MADGE MORTON'S SECRET
AMY D. V. CHALMERS
Author of Madge Morton, Captain of the Merry Maid; Madge Morton's Trust, Madge Morton's Victory.
Philadelphia Henry Altemus Company Copyright, 1914, by Howard E. Altemus
I. THE INTERRUPTED STORY 7
II. WHAT MADGE FOUND IN THE ATTIC 18
III. AN UNEXPECTED MEETING 35
IV. THE CHALLENGE 46
V. THE MYSTERIOUS BOX 57
VI. FLORA BETRAYS A STATE SECRET 66
VII. AWARDING THE PRIZES 76
VIII. THE HOUR OF TRIUMPH 95
IX. MADGE MORTON'S SECRET 102
X. ADRIFT ON CHESAPEAKE BAY 108
XI. THE AWAKENING 120
XII. A DESERTED ISLAND 132
XIII. LIFE IN THE WOODS 142
XIV. CAUGHT IN A STAMPEDE 152
XV. BEHIND CLOSED DOORS 165
XVI. THE DISAPPOINTED KNIGHTS 173
XVII. CAN WE GO TO THE RESCUE? 183
XVIII. A NEW USE FOR A KITE 193
XIX. THE IMPOSSIBLE HAPPENS 201
XX. THE RECOGNITION 212
XXI. BACK TO THE "MERRY MAID" 219
XXII. THE STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER 226
XXIII. THE SURPRISE 237
XXIV. THE TELLING OF THE SECRET 248
Madge Morton's Secret
THE INTERRUPTED STORY
A girl in a green gown was cosily ensconced among the spreading branches of an old apple tree. She was reading, and she never stirred except to turn the pages of her book or to reach out for another red apple after dropping the core of the previous one.
It was a glorious morning in early September, and the old Virginia orchard was sweet with the odor of ripening apples. A press under a tree still dripped with the juices of yesterday's cider-making. The bees and flies buzzed lazily about it. There was no one but the girl in sight.
Some distance to the left was a red brick house, separated from the orchard by a low stone fence and the length of the kitchen garden. It had a big, white colonnaded balcony in front and a smaller veranda in the rear.
The girl in the apple tree read on, unaware that a carriage had driven up to the front of this house and that a woman and a young man were alighting from it. A few moments later a girl came out on the back veranda. She put her hands to her lips and hallooed. She whistled and called. Then she ran up and down the garden, searching everywhere.
"Madge, Madge! where are you?" she cried. "Oh, do answer me in a hurry! I have something so important to tell you!"
The girl in the apple tree did not stir. She was oblivious to everything except her story. Her cousin, Eleanor, called and called again, then ran to the stables. Pompey, the colored boy, declared that he had not seen Miss Madge all morning. Once Eleanor leaned over the orchard fence. The green of Madge's frock was too near the color of the foliage to show through the trees. Eleanor gave up her search in despair.
"All right, Madge Morton," she murmured, "if you will go off by yourself without telling a soul where you are going, you must take the consequences—though I am so sorry," added Eleanor. "Poor Madge will be so disappointed."
An hour later a book dropped from the apple tree to the ground, bringing a scurry of leaves with it. Madge Morton descended after her book, swinging herself down without a thought of her dignity. "Oh, dear me!" she exclaimed. "Why did I have to drop my book when I had only a few more pages to read? I suppose it is nearly luncheon time now, and I ought to see what has become of Nellie."
Madge strolled lazily along under the fruit trees. Now and then she stopped to look critically at the heavily-laden branches. Mr. William Butler, her uncle, owned a fruit farm, consequently the girl was interested in their autumn and winter crop of apples.
At the gate of the orchard she paused to peep at her book for another stolen moment and came face to face with her cousin. Although it was not yet midday, Eleanor Butler had on a white company frock and her hair had been freshly braided. Madge did not see her cousin at first. Nellie eyed her sympathetically, but at the same time her face wore an expression of disapproval. "Where have you been, Madge?" she demanded. "You've gone and done it this time, I can tell you; I have been looking for you for more than an hour."
"Sorry, Coz," returned Madge lightly. "Did Aunt Sue want me? I have been reading in the orchard. But why are you dressed so bravely? We can't be having a party at this early hour of the day."
Nellie looked serious. "We have not had a party," she returned, "but we have had some visitors. We had iced tea and cakes on the front porch, too."
"Lucky me, to have escaped the company, Eleanor. It is much too warm for morning callers, even if it is September," declared Madge indifferently. "I'll wager that they talked gossip and bored you and Auntie dreadfully."
"They did no such thing," replied Eleanor, nettled by her cousin's bantering tone. "If you'll stop talking a minute, I'll tell you who our visitors were. You'd never be able to guess in a thousand years. Our old friends, Mrs. Curtis and Tom, have been to 'Forest House' to see us. They were passing through the town on their way to Richmond and stopped over between trains."
"Take me to them, take me to them!" cried Madge, setting off for the house on a run, closing the orchard gate behind her with a force that caused it to shut with a resounding bang.
Nellie followed her tempestuous relative, calling, "You can't see them. That is just the trouble. Mrs. Curtis and Tom drove away about a quarter of an hour ago. I am so sorry, but I did look for you everywhere; so did Pompey. We called and called you. Mrs. Curtis and Tom were dreadfully disappointed. They were afraid to wait any longer for fear they would miss their train. They left a great deal of love for you. Mrs. Curtis was charmed with 'Forest House.' You may see them soon again. Mrs. Curtis wants us——"
"Oh, I am so sorry I missed them," lamented Madge. "When does Mrs. Curtis's train go?"
"At one o'clock," answered Eleanor. "Mother wished them to stay to luncheon, but they had hired such a slow old horse at the station that they thought it wisest to leave in time."
"And they have been on the way only a quarter of an hour?" questioned Madge. "I know what I am going to do: I am going to ride Dixie down to the station. I know I can overtake Tom and Mrs. Curtis before their train leaves the station. I may be able to get just a peep at them. Here, take my book, please, Nellie. Make it all right with Uncle William and Aunt Sue. I am sure to be late for luncheon." Madge was off across the fields, running as though her life depended on it.
Readers of "MADGE MORTON, CAPTAIN OF THE 'MERRY MAID'" already know the story of how four girls, with more enthusiasm than money, found and transformed a dilapidated old canal boat into the pretty floating summer home which they christened the "Merry Maid" and launched on a quiet shore of Chesapeake Bay.
Their subsequent meeting with a Mrs. Curtis and her son, Tom, persons of wealth and social position, who were summering at one of the fashionable hotels along the shore of the bay, prepared the way for a series of eventful happenings in which the crew of the "Merry Maid" amply proved their mettle.
It was through the efforts of Madge Morton and Phyllis Alden that a young woman was rescued from the clutches of a family of rough and uncouth fisher folk, and taken aboard the "Merry Maid," where it developed that she was none other than the daughter of Mrs. Curtis who had been lost at sea twelve years previously.
After a succession of happy weeks on the houseboat, the girls repaired to their various homes to spend the remainder of their vacations with their families. They had promised Mrs. Curtis, however, that for two weeks before returning to school they would be her guests on their own houseboat, which she had arranged to have removed from Pleasure Bay, where it still lay, to a spot opposite Old Point Comfort, where she and her son and daughter were spending a few weeks before returning to New York City.
Madge knew without being told that the time for their happy holiday had come. Still, it was not of this she was thinking as she raced across the fields. She had missed Mrs. Curtis more than she could say, and her sole desire was to see the woman who had done so much to add to their pleasure on their previous trip.
In a nearby meadow Dixie, Madge's fat black pony, was lazily eating grass. Her mistress called to her coaxingly as she ran toward the enclosure. But the pony was bent on a frolic. She heard Madge, saw her approaching, and, eager for a game, the pony kicked her heels together and trotted off across the field at a lively pace.
Madge was in despair. Every moment was precious. Why should Dixie choose this time of all others to refuse to come when she called to her? With a sudden thought Madge reached into her pocket. There, to her joy, she discovered an uneaten red apple. Madge held it out invitingly, standing perfectly still, as though she had no intention of stirring.
The pony threw back her head, neighed softly, then came trotting over to her mistress and appropriated the apple; but the next instant Madge's hand was in her mane, and she vaulted lightly on Dixie's slippery back, still keeping a tight hold.
"Nellie," she called, as she cantered past her cousin, "tell Aunt Sue she must forgive my riding bareback this time. I never will again. But I simply couldn't wait to put a saddle on Dixie. I might miss seeing Mrs. Curtis and Tom. No; they won't be shocked. They'll know it is only Madge!"
She rode swiftly away, sitting on the pony's uncovered back as easily as though she had been riding in the most comfortable of saddles.
It was three miles down the pike to the railway station nearest to the old Butler homestead. Madge knew that her friends had hired a carriage at the depot, and that her pony was capable of making twice the speed of any horse that they had been able to hire. But the day was warm. It was near Dixie's feeding time, and the animal saw no reason for making unnecessary haste. Madge coaxed and urged her pet to do her best. If she could only overtake her friends in their journey to the station! But the pony would not hurry. At last Madge stopped under a big maple tree, breaking off a switch. A few mild cuts from an unaccustomed whip made Dixie leap ahead.
The pike followed the railroad track for a mile. At the end of the mile, at a sharp curve, the track crossed the road. There was no watchman stationed at the crossing to give the signal, not even a red flag to tell of danger, only a great sign, printed in huge, black letters: "Look Out for the Locomotive. Stop. Look. Listen."
A hundred times Mr. Butler had warned Eleanor and Madge of this dangerous point in the road. Almost every day they crossed this track, driving back and forth from the village and they had always heeded Mr. Butler's warning.
To-day, just as reckless Madge neared this point in her journey, she saw a rickety carriage drive over this crossing about a hundred yards ahead of her.
"Wait, Mrs. Curtis! Stop, Tom!" cried Madge joyfully. Her blue eyes were shining, her cheeks were flushed. Madge's old-time heedlessness was upon her. She gave no thought to her promise to her uncle, to the chance of the oncoming trains. Madge-fashion, she saw only the goal ahead of her. "Go it, Dixie, darling!" she entreated, touching her pony sharply with her maple switch.
At the girl's first call Tom Curtis had reined in the old horse he was driving. His mother leaned out of the carriage to look back. "Madge!" she cried sharply.
At the same instant Madge plunged recklessly toward the railroad crossing. It was too late to rein in her pony. She and Dixie dared not take that risk. She saw a huge monster bearing down upon her. A shriek from the engine, a hoarse call from the engineer as he swept around the curve and saw the pretty figure on the track so close to his train. Madge felt the wave of heat from the locomotive. It seemed almost to scorch her, it was so near. She felt her fingers stiffen with fear; her hold on her pony's mane relaxed. She knew she was slipping off her horse's back and down on the track.
But she was country born and bred. She had ridden horseback all her life. In that moment of terror she flung herself forward, with both arms about her pony's neck. Dixie gave a single, frightened leap. She cleared the track just as the train raced by. Then Madge slid limply to the ground, while her pony stood by her shivering with fear.
"Don't scold me, and don't tell Uncle," she pleaded as Mrs. Curtis and Tom climbed hurriedly from the wagon and came back to her. "I know it was dreadful of me, and Uncle would never have forgiven me if I had killed myself."
At this characteristic speech both Madge and her friends laughed. Madge kissed Mrs. Curtis affectionately. Then, holding out her hand to Tom, she said, "Do you think I could let you get away without seeing you for a minute at least? Perhaps you had better go on to the station. I will follow you on Dixie. We can talk after we reach there."
The carriage, closely followed by Madge on her pony, reached the little station at least ten minutes before the time for the Curtis's train. Madge could not leave Dixie to walk to the front of the station, so Mrs. Curtis and her son walked to the road where Madge had alighted and stood waiting for them, one hand in her pony's mane.
Tom thought he had never seen her look so pretty, but he was too wise to say so. He had learned by embarrassing experience that Mistress Madge frowned disapprovingly at the slightest intimation of a compliment.
"Tom and I stopped at 'Forest House' to tell you that we are ready for you. We wish you four girls to be our guests as soon as you can make ready to come to us. Your uncle and aunt have given their consent to the arrangement. We leave it to you and Nellie to communicate with Lillian, Phil, and Miss Jenny Ann. You must rally the houseboat party. Write to Madeleine and me and tell us anything you think you would like to do. We are at Old Point Comfort. Good-bye, dear; here comes our train. Don't disappoint us."
Mrs. Curtis and Tom boarded their train, leaving Madge staring after it in happy anticipation of the good times that were sure to be theirs when once more aboard the "Merry Maid."
WHAT MADGE FOUND IN THE ATTIC
"Aunt Sue," declared Madge gravely, wrinkling her straight, dark eyebrows into a solemn frown, "there is only one thing that worries me about our second houseboat party: Nellie and I haven't enough pretty clothes."
Mrs. Butler looked as though she quite agreed with her niece. It was the day after Mrs. Curtis's hurried call.
"You see, it is this way, Auntie. On our first trip our houseboat was anchored in a quiet, out-of-the-way place. We met Mrs. Curtis only by accident and had a few parties at the Belleview Hotel. This time we are to be Mrs. Curtis's guests. Although the houseboat won't be on the Virginia side of the bay, because the water is much too rough there, we shall probably be crossing over to Fortress Monroe and Old Point and all the lovely places near. Mrs. Curtis will be sure to get up parties for us. We may even look on at some of the dances at Fortress Monroe. So Nellie and I ought each to have a new evening gown, besides our white silk gowns. Don't you think so?"
Aunt Sue sighed in answer to Madge's question.
"I don't see where new party gowns are to come from, dear. Even if I felt we could afford them, I simply haven't time to go to town to get the material for them. It has taken a great deal to get you and Nellie ready for school, since you will go directly to Miss Tolliver's when your houseboat party is over. Fortunately, your new school clothes will be suitable for most occasions, as the weather will probably be cool. Somehow I feel uneasy about this second houseboat party. I have a premonition that something will happen to you girls. Your uncle thinks I am absurd. He says you are very fortunate to have made a friend like Mrs. Curtis, and to have another opportunity to enjoy your houseboat. I suppose I am foolish." Mrs. Butler smiled nervously. "You know I am rather given to having premonitions, so don't concern yourself about anything I have said to you."
Mrs. Butler was a delicate, high-bred looking woman, with soft blue eyes and brown hair lightly streaked with gray, who was quite likely to be influenced by her wilful niece's opinions. It was in her Uncle William that Madge met her match.
"Nellie!" called Madge when her aunt had finished speaking, "please come in here. I want to persuade Auntie to do something that I am going to ask of her, and I wish you to help me."
Nellie appeared at the dining room door, her fingers stained with grape-juice. She was determined to help her mother with the jelly before she and her cousin left for their second houseboat holiday.
"You don't need any one's help when it comes to having your own way," retorted Mrs. Butler. "What do you wish this time?"
Madge lowered her voice. "Auntie, you know that upstairs in Mother's old trunk there are two rolls of silk—a roll of rose-color and one of turquoise blue. You have always said that Father brought them home to Mother from China just after I was born, and that Mother never had them made into dresses, because she died soon afterward, when Father failed to return from his trip."
Mrs. Butler bowed her head quietly. She looked away from her niece.
"Yes, that is what I have told you. I am saving the silks until you are older. You have very little else of your mother's except her jewelry."
Madge clasped her hands together pleadingly. "O Aunt Sue! why must I wait until I am grown for those silks? I wish you to give them to Nellie and me now. Please, please do. I am sure we are old enough to appreciate them. Nellie would be a perfect dream in the pink silk, and I should dearly love to have the blue. We never, never can need the dresses more than we do now! Why, in two or three years Nellie and I may be rich! Who knows? What is the use in keeping them for some future time, when Nellie and I need them at the present moment? You know we ought to have one handsome gown apiece, Auntie. Mrs. Curtis and Madeleine are always beautifully dressed."
"Yes, Mother, please let Madge have her way," entreated Nellie. "But I can't accept one of the frocks. I wouldn't take it away from you for the world."
"Very well, Auntie," replied Madge, with a little choke in her voice. "I am sorry I mentioned the subject to you. I don't care for the silks, then. I won't even look at them, unless Nellie will take one of them."
"Silly Madge!" remonstrated Eleanor, coming up behind her cousin and tweaking a loose curl of her auburn hair. "I know you wish me to share everything with you, and I thank you just the same. But, Madge, I can't accept one of those dresses. Don't you see, they were your mother's, and that makes all the difference in the world."
"I can't see what difference it makes if I wish to do it. You always divide everything you have with me, and I don't see why you can't let me be generous for once."
Madge's eyes were misty. The thought of her mother and father made it hard for her to speak without emotion. "Besides," she added, smiling in her charming fashion, "I will never wear a pink gown. No one need try to persuade me. It wouldn't be in keeping with my red hair!"
Eleanor put her arm around her cousin. She understood the little quaver in Madge's laughing voice.
"Of course I will have the dress, if you feel that way about it," she said gently. "And I shall adore it. Why, I can see myself in it this minute, with a pink rose fastened in my hair. But all this time you and I have been arguing Mother has not yet said that you could use the silks. Please consent, Mother; there's a dear."
Mrs. Butler looked grave. "I suppose it is all right," she hesitated. "The silks belong to Madge and she is old enough to decide what she wishes to do with them. Look in my left-hand bureau drawer, Madge; you will find the key to your mother's trunk there. The silks are in the bottom of the trunk, wrapped in a piece of old, yellow muslin. We might as well find out whether the material is still good before we decide what we will do about it. I must go back now to my jelly; it must be nearly done."
"Come up to the attic with me, won't you, Eleanor?" invited Madge.
Eleanor shook her head. She knew her cousin liked best to make these visits to her mother's trunk alone. "No," she answered, "I must help Mother with the jelly."
Nellie slipped quietly away and left Madge looking dreamily out on the elm-shaded lawn, her thoughts busy with the story of her own past and the little she knew of her father.
He had been a captain in the United States Navy, and one of the youngest officers in the service. The Mortons were an old Virginia family, and after Robert Morton's graduation from Annapolis he was rapidly promoted in the service. He had married Mrs. Butler's only sister, Eleanor, for whom Nellie was named. Two months after Madge's birth, while her husband was away on a cruise, Madge's mother died at her sister's home, and, as her father never came back to claim her, she had been brought up by her uncle and aunt. This was all she had been told of the story of her mother and father. It made her aunt unhappy to talk of them, so Madge had asked few questions as she grew to young womanhood. But to-day she felt that she would like to know whether her father had died and been buried at sea—she always thought of him as dead—or whether a tablet had ever been erected to his memory at Annapolis. She had never been to Annapolis, although it was not a great distance from Miss Tolliver's school, but she knew that the Government often honored its brave officers and sailors with these memorials.
She was thinking of these things as she left the dining room and climbed the steep, ladder-like stairs that led to the attic. The attic of "Forest House" was worth a longer journey than Madge had to make. It was built of solid cedar wood, with beams a foot thick over head, and put together with great cedar pegs. The attic was a long, low-ceilinged room, dark and fragrant with the odor of the cedar. It was lit by four big, old-fashioned dormer windows in the front and four in the rear.
Her mother's trunk was kept in one corner of the attic behind an old oak chest. Mrs. Butler did not wish to be haunted by sad memories when she made her frequent trips to her attic to look after the family clothing and bedding, so she had partly hidden her sister's trunk.
Madge opened the trunk in the half light. On top of everything was a pile of her first baby dresses. Farther down she came upon a sandalwood box containing her mother's jewelry. The box contained a beautiful and unusual collection of rare stones. Captain Morton had brought many of the jewels back from the Orient as presents to his wife.
Madge picked up a necklace of uncut turquoises, set in links of curiously carved dull gold. For an instant she looked at it, then slipped it over her head. There was also a tortoise-shell comb of wonderful beauty to match the necklace. The crown of the comb was formed of turquoises and pearls. Just in the center of the comb was a tiny scarab made of turquoises. The scarab Madge knew to be a beetle sacred to the Egyptians. She wondered if the beautiful set of jewelry had an unusual history. Madge put the comb in her hair, then plunged deeper into the lavender-scented trunk. Under a pile of old-fashioned gowns she found the bundle that she desired, tied up in yellow muslin just as her aunt had described it. Tucking it under her arm she hurried to the front windows and sat down Turk fashion on the floor. She wished to examine carefully the well-remembered silks. It had been several years since she had seen them, yet how well she recalled them! She and Nellie had never grown tired of marveling at the beautiful fabrics when, as little girls, they were allowed to glance at the silks by way of a special treat.
The young girl untied her precious bundle slowly. She gently unrolled the pink silk. It was a wonderful rose color, a pure Chinese silk, as light and soft as a butterfly's wing. Madge saw a vision of Nellie in this dress. It must be trimmed with an old collar of Venetian point lace, which was one of Mrs. Butler's heirlooms. Then she unrolled the blue silk. The material to be used for her frock was a Japanese crepe. It had a border of shaded blue and silver threads forming a design of orchids. It was too beautiful a costume for a young girl, Madge thought. She held her breath as she looked at it. Would her aunt allow her to use it?
Spying a broken mirror on an old bureau in the attic, she brought it over to the light and propped it against the back of a worn-out chair. Then she wrapped the blue silk about her shoulders and stared at herself in the mirror.
Madge was an exceedingly pretty young girl. This afternoon her face showed a promise of the unusual beauty that was to come to her later in life, when she had learned many things. There was a hint of tragedy in her charming, wayward nature. The friends who loved her knew that her path through life would not follow an easy and untroubled road. She could never do anything in a half-way fashion, whether it were to love or to hate, to be happy or to be miserable.
To-day her blue eyes were dark with wonder at her own appearance and with the memory of her dead mother and father. With the strange jewels in her hair and about her throat, the beautiful blue robe around her shoulders, little country-bred Madge looked as though she might have been a beautiful princess of the long ago.
Being free from vanity, however, she calmly folded up her silks, took off her jewels, and turned from the window to go downstairs to show her cousin her treasures.
At the door of the attic she paused and glanced back at the open trunk, then, walking slowly toward it, deposited her jewel box and armful of silks on the top of the old cedar chest and sat down before the trunk. What strange influence drew her back to it that day Madge could never explain. She knew only that the longing for the love of the father she had never seen, and the mother she could not remember, was strong within her.
"What made you leave me when I needed you so?" she murmured, half under her breath. Then she bowed her head on the edge of the trunk and her tears dropped on a little, old-fashioned black velvet coat that had been her mother's. Impulsively Madge caught it up and pressed it to her lips. After a long moment she laid it across her lap and began smoothing it with loving hands, tenderly tracing its lines with her forefinger. As she was about to fold it and lay it in its accustomed place her hand came in contact with something hard in the cuff of one sleeve between the velvet and the satin lining.
"What can it be?" she wondered, as she fingered it through the cloth. "It feels like a key. If I break two or three stitches, I can pull it out."
It was at least five minutes before she managed to make an opening large enough to admit the working out of the little hard object. As she had guessed, it was a small brass key with a bit of faded violet ribbon attached to it.
Madge looked curiously at it as it lay in her hand. To whom did the key belong? What did it unlock? Why had her mother sewed it into the sleeve of the black velvet coat? Or had her mother placed it there? The little captain sighed. She could ask endless questions concerning her find, but she could answer none of them.
"There may be a box in the trunk which I have overlooked," she reflected. "I never do things thoroughly."
Springing from the floor, Madge ran across the attic to where her aunt always kept a pile of brown wrapping paper. Tearing off a strip she carried it to her corner and, laying it on the floor at one side of her mother's trunk, sat down beside it. One by one, with reverent hands, she lifted the various garments from it, piling them over one another on the paper. But when the trunk, bereft of its last article, stood empty before her, she stared in disappointment at the pile of articles at her side. There was nothing in it that bore the slightest resemblance to a box.
"It's like 'hunting for a needle in a haystack,'" she mourned. "This key might fit a lock thousands of miles from here. It can't be the key to the trunk; it is too small." She bent forward to examine the lock. "No, the key to this trunk is ever so much larger. Perhaps the trunk has a false bottom!"
This being a positive inspiration, Madge set to work on the bottom of the trunk, her investigations meeting with no success. She was more disheartened than she cared to admit, even to herself, as she replaced the contents of the trunk and, reluctantly shutting down the lid, gathered up her treasures and went down the stairs with dragging feet. Her pleasure in the beautiful fabrics had vanished, and the longing to probe into the past of her dear ones was uppermost in her mind.
Her first impulse on entering the kitchen, where Eleanor and her mother still labored with the jelly, was to show them the little key. Then the same strange influence which had forced her to return to the trunk kept her silent. The finding of the little key should be her secret.
Mrs. Butler and Eleanor exclaimed admiringly over the silks. It was as though they were seeing them for the first time. Eleanor was delighted with the prospect of possessing an evening gown of the rose color, and the two girls were soon deep in planning the way in which they intended having their frocks made.
"May I keep Mother's jewel box with me, Aunt Sue?" asked Madge an hour later, as she rose to go to her room, her roll of blue silk tucked under one arm, the sandalwood box in her hand.
"Of course you may, my dear. As long as you are going to use the silks you might as well take the jewels too," sighed Mrs. Butler.
"Thank you," returned her niece, bending to kiss the older woman's cheek, then she walked quietly from the room, her cheerful face unusually sober.
"Madge is always sad after a visit to her mother's trunk," remarked Eleanor, after her cousin had gone.
Mrs. Butler nodded, her own face saddened as she went back over the years. Some day she would tell Madge the truth concerning her father and why he had never returned to the homestead, but not now. She did not wish to cast the slightest shadow upon her niece's joyous anticipations of the coming trip.
Once in her room Madge took the little key from the pocket of her middy blouse and laid it on her dressing table. Drawing up a chair, she sat down, and opening the jewel box, began taking out the ornaments, spreading them on the table before her. To her eyes, unaccustomed to the sight of jewelry, they made an imposing array. When the last trinket was out she turned her attention to the box itself. Empty, it was larger and deeper than she supposed. Despite the fact that the jewelry had been removed it was still heavy.
"It must be the weight of the wood that makes it feel heavy," she reflected. "Why, it has a keyhole! I never noticed that before, it is so far down, and, besides, the box has been unlocked ever since I can remember."
She carefully examined the keyhole, then, with a swift rush of disappointment, came the thought that the mysterious key was merely that of the sandalwood box. To be sure, there were two little brass catches which fastened the box tightly together. The lock had been put on, no doubt, as an extra security, and rarely, if ever, used. But if such were the case, why had the key been secreted in the sleeve of the black velvet coat? After all, it might not fit the lock on the box. If it did, then her secret was not really a secret after all. Madge reached for the object of her cogitations and inserted it in the lock. It fitted. She gave it one quick turn, then endeavored to pull it out. It stuck. Madge held the back of the box with one hand to keep it from slipping and pulled hard. She felt the box itself give. Then to her astonishment she saw that the lower part of the box formed a drawer, the existence of which was cunningly hidden by the carving, and it now stood open before her. In it lay a small black leather book, and under the book was a single envelope addressed to her mother.
With wondering eyes the girl peered into the envelope. Her hands shook as she drew forth several closely written sheets of paper. Unfolding them she saw only the salutation, "Beloved"; then she turned to the signature. It read, "Your devoted husband, Robert Morton."
Madge gazed in fascination at her father's clear, bold handwriting. If it were in the least indicative of character, her father must have been a good man and true. Undoubtedly he had proved himself an honor to the Navy and the Flag he had sworn to serve. She experienced a curious thrill of satisfaction at this thought. Tearing her eyes from the beloved name, she went back to the first page of the letter and began to read, but when she reached the end of the second page she cried out in anguish, and, laying her curly head on the dressing table, sobbed heart-brokenly.
"I can't bear it!" she wailed. "O Father, Father! how could they be so cruel?" After a few moments she raised her head with a long, quivering sigh, and went on with the letter. When she had finished it, she took up the little black book. Her tears fell fast as she perused its pages. It was her father's log book and contained, besides the notes concerning his last fateful voyage as a naval officer, memoranda of his personal life aboard ship as well.
Over the last half dozen pages—the record ended abruptly—Madge's grief burst forth anew. After she had finished she sat for a long time holding the little book against her cheek. The distant ringing of the supper bell brought her to a realization of her surroundings. Tenderly she laid the book and the letter in the secret drawer that had held them so faithfully, inviolate from the eyes of the world; then, locking the drawer she withdrew the key, and, taking from a box on the dressing table a slender gold chain, her only bit of ornament outside her mother's jewelry, Madge opened the catch and hung the key upon it.
"It will be safe there," she said half aloud. "But now I have a secret worth keeping until I find the man who spoiled my father's life. And when I do"—Madge's red lips set in a determined line—"I'll make him tell the truth about Father to the whole world."
AN UNEXPECTED MEETING
Although the prospect of the coming visit to Old Point Comfort filled Madge and Eleanor with a delightful sense of their own importance, they still had certain misgivings as to what might be expected of them as the guests of Mrs. Curtis. She had written them that as long as they were to be anchored near Fortress Monroe, she hoped to show them the social side of the Army and Navy life centered there. To the two country girls the idea of "Society" was a trifle appalling. Phyllis Alden had also written them that she knew nothing of Society and was almost afraid to venture into that awe-inspiring realm, while Miss Jenny Ann at first refused to consider the idea, but finally relented and made her preparations to join the girls in anything but a joyous frame of mind.
Lillian Seldon was the only one of the little company who took the prospect of balls and parties and meeting hosts of new people quite calmly. She had two older sisters, who had made their entrance into Philadelphia society, and Lillian had been allowed to be present at their coming-out parties. Mrs. Seldon, Lillian's mother, was devoted to Society, while Mrs. Butler cared for nothing outside her own home interests, and Mrs. Alden was too busy taking care of a large family on a small income to think of anything else. Phil's life had been largely centered in her school. Eleanor and Madge had divided their allegiance between Miss Tolliver's and "Forest House" until their houseboat had opened a new world to them.
After a long talk with Eleanor, Madge finally wrote Mrs. Curtis, confessing that they were rather afraid to venture into the social life of the point. In reply Mrs. Curtis only made light of their fears and misgivings and insisted that they should come. Tom, who had undertaken the duty of finding a landing for the houseboat, announced that it was safely sheltered near the southern end of Cape Charles; it was too rough to anchor the boat on the Virginia side of the shore. Besides, Tom was camping with some college friends on the shore of the cape, and had arranged that the houseboat should be no great distance from his camp. The houseboat party could cross over to Old Point, or any of the resorts on the opposite beach, in a small steamboat that made its way back and forth from one coast to the other, or in Tom's new motor launch, which would be always at their disposal.
The careful way in which the Curtises had arranged for the comfort of their young guests finally conquered the last faint objection on their part, and when on the morning of the day appointed, escorted by Mrs. Curtis and Tom, the four girls and Miss Jenny Ann boarded the "Merry Maid" for their two weeks' stay, their former fears and misgivings were entirely forgotten. They remembered only that they had come into their own again through the generosity of Mrs. Curtis, and for her sake were willing to brave even "Society."
* * * * *
The ballroom of the great hotel at Old Point Comfort was crowded with dancers. It was an official military ball. The army officers were in full-dress uniforms. The midshipmen from the fleet were in white. There was a large sprinkling of naval officers from the battleships in the harbor at Hampton Roads. Many of them were foreigners, as there were several ships of other nations anchored there. There were beautiful women in beautiful gowns and wonderful jewels. Altogether it was a scene calculated to make a lively impression upon Madge and her friends, and it was with rapidly beating hearts that, in company with Mrs. Curtis, Madeleine and Tom, they entered the brilliantly lighted ballroom which contained for them no familiar faces.
"Oh, dear, Miss Jenny Ann," whispered Eleanor, keeping close to her chaperon's side, "why did we ever imagine we could appear at home in a place like this? I wish we had not come." Her distress looked out from her brown eyes as she watched the throng of fashionably dressed women and uniformed men swaying and gliding in the figures of one of the new dances that had taken society by storm.
"Don't be afraid, Nell," returned Phil, fighting down her self-consciousness, "they are just mere men and women. Besides, they are too busy to think of us."
Just then an elderly man in uniform, accompanied by a woman of about his own age, stepped forward and claimed the attention of the Curtises. For the moment the girls, who were following their friends, became separated from them by the dancers. Realizing that they were too near the center of the ballroom for comfort, the little party stepped back, edging nearer the wall. Madge, too fully absorbed in the gay scene before her to see just where she was going, collided with a young woman, who, accompanied by two young men, was coming from the opposite direction. Before she could apologize an unpleasant voice broke upon the ears of the houseboat party with disconcerting distinctness.
"Oh, dear, let us move out of the way, if we can. It is quite evident that certain other persons have no intention of doing so. Such stupidity! Still, what can one expect from a crowd of country folks? I wonder how they happened to be here? I doubt if they were invited. It is a pity we can't keep tiresome nobodies from spoiling our hops here at the hotel."
A moment later the owner of the voice, a young woman of perhaps twenty years, had the grace to blush under the battery of five pairs of indignant eyes that was turned upon her. Miss Jenny Ann, Lillian and Eleanor looked cold astonishment at the rude speaker. It was plain to be seen that Phyllis was very angry. To Madge, however, was left the "retort courteous," and before Miss Jenny Ann could lay a restraining hand lightly upon her arm, the little captain said in a sweet, clear voice: "We are so sorry to be thought stupid. It is very unfortunate that we stepped in your way. As you remarked, we are from the country, but, at least, we have been taught that courtesy is a most desirable virtue. Rest assured we would not be here without an invitation. Mrs. Curtis is our hostess. It is possible you may know her."
Madge's tones were freighted with such unmistakable sarcasm that the rude young woman was too thoroughly taken aback to reply. She had fully intended her ill-bred speech to be overheard, but she had not for a moment imagined that one of these apparently shy newcomers would fling back an answer. The two young men with whom she had been talking looked very uncomfortable. There was an instant's strained silence, then the ill-bred young woman found her voice.
"I did not think you would hear what I said." She turned haughtily to Madge. "As you did hear me, I suppose I owe you an apology. I am one of the hostesses here to-night, as my father is an officer at Fortress Monroe. I know Mrs. Curtis and also her son and daughter."
Madge acknowledged the grudging apology with the merest inclination of her head. She was too angry to trust her voice. She turned away, and the little party was about to move on when Tom Curtis hurried to her side.
"How did you become separated from us?" he asked. "Mother thought you were directly behind her. Why, good evening, Flora," his eyes happened to rest on the disagreeable young woman, "you are just in time to meet Mother's guests."
Tom proceeded to introduce the houseboat party to her. "I am sure you will be pleased to know Miss Harris," he declared innocently. Then he presented the two young men respectively as Lieutenant Lawton and Mr. Thornton.
Miss Harris acknowledged the introduction with far more graciousness than she had previously exhibited. It was evident to the girls that she did not wish Tom Curtis to know how rudely she had treated his friends.
The young man introduced as Mr. Thornton addressed Madge with a view toward being gracious, but she replied briefly and turned her attention to Tom. Far from being dismayed with the rebuff, he tried again.
"I am over in camp with your friend, Mr. Curtis," he volunteered.
"Are you?" rejoined Madge indifferently.
"Yes," he went on, unabashed. "I came over to the dance to-night because Miss Harris is a great friend of mine. Don't hold that rude speech of hers against us; she did not imagine you would overhear it. Mr. Lawton and I were awfully cut up over it." He was doing his best to melt the snow image he was addressing. Madge showed no sign of relenting.
"Do you golf?" he questioned, hurriedly changing the subject.
Madge shrugged her pretty shoulders. "Not well enough to count," she answered.
"Do you swim?" was his next question.
Receiving no answer, he continued: "It is getting rather late in the year for sea bathing. The water is too cold for comfort."
"I like to swim in cold water," commented Madge stiffly. Then, taking pity on the discomfited young man, she smiled faintly and said, "I should not blame you for your friend's rude remarks, but I am still very angry with her. Her conduct was insufferable."
"She didn't mean what she said," defended Alfred Thornton. "I can't understand why Flora spoke as she did. She is a splendid girl. I've known her for a long time. She is the daughter of an officer whose father is a retired admiral in the Navy and a favorite socially at Old Point."
"That is very nice for her," returned Madge without enthusiasm. In the face of the discourtesy which Miss Harris had just exhibited she thought Mr. Thornton's eloquent defence in rather bad taste. She was about to retort that her father, too, had been an officer in the Navy; then, remembering, her face flushed and she compressed her red lips. Not yet. Not until she had found the man she sought and cleared her father's name. Suddenly the thought came: "Suppose I were to hear news of him while at Old Point? Suppose he were known to some of the officers whose ships are stationed here? Perhaps it was Fate that sent us to visit Mrs. Curtis."
"Have you decided to be angry, after all?" Alfred Thornton's voice recalled Madge to her surroundings.
"I am not angry," replied Madge. "To tell you the truth, I was not thinking of my own grievances."
"Sorry to interrupt conversation, Thornton," broke in Tom Curtis, "but there is a whole line of midshipmen waiting to be introduced to my friends."
"I hope you will give me a dance, Miss Morton," said Alfred Thornton.
Madge assented, although she felt more inclined to refuse. She was not in the least certain that she liked this dark, thin-faced young man. When he talked he had a peculiar trick of turning his eyes away from the person with whom he was talking that did not please her.
"Come on over in that corner, girls," invited Tom. "There we shall be out of the way of the dancers and you can hold court. Just wait until you see that line of midshipmen!"
Keeping out of the way of the dancers, the party moved toward the corner designated by Tom. There he left them, returning shortly with several young men in the midshipmen's uniform, who seemed not only willing, but eager, to have the pleasure of dancing with the four girls. Miss Jenny Ann, who looked very handsome in a pretty gown of black net over white silk, came in for a full share of attention, and was not a little worried as to whether as chaperon she ought to sit quietly and watch her charges or dance. She confided this to Madge, who merely laughed, told her that she looked "too sweet for anything" and to "go ahead and have a good time." Whereupon Miss Jenny Ann sank her last scruples and proceeded to enjoy herself as much as did the four girls, who did not miss a dance. They were showered with attentions from not only the midshipmen, but the old officers as well asked the privilege of a dance.
Pretty Lillian Seldon was in her element. This was her first real ball and she was delighted with the opportunity it afforded to play "grown up." She wore her golden hair piled high on her shapely head, and as her white silk evening gown was the longest frock she owned she felt at least twenty, which to her seemed very old indeed.
Phil danced for the pure love of dancing. She was more level-headed than Lillian and was less likely to be carried away by pleasure. Still, she felt as though she would like to go on dancing forever with Lieutenant James Lawton, who she decided was the nicest young man she had ever met.
Undoubtedly it was the excitement of the dance that appealed most strongly to Madge. The music, the flowers, the beautiful gowns worn by the women, the subdued murmur of laughing voices, stirred her imaginative temperament as the sunshine awakens flowers. The earlier thought of her father that had threatened to cloud her pleasure disappeared and she gave herself up to the enticement of the gay scene and the invitation of the music.
It was after midnight before the ball ended. Tom's car was at the hotel entrance to take the tired but enthusiastic girls and their chaperon down to the landing where the launch lay ready to take them to the "Merry Maid."
"I've had the most glorious time," exulted Lillian.
"And I," was the chorus.
"It was too delightful for words," declared Madge, with shining eyes. Then the light suddenly left them and she became strangely silent. "I forgot you, Father," she said under her breath. "I was so busy having a good time I didn't ask a single officer if he knew that dreadful man. But another time I'll not forget. I'll find out where he is before we leave here if there is any possible way to do it."
"I declare, Miss Jenny Ann," declared Madge fervently, "I believe I was born to live on a houseboat, I feel so perfectly at home. Do you think I care so much for the sea because my father was a sailor?"
"I suppose you do, my dear," returned the chaperon, who sat listening to Madge's animated chatter with an indulgent smile.
Several days had passed since the ball, and the girls had settled down to a thorough enjoyment of their floating home. Madge, who was looking particularly pretty in her sailor suit of blue serge, had been energetically sweeping the decks. Now she paused for a moment to lean on her broom and survey Miss Jenny Ann reflectively.
The "Merry Maid" now lay at anchor along a stretch of sandy beach, in a cove formed by a point of land that jutted out into the bay. It was the quietest spot Tom Curtis could find in the vicinity. But the landing was so near the mouth of the great Chesapeake Bay that, should a storm blow in from the Atlantic Ocean, the houseboat would probably be lashed by the waves. There was no shade along the beach, so Mrs. Curtis had transformed the houseboat into a charming Japanese pagoda. Mammoth Japanese umbrellas were swung above the decks. The latter were covered with pretty straw mats. There was a dainty green tea table securely fastened near the stern, with half a dozen green chairs near it. The window boxes around the upper deck of the boat had been refilled with bright scarlet geraniums and nasturtiums, as they would bloom until late in the autumn. Fresh draperies hung at the little cabin windows. Wrought-iron lamps, holding beautiful yellow-tinted glass globes, were attached to the outside cabin walls, so the entire deck of the houseboat could be lighted at night. Indeed, "The Merry Maid" presented a far more elaborate appearance than she had worn during the first of the houseboat vacations.
It was small wonder that the four girls sighed from pure content. Mrs. Curtis had not spent a great deal of money in re-decorating the little boat, she did not wish her guests to feel under any obligation to her, but she had made their holiday craft as attractive as possible, and had stored their small larder with all the good things she could find to eat.
"Miss Jenny Ann!" exclaimed Madge impulsively for the second time in five minutes, "do you think it is wrong to dislike people very, very much?"
The little captain's expression had entirely changed. She was frowning as though recalling something unpleasant.
"I suppose it is," answered Miss Jones gravely. She knew that Madge's likes and dislikes were not unimportant—they were so intense that they were likely to change not only the course of the girl's whole life but to influence the circumstances of the people about her.
"I am sorry," answered Madge, "because I have taken a dreadful dislike to that Flora Harris whom we met at the ball the other night. I wish that Tom had not asked us to invite her to the houseboat this afternoon. I did not like to refuse him, but I wish that I never had to see her again."
Madge returned to her sweeping with redoubled ardor. She acted as though she were trying to sweep the objectionable Miss Harris off of the houseboat.
"Don't take a rude speech so to heart, my dear," remonstrated Miss Jenny Ann. "Really, Miss Harris isn't worth it. It's dreadful to have a long list of grudges; it only hurts one to remember them."
Madge listened politely, though she didn't appear convinced by their chaperon's remarks. Wilful Madge was never convinced except by experience.
"I don't hate the Harris girl just because she made one rude speech, Miss Jenny Ann," she returned; "I hate her because she is hateful! She was impolite to us, and a sneak not to tell Tom Curtis what she had said about us. Then she is very haughty and proud because her father is a prominent officer at Fortress Monroe. She treated us as though we were nobodies from nowhere!"
"Here, here, Madge!" cried Phyllis Alden, appearing suddenly with the bread knife—she had been making sandwiches for their party—"them's my sentiments to a T! I'll cut off Miss Harris's head with the carving knife if you say so."
Madge laughed. "Oh, no, Phil, I suppose we shall have to be as sweet as cream to her because her friends are our Mrs. Curtis's friends. Miss Harris will probably be invited to all the parties we have while we are here."
"Lieutenant Lawton is nice and interesting, at any rate," interposed Phil. "Don't think that he talked to me about himself. He only said that he was in the Navy. But Tom told me that Lieutenant Lawton was working on a wonderful invention. I think it is something about a torpedo-boat destroyer that will go twice as fast as any other torpedo boat," Phil went on vaguely. "Lieutenant Lawton has a work-shop near Fortress Monroe. It is kept absolutely private through fear that some one will steal the model for the boat before Lieutenant Lawton has completed it."
"You became very well acquainted with this young lieutenant, Phil," teased Madge. "I suppose he will be rich if he succeeds with his invention."
Phil shook her dark head enthusiastically. "No; that is why I think he is so splendid," she argued. "He will make no money, unless our Government chooses to make him a gift, or to give him a higher rank in the Navy. Tom says that several foreign countries have offered Lieutenant Lawton thousands of dollars for his invention. There are American ship-building companies, too, that would give him a great deal of money for it. Two men are at Old Point now trying to tempt Lieutenant Lawton to sell his secret. But Tom says nothing will influence him; he is such a patriot!"
"Girls, it is time to dress for your tea-party," announced Miss Jenny Ann.
For an instant she experienced a vague regret that her girls were about to come in contact with so many fashionable people. She wished that she could transplant them to the free outdoor life that had characterized their first houseboat holiday. Here was sensible Phil, her head filled with stories of wonderful secret inventions and young inventors. And Phil had been the most dependable of her charges.
But Miss Jenny Ann was looking in the wrong direction for trouble. She should have concerned herself with the naughty plan that was forming in Madge's mind. It had never been worth while to pretend that the little captain was always noble and high-minded. She was capable of generous impulses and she loved her friends so dearly that she would do anything in the world for them. But she was proud and a trifle vain. She hated to be snubbed and treated as though she were absolutely of no importance. So she had quite made up her mind to be revenged on Flora Harris. Just at the time she could think of no better way than to make friends with Flora's particular admirer, Alfred Thornton. He was an extremely wealthy young man in prospect, his father being a Pittsburg millionaire. Flora was a snob; she was only seventeen, but her mother was a foolish, flighty woman, who allowed her daughter to think that she was already grown-up. Although Flora was not out of school, her mother never ceased to preach to her that she was not to marry a poor Army officer, so the young girl was pleased to have a wealthy young man as one of her admirers.
Madge knew that Alfred Thornton was snobbish and mean-spirited. She did not like him. She decided that on the night of the ball. She had seen him exchanging smiles with Miss Harris behind their backs before Tom Curtis had introduced him as his friend. This merely confirmed her bad opinion of him. But she realized that young Thornton had been attracted by her, and she naughtily resolved to turn his attentions from the elegant Miss Harris to herself. When she went into her cabin to dress for their tea-party it was with the determination to teach the girl she disliked that Madge Morton, country-bred though she might be, was a force yet to be reckoned with.
At two o'clock that afternoon Miss Jenny Ann and the four girls received their guests, and a little later tea was served on the deck at the dainty tea table under the big Japanese umbrellas. Madge, looking radiant in a little frock of white organdie dotted with tiny green leaves, poured the tea.
Tom Curtis had brought with him four or five young men from the camp. Flora Harris, looking utterly bored, a faint smile of cynical amusement on her face, accompanied by her cousin, Alice Paine, had crossed the bay in a steam launch with Jimmie Lawton. Never before had the houseboat held so many visitors, and the young hostesses did all in their power to entertain their guests.
* * * * *
"We have had a delightful afternoon," smiled Alice Paine as, later, the two young women declared that they must go back to Old Point. "I think the 'Merry Maid' is lovely, don't you, Flora?"
"The boat? Oh, yes," drawled Flora. Then with a touch of malice she added, "You told me you made your houseboat from an old canal boat, didn't you, Miss Morton?"
"Yes," returned the little captain briefly; then, as though unconscious of any malice aforethought on the part of the other girl, she continued a laughing conversation with Tom Curtis and Alfred Thornton.
"I should have guessed it," commented Flora Harris, shrugging her shoulders. She frowned as she noted that Alfred Thornton appeared to be enjoying himself immensely. Furthermore, no one had paid the slightest attention to her malicious little thrust. Madge had answered her without seeming to realize the insult her words contained.
Madge had fully realized, however, the hidden insolence of Flora Harris's reply, but she would have died rather than allow the other girl to know it.
"Did you say I didn't dare, Tom?" she exclaimed in answer to a laughing remark on the part of the young man. "I don't see anything very daring about your proposal. O Phil!" she turned to Phyllis, "Tom and Mr. Thornton dare us to row against them in the camp regatta next week. Will you do it?"
"Of course," agreed Phyllis, who would have cheerfully acquiesced to almost anything Madge saw fit to propose. "We are likely to come in last, but never mind a little thing like that. We are out of practice though. I wonder if we can't persuade a number of other girls to enter the race too?"
Flora Harris glanced disdainfully at Madge and Phyllis. She and Alice had lived near salt water all their lives, and had been taught to row by experts. It was too absurd to think of these two country girls rowing against them! As for entering a racing contest with boys from the camp—surely they were joking! But if they meant it seriously, she and Alice were ready for them.
"Oh, yes, we will enter the race," she answered with a kind of amused indifference. "I suppose Alice and I can row as well as your other friends. But we really must be getting back to the Point. Lieutenant Jimmy, we are sorry to interrupt you, but we have a long trip ahead of us." Her significant tone caused Phyllis and that young man to flush.
It was quite true that Lieutenant Jimmy had devoted himself exclusively to Phyllis, and that she had forgotten every one else in listening to the stories of naval life which he had been relating to her. Still, Flora Harris need not have directed the attention of the others to their absorption in each other. The young lieutenant looked rather sulky as he bade good-bye to his hostesses, with his eyes on Phil, and helped Miss Harris and Miss Paine into the motor boat.
Alfred Thornton and Tom Curtis left the "Merry Maid" soon after Lieutenant Lawton's launch steamed away, and when the five young women were alone they looked at one another in silence. Each one of them was possessed of the same thought. It was Phyllis who voiced it.
"I quite agree with you, Madge," she said, a note of anger in her voice. "I think that Miss Harris is detestable. One thing is certain, we must outrow those two girls in the race. I couldn't endure seeing them win."
"Nor I, Phil," returned Madge. "We'll win that race just to spite that hateful Miss Harris. I despise her snobbishness."
"That is a very ignoble spirit in which to enter it," reproved Miss Jenny Ann.
"Remember, we are to race with a very ignoble person," retorted Madge.
THE MYSTERIOUS BOX
After the tea-party a variety of things came up to engage the attention of the "Merry Maid's" crew. For the first time since they had banded themselves together their interests lay apart. Phyllis Alden was so deeply impressed with the fact that Lieutenant James Lawton had chosen her as a confidante and insisted on telling her all his aims and aspirations, that she had thought of little else except him. Lillian Seldon was experiencing her first taste of society and it had gone to her head. The young officers at Fortress Monroe and the midshipmen vied with one another in paying her devoted attention, and she reveled in the knowledge that she was pretty and a favorite. Madge's sole idea in life seemed to consist in annoying Flora Harris, and with this intent she deliberately encouraged the attentions of Alfred Thornton, thus arousing the lasting resentment of that young woman, who looked upon young Thornton as her own particular cavalier. Secretly Madge despised him, nevertheless she concealed her dislike under a gay, gracious manner that she used continually to draw him away from the girl whom she had resolved to annoy and tease on every occasion.
Only Eleanor and Miss Jenny Ann remained unchanged. Both women loved the quiet of the "Merry Maid" far better than they did Society, and while Madge, Phil and Lillian flitted here and there like gay young butterflies, the chaperon and the little brown-haired daughter of Virginia kept the boat ship-shape and looked after the wants of the others.
They were by no means stay-at-homes, however. Mrs. Curtis had arranged all sorts of good times in which the five young women took part. One of her latest ideas was that her young guests should give a play. She had engaged the private ballroom of the hotel for a certain evening, and had arranged for the erection of a temporary stage on the day previous to the evening on which the play was to be given. She and Madeleine had invited a number of their friends and there would be a supper and dance afterward.
Madeleine, who had developed into a veritable bookworm, had, after considerable hunting, found a story called "The Decision," which she had arranged as a play. There were but five characters in the play, which was the story of a girl who, holding a position as private secretary in the home of a man of wealth, discovers that his daughter, a girl about her own age, has been unduly extravagant and, needing money, has forged a check in her father's name. While she deliberates as to what is to be done, the father discovers the forgery, and taxing his daughter with it, she becomes panic-stricken and lays the forgery at the door of the private secretary. Her employer, a hard man, brings the two girls together, declaring that if his daughter is at fault he will turn her from his home and utterly repudiate her.
A struggle begins in the secretary's mind. She realizes that if she confesses falsely to the forgery, it means not only the loss of her own position but her good name as well, whereas if she makes the daughter of her employer admit her fault, it means that, driven from home, the girl whose weakness has brought about this distressful situation stands little or no chance of redeeming her error if thrust upon the mercy of the world.
In the end the secretary shoulders the daughter's guilt and is about to leave her employer's house forever, he having declined to prosecute her, when his daughter, aroused to latent remorse by the nobility of spirit of the girl she has wronged, confesses the truth, and is forgiven by her father solely on account of the earnest pleading of the other girl.
Madge had been chosen to play the secretary, Flora Harris the daughter. Tom Curtis was to portray the role of the stern father, while Lillian Seldon played a pert maid and Alfred Thornton an inquisitive footman.
Flora Harris was secretly chagrined when she discovered that the role of heroine had fallen to Madge. Although the part of the erring daughter furnished plenty of opportunity for acting, the honors of the play fell to Madge. Flora was far too clever to show by any outward sign that she was not pleased with the part assigned to her, but privately she registered another grievance against the little captain, and the determination to lower Madge's pride to the dust was never long out of her thoughts. Just how this was to be done she could not yet see, but she felt that sooner or later the opportunity was sure to present itself.
Of one thing she was certain, Madge Morton and Phyllis Alden should not win the boat race. She did not believe there was much possibility of their winning. She had watched them rowing about in the "Water Witch" and had decided that they possessed neither skill nor speed. She knew that since their agreement to enter the race the two girls had been practising diligently during the mornings on their side of the bay. She and her cousin Alice had not been idle. They had done considerable rowing in the mornings, also, and confidently expected to carry off the prize, whatever it might be.
As for Madge and Phyllis, they entertained little idea of winning the race. It was not to be expected, considering the fact that they were competing with boys. Still, they hoped to make as good a showing as Flora Harris and Alice Paine. They devoted their morning hours to their practice, for the rehearsals of the play occupied Madge's afternoons, and it must be confessed that Lieutenant James Lawton took up the greater part of Phil's evenings. But whatever may have been his failings in this direction, he was proving himself to be an efficient coach.
His two pupils had placed themselves entirely under his training and, according to his enthusiastic commendation, were improving rapidly.
"You girls are doing better with every minute!" was his lively praise one morning as they rowed the "Water Witch" toward the houseboat. Their practice was over for the day, and Lieutenant Jimmy was to take luncheon with them.
It had been a particularly interesting morning. Madge felt more drawn toward the young lieutenant than on any previous occasion. He had been telling her and Phyllis of his life in the Navy, his hopes and aspirations, and Phyllis had purposely drawn him into describing his invention. He had just completed a model of his torpedo-boat destroyer and expected to take it to Washington within a few days. He was to show his model boat to a committee of naval experts, who were to decide whether his invention were of value.
Aside from the pleasure it gave him to tell the girls of his invention he had another graver reason for doing so. He had decided to ask Phyllis to do him a great favor. From the beginning of their acquaintance the young man had been impressed with Phil's sterling qualities. She was loyal to her friends and absolutely dependable. He felt certain that she would respect a confidence and keep a secret. He believed her to be the one person he could trust absolutely. Yet he did not wish to draw her into a promise without the knowledge of at least one of her friends. For this reason he had chosen to make Madge his confidante also.
Just how to begin he hardly knew, and it was not until they had rowed within close range of the houseboat, where Tom Curtis and Alfred Thornton stood waving from the deck, that he said nervously:
"Won't you and Miss Morton stop rowing for a moment, Miss Alden? I wouldn't have bored you with the story of my invention, except that I wish to ask you a strange favor. If I go away in a few days, of course my work-shop will be closely watched and guarded. Yet I shall not feel it to be perfectly safe. I alone know that I am being spied upon, that certain men are shadowing me ready to report every movement that I make. If, after leaving here, I should fall ill unexpectedly, or—disappear suddenly, the secret of my invention might never be known. So I wish to ask you, Miss Alden, to keep a small, square box, which I shall give you before I leave. I shall ask you not to examine its contents unless some unusual circumstance should develop, when you feel obliged to ascertain what the box contains. You may think it strange that I do not ask one of my men friends to do this favor for me. But I have a special reason for desiring to place the box in the care of some one who will never be suspected of having it. Will you keep it for me, say for a week, or until I ask you or write to you for it?"
The skiff had nearly reached the houseboat. Madge and Phyllis were allowing the "Water Witch" to drift in. Their friends on board had seen them and were signaling for them to come aboard.
Madge's usually sunny face was clouded with disapproval. Why should Lieutenant Lawton wish a young girl like Phyllis, a mere acquaintance, to guard a mysterious box for him? What could possibly happen to him when he went to Washington! It was all too vague and too absurd. She decided that she and Phyllis would have nothing to do with Lieutenant Lawton's invention.
"I don't believe, Phil, that you and I ought to do what Lieutenant Lawton asks unless he takes us fully into his confidence," she protested.
Phyllis closed her lips with an expression of quiet resolution. "I will take care of the box for you while you are away, Lieutenant Lawton," she declared. "If Madge doesn't wish to have anything to do with it, she will keep your secret, at any rate. I know it will be all right, Madge; I am sure you will agree with me," she ended coaxingly, turning to her chum. "We could not refuse to do such a simple favor for a friend. And I think Lieutenant Lawton is a true patriot to give his invention to his country, instead of selling it to make a fortune, as so many other men would do, and I am proud to aid him in even the smallest way."
Lieutenant Lawton blushed. It occurred to Madge that she and Phyllis knew little of the young officer's real character. Suppose, after all, he did not intend to present his discovery to his Government? Were she and Phil to be used as dupes? A long, searching look into the young man's earnest face seemed to reassure her.
"When do you wish to give Phil the box, Mr. Lawton?" she said slowly.
"To-night, when you come to Mrs. Curtis's to rehearse for your play," replied Lieutenant Jimmy. "I shall want to see you and Miss Alden alone somewhere. It will only take a minute to hand you the box, but do not, for the world, let either Tom Curtis or Alfred Thornton know what I have asked of you."
"We won't," promised Phyllis readily.
"Then I can depend on you?" asked the young man anxiously. "You are certain that you are willing to stand by me, Miss Morton?"
"Yes." Madge gave an emphatic nod. "I feel that you would not ask us to do anything unless you were sure that it was for the best. We will take care of the box for you and no one need suspect that we have it."
"I thank you." Lieutenant Lawton shook hands with the two girls, and thus the compact, involving far more than either of the girls could possibly guess, was sealed.
FLORA BETRAYS A STATE SECRET
Alfred Thornton had not come to spend several weeks in camp with Tom Curtis and a dozen other of his acquaintances solely for the pleasure of the outdoor life and sports. He had a secret and far more important mission. His father was a steel magnate. He was also a silent but deeply interested partner in one of the largest ship-building concerns in the United States. The elder Mr. Thornton and his associates had heard rumors of Lieutenant Lawton's probable invention.
If the young officer could be induced to sell the model of his destroyer to their concern, it would mean millions of dollars. If their company alone could make the fastest torpedo-boat destroyer in the world, not only would the United States Government be forced to buy such boats from them, but every government in Europe would have to seek them to find out the secret of the highest speed ever attained by such a craft.
Alfred Thornton had been appointed to watch Lieutenant Jimmy Lawton. He was to make him an offer for his patent, if it could be managed without the knowledge of the Government authorities. In any case, he was to wire his father the moment he believed Lieutenant Lawton had completed the model of his boat.
It was easy, therefore, to see why Alfred Thornton had cultivated the friendship of Flora Harris. He wished to be about Fortress Monroe in order to hear the gossip of the Army and Navy people, to see Lieutenant Lawton, yet never in any way to be suspected of spying upon him. For this reason Alfred had chosen to live over in the camp with Tom Curtis and his friends, rather than to be any nearer the scene of action.
It occurred to the young man on the night of the first rehearsal of their play in Mrs. Curtis's private drawing room that he had been paying too much attention to Madge. He did not wish to estrange Flora Harris. He must be more careful. For this one evening, at least, he would leave Madge to herself. Had Madge been able to read his thoughts she would not have been disturbed at his decision. She was growing tired of her new acquaintance. She thought him dull and too curious about other people's affairs. He was too fond of referring to Phil's friendship for Lieutenant Lawton in a joking manner. For the moment Lieutenant Lawton and the mysterious box occupied her thoughts so completely that she forgot Alfred Thornton's existence.
She saw Lieutenant Lawton come into the drawing room, watched him as he explained his unexpected appearance to Mrs. Curtis. Then, looking pale and worried, he took his seat next to Phyllis, though he did not have a chance to say a word to her that would not be overheard. For once Miss Jenny Ann Jones, who had always been the most lenient of chaperons, determined to play the part of a stern dragon. She decided that, of late, the young man had been altogether too attentive to Phyllis. She sat on the girl's side and took part in the conversation between her and the young lieutenant. When he proposed that Miss Alden walk with him in the hotel garden, Miss Jones quietly rose and went out with them.
Lieutenant Lawton was desperate. He must give Phyllis the box which he desired her to keep for him before the evening was over. Yet how could he appoint the time and place where she could receive it if he never had a moment with her in private? Miss Jenny Ann entered first the revolving door that formed the ladies' entrance to Mrs. Curtis's hotel. Before the door swung around again Lieutenant Lawton had time to whisper:
"You and Miss Morton meet me, if you can, by the tree on the south side of the hotel porch just before you start for the houseboat."
Phil had just time to nod in reply when she caught Miss Jenny Ann gazing at her reproachfully through the glass of the door.
If Phyllis had not thought Lieutenant Jimmy Lawton a patriot and a genius, she would never have undertaken to help him without being allowed to confide her part in the affair to her chaperon. But if Madge were romantic in her way, Phil was equally so in hers. While Madge dreamed of lovely ladies and romantic knights in the days of chivalry, Phyllis had visions of the glory of self-sacrifice, of patriotism, of doing great deeds for other people. She wanted to study medicine because she thought some day she might be able to go as a hospital nurse on the field of battle. To be able to help Lieutenant Lawton in even the smallest way to do a service for his country was a source of great delight to Phil. She was actually thrilled by it.
Madge, who had been watching her friend, wished that she would not show her feelings so plainly. Across the room she could see that Phyllis was pale and restless. Once or twice Madge saw Alfred Thornton staring at Phyllis; then he turned to hold a whispered conversation with Flora Harris.
Early in the evening Lieutenant Lawton disappeared from the drawing room. As soon as the rehearsal of their play was over Alfred Thornton made his escape.
Lieutenant Jimmy did not go to his work-shop; he went to his quarters. Half an hour later he returned with a square box in his hand, which looked like a five-pound box of candy. Instead of returning to the room where Mrs. Curtis and her guests were, he strolled nervously about the grounds of the hotel. It was dark under the tree where he had asked Phil and Madge to meet him. About ten minutes before he could look for them he went cautiously toward this tree and waited with his back close against it.
A figure, coming up behind him suddenly, startled him. The man had time only to lean over and say, "Two hundred thousand dollars!" when a sound of voices was heard at the southern end of the hotel veranda.
Phyllis also had found it difficult to have a private word with Madge, but toward the close of the evening she did have time to whisper the account of her appointment.
When Miss Jenny Ann suggested that it was time to leave for their houseboat, Madge and Phyllis went hurriedly, ahead of the others, into Mrs. Curtis's dressing room. They slipped into their evening coats, and, taking their pink and blue chiffon scarfs in their hands, they reached the hotel veranda before any one missed them.
There were few people staying in the big summer hotel, for it was late in the season. The night was cool and the big front porch was almost deserted. The two girls felt like conspirators. They were perfectly willing to keep Lieutenant Lawton's box for him. But why was he so mysterious?
At the southern end of the long veranda they plainly espied the figure of a man walking slowly up and down in the darkness. It was too dark to distinguish Lieutenant Lawton's uniform. The girls called faintly to the man under the trees. He did not hear them, nor move in their direction.
"Come on, Madge," whispered Phyllis impatiently. "If we are going to help Lieutenant Lawton by taking care of his box for him, we may as well go out on the lawn to receive it. Miss Jenny Ann will be after us in a minute, if we don't hurry. I believe she thinks I am getting into mischief. She told me yesterday that she thought we were all behaving in much too grown-up a fashion."
They were talking as they walked toward the solitary figure they had seen standing under the tree. "Lieutenant!" Phyllis called softly. The young officer did not reply. The girls drew nearer. The man was not Lieutenant Lawton!
Alfred Thornton was grinning maliciously. "Were you looking for Lieutenant Lawton?" he inquired. "He was here a few minutes ago. He has gone back to his home. I can look him up for you if you are really anxious to see him, Miss Alden."
Phyllis turned pale with embarrassment. She made no reply.
Madge answered for her. "No, Mr. Thornton," she returned quietly, "it won't be necessary. We did wish to see Lieutenant Lawton on a little matter of business. It was not important. We shall probably see him some other time. We are sorry to have disturbed you."
Madge spoke calmly, but her cheeks were flushed. It did look rather ridiculous for them to be searching the hotel grounds for a young man who had not even waited to see them.
Alfred Thornton insisted on walking back to the hotel with Phyllis and Madge. He even accompanied them to the motor launch, but as the girls were going aboard he purposely dropped behind the party, apparently to talk to Flora Harris. He had seen Lieutenant Lawton reappear among the group of his friends. The young officer went straight up to Phyllis, handing her the oblong box under the cover of the darkness. "Here is the box," he whispered, when he caught Miss Jones looking directly at him.
Phil took the box. It was extremely heavy. She could scarcely hold it. But she never put it down until she had safely reached the shelter of the houseboat and had placed it at the bottom of her steamer trunk.
Alfred Thornton did not cross to the camping grounds with Tom Curtis in his motor launch that night. He had decided, for reasons best known to himself, to spend the night on the Virginia side of the bay. After seeing Madge and Phyllis to the launch, he returned to the hotel in time to walk home with Flora Harris.
"By the way," she exclaimed, as they were about to say good night, "didn't you once ask me to tell you if I ever heard that Lieutenant Lawton were about to leave Fortress Monroe? Why did you wish to know?"
Alfred Thornton glanced sharply at his companion. His father had promised him ten thousand dollars if he managed his detective work successfully. Was it possible that this girl possessed valuable information concerning the affairs of Lieutenant Lawton?
"Oh, I have a personal reason," he answered with an assumed carelessness.
Flora Harris was not deceived. She had read eagerness in his quick glance. She therefore intended to tell him that which he wished to know, because she desired having him on her side if any difficulty should arise between herself and Madge Morton.
"Well," she continued, after a moment's pause, "I am telling you a state secret, and one I really have no right to know. I believe that Lieutenant Lawton leaves for Washington within a few days. He has finished the model of that old torpedo-boat destroyer that everybody is making such a fuss about. It is a great secret, so don't let any one know that I have told you. Lieutenant Jimmy came to see Father to-day and had a long talk with him. Afterward I overheard Father tell Mother that things were O.K. with Jimmy Lawton, but she was not to mention the subject to a soul."
Flora laughed. She did not in the least realize the importance of the information she had just given. Yet she did know enough to understand that she should never have repeated a word that she had heard within her father's house that in any way referred to Government business.
"Oh, well, you needn't worry over having told me," assured Alfred Thornton. "As I am a friend of Lawton's, naturally I am interested in anything pertaining to his invention. He has been so very stiff and close-mouthed about it, he would be rather surprised if he knew that I'd found out something about it, after all."
"Don't you dare let him know that I told you anything!" exclaimed Flora in alarm. "If you do, it will go straight to Father and then—— I wish I hadn't told you," she concluded regretfully.
Flora's sudden change of mood caused Alfred Thornton to purposely look offended and say haughtily, "I am sorry you have such a bad opinion of my honor."
Flora, who had not intended to make the young man angry, tried instantly to apologize, and after a certain amount of sulky hesitation he condescended to accept her apology. If she had seen the expression of triumph that gleamed in his eyes as he turned from her door and strode down the walk, she would have been still more alarmed.
That night Alfred Thornton sent a telegram to his father. It was written in a code that had been arranged between them. When the messenger boy departed the young man went to his room in the hotel with the air of one whose mission had been accomplished.