The Finger of Fate
THE FINGER OF FATE
BY GEORGE WESTON
A Tale of Mystery Concerning a Jilted Suitor, a Dozen Photographs and a Charming Girl.
MELL'S first idea had been flight—to get away from these stately mansions by the Hudson and lose himself in the great city below.
"To look at me," he thought, with a groan, as he turned into the upper reaches of Broadway, "one would never think that I had been wounded so." And indeed he was right. Except for his expression, which had something pathetic in it, you would never have suspected that he had just been dealt a mortal thrust.
"Marry you after this?" Margaret had said to him. "Not if you were the last man on earth!" Which said wasn't exactly original, when all is said and done. "We have absolutely nothing in common," she had continued, watching him closely for winces: "you can't talk: you can't ride; you can't understand; you can't take a joke; you can't dance——" He winced then. "I don't believe that a clumsier man ever stepped out on a floor. 'Old Bumblefoot,' they call you——"
"It's a lie!" he had growled. The next moment she had given him back his ring and Mell had left her with the face of a man who she is hurrying out to self-destruction.
"Don't do anything rash!" she had called after him mockingly.
"I'd like to see myself!" he scoffed, as he swung down Madison avenue,
In his resentment, Mell did not notice that his around his speedometer was trembling around "40," nor did he see the three enormous trucks that were coming out of the side street, one closely following the other, like three friendly mastodons going down to the river to drink.
"Good night!" said Mell, as he stepped upon his brake.
It was too late. Ahead of him the three leviathans completely blocked the street. To the right was a lamp post and a photographer's shop. Mell looked at the trucks and he looked at the post.
As the lesser of two evils he chose the post.
AS Mell's perceptions grew clearer he became aware that his resting place was a photographer's dressing room, and that, bending over him, was a doctor and a business-like young woman, who was evidently in charge of the shop.
"A narrow escape," said the doctor.
It seemed to Mell that the good physician spoke almost with regret—though this was no doubt imagination, for he was still light-headed.
"How's the car?" he asked in a small, faint voice.
"A wreck," said the doctor.
"Would you like us to take a photograph of it?" eagerly inquired the young woman.
Mell weakly nodded—in a way it was a sort of repayment for her hospitality—and she and the doctor went out.
"Seems like a nightmare," said Mell, who was feeling as though he would float if he tried to walk, "and I guess it will be a nightmare, too, when Aunt Agnes hears about the car." His mind returning then to first causes, he added: "Lucky I wasn't killed, or Margaret would always have thought that I had done it because she jilted me."
He drew a deep breath and looked up at the framed photographs that hung around him on the walls.
"I'll bet it took most of them half an hour to get those careless-looking poses," he thought, with the trace of a grin. "But say—here's a peach——"
The photograph over the couch at which he was staring showed a quiet, serious-eyed girl who was standing by a table on which a pug-nosed Pomeranian was perched, looking up at the girl with adoring eyes. It couldn't have been her dress that attracted Mell, for it was evidently a dark suit of the simplest possible design—and it couldn't have been her hat, which was nothing but a dark straw with a narrow band of ribbon around it. And it couldn't have been her studied pose, for she had none.
He was still looking at the picture, deep calling to deep, although he didn't know it—when the brisk young taken manageress entered. "We've taken the car." she said. "How many prints would you like?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Mell carelessly. "But tell me," he added, looking up at the picture which had interested him so, "Who's this? Does she live around here?"
"I only wish I knew!" The young woman frowned. "She came in here about three months ago and foolishly enough I didn't take a deposit. We made up a dozen and have them yet. We tried to deliver them at the address which she wrote down for us, but she had moved away and left no other address.… Still it learned me a lesson. If the Prince of Wales himself came into this shop for a sitting tomorrow, he would have to pay a deposit."
When Mell left the photographer's shop ten minutes later, he had the twelve pictures underneath his arm, and the raised flap on the cash register said "$20." And not only did he have the pictures, but he had the card on which the girl with the dog had written her name and address.
351 West 72d Street,
New York City.
It was a dashing, unmistakable handwriting. The capital "Y" in "York" looked like Neptune's trident; the capital "M" in "Molly" resembled a three-legged stool on which the god of the sea might rest himself.
OF course, It was reprehensible in Mell to have bought the pictures, although it might be said that he had acquired them in much the same spirit as he would, have purchased a painting by Asti, or one of Benda's beautiful heads of Miss America. But when he finally reached his room and had looked at the pictures longer than was good for him he did an utterly indefensible thing, for which it can only be pleaded that he must have been still unbalanced from the shock of his accident—to say nothing of the sting he felt for having been jilted that morning.
"I know what I'll do!" he suddenly told himself. "I'll send one of these pictures to Margaret and make her think that I've had another girl all the time——" To which thought he added the distinctly inelegant reflection: "I'll make her think she's not the only pebble on the beach!"
Disguising his hand as well as he could, he wrote across the bottom on one of the photographs, Yours ever—-Molly to Mell.
And in his following own handwriting he composed the following note to the lady who had so recently worn his ring:
"Dear Margaret: Do you think it likely that I shall do 'anything rash' with such consolation near at hand? With best wishes for your future happiness. I am——" He thought for a minute how best to close it, and then, "yours cordially," he wrote, with a bitter little flourish of his pen, "Old Bumblefoot."
Heretofore you have heard him briefly styled as Mell, but his full name was Melville Van Ransellaer Scrymser, and although you might not think it of one with a name like that, he had been born as poor as any Tom, Dick or Harry. But although he was poor himself. Mell's Aunt Agnes was the Mrs. Van Ransellaer, and and in her autocratic, overbearing way, she had always made a pet of Master Mell.
This may sound nice, but it very often wasn't, for Aunt Agnes was one of those thorough old ladies who love and hate with equal intensity—and everything she didn't love, she hated, and did it well, too. She had a commanding voice when excited, and such a manner that even the servants referred to her with unconscious awe as "the madam."
"I wonder what she'll say," thought Mell "when she hears about the car!"
He had decided to stay in the city until the storm had a chance to blow over, and had written his aunt an account of his adventure with the lamp-post. Mrs. van Ransellaer was staying that summer at the old family manor on the Hudson, her town house on Park avenue being closed until her return in October. So Mell had gone to his club and there he waited for Aunt Agnes' lightning to strike him.
He didn't have long to wait.
"Dear Melville," she wrote back, I'm glad you're not hurt.
"I happened to be in the room when Margaret received your photograph. What a beautiful girl!
"I shall come to New York next Monday afternoon on the 4 o'clock train, and shall stay a day or two. Please go to the house and have the second floor well aired. When I come I should like to meet this "Molly" of yours. I take it, of course, that her family is a good one.
"Margaret had already told me that you had decided to disagree. At first I was furious, but when I saw the photograph you sent her, I began to forgive you——"
Mell read the letter three times and then he slowly turned to one of the remaining eleven photographs.
"Young lady." said he, "within the last few days I've lost a fiancee and a perfectly good car. And now something tells me that unless I find you within the next few days, I'm going to lose a legacy and a perfectly good aunt."
The more Mell thought it over, the less he liked it.
"If there's one thing that Aunt Agnes won't stand," he groaned to himself, "it's lies or deception in any way, shape or form. And now if I have to tell her the truth about Molly, she'd never believe me again as long as live. I've got to find that girl, and I've got to find her very, very soon!"
The address which Molly had written upon the card was one of those expensive boarding houses which have the outward and inward appearance of private dwellings. A colored girl in white cap and apron answered Mell's ring.
"Miss Molly Ingestre? Yessuh!" she said, partly in answer to his question, partly in answer to the five-dollar which he ostentatiously held between his fingers. "Her paw lived here for quite a spell—a fine old gem-man, Ah don't care what dey says. Miss Molly, at first, she was away at bo-ding school, but fin'ly she came home to her paw. Just what the trouble is Ah don't know, but all at once they left here very sudden and didn't leave no address behind 'em. There's been quite a few inquiring after 'em since they went—police detectlves, I think some of them was."
"Last Thursday, on mah afternoon out, Ah was over on East 55th street near Park avenue and Ah saw Miss Molly walking along on the other side of the street as though she lived around there somewheres and was doing the shopping."
"Was she alone?"
"Well, suh, there was nobody walking side by side. And maybe Ah imagined it, but it seemed to me that not far behind her was one of those same police detectives who had been around here a time or two inquiring for her paw!"
IT occurred to Mell later that never before had ho bought anything for five dollars which had given him such a rich range of emotions, but after he had returned to his room and had looked long and earnestly at the picture on his dresser, one thought in his mind gradually grew head and shoulders above all the others—one those fine commanding thoughts that have dominated the masculine mind since first this ancient world began to spin. "What? That girl do anything wrong?" he asked himself. "She couldn't if she tried!"
it was thus perhaps that the sailors spoke when first they saw the siren—or Rhenish boatmen when they gazed at the golden Lorelei.
When Mell went out the next morning he told himself that he was merely going for a stroll, but it wasn't long before his feet had taken to the corner of Park avenue and 55th street. Less than a block away was his aunt's house, boarded up for the summer.
"Imagine her being as close as this," he thought, and for a moment his sense or adventure gave way to that feeling of awe which comes upon us all at times when we marvel at the fates. "If I hadn't hit the lamp-post," he mused, "I wouldn't have seen her picture. And if I hadn't seen her picture I might have lived here all this winter and never have known that she was even living——"
But she was living and, what was more to the point, Mell had simply got to find her. There was not the least doubt about all that. Yet all that morning and all that afternoon he strolled and looked in vain: and although he had his lunch and dinner at the window table of an upstairs restaurant, and kept his eyes on the street, he might just as well have watched the salt and pepper, for all the good it did him.
The dinner was an unusually good one, but Mell didn't seem to enjoy it, his hopes of the morning growing weaker with every passing course.
It was dusk when he left the restaurant, and he was just on the point of giving up the search for the day, when his eyes fell upon a very proud-looking Pomeranian that was taking the air on the end of a leash. Mell glanced at the dog and then with a start he looked at the girl who was with it.
Yes—it was certainly Molly.
If anything, she looked a little more wistful than her photograph—a wistfulness that had more sadness in it than Mell liked to see, and that filled him more powerfully than ever with that strange desire to comfort her, which he had felt when he first saw lad found her picture. But now that he had found her it suddenly came to him that another problem, quite as difficult as the first one, had simultaneously presented itself for solution. It is one thing to find a nice girl, whom you have never seen before, but it it's quite another thing to make her acquaintance on the streets of a large city.
Upon reflection he decided to try strategy. The Pom was lagging behind, and its leash was a good two yards long.
"I'll trip over the string," he thought, mopping his forehead.
He did it better he had expected, and after than had picked himself up, it was only natural that he should help to recapture the frightened dog.
"I hope you didn't hurt yourself," said the girl, with a glance in which gratefulness and formality were agreeably blended.
"No—not a great deal," said Mell.
She made a precise little bow with her head—a bow which spelled "dismissal" in unmistakable letters—but blushing to his eyebrows, Mell settled himself to the task before him and walked along by her side.
"I hope you won't think I'm a bounder--or anything of that sort," he began, "but I—I have a reason. Of course I know that it absolutely isn't done, but I wish you'd let me introduce myself—until we can find some mutual friend. My name is Melvllle Scrymser—my aunt is Mrs. Van Ranseliaer—she lives on Park Avenue just around the corner here—and she likes your picture very much——"
Molly, her cheeks as red as Mell's, had been walking along with a sort of icy disdain, but this last stammered remark surprised her in spite of herself and she gave him a glance that had quite as much curiosity as dignity in it.
"I'll tell you about that later," he went on hurriedly, "but in the meantime please don't think that I'm anything that I shouldn't be. Nearly everybody around here knows me. This florist, for instance—my aunt trades here—and this property on the corner—she owns it nearly down to the next block——"
They had come to a baker's shop and the girl stopped at the doorway.
"Can looked I come in with you?" he pleaded.
They looked at each other, then with that silent intentness with which most of the important things of life are decided, and what they saw in each other's eyes no one could tell you but their own two selves; but when the glance was finished it might be said that they both seemed unconsciously satisfied.
THE baker knew that Mell, and the respect with which he spoke to his landlady's nephew might have helped a little; and when they left the bake-shop Mell was carrying the cake which Molly had bought. At all events, It wasn't long before they were sauntering along and chatting as young people have sauntered and chatted since time immemorial, and every time she spoke, and especially every time she smiled in her wistful way, Mell felt his admiration for her growing deeper and deeper, as a swimmer walking out from shore gradually approaches the place where the depth of the water will carry him off his feet.
"Nine o'clock!" she gasped at last, when a neighboring church clock chimed the hour. "I must run home now——"
"At least you'll let me see you as far as your door," said Mell.
"No, no; you mustn't!" she objected before the words were hardly out of his mouth. "You—you mustn't come—and you mustn't follow me, or I shall never speak to you again."
"But when shall I see you?" protested Mell in his turn.
She considered, giving him that glance which is mentioned above. "I generally go to the baker's—at the same time every evening." she said. And the next moment she was gone.
The more Mell thought it over now the more the sense of adventure filled and thrilled him.
"A queen—oh, a queen!" he told himself, "but I wonder why she didn't want me to know where she lived * * *"
The servant's gossip at the board-house recurred to him. "A lot of rot!" he scoffed. "As if a girl like that could be mixed up in anything wrong * * * All the same," he thought with a slight frown, "I wish there wasn't any mystery about it—because Aunt Agnes will want to know all about her."
That noon he lunched again at the upstairs restaurant, and there he saw Nicky Manning, one of their Paris avenue neighbors. Nicky was evidently in a state of considerable excitement.
Our house was robbed last night!" he said, breathlessly. "Yes! Somebody simply unlocked the door and walked in—and nearly every locked door in the house was wide open this morning. Opened mother's jewel-safe, too, but she has everything with her up at Bar Harbor except an old gingerbready diamond ring, and they took that. Didn't take anything else. Wait, I'll show it to you."
"But how can you show it to me?" asked Mell, "if they took it."
"That's the funny part of it," exclaimed Nicky—"the ring came back by mail this morning with a label fastened to it. Here! What do you think of this?"
He drew from his pocket a small cardboard boot. The ring was evidently an old engagement token, and fastened to it was a tag bearing the remarkable caution: "You ought to have better locks." Mell's eyes chanced upon the address written on the cardboard box in which the ring had been returned, and instantly his indifference fled.
It was unmistakable. "Good Lord!" he thought, with a sinking heart. "Molly's writing!"
Mell met her again that night—and the next—and the next—and although a number of times he was seriously close to asking her about Nicky's ring, he could never quite get it out.
"And anyhow," he tried to tell himself, "it may not be her writing after all, and she'd never forgive me if she knew that I had ever associated her in my mind with a bunch of crooks. * * * It's a crazy notion, anyhow," he added, with a glance at the wistful-eyed girl by his side. "It must be somebody who writes a lot like her; that's all."
Besides, there was so much else to talk about, and the more they talked the deeper Mell found himself in that the current which catches every man at some stage of his life's journey. World-old dreams surrounded him like fleecy clouds around a moon. World-old wonders filled him with fears and doubts.
HOW was it that no one had ever snapped her up before? That seemed incredible to Mell—a puzzle for the ages. "I wonder if she could get to love a dub like me!" This bothered him more than you might imagine.
He was on his way to his aunt's house to air the second floor—"to air the second floor"—this being the afternoon of her arrival in town on the 4 o'clock train.
"Of course, it's too soon to ask Molly to meet her yet," he told himself as he hurried along: Park avenue, "but I hope it won't be long. And if there's anything about Molly's family that Aunt Agnes doesn't like—well, I shall marry her, anyhow—if she'll have me. There must be some way in this big town that I can earn a living."
As he approached the house, boarded and closed for the summer, he met Molly strolling with the Pom, but for some reason Molly seemed embarrassed when she saw Mell.
"Don't—stop and talk to me now," she pleaded. "Please go on."
"Of course, if you don't want me——" said Mell, and with a mere glance at Molly he turned into the area-way of his aunt's house. Perhaps you can imagine his astonishment when Molly suddenly joined him there, her hand upon his arm and a look of terror in the depths of her eyes.
"What are you going to do?" she gasped, and he noticed that her breath came quickly.
"I'm going in, of course," he replied. "This is my aunt's house— she's coming into town this afternoon."
"Oh, I didn't know … But please don't go in now," she added. "Let's—go for a walk. I want to show you something—over on 5th avenue. Let's go for a nice, long walk; shall we?"
It might have been dimly, but Mell began to see that something was wrong, and all the old suspicions returned. With a sudden air of resolution he turned to the grilled door that led to the basement, the key already in his hand.
"What are you going to do?" begged Molly, at his side in an instant.
"I'm going in," he sternly replied.
One of her hands closed around his wrist and the other raised to her lips a silver whistle that hung on the end of the Pom's leash. But before she could blow it Mell ran his free arm round her elbows and pinned them helpless against her quivering body. "Look here," he said, as sternly as before. "who's in this house?"
"It—It's Dad," she told him with a broken little cry.
When Aunt Agnes had written that she would arrive on the four o'clock train that day, Mell had overlooked the fact that owing to local daylight-saving ordinances clocks and trains don't always run together. According to the watch in his pocket it was only ten minutes past three when he suddenly discovered that there was a burglar in his aunt's house; but as a rather disturbing matter of fact, Aunt Agnes had caught an earlier train than she had expected and at that very moment she was in a taxi speeding along to her Park avenue home.
At first, when Molly had told him who was in the house, Mell thought she had fainted, the life seemed to go out of the body which was still confined within his circling arm. He hastily unlocked the door and half led, half carried her inside. "Now, you sit here," he said, guiding her to a chair near the window, "and by the time I've found out what's going on upstairs, perhaps you'll feel better, and we'll be able to talk this thing over."
He went up to the floor above, but caught no sight of an intruder. Once he thought he heard a noise in the basement. "Molly, I guess." Thinking that she was making her escape, he drew a bitter sigh and started for the floor above.
"Old Bumblefoot, first," he mourned to himself, "and then Molly, the ——"beautiful daughter. I'm not very lucky in love
THE second floor, too, seemed empty, and after a cautious search Mell started up another flight. He was nearly at the top of the stairs when a movement in the main hall below caught his eye, over the banisters. Two floors below Molly had hold of the arm and of a silk-hatted old gentleman and was urging him toward the front door.
"I'm going to get a look at that old boy," muttered Mell, as he skimmed down the stairs. The carpet was thick and apparently neither Molly nor her father heard him coming. As Mell approached them from behind, the old gentleman was busy with the lock of the front door, and was evidently having trouble with it.
"I wonder why they don't go down through the basement," thought Mell. From outside came the noise of a taxi briskly moving away, and firm, ascending footsteps were heard on the basement stairs.
"For Heaven's sake!" muttered Mell as the basement door swung open—"it's Aunt Agnes!"
By that time he had reached Molly's side and gave a quick glance at her father who had spun around at the sound of the opening door. Mell caught a glimpse of a mahogany cane with a gold handle, dove-colored spats and a neat gray beard, but the next moment his aunt's words claimed all his attention.
"So this Molly!" said Aunt Agnes.
Molly gave a startled look, her eyes wet with tears.
"Don't be frightened, child," said Aunt Agnes kindly. She held out both hands and, drawing the astonished girl to her, she kissed her.
"There, there," she said, gently patting her shoulder, "I wish you wouldn't cry——"
Then, she turned to the the gray-bearded old gentleman near the door.
"This is Molly's father," said Mell, hurriedly. "Mr. lngestre, this is my aunt, Mrs. Van Ransalleer."
"Mr. lngestre," repeated Aunt Agnes, with a gaze of one who is searching far back In the memory—"It isn't a common name, but surely you aren't any relation to old Stuyvesant lngestre who insisted that each of his three sons should learn a trade."
"Stuyvesant lngestre was my father," replied the old gentleman.
"Then which are you—the blacksmith? Or the tailor? Or—let me see —what was the other one?"
"The other one was a locksmith," smiled Molly's father with an utter disregard for grammar, "and that one's me!"
"You must be awfully mystified about dad," said Molly to Mell the next evening, "and yet it's simple enough to explain."
Molly and her father were visiting "Twin Gables" as the guests of Aunt Agnes, and after dinner Molly and Mell had set out for a stroll.
"From the things I have heard," she continued, "grandfather must have been an eccentric old gentleman—and dad's a little bit that way, too. When he had learned his trade he made up his mind that he was going to invent a lock that simply couldn't be opened without the proper Key.
"He spent a frightful lot of money in experimenting with different kinds of locks —and finally he thought he had it. He called his new lock the Penguin and a big factory was built to make them.
"He had to borrow money to start his factory, but the lock was a tremendous success. About a year ago, though, a group of his partners forced him out of the company, and it nearly broke his heart.
"They didn't knew that he had found a way to pick the Penguin. He had a little bunch of adjustable master keys that would open any Penguin lock that had ever been made and——
"Of course, he couldn't trust his adjustable keys to anybody else, so he simply began undoing Penguin locks, wherever he saw them. Even if he had been arrested, I don't think he would have cared much, because it would have given publicity to the fact that he wanted everybody to know. Anyhow, owners began to complain that the lock wasn't any good as a protection, and it wasn't long before the news spread and sales fell off enormously.
"Dad still had a few warm friends in the company and yesterday, just before we left New York, he had a visit from are two of them. The other partners are willing to sell out now for anything they can get, and his friends want dad to go hack and take control, and reorganize the company."
"He certainly is a wonder," said Mell, laughing, "but then I might have known that he was——"
"Why?" she asked innocently enough.
"Because he has such a wonderful daughter."
They walked along then for a time in silence, and somehow their hands met—and somehow, too, they failed to part again. Presently they came to a bench that overlooked the river, and they sat down.
"There's one thing, though, that I can't understand," said Molly at last. "How did your aunt happen to recognize me when she caught us in her house yesterday afternoon?"
"It's a long story." he said, "and—I have another story that I want to tell you first——"
Perhaps she caught the meaning in his voice. At any rate she looked at him with such a glance of tender inquiry, that partly in silence and partly in tremulous speech, he told her the other story—that old, sweet story which can never die.