"I always thought she was queer," said Elise, "but these notes are the queerest thing yet! Do you suppose she has eloped?"
"Hush, Elise," said Farnsworth, sternly. "I know you don't like Azalea, but I must ask you not to talk against her while you are under my roof. Whatever she is, she is my kin,—and I shall start at once in search of her, and learn the secret,—the mystery of her life. She has acted 'queer,' I freely admit it, but I, for one, believe she is all right and whatever is troubling her is not her fault or wrong-doing."
"Good for you, old man!" cried Philip, "I'm with you in your search. We'll find her, of course. First, we must find out where she went."
This statement was so obvious and uttered so earnestly that Patty laughed.
"True, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," she said. "And just how shall we set about it?"
But Phil didn't laugh,—he answered her question seriously.
"First, Patty, you must question the servants, and see if any one saw her go. You know, she must have gone early this morning,—she couldn't have gone off in the night."
The result of the inquiry was that the cook, who was around early, had seen Azalea start away from the house at about six o'clock. She had not thought it strange at all, for Azalea often went for a long walk before breakfast. Cook said that Azalea wore a travelling suit and carried a fair-sized bag.
"So far, so good," said Phil; "next, Patty, will you go and look round her room? See what she took with her,—and see if she left any more notes."
"No notes," Patty said, on her return from this errand. "But she took all her jewellery and money, a house dress and a few toilet things. Janet and I could easily tell what was missing."
"Now," said Farnsworth, "first, why did she go, and second, where would she be likely to go?"
"Never mind the why and wherefore," returned Phil, "but, as you say, where would she probably go? Not over to the Gales', of course, that's too near home. I am ready to declare that she went to the moving-picture studios."
"Of course she did!" agreed Elise; "I think she's in love with that Merritt person—"
"Nonsense, Elise," laughed Channing; "she loves that man like a cat loves hot soap! I know better than that. But I think she may have gone over there to see Mrs. Bixby. That woman has been kind to Azalea, and I feel sure that's where she'd go."
"Then that's where I go," stated Van Reypen, rising from the table. "I daresay you're right, Chick. May I take the little roadster, Bill, and whiz over there and bring her back?"
"Go ahead, boy, and good luck to you."
But Farnsworth was not at all sanguine as to the bringing back of Azalea. He knew her, in some ways, far better than Van Reypen did, and he felt sure that when Azalea decided to go away, she would not be easily found.
But Van Reypen started cheerily off and went to the studios.
There he was met by blank disappointment. Mrs. Bixby was greatly interested in his story, and greatly concerned for Azalea's welfare, but she declared the girl had not come there.
Van Reypen was not quite sure she was telling him the truth, but his deep anxiety so stirred the motherly heart of Mrs. Bixby that she assured him earnestly that her statements were absolutely true, and that she was as anxious to find the missing girl as her friends were.
But she could offer no suggestion as to any way to look, and poor Philip went back, disheartened and disappointed.
All the morning they searched the grounds and the neighbourhood; they ransacked Azalea's belongings in hope of some old letter or clue of some sort. But nothing gave so much as a hint of anything that could have happened to her, that made her go away.
"I believe it's all your fault, Elise," said Van Reypen, angrily, for his alarm and sorrow made him forget his usual courtesy. "You've never liked Azalea, and you said mean things to her!"
"Now, Phil," remonstrated Patty, "don't talk like that. Elise and Azalea were not congenial, but Elise wouldn't do anything to make Azalea run away, and Azalea wouldn't run, if she did!"
This involved speech brought a laugh, but Philip went on; "I think she would. Azalea is more sensitive than you thought her. None of you understand her,—well, except Patty,—and her poor little heart was broken by your criticisms and continual reproofs. Suppose she isn't quite as well up in the airs and graces of society as you all are,—she has other traits that make up for that—"
"Oh, Philip, you're hopelessly in love with her!" and Elise laughed jeeringly.
"I am in love with her," he returned, "and I make no secret of it. But not hopelessly, Elise. I shall find her,—I don't know how or where, but I never will give up the quest until I succeed!"
"Good for you," cried Patty, "that's the way to talk! I'll help,—and though there's not any apparent way to look just now,—we'll find one."
It was about noon when Van Reypen was called to the telephone.
A strange but pleasant voice spoke to him, and asked him if he knew Alice Adams.
"No, I don't," said Phil, wonderingly.
"She knows you, and—well, I may be doing the wrong thing, but I wish you could come here."
"Where, please? and why should I come? I don't know Miss Adams,—I'm sure."
"She is a dark-haired girl, with big, brown eyes, and a Western way of speaking—"
"What? Has she just come to you? Does she wear a tan-coloured cloth suit,—and a hat with coque feathers?"
"Yes, she does! Now will you come?"
"Where? Who are you?—I mean, may I ask your name?"
"I am Miss Grayson,—a motion-picture actress—"
"Yes, yes,—where are you? Where shall I come?"
"To my home in New York City." She gave him the address. "You see, Miss Adams came here because she knows Miss Frawley,—we live together—but Miss Frawley is out of town,—and I persuaded Miss Adams to stay with me until her return. I can't make out the trouble, but I have learned the address of the Farnsworths and—oh, well, I may as well tell you, Miss Adams talked in her sleep. She arrived here utterly exhausted, and on the verge of nervous prostration. But, it may be, some sleep will set her nerves right, if the cause of the trouble can be removed. And,—I know I am intruding,—but I can't help thinking that it's a lovers' quarrel, and you can set it right!"
"You've guessed only part of it, Miss Grayson. It isn't a lovers' quarrel,—exactly,—but I can set it right! Will you promise to keep Miss—Adams there, until I can get there?"
"Yes, indeed. She's asleep yet,—but it's a broken slumber, and she murmurs constantly of you,—and of her other friends."
"Thank you a thousand times, I'll be there in an hour. Good-bye."
"Come along, Patty," Van Reypen cried, as he hung up the receiver, "come on, Bill! I've found her! She's assumed the name of Alice Adams,—and she's with a sweet-voiced lady named Grayson. Come on,—I'll tell you the rest as we go."
They didn't break the speed laws, as their car flew down to New York, but it was only because that would have meant delay in reaching their goal. About mid-afternoon they arrived at Miss Grayson's apartment and surprised Azalea by entering the room where she sat.
"You naughty girl!" cried Patty,—but as she noted Azalea's pale face and worried, harassed eyes, she just clasped her in her arms, with a little crooning murmur of affection.
"It's all right, whatever it is," she reassured, for Azalea turned big, frightened eyes on Farnsworth.
"You bet it's all right!" Philip cried, as he stepped eagerly forward.
With a tired little sigh, Azalea put her hand in his. "How did you find me?" she began, but Van Reypen said, "Never mind that, now. You just come back home with us,—and first thank Miss Grayson prettily for her kindness to you."
Miss Grayson, a pretty, round-faced girl, was greatly interested in the dramatic situation, and though she disclaimed any occasion for thanks, yet she very much wanted to know what it was all about.
"I already like Miss Adams too well to let her go entirely out of my life," she said, with spirit. "I claim my right to know a little about it."
"It is your right," said Farnsworth, "and first of all this runaway of ours is not Miss Adams, but Miss Thorpe."
"No," said Azalea, with an air of decision, "I'm not Miss Thorpe,—and I am Alice Adams."
"Flighty," said Farnsworth, "and no wonder. She's been under a good deal of nervous strain lately."
"No; I'm not flighty," persisted Azalea, who was entirely composed now, and who spoke firmly, though she was evidently controlling herself with an effort.
"And I'm going to confess now," she went on. "Now and here. Miss Grayson is so kind and dear I don't mind her knowing, and the rest of you must know. I must tell you,—I can't live if I don't."
"All right, Zaly, dear, tell us," and Patty sat beside her, and put a caressing hand on her arm.
"I am Alice Adams," Azalea said, "and I am not Azalea Thorpe at all,—and I never was."
"Oh!" said Farnsworth, beginning to see light.
"I am a wicked girl," the pathetic little voice went on. "I lived in Homer's Corners,—and I lived with the woman who keeps the post-office there. I've been an orphan since I was four, and this woman brought me up,—though it scarcely could be called that, for she only looked on me as her assistant in the office and in her house.
"Well, one day a letter came for Azalea Thorpe. Now, the Thorpes moved away from Horner's Corners two years ago, and we never knew their new address. The few letters that came for them were sent to the Dead Letter Office. This one would have been, but for the fact that it was unsealed.
"It had been sealed, but the envelope was all unstuck, and—I read the letter. I own up to it,—I know it was wrong,—but I didn't know then how wrong. You see, I wasn't taught much about honour and right. It is only since I have been with good people that I realise what an awful thing I did. When I read it, I couldn't help thinking what a pity for that wonderful invitation to her to make a visit in the East, to be wasted! And the more I thought, the more I was possessed of an idea that I might personate Azalea Thorpe and have the visit myself. Oh, if you knew how I hated the place where I lived,—how I hated the home I had,—how I wanted to get out into the great world, and have my chance! And, yes, I wanted to be a moving-picture actress. I was sure I could do better than the pictures I saw in that little town, and—well, the more I thought about it,—the more it seemed an easy and plausible thing to do.
"I did it. I answered Patty's letter as if I were really Azalea Thorpe,—you see, I had known her all my life, until she moved away, and then I packed up my things and came East, resolved to pretend I was Azalea and see what happened. It didn't seem so dreadful—I thought at first, it was just a big lark,—but now,—oh, now I know how right and honourable people look on a thing like that!"
She cast a hopeless glance at Van Reypen, and though he smiled at her and started toward her she shook her head and waved him back.
"On the trip East, I met the Bixbys, and as we at once arranged for my entrance into their studios, I was more than ever eager to put the matter through.
"So I came. Oh, I hate to think how I imposed on the Farnsworths! They were so kind to me, right from the start. Then they asked me questions about my father, and I didn't know what to do or say. I tried to fool you, Bill, with a made-up letter but I didn't succeed. And,—all the way along, I kept feeling worse and worse,—meaner and meaner—at the life of deceit I was leading. I made good in the pictures,—and oh, Patty, will you ever forgive me for taking Baby over there! But I knew she was safe with me, and, like all the rest, I didn't realise how bad I was!
"I don't ask or expect forgiveness,—I know you couldn't grant that. But lately I felt I couldn't go on any longer,—and I couldn't bring myself to confess,—so,—I ran away."
"And you are really Alice Adams?" asked Farnsworth, but Phil interrupted.
"Wait a minute, everybody. Before Azalea—or Alice,—or whoever she is, says another word, I want to say that she is my promised wife! I want you, dear, and whatever your name is, I want it to be changed to Van Reypen. Tell me,—tell them all,—that you consent."
A beautiful expression came over the girl's face.
She turned to Philip, her soft, dark eyes shining with utter joy and a tender smile of glad surprise curving her quivering lips.
"Oh," she breathed, "oh, Phil!"
"You do consent?" he urged, "you must say yes, before you tell us any more!"
"May I, Patty?" and a shy, sweet face looked questioningly at the one she was glad to consider her mentor.
"I think so," Patty smiled back, for she knew how matters stood with Phil, and she had faith in the true heart of the girl beside her.
"Yes, then," she said, softly, looking at Philip,—and that was their troth-plight.
"Go on, dear," he said, briefly, and with a glad smile in his eyes.
"There's little more to tell; I am Alice Adams, and my father was born in Boston—"
"Good gracious, Phil!" Patty cried. "Why, this child is a real Adams!"
"Of course she is," said Farnsworth, "I knew the Adamses that lived in Horner's Corners. You see, I was there some years myself. Why, your mother was a sweet little woman, with a face like Dresden china."
"Yes; I've a miniature of her. She was beautiful. I'm like my father—"
"And you're beautiful!" cried Patty, kissing her. "Oh, Zaly,—I can't call you anything else! what a story you have told us!"
"And now, let's proceed to forget it," said Farnsworth, in his big, genial way. "You and I'll talk it over a little when we're alone,—but just now, I adopt you as my cousin,—I'm proud to have an Adams in my family, even if only by adoption! Your escapade was a wild one,—er—Alice,—but it was an escapade,—not a crime. And for my part, you are fully and freely forgiven, and—here's where Patty takes up the theme."
"I do," said Patty; "and I add my full and free forgiveness to Little Billee's and I invite you to come right back to Wistaria Porch and make us a long visit,—as Alice Adams."
"And we thank you, Miss Grayson," Farnsworth said, "for restoring our lost cousin, and at the same time giving us a new one!"
Miss Grayson laughed. "It's been a perfect show for me," she said; "I think it's all more dramatic than any play I ever acted in."
"Come, Alice, dear," Van Reypen said, with an air of proprietorship, "where's your coat?"
Shyly, Alice looked up at him.
"Are you sure you want me?" she said.
"Sure I want an Adams? Well, rather! I never aspired to such a renowned name for my fiancee! My own family pride is humbled to the dust."
"Nonsense!" laughed Patty, "the Van Reypen stock can hold its own!"
And then they quickly got ready and started for home.
Farnsworth took the wheel, and invited Patty to sit beside him.
This left Van Reypen and Alice together in the tonneau, and neither objected to the arrangement.
They conversed softly as the car sped swiftly along, and Phil realised how beautiful was the dear face beside him, now that worry and care had been replaced by happiness and love.
"But I don't see how you can forgive me," Alice said, "I did such a dreadful thing."
"I forgive you for two reasons," Van Reypen returned, "first, because you didn't appreciate the real wrong you were doing, and second, because I love you. Love you enough to forgive far more than that!"
"You'll never have to forgive me for anything again, for I'm never going to do anything you'll disapprove of. I'm among nice people forever now,—and I'm going to learn to be like them."
"You're one of the 'nice people' yourself, by birth, and your name is among the best. But I doubt if I can learn to call you 'Alice.' To me, you will always be 'Brownie',—my own Brownie girl."
"I like that best," she said, contentedly, and smiled happily at Philip as his hand clasped hers, and his eyes carried a message of love that needed no spoken word to tell of its depth and sincerity.