While Caroline Was Growing/"Where Thieves Break In"
"WHERE THIEVES BREAK IN."
One glance at Caroline's shoulders, hunched with caution, the merest profile, indeed, of her tense and noiseless advance up the narrow gravel path, would have convinced the most casual observer that she was bent upon arson, at the least. At the occasional crunch of the gravel she scowled; the well meant effort of a speckled gray hen, escaped from some distant part of the grounds, to bear her company, produced a succession of pantomimic dismissals that alarmed the hen to the point of frenzy, so that her clacks and cackles resounded far beyond the trim hedge that separated the drying-ground from the little kitchen garden.
Caroline scowled, turned to shake her fist at the hen, now lumbering awkwardly through the hedge, and sat down heavily on a little bed of parsley.
"Nasty old thing!" she gulped, "anybody could've heard me! And I was creeping up so still...."
She peered out from behind a dwarf evergreen and made a careful survey of the situation. The big square house stood placid and empty in the afternoon sun; not a cat on the kitchen porch, not a curtain fluttering from an open window. All was neat, quiet and deserted. Caroline set her lips with decision.
"We'll pretend there wasn't any hen," she said, in a low voice, "and go on from here, just the same."
Rising with great caution she picked her way, crouching and dodging, from bush to bush; occasionally she took a lightning peep at the silent house, then dipped again and continued her stalking. Following the evergreen hedge around a final corner, she emerged stealthily in the lee of the latticed kitchen porch and drew a breath of relief.
"All right so far," she muttered; "I wonder if that old gray cat with the new kittens is fussing around here?"
But no breath of life stirred under the porch as she stooped to peer through a break in the lattice, and with a final survey of the premises, inserted her plump person into the gap and wriggled, panting, into the darkness below.
It was stuffy and dusty there; the light filtered dimly through the diamond spaces, and the adventurer, crawling on hands and knees, bumped into a shadowy pile of flower-pots, sneezed violently and grovelled wrathfully among the ruins for at least five minutes, helplessly confused. Quite by accident she knocked her cobwebbed head against a narrow, outward swinging window, seized it thankfully, and plunged through it. Hanging a moment by her grimy hands she swayed, a little fearfully, then dropped with a quick breath to the concrete floor beneath, and smiled with relief as the comparative brightness of a well kept cellar revealed her safety. Vegetable bins, a neat pile of kindling wood, a large portable closet of wire netting, with occasional plates and covered dishes suggestively laid away in it, met her eye; on the floor in front of this last rested a little heap of something wet and glistening. Untidy as it looked, it had an eatable appearance to Caroline, whose instinct in these matters was unimpeachable, and bending over it she inserted one finger.
"jelly!" she whispered, thoughtfully licking the inquiring member. "The idea!"
She approached the wire closet and peered along the shelves; there was no jelly there.
" 'Dropped it getting it out," she pursued, "I wonder why Selma didn't wipe it up."
Suddenly her face brightened.
"We'll keep right on and pretend 'twas burglars," she announced to the quiet cellar, "and they stole the jelly in a hurry and dropped this and never noticed, and went upstairs to eat it and get the silver! And so I found 'em, after all!"
Still on tiptoe, she left the cellar, stole through the laundry, and crept mysteriously up the back stairs. So absorbed she was that a cracking board stopped her heart for a breath, and a slip on the landing sent her to her knees in terror. The empty quiet seemed to hum around her; strange snappings of the old woodwork dried her throat. With her hand on the swing door that led into the dining-room, she paused in a delicious ecstasy of terror, as the imagined clink of glass and silver, the normal clatter of a cheerful meal, seemed to echo in the air.
It was always difficult for Caroline in such moments of excitement to distinguish between what she saw and heard and what she wished to see and hear, and at this ghost of table music she smiled with pleasure.
"The house is empty," said her common-sense, but she pursed her lips and whispered, "they're up here eating—they've come for the silver!"
By fractions of inches she pushed the door on its well-oiled hinge and slipped noiselessly into the dining-room.
A broad beam of light fell across the dark, wainscoted room, and in the track of it sat a handsome well-dressed man, busily eating. In front of him was a roast chicken, a cut-glass dish of celery and a ruby mound of jelly; a crusty loaf of new bread lay broken at his right; at his left, winking in the sunbeam, stood a decanter half filled with a topaz liquor. He was daintily poising a bit of jelly on some bread, the mouthful was in the air, when his eyes fell on Caroline, an amazed and cobwebbed statue in front of him.
The hand that held the bread grew rigid. As spilled milk spreads over a table, the man's face was flooded with sudden grayish white; against it his thin lips were marked in lavender. While the grandfather clock ticked ten times they stared at each other, and then a wave of deep red poured over his face and his mouth twitched.
"What are you doing here, little girl?" he demanded sternly, pointedly regarding her dusty rumpled figure.
Caroline gulped and dropped her eyes.
"I—I—nothing particular," she murmured guiltily.
The man laid the piece of bread down carefully and wiped his fingers on the napkin spread across his knees."Some time," he said, in a leisurely drawl, "you'll burst into a room like that, where a person with a weak heart may be sitting, and that'll be the last of 'em."
"The last of 'em?" Caroline repeated vaguely.
"Just so. They'll die on you," he explained briefly.
Caroline stepped nearer.
"Is—is your heart weak?" she inquired fearfully. "I'm so sorry. So is my Uncle Lindsay's."
"What were you sneaking about so soft for?" he demanded.
"I—I was playing burglars," she confessed, "and I got to where they were in here with the silver, and—and I was coming in to—to get them, and I didn't expect anybody would be here, really, you know, and I was surprised when I saw you. I didn't know about your heart."
"Burglars?" said the man, laughing loudly. "Well, that's one on me! I must say you're a nervy young party. So you thought I was a burglar, did you?"
"Oh, no!" Caroline cried, "of course not—I meant I was playing it was burglars; I didn't mean you. I—I didn't know anybody was here."
"Humph!" said he. "What made you play burglars? Anything in that line yourself, ever?"
Caroline stared uncomprehendingly.
"My mother doesn't think it's right for Aunt Edith to go off and leave the house all alone the way she does," she explained; "she's always telling her some one will break in if she doesn't leave Selma or a dog. And she never locks a thing, you know—she says if they intend to get in, they will, and that's all there is about it. So this time she went for three days, and Miss Honey and the General and Delia; and Selma and Anna went to a wedding and Ed went somewhere about a lawn-mower, and little Ed was going to get the pony shod. I told Aunt Edith I'd—" she coughed importantly—"keep an eye on the house."
"I see," said the man.
He poured himself two inches of the topaz liquor; it rocked in the glass.
Caroline sniffed inquiringly.
"That's the Scotch," she said; "I know by the smell, partly like cologne and partly smoky. Do you like it?"
The man raised the glass to the level of his eyes and watched the light play through it, then made a slight movement of his arm and the whisky disappeared smoothly.
"Your Aunt Edith's taste is as good as her voice," he said, eyeing Caroline carefully.
"Oh, that's not Aunt Edith's—that's Uncle Joe's," she explained. Then, as it flashed across her suddenly.
"Did you want to see him? He's in New York, too. They're going to have pictures taken of Miss Honey and General. But after that, Uncle Joe's going to Chicago. Did you want him?"
"N-no, not exactly," said the man, studying his well-kept finger-nails. "I can't say I do. No, my business is with—is more—"
He stopped suddenly and followed the direction of Caroline's eyes.
There on the sideboard behind him stood a leather suit-case, long and solid looking. It was open and tight rows of forks and spoons filled it.
The room was quite still for a moment. Caroline wanted to show by some intelligent remark that she understood the situation, and could easily imagine what the man was doing with the silver, but she found this difficult.
Strange people came to Aunt Edith's house. Dark, foreign-looking men ate meals there at unusual hours; once Caroline had seen with her own eyes a plump, yellow German fall suddenly on his knees at Aunt Edith's feet, as a hand-organ struck up its brassy music under the window, and burst into passionate singing, waving a whisk-broom in the air and offering it to Aunt Edith with the most extraordinary force of manner. And her aunt, who wore at the time a raincoat and tam o'shanter cap, had leaned forward graciously, gurgled out a most delicious little tune, accepted the whisk-broom, affected to inhale its fragrance rapturously, and whirled into a big and beautiful song in which the plump, yellow gentleman joined, and rising seized her in his arms, at which point they drowned the hand-organ completely, and the hand-organ man and Uncle Joe applauded loudly, and they gave the hand-organ man all he could eat and a dollar.
You may see from this that one did not look for the commonplace in Aunt Edith's house. Moreover, the stranger was not unlike some of her aunt's friends; though he was handsome and assured and noticeably at his ease, Caroline felt that his manner was subtly different from that of the friends of her own family. But even the most unconventional guest had never collected the sideboard silver, and a little feeling was growing in the air ... doubt and a bit of what might have begun to be fear ... when suddenly the man began to laugh. It was abrupt and it rang harshly at first, but grew with every moment warmer and more infectious, so that Caroline, though she felt that she was in some way the cause of it, joined in it finally, in spite of herself.
"If you knew what a sight you were!" he exclaimed, wiping his eyes with the napkin, "with your hair all cobwebs and all that dirt on your knees and those finger-marks on your apron, and being so small and all"—he began to chuckle again.
"Small?" she repeated portentously.
"Oh, I didn't mean small compared with—with anybody else the same size," he assured her quickly.
Catching her mollified glance, he went on more soberly.
"And how did you get in, now? No doors, I'll bet."
"Under the kitchen porch, through the little cellar window and up the back stairs," she explained.
"You mean to say you were out in that little back hall and I never heard you?"
She nodded. "I took pains to be still," she added, "so as to surprise the—so if there had been—"
"I understand," he said gravely, "so as to get them if they had been there. Well, you'd have done it. You're all right. Now, I suppose you're wondering what all this means, aren't you? You haven't got any idea who I am, have you? You don't know one single thing about me, and you may be thinking—"
"I know one thing about you," she interrupted, "I know you went to Yale."
The man's jaw dropped, his hands gripped the arm of the chair.
"And how in—how did you know that?" he cried roughly, with blazing eyes.
Caroline shrank a little but faced him.
"Your pin," she said, pointing to his vest, "I saw it when you held your arm up."
The man sank back in his chair and fingered the little jeweled badge unconsciously.
"Well, of all the cute ones ... so you've seen this before?" he suggested.
"Of course I have—my brother has one, and my Uncle Joe and Uncle Lindsay and Cousin Lindsay and Cousin Joe."
"All went to Yale?" he inquired.
"Lindsay and Joe are there now—they're seniors," she informed him. "The General's going when he grows up. All the Holts go there. Grandfather Holt went."
"You don't say," said the man, bending forward in genuine interest, "I guess it's a pretty good college, eh?"
"The best of them all," she assured him.
"I'll tell you an awful funny thing," she went on abruptly, "you know all the Holts look alike. Well, when Uncle Lindsay first went to Yale, he was walking along the Campus, and right by Old South Middle he met the President. And the President stopped and said, 'Well, well, I see the race of Holts is not yet extinct. Good afternoon, sir!' The President. And he never saw him before!"
The man shook his head thoughtfully.
"You don't say," he repeated. "Old South Middle—that's it. That's the one."
Suddenly he shrugged his shoulders and took out his watch. "This'll never pay the rent!" he said briskly. "Now let's get to business. I suppose you were surprised to see all that stuff in the suit-case?"
Caroline nodded and grinned back at him, his own quick smile was so friendly and compelling.
"Well," he continued, rising and bunching the napkin beside his plate, "I don't blame you. Not a bit. I'd have been the same myself. And you'll be even more surprised when you find out what I'm doing—that is," he stopped abruptly, "unless your Uncle Joe has told you already and sent you over to help?"
She shook her head.
"Didn't, eh?" he stepped over to the sideboard, wiping off the knife and fork he had been using, and packed them with the others. Caroline, watching his hands, noticed in the corner of the case a familiar chamois skin bag; she had often seen it on Aunt Edith's bureau.
"Well, now," he continued, "If I had a niece as sharp and smart and quiet as you are, Missy, I'd tell her my plans, I would, and get her to help me. I wonder your uncle didn't. Sure he didn't mention me—Mr. Barker?"
Again she shook her head, her eyes fastened to the bag.
"Well," said the man, shutting down the cover of the suit-case and strapping it tightly, "it's this way. You may have heard your uncle say something about it being kind o' careless, leaving the house so much alone? Anyhow, whether he's talked to you or not about it, he has to me often enough."
"Oh, yes!" Caroline was conscious of a distinct sense of relief. "I've often heard him. Then you do know Uncle Joe?"
The man faced her, starting in violent surprise.
"Do I know Uncle Joe?" he repeated; "do I know him?" He shook his head feebly and gazed about the room. "She says, do I know Joe Holt! And what should I be doing, eating my lunch here, if I didn't?" he demanded. "What should he tell me about his troubles for, and ask me to help him, if I didn't know him? Is it likely I'd be packing his silver in my suit-case if I didn't know him?"
Caroline stood abashed.
"I should think you might guess by this time what the joke is," he went on forgivingly, seeing that she was quite overcome with her own stupidity, "but as I have to get away pretty quick now, I'll tell you. You see, Joe isn't coming right back with your aunt; he's going on to Chicago, and that may keep him some time away—"
("I know," Caroline interpolated), "and he wanted your aunt to have somebody stay in the house to look after it—he felt worried. But no, she wouldn't. Wouldn't even get a dog—that is," eyeing Caroline steadily, "unless she's got one lately, but when I last heard—"
"No," she assured him, "she wouldn't. Aunt Edith hates dogs."
"So Joe told me. 'Now what would you do, Henry,' says Joe to me, that's my name, Henry Barker, 'what would you do with a woman like that?'
"'Do, Joe?' says I, 'why, I'll tell you what I'd do, I'd teach her a lesson, that's what. I'd I'd give her one good scare, and then you'd find she'd take your advice, after that.'"
At this point the man reached for his overcoat and began to struggle into it.
"'But I don't know how to, Henry,' says he. 'You don't?' says I, 'nothing easier. Just tip somebody off when the house is empty and they'll run up and slip in, take what silver and jewelry they can find in a hurry, pack it up careful and hide it away wherever you say. Then when your wife gets back and finds 'em gone, there'll be the d—— there'll be a row, and when she says it's her fault for not leaving the servants in the house, and she'll never do it again, then you say, 'All right, my dear, I'm glad you've learned your lesson,' and step out and get the bag! How's that?' I said."
He put his hat on, drew a pair of gloves from his pocket, and looked hard at Caroline; her answering glance was troubled and non-committal. He scowled slightly and rested one hand on the bag.
"'All very well, Henry,' says Joe to me, 'but who's to do all this? I don't know anyone that would dare to, let alone be willing,'" he went on, glancing hurriedly around the room. "'You know as well as I do that if they should get caught doing it, anybody would swear 'twas burglary plain and simple, andem right in. They'd call the police. It would look bad for whoever did it, you know,' he said."
"He might have asked me. I'd love to do it," Caroline muttered resentfully.
As a matter of fact the scheme was sufficiently like many a practical joke of her irrepressible uncle. Better than anyone, Caroline, his conspirator elect, knew the lengths he was capable of going to confound or scandalize his adjacent relatives.
"Of course," said the man, with relief in his voice, "that's why I asked you if he hadn't. I guess he was afraid you wouldn't dare. I'd have trusted you, though, myself."
She looked gratefully at him.
"Then, I said, 'Why, Joe, if that's the way you feel about it, I'll do it myself,'" he concluded, lifting the suit-case from the sideboard and grimacing at its weight. "'What's the good,' says I, 'of calling yourself a friend, if you can't run a little risk? Just tell me the day to come and where you want 'em put—be sure you pick a good safe place—and I'll 'tend to it for you,' I said, 'and you'll do as much for me some day when I'm in a tight place.'"
He settled his hat firmly and moved to the long window.
"I'll have to hurry if I don't want to lose my train," he explained.
"But where's the place?" Caroline cried excitedly; "what place did Uncle Joe pick out? Won't you tell me? I won't tell—truly, I won't!"
The man paused with one hand on the window button, and looked thoughtfully at her.
"By George," he announced, "I've a good mind to tell you! I'm not supposed to tell a soul, you know, but you've been such a brick, and being his own niece and all, I think you've got a right to know, I really do."
Caroline nodded breathlessly.
"Look here!" he cried, "I'll trust you if your uncle won't. I don't like the place he told me, much—it isn't safe enough. There's two thousand dollars' worth of stuff here, counting the—counting everything, and an old barn's no place for it. See here. You promise me to stay here for an hour—one hour exactly, by the clock—and I'll leave this bag at your house for you. Then you can hide it under your bed, or anywhere you want, till to-morrow, and then you can manage the rest to suit yourself. How's that?"
"Oh, that would be grand!" she gasped.
"You can just tell your uncle that I saw you were game and I trusted you, if he wouldn't," he concluded, opening the window, "and I'll take this to your house in half an hour. Will you promise not to leave for an hour? We mustn't be seen together, you know, or people might suspect and then the game'd be up. And will you lock this window after me and go out the same way you came?"
"Yes, yes! I promise, I promise solemnly!" she assured him, flushed with importance, "and tell 'em not to open it, will you? They might. Say it's private for me, will you?"
"All right," he said soberly. "I'm kind o' sorry they went to Yale," he added abruptly. "I'd rather—sh! what's that?"
He stood rigidly listening; his eyes rolled back, his hand raised in warning.
"I don't hear—" she began, but his angry gesture and the furious whisper that went with it cowed her into a silence as strained as his own.
For a moment it seemed to Caroline that she heard a faint snap as of a board released from pressure, but dead quiet followed; she held her breath with excitement as the man lifted the suit-case over the ledge, and peering over the balcony stepped out. Suddenly he paused, one leg over the sill; his eyes rolled back towards the room, his lips tightened. So terrible, and so despairing his face had turned that Caroline rushed to the window. Even as she started she heard quick soft steps in the hall, and pointed to the freedom outside.
"Jump, oh, jump, Mr. Barker!" she whispered in a glow of terror, "hurry! It is somebody!"
He pointed silently to the ground below, and with her heart pounding heavily she peered over the sill. Directly below them crouched a Great Dane, brindled, enormous, one eye fixed sternly on the window.
The soft steps paused: perhaps she had imagined them! Perhaps, if they kept quite still, that quaking pair, perhaps.... The man breathed like a drowning swimmer; it seemed to Caroline she must scream.
The door flew open.
"Look out, there—it's loaded!" the voice came sharp as a cracked whip.
Caroline gave a shriek of joy.
"Why, it's Lindsay!" she cried, "it's just Cousin Lindsay!" A tall, powerful young man came in behind a leveled revolver.
"Car—what—be still, there!" he gasped, steadying the weapon. The man stood motionless, his eyes on the ground.
"It's all right—I never carried a gun in my life," he said quietly.
"Oh, Lindsay, it's only a joke!"
Caroline ran towards him, stopping in horror at the ugly winking eyes of the revolver.
"Mr. Barker only meant—tell Lin about it!" she entreated, sick with foreboding at the dogged man before her, the scornful flushed boy at her side.
"I guess you better tell him, Missy," said the man in a low empty voice.
"Go home, Caroline; go straight home this moment."
Caroline had never heard her cousin speak in that tone, and it was partly in tears, partly in wrath that she answered,
"I will not go straight home, Lindsay Holt, and you needn't talk to me that way, either! Uncle Joe himself asked Mr. Barker—"
She began glibly enough, but even to her simple consciousness the story wavered and rang false, with this stricken, passive man before her. Her voice faltered, she choked.... Had Uncle Joe really asked this man to get the emeralds? Was it possible that—Lindsay laughed disagreeably.
"If you've quite finished, Caroline, will you go home?" he demanded, his eyes still on the revolver.
She gulped painfully; her faith tottered on the last brink.
"Oh, let it go at that; can't you?" the man broke in roughly. "What difference does it make to you, eh, how this part of the job gets done? Have I made you any trouble yet? My goose is cooked, all right, and we'll—we'll talk that over, later, when Missy goes, but—but couldn't you"—he looked almost appealingly at the young fellow,—"couldn't we—it's all there in the suit-case—"
"It was going under my bed Lin—I'd have been careful," Caroline was hoping against hope, now.
"You see, Missy," said the man quickly, in almost his old manner, "you see how it turns out. It was a bad plan, I guess—you can see how your cousin takes it. You'll have to—to tell your uncle how it worked; it's one on me, all right."
"Suppose we put it all back and—oh Lord, what's the use?" he ended suddenly.
"Cut it short—what the hell do I care?"
He dropped suddenly into the chair behind him; his head fell over on his arms, and the stiff hat rolled along the floor.
The young man stared curiously at him, but the weakness was genuine; every muscle was relaxed.
Lindsay's face softened a little. "As far as that goes, you're quite right," he said curtly, "though it's a little late in the day. Look here, Caroline. Mr.—Mr. Barker and I don't agree very well on the best way to teach people to lock their houses. I—it seems to me a pretty poor joke. Uncle Joe never meant it to go quite so far, I'm quite sure," he concluded jerkily. "I—I want to do the best thing all round, but," looking anxiously towards her for a second, "this is a little too—a little too—"
Her face cleared at his change of tone. "I know," she returned eagerly, "I know just what you mean, Lindsay. I think so, too. Anybody would think—"
"That's it," he said briefly.
"You say you thought so yourself at first," she added, looking uncomfortably at the bent figure in the chair, "and that made him feel—"
"Well, well, I understand now," Lindsay interrupted irritably, "it's all right now, Caroline. Hadn't you better go? Mr.—Mr. Barker and I will come along later."
"Oh, I'll wait and go with you, Lin," she returned, almost assured, now, "why do I have to go first?"
The man lifted his head; at sight of the young fellow's nervous perplexity he smiled faintly.
"Suppose you run along, Missy," he suggested; "your cousin and I want to talk business, and—and then I must be hurrying on—hurrying on," he repeated vaguely, with dazed eyes. He raised his hand to his head; Lindsay started forward, the revolver loose in his hand.
"Where did you get that pin?" he cried sharply. "Give that to me."
The man fingered the pin thoughtfully. "You're 'way off there," he said. "That's not—that's not—"
"Not one of your 'jokes'?" Lindsay's voice rang disagreeably. "I happen to know the contrary. I'll trouble you to hand it over. I'll soon know to whom it belongs."
Caroline, hanging over the sill, lost in talkative admiration of the Great Dane, was oblivious for the moment of the room behind her.
"It belongs to my son," said the man. There was a moment of silence. Outside the great hound whined softly.
"His name Barker, too?" Lindsay asked coldly, half rising.
"No, sir. His name is James Wardwell," said the man defiantly.
Lindsay sprang to his feet.
"That's a dirty lie!" he shouted. He stood over the man, careless of the revolver. "And you'll pay for it, too!"
Caroline stared aghast at them.
"Look out for the gun," the man warned him, and, as with a flush of mortification Lindsay mastered his weapon, he added quietly, "you can't be too careful with firearms."
Lindsay gritted his teeth.
"You—you—" he began furiously. The man met his eyes for a second, then with a dark, slow blush, dropped his arm.
The boy drew back uncertainly.
"What's the good of lying like that?" he said, "how's it going to help you?"
The man looked at the floor.
"Don't be a fool—how's it going to?" Lindsay repeated irritably.
The other did not move.
"Is that the truth?" Lindsay's voice was strained and worried.
The man drew a long, uneven breath. "Yes," he answered.
Lindsay glanced at the suit-case, at the man in the chair, at the revolver.
"Jimmy!" he muttered, "Jimmy B.!" For the first time since he had last addressed her, he noticed Caroline. He frowned, then suddenly his face cleared.
"Look here," he said, his eye again on the man, "do you know where all that silver belongs?"
"I help Selma sometimes."
"Could you put it back so nobody would know?"
"Oh, yes," she answered him, "and the—things from the bureau, too?"
His lips curled scornfully and his hold on the revolver tightened.
"A thorough job, wasn't it?" he muttered, then controlling himself he answered evenly, "Oh, yes, might as well get 'em all back. We'll just step in the library a minute."
The man got up and went before him into the library, stumbling as he walked.
Lindsay watched him drop into a seat and stood in front of him.
"What proof have you got that what you said in there is true?" he asked abruptly, "before we leave the house, I must know."
"Proof?" the man repeated, "proof?" He stared almost vacantly at Lindsay.
"Why, yes," the boy answered impatiently. "You say you're the father of one of the most brilliant men in my class, you wear the pin of his society—a pin I happen to know he lost recently—and I find you stealing my aunt's spoons! For God's sake, what's the meaning of it?"
The man twisted his fingers together and moistened his lips.
"It kind of settled on me all at once," he said in a hollow voice, "I felt it since morning. She scared me so to begin with—she came like a ghost—and then the dog finished me. I had one o' them once and he nearly did me up—turned on me. Jim pulled him off," he added, "but they give me a turn whenever I see 'em."
Lindsay stamped angrily.
"Will you prove what you say? Or shall we discuss it at the station-house?"
The man raised his hand deprecatingly. "No, no;" he said hastily, "no—that's what I don't want. That's why I—that's the reason I don't—good Lord, don't you know you've given me a half a dozen chances, if I'd had the nerve for the risk? Why, I c'd've butted that gun out of your hand twice in the last ten minutes, you young fool! How long d'ye suppose it would take a husky man to back you into one closet and Missy into another and walk off with the stuff? Hey?"
His eyes flashed, he threw back his head and breathed hard, a cornered animal. Lindsay felt a tingle of excitement run down his spine; for a moment there was danger in the air.
"I—I notice you didn't see your way to all this," he said scornfully. But he blushed as he spoke, the man saw it, and Lindsay knew he saw it; he winced and drew himself up in a boyish attempt to save the situation.
"It's quite true—I'm not in the habit of catching house thieves," he said, drawling a little, "and I doubt if many of them are quite such accomplished liars as you appear to be; but my stroke will improve, I've no doubt, as we go on. Would you mind getting up and 'coming along with me' as they call it, I believe?"
The man made no answer, but raised his hands high above his head.
"If you'll look in that left vest pocket, there's a little leather case there," he said, "and—and you'd better take the pin, too, I guess. I'd be obliged if you'd say you found it somewhere; I never should've put it on."
Somewhat clumsily Lindsay extricated the leather case, cursing his awkwardness and the patience of the man.
A worn little photograph of a boy of eight or nine was in his hand; across the bottom was scrawled in a childish hand, "Daddy, from your son James."
He drew a long breath.
"That's Jimmy, all right," he said dully.
"If you'll just tear it up," said the man. "It's all I've got, and nobody'd know but some friend that—that would be lookin' for the likeness."
Lindsay threw the picture on the floor.
"I won't believe it—its too sickening!" he cried, "Jim Wardwell's a gentleman! I—I— why I admired him more than—good God, he's a friend of mine!"
The man smiled faintly.
"Oh, Jimmy has fine friends," he said almost complacently, "he's always gone with the best. He's very particular."
Lindsay's forehead was a network of pain and doubt.
"But Jimmy has plenty of money," he insisted, "he always had the—his things—oh, it's idiotic! You're crazy, that's all."
"Oh, yes, he always had plenty," the man said simply.
In the pause that followed they heard the soft chink of silver through the wall; Caroline was evidently busy.
Lindsay twisted his face into an ugly smile.
"And I thought he was the squarest of the lot," he said slowly, "I've said so often. We all did. Pretty easy, weren't we?"
"He is!" The man half rose, but fell back with a grunt of pain.
"Oh, damn this heart!" he complained fretfully. "I don't know what's the matter with me. That fortune woman, she knew. Last week it was I went. 'You're making a plan to end up your business,' she says to me, 'and so you will, mister, but not the way you think. There's some trouble coming to you and a child's mixed up in it. Look out for strange dogs,' she says, they all tell me that—'and run no risks this month. I don't just like the looks of your hand,' she says. And when I saw that child, it was all up with me, I thought. I didn't think the machine would ever get started again. And then that infernal dog...."
"We were speaking of—of—did you say that Jim—" Lindsay's voice sounded strange, even to himself.
The man blinked a moment.
"What?" he said vaguely, "what about Jim? Oh—he don't know anything about it, of course. I sh'd think you'd know enough for that. That's what I'm telling you, if you'd keep still a minute."
He stared thoughtfully at the floor and Lindsay waited. Caroline ran up the front stairs, and he had counted each step before the man went on.
"So I sent the money regular every quarter," he muttered, as if continuing some tale, "and I'd go to see him sometimes all dressed up, and I tried to talk like he did. He thought I was traveling and didn't want to be bothered. But I couldn't see him much—was I going to drag him down, just as I'd got him started right? Not much. 'Go and visit your friends, o' course,' I used to tell him, 'and you can write to me.' The best schools I picked out, the very best. And they came high. But I was good for it."
He shifted in his chair and rubbed his eyes.
"I had a hunch when I bought the ticket," he muttered. "It just come over me—'you ought not to go to a place you got the idea of from Jim,' something seemed to say to me, 'it's unlucky.' And everything so still, and the stuff so easy—'twas like finding it in the road. And the last time, too—the last time."
"But Jim—he thought—" Lindsay prompted. A dreadful curiosity held him.
"So then he wrote, 'of course it's Yale, dad,' he wrote, 'we're all going up together. You don't mind if it costs a little to get settled, do you?' And was I going to go to him—he was head of his class, mind you—and say, the Trust has treated me the way I wouldn't treat a dog—it's all up with me and you? I can go back and be foreman again at the works—we're bought up, chewed up and spit out like a wad o' paper?' Not much, I guess. No. Here's where I quit the honesty game, I said, for it don't pay. You stole my patent, and I shut up because I couldn't afford to fight you, and you raised me and raised me—and let me into the firm when you knew it was going to bust! Now, I says, since my boy's education has been stole from me, I'll steal it back, I says, and only from them that can afford it, too! And I'll use no lawyer to do it, either, and we'll have no trick-work with papers. I'll get it straight from the wives and daughters of the big thieves that pass the plate on Sundays."
Lindsay listened to Caroline moving over their heads; her steps seemed the only reality in this horrid dream.
"It—it will just about kill Jim," he said slowly.
"It would have killed him not to go to college," the man returned sharply, "and he had a right to go."
"But, good heavens, there are ways—he could have earned money—he's clever enough to work his way through a dozen colleges!" Lindsay cried despairingly.
"There wasn't any working his way through for my boy," said the man, with a cunning grin; "I've done enough o' that for the family, thank you. So did his mother—she died of it. No, there's money enough for all, and it only needs a little planning. The thing is, never take a risk. Wait for a sure thing. Take from the kind that takes from your kind—they'll never miss it. Work alone, and never try to get too much. Who are the ones that get caught? The 'pals'! No, I've just done for myself, and contented to sell at a big loss, and only wanted to get my twenty-five hundred a year for Jim, and something over for his vacations—those camps cost a lot—and enough to dress as I may need to."
Lindsay cleared his throat.
"Do you mean to say that Jim never asked you what your business was?"
"He didn't know I ever changed till last month. He thought I traveled for the Comp'ny. Of course he didn't like that any too well—you know, you wouldn't expect him to, brought up as he's been—and I guess he thought 'twould be kinder to me not to mention it much. He thought I didn't know, but I did. Last month—last month—" the man paused and his mouth worked, though he bit his lips.
"Well, last month?" Lindsay repeated pitilessly.
"I got my hunch to quit. That fortune woman and—and other things. The doctor told me to keep quiet and not get on my nerve. And I sort of fixed it up with Jim in a letter. I told him I'd sold out my interest in the firm and I was going to send him one more thousand for graduatin' with and I was going to let him try for himself after that. I knew that was all right, because he's told me of plenty of rich young swells who had to. Fathers believed in it."
"He was going with Buck Williamson on the ranch," said Lindsay slowly.
"That's it! Buck Williamson. He asked me wouldn't I look 'em up after they got settled and try it out there. It was an awful nice letter," said the man softly, "he's a real gentleman."
Lindsay jerked his head toward the dining-room.
"Was this the 'thousand'?" he asked coldly.
The man nodded.
"I've never been with him more than a day or two, you see, and I thought I'd go up to New Haven this spring—when he graduated, and see him. Just a day or two. And then I was planning to drop out. Of course I never meant to see him much. I was always deadly afraid something'd happen, and I didn't want to get connected up with Jim. But I've been careful. There's not a line o' writing anywhere, and the man that sold the stuff for me in Jersey City is close as wax."
"But your friends—" Lindsay was wrung with an angry pity.
"I don't care for much of anybody but Jim," said the man.
Caroline was moving restlessly about in the dining-room again. Lindsay shook himself nervously.
"Of course, this is very awkward for me," he began, "I mean—I—oh, the devil! You know what I've got to do, of course?"
The man looked appealingly at him. "You've got it all back," he said quickly, "and you know Jim—"
"Yes, plague take it—I know Jim," the boy muttered, "we all know Jim."
"Known well, isn't he?" the man inquired eagerly, "there's no cleverer scholar there, much cleverer, I mean, is there?"
Lindsay shook his head. "Not that amounts to anything," he said shortly.
"I'll bet there's no better fellow there than Jim—none of the big bugs?"
"There is no better fellow anywhere," said Lindsay.
Caroline tapped fretfully on the door. "Aren't we ever going, Lin?" she begged; "it's all put back."
"Yes, yes, in a minute!" he answered, and turned to the man. "I'm damned sorry to have to do it," he began, "it's a horrible thing to do, but I can't see that there are any two ways about it. I don't want to hear you say any more. If you'll come quietly, well and good. If it was anybody else—but in my uncle's house—and the community—and—well, will you come?"
The man sighed. He looked ten years older. "All right," he said, "I didn't know but—well, never mind. My nerve's gone. I never had a failure, you see. An' I always knew I couldn't stand one. Never even left a trail. I couldn't afford to, workin' as I did. I always knew 'twas bound to come, though, and here it is. But it's hard. Jim was telling me last month about this singer that he'd heard was so careless, and I noted it down for use some day. You have to notice those things. He never said his friends lived here. I—it makes me feel dreadful when I think how he'd feel if he knew I'd been working his friends this way—he'd never stand for that, Jim wouldn't. It makes me feel—oh, well, what's the odds? But I wish you didn't belong to Yale College."
Lindsay scowled and motioned to the door.
"Shut up and come on, will you?" he blurted.
The man got up.
"I guess I won't see Jim again, then," he said, "will I? Of course there isn't one chance in a hundred he'll ever know. But I couldn't explain why I didn't go up to New Haven, nor send the thousand, and it'll be five years, anyhow—ten, maybe. And I shan't hold out that. The doctor only gave me two."
"Ten years? Oh, no!" Lindsay cried.
"It's grand larceny," said the man simply.
"Lin, Lin, come on!" called Caroline.
"You've got the pin, and I'll tear the picture up," said the man. "I've got it all planned, o' course—I give the name of Barker. And—and if Jim ever says anything to you or any of his friends about me being mean about the thousand, when I'd promised it, just kind of give a hint, will you, that things may have happened so's I couldn't? I hope he'll think I died. I wish he was through Yale, though. The thousand won't make any difference with graduatin', will it?"
Lindsay swallowed hard; his nerves were strained to snapping.
"Good God, no!" he shouted. He stepped to the French window, opened it, and threw the revolver over the sill.
"Get out!" he said briefly, turning to the man, "get out of my sight! If Jim ever receives another penny from you, I'll tell him all I know."
The man swayed towards the chair. "Do you mean it?" he gasped, "honest?"
He began to sob and choke a little, and turning half bent over the chair, hunted with his hand for his hat.
"Get out!" Lindsay repeated violently, looking persistently sidewise.
The man leaned over and fumbled for the picture on the floor, found it and straightened himself.
Suddenly he leaped back and fell into the chair again; a dreadful pallor reached the roots of his hair.
"All up, I guess—twice to-day—'Jim good-by," he said very quickly, and rolled against Lindsay, the picture tight in his hand.
"Lin! If you don't come pretty soon"—Caroline pushed open the door a little.
"Hush! Run and bring that whisky!" her cousin whispered, his face drawn and frightened.
She waited outside while he labored mysteriously, breathing hard.
"Is Mr. Barker sick, Lin?" she whispered fearfully when he came back to the door.
"Y—yes. I guess he's pretty sick," he said slowly, stepping out with her and turning the knob carefully. The dining-room reeked with the whisky on his hands and his coat.
"We'll go for the doctor," he went on, "both of us, because we'll have to fix—I'll have to talk to you on the way. You needn't hurry so, Caroline. There's no—we don't have to hurry." He tried the outside door twice, to make sure it was latched, and glanced hastily at the library windows.
"I'd better wire Uncle Joe," he said half to himself; "he'll know what to do—oh, there's the dog. Come on, Hamlet—he's Buck Williams's—gentle as a kitten."
"Yes, he'll know," she repeated, contentedly, reaching for Hamlet's black muzzle.
"But I don't think that was right, do you, Lin, even for a joke?" she queried, following him down the side path. The big hound padded on behind them.
"No," he agreed briefly.
"Wasn't it funny he had one of your pins?" She was trotting rapidly, to keep up with him.
Lindsay stopped short and almost faced her. He looked very young and tired.
"I swear, Caroline, I believe worse men have worn it!" he said.