She had paused at the door.
"Just what does that mean?" she demanded. "Of course I know you and Starr Wiley followed me the other day, but how do you know where the car came from?"
"I don't," retorted Vernon quickly. "That's your own affair, Willa, only I thought you ought to know that Art Judson and one or two others spoke of the nifty little car they'd seen you about in, in the last two or three days. I thought I had better tell you before Mason North gets hold of it and asks questions."
"Much obliged, Vernie, but if he does I sha'n't answer them." Willa smiled. "I'll take you out some day if you like. The little car is a wonder and you and Starr Wiley would never in the world have been able to hang on the trail that time if I hadn't meant you to! If anyone asks you about the car, however, you never heard of it. Understand?"
She turned lightly and ran from the room, leaving her cousin chuckling. The simple, formal little note was pressed tightly to her breast as a most passionate avowal might have been, and her eyes were like dew-drenched violets when she reached her room. Thode had come at the moment of her unapprehended need, and he had fought for her once more, asking no guerdon but the unalienable right of man to protect the women of his world and kind from insult and contumely.
And she? She must repay him by thwarting his ambition, dashing his hopes, bringing to defeat his most cherished plan! What would he think of her when he learned the truth and recalled how she had accepted his confidence and given him in return only silence pregnant with deceit?
Her head drooped and burning tears smarted in her eyes, but she held them back grimly. If Willa Murdaugh was a self-pitying weakling, Gentleman Geoff's Billie was not, and she would see the game through! Because of all that the old name had meant she would not be a quitter, though her own happiness be forever lost. What was her happiness? she demanded wrathfully of herself. A side-bet, nothing more! She was out for bigger stakes than mere happiness, and she was playing to win.
Wrapping herself in her fur coat, with a tiny close-fitting cap upon her head, she slipped out of doors and around the corner to where, half-way through the block, Dan Morrissey waited with the gray car.
It was commencing to snow; great, soft, feathery flakes which lighted upon her as softly as thistledown and melted each in a single glistening drop like a tear. The air was coldly still and the sky a sheet of lead.
"Have I kept you waiting long, Dan?" she asked as he tucked the robe about her. "I'm sorry, I hope you've not been cold. It looks as though we were in for a real storm, doesn't it?"
"I wisht it'd come down a regular blizzard, Miss," he responded dourly. "Then maybe we could shake off the boys that have been hangin' on my trail for dear life! It's not cold I've been, sitting here trying to figure out how to stall them, but hot under the collar! Where to, Miss? It don't make any partic'lar difference, they'll be right along behind!"
"Then around the Park, please, Dan. You can tell me about them as we go."
She snuggled down in the soft robes as the car leapt and fled like a lithe gray cat through the storm. Her thoughts were busy with the new problem; these followers were Wiley's men, of course. He had boasted that he would have more able tools to aid him in the future than Vernon had proved. Where had he obtained them?
"Are they professional detectives, do you think, Dan?" she asked.
He needed but the word to start him.
"They are that! I was chauffeur once for a private detective agency, and I know them and their ways, though these fellows seem to have a new wrinkle or two. It started a couple of nights ago when I was waiting in the garage for a call from you, Miss. A fine big, new touring car was edged in beside mine and the chauffeur, a little dark feller, began talkin' to me. I remembered what you'd told me, and keepin' my own mouth shut, I let him rave. In just about ten minutes I knew it was all bunk; he was tellin' too much, tryin' too hard to get thick with me all of a sudden. His gentleman was a free-handed sport and what was good enough for him was none too good for his driver; champagne, the fellow wanted me to go out and have with him, and I couldn't tell you what-all, Miss."
"I rather expected that," Willa nodded.
"Then, when I got home to my boardin'-house, there was a new lodger in the room next to mine, a long-legged, sandy-haired galoot. The same thing began again; he came in to borry a match and stayed half the night. I let him down easy, though if I hadn't remembered your instructions I'd be after sendin' him home through his own transom! Everywhere I've been for the last two days, barber shop and all, I've been tailed. It's fun if you look at it in one way, but it gets my goat, too. If you say the word, Miss, I'll sail in and lick the bunch of them!"
"No, Dan; not yet," Willa smiled. "The man behind them is responsible and he's been punished for the time being, anyway. How many men are trailing us? I haven't looked back."
"I made sure of three, but they may be strung out after us like an Irish funeral, for all I know," replied Dan, gloomily. "My chauffeur friend is on a motor cycle now, my red-headed neighbor is in a runabout, and a strange feller in a big car. There's small chance of losing them, I'm thinkin'."
"Then drive straight to that apartment-house from which the two taxicabs followed us the other day. They've spotted me there already, you see, and I've no doubt they've investigated there, so another visit won't do any harm. Wait around the corner for me, as you did the last time."
Willa alighted before the shabby vestibule and without a glance to right or left made her way in and pressed a button marked "Lopez." The front door clicked a prompt response and she ran lightly up two flights of dark and dingy stairs.
A thin, sallow little woman with soft, black eyes awaited her at an opened door and ushered her into the stuffy garish front parlor where she eyed her visitor in palpable nervousness.
"How are my friends?" Willa asked without preamble. "They are quite comfortable at your mother's house? You have heard from her?"
"Ah, yes!" The woman replied with the slightest trace of a Latin accent. "The young lad has been suffering a little with his back, pobrecito! It is the climate here, no doubt, but my mother rubs him with a remedy of her own making and he is soothed."
"And the Senora?"
The woman hesitated visibly.
"She—she sits all day by her fire and talks but seldom, yet she seems well."
"They understand why I have not been to see them?" Willa eyed her narrowly, for the woman's agitation boded ill.
"Yes. They ask when you will come, but they know it must not be for a time." The Senora Lopez paused, and then added in a swift rush: "My mother bakes for them tortillas and they are pleased together. Jose begs my mother to tell him of Spain, but the old Senora, she has not the interest. It is always as if she waited, but she is content."
Willa nodded. The description was such as she had anticipated, yet despite the volubility of the other's assurance, the suggestion of something odd and furtive remained.
"Have there been any inquiries for them here?"
The woman smiled in obvious relief, and spread out her hands.
"But yes! You spoke truly, Senorita, when you warned me of those who would seek them. In the evening just after you were here last a gentleman—an Americano—came asking for the Senora Reyes. I knew nothing of her." She drew down her eyelids, significantly. "Next morning, there came a young man of our country. He said that he was from Mexico, but he lied; the speech of the Basque was on his tongue. The Senora Reyes was his aunt, and he came to tell her that he had found her lost son, his cousin. He, too, departed. Yesterday it was a boy. He was an amigo, a companero of Jose; he desired to know where he might be found, but he, also, was unsatisfied. We are the Lopez—what have we to do with the Senora Reyes or Jose?"
Her tone of bland candor was inimitable, but it did not eradicate the consciousness of anxiety and unrest in her bearing at first. Nothing more was to be learned from further parley, and Willa presently departed, leaving behind her a substantial roll of banknotes.
Her mind was far from easy, and as she descended the dark steep stairs she came to an abrupt decision. Something was wrong and despite the hirelings of Starr Wiley she must know.
"Dan," she began when he sprang down to assist her into the car, "I don't know how it is to be done, but we have got to lose those trailers. I don't care how long it takes or how many miles we cover doing it, but we must manage to get to Second Place, Brooklyn, without being followed. Do you think you will be able to make it, or shall I try to give them the slip by taking the subway?"
"There's more than one in the big car and you'd be trailed sure, Miss. Better take a chance with me, and I'll get you there safely without them knowing if we ride till morning!"
Then began a strange and devious journey. To Willa, who, aside from her infrequent visits to the cottage on the Parkway, had seen little of New York and its environs save in the beaten path of the conventional social round, it was a revelation. They tore through crooked teeming side-streets whose squalor was veiled in the falling curtain of snow and shot across broad avenues with gleaming vistas of light stretching interminably in either direction, to dash sharply about a corner and off through a lane of canyon-like factories and sweatshop hives. Once they skirted huge railroad yards and twice they circled along the river's edge between towering warehouses, with the tang of salt winds swirling the flakes about them and a forest of tall masts looming up ahead.
Dan Morrissey knew the city as only one can who has grown up practically on its streets and he was following a well-defined route in his mind as he wove back and forth through the myriad threads which held together the vast and varied pattern on the loom which was New York, drawing ever nearer the great bridge. The runabout had been left behind, but the larger car still trailed and the sharp exhaust of the motor-cycle reached their ears tauntingly above the subdued rattle of occasional traffic.
All at once Dan commenced to chuckle and Willa could feel his shoulders shake beside hers.
"What is it?" she demanded with a quick glance at him.
"I've just thought of something, Miss. If Delehanty is on his station now, watch us lose the laddy-buck on the motor-cycle!"
They had reached a corner on lower Broadway, whence the home-going stream of humanity had long since disappeared like ants into the burrow of subway entrances, but where a burly traffic policeman still loomed bulkily in the middle of the thoroughfare.
Dan drew the car up at the curb, leaped out and approached the minion of the law. A short colloquy, and he had returned and the car shot down Broadway. "You can look back now, Miss," suggested Dan. Willa turned. The motor-cycle had been halted in mid-pursuit, its rider gesticulating in futile rage and vexation while the obdurant bluecoat held him fast.
"How did you do it, Dan?" Willa asked.
"Delehanty's death on motor-cyclists since one ran him down last summer. I told him this feller was a chauffeur in the same garage as me, and trailing me now on a bet, but that the license on his machine was phony. We'll be there and back before he gets through explaining at the station-house."
Once across the bridge, Dan led the big car far out to a sparsely built-up section of Flatbush and there at last his object was achieved. A loud report echoed behind them and glancing over her shoulder Willa saw the big car swerve and come to an abrupt halt in the ditch.
"Tire burst!" she announced. "Luck is with us, Dan!"
"It was, in the shape of some broken glass!" Her ally retorted grinning. "I said a prayer myself as we went over it. The way is clear now!"
Second Place was a dull row of somber brick dwellings with prim muslin curtains behind each window pane, and an air of bearing its indubitable respectability self-consciously.
The car halted before a house midway the block, and Willa was up the steps in a flash and pealing the bell.
A swarthy middle-aged woman, with a white apron over her ample silk gown, presented herself and stammeringly bade the girl welcome.
"The Senora Reyes and Jose? I must see them, Senora Rodriquez. I have come from your daughter."
"She did not tell you, then, Senorita?" The woman raised her fat hands in expostulation. "Heaven is my witness, it was not my fault! I did not think to watch her, she did not even glance toward the window! Could I know what she meditated?"
"What is it?" Willa seized the woman's arm and shook it convulsively. "What has happened to Senora Reyes? Tell me!"
All at once a frail, crooked little form catapulted itself down the stairway and fell, sobbing, at the girl's feet.
"Senorita! Senorita Billie! The grandmama has vanished! She rose and went from the house in the dawn, when all were sleeping! She is gone!"
THE POOL OF THE LOST SOULS
Willa went home at last in a daze of consternation which took no note of the heightened storm. The unexpected catastrophe was a death-blow to her long-cherished plan, but even that faded for the moment before the stern anxiety for Tia Juana's safety.
The story which Willa succeeded in dragging from the Rodriguez woman and Jose was simple on the face of it, yet many possible complexities presented themselves to the girl's vivid imagining. Tia Juana had seemed contented enough in her new abode for the first day, taking a childish pleasure in the novelty of her surroundings, but later she had become depressed and sunk into a moody silence save that now and then she muttered ominously to herself and made strange gestures with her claw-like hands.
Jose she had driven from her harshly, only to seize and draw him close, and on the previous day she had eaten nothing, but crouched through the long hours before the glowing coals of her grate. At twilight she had demanded a large cooking pot which she placed upon the fire, and with an earthenware jar of liquid and sundry packets of herbs from the conglomerate heap of her luggage, she had brewed a concoction that piqued her landlady's curiosity.
It had not pleased Tia Juana, however, and after glowering darkly into its depths, she had flung it, pot and all, from the window down into the back yard.
She had retired passively enough, but when the Senora Rodriguez came with her morning coffee, the room was empty. There were no signs of a struggle, the silence had remained unbroken throughout the night, and the front door was found to have been unfastened from the inside, although the Senora Rodriguez asserted that she had locked and bolted it before retiring.
This argued that Tia Juana had of her own volition slipped away from the house on some unknown mission, but to Willa such an hypothesis seemed unlikely. In the first place, the old woman was heart and soul in the plan in which Willa herself was the moving spirit, and well content to leave all things to the guidance of her idolized young friend. Then, too, she had the dread of the strange new city of one who had followed a long and open trail and would scarcely in her right mind have ventured forth to brave it on her own initiative. Had some cajoling or threatening message reached her which induced her to play into Wiley's hands, or could it be that Senora Rodriguez had been bribed to aid in her abduction?
Fierce and implacable as Tia Juana's will was, age had taken its toll of her mental strength and resiliency, and Willa shuddered to think of the coercion which might be brought to bear upon her bewildered and shaken sensibilities.
Dan noted his mistress' profound despondency, but ventured no remark until she addressed him just as they reached the bridge once more.
"Dan, you drove a car once for a detective agency, you told me. Did you ever do any detective work yourself? Do you know anything of their methods?"
"I do, Miss!" he responded promptly, a sparkle dawning in his eyes. "Not that I ever did any of it, but I used to watch the other fellers at work and I'm thinking I could go them one better at it. I've seen them make some bonehead plays, in my time, and some wonderful hits, too, I'll admit that."
"Do you want to try a little of it for me?" Willa asked. "An old Spanish woman disappeared early this morning from that house back on Second Place, and I want her found without delay. It's she whom those other men are after; she used to live with her grandson, a hunchback, in that cottage upon the Parkway. There will be double wages in it for you while you're working on it, and a thousand dollars reward if you find her and bring her to me."
She went on to describe Tia Juana, and Dan listened in rapt attention to every detail, fired with instant enthusiasm for the new job.
"You leave it to me, Miss!" he announced confidently when she had finished. "I'll get into that house to-morrow, one way or another, and have a talk with the landlady and the kid. I'll soon find out if they know more than they've told. In the meantime, I'll make the round of the hospitals to-night and have a look-in at headquarters to see if she's turned up missing. Those fellers trailing us this afternoon don't make it look as if they or the man they're workin' for could have got hold of her already and there's a chance that she just wandered off, like, on her own hook. I'll let you know the minute I've got a line on her. Wish I spoke her lingo!"
"Oh, Tia Juana understands English well enough when she wants to, and speaks it, too, but only when necessity compels it. She hates everything American but me. I—I could not bear to think of her wandering about, destitute and dazed and freezing in this storm! Dan, you must find her for me!"
The erstwhile chauffeur promised, with extravagant protestations of assurance, and it was evident that he was in thorough earnest, with illimitable faith in his own powers.
His attitude of mind was infectious and when Willa descended before the Halstead house her own natural buoyancy of thought had reasserted itself, although the mystery remained as black and sinister as ever.
Wiley, still hors de combat from his thrashing at Thode's hands, could scarcely have been a factor himself in this new development and if it proved to be the result of any of his agents' activities, surely Dan would be able to find some trace.
She passed a sleepless night, however, and arose to find a foot of snow glistening on the ground and the air keen and brittle with cold. No word came from Dan, and in the afternoon she threw discretion to the winds and went boldly to the Brooklyn house.
Nothing had developed save that Jose had worried himself into a fever, and the Senora Rodriguez's lamentations were tinged with a querulous resentment.
The young Senorita was paying handsomely for the hospitality to her friends, and she herself would gladly do anything to aid her country-people, even if they were but Mexican Spanish and not of the blood. Nevertheless, she was not to blame for the old Senora's departure, she had not agreed to stand guard over her and surely the Evil Eye had descended upon her house! She would nurse the little Jose as though he were her own, and the old Senora's room should be kept in readiness for her return, but she, Conchita Rodriguez, would worry her own head no longer!
Willa placated the woman's displeasure with promises of more generous pay, and arranged for extra care and comforts for Jose, whom the Senora evidently regarded with a tenderness born of superstition; to aid a jorobado brought luck to one's hearth-stone, even as the touch of his humped shoulders gave promise of good fortune.
Secure at least in the thought of his well-being, Willa was content to leave Jose in the hands of his irascible but kind-hearted landlady, stipulating that daily messages should be telephoned to her of his condition.
"And if anyone comes to inquire for him, remember that he is not here, please," she added. "He and the Senora have both gone; that is, unless a young American named Morrissey should appear. He is a friend of mine, and trying to help me find the Senora."
"'Morrissey?' I shall not forget." Senora Rodriguez repeated the name thoughtfully. "No one has been here to-day but a plumber, who arrived without my order. He said there was a leak in the cellar next door which came from my house and he did strange things to my pipes so that now I can draw no water in my kitchen. Now my neighbor tells me there was no leak, and I cannot understand. They do singular things, these Americanos."
Willa returned to her home in a more despondent mood even than before, and a telephone call from Dan late in the evening did not tend to raise her spirits.
"I've canvassed every hospital and institootion in the five boroughs!" he announced. "I even tried the morgue, but there ain't hide nor hair of the old lady. Looks like the earth might have opened and swallowed her up. I take it you don't want me to report her missing at headquarters, do you?"
"Only as the very last resort," Willa responded. "We must avoid publicity if we can, although of course if she is ill or in any danger I shall have to let every other consideration go."
"You leave it to me, Miss!" The familiar slogan came as cheerfully as ever over the wire. "I don't think the old lady's in bad, wherever she is. Nobody'd dare do anything to her, would they? It ain't a rough-house gang that's after her, from what you told me."
"No, Dan. I am not afraid of any violence to her at their hands. They will only worry and annoy her."
"Well, the chances are, if she just wandered off and lost herself, that somebody's taken her in. I'm doin' fine, so far. I had a grand talk with the dame over in Brooklyn to-day, and she never once got on to me."
His tone was filled with such honest pride that Willa was loath to disturb it, yet she could not forbear I remarking:
"I did, though, Dan, when she told me what had been done to the plumbing! What did you find out from her?"
"Everything she knew and a lot that she threw in for good measure. I didn't have to start her; she was just aching to tell the whole story; how they came to her and all! If them other people get on to the house, she'll spill the beans to them sure, Miss. She don't own that house; she only rents it, and the next time I go I'll have an order from the agent to put in weatherstrips or clean the chimneys and grates. I want a talk with the lad as soon as he is well enough. I'll report to you, Miss, just as quick as anything turns up."
Willa gave him some final instructions and hung up the receiver, to find Angie at her elbow.
"You've been an unconscionable time!" the latter complained, veiling her eyes to conceal their gleam of awakened curiosity and interest. "We're waiting for you to make up a rubber. Who was that message from? Any of the crowd?"
"No," Willa replied directly. "It was from a friend of mine; you do not know him, Angie."
"Oh, I'm sure I didn't mean to intrude.—Dear me! to-morrow's Thanksgiving, and this wretched season is scarcely begun!"
It was a weary holiday for Willa and she sat through the elaborate formal dinner with which the Halsteads celebrated it in an abstraction of mood which gave two of her callow admirers much concern.
The presence of Kearn Thode's sister, however, brought her out of her reverie and later, when Mrs. Beekman sought her out in the drawing-room, Willa left her problem to take care of itself for the hour in her interest in the breezy clear-eyed woman so like Kearn himself.
"I must apologize for not coming yesterday, as I assured my brother I would. An epidemic of something or other has broken out at my kennels and I spent a disheartening and doggy afternoon." She laughed, adding with sudden seriousness: "My brother has told me so many interesting things of you, Miss Murdaugh, that I have wanted to really know you, but I suppose you have been submerged in a sea of festivity with your cousins. I am a gregarious person but not a conventionally social one. I suppose that is why we have not happened to meet since that first dinner; I do not follow the beaten path, as a rule."
"Nor I, except when I am led by the nose!" Willa responded, laughing, too. "But tell me, is Mr. Thode improving?"
Mrs. Beekman gave her a swift, keen glance.
"Oh, yes! He suffered a mere scratch or two; you know what babies men are about such things.—Look at them trailing in now from the dining-room, fed up on the newest stories and the oldest cognac! There's something almost tragic in their boredom, isn't there?"
Willa gasped, a little taken aback by her companion's cynical frankness, and Mrs. Beekman laid an impulsive hand upon her arm.
"Come and lunch with me to-morrow; just we two. We'll have a nice little chat and if Kearn comes bothering around I'll send him away. I want you to tell me about Mexico."
Willa promised with an odd little thrill of warmth at her heart. With the exception of fat, comfortable Sallie Bailey and old Tia Juana, the girl had had no intimates of her own sex, and the competition appeared to be so keen among the members of the set in which she found herself that friendship was eyed askance as a subterfuge to be wary of.
The daily bulletins from Brooklyn were not encouraging, nor was Dan Morrissey gaining ground in the search. Three days had passed since the disappearance of Tia Juana, and Willa decided despairingly that should a week go by without news, she must go to the police and brave the storm of notoriety and questioning from Mason North and the Halsteads, which would mean the end of her cherished secrecy and hem her in with a multitude of complications.
She lunched with Mrs. Beekman as she had promised, in the dingy old-fashioned house on the Square which somehow gave the girl, untutored as she was, an impression of aristocracy that the newer, more ornate piles of stone farther up the Avenue had utterly failed to convey. She was miserably aware that the other woman was making a sympathetic effort to understand her and gain her friendship, yet the thought of Tia Juana drove all else from her mind and she knew she was creating a far from propitious impression.
An unaccountable shyness, too, took possession of her at the possibility of meeting Kearn Thode beneath his sister's discerning eye, and as soon as she could courteously do so, she tore herself away from her disappointed hostess and went over the bridge to Jose.
The cripple's fever had abated, but he was still very weak. His little hot hands clutched hers nervously and his big eyes seemed to burn into hers as he asked in his own tongue:
"The Senorita has a friend whom she trusts?"
"Yes, Jose," responded Willa promptly. "Have you seen him?"
"He came this morning, and told me his name. He said I was to ask it of you, and you would tell me the same."
"Is it 'Dan'?" She watched the thin face brighten.
"That was it! And am I to trust him, too?"
"You can tell him anything as you would me, amiguito, but remember, no word of the Pool!"
"That is written, Senorita Billie, on my heart!—But will the grandmama ever return?"
Willa soothed him as well as she was able, and, after a brief conference with Senorita Rodriguez, took her departure.
A man was standing near the bottom of the steps, lighting a cigarette. Her eyes rested upon him with no flash of recognition until he glanced up and then with a slow smile tossed his cigarette into the gutter. It was Starr Wiley.
His puffed, discolored lips stood out against the pasty whiteness of his face with the grotesque effect of a mask and his eyes gleamed malevolently, but he lifted his hat with the old airy insouciance.
"We meet again, my dear Billie!"
She bowed gravely, and made as if to pass him, but he barred her way.
"Are you in such haste? I've come on purpose to escort you back over the bridge and have a little chat with you. There is something almost comic in the situation, don't you think?"
"If there is, Mr. Wiley, it is discernible only to you." She shrugged. "I will leave you to the enjoyment of it."
"Not yet, my dear! Our bird has flown, I know, but I am curious to learn why you haunt the empty cage."
Willa paused, eying him steadily.
"What is it to you, as long as the Senora Reyes is not here?"
"Because I believe that you will lead me to her more quickly than my agents can!" Wiley's smile became a knowing leer. "Very clever, your conversation over the telephone the other night, designed for Angie's benefit! You knew that she would report it faithfully to me and you counted on it to throw me off the track, but it didn't quite serve its purpose."
Willa's heart gave a leap, and then sank in a sick wave of fear for Tia Juana. She did not realize until that moment how certain she had been that the old woman was in the hands of those whose interest it would be to keep her safe.
Wiley's attitude betrayed the fact that he knew no more than the girl herself where Tia Juana was. What, then, could have happened to her?
"I really must congratulate you once more!" he went on, ironically. "It was a master stroke, a flash of genius, to spirit the old lady away from this latest retreat of hers, and pretend that you, too, were in the dark as to her whereabouts. It was not your fault that the shot fell short of its mark!"
Willa hesitated. Should she tell him the truth? That would, of course, give him equal ground with her and he would move heaven and earth to beat her in the search, but in her hideous new anxiety she would almost rather know that Tia Juana was in antagonistic hands than face the vague but terrible possibilities confronting her.
Starr Wiley accepted her silence as an admission and on the instant his manner changed.
"I have followed you here to tell you that the time is past for quibbling, and no mere ruse will suffice longer to put me off!" He moved close to her and glared down implacably into her unwavering eyes. "You refused to meet me half way, and now you shall hear my ultimatum: You will produce Tia Juana or take me to her within three days, or I shall tell what I know!"
"Mr. Wiley—" Willa drew herself up very straight and tall—"I have no statement to make about Tia Juana, save that I cannot and will not take you to her. I have listened to your threats and innuendoes until my patience is exhausted and I warn you not to approach me again on this or any other matter. What you know is immaterial to me, you must tell it to whom you please. Will you leave me now, or permit me to depart without a further scene?"
He bowed and stepped back.
"As you desire. Remember you have three days. Think it over well, my dear Billie. It is your present position, the Murdaugh money, a brilliant future and a name, against the Pool of the Lost Souls!"
"I was sorry to have missed you at my sister's, although I do not think you would have welcomed my appearance!" laughed Kearn Thode. "I was striped with plaster like a savage in war paint."
"I had the pleasure of seeing the other victim of that motor accident," Willa remarked demurely. "He was even less prepossessing than usual. I—I knew something of what occurred as I think you could understand from my note. I think that I have again to thank you for your championship."
They were sitting out a dance in the Allardyce's conservatory at their first meeting the night of the Erskine dinner and for some reason speech was difficult to them both. Her eyes, usually so candid, were veiled from him, but Thode swept her with a hungrily wistful gaze.
"You are mistaken. You have nothing to thank me for. I am sorry that any idle gossip reached your ears, but believe me, no other course was open to me. No man could have helped himself—"
"Oh, I understand, of course." Willa blundered helplessly in her haste. "You would have done as much, under the same circumstances, for any other girl, but it is good to feel that there are real men in the world who will protect the name of a friend as though it were that of an own sister."
"It wasn't exactly that, Willa." His voice was very low and his eyes had dropped from her face. "A man would naturally resent any insinuation against a good woman, whether she were his sister or not. There is only one woman in the world for whom a man fights with the primitive blind rage of a human creature for his mate: only, fool that he is, he does not always recognize the feeling which consumes him for what it really is."
He paused, and Willa, too, was silent, but she feared that the very beating of her heart would be audible to his ears. The dreamy waltz had given way to the syncopation of a fox-trot, yet neither was aware of the passing minutes.
"I was blind in Limasito!" he went on. "No woman has come deeply into my life except my sister and I did not know, I did not realize what you had come to mean to me in our few meetings until you were going away into this new existence which was awaiting you, and then I could not speak. I did not follow you then because I had nothing to offer, but I made up my mind to succeed in what I had set out to do, if honest endeavor and the hardest kind of work could achieve it and then, if I were not too late, I meant to come to you and ask you to be my wife."
Willa stirred tremulously, but still her lips were dumb, and Thode misinterpreted her silence.
"Please, don't be afraid!" he assured her, bitterly. "I am not going to ask you that now, for I have failed! I'm not even going to ask you to wait for me, to give me any hope, for I am losing faith in myself; not in my love for you, Willa, but in the success which alone would make it possible for me to approach you. I only wanted you to know that I had awakened to the truth. No girl was ever yet displeased at one more victim bound to her chariot wheels."
"I am not displeased, but I—I am distressed!" Willa stammered through stiffened lips. "You think because I accepted the name and the fortune of the grandfather I never knew, and apparently forgot the old life and all that Dad had done for me, that I am just coldly mercenary! You think I am that sort, ambitious and pushing and soulless! I thought you knew and understood me, I thought that we were friends!"
"That, I hope, we shall always be," he said gently. "It would have been quixotic, absurd for you to refuse the golden opportunity when it came. I did not think of that, nor did I believe you mercenary. I did not mean to whine about my failure, either; it was the chance of fortune and I have lost. You will forgive my having spoken—I had to tell you! I could not keep silent any longer, it was as if you, all unconsciously, were twisting the heart from my breast. You could not help it if you wanted to, you are so sweet, so wonderful! Please, don't be sorry for me, either, it is the greatest thing that ever happened to me and I shall be glad of it, always, even when I have to stand aside and see you turn to a better, bigger man. No matter what happens I shall, all my life through, be at your service."
"Oh, I am not the least bit sorry for you!" Willa cried. "I am exasperated with you! Do you suppose I am the sort of woman to care what a man has, rather than what he is? Am I a painted pampered doll that I must be approached with gifts and sweets and dangled before the highest bidder? My mother married the man she loved and starved with him and died working to take care of his child! Am I less a woman than she?"
"Willa!" He breathed her name in a fervent whisper and caught her two hands in his. "Willa, look at me!"
She raised her blazing eyes and the flame died to a soft luminous glow, while the rich color mantled to her brow.
"Willa, do you mean that you care, really?—Oh, I vowed I would not ask you until I had proved myself worthy, and now, when everything is at a standstill, an impasse, and you yourself have warned me of the impossibility of winning out in my plan for the future, I—I forget all my resolutions! It is unfair for me to speak now, it is not playing the game, but will you tell me at least that you won't be displeased with me if sometime I come to you, when I have won the right? I will ask no promise now, I cannot, but if I could know that you cared ever so little—"
"How can you know if—if you don't ask?" Willa's downright honesty had gotten the better of her timidity and with characteristic fearlessness she disclosed all that was in her own wildly throbbing heart. "I don't know how a man could prove himself more worthy of any woman than by taking his life in his hands on a hundred-to-one chance of saving hers! I don't know what difference the loss or finding of the Pool makes in the happiness of you and me. Go ahead and make a martyr of yourself over your silly pride if you want to! If I thought you didn't care, that you were just trying to carry on the ghastly game they call flirtation up here, I wouldn't be so angry with you. I'm not Willa Murdaugh down inside of me, and you know it!—I'm just Gentleman Geoff's Billie, a waif raised by the greatest-hearted man that ever lived, but I've got some pride myself. I don't want any man who hasn't s-spunk enough to ask me!"
"Willa! Oh, my dearest, will you—!"
"Here comes Winnie Mason!" She drew her hands from his and sprang up with a nervous tinkle of laughter. "That means we've missed three dances, and you were to have had two of them with Angie! You'll be in for a dreadful panning—"
"You wicked little—adorable little—girl o' mine!" he exclaimed softly, as Winnie's mildly inquiring face appeared around a narrow alley between the close-packed flowering plants. "I'm coming to-morrow, before breakfast—"
Willa shook her head, the light waning in her eyes.
"No, not to-morrow, Kearn. There is something that I must do, something I cannot put aside even—even for you."
"In the evening, then? I must see you to-morrow sometime! It's going to be hard enough to live through to-night!"
She nodded, and, not trusting herself to speak again, turned and slipped away to meet Winnie Mason.
That placidly dense young man was mightily pleased with the effusive greeting with which she favored him, and had she vision enough to note it, she might have read in his worshiping eyes a like message to that which she had just heard.
But she was blind, dazed in the light of her own swiftly gained wondrous happiness. The music, the dancers, the little crystal-laden supper-tables, the final romp all passed in a kaleidoscopic dream before her, and only the wintry night wind beating upon her in a frigid blast, as she stepped from the awninged passage-way to the limousine, awakened her to a sense of reality.
Just then, the flash of a street-lamp in at the window fell for a passing moment on Angie's face as she sat half-turned from her cousin and Willa caught her breath to stifle a sudden startled exclamation. She had seen Angie in many fits of temper, sullen and raging, but never had the girl's expression been so fiendish! The doll-like beauty was gone in a distortion of anger, but there was a suggestion of malignant triumph, too, which aroused Willa's apprehension.
She knew that in her heart Angie despised her as an upstart and bitterly resented her small success in the social world, beside blaming her for the episode with Starr Wiley. She remembered, too, how Angie had betrayed her to him. In her maddening anxiety for Tia Juana's safety, Willa had given no thought to the means Wiley must have used to reinstate himself once more in her cousin's willing eyes.
Was this evidence of fury directed against her because she had been the unwitting cause of Kearn Thode's defection in the matter of the two dances, or was something deeper and more significant in the wind?
Willa was not left in doubt for long. She had scarcely finished her preparations for the night and was braiding her long black hair into a massive rope, when a light, brittle tapping came upon her door.
Almost before the wondering assent had left her lips, Angie slipped in and stood before her. She was still in her spangled dance frock and her round blue eyes were snapping fire.
"I suppose I have come on a thankless mission, Willa," she began. "Every time I have tried to help you or teach you anything, you have looked on it, in your spiteful way, as mere jealousy on my part, although why I should be jealous of you, heaven only knows!"
"Please, Angelica! We have had all this out before and I am very tired. Would you mind if I asked you to wait until morning?" Willa gave her hair a final twist and turned from the mirror. "I am honestly sorry Kearn Thode missed those dances with you to-night, but it really wasn't my fault—"
"Do you suppose I wanted to dance with him?" Angie interrupted in immense scorn. "I only permitted him to put his name down on my card in ordinary courtesy because of his sister; she has such a caustic tongue that one must keep on the right side of her. If he chose to ignore his dances with me it was because he was playing a game which you, you conceited little simpleton, couldn't see through. Oh, I heard what he said to you in the conservatory—!"
"You listened!" Willa turned on her at last. "Lord, what a miserable specimen of a girl you are, anyhow! I knew you were spying about and listening at my heels here at home to learn what you could and run with it to the man who's making a tool of you and a fool besides, but I didn't think you were so low down as to skulk about and pry into affairs which are no concern of yours! Is nothing sacred to you?"
"I was only doing my duty!" Angie returned loftily. Then her consuming rage got the better of her once more. "You dare to speak of anyone making a tool of me! It is you who are waiting for anyone's hand! Starr Wiley made a fool of you, and you simpered and purred and thought you were taking him from me, when he was only amusing himself for the moment because he was jealous of me with Art. Judson! Now, in your bursting conceit you think this impecunious fortune-hunter, Thode, is in love with you. I listened because it was my duty to keep any member of the family from throwing herself away and I wanted to see how far he would dare to go. I'm here now to tell you the truth."
"I do not want to hear another word!" Willa cried hotly. "It is no affair of yours and you shall not speak of Kearn Thode as a—a fortune-hunter! He is the only real man in this whole spindling, self-seeking, artificial crowd! If you listened, you know how proud and independent he is!"
"I heard, but that was only his cleverness; he knew how eager you were and he simply led you on to almost propose to him yourself! That was good stuff about not knowing he cared for you down in Mexico until you were leaving. What would you say if I were to tell you that he made a deliberate play for you from the moment he reached that town? Oh, he's serious enough! He'll marry you if he can; that's what he meant to do from the first."
"I think you must be mad!" Willa stared at her cousin in sheer wonder. "Why should he have wanted to marry me? There were lots of other girls in town——"
"Because he knew who you really were all the time! He knew before Mason North ever found you, and he knew, too, what a fortune you were coming into. You needn't look at me like that, I know what I am talking about!"
"I don't think you do," Willa remarked simply. "You must have taken leave of your senses or else Starr Wiley has been making you believe the silliest sort of lies. How could Kearn Thode have known who I was? No one did but—but the man who had made me his own daughter, and he would not tell me because he did not want to hurt me by letting me know what mean, contemptible snobs my people were and how they had served my own father for marrying my brave mother! Kearn Thode knew nothing!"
"What if I were to show you proof? Here is a letter in his own hand, telling all about you and what he meant to do." Angie pulled a crumpled wad of paper from her bodice and held it out, her whole body quivering in triumph. "Read it and then you'll know whether he cares for you or not! Read it, I say!"
"And I say to you that if you don't leave this room at once I will ring and have you put out! Don't you imagine that I can see through a scurvy trick of Starr Wiley's to get back at the man who beat him twice to a mere pulp? I do not want to see the letter, I will not read it. It is all a lie!"
"Then listen!" Angie smoothed the sheet of paper and fairly danced in her excitement. "You shall listen! You shall know what that man is scheming to marry you for! There is only a part of it here, but it ought to be enough to open your eyes, blinded with conceit as you are!"
"I will not——!" Willa began indignantly, but Angie's voice silenced her.
"——'Except for him, of course, no one here knows her real name'," she read, "'and it wouldn't mean anything to them if they did, but I spotted her at once and later events have only proved the truth of my suspicions. She is the undoubted owner of almost boundless wealth and when I have gone after her and won her consent——'"
"Stop!" Willa clapped her hands to her ears. "I will not listen to one more word! It is a lie, I tell you! A lie!"
"There isn't any more," Angie announced with a sly grimace. "That is the bottom of the page, but it ought to be enough for you."
"Kearn Thode never wrote a word of it!" exclaimed Willa passionately. "I would not believe you if you swore it from now till you die! Go, before I make you!"
"Oh, I'm going." Angie shrugged, and the letter fluttered from her fingers to the floor. "I've no desire for a disgraceful brawl, I assure you! Of course, I am not familiar with Kearn Thode's handwriting, but I have proof enough to satisfy me that the letter is his. If you marry him now, you will have bought him with your eyes open and have no one but yourself to blame if you're not pleased with your bargain! I have done my duty anyway, my dear cousin. Good-night."
Her footsteps died away down the hall, and Willa dropped into a low chair before the hearth, covering her face with her hands. It was Just a trick of Wiley's, of course! She would not let her gaze stray to that tell-tale sheet of white paper upon the floor, and yet something seemed to draw her eyes to it with an almost physical strength.
Wiley must have written it himself and put it in Angie's hands to work what mischief she might with it. There could be no harm in one glance at it; a glance which would prove instantly its falseness, just as she knew it in her heart to be at best a forgery.
Slowly Willa rose and step by step made her way to where the letter lay. She made no effort to touch it at first, but it had fallen with the written side uppermost and gradually as she stared down at it the scorn in her face gave way to wonder and then despair.
The brief note she had received from Kearn Thode, after he had thrashed Wiley at the club, was engraved deep in her thoughts with every line distinct and the characters on the paper before her eyes were so similar in every detail that it seemed impossible for them not to have been fashioned by the same hand.
With grief and horror surging in her heart, Willa rushed to the little drawer of her dressing-table where the first note had been treasured, and drew it forth. Then, seizing the other paper from the floor, she held them beneath the glow of the lamp with shaking hands and compared them.
The next minute she had crumpled them both fiercely and cast them from her, flinging herself across her bed in a paroxysm of bitter grief and disillusionment.
Kearn Thode had written both letters; there could be no longer doubt. He was like all the rest! Truth and chivalry departed from the world and her shattered dream, and once more Willa found herself alone, but in a depth of solitude she had never known before. Love had gone.
MIDNIGHT FOR CINDERELLA
When the late lowering dawn seeped in at the windows, Willa raised herself wearily and crept to her desk. Her face with the tears dried upon it was ghastly in the morning light, but her eyes held a look of grim determination. Seating herself, she took up her pen and wrote without hesitation:
"My Dear Mr. Thode:
"I beg that you will not call this evening, that I may be spared the painful necessity of having you shown the door. In the light of my present full comprehension of your motives, I no longer wonder that even you hesitated at the moment of your odious proposal. The only possible reparation you can make for the humiliation you have brought upon me in my inmost thoughts is to so arrange that I need never look upon your face again.
"In all sincerity,
The letter finished, she sealed and stamped it; then her worn-out body slumped in the chair and her head bowed upon her folded arms on the desk.
The collapse lasted but a moment, however. The same dogged determination which had forced her weary spirit to the pronouncement of the verdict upon her love, drove her yet indomitably on. As she lifted her head her gaze mechanically fell upon the calendar before her and a slow, infinitely sad smile curled her lips. It was the beginning of the third day since Starr Wiley had issued his ultimatum. He must carry his threat into execution or admit it to have been sheer bluff. Curiously, she looked upon the impending crisis with the impassivity of a bystander. What did it matter now?
Then realization came back in a full tide and she sprang to her feet. The weary plodding search which had taken her half over the city in the past few agonizing days had been fruitless, yet must it still continue until definite news of Tia Juana could be learned. Dan Morrissey had been faithful, but his ardent spirit outran his detective skill and his initiative advanced no farther afield than a daily round of the hospitals and temporary shelters of the city's driftwood, and a hopeless concentration on the neighborhood from which the aged woman had so mysteriously vanished.
Willa herself had no more comprehensive plan; she had advertised discreetly in Spanish in the "personal" column of a morning newspaper and followed every tentative line of investigation which presented itself to her, but messages to each stage of the journey back to Limasito and exhaustive questioning of the few individuals with whom Tia Juana had come in contact in New York were alike unproductive of result.
Hopelessness was stealthily enveloping her spirit, but she resolutely fought it down. She must not give up, she would not until Tia Juana was safe. She had been instrumental in bringing the aged woman to an alien land, and she was responsible for whatever misfortune might have come upon her. Then, too, there was her purpose still to be achieved; that at least remained to her.
At breakfast Angie addressed her in honeyed tones, scrutinizing her hungrily meanwhile for evidence of the result of her maneuver, but Willa was stonily noncommittal. The meal progressed in a constrained silence which was broken only by the shrill summons of the telephone.
Senora Rodriguez's staccato voice came over the wire in such an outpouring of hysteria that at first Willa could make nothing of it, but at length one phrase smote her ears:
"It is the jorobadito, Jose, who has disappeared now!"
"What?" Willa faltered. "You mean that Jose has gone also? It cannot be, Senora Rodriguez! There must be a mistake! He would not go unless he were abducted!"
"No, Senorita; there was no abduction!" the Spanish woman cried. "The little Jose was all of yesterday most thoughtful. Scarcely could I arouse him to eat, and as his fever abated I allowed him to sit in the sun upon the glass-enclosed back porch and did not urge upon him the medicine he hates. Last night as he went to bed he kissed my hand quite suddenly, a thing he has not done before, though always was he courteous. This morning he was gone as the old Senora went, without warning.—Senorita, I am a poor woman, but I would give half I possess to have the pobrecito back for he is frail and weak to be alone in this great city and he has not a peso with him. Moreover, he brought me luck. What can I do, Senorita, to find him once more?"
Willa cut the woman's protestations short, and, calling up the garage—their prearranged rendez-vous—instructed Dan to meet her at the bridge.
Intent on the new calamity, she gave no heed as to the probability of having been overheard by Angie, but hurriedly departed.
The deeply concerned Dan broke all records and narrowly escaped arrest in getting her to the Rodriguez home, but nothing further could be elicited from its dismayed chatelaine. Her sincerity, however, was self-evident; she could have had no hand in the disappearance of the little hunchback.
The day was spent in a feverishly renewed search which brought no surcease of anxiety and at its end Willa dragged herself with leaden feet to her room. Her head seemed bursting and she shook as with an ague as she dressed for the tedious dinner and the still more tedious game of bridge which was the program of the evening. She dared not absent herself, explanations enough would be demanded of her for the day's broken engagements, but she looked forward to the hours ahead with a dread foreboding which she could not name.
It was merely nerves, she assured herself; she was worn-out mentally and physically with the continued strain and ceaseless effort and she forced her thoughts resolutely away from the false but ecstatic happiness which might have been hers on that evening save for the discovery of Kearn Thode's perfidy.
The arrival of the expected guests commanded her descent to the drawing-room, dinner somehow dragged through its almost interminable length and the bridge-tables were made up, when a diversion occurred.
The door-bell pealed, and Welch obeyed its summons, then came and called Ripley Halstead quietly from his place. No premonition warned Willa, even when her cousin returned visibly perturbed and excused himself for the evening, pleading an unanticipated business conference.
The tables were readjusted and the game went on to its close. Then came supper, and when the last of the guests had departed the hands of the clock were on the stroke of twelve and Willa turned with a sigh of relief to ascend to her room.
Midway the stairs, she was halted by hearing her name called in strange, stunned accents, and, turning, saw Ripley Halstead standing in the library door, regarding her with dazed, half-incredulous eyes, as though she were a changeling.
Instantly the truth came to her, and with head held high and a slight scornful smile upon her lips she descended and approached him.
The long table in the center of the library was strewn with large legal-looking documents, and beside it sat Mason North, his rotund body sagged in the chair, his good-natured face drawn and haggard. Opposite him stood Starr Wiley, his bruised lips twisted into a leer of triumph.
The girl looked gravely from one to the other and then turning to her cousin, waited submissively for him to speak.
"Willa, my dear——" he paused, clearing his throat nervously—"I have something to tell you which will be a painful shock to you. It has utterly unnerved me. I—I would not have dreamed that such an astounding discovery could come to pass and at this late date it is particularly distressing——"
"Better permit me to tell her, Ripley." Mason North rose heavily to his feet and stood with one pudgy hand braced upon the table as if for support. "The mistake was mine in too eagerly grasping the obvious as proof.—My dear Wil—my dear girl, I am profoundly grieved, but it has been brought to our attention that—that there are grave doubts as to your identity! In fact, belated but seemingly irrefutable documentary evidence appears to prove that you—you are not Willa Murdaugh!"
The girl stood like a statue, but from behind her Mrs. Halstead gasped convulsively, and there came a little squeal in Angie's treble tones.
"Sit down, my dear." Ripley Halstead drew forward a chair and Willa sank obediently into it, her eyes never leaving those of the attorney.
The others came in and seated themselves unbidden; all but Vernon. He took up his stand behind Willa's chair and for a moment his hand brushed her shoulder as if to assure her of his presence in case of need.
"It is only just that an immediate and detailed explanation be made to you," North continued. "I am sure it is unnecessary for me to express my regret and sympathy, but I want you to realize that I am as entirely at your service in every way as I was prior to this discovery.
"When I found you in Limasito and retraced your history from the time the man known as 'Gentleman Geoff' adopted you supposedly in Topaz Gulch, I overlooked one significant phase in his peregrinations. Willa Murdaugh's parentage and the circumstances of her birth were in every particular as I have told you; Ralph Murdaugh died when the baby was two years old, his wife lost her life in a fire two years later and the child was actually adopted by Gentleman Geoff and taken with him on his wanderings.
"Now it has transpired that the first heavy snow of the following winter caught him midway between two mining camps far up in the Rockies, near Flathead Lake, Montana. Does that name recall any memories to you?"
Willa shook her head, mutely, and the attorney after a moment's pause went on:
"It is scarcely likely that it would, for you yourself could have been no more than five years old at the time. However, Gentleman Geoff and the little Willa were lost in the blizzard, and, after suffering untold horrors, he finally made his way to the cabin of a trapper, named——" he hesitated and glanced down at the papers beneath his hand—"named Frank Hillery. This trapper Hillery's wife had run away with another man some years before, leaving him with a little daughter on his hands, a child of about five years, called Louise."
Again he paused, coughing. The Halsteads, mother and daughter, sat spell-bound, but Willa was outwardly the coolest person in the room. The story in its every detail was stamping itself indelibly upon her mind and for the moment even the presence of Starr Wiley was forgotten.
"When he reached the trapper's cabin, Gentleman Geoff was blinded by the snow, delirious and half frozen. Hillery took him in, unwrapped the fur pack he carried on his back and discovered the body of little Willa. She had died from exposure."
Vernon uttered a sharp exclamation, and the girl seated before him clasped her hands tightly, but no other sign greeted Mason North's announcement. He passed his hand across his brow and drew a deep breath.
"Hillery buried the child and nursed Gentleman Geoff through a long illness. It was well into the following spring when he was able to proceed on his journey, and when he did, he took the trapper's little daughter, Louise, with him, and called her 'Billie' as he had nicknamed the other. His future wanderings never took him back over the same route or to any of the places where the real Willa had been known, consequently the substitution was never discovered until these papers came to light. No one had visited the trapper's lonely cabin during the period of Gentleman Geoff's presence there. Hillery deserted it the following summer and went southward to Arizona where he eventually died six months ago. Undoubtedly, those who had known him and passed the cabin clearing took it for granted that the little grave was that of his daughter, Louise, but these documents, found among Frank Hillery's private papers after his death, bear witness in crude but unmistakable fashion to the agreement between the two men and the adoption of little Louise by Gentleman Geoff."
Mason North seated himself once more with a gesture of relief that the bomb was exploded, and all eyes turned to Willa.
"How is it, then, that I remember the fire in which my mother was destroyed?" She was wholly innocent of an intention to defend her position, but asked her question in the first bewildering shock, unconscious of the fact which her form of speech betrayed, that she could not all at once disassociate herself from the identity she had accepted only a few short weeks before. "Why, I even recall vaguely a song which the woman I supposed must have been my mother used to sing all the time, though I cannot quite bring it back to my mind. I am sure if I heard it once, I should remember!"
The attorney visibly hesitated, and it was Ripley Halstead who replied as gently as possible:
"Often one believes that one can recall experiences of their very early years which they have actually learned from hearsay, from countless repetition in their presence."
"But Dad never spoke of that time in Nevada; he never once referred to it to the very hour of his death! I recall vaguely being lost in the snow and I have often heard Dad speak of Hillery's kindness and care; he used to say that the trapper had saved both our lives. A number of people in Limasito have heard the story from his own lips, Jim Baggott and Henry Bailey and Rufe Terwilliger—but Rufe is dead now, he was killed in El Negrito's raid——"
She paused as if a hand had closed suddenly about her throat, while a tiny patch of color crept into each cheek and her eyes, large and luminous and swiftly keen, sought Starr Wiley's. Her clasped hands tightened, then relaxed and a little smile hovered about her lips once more; a coolly calculating, somewhat grim little smile. The story had engrossed her for the moment to the exclusion of all else, but mention of the raid recalled her sharply to the presence of its instigator.
Wiley's vague threats were plain to her now, his purpose practically achieved. He had kept his word, he had exposed her, but was her early memory indeed tricking her? Was this latest revelation true, and had he actually stumbled upon authentic records, or manufactured them to avenge himself upon her and eliminate her from his path? Willa's mind still groped in a quandary, but every instinct within her arose to combat.
"Why would Dad have mentioned Hillery at all, if he did not intend that I should ever learn the truth?" she asked quietly. "Indeed, why did he adopt the trapper's little daughter and call her by the other's name?"
"Well," Ripley Halstead replied after a swift glance at the attorney as if for help, "probably he had grown fond of the dead child and wanted another to take her place."
"He undoubtedly did!" It was the first time Starr Wiley spoke in the girl's presence and a short ugly laugh accompanied the remark. "Not wholly because he had taken a liking to Willa Murdaugh, however. Why blink the facts, Mr. Halstead? It is plain on the face of it that he must have looked up the real Willa's parentage and connections, and realized that the storm had robbed him of a potential heiress in whose probable inheritance he would sometime have shared——"
"That is a lie." Willa's tones rang out without passion but clarion clear in her absolute certitude. "Anyone who knew Dad ever so slightly would testify to its falseness. Why did he not keep himself informed of my grandfather's changing attitude and come forward and claim the inheritance when the search for me began? Whether I am Willa Murdaugh or not, there can be at least no reason why I should remain to hear the memory of the finest man who ever lived defiled by such a base imputation. If you will excuse me now——"
She half rose from her chair, but Starr Wiley forestalled her.
"Your pardon—I will go." He bowed with an undercurrent of mockery in his suave manner. "Naturally, Miss Billie, you resent my interference in your career and I deplore the fact that the onerous duty should have fallen upon my shoulders. However, it was a duty, no matter how repugnant, and I could do no less than place the facts before Mr. North and Mr. Halstead. I am sure my attitude requires no defense and I trust, when you will have had time to think matters over calmly, you will not blame me too bitterly. Believe me, I would have spared you, gladly, had it been compatible with my sense of the right. It is long past midnight, and I will leave you, if you will permit me, Mr. North."
He turned deferentially to the attorney, but not before Willa had caught the significance with which he mentioned the hour. Twelve o'clock had struck, indeed, as he had prophesied, for this latter-day Cinderella, and the pumpkin coach had vanished. The story differed only in that there was no fairy prince to find her once again; he had vanished, too, stripped of his splendor, but before the magic hour. Or, rather, he had never existed save in the exalted fancy of the girl back there in Limasito!
Cinderella must pick up her slipper herself, and go forth into the world.
THE VENDER OF TOMALES
After Starr Wiley's departure Mason North placed the documents in Willa's hands, explaining each in turn and she forced herself to a stern concentration on them that she might master every detail. Already she was gathering her forces, although no definite purpose outlined itself in the chaos of her thoughts. Only a blind, as yet unreasoning, repudiation of the story to which she had just listened sprang full-grown to life within her and the very strength of her conviction urged her to examine well the evidence against herself.
It consisted of the marriage-certificate of Frank Hillery and Louise Henson, dated December 12, 1895; the birth-certificate of Louise Francis Hillery, October 3, 1897, several maps of the Flathead Lake territory with trails marked upon them in red ink, the death-certificate of Frank Hillery, dated April 16, 1916, and a huge sheet of foolscap paper scrawled with labored characters in wavering lines. At the bottom two signatures were appended, the first in the same painstaking hand as the body of the document, but at the second Willa's breath caught again in her throat and her eyes blurred.
The letters before her, in the same angular heavily down-stroked writing she knew so well, formed the name of Gentleman Geoff, but a word had been added; one that she had never seen or heard before. Abercrombie! Gentleman Geoff Abercrombie!
Had that been indeed the unmentioned surname of the man who had reared her as his own? Why, then, had he, who had given her all else, not given her, too, the name to bear?
The document set forth in brief that Frank Hillery, being of sound mind and sole guardian of his daughter, Louise Frances, did give her to Geoffrey Abercrombie, known as "Gentleman Geoff," for absolute adoption; the said Gentleman Geoff promising to bring her up in all ways as his own child and to leave her whatever he might die possessed of. It was dated March 12, 1902.
"You will permit me to have photographic copies of each of these papers, Mr. North?" Willa asked, when the last had been laid aside.
"Certainly, my child." The attorney's voice was suspiciously husky. "Allow me to assure you that there will be no hurry, of course. It will take some weeks to verify and substantiate this evidence, and in the meantime——"
"Willa shall remain with us, of course," Ripley Halstead said with deep feeling. "This is a most unwelcome revelation to me, I may say to all of us. We have grown greatly attached to Willa and come to look upon her as quite one of ourselves.—There is no reason, my dear, why you should not stay on indefinitely. I am sure my wife will be glad to second me in this."
"Of course." Mrs. Halstead spoke through tightened lips. "This has been a most regrettable mistake, and one which will entail a hideous amount of notoriety, but that cannot be helped now. It is an almost overwhelming shock, but it explains many things which I have found incomprehensible. After all, this poor young girl is the worst sufferer, and she will be welcome here as long as she cares to stay."
Angie gasped, but made no comment and it was Vernon alone who echoed his mother's assurance in sincere enthusiasm.
"Thank you," Willa said simply. "You are all more than kind, but you realize, of course, that I should feel like an interloper; my place is no longer here."
"But, my dear, it will not do to be too hasty! Suppose that these documents are not—suppose no mistake was made in the original identification——?" The attorney was halted by her steady gaze.
"Mr. North, you are convinced already. Why delay the inevitable?" She rose. "However, we won't discuss it further now, if you don't mind. I—I feel very tired."
"Of course, dear child! We have kept you up till an unconscionable hour!" Mason North approached her with outstretched hand. "Remember that you will always find a friend in me. Come to me at any time."
"Thank you. May I send for the photographic copies of the documents to-morrow?" Willa turned to the others in a grave dignity not without its pathos. "You have all been very good to me; whatever happens I shall never forget that. I wish now that I had been more amenable to your advice and suggestions, but it is too late to think of that. Good-night."
Her head was still high as she walked to the door, but when it had closed behind her, she paused trembling as though suddenly bereft of her strength.
In the silence, Angie's querulous tones rose sharply from the other side of the door.
"I felt all along that something was wrong! I knew that wild uncouth thing couldn't be a Murdaugh, in spite of the common mother——"
Willa put her hands to her ears and fled madly up the stairs to her room where she sank limply upon the couch. Exhausted in mind and body with the storm of emotion which had swayed her and the strain of the protracted effort of self-control, she fell asleep at last with one determination firmly fixed in her mind. The roof which had reluctantly sheltered her should do so no longer.
She awakened in the early morning and lay for a moment in drowsy bewilderment before full realization came. Then she sprang from her bed, dressed hastily in her plainest clothes, and, packing a small bag with necessities, stole softly down the stairs.
She shivered as she let herself out into the cold, bleak morning. As yet no plan had formed in her mind save to find a temporary abode in some quiet neighborhood until the search for Tia Juana was ended in some conclusive fashion. That was still the first of the duties confronting her and the change in her fortunes did not swerve her an iota from the charge she had laid upon herself. Later there would be two points to be achieved; the one which had actuated her from the beginning, and another which was even now beating upon her consciousness.
When Dan Morrissey came whistling into the garage an hour later, he stopped short in amazement at the sight of his employer seated just inside the entrance with her bag at her feet.
"Good-morning, Dan. Is the car in order?"
"Yes, Miss. Good-morning." He stared blankly, and then with a start he recovered himself. "Just a minute, Miss! I'll have her out in no time."
"I will wait for you at the Broadway corner. Bring my bag, please."
Willa had scarcely reached the appointed place, however, when Dan came chugging up behind her and in a moment they were speeding away from the vicinity of the garage.
"I have decided to leave home, Dan," she announced without preamble. "I want to live quietly under cover until we have found Tia Juana and Jose. It is important that none of the family nor their friends shall know where I have gone. Do you know of any place where I can arrange to board for a time? The more simple it is, the better."
"Well," Dan remarked, reflectively, "you wouldn't be wanting a plain, poor kind of a home after all the grandeur you're used to, or I could take you to my sister, Miss. She's married to a shipping clerk and lives in a little two-family house up on Washington Heights. It's quiet and clean and nobody'd think of looking for you there, but I guess maybe you'd want something a bit more high-toned."
"No, it sounds splendid! Just what I am looking for." Willa paused. "But do you think she will take me in? You see, I can't explain very well."
"Explain nothin'!" Dan reddened swiftly. "Excuse me, Miss. Delia's no more of a hand at askin' questions than me, and she's a good judge of people. She can tell you're a lady in a minute, and she'll make you more than welcome if you can put up with the plainness of everything. I'll have you there in ten minutes."
Dan was as good as his word, and Willa found that he had spoken truly. His sister proved to be a thin, pleasant-faced woman with a humorous curve to her lips and alert twinkling brown eyes. She was ready and willing to take Dan's employer as a lodger and the terms were quickly arranged.
Willa gave Dan his instructions, and then shut herself in the clean, sunny room which had been allotted to her and looked the situation collectedly in the face.
The more she thought of the astounding tale of the previous night and strove in vain to find the slightest corroboration of it in her memory, the more deep sank the roots of her conviction of its fallacy. She had not realized how desperate Wiley's determination was to oust her from his path, nor dreamed that he would risk forged testimony, but now at length she had measured the strength of her adversary and her own courage rose in a dauntless tide to meet his challenge.
In the beginning the Murdaugh name had meant nothing to her and the inheritance merely a means to an end, but now with Angie's scornful words heard through the closed door ringing in her ears, she made up her mind to fight! Not for the sake of position or name or wealth, but for the "common" brave-hearted mother whose child she felt herself to be beyond peradventure of a doubt, and about whose memory all unconsciously a worshiping love had sprung in her heart.
Meanwhile, pursuant to instructions, Dan had presented himself at the imposing offices of North, Manning and Gilchrist, armed with the note which Willa had written hastily in his sister's home.
Mason North looked up after perusing it, and favored the messenger with a keen scrutiny.
"H'm! This letter calls for the delivery to you of certain rather important documents, young man. I should like to be sure of your identification before placing them in your hands."
"Well, Sir, I've my bank-book here, and some letters——"
The attorney waved them aside.
"I don't mean quite that. You have been long in Miss Murdaugh's employ?"
Dan was conscious of a movement in the corner behind him and turned to find a mild, round-faced young man rising from the safe he had been in the act of closing and regarding him with vast interest. Dan returned the compliment respectfully.
"How long have you worked for Miss Murdaugh?"
The question was reiterated with a touch of asperity.
"For some time, Sir. Ever since she caught the French maid trying to spy on her under the orders of Mrs. Halstead." Dan repeated carefully but with evident satisfaction the message which had been given him. "Miss Murdaugh told me to tell you, Sir, that I was one of the investments she had made with Gentleman Geoff's money. She said you would understand."
Mason North nipped at his mustache reflectively and turned to the younger man. "Winthrop, I wish you'd go and attend to that Erskine matter for me!"
Winnie departed in obvious reluctance and only when the door had closed behind him did his father resume:
"In what capacity are you employed by Miss Murdaugh?"
"Confidential agent, she said I was to tell you." Dan could scarcely suppress a grin of importance. "She told me to remind you that she asked you particular last night if she might send for the copies of the papers, not call for them herself, and you said 'yes.' And you'll excuse me, Sir, but I'm not to answer any more questions."
The attorney shrugged and turned to the telephone, but Dan interposed quietly:
"Miss Murdaugh ain't at home, Sir. She's waiting for me and she says she'll not set foot in the house until I bring her the copies of the papers."
"Very well." Mason North capitulated, and, opening a drawer in his desk, handed over a rolled package. "Here you are. I shall want a receipt, of course."
He made out one, which Dan signed, and with a nod turned to leave, when the attorney halted him on the threshold.
"Ask Miss Murdaugh if she can find it convenient to call here this afternoon; tell her I would like to talk things over with her and will expect her between four and five o'clock."
"Very good, Sir."
Dan departed, colliding violently as he did so with an elderly gentleman who entered the inner office and banged the door behind him.
"Mason, have you heard from her? Do you know where she has gone?"
"Who?" North rose hurriedly. "What is it, Ripley? What has happened?"
"Willa. She's gone!" Ripley Halstead dropped despondently into a chair beside the desk. "Here's the note the poor, proud little thing left behind her. Mason, I feel as if, between us, we've given her a beastly, rotten deal."
But the attorney did not heed the final observation. He pressed the button in his desk excitedly and when a wondering clerk appeared he barked:
"That young man who just went out of here! Follow him, stop him!"
"Too late, Sir. He went down in the express elevator as I stepped out of the local."
North seated himself again with a gesture of hopelessness.
"All right; never mind, then. Ripley——" as the door closed once more—"if you'd been five minutes sooner I could have located her. Why under the sun didn't you telephone me?"
"Her absence was only discovered as I was leaving the house and I came straight to you." Halstead stared. "What young man were you speaking of?"
"Her messenger. He came with a note from Willa authorizing him to bring her the photographic copies of those documents, and like a fool I gave them to him! We've lost our chance of tracing her, and heaven only knows what difficulties that headstrong wilful child will get into by herself," groaned North. "I took her away from her home and friends in Mexico on this mistaken matter of her inheritance and I feel responsible for her. I'm fond of the child, too; I like her independent spirit even if it did raise the deuce with us, and if any harm comes to her——"
"I won't let myself think of that!" Ripley Halstead's kind face had grown suddenly haggard. "I have a good deal of respect for her clear-headed ability to take care of herself; nevertheless, I sha'n't feel easy until she is found. I've taken more comfort in her than in my own daughter, Mason. My wife doesn't need Willa's share of the Murdaugh money and I wish young Wiley had never unearthed the truth!"
The attorney had picked up the little note.
"'My dear Mrs. Halstead,' he read.
"'I hope you will forgive me for leaving you so unceremoniously. I do not mean to be rude or seem ungrateful, but I am afraid that in your hospitality you would urge me to remain until the documents are verified at least, and I really cannot do so. If I have been an impostor, it was an unconscious one. Nevertheless, I could not endure a false position. Will you permit me once more to thank you and your family for all your kindness to me, and believe me to be,
"'Ever gratefully yours,
"——Poor little girl! I say, where did she get that 'Abercrombie' from?"
"Don't you see?" Ripley Halstead bent forward.
"That's the name on that document; the name of the man who adopted her, 'Gentleman Geoff.' She won't claim 'Murdaugh' and doesn't accept 'Hillery,' so she's chosen the one name she's sure of. Do you suppose that means she is going to contest the validity of this new claim?"
"Possibly." North shook his head. "It would be a losing fight for her, though, Ripley. There isn't a chance in the world that Wiley's discovery could be anything but authentic. No one profits by the affair except your own family and no one could have any possible incentive for faking the story. It's too bad the truth didn't come out before, and I'll always blame myself for my negligence, but as long as a mistake was made, it is lucky for us that Wiley stumbled on those records now instead of later, when the fortune was in her hands."
His mission accomplished, Dan was returning to the garage to put the car up and proceed on foot to his daily round of the hospitals and bureaus of inquiry, when half-way down the block a shrill voice piped at him.
"Hot tomales! Very fine hot tomales. Try one, Mister!"
Idly he glanced toward the curb. A diminutive, ragged vender crouched there beside a bright, new hand-cart which contained a huge pot simmering above a charcoal fire, and bore a sign with the legend "Hot Tomales, 5 cents," in obviously home-made lettering.
His mind intent on his errand of the morning, Dan gave it but passing heed and drove on into the garage, yet as he busied himself about the car, the incident kept recurring to his mind. Hot tomales were a queer commodity for a street-seller to deal in; Dan didn't know exactly what they were, but he believed them to be some sort of Spanish or Mexican concoction——
At this point in his cogitations he stopped work abruptly and stood staring into vacancy.
There had been something appealingly familiar even in that fleeting glimpse of the tattered crouched figure, and could it be that it had been hunchbacked?
With an excited cry he dropped the wrench from his hand and sprang out into the street. Cart and vender were gone, but in the gutter lay a crushed, greasy mess which had been a tomale. It was still smoking and as Dan stirred it with his foot, he saw that a wisp of sodden paper clung to it.
Seizing it, he smoothed it out and read the two jerkily penciled words:
WINNIE MASON STANDS BY
"I say, hello there! Wait a minute, Kearn!" Winnie Mason called as he brought his roadster to a halt with a sudden grinding of brakes. It was two days later and a cutting east wind skirled about the driveway of the Park, rattling the naked branches of the trees like the fleshless arms of a legion of skeletons.
The tall figure on the path waited, but his face was averted and there was a listless, dispirited droop to his whole form which was not lost upon the quick, sympathetic gaze of his friend.
"I'll back her up. . . Now get in, old man, and we'll take a little spin. Jolly glad I ran across you, but what brings you out on a blustering rotten afternoon like this? You're not very fit yet, you know, after that bout of fever you had in Mexico, in spite of the lacing you managed to give Starr Wiley."
"I came to try and walk off a brace of blue devils that have been camping on my trail," Thode explained, climbing into the car with manifest reluctance. "You won't find me very good company, Win, but you've brought it on yourself."
"What's the matter, anyhow?" the other demanded. "It's not like you to load up with a grouch. Has one of those blasted oil wells sprung a leak?"
"I wouldn't care if every gusher in Mexico went up in smoke!" he affirmed, drearily. "I've had a nasty stab in the back, the kind of thing a man doesn't get over in a hurry, that's all. Don't let's talk about it."
"You're not the only one. I say, you'll keep this to yourself, of course, but I've got to tell some one, and you were her friend down there. She told me about that magnificent ride of yours for the troops at the time of the raid, and she just about thought you were ace high. She's such a plucky little thing herself, confound it? That's what makes it so devilish hard, now."
"What are you talking about?" Thode looked up with the first gleam of interest he had shown. "Not Miss Murdaugh?"
"Only she isn't Miss Murdaugh at all, according to Starr Wiley. He's dug up proof that the real Willa Murdaugh died and she is just a trapper's daughter from the wilds somewhere, whom that gambler adopted in order to bilk the estate later. The governor told me all about it, he was so wrought up he couldn't keep it to himself."
"Not Willa Murdaugh!" repeated Thode in stunned accents. "And Starr Wiley brought forward the proof? You'd better tell me all about it, Win, now that you've started."
Nothing loth, Winnie complied and the other heard him through in silence, until he told of Willa's disappearance the morning after the revelation, and the little note she had left behind her.
"I swear I thought the governor would spill over when he read it to me," Winnie concluded. "It was sort of fine for her to go away like that. I don't care who she really is, she's the most wonderful girl I know. She wouldn't even sign herself 'Murdaugh' after they questioned her right; she used the name of the gambler chap who'd been so good to her."
"How did she learn it?" Thode asked quickly. "He was known only as 'Gentleman Geoff' in Limasito. I'm certain she herself never heard the name there."
"It was signed to the adoption agreement he and the trapper, Hillery, made out when he took her in place of the real Willa. The governor showed me the paper and there it was in black and white: Geoff Abercrombie."
"Abercrombie!" Kearn Thode seized the other's arm in a convulsive grip which made the steering-wheel jerk. "You're sure—you're sure of the name, Win?"
"Dead sure! I'll get the governor to show you the document if you like. But why the excitement? You nearly landed us up against that rock, then."
"Never mind the rock!" exclaimed Thode. "I'm going to take you up on that; I'd give a good bit to see that paper and the signature."
"I'll fix it." Winnie shot a quick glance at his companion. "I say, you don't think it's phony, do you? The governor says it is absolutely the straight goods."
"It isn't that," Thode hastened to explain cautiously. "But I knew Gentleman Geoff personally, you know. It isn't etiquette to ask a man for more of a name than he chooses to give below the border, but I had a hazy idea of Gentleman Geoff's identity and the name in my mind was not Abercrombie. It was just a suspicion of my own and I had nothing to substantiate it, but the old chap interested me and I've always been curious about him. I wonder if he could possibly have been related to the Abercrombies of the Coast?"
"Whoever he was, he must have been rather a fine old codger himself for he brought Will—his adopted daughter up splendidly," Winnie observed with enthusiasm. "There isn't a girl in our set that can come anywhere near her, and I think it is a dashed shame that she's thrown out on her own. She took the whole business like a thoroughbred, walking calmly out like that and leaving them to haggle over the details."
"And she has utterly disappeared?" asked Thode. "No one knows where she is?"
"Nobody but your Uncle Sherlock!" Winnie grinned, and thumped himself upon the chest. "I did a little detecting on my own and I found her all right. She doesn't know yet that anyone has discovered her whereabouts and I don't mean to pass it on to the Halsteads or the governor, either. She's her own mistress now and if she wants to go away by herself, it's no one's concern but hers."