Part 3 out of 4
The one in the east corner of the second floor met with the approval of
Uncle John and the Major, and was promptly engaged. It was cheerful and
sunny, with outlooks on the lake and the village, and contained a lounge
as well as the bed.
When the invalid arrived, he was assisted to this apartment and
installed as its permanent occupant.
"Any baggage?" asked Mr. Merrick.
"There's a small trunk lying at the Junction," said Joe; "but it
contains little of importance."
"Well, make yourself at home, my boy, and get well at your leisure,"
remarked Uncle John. "Mrs. Kebble has promised to look after you, and
the Major and I will stop in now and then and see how you progress."
Then he went out, engaged Nick Thorne to go to the Junction for the
boy's trunk, and selected several things at the store that he thought
might be useful to the invalid. Afterward he marched home again beside
the Major, feeling very well pleased with his morning's work.
When the girls reached home late in the afternoon, they were thrown into
a state of great excitement by the news, briefly related by their uncle,
that Joseph Wegg had returned to Millville "considerably smashed" by an
automobile accident, and was now stopping at the village hotel
They refrained from making remarks upon the incident until they were
alone, when the secret council of three decided to make Joe Wegg's
acquaintance as soon as possible, to discover what light the young man
might be able to throw upon the great mystery.
"Do you know, girls," said Louise, impressively, "it almost seems as if
fate had sent Joe Wegg here to be an instrument in the detection of the
murderer and robber of his poor father."
"If Joe knew about it, why didn't he track the villain down himself?"
"Perhaps he hasn't suspected the truth," said Beth. "Often those who are
closely concerned with such tragedies do not observe the evidences of
crime as clearly as outsiders."
"Where did you get that information?" demanded Patsy.
"From one of Anna Doyle Oppenheim's detective stories," answered Beth,
seriously. "I've been reading up on such things, lately."
"Detective stories," said Louise, reflectively, "are only useful in
teaching us to observe the evidences of crime. This case, for example,
is so intricate and unusual that only by careful thought, and following
each thread of evidence to its end, can we hope to bring the criminal
"That seems to me conceited," observed Miss Doyle, composedly.
"Detective stories don't have to stick to facts; or, rather, they can
make the facts to be whatever they please. So I don't consider them as
useful as they are ornamental. And this isn't a novel, girls; it's
mostly suspicion and slander."
"You don't seem able to be in earnest about anything," objected Beth,
turning a little red.
"But I try to be." said Patricia.
"We are straying from the subject now under discussion," remarked
Louise. "I must say that I feel greatly encouraged by the sudden
appearance of the Wegg boy. He may know something of his father's former
associates that will enable us to determine the object of the murder and
who accomplished it."
"Captain Wegg was killed over three years ago," suggested Miss Doyle,
recovering easily from her rebuff. "By this time the murderer may have
died or moved to Madagascar."
"He is probably living within our reach, never suspecting that justice
is about to overtake him," asserted Louise. "We must certainly go to
call upon this Wegg boy, and draw from him such information as we can. I
am almost certain that the end is in sight."
"We haven't any positive proof at all, yet," observed Patsy, musingly.
"We have plenty of circumstantial evidence," returned Beth. "There is
only one way to explain the facts we have already learned, and the
theory we have built up will be a hard one to overthrow. The flight of
Captain Wegg to this place, his unhappy wife, the great trouble that old
Nora has hinted at, the--"
"The great trouble ought to come first," declared Louise. "It is the
foundation upon which rest all the mysterious occurrences following, and
once we have learned what the great trouble was, the rest will be
"I agree with you," said Beth; "and perhaps Joseph Wegg will be able to
tell us what the trouble was that ruined the lives of his parents, as
well as of Old Hucks and his wife, and caused them all to flee here to
It was not until the following morning that the Major found an
opportunity to give the confederates a solemn wink to indicate he had
news to confide to them. They gathered eagerly on the lawn, and he told
them of the finding of Joe Wegg in the isolated cabin, and how old
Thomas and Nora, loving the boy as well as if he had been their own
child, had sacrificed everything to assist him in his extremity.
"So ye see, my avenging angels, that ye run off the track in the Hucks
matter," he added, smiling at their bewildered faces.
Patsy was delighted at this refutation of the slanderous suspicions that
Thomas was a miser and his smiling face a mask to hide his innate
villainy. The other girls were somewhat depressed by the overthrow of
one of their pet theories, and reluctantly admitted that if Hucks had
been the robber of his master and old Will Thompson, he would not have
striven so eagerly to get enough money to send to Joe Wegg. But they
pointed out that the old servant was surely hiding his knowledge of
Captain Wegg's past, and could not be induced to clear up that portion
of the mystery which he had full knowledge of. So, while he might be
personally innocent of the murder or robbery, both Beth and Louise were
confident he was attempting to shield the real criminal.
"But who is the real criminal?" inquired Patsy.
"Let us consider," answer Louise, with the calm, businesslike tone she
adopted in these matters. "There is the strolling physician, whom we
call the Unknown Avenger, for one. A second suspect is the man McNutt,
whose nature is so perverted that he would stick at nothing. The third
suspicious individual is Mr. Bob West."
"Oh, Louise! Mr. West is so respectable, and so prosperous," exclaimed
"It's a far jump from McNutt to West," added Beth.
"Leaving out Hucks," continued Louise, her eyes sparkling with the
delightful excitement of maintaining her theories against odds, "here
are three people who might have been concerned in the robbery or murder.
Two of them are under our hands; perhaps Joseph Wegg may be able to tell
us where to find the third."
They pleaded so hard with the Major to take them to call upon the
injured youth that very day, that the old gentleman consented, and,
without telling Uncle John of their plans, they drove to Millville in
the afternoon and alighted at the hotel.
The Major went first to the boy's room, and found him not only very
comfortable, but bright and cheerful in mood.
"At this rate, sir," he said, smilingly, "I shall be able to discharge
my guardian in quick time. I'm twice the man I was yesterday."
"I've brought some young ladies to call upon you," announced the Major.
"Will you see them?"
Joe flushed at first, remembering his plastered skull and maimed
condition. But he could not well refuse to receive his callers, whom he
guessed to be the three girls Old Hucks had praised to him so highly.
"It will give me great pleasure, sir," he replied.
An invalid is usually of interest to women, so it is no wonder that the
three young ladies were at once attracted by the bright-faced boy, who
reclined upon his couch before the vine-covered windows. They thought of
Ethel, too, and did not marvel that the girl grieved over the loss of
this friend of her childhood.
Joe had to recount the adventure with the automobile, which led to his
injuries, and afterward give an account of his life at the hospital.
That led, naturally, to the timely assistance rendered him by the
faithful Thomas, so that Louise was able to broach the subject nearest
"We have been greatly interested in your old servants--whom we acquired
with the farm, it seems--and all of us admire their simplicity and
sincerity," she began.
"Nora is a dear," added Beth.
"And Thomas is so cheerful that his smile is enough to vanquish any
attack of the blues," said Patsy.
"The Hucks are the right sort, and no mistake," declared the Major,
taking his cue from the others.
This praise evidently delighted the boy. They could have found no more
direct way to win his confidence.
"Nora was my mother's maid from the time she was a mere girl," said he;
"and Thomas sailed with my father many years before I was born."
They were a little surprised to hear him speak so frankly. But Louise
decided to take advantage of the opening afforded her.
"Nora has told us that some great trouble came to them years ago--a
trouble that also affected your own parents. But they do not wish to
talk about it to us."
His face clouded.
"No, indeed," said he. "Their loving old hearts have never recovered
from the blow. Would you like to know their history? It is a sad story,
and pitiful; but I am sure you would understand and appreciate my old
friends better after hearing it."
Their hearts fairly jumped with joy. Would they like to hear the story?
Was it not this very clue which they had been blindly groping for to
enable them to solve the mystery of the Wegg crime? The boy marked their
interest, and began his story at once, while the hearts of the three
girls sang-gladly: "At last--at last!"
JOE TELLS OF "THE GREAT TROUBLE."
"As a young man, my father was a successful sea captain," said the boy,
"and, before he was thirty, owned a considerable interest in the ship he
sailed. Thomas Hucks was his boatswain,--an honest and able seaman in
whom my father became much interested. Hucks was married, and his wife
was an attendant in the employ of Hugh Carter, a wealthy ship chandler
of Edmunton, the port from which my fathers ship sailed. Thomas had some
difficulty in enjoying his wife's society when on shore, because old
Carter did not want him hanging around the house; so Captain Wegg
good-naturedly offered to intercede for him.
"Carter was a gruff and disagreeable man, and, although my father had
been a good customer, he refused his request and threatened to discharge
Nora, which he did. This made Captain Wegg angry, and he called upon
Mary Carter, whose especial attendant Nora had been, to ask her to take
the girl back. Mary was a mild young lady, who dared not oppose her
father; but the result of the interview was that the sea captain and
Mary Carter fell mutually in love. During the next two or three years,
whenever the ship was in port, the lovers frequently met by stealth at
the cottage of Mrs. Hucks, a little place Thomas had rented. Here my
father and mother were finally married.
"Meantime Nora had a son, a fine young chap, I've heard; and presently
my mother, who had a little fortune of her own, plucked up enough
courage to leave her father's roof, and took up her abode in a pretty
villa on the edge of a bluff overlooking the sea. Nora came to live with
her again, bringing her child, and the two women were company for one
another while their husbands were at sea.
"In course of time my mother had two children, a girl and a boy, and
because the Hucks boy was considerably older than they, he took care of
them, to a great extent, and the three youngsters were always together.
Their favorite playground was on the beach, at the foot of the bluff,
and before young Tom was ten years old he could swim like a duck, and
manage a boat remarkably well. The Wegg children, having something of
their mother's timid nature, perhaps, were not so adventurous, but they
seldom hesitated to go wherever Tom led them.
"One day, while my mother was slightly ill and Nora was attending to
her, Tom disobeyed the commands that had been given him, and took his
younger companions out on the ocean for a ride in his boat. No one knows
how far they went, or exactly what happened to them; but a sudden squall
sprang up, and the children being missed, my mother insisted, ill as she
was, in running down to the shore to search for her darlings. Braving
the wind and drenched by rain, the two mothers stood side by side,
peering into the gloom, while brave men dared the waves to search for
the missing ones. The body of the girl was first washed ashore, and my
mother rocked the lifeless form in her arms until her dead son was laid
beside her. Then young Tom's body was recovered, and the horror
"When my father arrived, three days later, he not only found himself
bereaved of the two children he had loved so tenderly, but his young
wife was raving with brain fever, and likely to follow her babies to the
grave. During that terrible time, Nora, who could not forget that it was
her own adventurous son who had led all three children to their death,
went suddenly blind--from grief, the doctors said.
"My father pulled his wife back to life by dint of careful nursing; but
whenever she looked at the sea she would scream with horror; so it
became necessary to take her where the cruel sound of the breakers could
never reach her ears. I think the grief of Thomas and Nora was scarcely
less than that of my own parents, and both men had suffered so severely
that they were willing to abandon the sea and devote their lives to
comforting their poor wives. Captain Wegg sold all his interests and his
wife's villa, and brought the money here, where he established a home
amid entirely different surroundings. He was devoted to my mother, I
have heard, and when she died, soon after my birth, the Captain seemed
to lose all further interest in life, and grew morose and unsociable
with all his fellow-creatures.
"That, young ladies, is the story of what Thomas and Nora call their
'great trouble'; and I think it is rightly named, because it destroyed
the happiness of two families. I was born long after the tragedy, but
its shadow has saddened even my own life."
When the boy had finished, his voice trembling with emotion as he
uttered the last words, his auditors were much affected by the sad tale.
Patsy was positively weeping, and the Major blew his nose vigorously and
advised his daughter to "dry up an' be sinsible." Beth's great eyes
stared compassionately at the young fellow, and even Louise for the
moment allowed her sympathy to outweigh the disappointment and chagrin
of seeing her carefully constructed theory of crime topple over like the
house of cards it was. There was now no avenger to be discovered,
because there had been nothing to avenge. The simple yet pathetic story
accounted for all the mystery that, in her imagination, enveloped the
life and death of Captain Wegg. But--stay!
"How did your father die?" she asked, softly.
"Through a heart trouble, from which he had suffered for years, and
which had obliged him to lead a very quiet life," was the reply. "That
was one of the things which, after my mother's death, helped to sour his
disposition. He could not return to the sea again, because he was told
that any sudden excitement was likely to carry him off; and, indeed,
that was exactly what happened."
"How is that, sir?" asked the Major.
"It is more difficult to explain than the first of the story," replied
the boy, thoughtfully gazing through the window; "perhaps because I do
not understand it so well. Our simple life here never made much of an
inroad into my father's modest fortune; for our wants were few; but
Captain Wegg was a poor man of business, having been a sailor during all
his active life. His only intimate friend--an honest, bluff old farmer
named Will Thompson--was as childish regarding money matters as my
father, but had a passion for investments, and induced my father to join
some of his schemes. Mr. Thompson's mind was somewhat erratic at times,
but keen in some ways, nevertheless. Fearing to trust his judgment
entirely, my father chose to lean upon the wisdom and experience of a
shrewd merchant of Millville, named Robert West."
"The hardware dealer?" asked Louise, impulsively.
"Yes; I see you have met him," replied Joseph Wegg, with a smile at the
eager, pretty face of his visitor. "Bob West was a prosperous man and
very careful about his own investments; so he became a sort of business
adviser to my father and Mr. Thompson, and arbitrated any differences of
opinion they might have. For several years, due to West's good offices,
the two oddly mated friends were successful in their ventures, and added
to their capital. Finally West came to them himself with a proposition.
He had discovered a chance to make a good deal of money by purchasing an
extensive pine forest near Almaquo, just across the border in Canada.
West had taken an option on the property, when he found by accident that
the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company was anxious to get hold of the tract and
cut the timber on a royalty that would enable the owners to double their
"Howld on a jiffy!" cried the Major, excitedly. "Did I understand you to
say the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company?"
"That was the firm, sir. I used to overhear my father and Will Thompson
talking about this matter; but I must admit my knowledge is somewhat
imperfect, because I never was allowed to ask questions. I remember
learning the fact that West had not enough money to swing his option,
and so urged his friends to join him. Relying upon West's judgment, they
put all their little fortunes into the deal, although Thompson grumbled
at doing so, because he claimed he had another investment that was
better, and this matter of West's would prevent him from undertaking it.
The Almaquo tract was purchased, and a contract made with the lumber
company to cut the timber and pay them a royalty of so much a thousand
feet. Yet, although the prospects for profit seemed so good, I know that
for some reason both my father and Thompson were dissatisfied with the
deal, and this may be accounted for by the fact that every penny of
their money was tied up in one investment. West used to come to the
house and argue with them that the property was safe as the Bank of
England, and then old Will would tell him how much more he could have
made out of another investment he had in mind; so that a coolness grew
up between West and the others that gradually led to their estrangement.
"I can well remember the evening when Bob West's pretty financial bubble
burst. Thompson and my father were sitting together in the right wing,
smoking solemnly, and exchanging a few words, as was their custom, when
West arrived with a while face, and a newspaper under his arm. I was in
the next room, lying half asleep upon the sofa, when I heard West cry
despairingly: 'Ruined--ruined--ruined!' I crept to the half-opened
door, then, and looked in. Both men were staring, open-mouthed and
half-dazed, at West, who was explaining in a trembling voice that a
terrible forest fire had swept through the Almaquo section and wiped out
every tree upon the property. He had the full account in the newspaper,
and had begun reading it, when my father uttered a low moan and tumbled
off his chair to the floor.
"Will Thompson gave a wild cry and knelt beside him.
"'My God! he's dead, Bob,--he's dead!--and you've killed him with your
good news!' he screamed, already raving; and then Old Hucks ran in just
in time to prevent the madman from throttling West, for his fingers were
even then twined around Bob's throat. There was a desperate struggle,
and I remember that, scared as I was, I joined Thomas in trying to pull
Thompson off his prey. But suddenly old Will threw up his arms and
toppled backward, still raving like a demon, but unable to move his body
from the waist downward. West helped us to put him in bed, and said he
was paralyzed, which afterward proved to be the truth. Also, his mind
was forever gone; and I think it was father's death that did that,
rather than the loss of his money."
They were all staring, white-faced, at the speaker. Most of the mystery
was being cleared away; indeed, there was now little of mystery
remaining at all.
"West hurried after a doctor," continued Joe, who was almost as much
absorbed in his story as were his listeners, and spoke in a reflective,
musing way, "and he succeeded in finding one who was stopping for a few
days at the hotel. Poor Bob was very kind to us in our trouble, and I
never heard him mention a word about his own losses, which must have
been severe. After the funeral was over, and I found I had nothing to
inherit but the farm, I decided to go to the city and make my way there,
as I had long wished to do. West gave me a little money to start me on
my way, and the rest of my story is not very interesting to anybody.
Major Doyle knows something of it, after the time when I got through my
technical school by working as a servant to pay for my instruction. I'm
a failure in life, so far, young ladies; but if you'll not bear that
against me I'll try to do better in the future."
"Good!" cried the Major, approvingly, as he took the boy's left hand in
both his own and pressed it. "You're developing the right spirit,
Joseph, me lad, and we'll think no more about the sadness of the past,
but look forward to the joy of your future."
"Of course," said Patsy, nodding gravely; "Joe Wegg is bound to be a
great man, some day."
THE LOCKED CUPBOARD.
Louise and Beth returned to the farm in dismal silence. Every prop had
been knocked from beneath their carefully erected temple of mystery. Now
there was no mystery at all.
In a few words, Joe Wegg had explained everything, and explained all so
simply and naturally that Louise felt like sobbing with the bitterness
of a child deprived of its pet plaything. The band of self-constituted
girl detectives had been "put out of business," as Patsy said, because
the plain fact had developed that there was nothing to detect, and never
had been. There had been no murder, no robbery, no flight or hiding on
the part of the Weggs to escape an injured enemy; nothing even
mysterious, in the light of the story they had just heard. It was
dreadfully humiliating and thoroughly disheartening, after all their
earnest endeavor to investigate a crime that had never been committed.
Uncle John rallied his nieces on their somber faces at the dinner table,
and was greatly amused when the Major, despite the appealing looks
directed at him, gave Mr. Merrick a brief resume of the afternoon's
"Well, I declare!" said the little man, merrily; "didn't I warn you,
Louise, not to try to saddle a murder onto my new farm? How you foolish
girls could ever have imagined such a carnival of crime in connection
with the Weggs is certainly remarkable."
"I don't know about that, sir," returned the Major, seriously. "I was
meself inoculated with the idea, and for a while I considered meself and
the girls the equals of all the Pinkertons in the country. And when ye
come to think of it, the history of poor Captain Wegg and his wife, and
of Nora and Thomas as well, is out of the ordinary entirely, and,
without the explanation, contained all the elements of a
"How did you say the Weggs lost their money?" inquired Uncle John,
turning the subject because he saw that it embarrassed his nieces.
"Why, forest fires at Almaquo, in Canada, burned down the timber they
had bought," replied the Major. "And, by the way, John, you're
interested in that matter yourself, for the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company,
in which you own a lot of stock, had contracted to cut the timber on
"How long ago?"
"Three years, sir."
"Well, we've been cutting timber at Almaquo ever since," said Mr.
Louise dropped her fork with a clatter, disclosing, in this well-bred
young lady, an unusual degree of excitement.
"Then there _is_ something to detect!" she cried.
"Eh? What do you mean?" inquired her uncle.
"If you've been cutting timber at Almaquo for three years, the trees
couldn't have burned down," Louise declared, triumphantly.
"That is evident," said the Major, dryly. "I've had it in me mind,
Louise, to take that matter up for investigation; but you are so imbued
with the detective spirit that there's no heading you off a trail."
"Before the dessert comes on," announced Uncle John, impressively, "I
want to make a statement. You folks have tried your hands at the
detective business and made a mess of it. Now it's my turn. I'll be a
detective for three days, and if I don't succeed better than you did,
young women, we'll mingle our tears in all humility. Eh, Major?"
"Put me in the bunch, sir," said the old soldier, "I was as bad as any
of them. And go ahead in your own way, if ye like. It's me humble
opinion, John, that you're no Sherlock Holmes; but ye won't believe it
'til ye satisfy yourself of the fact."
Next morning the loungers around Sam Cotting's store were thrown into a
state of great excitement when "the nabob" came over from the Wegg farm
and held the long-distance telephone for more than an hour, while he
talked with people in New York. The natives knew that their telephone,
which was built into a small booth at one end of the store--next the
post-office boxes--was part of a system that made it possible for one to
talk to those in far away cities. Often the country people would eye the
mysterious-looking instrument with awe and whisper to each other of its
mighty powers; but no one had ever before used it to telephone farther
than the Junction, and then only on rare occasions.
"It'll cost a heap o' money, Sam," said McNutt, uneasily, while Uncle
John was engaged in his remarkable conversation. They could see him in
the booth, through the little window.
"It will, Mac," was the solemn reply. "But the fool nabob may as well
spend it thet way as any other. It's mighty little of his capital er
surplus gits inter _my_ cash-drawer; 'n' thet's a fact."
Uncle John came from the booth, perspiring, but smiling and happy. He
walked across the street to see Joe Wegg, and found the youth seated in
a rocking-chair and looking quite convalescent. But he had company. In a
chair opposite sat a man neatly dressed, with a thin, intelligent face,
a stubby gray moustache, and shrewd eyes covered by horn-rimmed
"Good morning, Mr. Merrick," said Joe, cheerily; "this is Mr. Robert
West, one of the Millville merchants, who is an old friend of
"I've heard of Mr. West, and I'm glad to meet him," replied Uncle John,
looking at the other calmly, but not offering to shake hands. "I believe
you are the president and treasurer of the Almaquo Timber Tract Company,
are you not?"
Joseph looked startled, and then embarrassed, as he overheard the
question. West, without altering his position of careless ease, glanced
over the rims of his glasses at the speaker.
"I am the humble individual you refer to, Mr. Merrick," he said,
"But the Almaquo timber all burned down." remarked Joe, thinking an
explanation was needed.
"That's a mistake," returned Mr. Merrick. "My company has paid Mr. West,
as treasurer of his company, more than fifty thousand dollars during the
last three years."
West's jaw dropped.
"Your company!" he exclaimed, as if mystified.
"Yes; I own the controlling interest in the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company,
which has the contract to cut your timber," answered Mr. Merrick.
The hardware dealer slowly arose and glanced at his watch.
"I must get back to my store," he said. "You are somewhat in error about
your company, Mr. Merrick; but I suppose your interests are so large and
varied that you cannot well keep track of them. Good morning, sir. I'll
see you again soon, Joe. Glad you're improving so rapidly. Let me know
if I can do anything to help you."
With these quiet words, he bowed and left the room, and when he had
gone, Joe said, in a deprecating tone:
"Poor Bob must be very unhappy about having lost my father's money in
that speculation, for he advocated the plan very strongly, believing it
was a good investment. I'm afraid your mistake about paying him all that
money upset him. Don't mind if he was a little brusque, sir. Bob West is
a simple, kindly man, whom my father fully trusted. It was he that
loaned me the money to get away from here with."
"Tell me," said Uncle John, thoughtfully, "did your father receive stock
in the Almaquo Timber Tract Company in exchange for his money?"
"Oh, yes; I have seen it in the steel cupboard," replied Joe.
"Where is that?"
"Why, it is the cupboard in the right wing of our house, which was the
Captain's own room. It was one of his whims, when he built, to provide
what he called his 'bank.' You may have noticed the wooden doors of a
cupboard built into the stone wall, sir?"
"Yes; I occupy the room."
"Behind the wooden doors are others of steel. The entire cupboard is
steel-lined. Near the bottom is a sliding-plate, which, when pushed
aside, discovers a hidden drawer--a secret my father never confided to
anyone but me. He once told me that if his heart trouble earned him off
suddenly I ought to know of the existence of this drawer; so he showed
me how to find it. On the day after his death I took the keys, which he
always carried on a small chain around his neck and concealed underneath
his clothing, and opened the cupboard to see if I could find anything of
value. It is needless to say, I could not discover anything that could
be converted into a dollar. The Captain had filled the cupboard with old
letters and papers of no value, and with relics he had brought from
foreign lands during his many voyages. These last are mere rubbish, but
I suppose he loved them for their association. In the secret drawer I
found his stock in the timber company, and also that of old Will
Thompson, who had doubtless left it with my father for safekeeping.
Knowing it was now worthless, I left it in the drawer."
"I'd like to see it," announced Uncle John.
"I've lost the keys," he said.
"How's that, my lad?"
"Why, on the day of the funeral the keys disappeared. I could never
imagine what became of them. But I did not care to look in the cupboard
a second time, so the loss did not matter."
Mr. Merrick seemed thoughtful.
"I suppose I own that cupboard now," he remarked.
"Of course," said Joe. "But without the keys it is not serviceable. If
you drill through the steel doors you destroy their security."
"True; but I may decide to do that."
"If you do, sir, I'd like you to clear out the rubbish and papers and
send them to me. They are family matters, and I did not intend to sell
them with the place."
"You shall have them, Joe."
"Just underneath the left end of the lower shelf you will find the
sliding steel plate. It slides toward the front. In the drawer you will
find the worthless stock and a picture of my mother. I'd like to keep
"You shall, Joseph. How are you getting on?"
"Why, I'm a new man, Mr. Merrick, and today I'm feeling as strong as a
buffalo--thanks to your kind guardianship."
"Don't overdo, sir. Take it easy. There's a young lady coming to see you
"Ethel!" the boy exclaimed, his face turning crimson.
"Yes," returned Uncle John, tersely. "You've treated that girl
shamefully, Joseph Wegg. Try to make proper amends."
"I never could understand," said Joe, slowly, "why Ethel refused to
answer the letter I wrote her when I went away. It explained
"I'll bet the farm against your lame shoulder she never got your
letter," declared Uncle John. "She thought you left her without a word."
"I gave it to McNutt to deliver after I was gone. But you say she's
"That is her intention, sir."
Joe said nothing more, but his expressive face was smiling and eager.
Uncle John pressed the boy's hand and left him, promising to call
"Now, then," muttered the little millionaire, as he walked down the
street, "to beard the lion in his den."
The den proved to be the hardware store, and the lion none other than
Robert West. Mr. Merrick found the merchant seated at his desk in the
otherwise deserted store, and, with a nod, helped himself to the only
other chair the little office contained.
"Sir," said he, "I am here to demand an explanation."
"Of what?" asked West, coldly.
"Of your action in the matter of the Almaquo Timber Tract Company. I
believe that you falsely asserted to Captain Wegg and Mr. Thompson that
the timber had burned and their investment was therefore worthless. The
news of the disaster killed one of your confiding friends and drove the
other mad; but that was a consequence that I am sure you did not intend
when you planned the fraud. The most serious thing I can accuse you of
is holding the earnings of the Wegg and Thompson stock--and big earnings
they are, too--for your own benefit, and defrauding the heirs of your
associates of their money."
West carefully balanced a penholder across his fingers, and eyed it with
"You are a queer man, Mr. Merrick," he said, quietly. "I can only excuse
your insults on the grounds of ignorance, or the fact that you have been
misinformed. Here is the newspaper report of the Almaquo fire, which I
showed my friends the night of Captain Wegg's sudden death." He took a
clipping from a drawer of the desk and handed it to Uncle John, who read
"As a matter of fact," continued West, "you are not cutting that portion
of the Almaquo tract which this fire refers to, and which Thompson and
Wegg were interested in, but the north half of the tract, which they had
never acquired any title to."
"I suppose the stock will show that," suggested Mr. Merrick.
"Of course, sir."
"I will look it up."
"You will have some trouble doing that," he said.
"Wegg and Thompson had transferred their entire stock to me before one
died and the other went mad," was the quiet reply.
"Oh, I see." The lie was so evident that Uncle John did not try to
"I am rather busy, Mr. Merrick. Anything more, sir?"
"Not today. Bye and bye, Mr. West."
He marched out again and climbed into his buggy to drive home. The
interview with Bob West had made him uneasy, for the merchant's cold,
crafty nature rendered him an opponent who would stick at nothing to
protect his ill-gotten gains. Uncle John had thought it an easy matter
to force him to disgorge, but West was the one inhabitant of Millville
who had no simplicity in his character. He was as thoroughly imbued with
worldly subtlety and cunning as if he had lived amid the grille of a
city all his life; and Mr. Merrick was by no means sure of his own
ability to unmask the man and force him to make restitution.
THE COURT'N OF SKIM CLARK.
By this time the summer was well advanced, and the rich people at the
Wegg farm had ceased to be objects of wonder to the Millville folk. The
girls were still regarded with curious looks when they wandered into the
village on an errand, and Mr. Merrick and Major Doyle inspired a certain
amount of awe; but time had dulled the edge of marvelous invasion and
the city people were now accepted as a matter of course.
Peggy McNutt was still bothering his head over schemes to fleece the
strangers, in blissful ignorance of the fact that one of his neighbors
was planning to get ahead of him.
The Widow Clark was a shrewd woman. She had proven this by becoming one
of the merchants of Millville after her husband's death. The poor man
had left an insurance of five hundred dollars and the little frame
building wherein he had conducted a harness shop. Mrs. Clark couldn't
make and repair harness; so she cleared the straps and scraps and
wax-ends out of the place, painted the interior of the shop bright
yellow, with a blue ceiling, erected some shelves and a counter and
turned part of the insurance money into candy, cigars, stationery, and a
meager stock of paper-covered novels.
Skim, her small son, helped her as far as he was able, and between them
they managed things so frugally that at the end of eight years the widow
still had her five hundred dollars capital, and the little store had
paid her living expenses.
Skim was named after his uncle, Peter Skimbley, who owned a farm near
Watertown. The widow's hopeful was now a lank, pale-faced youth of
eighteen, whose most imposing features were his big hands and a long
nose that ended in a sharp point. The shop had ruined him for manual
labor, for he sat hunched up by the stove in winter, and in summer hung
around Cotting's store and listened to the gossip of the loungers. He
was a boy of small conversational powers, but his mother declared that
Skim "done a heap o' thinkin' that nobody suspected."
The widow was a good gossip herself, and knew all the happenings in the
little town. She had a habit of reading all her stock of paper-covered
novels before she sold them, and her mind was stocked with the mass of
romance and adventure she had thus absorbed. "What I loves more'n eat'n'
or sleep'n'," she often said, "is a rattlin' good love story. There
don't seem to be much love in real life, so a poor lone crittur like me
has to calm her hankerin's by a-readin' novels."
No one had been more interested in the advent of the millionaire at the
Wegg farm than the widow Clark. She had helped "fix up" the house for
the new owner and her appreciative soul had been duly impressed by the
display of wealth demonstrated by the fine furniture sent down from the
city. She had watched the arrival of the party and noticed with eager
eyes the group of three pretty and stylishly dressed nieces who
accompanied their rich uncle. Once or twice since the young ladies had
entered her establishment to purchase pens or stationery, and on such
occasions the widow was quite overcome by their condescension.
All this set her thinking to some purpose. One day she walked over to
the farm and made her way quietly to the back door. By good fortune she
found blind Nora hemming napkins and in a mood to converse. Nora was an
especially neat seamstress, but required some one to thread her needles.
Mary the cook had been doing this, but now Mrs. Clark sat down beside
Nora to "hev a little talk" and keep the needles supplied with thread.
She learned a good deal about the nieces, for old Nora could not praise
them enough. They were always sweet and kind to her and she loved to
talk about them. They were all rich, too, or would be; for their uncle
had no children of his own and could leave several millions to each one
when he died.
"An' they're so simple, too," said the old woman; "nothin' cityfied ner
stuck-up about any on 'em, I kin tell ye. They dresses as fine as the
Queen o' Sheba, Tom says; but they romp 'round just like they was borned
in the country. Miss Patsy she's learnin' to milk the cow, an' Miss Beth
takes care o' the chickens all by herself. They're reg'lar girls, Marthy
Clark, an' money hain't spiled 'em a bit."
This report tended to waken a great ambition in the widow's heart. Or
perhaps the ambition had already taken form and this gossip confirmed
and established it. Before she left the farm she had a chance to
secretly observe the girls, and they met with her full approval.
At supper that evening she said to her hopeful:
"Skim, I want ye to go courtin'."
Skim looked up in amazement.
"Me, ma?" he asked.
"Yes, you. It's time you was thinkin' of gittin' married."
Skim held his knife in his mouth a moment while he thought over this
startling proposition. Then he removed the cutlery, heaved a deep sigh,
"Who at, ma?"
"Who'll I go courtin' at?"
"Skim, you 'member in thet las' book we read, 'The Angel Maniac's
Revenge,' there was a sayin' that fate knocks wunst on ev'ry man's door.
Well, fate's knockin' on your door."
Skim listened, with a nervous glance toward the doorway. Then he shook
"All fool fancy, ma," he remarked. "Don't ye go an' git no rumantic
notions out'n books inter yer head."
"Skim, am I a fool, er ain't I?"
"'Tain't fer me ter say, ma."
"Fate's knockin', an' if you don't open to it, Skim, I'll wash my hands
o' ye, an' ye kin jest starve to death."
The boy looked disturbed.
"What's aggrivatin' of ye, then?" he enquired, anxiously.
"A millionaire is come right under yer nose. He's here in Millville,
with three gals fer nieces thet's all got money to squander an's bound
to hev more."
Skim gave a low whistle.
"Ye don't mean fer me to be courtin' at them gals, do ye?" he demanded.
"Why not? Yer fambly's jest as respectible as any, 'cept thet yer Uncle
Mell backslided after the last revival, an' went to a hoss race. Yer
young, an' yer han'some; an' there's three gals waitin' ready to be won
by a bold wooer. Be bold, Skim; take fate by the fetlock, an' yer
fortun's made easy!"
Skim did not reply at once. He gulped down his tea and stared at the
opposite wall in deep thought. It wasn't such a "tarnal bad notion,"
after all, and so thoroughly impressed was he with his own importance
and merit that it never occurred to him he would meet with any
difficulties if he chose to undertake the conquest.
"Peggy says marri'ge is the mark of a fool; an' Peggy married money,
too," he remarked slowly.
"Pah! money! Mary Ann Cotting didn't hev but a hundred an' forty
dollars, all told, an' she were an old maid an' soured an' squint-eyed
when Peggy hitched up with her."
"I hain't seen nuthin' o' the world, yit," continued Skim, evasively.
"Ner ye won't nuther, onless ye marry money. Any one o' them gals could
take ye to Europe an' back a dozen times."
Skim reflected still farther.
"Courtin' ought to hev some decent clothes," he said. "I kain't set in
the nabob's parlor, with all thet slick furnitur', in Nick Thorne's
cast-off Sunday suit."
"The cloth's as good as ever was made, an' I cut 'em down myself, an'
stitched 'em all over."
"They don't look like store clothes, though," objected Skim.
The widow sighed.
"Tain't the coat that makes the man, Skim."
"It's the coat thet makes decent courtin', though," he maintained,
stubbornly. "Gals like to see a feller dressed up. It shows he means
business an' 'mounts to somethin'."
"I give Nick Thorne two dollars an' a packidge o' terbacker fer them
clotlies, which the on'y thing wrong about was they'd got too snug fer
comfert. Nick said so himself. But I'll make a bargain with ye, Skim. Ef
you'll agree to give me fifty dollars after yer married, I'll buy ye
some store clothes o' Sam Cotting, to do courtin' in."
"Well, I've brung ye up, hain't I?" "I've worked like a nigger, mindin'
shop." "Say forty dollars. I ain't small, an' ef ye git one o' them city
gals, Skim, forty dollars won't mean no more'n a wink of an eye to ye."
Skim frowned. Then he smiled, and the smile disclosed a front tooth
"I'll dream on't," he said. "Let ye know in the mornin', ma. But I won't
court a minite, mind ye, 'nless I git store clothes."
A LOST CAUSE.
The boy's musings confirmed him in the idea that his mother's scheme was
entirely practical. He didn't hanker much to marry, being young and
fairly satisfied with his present lot; but opportunities like this did
not often occur, and it seemed his bounden duty to take advantage of it.
He got the "store clothes" next day, together with a scarlet necktie
that was "all made up in the latest style," as Sam Cotting assured him,
and a pair of yellow kid gloves "fit fer a howlin' swell." Skim wasn't
sure, at first, about the gloves, but capitulated when Sam declared they
were "real cityfied."
In the evening he "togged up," with his mother's help, and then walked
over to the Wegg farm.
Beth answered the knock at the door. The living room was brightly
lighted; Uncle John and the Major were playing checkers in a corner and
Patsy was softly drumming on the piano. Louise had a book and Beth had
been engaged upon some fancy-work.
When the door opened Skim bobbed his head and said:
"Evenin', mom. I've come a-visitin'."
Beth conquered an inclination to smile.
"Won't you come in?" she said, sweetly.
"Thankee; I will. I'm Skimbley Clark, ye know; down t' the village. Ma
keeps a store there."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Clark. Allow me to introduce to you my
uncle and cousins," said the girl, her eyes dancing with amusement.
Skim acknowledged the introductions with intense gravity, and then sat
down upon a straight-backed chair near the piano, this being the end of
the room where the three girls were grouped. Uncle John gave a chuckle
and resumed his game with the Major, who whispered that he would give a
dollar for an oil painting of Mr. Clark--if it couldn't be had for less.
Louise laid down her book and regarded the visitor wonderingly. Patsy
scented fun and drew a chair nearer the group. Beth resumed her
embroidery with a demure smile that made Skim decide at once that "he
picked the pretty one."
Indeed, the decision did justice to his discretion. Beth De Graf was a
rarely beautiful girl and quite outshone her cousins in this respect.
Louise might be attractive and Patsy fascinating; but Beth was the real
beauty of the trio, and the most charming trait in her character was her
unconsciousness that she excelled in good looks.
So Skim stared hard at Beth, and answered the preliminary remarks
addressed to him by Patsy and Louise in a perfunctory manner.
"Won't you take off your gloves?" asked Louise, soberly. "It's so warm
this evening, you know."
The boy looked at his hands.
"It's sech a tarnal job to git 'em on agin," he replied.
"Don't put them on, then," advised Patsy. "Here in the country we are
allowed to dispense with much unnecessary social etiquette."
"Air ye? Then off they come. I ain't much stuck on gloves, myself; but
ma she 'lowed that a feller goin' courtin' orter look like a sport."
A chorus of wild laughter, which greeted this speech, had the effect of
making Skim stare at the girls indignantly. He couldn't find anything
funny in his remark; but there they sat facing him and uttering
hysterical peals of merriment, until the tears ran down their cheeks.
Silently and with caution he removed the yellow gloves from his hands,
and so gave the foolish creatures a chance "to laugh out their
But they were watching him, and saw that he was disconcerted. They had
no mind to ruin the enjoyment in store for them by offending their
guest, so they soon resumed a fitting gravity and began to assist the
youth to forget their rudeness.
"May I ask," said Patsy, very graciously, "which one of us you intend to
favor with your attentions?"
"I ain't much used to sech things," he replied, looking down at his big
hands and growing a little red-faced. "P'raps I hadn't orter tell,
before the rest o' ye."
"Oh, yes; do tell!" pleaded Louise. "We're so anxious to know."
"I don't s'pose it's right clever to pick an' choose when ye're all by,"
said Skim, regaining confidence. "But ma, she 'lowed thet with three
gals handy I orter git one on 'em, to say the least."
"If you got more than one," remarked Beth, calmly, "it would be
"Oh, one's enough," said Skim, with a grin. "Peggy says it's too many,
an' a feller oughtn't to take his gal out'n a grab-bag."
"I should think not, indeed," returned Patsy. "But here are three of us
openly displayed, and unless you turn us all down as unworthy, it will
be necessary for you to make a choice."
"What foolishness are you girls up to now?" demanded Uncle John,
catching a stray word from the other corner while engaged in a desperate
struggle with the Major.
"This is a time for you to keep quiet, Uncle," retorted Patsy, merrily.
"We've got important things to consider that are none of your affairs,
Skim reflected that he didn't want this one, except as a last resort.
She was "too bossy."
"When I started out," he said, "I jest come a-courtin', as any feller
might do thet wasn't much acquainted. But ef I've got to settle down to
one o' ye--"
"Oh, you must really take one at a time, you know," asserted Louise.
"It's the only proper way."
"Then I'll start on thet dark-eyed one thet's a sewin'," he said,
Beth looked up from her work and smiled.
"Go ahead, Mr. Clark," she said, encouragingly. "My name is Beth. Had
you forgotten it?"
"Call me Skim," he said, gently.
"Very well, Skim,--Now look here, Patsy Doyle, if you're going to sit
there and giggle you'll spoil everything. Mr. Clark wants to court, and
it's getting late."
"P'raps I've went fur enough fer tonight," remarked Skim, uneasily.
"Next time they'll leave us alone, an' then----"
"Oh, don't postpone it, please!" begged Beth, giving the boy a demure
glance from her soft brown eyes. "And don't mind my cousins. I don't."
"These things kain't be hurried," he said. "Si Merkle courted three
weeks afore he popped. He tol' me so."
"Then he was a very foolish man," declared Patsy, positively. "Just look
at Beth! She's dying to have you speak out. What's the use of waiting,
when she knows why you are here?"
By this time Skim had been flattered to the extent of destroying any
stray sense he might ever have possessed. His utter ignorance of girls
and their ways may have been partly responsible for his idiocy, or his
mother's conviction that all that was necessary was for him to declare
himself in order to be accepted had misled him and induced him to
abandon any native diffidence he might have had. Anyway, the boy fell
into the snare set by the mischievous young ladies without a suspicion
of his impending fate.
"Miss Beth," said he, "ef yer willin', I'll marry ye; any time ye say. I
agreed t' help Dick Pearson with the harvestin', but I'll try to' git
Ned Long to take my place, an' it don't matter much, nohow."
"But I couldn't have you break an engagement," cried Beth, hastily.
"Oh, it wouldn't be right, at all. Mr. Pearson would never forgive me,"
"No; not before harvest, Skim. I couldn't think of it."
"No; I've resolved never to marry after harvest. So, as you're engaged,
and I don't approve of breaking engagements, I must refuse your
Skim looked surprised; then perplexed; then annoyed.
"P'raps I didn't pop jest right," he murmured, growing red again.
"You popped beautifully," declared Patsy. "But Beth is very peculiar,
and set in her ways. I'm afraid she wouldn't make you a good
"Then p'raps the gal in blue----"
"No;" said Louise. "I have the same prejudices as my cousin. If you
hadn't been engaged for the harvest I might have listened to you; but
that settles the matter definitely, as far as I am concerned."
"Ma'll be mad as a hornet ef I don't get any of ye," he remarked, sadly.
"She's paid Sam Cotting fer this courtin' suit, an' he won't take back
the gloves on no 'count arter they've been wore; an' thet'll set ma
crazy. Miss Patsy, ef yo' think ye could----"
"I'm sure I couldn't," said Patsy, promptly. "I'm awfully sorry to break
your heart, Skim, dear, and ruin your future life, and make you
misanthropic and cynical, and spoil your mother's investment and make
her mad as a hornet. All this grieves me terribly; but I'll recover from
it, if you'll only give me time. And I hope you'll find a wife that will
be more congenial than I could ever be."
Skim didn't understand all these words, but the general tenor of the
speech was convincing, and filled him with dismay.
"Rich gals is tarnal skeerce in these parts," he said, regretfully.
Then they gave way again, and so lusty was the merriment that Uncle John
and the Major abandoned their game and came across the room to discover
the source of all this amusement.
"What's up, young women?" asked their Uncle, glancing from their
laughing faces to the lowering, sullen one of the boy, who had only now
begun to suspect that he was being "poked fun at."
"Oh, Uncle!" cried Patsy; "you've no idea how near you have been to
losing us. We have each had an offer of marriage within the last
"Dear me!" ejaculated Uncle John.
"It shows the young man's intelligence and good taste," said the Major,
much amused. "But is it a Mormon ye are, sir, to want all three?"
directing a keen glance at Skim.
"Naw, 'tain't," he returned, wholly disgusted with the outcome of his
suit. "All three got as't 'cause none of 'em's got sense enough t' know
a good thing when they seen it."
"But I do," said the Major, stoutly; "and I maintain that you're a good
thing, and always will be. I hope, sir, you'll call 'round and see me in
Baltimore next year. I'll not be there, but ye can leave your card, just
"Please call again, sir," added Uncle John; "about October--just before
The boy got up.
"I don't keer none," he said, defiantly. "It's all ma's fault, gittin'
me laughed at, an' she won't hear the last of it in a hurry, nuther."
"Be gentle with her, Skim," suggested Beth, softly. "Remember she has to
face the world with you by her side."
Having no retort for this raillery, which he felt rather than
understood, Skim seized his hat and fled. Then Patsy wiped the tears
from her eyes and said:
"Wasn't it grand, girls? I haven't had so much fun since I was born."
THE TRAP IS SET.
Uncle John was forced to acknowledge to his nieces that his boast to
unmask Bob West within three days was mere blustering. If he
accomplished anything in three weeks he would consider himself
fortunate. But he had no wish to conceal anything from the girls, so he
told them frankly of his interview with the hardware merchant, and also
what Joe Wegg had said about the stock in the locked cupboard. They
were, of course, greatly interested in this new phase of the matter and
canvassed it long and eagerly.
"The man is lying, of course," said Patsy, "for Captain Wegg and poor
Mr. Thompson could not transfer their stock to West after that fatal
night when he brought to them the news of the fire."
"I believe the stock is still in this cupboard," declared Uncle John.
"Unless West stole the keys and has taken it away," suggested Louise.
"I'm sure he did not know about the secret drawer," said her uncle.
"Probably he stole the keys and searched the cupboard; if he had found
the stock he would have left the keys, which would then be of no further
use to him. As he did not find the stock certificates, he carried the
keys away, that he might search again at his leisure. And they've never
yet been returned."
"Why, John, ye're possessed of the true detective instinct," the Major
remarked, admiringly. "Your reasoning is at once clever and
"I wonder," mused Beth, "if we could tempt Mr. West to come again to
search the cupboard."
"He will scarcely venture to do that while we are here," replied Uncle
"I said 'tempt him,' Uncle."
"And what did you mean by that expression, Beth?"
"I'll think it over and tell you later," she returned, quietly.
* * * * *
Ethel Thompson would have shown Joe Wegg how much she resented his
leaving Millville without a word to her, had she not learned from Mr.
Merrick the boy's sad condition. Knowing her old friend was ill, she
determined to ignore the past and go to him at once, and Uncle John knew
very well there would be explanations to smooth away all the former
Joe was now aware of the fact that his letter to Ethel had never reached
its destination, so, as soon as the girl had arrived and the first
rather formal greetings were over, he sent Kate Kebble to McNutt's to
ask the agent to come over to the hotel at once.
The girl returned alone.
"Peggy says as he can't come," she announced.
"Why not?" asked Joe.
"Says he's jest painted his off foot blue an' striped it with red, an'
it hain't dried yit."
"Go back," said Joe, firmly. "Tell Peggy he's in trouble, and it's
likely to cost him more than a new coat of paint for his foot if he
doesn't come here at once."
Kate went back, and in due time the stump of McNutt's foot was heard on
the stairs. He entered the room looking worried and suspicious, and the
stern faces of Ethel and Joe did not reassure him, by any means. But he
tried to disarm the pending accusation with his usual brazen
"Nice time ter send fer me, this is, Joe," he grumbled. "It's gittin' so
a feller can't even paint his foot in peace an' quiet."
"Peggy," said Joe, "when I went away, three years ago, I gave you a
letter for Miss Ethel. What did you do with it?"
Peggy's bulging eyes stared at his blue foot, which he turned first one
side and then the other to examine the red stripes.
"It's this way, Joe," he replied; "there wa'n't no postige stamp on the
letter, an' Sam Cotting said it couldn't be posted no way 'thout
"It wasn't to be sent through the post-office," said the boy. "I gave
you a quarter to deliver it in person to Miss Ethel."
"Did ye, Joe? did ye?"
"Of course I did."
"Cur'ous," said McNutt, leaning over to touch the foot cautiously with
one finger, to see if the paint was dry.
"Well, Joe, there's no use gittin' mad 'bout it. Thet blamed quarter ye
giv me rolled down a crack in the stoop, an' got lost. Sure. Got lost as
easy as anything."
"Well, what was that to me?"
"Oh, I ain't blamin' you," said Peggy; "but 'twere a good deal to me, I
kin tell ye. A whole quarter lost!"
"Why didn't you take up a board, and get it again?"
"Oh, I did," said McNutt. cheerfully. "I did, Joe. But the money was all
black an' tarnished like, by thet time, an' didn't look at all like
silver. Sam he wouldn't take it at the store, so my ol' woman she 'lowed
she'd polish it up a bit. Ye know how sort o' vig'rous she is, Joe. She
polished that blamed quarter the same way she jaws an' sweeps; she
polished it 'til she rubbed both sides smooth as glass, an' then Sam
wouldn't take it, nuther, 'n' said it wasn't money any more. So I
drilled two holes in it an' sewed it on my pants fer a 'spender butt'n."
"But why didn't you deliver the letter?"
"Did ye 'spect I'd tramp way t' Thompson's Crossing fer nuthin'?"
"I gave you a quarter."
"An' it turned out to be on'y a 'spender butt'n. Be reason'ble, Joe."
"Where is the letter?"
"'Tain't a letter no more. It's on'y ol' fambly papers by this time.
Three years is----"
"Where is it? By thunder, Peggy, if you don't answer me I'll put you in
jail for breach of trust!"
"Ye've changed, Joe," sadly. "Ye ain't no more like----"
"Where is it?"
"Behind the lookin'-glass in my sett'n-room."
"Go and get it immediately, sir!"
"Ef I hev to cross thet dusty road twic't more, I'll hev to paint all
over agin, an' thet's a fact."
"Ethel," said Joe, with the calmness of despair, "you'll have to
telephone over to the Junction and ask them to send a constable here
"Never mind," cried McNutt, jumping up hastily; "I'll go. Paint don't
cost much, nohow."
He stumped away, but on his return preferred to let Kate carry the
soiled, torn envelope up to the young folks. The letter had palpably
been tampered with. It had been opened and doubtless read, and the flap
clumsily glued down again.
But Ethel had it now, and even after three years her sweet eyes dimmed
as she read the tender words that Joe had written because he lacked the
courage to speak them. "My one great ambition is to win a home for us,
dear," he had declared, and with this before her eyes Ethel reproached
herself for ever doubting his love or loyalty.
When she rode her pony over to the Wegg farm next day Ethel's bright
face was wreathed with smiles. She told her girl friends that she and
Joe had had a "good talk" together, and understood each other better
than ever before. The nieces did not tell her of their newly conceived
hopes that the young couple would presently possess enough money to
render their future comfortable, because there were so many chances that
Bob West might win the little game being played. But at this moment
Ethel did not need worldly wealth to make her heart light and happy, for
she had regained her childhood's friend, and his injuries only rendered
the boy the more interesting and companionable.
Meantime Uncle John had been busily thinking. It annoyed him to be so
composedly defied by a rascally country merchant, and he resolved, if he
must fight, to fight with all his might.
So he wired to his agent in New York the following words:
"What part of the Almaquo timber tract burned in forest fire three years
The answer he received made him give a satisfied grunt.
"No forest fires near Almaquo three years ago. Almadona, seventy miles
north, burned at that time, and newspaper reports confounded the names."
"Very good!" exclaimed Uncle John. "I've got the rascal now."
He issued instructions to the lumber company to make no further payments
of royalties to Robert West until otherwise advised, and this had the
effect of bringing West to the farm white with rage.
"What do you mean by this action, Mr. Merrick?" he demanded.
"We've been paying you money that does not belong to you for three
years, sir," was the reply. "In a few days, when my investigations are
complete, I will give you the option of being arrested for embezzlement
of funds belonging to Joseph Wegg and the Thompsons, or restoring to
them every penny of their money."
"You are carrying matters with a high hand, sir," he sneered.
"Oh, no; I am acting very leniently," said Uncle John.
"Neither Joe nor the Thompsons own a dollar's interest in the Almaquo
property. It is all mine, and mine alone."
"Then produce the stock and prove it!" retorted Mr. Merrick,
At that moment Louise interrupted the interview by entering the room
"Oh, Uncle," said she, "will you join us in a picnic to the Falls
tomorrow afternoon? We are all going."
"Then I won't be left behind," he replied, smiling upon her.
"We shall take even Thomas and Nora, and come home late in the evening,
"That suits me, my dear," said he.
West stood silent and scowling, but as the girl tripped away she saw him
raise his eyes and glance slyly toward the cupboard, for they were in
the right wing room.
"Mr. Merrick," he resumed, in a harsh voice; "I warn you that if your
company holds up the payment of my royalties it will break the contract,
and I will forbid them to cut another tree. You are doubtless aware that
there are a dozen firms willing to take your place and pay me higher
"Act as you please, sir," said Uncle John, indifferently. "I believe you
are face to face with ruin, and it won't matter much what you do."
West went away more quietly than he had come, and the girls exclaimed,
"The trap is set, Uncle!"
"I think so, myself," he rejoined. "That picnic was a happy thought,
Early the next afternoon they started out with hammocks and baskets and
all the paraphernalia of a picnic party. The three girls, Nora and Uncle
John squeezed themselves into the surrey, while the Major and Old Hucks
rode after them in the ancient buggy, with Dan moaning and groaning
every step he took. But the old horse moved more briskly when following
Joe, and Hucks could get more speed out of him than anyone else; so he
did not lag much behind.
The procession entered Millville, where a brief stop was made at the
store, and then made its exit by the north road. West was standing in
the door of his hardware store, quietly observing them. When they
disappeared in the grove he locked the door of his establishment and
sauntered in the direction of the Pearson farm, no one noticing him
except Peggy McNutt, who was disappointed because he had intended to go
over presently and buy a paper of tacks.
When the village was left behind, Uncle John drove swiftly along,
following the curve of the lake until he reached a primitive lane that
he had discovered formed a short cut directly back to the Wegg farm. Old
Thomas was amazed by this queer action on the part of the picnic party,
but aside from blind Nora, who had no idea where they were, the others
seemed full of repressed eagerness, and in no way surprised.
The lane proved very rocky though, and they were obliged to jolt slowly
over the big cobble stones. So Beth and Patsy leaped out of the surrey
and the former called out:
"We will run through the forest, Uncle, and get home as soon as you do."
"Be careful not to show yourselves, then," he replied. "Remember our
"We will. And don't forget to tie the horses in the thicket, and warn
Thomas and Nora to keep quiet until we come for them," said Patsy.
"I'll attend to all that, dear," remarked Louise, composedly. "But if
you girls are determined to walk, you must hurry along, or you will keep
The nieces had explored every path in the neighborhood by this time, so
Beth and Patsy were quite at home in the pine forest. The horses started
up again, and after struggling along another quarter of a mile a wheel
of the surrey dished between two stones, and with a bump the axle struck
the ground and the journey was promptly arrested.
"What shall we do now?" asked Uncle John, much annoyed, as the party
alighted to examine the wreck.
"Send Thomas back to the village for another wheel" suggested the Major.
"Not today!" cried Louise. "We mustn't appear in the village again this
afternoon, on any account. It is absolutely necessary we should keep out
"True," agreed Uncle John, promptly. "Thomas and Nora must picnic here
all by themselves, until nearly midnight. Then they may drive the buggy
home, leading Daniel behind them. It will be time enough tomorrow to get
a new buggy wheel, and the broken surrey won't be in anybody's way until
we send for it."
If Old Hucks thought they had all gone crazy that day he was seemingly
justified in the suspicion, for his master left the baskets of good
things to be consumed by himself and Nora and started to walk to the
farm, the Major and Louise accompanying him.
"We mustn't loiter," said the girl, "for while West may wait until
darkness falls to visit the farm, he is equally liable to arrive at any
time this afternoon. He has seen us all depart, and believes the house
But they were obliged to keep to the lane, where walking was difficult,
and meantime Patsy and Beth were tripping easily along their woodland
paths and making much better progress.
"We're early," said Beth, as they came to the edge of the woods and
sighted the farm house; "but that is better than being late."
Then she stopped suddenly with a low cry and pointed to the right wing,
which directly faced them. Bob West turned the corner of the house,
tried the door of Uncle John's room, and then walked to one of the
French windows. The sash was not fastened, so he deliberately opened it
and stepped inside.
"What shall we do?" gasped Patsy, clasping her hands excitedly.
Beth was always cool in an emergency.
"You creep up to the window, dear, and wait till you hear me open the
inside door," said she. "I'll run through the house and enter from the
living-room. The key is under the mat, you know."
"But what can we do? Oughtn't we to wait until Uncle John and father
come?" Patsy asked, in a trembling voice.
"Of course not. West might rob the cupboard and be gone by that time.
We've got to act promptly, Patsy; so don't be afraid."
Without further words Beth ran around the back of the house and
disappeared, while Patsy, trying to control the beating of her heart,
stole softly over the lawn to the open window of Uncle John's room.
She could not help looking in, at the risk of discovery. Bob West--tall,
lean and composed as ever--was standing beside the cupboard, the doors
of which were wide open. The outer doors were of wood, panelled and
carved; the inner ones were plates of heavy steel, and in the lock that
secured these latter doors were the keys that had so long been missing.
Both were attached to a slender silver chain.
As Patsy peered in at the man West was engaged in deliberately examining
packet after packet of papers, evidently striving to find the missing
stock certificates. He was in no hurry, believing he would have the
house to himself for several hours; so he tumbled Captain Wegg's
souvenirs of foreign lands in a heap on the floor beside him, thrusting
his hand into every corner of the cupboard in order that the search
might be thorough. He had once before examined the place in vain; this
time he intended to succeed.
Presently West drew a cigar from his pocket, lighted it, and was about
to throw the match upon the floor when the thought that it might later
betray his presence made him pause and then walk to the open window. As
he approached, Patsy became panic-stricken and, well knowing that she
ought to run or hide, stood rooted to the spot, gazing half appealingly
and half defiantly into the startled eyes of the man who suddenly
So for a moment they stood motionless. West was thinking rapidly. By
some error be had miscounted the picnic party and this girl had been
left at home. She had discovered his intrusion, had seen him at the
cupboard, and would report the matter to John Merrick. This being the
case, it would do him no good to retreat without accomplishing his
purpose. If once he secured the stock certificates he could afford to
laugh at his accusers, and secure them he must while he had the
So clearly did these thoughts follow one another that West's hesitation
seemed only momentary. Without a word to the girl he tossed the match
upon the grass, calmly turned his back, and started for the
But here a new surprise awaited him. Brief as had been his absence,
another girl had entered the room. Beth opened the door even as West
turned toward the window, and, taking in the situation at a glance, she
tiptoed swiftly to the cupboard, withdrew the keys from the lock and
dropped them noiselessly into a wide-mouthed vase that stood on the
table and was partially filled with flowers. The next instant West
turned and saw her, but she smiled at him triumphantly. "Good afternoon,
sir," said the girl, sweetly; "can I do anything to assist you?"
West uttered an impatient exclamation and regarded Beth savagely.
"Is the house full of girls?" he demanded.
"Oh, no; Patsy and I are quite alone," she replied, with a laugh. "Come
in, Patsy dear, and help me to entertain our guest," she added.
Patsy came through the window and stood beside her cousin. The man
stared at them, bit his lip, and then turned again to the cupboard. If
he noted the absence of the keys he did not remark upon the fact, but
with hurried yet thorough examination began anew to turn over the
bundles of papers.
Beth sat down and watched him, but Patsy remained standing behind her
chair. West emptied all the shelves, and then after a pause took out his
pocket knife and began tapping with its end the steel sides of the
cupboard. There was no doubt he suspected the existence of a secret
aperture, and Beth began to feel uneasy.
Slowly the man worked his way downward, from shelf to shelf, and began
to sound the bottom plates, wholly oblivious of the fascinated gaze of
the two young girls. Then a sudden gruff ejaculation startled them all,
and West swung around to find a new group of watchers outside the
window. In the foreground appeared the stern face of John Merrick.
The scene was intensely dramatic to all but the singular man who had
been battling to retain a fortune. West knew in an instant that his
attempt to secure the certificates was a failure. He turned from the
cupboard, dusted his hands, and nodded gravely to the last arrivals.
"Come in, Mr. Merrick," said he, seating himself in a chair and removing
his hat, which he had been wearing. "I owe you an apology for intruding
upon your premises in your absence."
Uncle John strode into the room angry and indignant at the fellow's cool
impertinence. The Major and Louise followed, and all eyes centered upon
the face of Bob West.
"The contents of this cupboard," remarked the hardware merchant, calmly,
"belong to the estate of Captain Wegg, and can scarcely be claimed by
you because you have purchased the house. You falsely accused me the
other day, sir, and I have been searching for proof that the Almaquo
Timber Tract stock is entirely my property."
"Have you found such proof?" inquired Mr. Merrick.
"And you say the stock was all issued to you?"
"It was all transferred to me by Captain Wegg and Will Thompson."
"Does the transfer appear upon the stock itself?"
"Of course, sir."
"In that case," said Uncle John, "I shall be obliged to ask your pardon.
But the fact can be easily proved."
He walked to the open cupboard, felt for the slide Joe had described to
him, and drew it forward. A small drawer was behind the orifice, and
from this Mr. Merrick drew a packet of papers.
West gave a start and half arose. Then he settled back into his chair
"H-m. This appears to be the stock in question," said Uncle John. He
drew a chair to the table, unfolded the documents and examined them with
The nieces watched his face curiously. Mr. Merrick first frowned, then
turned red, and finally a stern, determined look settled upon his
"Take your stock, Mr. West," he said, tossing it toward the man; "and
try to forgive us for making fools of ourselves!"
MR. WEST EXPLAINS.
A cry of amazed protest burst from the girls. The Major whistled softly
and walked to the window.
"I find the stock properly transferred," continued Uncle John, grimly
conscious that he was as thoroughly disappointed as the girls. "It is
signed by both Wegg and Thompson, and witnessed in the presence of a
notary. I congratulate you, Mr. West. You have acquired a fortune."
"But not recently," replied the hardware dealer, enjoying the confusion
of his recent opponents. "I have owned this stock for more than three
years, and you will see by the amount endorsed upon it that I paid a
liberal price for it, under the circumstances."
Uncle John gave a start and a shrewd look.
"Of course you did," said he. "On paper."
"I have records to prove that both Captain Wegg and Will Thompson
received their money," said West, quietly. "I see it is hard for you to
abandon the idea that I am a rogue."
There could be no adequate reply to this, so for a time all sat in moody
silence. But the thoughts of some were busy.
"I would like Mr. West to explain what became of the money he paid for
this stock," said Louise; adding: "That is, if he will be so courteous."
West did not answer for a moment. Then he said, with a gesture of
"I am willing to tell all I know. But you people must admit that the
annoyances you have caused me during the past fortnight, to say nothing
of the gratuitous insults heaped upon my head, render me little inclined
to favor you."
"You are quite justified in feeling as you do," replied Uncle John,
meekly. "I have been an ass, West; but circumstances warranted me in
suspecting you, and even Joseph Wegg did not know that the Almaquo stock
had been transferred to you. He merely glanced at it at the time of his
father's death, without noticing the endorsement, and thought the fire
had rendered it worthless. But if you then owned the stock, why was it
not in your possession?"
"That was due to my carelessness," was the reply. "The only notary
around here is at Hooker's Falls, and Mr. Thompson offered to have him
come to Captain Wegg's residence and witness the transfer. As my
presence was not necessary for this, and I had full confidence in my
friends' integrity, I paid them their money, which they were eager to
secure at once, and said I would call in a few days for the stock. I did
call, and was told the notary had been here and the transfer had been
legally made. Wegg said he would get the stock from the cupboard and
hand it to me; but we both forgot it at that time. After his death I
could not find it, for it was in the secret drawer."
"Another thing, sir," said Uncle John. "If neither Wegg nor Thompson was
then interested in the Almaquo property, why did the news of its
destruction by fire shock them so greatly that the result was Captain
"I see it will be necessary for me to explain to you more fully,"
returned West, with a thoughtful look. "It is evident, Mr. Merrick, from
your questions, that some of these occurrences seem suspicious to a
stranger, and perhaps you are not so much to be blamed as, in my
annoyance and indignation, I have imagined."
"I would like the matter cleared up for the sake of Ethel and Joe," said
Mr. Merrick, simply.
"And so would I," declared the hardware dealer. "You must know, sir,
that Will Thompson was the one who first led Captain Wegg into investing
his money. I think the Captain did it merely to please Will, for at that
time he had become so indifferent to worldly affairs that he took no
interest in anything beyond a mild wish to provide for his son's future.
But Thompson was erratic in judgment, so Wegg used to bring their
matters to me to decide upon. I always advised them as honestly as I was
able. At the time I secured an option on the Almaquo tract, and wanted
them to join me, Will Thompson had found another lot of timber, but
located in an out-of-the-way corner, which he urged the Captain to join
him in buying. Wegg brought the matter to me, as usual, and I pointed
out that my proposed contract with the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company would
assure our making a handsome profit at Almaquo, while Thompson had no
one in view to cut the other tract. Indeed, it was far away from any
railroad. Wegg saw the force of my argument, and insisted that Thompson
abandon his idea and accept my proposition. Together we bought the
property, having formed a stock company, and the contract for cutting
the timber was also secured. Things were looking bright for us and
royalty payments would soon be coming in.
"Then, to my amazement, Wegg came to me and wanted to sell out their
interests. He said Thompson had always been dissatisfied because they
had not bought the other tract of timber, and that the worry and
disappointment was affecting his friend's mind. He was personally
satisfied that my investment was the best, but, in order to sooth old
Will and prevent his mind from giving way, Wegg wanted to withdraw and
purchase the other tract.
"I knew there was a fortune in Almaquo, so I went to New York and
mortgaged all I possessed, discounting a lot of notes given me by
farmers in payment for machinery, and finally borrowing at a high rate
of interest the rest of the money I needed. In other words I risked all
my fortune on Almaquo, and brought the money home to pay Wegg and
Thompson for their interest. The moment they received the payment they
invested it in the Bogue tract--"
"Hold on!" cried Uncle John. "What tract did you say?"
"The Bogue timber tract, sir. It lies--"
"I know where it lies. Our company has been a whole year trying to find
out who owned it."
"Wegg and Thompson bought it. I was angry at the time, because their
withdrawal had driven me into a tight corner to protect my investment,
and I told them they would bitterly regret their action. I think Wegg
agreed with me, but Will Thompson was still stubborn.
"Then came the news of the fire at Almaquo. It was a false report, I
afterward learned, but at that time I believed the newspapers, and the
blow almost deprived me of reason. In my excitement I rushed over to
Wegg's farm and found the two men together, whereupon I told them I
"The news affected them powerfully because they had just saved
themselves from a like ruin, they thought. Wegg was also a sympathetic
man, in spite of his reserve. His old heart trouble suddenly came upon
him, aggravated by the excitement of the hour, and he died with scarcely
a moan. Thompson, whose reason was tottering long before this, became
violently insane at witnessing his friend's death, and has never since
recovered. That is all I am able to tell you, sir."
"The Bogue tract," said Uncle John, slowly, "is worth far more than the
Almaquo. Old Will Thompson was sane enough when insisting on that
investment. But where is the stock, or deed, to show they bought that
"I do not know, sir. I only know they told me they had effected the
"Pardon me," said the Major. "Have you not been through this cupboard
West looked at him with a frown.
"Yes; in a search for my own stock," he said. "But I found neither that
nor any deed to the Bogue property. I am not a thief, Major Doyle."
"You stole the keys, though," said Louise, pointedly.
"I did not even do that," said West. "On the day of the funeral Joe
carelessly left them lying upon a table, so I slipped them into my
pocket. When I thought of them again Joe had gone away and I did not
know his address. I came over and searched the cupboard unsuccessfully.
But it was not a matter of great importance at that time if the stock
was mislaid, since there was no one to contest my ownership of it. It
was only after Mr. Merrick accused me of robbing my old friends and
ordered my payments stopped that I realized it was important to me to
prove my ownership. That is why I came here today."
Again a silence fell upon the group. Said Uncle John, finally:
"If the deed to the Bogue tract can be found, Joe and Ethel will be
rich. I wonder what became of the paper."
No one answered, for here was another mystery.
PEGGY HAS REVENGE.
Joe Wegg made a rapid recovery, his strength returning under the
influence of pleasant surroundings and frequent visits from Ethel and
Uncle John's three nieces. Not a word was hinted to either the invalid
or the school teacher regarding the inquiries Mr. Merrick was making
about the deed to the Bogue timber lands, which, if found, would make
the young couple independent. Joe was planning to exploit a new patent
as soon as he could earn enough to get it introduced, and Ethel
exhibited a sublime confidence in the boy's ability that rendered all
question of money insignificant.
Joe's sudden appearance in the land of his birth and his generally
smashed up condition were a nine days' wonder in Millville. The gossips
wanted to know all the whys and wherefores, but the boy kept his room in
the hotel, or only walked out when accompanied by Ethel or one of the
three nieces. Sometimes they took him to ride, as he grew better, and
the fact that Joe "were hand an' glove wi' the nabobs" lent him a
distinction he had never before possessed.
McNutt, always busy over somebody else's affairs, was very curious to
know what had caused the accident Joe had suffered. Notwithstanding the
little affair of the letter, in which he had not appeared with especial
credit, Peggy made an effort to interview the young man that resulted in
his complete discomfiture. But that did not deter him from indulging in
various vivid speculations about Joe Wegg, which the simple villagers
listened to with attention. For one thing, he confided to "the boys" at
the store that, in his opinion, the man who had murdered Cap'n Wegg had
tried to murder his son also, and it wasn't likely Joe could manage to
escape him a second time. Another tale evolved from Peggy's fertile
imagination was that Joe, being about to starve to death in the city,
had turned burglar and been shot in the arm in an attempt at
"Wouldn't be s'prised," said the agent, in an awed voice, "ef the p'lice
was on his track now. P'raps there's a reward offered, boys; let's keep
an eye on him!"
He waylaid the nieces once or twice, and tried to secure from them a
verification of his somber suspicions, which they mischievously
The girls found him a source of much amusement, and relieved their own
disappointment at finding the "Wegg Mystery" a pricked bubble by getting
McNutt excited over many sly suggestions of hidden crimes. They knew he
was harmless, for even his neighbors needed proof of any assertion he
made; moreover, the investigation Uncle John was making would soon set
matters right; so the young ladies did not hesitate to "have fun" at the
little agent's expense.
One of McNutt's numerous occupations was raising a "patch" of
watermelons each year on the lot back of the house. These he had
fostered with great care since the plants had first sprouted through the
soil, and in these late August days two or three hundreds of fine, big
melons were just getting ripe. He showed the patch with much pride one
day to the nieces, saying:
"Here's the most extry-fine melling-patch in this county, ef I do say it
myself. Dan Brayley he thinks he kin raise mellings, but the ol' fool
ain't got a circumstance to this. Ain't they beauties?"
"It seems to me," observed Patsy, gravely, "that Brayley's are just as
good. We passed his place this morning and wondered how he could raise
such enormous melons."
"I'm sure they are finer than these," said Beth.
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" Peggy's eyes stared as they had never stared
before. "Dan Brayley, he's a miser'ble ol' skinflint. Thet man couldn't
raise decent mellings ef he tried."
"What do you charge for melons, Mr. McNutt?" inquired Louise.
"Charge? Why--er--fifty cents a piece is my price to nabobs; an' dirt
cheap at that!"
"That is too much," declared Patsy. "Mr. Brayley says he will sell his
melons for fifteen cents each."
"Him! Fifteen cents!" gasped Peggy, greatly disappointed. "Say,
Brayley's a disturbin' element in these parts. He oughter go to jail fer
asking fifteen cents fer them mean little mellings o' his'n."
"They seem as large as yours," murmured Louise.
"But they ain't. An' Brayley's a cheat an' a rascal, while a honester
man ner me don't breathe. Nobody likes Brayley 'round Millville. Why,
on'y las' winter he called me a meddler--in public!--an' said as I shot
off my mouth too much. Me!"
"But that's Dan Brayley. My mellings at fifty cents is better 'n his'n
"Tell me," said Patsy, with a smile, "did you ever rob a melon-patch,
"Me? I don't hev to. I grow 'em."
"But the ones you grow are worth fifty cents each, are they not?"
"Sure; mine is."
"Then every time you eat one of your own melons you eat fifty cents. If
you were eating one of Mr. Brayley's melons you would only eat
"And it would be Brayley's fifteen cents, too," added Beth, quickly.
Peggy turned his protruding eyes from one to the other, and a smile
slowly spread over his features.
"By jinks, let's rob Brayley's melling-patch!" he cried.
"All right; we'll help you," answered Patsy, readily.
"Oh, my dear!" remonstrated Louise, not understanding.
"It will be such fun," replied her cousin, with eyes dancing merrily.
"Boys always rob melon-patches, so I don't see why girls shouldn't. When
shall we do it, Mr. McNutt?"
"There ain't any moon jest now, an' the nights is dark as blazes. Let's
"It's a bargain," declared Patsy. "We will come for you in the surrey at
ten o'clock, and all drive together to the back of Brayley's yard and
take all the melons we want."
"It'll serve him right," said Peggy, delightedly. "Ol' Dan called me a
meddler onc't--in public--an' I'm bound t' git even with him."
"Don't betray us, sir," pleaded Beth.
"I can't," replied McNutt, frankly; "I'm in it myself, an' we'll jest
find out what his blame-twisted ol' fifteen-cent mellings is like."
Patsy was overjoyed at the success of her plot, which she had conceived
on the spur of the moment, as most clever plots are conceived. On the
way home she confided to her cousins a method of securing revenge upon
the agent for selling them the three copies of the "Lives of
"McNutt wants to get even with Brayley, he says, and we want to get even
with McNutt. I think our chances are best, don't you?" she asked.