, "I can't give it to you,—out of consideration of your rights. I can't love you, Philip, I mustn't let myself even think of it!"
"Don't talk nonsense, you blessed child,—you've settled it all when you say you love me! Oh, Azalea, I'm so glad, and proud and happy!"
Azalea gave a start as his arms closed round her. "No!" she cried, "no, dear, don't! oh, please don't!"
"Why, darling? Why mayn't I caress my own love,—my promised wife?"
"Oh, no,—I'm not! I can never be your wife! I'm—I'm not worthy!"
"Hush!" and Van Reypen closed her lips with a tender kiss. "Hush, Azalea, never use the words worthy or unworthy between us. Our love makes us worthy of each other, whatever we may be otherwise."
"Stop,—please stop! Every word you say makes it harder! I can't stand it! It's too dreadful. Let me go,—oh, please, let me go!"
Shuddering as with some great fear, Azalea slipped from his arms and ran away. He heard her steps as she went upstairs, and heard a door close,—evidently she had flown to her own room.
Greatly perplexed, Phil went in search of Patty.
"Help me out," he said, in a low tone. "Azalea has gone to her room, and there is certainly something troubling her. Go to her, Patty,—find out what it all means,—and if it is any foolishness about 'unworthiness' or that rubbish, try to make her see that I want her just as she is. I don't care a hang about her ancestors or her father or anything in the whole world, but just Azalea Thorpe!"
Patty looked at his earnest face, and honestly rejoiced that he had found a girl he could care for like that.
"I'll go, Phil," she said, "and I'll bring that young woman to reason! It isn't only coyness,—that isn't Azalea's way,—but she is honestly troubled about something."
But though Patty knocked on Azalea's locked door several times, she heard no response.
"Please let me in, Zaly," she begged, "I just want to talk to you a little."
Still no reply, and then, after exhausting all other arguments, Patty said, "Won't you let me in for Phil's sake? He sent me."
That succeeded, and reluctantly Azalea unlocked the door.
"Don't talk to me, Patty," she pleaded. "I'm in the depths of despair, but you can't help me. Nobody can help me,—and I can't even help myself."
"Who made all this trouble for you?" inquired Patty, casually, her never failing tact instructing her that Azalea would answer that better than protestations of affection.
"I made it myself,—but that doesn't make it any easier to bear."
"Indeed it doesn't," Patty agreed. "But, never mind, Zaly, if you heaped up a mound of trouble, let me help you to pull it down again."
"No; you can't," and Azalea looked at her dully.
"Oh, come now, let me try. Is it about your father?"
Azalea fairly jumped. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I said," returned Patty, calmly. "You know, dear, you've made us think there's something queer about your father. Is he—has he done anything wrong?"
"No, Patty, goodness, gracious no! Mr. Thorpe is a most honoured and honourable man!"
"Now why does she call him Mr. Thorpe?" Patty wondered, but she only said;
"Oh, all right, forgive my suggestion. Why doesn't he write to you?"
"He—he?—oh, Patty, that's the trouble."
"Good! Now we're getting at it. How is that the trouble?"
"Shall I tell you everything?" and poor Azalea looked doubtful as to what to do.
"Yes, dear," Patty said, gently, fearing even yet that an ill-advised word would interrupt or prevent this long-deferred explanation.
"Well, you see,—oh, Patty,—I'm a wicked, deceitful girl—"
"Out with it," urged Patty, not greatly scared by this tragic beginning,—for Azalea was prone to exaggerate.
"I was home, you know, at Horner's Corners—"
A knock on the door was a most unwelcome interruption.
"Don't answer," Patty whispered, "it's Elise,—I heard her step."
But Elise was not so easily rebuffed. "Let me in," she called, "I know you're in there, Azalea,—you and Patty."
Patty went to the door, and opened it slightly. "Go away now, Elise, please," she said, "Azalea and I are having a little confidential chat."
"Not so confidential that I can't be in it too, is it?" and speaking lightly, Elise brushed past Patty and into the room.
"Why, Azalea," she exclaimed, "what is the matter? You look like a tragedy queen!"
For Azalea, annoyed at the intrusion, stood, hands clenched, and eyes scowling, and she said angrily, "I don't think people ought to come into other people's rooms, uninvited! I don't call that good manners!"
"You're not supposed to know what good manners are," said Elise, giving her a condescending look. "And even if you think you do,—don't try to teach me!"
"Oh, Elise," said Patty, reproachfully, "don't talk like that! It reflects on you even more than on Zaly."
"Oh, yes, stand up for her,—every one has gone mad over our 'heroine'! I call it disgraceful to be mixed up with that movie concern, and let me tell you, Azalea Thorpe, if you think Mr. Van Reypen is going to overlook or forget that, you're greatly mistaken! You know, Patty,—our Western friend here, is already aspiring toward Philip—"
"Hush, Elise," Patty returned, "better stop before you make a goose of yourself! Phil is aspiring to Azalea's favour, is the truer way to put it!"
"Oh, no, I can't believe that," laughed Elise, "Phil has too much self-respect!"
At breakfast next morning Azalea's place was vacant.
"I didn't disturb her," said Patty, "for I want her to sleep late, if she can. She is such an active young person, she gets tired,—though she rarely admits it."
And then Janet came in. "Mrs. Farnsworth," she said, "Miss Thorpe is not in her room. Perhaps she has gone for one of her early morning walks. But on her dressing-table I found these two notes."
The maid handed Patty one of the letters and gave the other to Van Reypen. Both were addressed in Azalea's handwriting and the two who took them felt a sudden foreboding as to the contents.
Nor were their fears ill-founded. With an exclamation of dismay, Patty handed hers over to Farnsworth, who read it quickly, and looked at his wife with a serious face.
"Poor little Azalea," he said, "what can it all mean?"
For the note read:
I'm a wicked girl, and I can't impose on you any longer. I am going away. Don't try to find me,—just forget me. I love you all,—but I have no right to be among good people.
"What's in yours, Phil?" Farnsworth asked, and Van Reypen handed it to him without a word.
MY DEAR MR. VAN REYPEN:
I can't go away without leaving a word for you. But it is only to say, please forget the girl who calls herself
Then the notes were shown to the other two guests, Elise and Channing, for the departure of Azalea could not be kept secret, and of course they must immediately put forth every possible effort to find her.