THE CASE AND THE GIRL
BY RANDALL PARRISH
I THE LADY IN THE LIMOUSINE
II A SUDDEN ENGAGEMENT
III THE COOLIDGE HOME
IV MISS COOLIDGE EXPLAINS
V WEST WINS THE FIRST HAND
VI UNTANGLING THREADS
VII A VISIT TO THE INDIGENT
VIII A NEW MISS COOLIDGE
IX AN UNEXPECTED DISMISSAL
X THE BODY OF A SUICIDE
XI SUSPICION VERIFIED
XII AGAINST A STONE WALL
XIII 238 WRAY STREET
XV THE EDGE OF COMPROMISE
XVI WEST MAKES HIS CHOICE
XVII FACING DEATH
XVIII UNDER COVER
XIX THE COMING OF A MESSAGE
XX WHAT THE TELEPHONE TOLD
XXI THE YACHT "SEMINOLE"
XXIII THE FATE OF A PRISONER
XXIV THE SINKING YACHT
XXV FREE OF THE YACHT
XXVI THE COMING OF DAWN
XXVII LOVE BREAKS SILENCE
XXVIII AN ESCAPE FROM THE RAFT
XXIX THE HOUSE IN THE BLUFFS
XXX HOBART FORGETS AND TALKS
XXXI McADAMS BLOWS IN
XXXII A BRIDGE OF LOVE
THE CASE AND THE GIRL
THE LADY IN THE LIMOUSINE
West, still attired in khaki uniform, but wearing the red chevron of honourable discharge on his left sleeve, sat in the Club writing room, his feet comfortably elevated, endeavouring to extract some entertainment from the evening paper. The news was not particularly interesting, however, and finally, obsessed with the feeling that it would soon be time for him to seriously contemplate the procuring of suitable employment, the young man turned the sheet about rather idly, and ran his eyes down the columns devoted to classified advertising.
Half way down the first column, under the head of "miscellaneous," he paused and read a paragraph with some interest; then read it over again, emitting a soft whistle between his teeth.
"Well, by Jove!" he said to himself slowly, "That doesn't sound so bad either; out of the ordinary, at least. Say, Thompson," and he turned to a tall young fellow busily writing at the adjoining desk, and shoved the paper under his eyes, pointing at the paragraph which had attracted attention, with one finger, "What do you make out of that, old man?"
The other, rather sober-faced, and slow of speech, read the advertisement word by word, with no change of expression.
"Rot," he said solemnly. "Either a joke, or some scheme on. Why? interested in it?"
"In a measure, yes. Sounds rather business-like to me. I've got a good mind to answer, and take a chance."
"You're a fool if you do, Matt," decisively, and turning back to his writing. "That is some game being pulled off, and the first thing you know, you'll be in bad. Likely as not it means blackmail. Besides there is no address."
"That's one thing I like about it," retorted the other. "They are in earnest, and taking no chances of having their purpose guessed at. There is a way to reach them, if the one answering is sufficiently in earnest. By Jove, I don't see how any one can get in bad, merely by finding out what it all means."
"Well, do as you please; you would anyhow. Only you have my advice."
West read the item again. He had been eighteen months in France, and his discharge from the army had left him bored and dissatisfied with the dull routine of civil life. He dreaded to get back into the harness of a prosaic existence; even his profession as a civil engineer had someway lost its charm. He had tasted the joy of adventure, the thrill of danger, and it was still alluring. This advertisement promised a mystery which strangely attracted his imagination.
"Wanted: Young man of education and daring for service involving some personal peril. Good pay, and unusual reward if successful. May have to leave city. Purpose disclosed only in personal interview."
As Thompson had pointed out, this was not signed, nor any address given.
West crossed over to an unoccupied desk, and wrote a reply, changing the wording several times, and finally making a clean copy. Thompson glanced across at him, but said nothing. The answer read:
"To Advertiser: Am 26; late captain of Engineers; University graduate adventurous disposition. Would be glad to consider your proposition. Address, Box 57, University Club."
He placed this in an envelope, called a Club messenger, and, handing the boy a sum of money, sent him over to the newspaper office.
Two days elapsed before an answer appeared in his box; a small envelope, addressed in a lady's handwriting apparently, and mailed from one of the sub-postoffices. West tore it open rather eagerly, and read the contents with surprise. The words within had been written by the same hand which appeared upon the envelope, but the language used gave him no clue to the purpose of the writer. The brief note read:
"Box 57 University Club.
"Your answer to advertisement makes a good impression, and I am willing to put you to the further test of a personal meeting. If you are in earnest in this matter, and quite prepared to assume the necessary risk, you will be at the north-west corner of Spaulding Park at 5:30 to-morrow afternoon. Do not come in uniform, but it will be well to bring evening clothes in a bag. Be sure of yourself, and be prompt.
"Very truly yours,
West read this over, again and again, smoking furiously, and endeavouring to weigh each word. He saw Thompson in the other room, but decided not to submit the epistle to his criticism. The letter sounded honest and sincere; the writer evidently had a purpose in view, and was selecting an agent with great care and secrecy. No hint as to what that object was would be revealed blindly—he must be tried in every way first; thoroughly tested as to both character and courage. Undoubtedly steps had already been taken to do this. The delay in reply would have afforded opportunity for some investigation, as his address would give the necessary clue to his identity. The request for evening clothes, however, rather reassured him; evidently his first plunge into this mystery was not to occur in any stratum of low society; no vast amount of personal danger could be involved in such preliminaries. The truth was, the note only increased his former interest in the case, and his determination to probe more deeply into its mystery. So the advertiser was a woman! This fact also stimulated his imagination, and rendered him the more eager. By Jove! he would see the thing through!
His decision was reached, yet West, although still young and adventurous, had received the rigorous training of the soldier, and learned lessons of discretion. He would go, but would make every effort to protect himself against any possible treachery. He had a room at the Club, and wrote a letter or two before proceeding to dress, arranging for their personal delivery in case he failed to return at a designated time; carefully examined his service revolver, and deposited it in the pocket of the business suit he decided to wear. Satisfied with these arrangements, he dressed rapidly, and then packed his bag, bearing it in his hand as he departed in ample time for the point of rendezvous. A cab took him to the place designated, and he found himself alone in a rather desolate spot, with which he was in no way familiar. No doubt he had passed there again and again, as a boulevard extended along one side of the small park, yet his memory retained no clear recollection of the place. There were a few small stores opposite, while the park itself was well kept, and populated almost entirely by nursemaids, judging from the number of baby carriages trailing along the walks. Back of the curb were a few benches, but West chose to remain outside, depositing his bag in plain view of any one passing, and then walked back and forth somewhat nervously. He was there several minutes ahead of time, and compared his watch by a clock in a church tower a block away. He had no knowledge of how he was to be approached, or identified, but his being requested to bring a bag containing evening clothes, somehow suggested riding, rather than walking, and consequently his eyes followed more or less intently the constant stream of automobiles.
He grew restless, and more doubtful as the moments slipped past. Surely he could not have mistaken the place of appointment or the hour? He glanced at the scene to again reassure himself. No, that was impossible; the park name was plainly decipherable beside the entrance, and his watch coincided exactly with the clock in the tower. He stood beside his bag, staring up and down the boulevard, permitting his eyes to occasionally wander to the scene within the enclosure. Nothing rewarded his scrutiny. Then suddenly, without slightest warning, a black limousine whirled in alongside the curb, and came to a stop immediately in front of where he waited. The chauffeur, dressed in plain dark livery, stepped out, and threw open the rear door, without asking so much as a question. Except that the fellow stood there, looking directly toward him, his fingers on the latch, expectantly, West would not have known that he was wanted. Yet it was all so obvious he could not question. Silently he picked up his bag, and stepped forward. He saw no one within, but firm in the belief that the chauffeur must have his orders, he entered blindly, the door closing instantly behind him. The curtains were drawn, the interior gloomy and indistinct, and the driver had resumed his seat, and started the motor, before West realized that he was not alone. In one corner of the wide back seat, drawn back from any possible observation from without, sat a woman.
At first glance he could only barely distinguish the outlines of her figure, dimly discernable against the dark background of the upholstery, but, as his eyes accustomed themselves to the faint light, her features also became dimly visible—enough so, at least, to convince him that she was young. Neither spoke for some moments, while the automobile gathered speed, and West had an uncomfortable feeling that the lady was watching him with great intentness. Slightly embarrassed, and uncertain as to his best course of action, the young man remained silent, his eyes on the burly back of the chauffeur, revealed through the front glass. He could only quietly await her explanation of this strange situation. The delay was not a long one. She laughed, nervously perhaps, yet with a sense of humour at the awkward position.
"Quite melodramatic, is it not, Captain West?" she asked, in a decidedly pleasant voice. "I trust it appeals thoroughly to that disposition for adventure of which you wrote. I assure you I have arranged the details to the best of my ability."
"Nothing more could be desired, I am sure," he confessed, surprised at her tone, and glancing toward her. "I certainly am left completely in the dark, unable even to clearly distinguish my mysterious companion in adventure."
"And there really is no longer any occasion for such concealment." She lifted the heavy curtain beside her, permitting the grey light to rest upon her face. "I preferred not to be seen at the park for obvious reasons; but here, alone with you, such precaution is quite unnecessary. We are to be either friends, or enemies, so frankness is the best course."
He saw the face of a young woman of twenty-four, or five, with dark eyes and hair, her cheeks flushed with health and excitement, her lips smiling. It was a face of unusual attractiveness, not regular, perhaps, in any of its features, yet filled with character, and glowing with life. It was to him a totally unfamiliar countenance, but one which as instantly awakened his interest. He liked the girl, and believed in her.
"I can only thank you," he said, rather lamely. "Although I do not understand now how we could ever become enemies. Surely, that is not a threat?"
"Oh, no, it is far too true. You have yet to learn what I require. Yet that was very nicely said. I take it to mean your first impression of me is not unfavourable?"
"Very far from it. I am already deeply interested in my task. If I lacked an incentive before, you have furnished it. I am only too glad I was the fortunate volunteer."
She laughed again softly, her eyes still on his face.
"Really, I had not anticipated such a sincere compliment. No doubt you learned these delightful speeches in France," she answered, a very faint tinge of sarcasm in the words. "However, this is a very serious matter, Captain West, and really has nothing to do with my personal appearance. I am, of course, being a woman, glad that I please you, but we must consider this particular affair from an entirely different standpoint. I am seeking neither flirtation nor compliment; merely a trustworthy agent. First of all, it is necessary that you comprehend this."
He bowed, impressed by her manner, and somewhat ashamed of his impetuousity.
"I accept the reproof," he said quietly, "and will endeavour henceforth not to offend in any way. I am entirely at your service."
"There is no offence; I merely thought it best there should be no misunderstanding. Now, I am sure, we can proceed intelligently. Indeed, I am going to frankly confess, I also like your appearance. This mutual liking ought to be half the battle. We have quite a ride before us yet; you may question me if you wish."
A SUDDEN ENGAGEMENT
West gazed out through the window, wondering where they were. In his interest in his companion, he had until this moment, taken no note of things without, nor did his eyes rest now upon any familiar scene. They were swiftly, and noiselessly, passing blocks of respectable residences, none of these particularly distinguished. Her sudden invitation rather startled him.
"You mean I am to question you freely."
"Assuredly; while I am to remain quite as free in my answers. That is perfectly fair, is it not?"
"At least, it sounds so. Where am I being transported then? And why the dress-suit?"
His questions evidently amused, for her eyes sparkled.
"Naturally that query comes first; and especially the dress-suit. You have the prejudices of your sex, I see, and without regret. I shall endeavour to reply catagorically, yet with reservations. We are going to a country home, where we dine, in company with a few guests."
"I see; I am first of all to be projected into society. Are any of these guests known to me?"
"God forbid; and I may even venture to predict that you will never care to know any of them again. You are to be present as my guest, and will so be welcomed."
"I feel the honour; but would it not be well under these circumstances for me to know more clearly whose guest I am? Suppose, for instance, I had to refer to our long friendship, it would be extremely awkward not to even be able to mention your name."
"My name! Why, of course, you do not know what it is. Well, really I am not altogether certain that I do either. We will therefore compromise on the one I am known by; which will be safer. Allow me, Captain West, to present to you Miss Natalie Coolidge."
She held out frankly a neatly gloved hand, which he as instantly took, and retained in his own, the girl making no immediate effort to withdraw it.
"This is very kind of you, Miss Coolidge," he acknowledged, adapting himself to her present mood. "But it seems there is no necessity for me to present myself. Apparently my identity is already known."
"Otherwise you would not be among those present," she admitted frankly. "You must surely realize that I needed, at least, to have some information relative to a man in whom I expected to confide. Telling secrets—especially family secrets—to strangers is not my specialty."
"Then, I judge you have not accepted me blindly?"
"No, I have not," earnestly, and now releasing her hand. "I do not think we ever really know any one except through personal intercourse; but I do know who you are, and something of what your life thus far has been. It was two days after I received your answer before I replied to it. This time was devoted exclusively to making me somewhat better acquainted with my correspondent."
"But how could you? I signed no name."
She smiled, again quite at her ease.
"The box number at the Club was amply sufficient. I have friends there; once possessed of your name and army rank, the department records at Washington furnished all further information. A Senator kindly attended to that end, and was also able to supply a little additional gossip through one of his Southern colleagues. So you perceive, Captain, I am not altogether reckless. Are you interested in learning what I know?"
"I am; both from records and gossip. Will you tell me?"
"Willingly," and she checked the points off on her gloved fingers. "You are Matthew West, the only son of Judge Robert Peel West, of Atlanta, Georgia. Your mother, who was of the well-known Bullock family, died when you were about fifteen, and her widowed sister has since been the house-keeper. You are a graduate of the university of Virginia, being fourth in your class in Scholarship. Your engineering course was completed in Massachusetts, and you later became connected with the Wyant Contracting Company, of Chicago. You were here, however, only a very brief time, making but few acquaintances, when the War broke out. You immediately entered the first officers' training school at Fort Sheridan, graduating with the rank of First Lieutenant, and were assigned to a regiment of Engineers, among the earliest to sail for France. While there you were wounded twice, and cited once for special gallantry in the rescue of a seriously injured private. Your last wound caused your return to the United States on a special mission, and also won you the rank of Captain. Since then you have been honourably discharged, but have made no effort to resume professional work. You are twenty-six, and unmarried. Is there anything else you care to know?"
"I think not; really your agency has been most efficient. Could you tell me also if I have ever been in love?"
"In love! Really I made no inquiries, as that did not interest me in the least. I am prepared to be confessed to, however, if you feel it necessary."
"I may have to confess later. Just now it might be better to let matters remain as they are. And so this review satisfied you that I was really the man you sought?"
"No, it did not wholly satisfy, but it looked promising. You were evidently courageous, and a gentleman. These qualities were essential; whether in other respects you measured up to my purpose, could only be ascertained through a personal interview. There was no other way."
"And now?" he persisted.
"Still encouraging. I must admit, although the test is not yet complete. However, we are now approaching the end of our journey. Before we turn in I am going to ask a favour of you—call me Natalie."
"Natalie; that will be easy."
"And also forgive me if I fail in always addressing you formally as Captain West. I presume your friends say Matt, do they not?"
"Some have that habit."
"Then I claim also the privilege."
She bewildered him, left him in wonderment as to what she would do next, but there was scarcely time in which to answer before the speeding limousine turned abruptly into a private drive-way, curving gracefully to the front of a rather imposing stone mansion, set well back from the road. West caught a glimpse of a green lawn, a maze of stables at the rear, and a tennis-court with several busily engaged players. Then they were at the side entrance, and a servant, in the same unobtrusive livery as the chauffeur, was quietly opening the door. He turned and helped his companion to emerge.
"Take the gentleman's bag to the Blue Room, Sexton," she said calmly, "and then lay out his evening clothes."
"I will be in the hall when you come down, Captain, but there is no hurry."
West followed the servant up the softly carpeted stairs, finding the apartment assigned him not only extremely comfortable, but even elegant in its furnishing. He stood at the window looking down on the tennis court, while Sexton opened the bag, and spread out the required garments on the bed. Evidently he was in a home of wealth and refinement. The grounds outspread before his eyes were spacious and attractive; in the distance he even perceived an artificial lake with paths winding enticingly along its shore, and through strips of woodland. Who could this strange girl be? this Natalie Coolidge? And what could she possible desire of him? These questions remained unanswered, yet continually tantalized. He could not even grasp her personality. In spite of her apparent friendliness, her irresistible smile, her lack of conventionality, there remained a certain reserve about the young woman he felt quite unable to penetrate. Whatever game she was playing she kept the cards securely in her own hands. He was not yet admitted to her confidence. He stood there immersed in these thoughts still, when Sexton spoke.
"Shall I assist you, sir?"
"No; it will not be necessary. You have laid out everything?"
"Very well; that will do, at present. What is the hour for dinner?"
"Seven o'clock, sir."
"I have ample time then. That will be all." The man retired noiselessly, closing the door after him, and West began slowly to dress, rather amused at the care he took, that all details should be as correct as possible. Unquestionably the girl interested him oddly. She was original, a new type, and he made no effort to drive her from his imagination. He had not been long back from the war zone, his acquaintance in the city was extremely limited, and consequently this girl, thus suddenly brought into his life, had made a far greater impression than she might otherwise. Yet under any conditions, she would have proven noticeable, and attractive. He endeavoured to analyse what constituted this peculiar attractiveness, but without arriving at any definite conclusion. She was young, of course, and undeniably pretty, with eyes really remarkable, and a smile not to be easily forgotten. She possessed a sense of humour, and had left upon him a strong impression of frank sincerity. Yet in these qualities she did not differ so greatly from others he had known. Perhaps mystery had much to do with her power of enticement—a continual wonderment as to what she might do next. Then she was so self-poised, so confident of herself, so naturally informed. All these things had their charm, and, coupled with her undoubted beauty, left his brain in a whirl.
He was satisfactorily dressed at last, although obliged to switch on the lights before this was accomplished. The reflection of himself in the pier glass quite met his deliberate approval, and he glanced inquiringly at his watch, rather eager to delve deeper into this adventure. It was a few moments of seven, and she would undoubtedly be waiting for him in the hall below. He descended the broad stairs, conscious of a thrill of expectancy; nor was he doomed to disappointment.
Miss Coolidge met him in the dimly lighted vacancy of the hall, with smiling eyes of welcome. They were mocking, puzzling eyes, the depths of which he could not fathom—they perplexed, and invited at the same instant. She was in evening dress, a creamy satin, revealing white shoulders, and rounded, beautifully mounded arms, visible beneath folds of filmy lace. If he had dreamed the girl attractive before in the plainness of street costume, he now beheld her in a new vision of loveliness. His heart throbbed at the sight, every nerve tingling to the intimate tones of her voice. And she met him in a more delightful mood of informality than had found expression even during their afternoon ride. She was apparently in the highest spirits, eager to overstep all conventionality.
"Again you please me," she said, surveying him critically. "Really this is too much, the wonderful way in which you meet every test."
"You mean in clothes?"
"In everything, so far. Clothes—yes; do they not reveal the very soul of a man? I hardly think I could ever have forgiven if you had come down not looking the part you are to play."
"Nor could I have forgiven myself, if I am to enjoy the pleasure of taking you in to dinner."
"That privilege is yours even without the asking. But," quizzically, and glancing up frankly into his eyes, "You may not care when the time comes. For the great test arrives first. So, buck up, Captain, for you are going to have the shock of your life. Whatever you do, even if you feel that you are about to faint, don't, for my sake, let your face show it."
"But," he protested, "give me some warning, some opportunity to prepare for such an emergency."
"No," she laughed gaily, "there is no time; it is ordained to fall upon you like a thunder-bolt. They are all in there waiting for us now. You will offer me your arm."
He accompanied her, amused, yet bewildered, through the wide archway into the more brilliantly lighted drawing-room. It was a magnificent apartment, containing a half dozen people. The one nearest the entrance was a man of middle age, exceedingly pompous and dignified, who immediately arose to his feet, expectantly. Miss Coolidge cordially extended her hand in greeting.
"So glad to learn you could be out, Judge," she said, the least perceptible hesitancy in her voice. "Permit me to present Judge Cable, of the Supreme Court; Captain West, my fiance."
THE COOLIDGE HOME
For an instant West was absolutely helpless to assert himself. The calm assurance of the girl's voice in this unexpected introduction left his brain paralysed with bewilderment. Yet his features did not betray his condition, nor did he entirely lose control over himself. His fingers met the outstretched hand of the Judge, and he seemed to gaze calmly into the latter's searching eyes. Fortunately he was not compelled to speak, as Cable voiced his own surprise fluently.
"Well, well," he exclaimed. "This is certainly startling, Natalie. I am, indeed, bereft of words, yet I congratulate you, sir. Captain—Captain West, I think was the name? You are then in the service, sir?"
"Discharged from the Engineers."
"Ah, exactly. I can hardly adjust myself. Friends, come forward. I have to make an announcement extraordinary. It seems this sly minx has arranged a surprise for all of us. Perchance this was the purpose of our little dinner party?"
"Oh, no, Judge," protested Miss Coolidge, her cheeks flushed, yet otherwise perfectly cool and self-possessed. West ventured to glance aside into her face, surprised at the quietness of her voice. "Really, this was unexpected, even to myself. I was not so much as aware that Captain West was in the city until a very short time ago. I am sure he will bear me out in this statement."
"I could not do otherwise, and be truthful," West felt compelled to admit. "The announcement was quite unexpected."
"But what is this all about?" asked a female voice eagerly. "Remember we have not heard, Judge Cable."
"It is my pleasure then," he said gallantly, bowing, and at once instituting himself as master of ceremonies, "to introduce to you, Miss Natalie's fiance, Captain West—Mrs. Lonsdale, Professor Scott, Miss Margaret Willis, Colonel LeFranc, Mrs. Wilber Somers. Possibly there may be no necessity of my presenting the next gentleman—Mr. Percival Coolidge."
"Oh, but there is," the last mentioned interposed, a tall rather portly man, with grey hair and moustache, "I must confess this is as much a surprise to me as to any one present. However," he grasped West's hand with apparent cordiality, "I hasten to add my congratulations, and to wish Natalie all the happiness possible."
The group slowly broke up, the members still discussing the undoubted surprise of this announcement, Miss Coolidge talking animatedly with Mrs. Lonsdale, and seemingly having forgotten West's presence in the room. He was utterly unable to even catch her eye, and finally found himself confronting Colonel LeFranc and Percival Coolidge, the latter instantly engaging him in conversation, evidently seeking more definite information.
"This engagement with my niece," he said uneasily, "must have been rather sudden? Even your name is quite unfamiliar to me."
"It was, indeed," admitted West, who had now completely recovered his nerve, and even begun to enjoy the situation. "Since my return from abroad."
"You were with the army in France?"
"In an Engineer Regiment. I have been in America only two weeks."
"Ah, indeed. And this is your home?"
Realizing that the elder Coolidge was diligently searching for information, West decided the best method would be a full confession.
"Oh, no," he said candidly, "I am from the South—Atlanta, Georgia. My father is a District Judge, Robert Peel West, quite widely known, and my mother belonged to the Bullock family. I am a graduate of the University of Virginia, and also of the Massachusetts Polytechnic. Before the war I was connected for a short time, with a well-known firm of Engineers in this city, but, since my return, I have not resumed professional work. Having been wounded in France, I have felt entitled to a little rest after my return."
"Quite interesting, I am sure," Coolidge turned to the Colonel. "You are Southern also, I believe?"
"Very much so," was the quick response. "And I chance to know the name of Judge West rather well. I congratulate your niece on her choice of a life companion. There is no better blood in Georgia. I would be very pleased to hear more of your father, Captain West. I have not met him for several years."
West, by this time, thoroughly impressed with the spirit of the occasion, passed the ensuing evening rather pleasantly, although obliged to be always on his guard against any incautious remark, and keenly interested in all that was occurring about him. He found the company rather pleasant and entertaining, although not quite able to gauge the real feelings of Mr. Percival Coolidge, who he imagined was not altogether satisfied with the state of affairs just revealed. The gentleman was outwardly cordial enough, yet his manner continued distinctively reserved, and somewhat cold. West, however, attributed this largely to the nature of the man, and finally dismissed the thought from his mind altogether. The person who continued to puzzle him most was Natalie Coolidge, nor was he able to approach her in any way so as to obtain a whispered private word of guidance. The girl unquestionably avoided him, easily able to accomplish this by devoting her entire attention to the other guests.
She appeared in excellent humour, and there was laughter, and brilliant conversation wherever she paused, but not once could he encounter her glance, or find her for a moment alone. Nor dare he ask questions of those he conversed with, so as to gain any fresh insight into this mystery. He ventured upon thin ice once or twice most carefully, but the information obtained was infinitesimal, although it bore to some extent on the problem confronting him. The Colonel innocently lifted the veil slightly, permitting him to learn that this was a week-end party, and that Miss Coolidge was the mistress of the place, her parents having been dead for two years. Percival Coolidge, her father's brother, and a manufacturer in the city, was her guardian, and the affairs of the estate were not yet entirely liquidated. West drew the impression that Colonel LeFranc possessed a rather low opinion of the uncle, although he was careful to choose his words. Beyond this he apparently knew nothing of the family history, which he felt at liberty to communicate. As West had a delicacy in asking questions, the subject was pursued no further.
He was assigned to escort Miss Willis, a tall willowy blonde, and quite talkative, in to dinner, but her conversation ran largely to the theatrical offerings in town, and he found it impossible to change her trend of thought into other channels. The hostess sat nearly opposite, where she could easily overhear the young lady, whose voice was decidedly penetrating, so West made no serious attempt to be otherwise than complacent. Once the smiling Natalie appealed to him, familiarly calling him "Matt" across the table, and he responded with equal intimacy, yet her eyes avoided his, and it was plainly evident to his self-consciousness, that her remark was merely part of the play. More and more her actions mystified and perplexed; he could not discover the key to her hidden motive, or guess at her purpose in this masquerade. Nothing remained but for him to go quietly forward, playing the part assigned. He had pledged himself blindly to her, and could only wait for the future to reveal the object of it all. Sometime he would succeed in getting the girl alone once more, and then he would compel a full confession.
But this was not destined to take place that evening. She coolly and deliberately defeated every effort he made to get her alone, and yet this was accomplished in a manner so as not to attract the attention of others. Even Percival Coolidge, who, West felt, was watching them both shrewdly, never suspected the quiet game of hide and seek being played under his very eyes. Nevertheless, it was this growing suspicion of the man which prevented West from indulging in more rigorous methods. As the evening progressed he became almost convinced that her principal object was to deceive this gentleman; that she really cared nothing for what the others might think, or say. And she did her part to perfection, being with West often, although never alone, speaking to him intimately, and requesting of him little acts of service most natural under the circumstances. He played opposite her in a fourhanded game of bridge; he turned the leaves of her music when she sang, and her arm rested within his as they all stood on the porch watching the moon rise. It was all a masterpiece of acting, so exceedingly well done, as to finally convince the young man that she was greatly in earnest as to its success. She desired Percival Coolidge to have no lingering doubt of her engagement. And, finding all opportunity of explanation denied him, he yielded to the inevitable, and, for the evening at least, silently accepted his fate.
Nor did circumstances favour him when the company finally broke up, and retired for the night. He had thought this moment might be propitious, but she calmly outgeneraled him again, suddenly bidding the men remain and smoke as long as they pleased, and, disappearing herself up the stairway with Miss Willis, without so much as a glance backward, indicative of any lingering interest. West, convinced that her retirement was final, and early wearying of the rather drowsy conversation about him, soon sought his own room. It was eleven o'clock of a bright, moonlight night, and, feeling in no degree sleepy, West seated himself at the window to finish his cigar. He heard the others pass along the hall on their way to the rooms assigned them, and finally all became quiet, even the servants apparently having retired. Outside was likewise noiseless, the moon revealing the scene almost as clearly as though it was day, yet leaving weird shadows to confuse the eye. Occasionally a belated motor car passed along the road, invisible because of the trees. Again and again his mind reviewed the strange events of the evening, unable to arrive at any definite conclusion. The harder he sought to delve into the mystery, the more obscure it became. The young woman herself thoroughly baffled him. If this was merely a test, it was certainly a most unusual one, and he hoped he had met the requirements to her entire satisfaction. He already frankly acknowledged to himself, at least, that she had become of personal interest to him. He fell a peculiar desire to be of service; but this desire was now permeated with a firm determination to know the whole truth. He would no longer remain ignorant of her object, for what purpose he was being used. She must trust him, and tell him frankly, if he was to continue to play a part. He would know whether this was tragedy or comedy, first of all.
He had, indeed, reached some conclusions already. These might not be correct, yet they were already implanted in his mind. The guests of the night were mere puppets, having no real connection with the game being played, utterly ignorant of what was going on behind the scenes. The only one present having any real part was Percival Coolidge, and West had taken an instinctive dislike to this man. Moreover, he had some reason to believe this feeling was warmly reciprocated; that the latter already suspected and watched him. Only one explanation flashed into his mind to account for Miss Coolidge's unexpected announcement of an engagement between them—this would excuse any future intimacy; would enable them to meet alone freely without arousing comment. She had deliberately chosen this course to disarm suspicion, and had failed to warn him in advance that she might test his nerve and discretion. This appealed to him as the most reasonable explanation of the situation. But beyond this vague guess, it was impossible to delve. He possessed no facts, no knowledge; he could only keep faith in her, and wait the time of explanation.
Tired by the uselessness of such thinking West finally sought the bed, and must have slept, although scarcely aware that he had closed his eyes.
Some slight noise aroused him. The door leading into the hall, which he had failed to lock, stood partially ajar, and his eyes caught the vague glimpse of a figure gliding swiftly through the opening. With one bound he was upon his feet, springing recklessly forward. The hall was dark, but for a patch of moonlight at the further end. Against this he caught an instant, flitting glimpse of the intruder. It was a woman, yet even as his eyes told him this, she seemed to vanish into thin air—the hall was empty.
MISS COOLIDGE EXPLAINS
Vague and indistinct as was that fleeting vision in the moonlight, West felt no doubt as to the identity of his visitor—the woman was Natalie Coolidge. His one glimpse of her vanishing figure assured him of this fact, and he drew back instantly, unwilling to follow. Where she had gone he neither knew, nor cared. She had come to his room secretly, supposing him asleep, and this surprising knowledge dominated his mind. What could such an act mean? This was certainly a home of respectability, of wealth. The guests being entertained were evidence of that; yet this secret entrance into his private apartment at such an hour suggested theft, or even some more desperate crime. There was mystery here, at least, a mystery beyond his power of discernment. However, this recognition rather hardened him to his task, than otherwise. He had been forced into the strange environment, and now meant to penetrate its every secret.
This time he locked the outer door carefully, and lay down on the bed, wondering if there would be any further developments. As he attempted to think, he was listening eagerly for the slightest sound of movement in the hall. There were none; the transom stood partially open, but no noise reached his ears from the outside; clearly enough the night prowler, assured that he was still awake, had decided to make no further effort. Doubtless she believed her escape had been unseen, or, at least, that she had remained unrecognized in the gloom, and would now resort to some entirely different method for achieving her end, whatever it could be. He could only wait, and watch for the next move. Perhaps the morning would bring full explanation. With this conception in his mind, his head sought the pillow, and he lapsed into unconsciousness.
The long training of army service caused West to awaken early, while the house was yet quiet, but with the dawn already red in the East. He crossed to the window, and looked out. It was a beautiful morning, the green lawn yet sparkling with dew; the estate was evidently a fine one, quite extensive and carefully attended to. To the right of the tennis court was a well arranged flower garden, criss-crossed by white paths, an ornate summer-house in its centre, completely concealed by vines. Beyond this, conspicuous against the green back-ground, West caught the flutter of a white skirt, realizing instantly that, early as the hour was, Natalie Coolidge was already up and about. He wondered if her presence might not be an invitation for him? Perhaps she had deliberately chosen this early hour, before the others awoke, to explain her strange conduct of the previous evening? At least, here was an opportunity to see and talk with her alone.
He dressed swiftly, and slipped noiselessly down-stairs, unlocking the front door, and emerging into the fresh air, without encountering any stray members of the household. Not even a servant was visible. He passed beyond the vine draped arbour before she realized his approach, and straightened up, a freshly cut rose in one gloved hand, the pruning shears in the other, welcoming him with a little laugh, her eyes full of demure mischief.
"I rather suspected army discipline had not entirely worn off," she said pleasantly, "and that you might still prove to be an early riser."
"And does this expectation account for your presence?"
"Not wholly; it has become a habit with me. I am always the first one out in the morning, and it will be an hour yet before breakfast is served. However, I promised to be very frank with you, did I not? Then I will begin now; this morning I really hoped I might see you for a moment before the others were stirring—we have so much to talk about."
"It certainly seems so to me," he responded honestly, yet not greatly encouraged by the amusement in her eyes. "The night has been full of surprises."
"During which you bore yourself exceedingly well. I have always read of the initiative of the American soldier, Captain, and in this case, you met my every expectation."
"Then I have passed the test?"
She hesitated, her eyes seeking his, and then falling before his gaze.
"Yes," she acknowledged slowly, "I can scarcely say anything else now; the—the affair has progressed so far already there is nothing to do but go on with it."
"Yet I remain wholly in the dark," he protested.. "Surely you cannot expect real service when given so blindly?"
"No, I do not. I mean to trust you fully. It is the only way; but do you still truly wish to serve?"
"I am enlisted in the cause without reserve," he insisted warmly. "While I learned but little last evening, that little was enough to convince me there is something strange under the surface. Your calling me to your assistance is no joke—you actually need me."
"I need some one on whose judgment and courage I can rely," she answered earnestly, "and I believe now that you are the one. It is rather an odd situation, Captain West, but the circumstances surely justify my action. Perhaps I shall have time to partly explain now. Let us slip into the concealment of this summer-house; no one can approach without being seen."
It was dark and cool under the shadow of the vines, but, for a moment after they were seated, neither spoke. West waited expectantly for his companion to break the silence, and she seemingly found it difficult to begin her story. The flush deepened on her cheeks, and her lips parted.
"It really seems so ridiculous," she explained at last desperately. "Almost like a dream of fancy, and I hardly know how to put the situation into words. If I were ten years younger I would almost be convinced myself that it was all imaginary, yet everything I tell you is true. I wonder if you will believe me?"
"Do not question that. I realize fully your earnestness."
"Yet I am going to test your credulity, just the same. But it would be very foolish to venture as far as I have already, and then fail to go on. So I'll tell you just what I know, and—and then leave it there. That will be the best way. Those people you met last evening have nothing to do with the story—none of them, at least, unless it may possibly be Percival Coolidge. I am rather afraid of him; I always have been. I believe he knows what all this trouble means, but I do not dare go and talk with him about it. That is really what is the matter, I suppose—there is no one I can talk to; they would only laugh at me. If you do, I shall never forgive you."
"I am not at all so inclined. Tell me the story from the very beginning."
"Yes, I will. My father was Steven Coolidge, and was very wealthy. He did not marry until late in life, and, I have reason to believe it was a great disappointment to his brother Percival that a child was born. Perhaps I ought not to make such a statement, but much has occurred to impress me with his dislike—"
"He is your guardian?"
"Yes; you learned that last night?"
"From the Colonel; he seemed to enjoy talking, and naturally, I was curious. Has Percival Coolidge wealth of his own?"
"Only what my father left him, which was a considerable sum, and a limited interest in the business. He was very much dissatisfied with his share. Originally he was one of the two trustees in charge of the estate, but the other died, leaving him entirely in control. Before I was born he had confidently expected to inherit everything."
"The estate then is not settled?"
"Not until I am twenty-five; within a few days now."
"And your mother?"
"She died at my birth."
West leaned forward eagerly. "It is the estate then that troubles you?" he asked swiftly. "You imagine it has wasted?"
"No, not at all. They tell me it has increased in value. My father's lawyer assures me as to this. Percival Coolidge is a good business man, but something strange is going on behind the scenes. I cannot talk with the lawyer about it; I can scarcely be sure myself. I—I am simply up against a mystery I am unable to solve. Everywhere I turn I run into a blank wall."
"But I do not understand."
"How could you expect to, when it is so utterly obscure to me? I seem to be fighting against a ghost."
"Yes; now don't laugh at me! Do you suppose I would ever have done anything as reckless as advertising for help if I had not been actually desperate? Can you imagine a respectable girl performing so ridiculous an act, as putting her whole trust in a stranger, inviting him to her home, introducing him as her promised husband to her relatives and friends? Why, it almost proves me crazed, and, in a measure, I think I must be. But it is because I have exhausted all ordinary methods. I do not seem to be opposing anything of flesh and blood; I am fighting against shadows. I cannot even explain my predicament to another."
"You must try," he insisted firmly, affected by her evident distress. "I must be told everything if I am to be of any value. A half way confidence can accomplish nothing."
"But it sounds so foolish; I am being haunted! I know that, yet that is all I do know."
"Haunted, in what way?"
"I do not even know that; but by a woman, I think—a woman who must strangely resemble me. She pretends to be me—to my friends, to my servants, at my bank. I never see the creature, but I hear of her from others. She has actually drawn checks in my name, imitating my signature, and having them cashed by clerks who know me well. She has given orders to my servants, and they protest that I gave them. She meets and talks with my friends in places where I never go. I am sure she has actually been in this house, and ridden in my car undiscovered. I am constantly reported as being seen at restaurants and hotels where I have not been, and with parties I do not know. This has been going on for a month now. I am unable to prove her an imposter, even to identify her. I have endeavoured to discuss the situation with a few people, but they only laugh at the strange idea. No one will listen to me seriously. My lawyer actually believes I am demented."
"And you conceived the thought that perhaps a total stranger might prove more sympathetic?"
"Yes," she admitted. "If he was young and adventurous; provided I interested him at all. It would seem to offer me a chance; and then, if unknown to the party impersonating me, such a one might learn the truth unsuspected. Do you believe me, Captain?"
"I have no reason to doubt what you say. What you describe is not impossible, and there surely must be an adequate explanation for it. I mean to do my very best to uncover the mystery. You have these fraudulent checks?"
"Yes; one was returned to me only yesterday."
"I shall want them, together with one you drew yourself. Also the names of the servants who have apparently been approached by this person, and the circumstances."
"You do not mind if I ask you one or two rather direct personal questions?"
"What caused you to announce our engagement?"
She laughed, but from sudden embarrassment.
"It was silly, wasn't it! Really I do not exactly know; a sudden impulse, and the words were spoken. It occurred to me that our intimacy could be accounted for in no other way."
"So I supposed. Well, there is no harm done, but now, you understand, we must play out the game."
"Play it out?"
"Surely; act natural, permit no suspicion to be aroused. Even if I should feel impelled by duty, to kiss you, it is my privilege."
"Why—why, you cannot mean that!"
"Oh, but I do. This is no threat that I shall insist on carrying the matter to such an extreme, yet I must insist on the right if it becomes necessary. You would scarcely dare refuse, would you?"
"No," she confessed, her eyes suddenly meeting his, "I—I suppose not; but—but is it necessary to discuss that now?"
"Perhaps not, only I must know. You will play the game?"
Her eyes fell, the breath pulsing between her lips.
"I am not afraid," she said rather proudly. "Yes, I will play the game."
"Good! I knew you would. And now for the second question; why did you come to my room last night?"
She stared at him incredulously, the flush fading from her cheeks.
"Your room! I come to your room! Assuredly no; what can you mean?"
"Then it must be that I have already encountered the ghost," he declared smilingly. "For the very counterpart of you certainly visited me. I had a clear view of her in the moon-light, but she vanished down the hall. I would have sworn she was you."
"Absolutely a woman; flesh and blood, no doubt as to that."
"When was this?"
"It was not I, Captain West; please believe that—but hush; there comes Percival Coolidge!"
WEST WINS THE FIRST HAND
The newcomer stood at the edge of the front steps, and paused long enough to light a cigarette before descending. His features were as clear cut as though done in marble, and about as expressive. To all outward appearances, the man was cold, emotionless, selfish egotism written on every feature. For the first time, in the glare of the bright morning light, West took stock of the fellow, and realized his true nature. Instinctively he felt that here was the particular antagonist he was to be pitted against. Whatever might be the truth as to a strange woman, this man must be the controlling factor in any conspiracy. His companion must have sensed the same fact, for she swiftly drew back beneath the shadow of the vines.
"You meet him," she whispered, "alone. I would rather he did not find us together."
"But can you escape unseen?"
"Yes, under cover of the hedge. But be very careful what you say."
She had vanished before he could interpose, slipping away so noiselessly, he was scarcely aware of her swift action. His eyes followed the more deliberate movements of the man, who slowly descended the broad steps, pausing when once on the gravelled walk to glance curiously back at the house. West thought his interest centred on the open window of the room he had occupied, but this was merely a conjecture, for the delay was but for a moment; shortly after Coolidge strolled on directly toward the summer-house, the blue smoke of the cigarette marking his progress. West stepped carelessly forth from the concealment of the vines, watchful for any change of expression on the face of the other. There was none, not even a look of surprise, or a tightening of the lip.
"Ah! Captain," he said easily, tossing his stub aside, and drawing forth his case for another. "Glorious air this morning; the advantage of early rising; you indulge, I presume?"
"An army habit, I mean to do away with later. Thanks. I suppose breakfast is not ready?"
"Hardly yet," glancing about inquiringly. "My niece is usually out here at this hour, which accounts for my venturing forth. She is not here?"
"Not now, although there are evidences that she has been," indicating the gloves and pruning shears visible beside the walk. "We must have arrived too late."
"So it seems. You came with the same purpose, no doubt?"
"If you mean the hope of encountering Natalie, your guess is correct. She would not give me a word last night, and has even overturned my plans this morning. Does she play hide and seek with you also?"
"Does she! One never knows what she will do. But this last escapade is the strangest of all."
"You refer to our engagement?"
"Assuredly; I had no warning, no conception of such a thing."
"Do you mean, sir, that she had never consulted you? never even mentioned me to you before?"
"Exactly. You are aware of who I am, I presume? the position I hold relative to her property?"
"Certainly; you are her uncle and guardian. Under the terms of the will you remain in full control until she is twenty-five, now almost at hand, except for an annual income payable to her monthly. Is not that the situation?"
"You have apparently made very careful inquiry," he commented with a perceptible sneer. "No doubt this was a matter of deep interest to you."
"Of some interest, I confess," acknowledged West, controlling his temper. "Although my information has not come from inquiry. Miss Natalie was kind enough to talk to me about her affairs, presupposing my interest in them. However, I assure you, I have no personal ambition along this line."
"Indeed; not fortune-hunting then?"
"Far from it," good humouredly, but keenly aware that he was touching Coolidge. "My family is far from poverty stricken, and I have a very good profession. It is quite right you should know this."
"What profession, may I ask?"
"But not established, I imagine?"
"I had very good connections before the war. Since returning from France, I have made no effort to renew these, or seek others. I, of course, expect to do so later, and shall be in no way dependent upon Miss Coolidge's fortune."
"Although quite willing to share it, I presume?"
"I think you have insinuated that often enough," returned West, at last fully aroused by the insolent words and manner of the other. "Perhaps it may be well for us to have a plain understanding without further delay, Mr. Percival Coolidge. My engagement to Miss Natalie may be sudden and unexpected—perhaps not altogether pleasant from your standpoint—yet it hardly warrants you in thus attributing to me mercenary motives. As a matter of fact, I was not aware until last evening that she was an heiress to considerable property. I knew nothing of her relationships. I will say, however, that now I feel perfectly justified in showing an interest in her affairs. As I understand matters, you are her guardian under the special provisions of your brother's will?"
"You are perfectly right, sir, and I should have been consulted previous to this engagement." Coolidge said with dignity. "Even now it is subject to my approval."
"I think not. Your guardianship was merely a special provision of the will, with reference to the estate. So I understand, at least. At twenty-one, she became mistress of her own personal affairs, and no longer needed to consult you."
"I controlled her income."
"Only the surplus; a certain sum was to be paid her each month until she was twenty-five; then the entire estate came into her possession. Beyond this you exercised no legal authority."
"You seem well posted."
"The lady herself informed me as to these facts."
"Yes, since yesterday."
"Where, may I ask?"
"In the summer-house here, a few moments ago."
Coolidge gave utterance to an oath, which burst from his lips before it could be wholly restrained.
"Damn you! just what is your game?" he exclaimed roughly, forgetting his pose. "Are you trying to get your nose into my affairs?"
"Most certainly not," returned West coolly, yet facing the other with a steady eye. "I can have no possible interest in your affairs. But I may be led to investigate those of Miss Coolidge, if she should so request. It seems she possesses no one to represent her at present—not even the family lawyer."
"What do you imply by that remark?"
"That she has gone to you, and to the attorney, who represents the estate, relative to some very strange occurrences of late, only to be laughed at. No effort has been made to relieve her anxiety."
"You mean that fool story about some one else pretending to be her?"
"It cannot altogether be a fool story when this mysterious party passes forged checks at the bank."
"There was only one; that means nothing; the girl isn't using good sense. So this is the stuff she is filling you up with? And you propose investigating her wild imaginings, hey? By Gad, you are going to have an interesting time."
"I hope so; at least I am hoping to discover some truth."
"Good. I wish you well," and his tone was one of decided relief. "Your adventures ought to prove quite amusing."
Coolidge laughed heartily, the whole affair apparently taking on a new aspect, now that he felt he comprehended the real purpose of the other.
"Oh, by the way, West, you must pardon me if I send Sexton into your room for a valise I left there. You see I occupied that suite until you came."
"Oh, indeed," surprised, "I noticed no other grip there."
"It is in the closet. That has always been my room whenever I visit here. I do not know why Natalie decided to change me this time—naturally wished to reserve the best for you, I presume."
"Very kind of her, I am sure. There is Sexton now."
"Which means breakfast is served. Shall we go in?"
The two men walked slowly up the gravelled path, leading to the side door. West's thoughts were busy with this new discovery. Had he inadvertently stumbled upon a clue? So he had occupied the room usually reserved for Percival Coolidge. Perhaps here was the explanation of the coming of his strange visitor. If so, then it was already clearly evident that whatever the plot might be, this fellow had a hand in it. West glanced aside at the face of his unconscious companion, deciding quickly to venture a chance shot.
"Were you expecting a caller last night?" he asked calmly.
Coolidge wheeled about, startled out of his self-control.
"A caller! Of course not. What put that in your head?"
"Because I had one, in that room you say you always occupied. The visitor vanished as soon as I was seen, and the thought occurred to me just now that you might have been the one sought."
"Perfectly absurd, West. You must have had a night-mare. What did she look like?"
"Oh, I only had a glimpse in the moon-light; resembled a ghost more than anything else."
"And just about what it was," with a laugh of relief. "Some dream you better forget about. Come along; they are waiting on us."
They passed up the steps together; and into the pleasant breakfast room, where the remainder of the company were already gathered. Coolidge was again perfectly at his ease, genially greeting the guests, and had apparently already dismissed the incident from his mind. Evidently even West did not consider it of any serious importance; he had clearly enough not recognized the intruder, and either decided the whole affair a freak of imagination, or else, at the worst, some midnight escapade of a servant. But West's mind had in reality settled on a point which Coolidge overlooked. He had gained the very information desired. He had carefully refrained from even suggesting the sex of his mysterious visitor. Percival Coolidge knew, without being told, that the caller was a woman. Then he also knew who that woman was.
The morning meal proved delightfully informal, Natalie gracefully presiding, and apparently in the highest spirits. West found his place reserved on her right with Miss Willis next, and, between the two, was kept extremely busy. The Colonel sat directly across the table, with Percival Coolidge just beyond the hostess. No intimation of anything wrong burdened those present, the single servant silently performing his duties to the constant laughing chatter of those about the table. Even Coolidge, somewhat distant at first, yielded finally to the prevailing humour, and joined freely in the conversation. This turned at last to the plans for the day, revealing a variety of desires, which Natalie arranged to gratify. The Colonel and two of the ladies expressed an inclination to attend church, the limousine being offered them for the purpose. Others decided on a match with the racquets, while Coolidge, rather to the surprise of the lady, suggested that Natalie accompany him into the city on a special errand of mercy. At first, amid the ceaseless clatter of tongues, West was unable to grasp the nature of his plea, or her reply, but finally overheard enough to arouse his personal interest, especially when his own name was mentioned in the discussion.
"I was not aware you ever concerned yourself in such matters," she said soberly. "Is this a particular case?"
"Decidedly so; the man before he died, was in my employ, but I did not learn until late yesterday of the condition in which his family was left. I understand something must be done for them at once. You are always interested in such cases, so I supposed you would accompany me gladly. It is extremely disagreeable duty for me."
"It must be attended to today?"
"The case is very urgent I am told."
"But how can I leave my guests—especially Captain West?"
West leaned forward.
"Do not hesitate on my account. I can easily amuse myself; or, if there is room, and it is not disagreeable to Mr. Coolidge, I might enjoy being of the party."
"Why, of course," she coincided eagerly. "Why couldn't he come along? There will be plenty of room if I operate the car. It is a case of destitution of which Uncle Percival has just learned—a widow and three children actually suffering. Surely it can do no harm for Captain West to accompany us?"
Coolidge exhibited no enthusiasm over the proposition; indeed West felt his response almost discourteous, yet this very suspicion aroused his own desire to make one of the party. The fellow evidently disliked him instinctively, and would exert every influence possible to discredit him in the eyes of Natalie. The suggestion even came that this sudden call to charity might prove only an effort on Coolidge's part to get the girl alone where she could be plainly talked to. The man was not pleased with this new proposal, that was evident enough; but the niece unquestionably desired him to accept the invitation. Not only her lips, but equally her eyes, pressed the matter, and West experienced no hesitancy in saying yes.
"Why, of course I will go," he returned heartily, "and I will be ready whenever you are."
"About half an hour then."
He retired to the room upstairs, partly for the purpose of exchanging his coat, but also half tempted to make a hasty examination of the valise which Coolidge had thoughtlessly left overnight in the closet. The conception had already taken strong hold on his mind that his visitor of the evening before had been the mysterious impersonator of Natalie Coolidge; and that she had come there with some deliberate purpose—no-doubt a secret conference with Percival. If her resemblance to the mistress of the house was as remarkable as he had been led to believe, her entrance to the place would be comparatively easy of accomplishment, and the danger of discovery correspondingly small. It never occurred to him to question Natalie's story. To be sure there were details he found it difficult to fully accept as true, but the girl certainly believed all she had told him. She denied earnestly having been the one invading his room, and he believed her implicitly; yet the person who had visited him was so closely her image as to make it still seem almost an impossibility that she could be a separate individual. Nothing less than Natalie's own word would have brought conviction. And this person had supposed she was visiting the apartment occupied by Percival Coolidge. This was the only satisfactory explanation of her presence there; whether she came that night for the first time, or as a supplement to other similar visits, it was unquestionably Coolidge whom she sought.
For what purpose? To West's mind only one object appeared probable. The man was too far advanced in life—certainly much above sixty from his appearance—to be involved in a love affair with so young and attractive a woman. Moreover in such a case she would scarcely seek him out here in this private home, where he was merely a transient guest; he would never venture to use a place like this as a rendezvous. That was unthinkable. Some other purpose, demanding immediate attention, must furnish the reason for her venturing to enter this house at such an hour, and coming directly to the room where she supposed Coolidge to be sleeping. To West's mind there could be but one answer. The two were mutually involved in a conspiracy of some nature, undoubtedly connected with the approaching settlement of the Coolidge estate. This girl, so strangely resembling Natalie, had in some way been discovered by the scheming guardian, who was now using her for his own selfish ends. The plot had been carefully perfected, and the time must now be near for execution. This girl had been selected, and trained to act a part—the part of Natalie Coolidge. Her ability to deceive had been tested in various ways. Now the moment approached when they were ready to play out the real game. Yet the nature of that game was in no way apparent. He could only keep quiet, and wait for some further development, even appear indifferent, while he secretly watched every suspicious movement of Percival Coolidge.
It was not at all probable the satchel contained any incriminating evidence, yet the temptation was strong to obtain, if possible, a hasty glance at the contents. But for this he was already too late, scarcely reaching the room indeed, before Sexton appeared, announcing his mission. West, perched on the arm of a chair, smoking, and watched the man bring forth the valise, and start toward the door.
"Coolidge tells me he usually occupied this room," he ventured curiously, "How did it happen I was put in here?"
Sexton paused, and faced about respectfully.
"It was upon orders from Miss Natalie, sir. But she did not mention the change in time to remove the bag. The truth is, I forgot, sir, that it was here."
"Oh, I see; this is not the grip he usually travels with then?"
"No, sir; this was sent down in advance, sir. Mr. Percival Coolidge is here quite frequently."
"Naturally. As I understand he has no home of his own?"
"No, sir; he was never married, sir. In the city he stops at one of the big hotels. Of late he quite frequently spends the end of the week out here, sir. Of course he is deeply interested in the prosperity of the estate."
"As the guardian of Miss Natalie, you mean?"
"Just so, sir."
"How long have you been here, Sexton?"
"Sixteen years, sir."
"You knew Miss Natalie's father then, and must enjoy the place to remain so long?"
"It has been very pleasant, sir, until the last month or so," regretfully, yet evidently glad of the opportunity to talk, lingering with one hand on the knob of the door. "Since then things haven't been just the same."
"In what way?"
"Well, I don't exactly know, sir. Miss Natalie seems to change her mind, an' we never can please her. That's the trouble mostly. Last night I waited up until you all went to bed, an' then locked the house, the way she told me to. But that didn't suit her at all, for she stopped me on the stairs, an' made me go back an' leave the side door unlocked—just said she'd attend to that herself."
"Miss Natalie told you? You are sure, Sexton?"
"Oh, it was her, sir; there was a light burning in the hall, an' she was all dressed up as though she was goin' out. 'Taint the first time, either. I ain't got no right to say anything, but it puzzles me what she wants to go out for at that time o' night. And I thought maybe I ought to speak to Mr. Percival Coolidge about it."
"No. I wouldn't, Sexton," said West quietly. "It would likely enough only get you into trouble. Probably she cannot sleep well, and so walks in the garden. Anyway this is none of our business, my man. Where are Miss Natalie's apartments?"
"In the other wing, sir; the first door beyond the head of the stairs."
"And the door you were asked to leave open?"
"At the farther end of the hall."
As West made no further effort to continue the conversation, but began to carelessly roll a cigarette, Sexton slipped silently through the opening, the valise in his hand, and closed the door behind him. West touched a match to the cigarette, scarcely aware of the action.
This attempt to dig information out of a servant was not a pleasant experience, yet he felt that in this case it was fully justified. To be sure he had gained little, yet that little helped to clear away the fog, and sustain the girl's theory that she was being impersonated by another even to her own servants. If West had retained any lingering doubt as to what had occurred the previous night, this doubt had entirely vanished in the face of Sexton's testimony. His visitor, and the one who had ordered the servant to leave the side door unlocked, had been the same—not Natalie Coolidge, but strangely resembling her. Whoever she was, she knew the house well, and possessed some means of entrance. Whatever else her purpose might be, one object was clearly connected with the presence there of Percival. She had sought his room, fleeing immediately on discovering it to be occupied by another. Very well! this meant that he already had two distinct lines of investigation opened to him—the woman, and the man. The first was like pursuing a shadow, but Coolidge was real enough. He determined to keep in touch with the fellow, confident that he would thus be eventually led to a discovery of his companion. Beyond all question, they were involved in the same scheme of conspiracy. West had deliberately arrived at this conclusion, rather pleased at his success, when a gentle knock sounded at the door.
"What is it?"
"Sexton, sir. Miss Natalie has the car at the door, and is waiting for you."
"All right. I will be down immediately."
A VISIT TO THE INDIGENT
The guests had either retired to their rooms, or were wandering about the spacious grounds; at least none were in evidence when West emerged on to the side terrace, where Miss Natalie and Percival Coolidge waited. The car was an electric runabout, the single broad seat ample for the three, and West found himself next to the girl who took charge. Few words were exchanged until they turned into the main high-way, headed toward the city. Even then conversation scarcely touched on the special object of their trip. Indeed, Coolidge seemed inclined to avoid the subject entirely, turning the conversation into other channels whenever the matter was broached. This was so persistently done as to arouse West's notice, but Natalie appeared indifferent, interested only in her guidance of the car. It was not a long ride, the point sought being a short submerged street in the southwestern section of the city. To West this district was entirely unknown, even the street names being unfamiliar, but he learned through the conversation of the others that they were in the neighbourhood of some of the Coolidge factories, many of the surrounding houses being the homes of employees. Percival called his attention to a few of these, more substantial than the others, as evidence of the wages paid in their establishments, and also expatiated to some extent upon the benevolent oversight shown their workmen. The girl, however, remained quiet, her attention concentrated upon the street.
Indeed it needed to be if they were to escape accident, for the streets traversed were, on this Sunday morning, evidently filled from curb to curb with children engaged in all manner of games, with their elders massed on the steps in front of the houses, watching them apathetically. The runabout felt its way cautiously forward through the jostling throng of screaming youngsters, and finally turned into Arch Street, only two blocks in length, with low, two storied, wooden cottages on either side. Percival, plainly nervous at the surroundings, indicated the place sought in the middle of the first block, and Natalie ran the car up against the curb.
"Is this the place?" she asked doubtfully, eyeing the rather disreputable cottage, which seemed deserted. "I have never been here before. What a mass of kids! Do they always play like that in the street?"
Coolidge unfastened the door, and stepped out.
"Yes, it's all right," he answered sharply. "You might wait here, West; we'll only be gone a few minutes. Come along, Natalie,"
The girl hesitated, evidently not altogether satisfied.
"Is it necessary that I go in?" she asked.
"That was why I asked you to come," impatiently. "Because you understand these matters, and, being a woman, can judge better what steps should be taken. Come; it will only require a few moments—West won't mind."
"Certainly not," the younger man said heartily, "I shall be very comfortable; don't bother about me."
He had a distinct impression that Coolidge did not desire his company any further, yet this suspicion aroused no resentment. This was a matter with which he was in no way concerned, and the only interest he felt was strictly impersonal. His eyes followed the two as they advanced up the board walk to the front door of the cottage, and he felt a measure of surprise at seeing Coolidge calmly open the door without knocking. Both disappeared amidst the darkness within, and he dismissed the whole affair from his mind almost instantly. Sinking comfortably back in the seat, his gaze centred on the maze of children playing in the street. Their antics amused him for some time, but, at last, he began wondering at the delay of those within, and his mind drifted to the peculiar conditions with which he was confronted. Over and over again he reviewed the facts told him, and compared these with his own observations. That something was wrong was beyond doubt; he could no longer question this, but no satisfactory clue to the mystery had yet presented itself. If some conspiracy was on foot against Natalie, what could be its object? and who were directly involved? There was apparently no way to settle this, except to wait patiently for some move on the part of the others. Any attempt at guessing would only lead him astray. Seemingly, Percival Coolidge was the only person who could be directly interested should misfortune occur to his niece; he was the guardian of her inheritance, and responsible for what remained of her father's estate. Undoubtedly he also was the next heir at law. His interest in the matter was therefore easily figured out. Yet there was nothing to prove that the fellow was a villain at heart, or had any reason to attempt desperate methods. The mere fact that some other woman amused herself in pretending to be Natalie proved nothing criminally wrong. It might be a mere lark, with no vicious object in view. Indeed, but for the deep interest West already felt in the girl herself, he would have dismissed this angle of the problem entirely from consideration. It seemed far too melodramatic and improbable to be taken seriously, although, from mere curiosity, he purposed to round up this masquerader, and satisfy himself as to why she was thus publicly impersonating the girl. Yet this appeared a matter of minor importance, his real task being to learn the condition of the Steven Coolidge estate, and whether or not, Percival had administered it justly. Once satisfied upon that point, he would know better what further steps to take. His whole mind had unconsciously centred upon a distrust of the man. He believed him to be a sneaking scoundrel, at present engaged in seeking some means for gaining possession of the trust funds left in his care. And yet, West had to confess to himself that this belief was largely founded upon prejudice—confidence in Natalie, and a personal dislike of the man himself. He possessed no proof of the fellow's perfidy, nor had he even determined in his own mind the means to be employed for learning the truth. He had nothing to build upon but the statement of the girl, which was extremely vague in detail, and largely mere suspicion. The more thoroughly he analyzed the situation the more complicated it became, and the less confident he felt regarding an early solution. If Coolidge was engaged in some criminal scheme the man was certainly shrewd enough to carefully cover his trail. It was no sudden temptation to which he had yielded, but a deeply laid plan, formed, perhaps, as long ago as his brother's death, and now just coming to a head. Even the books of the estate might have been so carefully manipulated as to leave no clue. Besides West possessed no authority by which to examine the books, or even question the bankers in whose hands the funds were supposed to be. The only immediate hope of striking a trail apparently lay in his discovery of the strange woman who was impersonating Natalie Coolidge, and learning her object in carrying on such a masquerade. Of course, even that might lead nowhere in particular, as she might be merely amusing herself, and have no connection with Percival whatever; yet such an investigation offered a chance not to be neglected.
His glance took in the surroundings, but with no conception that they would have any direct bearing upon the mystery he was endeavouring to solve. It was a block of irregular houses, a tenement on the corner, a dirty looking brick, the other houses of wood, mostly two stories in height, rather disreputable in appearance, but the one before which the machine waited, was a frame cottage, well back from the street, and rather respectable in appearance, although it must have been some years since last painted. Its original white was dingy, and the tightly closed blinds gave an appearance of desertion. The door was shut. The chimney indicated no sign of smoke, the front yard gave every evidence of long neglect.
An urchin, chasing a ball, plunged recklessly beneath the auto, emerging with the sphere in his grimy fist. West stopped him with a question.
"Who lives in there?"
"I do' know."
"You don't know? Live 'round here, don't you?"
"Sure; but these folks just come in. They ain't got no kids. G'wn; what yer asking me fer? Here ye are, Micky!"
"Wait a minute. Here's a dime for you. You say these people just moved in?"
"Couple days maybe. Shucks, mister, I do' know. Hooligans moved out 'bout a week ago, an' then, a while after that, these guys moved in. I ain't seen nobody round, but a sorter middlin' ol' woman. Maybe Micky knows who they be—he lives in that next house. Hey, Micky; here's a guy wants to ask you som'thin'!"
But Micky refused to be interested, beyond a derisive wiggling of his fingers at his nose, and West, having abstracted all the information possible, made no further effort. The knowledge thus obtained as to the present occupants of the cottage did not exactly coincide with the story Coolidge had told. He had spoken of a widow with three children in destitute circumstances following the father's death. The boy asserted there were no children in the family. And they had just moved in, within a very few days, during which time the neighbourhood had only glimpsed a "middling old" woman. It was strange at least, adding distinctly to the puzzle of the whole affair. West grew nervous, wondering why the two should remain so long within, out of sight and hearing. If this was merely a charitable visit, it surely did not need require such a length of time. He had been waiting now for three-quarters of an hour. He opened the door of the car, and stepped out upon the curb, almost tempted to investigate the cause of delay. As he stood there undecided, the two emerged from the cottage, and descended the steps together. Through the opened door he caught no glimpse of any one within, yet some unseen hand closed it quickly behind them.
A NEW MISS COOLIDGE
They came down the narrow board walk together, Percival carefully holding the lady's arm to prevent her tripping over the loosened planks, but neither exchanging a word. The man was smiling, the fingers of one hand toying with the curl of his moustache, but Natalie appeared somewhat sobered by her visit, and West noticed that she had tied a light veil over her face, which slightly shadowed her features. It was only as they reached the curb that she spoke, her voice rather low and listless.
"Would you mind driving the car back?" she asked Coolidge. "Really I feel quite unnerved."
"No wonder," he returned sympathetically, "I have never witnessed a sadder case; the conditions were even worse than I imagined. I should never have brought you with me, my dear."
"Oh, I am not sorry I came; but it has been a lesson to me. I do not think before I ever realized what such poverty meant."
The words trembled from her lips, and were spoken slowly as though chosen with care. "The sad plight of the children particularly appealed to me."
"There are children then?" West questioned, as Coolidge assisted her into the car. The latter cast a swift glance of inquiry into the younger man's face.
"Children!" he exclaimed, "Of course; we spoke of them on the way down."
"I know; that was what made me wonder when one of the lads playing out here in the street said there were no kids in the cottage."
"Oh, I see," a bit sarcastically. "So you have been amusing yourself questioning the neighbours, have you?"
"To a very small extent," West confessed, keeping his temper. "One of the players chased a stray ball under the automobile, and I asked him a question or two. The cottage appeared so deserted, and you were absent for such a length of time, I became somewhat curious."
"And what did he tell you?"
"Only that the occupants had moved in within a few days, and that he had seen no kids about; no one in fact but a middling old woman."
"Did he mention any names?"
"No; I didn't ask. It was nothing to me."
"I should say it was not. So the kid told you there were no children, did he? Well, you heard what Natalie said just now—which are you going to believe?"
"The lady, of course," smilingly. "Surely this is no matter to quarrel over."
"No, Captain West," she broke in, leaning forward in the seat, and speaking again in the peculiar strained voice. "The boy was merely mistaken. He had not seen the children because they were kept closely in the house. They were turned out of their former home, and have absolutely nothing; no furniture even; only straw to sleep on. It was most pitiful."