This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Language:
Form:
Genre:
Published:
  • 1908
Buy it on Amazon FREE Audible 30 days

Louise was surprised at this frank reference, and Uncle John coughed to hide his embarrassment.

“I–I hope the invalid is–is improving,” he said, doubtful whether he should say anything on the delicate subject or not.

“He is always the same, sir,” was the quiet response. “I suppose they have told you that grandfather is a madman? Our great trouble is well known in this neighborhood.”

“He is not dangerous. I suppose?” hazarded Uncle John, remembering the brutal bellowing.

“Oh, not at all. He is fully paralyzed from his waist down, poor grandfather, and can do no harm to anyone. But often his outbreaks are unpleasant to listen to,” continued the girl, deprecatingly, as if suddenly conscious that they had overheard the recent uproar.

“Has he been–this way–for long?” inquired Louise.

“His mind has been erratic and unbalanced since I can remember,” answered Ethel, calmly, “but he first became violent at the time Captain Wegg died, some three years ago. Grandfather was very fond of the Captain, and happened to be with him at the time of his sudden death. The shock drove him mad.”

“Was he paralyzed before that time?” asked Louise, earnestly.

“No; but the paralysis followed almost immediately. The doctor says that a blood vessel which burst in the brain is responsible for both afflictions.”

The pause that followed was growing awkward when Uncle John said, with an evident effort to change the subject:

“This is a fine old homestead.”

“It is, indeed,” responded Ethel, brightly, “and it enjoys the distinction of being one of the first houses built in the foothills. My great-grandfather was really the first settler in these parts and originally located his cabin where the mill now stands. ‘Little Bill Thompson,’ he was called, for he was a small, wiry man–very different from grandfather, who in his prime was a powerful man of over six feet. Little Bill Hill and Little Bill Creek were named after this pioneer great-grandsire, who was quite successful raising flocks of sheep on the plateau. Before he died he built this house, preferring the location to his first one.”

“The garden is beautiful,” said Louise, enthusiastically. “And do you teach in the little brick school-house across the way?”

“Yes. Grandfather built it years ago, without dreaming I would ever teach there. Now the county supports the school and pays me my salary.”

“How long have you taught?”

“For two years. It is necessary, now that grandfather is disabled. He has a small income remaining, however, and with what I earn we get along very nicely.”

“It was very good of you to assist in getting our house ready for us,” said Louise. “We might have found things in sorry condition but for your kindness.”

“Oh, I enjoyed the work, I assure you,” replied Ethel. “As it is my vacation, it was a real pleasure to me to have something to do. But I fear my arrangement of your pretty furniture was very ungraceful.”

“We haven’t altered a single thing,” declared Louise. “You must have found it a tedious task, unpacking and getting everything in shape.”

“Tom and Nora were good help, because they are fond of me and seem to understand my wishes; and Peggy McNutt brought me some men to do the lifting and rough work,” explained Ethel.

“Have you known Hucks and his wife long?” asked Uncle John.

“Since I can remember, sir. They came here many years ago, with Captain Wegg.”

“And has Thomas always smiled?” Louise inquired.

“Always,” was the laughing reply. “It’s an odd expression–isn’t it?–to dwell forever on a man’s face. But Tom is never angry, or hurt or excited by anything, so there is no reason he should not smile. At the time of Captain Wegg’s death and poor grandfather’s terrible affliction, Old Hucks kept right on smiling, the same as ever; and perhaps his pleasant face helped to cheer us all.”

Louise drew a long breath.

“Then the smile is a mask,” she said, “and is assumed to conceal the man’s real feelings.”

“I do not think so,” Ethel answered, thoughtfully. “The smile is habitual, and dominates any other expression his features might be capable of; but that it is assumed I do not believe. Thomas is a simple-minded, honest-hearted old fellow, and to face the world smilingly is a part of his religion. I am sure he has nothing to conceal, and his devotion to his blind wife is very beautiful.”

“But Nora–how long has she been blind?”

“Perhaps all her life; I cannot tell how long. Yet it is wonderful how perfectly she finds her way without the aid of sight. Captain Wegg used to say she was the best housekeeper he ever knew.”

“Did not his wife keep house for him, when she was alive?”

“I do not remember her.”

“They say she was most unhappy.”

Ethel dropped her eyes and did not reply.

“How about Cap’n Wegg?” asked Uncle John. “Did you like him? You see, we’re mighty curious about the family, because we’ve acquired their old home, and are bound to be interested in the people that used to live there.”

“That is natural,” remarked the little school teacher, with a sigh. “Captain Wegg was always kind to me; but the neighbors as a rule thought him moody and bad-tempered.” After a pause she added: “He was not as kind to his son as to me. But I think his life was an unhappy one, and we have no right to reprove his memory too severely for his faults.”

“What made him unhappy?” asked Louise, quickly.

Ethel smiled into her eager face.

“No one has solved that problem, they say. The Captain was as silent as he was morose.”

The detective instinct was alive in Louise. She hazarded a startling query:

“Who killed Captain Wegg?” she demanded, suddenly.

Another smile preceded the reply.

“A dreadful foe called heart disease. But come; let me show you my garden. There are no such roses as these for miles around.”

Louise was confident she had made progress. Ethel had admitted several things that lent countenance to the suspicions already aroused; but perhaps this simple country girl had never imagined the tragedy that had been enacted at her very door.

She cordially urged Ethel Thompson to spend a day with them at the farm, and Uncle John, who was pleased with the modesty and frankness of the fair-haired little school teacher, earnestly seconded the invitation.

Then he thought of going home, and the thought reminded him of Dan.

“Do you know,” he inquired, “where I could buy a decent horse?”

The girl looked thoughtful a moment; then glanced up with a bright smile.

“Will you buy one off me?” she asked.

“Willingly, my dear, if you’ve an animal to sell.”

“It’s–it’s our Joe. He was grandfather’s favorite colt when his trouble came upon him. We have no use for him now, for I always ride or drive my pony. And grandmother says he’s eating his head off to no purpose; so we’d like to sell him. If you will come to the barn I’ll introduce you to him.”

Joe proved on inspection to be an excellent horse, if appearances were to be trusted, and Ethel assured Mr. Merrick that the steed was both gentle and intelligent.

“Do you use that surrey?” inquired Uncle John, pointing to a neat vehicle that seemed to be nearly new.

“Very seldom, sir. Grandmother would like to sell it with the horse.”

“It’s exactly what I need,” declared Mr. Merrick. “How much for Joe and his harness, and the surrey?”

“I’ll go and ask what grandmother wants.”

She returned after a few minutes, stating a figure that made Uncle John lift his brows with a comical expression.

“A hundred dollars! Do you take me for a brigand, little girl? I know what horses are worth, for I’ve bought plenty of ’em. Your Joe seems sound as a dollar, and he’s just in his prime. A hundred and fifty is dirt cheap for him, and the surrey will be worth at least seventy-five. Put in the harness at twenty-five, and I’ll give you two-fifty for the outfit, and not a cent more or less. Eh?”

“No, indeed,” said Ethel. “We could not get more than a hundred dollars from anyone else around here.”

“Because your neighbors are countrymen, and can’t afford a proper investment. So when they buy at all they only give about half what a thing is actually worth. But I’ll be honest with you. The price I offer is a good deal less than I’d have to pay in the city–Hutchinson would charge me five hundred, at least–and I need just what you’ve got to sell. What do you say, Miss Ethel?”

“The price is one hundred dollars, Mr. Merrick.”

“I won’t pay it. Let me talk with your grandmother.”

“She does not see anyone, sir.”

Louise looked up sharply, scenting another clue.

“Isn’t she well, dear?” she asked in smooth tones.

“She looks after grandfather, and helps Aunt Lucy with the housework.”

“Well, come, Louise; we’ll go home,” said Uncle John, sadly. “I’d hoped to be able to drive this fine fellow back, but Dan’ll have to groan an’ balk all the way to the farm.”

Ethel smiled.

“Better buy at my price, Mr. Merrick,” she suggested.

“Tell you what I’ll do,” he said, pausing. “I’ll split the difference. Take two hundred and well call it a bargain.”

“But I cannot do that, sir.”

“It will help pay you for the hard work of fixing up the house,” he rejoined, pleadingly. “Your bill wasn’t half enough.”

“My bill?” wonderingly.

“The one I paid McNutt for your services.”

“I made no charge, sir. I could not accept anything for a bit of assistance to a neighbor.”

“Oh! Then McNutt got it, did he?”

“I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Merrick. I told Peggy I would not accept payment.”

“H-m. Never mind. We’re not going to quarrel, little neighbor. May I hitch Joe to the surrey?”

“If you like. I’ll help you.”

Uncle John led Joe from his stall and together they harnessed the horse to the surrey. The girl knew better than the man how to buckle the straps properly, while Louise stood by helplessly and watched the performance.

Then Uncle John went for old Dan, whom he led, rickety buggy and all, into the Thompson stable.

“I’ll send Hucks over to get him, although we might as well knock him in the head,” he said as he unharnessed the ancient steed. “Now then, Louise, hop in.”

“You’ll be sure to come over Thursday, for the day, Miss Thompson?” asked Louise, taking Joe’s reins from her uncle’s hands.

“I’ll not forget such a delightful engagement, be sure.”

Uncle John had his pocketbook out, and now he wadded up some bills and thrust them into the little school teacher’s hand.

“Drive ahead, Louise,” he called. “Good morning, my dear. See you on Thursday.”

As the vehicle rolled out of the yard and turned into the highway, Ethel unrolled the bills with trembling fingers.

“If he has dared–!” she began, but paused abruptly with a smile of content.

The rich man had given her exactly one hundred dollars.

CHAPTER IX.

THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS.

On Wednesday afternoon McNutt drove the sad-eyed sorrel mare over to the Wegg farm again. He had been racking his brain for a way to get more money out of the nabob, for the idea had become a veritable passion with him and now occupied all his thoughts.

That very morning an inspiration had come to him. Among other occupations he had at one time adopted that of a book-agent, and by dint of persistent energy had sold numerous copies of “Radford’s Lives of the Saints” to the surrounding farmers. They had cost him ninety cents a copy and he had sold them at three dollars each, netting a fine profit in return for his labor. The books were printed upon cheap paper, fearfully illustrated with blurred cuts, but the covers were bound in bright red with gold lettering. Through misunderstandings three of these copies had come back to him, the subscribers refusing to accept them; and so thorough had been his canvassing that there remained no other available customers for the saintly works. So Peggy had kept them on a shelf in his “office” for several years, and now, when his eye chanced to light upon them, he gave a snort of triumph and pounced upon them eagerly. Mr. Merrick was a newcomer. Without doubt he could be induced to buy a copy of Radford’s Lives.

An hour later McNutt was on his mission, the three copies, which had been carefully dusted, reclining on the buggy seat beside him. Arrived at the Wegg farm, he drove up to the stile and alighted.

Louise was reading in the hammock, and merely glanced at the little man, who solemnly stumped around to the back door with the three red volumes tucked underneath his arm. He had brought them all along to make his errand “look like business.”

“Where’s the nabob?” he asked blind Nora.

“What’s that, Mr. McNutt?” she inquired, as if puzzled. She knew his voice, as she did that of nearly everyone with whom she had ever been brought in contact.

“Why, the nabob; the boss; Mr. Merrick.”

“Oh. He’s in the barn with Tom, I guess.”

McNutt entered the barn. Uncle John was seated upon an overturned pail watching Old Hucks oil Joe’s harness. The agent approached him with a deferential bow.

“Sir,” said he, “you’ll ‘scuse my comin’ agin so soon to be a-botherin’; but I hev here three copies of Radford’s famis wucks on the Lives o’ the Saints, in a edishun dee looks—-“

“A what?”

“A edishun dee looks, which means extry fine. It’s a great book an’ they’s all out’n print ‘cept these three, which I hain’t no doubt many folks would be glad to give their weight in gold fer, an’ some over.”

“Stand out of the light, McNutt.”

The agent shifted his position.

“Them books, sir—-“

“Oh, take ’em away.”

“What!”

“I don’t read novels.”

McNutt scratched his head, perplexed at the rebuff. His “dee looks” speech had usually resulted in a sale. An idea flashed across his brain–perhaps evolved by the scratching.

“The young lady, sir–“

“Oh, the girls are loaded with books,” growled the nabob.

The agent became desperate.

“But the young lady in the hammick, sir, as I jest now left, says to tell ye she wants one o’ these books mighty bad, an’ hopes you’ll buy it for her eddificationing.”

“Oh; she does, eh?”

“Mighty bad, sir.”

Uncle John watched Thomas polish a buckle.

“Is it a moral work?” he asked.

“Nuthin’ could be moraler, sir. All ’bout the lives o’–“

“How much is it?”

“Comes pretty high, sir. Three dollars. But it’s–“

“Here. Take your money and get out. You’re interrupting me.”

“Very sorry, sir. Much obleeged, sir. Where’ll I leave the book?”

“Throw it in the manger.”

McNutt selected a volume that had a broken corner and laid it carefully on the edge of the oat-bin. Then he put his money in his pocket and turned away.

“Morn’n’ to ye, Mr. Merrick.”

“Stop a bit,” said Uncle John, suddenly.

The agent stopped.

“I believe I paid you ten dollars for Miss Ethel Thompson’s services. Is that correct?”

“Ye–yes, Mr. Merrick.”

McNutt’s heart was in his shoes and he looked guiltily at his accuser, the pale blue eyes bulging fearfully.

“Very well; see that she gets it.”

“Of course, Mr. Merrick.”

“And at once. You may go.”

McNutt stumped from the barn. He felt that a dreadful catastrophe had overtaken him. Scarcely could he restrain the impulse to sob aloud. Ten dollars!–Ten dollars gone to the dogs as the result of his visit to the nabob that morning! To lose ten dollars in order to gain three was very bad business policy. McNutt reflected bitterly that he would have been better off had he stayed at home. He ought to have been contented with what he had already made, and the severe manner the nabob had used in addressing him told the agent plainly that he need not expect further pickings from this source.

In the midst of his despair the comforting thought that Ethel would surely refuse the money came to sustain him; so he recovered somewhat his former spirits. As he turned the corner of the house he observed Louise still reading in the hammock.

In some ways McNutt was a genius. He did not neglect opportunities.

“Here’s my las’ chance at these idjits,” he muttered, “an’ I’ll learn thet nabob what it costs, to make Marsh McNutt stand out’n his light.”

Then he hastened over to the hammock.

“‘Scuse me, miss,” said he, in his most ingratiating voice. “Is yer uncle ’round anywheres?”

“Isn’t he in the barn?” asked the girl, looking up.

“Can’t find him, high ner low. But he ordered a book of me t’other day–‘Radford’s Lives o’ the Saints’–an’ perhaps you’ll take it an’ pay me the money, so’s I kin go home.”

Louise gazed at the man musingly. He was one of the people she intended to pump for information concerning the mystery of Captain Wegg, and she must be gracious to him in order to win his good-will and induce him to speak freely. With this thought in mind she drew out her purse and asked:

“How much were you to be paid for the book?”

“Three dollars, miss.”

“Here is the money, then. Tell me–your name is McNutt, isn’t it?–how long have you lived in this place?”

“All my life, miss. Thank ‘e, miss. Good day to ye, miss.”

He placed the book in the hammock beside her.

“Don’t go, please.” said the girl. “I’d like you to tell me something about Captain Wegg, and of his poor wife who died, and–“

“Nuther time, miss, I’ll be glad to. Ye’ll find me in my orfice, any time. Jest now I’m in the dumdest hurry ye ever knew. Good day to ye, miss,” he repeated, and stumped quickly to the buggy awaiting him. Next moment he had seized the reins and was urging the sorrel mare along the stony lane at her best pace.

Louise was both astonished and disappointed, but after a little thought she looked after the departing agent with a shrewd smile.

“He’s afraid to talk,” she murmured, “and that only confirms my suspicions that he knows more than he cares to tell.”

Meantime McNutt was doing his best to get away from the premises before the discovery was made that he had sold two “Lives of the Saints” to one family. That there might be future consequences to follow his deception never occurred to him; only the immediate necessity for escape occupied his mind.

Nor were his fears altogether groundless. Turning his head from time to time for a glance behind, he had seen Mr. Merrick come from the barn with a red book in his hand and approach the hammock, whereupon the young lady arose and exhibited a second book. Then they both dropped the books and ran into the lane and began shouting for him to stop–the man’s voice sounding especially indignant and imperative.

But McNutt chose to be deaf. He did not look around again, and was congratulating himself that he would soon be out of earshot when a sudden apparition ahead caused the mare to halt abruptly. It also caused the cold chills to run down the agent’s back. Beth and Patsy had stepped into the lane from a field, being on their way home from their daily walk.

“They’re calling to you, sir,” said Patsy to the agent. “Didn’t you hear them?”

“I–I’m a little deaf, miss,” stammered McNutt, who recognized the young ladies as Mr. Merrick’s nieces.

“I think they wish you to go back,” remarked Beth, thoughtfully watching the frantic waves of Uncle John’s chubby arms and Louise’s energetic beckonings. They were too far off to be heard plainly, but their actions might surely be understood.

McNutt with reluctance looked over his shoulder, and a second shudder went through him.

“I hain’t got time to go back,” he said, as an inspiration came to him; “but I guess you kin do jest as well. This book here,” picking up the last of the three from the seat, “I offered to sell yer uncle fer five dollars; but he wanted it fer four. I ain’t no haggler, you understan’, so I jest driv away. Now Mr. Merrick has changed his mind an’ is willin’ to give five fer it; but there ain’t nuthin’ small about me. Ef you gals’ll jest give me the four dollars ye kin take the book to yer uncle, with my compliments; an’ I won’t hev t’ go back. I’m in a drea’ful hurry.”

Patsy laughed at the little man’s excited manner.

“Fortunately I have some money with me,” she said; “but you may as well take the five dollars, for unless Uncle had been willing to pay it he would not have called you back.”

“I think so, myself, miss,” he rejoined, taking the money and handing her the volume.

Uncle John and Louise, glaring at the distant group, saw the third red book change hands, and in answer to their renewed cries and gestures Patsy waved the “Lives of the Saints” at them reassuringly and came on at a brisk walk, followed by Beth.

McNutt slapped the sorrel with the ends of the reins so energetically that the mare broke into a trot, and before the girls had come within speaking distance of their uncle, the agent was well out of sight and exulting in the possession of eleven dollars to pay for his morning’s work. Even if Ethel accepted that ten, he reflected, he would still be a dollar ahead. But he was sure she would tell him to keep it; and he’d “jest like to see thet air nabob git a penny back agin.”

Meantime Uncle John’s wrath, which was always an effervescent quality with the little gentleman, had changed to wonder when he saw his nieces approaching with the third red-and-gold book. Louise was leaning against the rail fence and laughing hysterically, and suddenly a merry smile appeared and spread over her uncle’s round face as he said:

“Did you ever hear of such an audacious swindle in all your born days?”

“What will you do, Uncle?” asked the girl, wiping the tears of merriment from her eyes. “Have the man arrested?”

“Of course not, my dear. It’s worth the money just to learn what talents the fellow possesses. Tell me, Patsy,” he continued, as the other nieces joined them, “what did you pay for your book?”

“Five dollars. Uncle. He said–“

“Never mind what he said, my dear. It’s all right. I wanted it to add to my collection. So far I’ve got three ‘Lives of the Saints’–and I’m thankful they’re not cats, or there’d be nine lives for me to accumulate.”

CHAPTER X.

THE MYSTERY DEEPENS.

Ethel Thompson came over the next day, as she had promised, and the sweet-faced, gentle school-mistress won the hearts of Uncle John’s three nieces without an effort. She was the eldest of them all, but her retired country life had kept her fresh and natural, and Ethel seemed no more mature than the younger girls except in a certain gravity that early responsibility had thrust upon her.

Together the four laughing, light-hearted maids wandered through the pines, where the little school-ma’am showed them many pretty nooks and mossy banks that the others had not yet discovered. By following an unsuspected path, they cut across the wooded hills to the waterfall, where Little Bill Creek made a plunge of twenty feet into a rocky basin below. In spite of the bubbles, the water here showed clear as crystal, and the girls admiringly christened it the “Champagne Cup.” They shed their shoes and stockings and waded in the pool, enjoying the sport with shrieks of merry laughter–more because they were happy than that there was anything to laugh at.

Afterward they traced the stream down to a lovely glade a half mile above Millville, where Ethel informed them the annual Sunday-school picnic was always held, and then trailed across the rocky plateau to the farm. By the time they reached home their appetites were well sharpened for Mary’s excellent luncheon, and the afternoon was devoted to rest under the shady pines that grew beside the house.

It was now, when they felt thoroughly acquainted and at ease in one another’s society, that the girls indulged in talks concerning events in their past, and Ethel was greatly interested in the nieces’ recital of their recent trip abroad with Uncle John. They also spoke frankly of their old life together at Elmhurst, where Aunt Jane, who was Uncle John’s sister, had congregated her three nieces for the purpose of choosing from among them one to inherit her vast estates. It seemed no source of regret to any of them that a boy, Kenneth Forbes, had finally succeeded to Aunt Jane’s property, and this may be explained by the fact that Uncle John had at that interesting juncture appeared to take charge of the nieces. It was quite evident that the eccentric but kindly old fellow had succeeded in making these three girls as happy as their dispositions would allow them to be.

After the most interesting phases of their personal history had been discussed, the nieces began, perhaps unconsciously, to draw from Ethel her own story. It was simple enough, and derived its interest mainly from the fact that it concerned their new friend. Her parents had both passed away while she was young, and Ethel had always lived with her father’s father, big Will Thompson, a man reputed very well-to-do for this section, and an energetic farmer from his youth.

Old Will had always been accused of being unsociable and considering himself above the neighboring farmers; and it was true that Bob West, the implement dealer, was his only associate before Captain Wegg arrived. A casual acquaintance with the Millville people might easily explain this.

With the advent of the Weggs, however, a strong friendship seemed to spring up between the retired sea captain and the bluff, erratic old farmer, which lasted until the fatal day when one died and the other became a paralytic and a maniac.

“We have always thought,” said Ethel, “that the shock of the Captain’s death unsettled my grandfather’s mind. They had been sitting quietly in Captain Wegg’s room one evening, as they were accustomed to do, when there was a sudden fall and a cry. Thomas ran in at once, and found grandfather raving over the Captain’s dead body. The old seaman had heart disease, it seems, and had often declared he would die suddenly. It was a great blow to us all, but especially to Joe.”

Her voice softened at this last remark, and Patsy exclaimed, impulsively:

“Tell us about Joe Wegg. Did you like him?”

“Yes,” said Ethel, simply; “we were naturally thrown much together in our childhood, and became staunch friends. Grandpa often took me with him on his visits to the Weggs, and sometimes, but not often, the Captain would bring Joe to see us. He was a quiet, thoughtful boy; much like his mother, I imagine; but for some reason he had conceived an intense dislike for his father and an open hatred for this part of the country, where he was born. Aside from these morbid notions, Joe was healthy-minded and frank and genuine. Had he been educated in any other atmosphere than the gloomy one of the Wegg household I am sure Joe’s character would have been wholly admirable, and I have never blamed the boy much for his peculiarities. Captain Wegg would not permit him to go to school, but himself attended to such instructions as Joe could acquire at home, and this was so meager and the boy so ambitious that I think it was one cause of his discontent. I remember, when I was sent to school at Troy, that Joe sobbed for days because he could not have the same advantages. He used to tell me wonderful stories of what he would accomplish if he could only get out into the world.

“When he implored his father to let him go away, Captain Wegg used to assure Joe that he would some day be rich, and there was no need of his preparing himself for either a business or a profession; but that did not satisfy Joe’s ambition, as you may imagine. And, when the end came, scarcely a dollar of money could be found among the Captain’s possessions, and no other property than this farm; so it is evident he deceived his son for some selfish purpose.

“Joe was at last free, and the only thing I reproach him for is going away without a word to me or any of his friends. I heard, indirectly, of his working his way through a technical school, for he was always crazy about mechanics, and then he went to New York and I lost all further trace of him.”

“What do you suppose became of Captain Wegg’s money?” asked Louise.

“I’ve no idea. It is a singular thing that most of my grandfather’s savings disappeared at the same time. On account of his mental condition he can never tell us what became of his little fortune; but luckily the returns from the farm, which we rent on shares, and my own salary as teacher of the district school, enable us to live quite comfortably, although we must be economical.”

“Why, it’s really a romance!” cried Patsy, who had listened eagerly.

“There are many romances in real life,” added Beth, in her undemonstrative way.

Louise said nothing, but her heart was throbbing with excitement engendered by the tale, which so strongly corroborated the suspicions she had begun to entertain. When Ethel had gone home Louise still deliberated upon this fascinating mystery, and her resolve grew to force some sort of an explanation from the smiling lips of Old Hucks. For the sole available witness of that fatal night’s tragedy, when one strong man died and another was driven mad, was Thomas Hucks. The old servitor was also in a position to know much of the causes leading up to the catastrophe, he having been the confidential retainer of Captain Wegg for many years. Hucks must speak; but the girl was wise enough to realize that he would not do so unless urged by coaxing or forced by strategy. There was doubtless good reason why the old man had remained silent for three years. Her plan was to win his confidence. Interest him in Joe’s welfare, and then the truth must come out.

The frankly related story of Ethel had supplied Louise with the motive for the crime, for that a crime had been committed she was now doubly sure. Captain Wegg had money; old Will Thompson had money; both were well-to-do men. In a retired country district, where there were no banks, it was reasonable to suppose they kept large sums of money on hand, and the knowledge of this fact had tempted some one to a dreadful deed. Captain Wegg had been killed and old Thompson perhaps injured by a blow upon the head from which he had never recovered. Any suspicion the fair young detective may have entertained that Thompson himself had killed his friend was eradicated by the fact that he had been robbed at the same time.

Louise had originally undertaken her investigation through curiosity and a desire to amuse herself by unveiling the mystery. Now she began to reflect that she was an instrument of justice, for a discovery of the truth might restore a fortune to poor Joe Wegg, now struggling with the world, and put sweet Ethel Thompson in a position where the necessity for her to teach school would be abolished. This thought added a strong impulse to her determination to succeed.

Sunday afternoon the girl took blind Nora for a long drive through the country, taking pains to explain to her all the points of interest they came to, and delighting the old woman with her bright chatter. Louise had been kind to Nora from the beginning, and her soft, sympathetic voice had quite won the poor creature’s heart.

On the way home, in the delightful summer twilight, the girl dexterously led the conversation toward Nora’s past history.

“Was Thomas a sailor when you married him?” she asked.

“Yes, miss. He were bos’n on Cap’n Wegg’s schooner the ‘Lively Kate,’ an’ I were livin’ with Miss Mary, as come to be Mrs. Wegg arterward.”

“Oh, I see. And were you blind then, Nora?”

“No, miss. I went blind arter our great trouble come to us.”

“Trouble? Oh, I’m so sorry, dear. What was it?”

The old woman was silent for a time. Then she said:

“I’d better not mention it, I guess. Thomas likes to forgit, an’ when I gets cryin’ an’ nervous he knows I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout the old trouble.”

Louise was disappointed, but changed the subject adroitly.

“And Miss Mary, who was afterward Mrs. Wegg. Did you love her, Nora?”

“Indeed I did, child.”

“What was she like?”

“She were gentle, an’ sweet, an’ the mos’ beautiful creetur in all–in–in the place where we lived. An’ her fambily was that proud an’ aristocratic thet no one could tech ’em with a ten-foot pole.”

“I see. Did she love Captain Wegg?”

“Nat’rally, sense she married of him, an’ fit all her fambily to do it. An’ the Cap’n were thet proud o’ her thet he thought the world lay in her sweet eyes.”

“Oh. I had an idea he didn’t treat her well,” remarked the girl, soberly.

“That’s wrong,” declared Nora, promptly. “Arter the trouble come–fer it come to the Weggs as well as to Tom an’ me–the Cap’n sort o’ lost heart to see his Mary cry day arter day an’ never be comforted. He were hard hit himself, ye see, an’ that made it a gloomy house, an’ no mistake.”

“Do you mean after you moved here, to the farm?”

“Yes, deary.”

“I hear Captain Wegg was very fond of Ethel’s grandfather,” continued Louise, trying to find an opening to penetrate old Nora’s reserve.

“They was good friends always,” was the brief reply.

“Did they ever quarrel, Nora?”

“Never that I knows of.”

“And what do you suppose became of their money?” asked the girl.

“I don’t know, child. Air we gettin’ near home?”

“We are quite near, now. I wish you would open your heart to me, and tell me about that great trouble, Nora. I might be able to comfort you in some way.”

The blind woman shook her head.

“There’s no comfort but in forgettin’,” she said; “an’ the way to forgit ain’t to talk about it.”

The unsatisfactory result of this conversation did not discourage Louise, although she was sorry to meet with no better success. Gradually she was learning the inside history of the Weggs. When she discovered what that “great trouble” had been she would secure an important clue in the mystery, she was sure. Nora might some time be induced to speak more freely, and it was possible she might get the desired information from Old Hucks. She would try, anyway.

A dozen theories might be constructed to account for this “great trouble.” The one that Louise finally favored was that Captain Wegg had been guilty of some crime on the high seas in which his boatswain, Old Hucks, was likewise implicated. They were obliged to abandon the sea and fly to some out-of-the-way corner inland, where they could be safely hidden and their whereabouts never discovered. It was the knowledge of this crime, she conjectured, that had ruined sweet Mrs. Wegg’s life and made her weep day after day until her guilty husband became surly and silent and unsociable.

Louise now began to cultivate Thomas, but her progress was slow. Patsy seemed to be the old man’s favorite, and for some reason he became glum and uncommunicative whenever Louise was around. The girl suspected that Nora had told her husband of the recent conversation, in spite of her assertion that she wished to avoid all reference to their great trouble.

CHAPTER XI.

THREE AMATEUR DETECTIVES.

Puzzling her brain what to do next, Louise suddenly decided to confide her secret to her two cousins. Not that she considered them capable of a greater success than she could herself accomplish, but they might prove valuable assistants in the capacity of lieutenants. She had great respect for Beth’s calm judgment and keen intuitions, and Patsy had a way of accomplishing difficult things with ease.

The two girls listened to Louise with expressions of mingled wonder and amusement while she confided to them her first suspicions that Captain Wegg had been murdered, and then the bits of information she had gathered to strengthen the surmise and assure her she was justified in her efforts to untangle the web of mystery.

“You see, my dears,” she explained, impressively, as the three lounged upon the grass in the shade of the right wing of the house, “there is a very interesting story about these people that ought to guide us directly to a solution of the puzzle. A roving sea captain marries a girl of good family in spite of the opposition of her relatives. His boatswain, a confidential servant, marries the girl’s maid. The next thing we know is that a ‘great trouble’ causes them to flee–doubtless some crime committed by the captain. It may have been robbery, or perhaps piracy on the high seas; who knows? Anyhow, he steals away to this forsaken spot, far from the sea or the railroads, and builds a fine house on a worthless farm, showing that he has money, but that retirement is his main object. Here the Weggs make no friends: but the wife cries her eyes out until she dies miserably, leaving a son to the tender mercies of a wicked father. So fearful is he of discovery that he will not allow the boy to go to school, but tries to educate him himself.”

“Probably the captain’s real name was not Wegg, at all,” suggested Patsy, entering into the spirit of the relation.

“Probably not, dear. He would assume some name, of course, so that it might be more difficult to trace him,” answered Louise. “But now–mark me well, girls!–a Nemesis was on the track of this wicked sinner. After many years the man Captain Wegg had wronged, or stolen from, or something, discovered his enemy’s hiding place. He promptly killed the Captain, and probably recovered the money, for it’s gone. Old Thompson, Ethel’s grandfather, happened to be present. The murderer also took his money, and–“

“Oh, Louise! That isn’t reasonable,” objected Beth, who had been following the story carefully.

“Why not?”

“Because you are making the wronged party as wicked as the man who wronged him. When the avenger found his enemy he might force him to give up his ill-gotten gains; I agree with you there; but he wouldn’t be liable to rob old Thompson, I’m sure.”

“Beth is right,” said Patsy, stoutly.

“But old Thompson lost his money at the same time, you know; at least his money could never be found afterward. And I’m sure he was dealt some blow on the head that made him crazy,” answered Louise, positively.

They thought that over.

“I believe I can explain it, girls,” said Beth, presently. “The avenger found Captain Wegg, all right–just as Louise has said–and when he found him he demanded a restitution of his money, threatening to send the criminal to jail. That would be very natural, wouldn’t it? Well, Captain Wegg had spent a good deal of the money, and couldn’t pay it all back; so Ethel’s grandfather, being his friend, offered to makeup the balance himself rather than see his friend go to prison. That accounts for the disappearance of all the money.”

“If that is so,” observed Patsy, “I don’t see why the man, having got his money back, should murder one and knock the other on the head.”

It way a puzzle, they all acknowledged, and after discussing the matter from every conceivable standpoint they were no nearer an explanation. That’s the way with mysteries; they’re often hard to understand.

“The only thing that occurs to me as being sensible,” said Louise, finally, “is that after the money was paid over they got into a quarrel. Then the avenger lost his temper and committed the murders.”

“This talk about an avenger is all guess work,” asserted Beth, calmly. “I don’t believe the facts point to an avenger at all.”

“But the old crime–the great trouble–“

“Oh, we’ll allow all that,” returned Beth; “and I don’t say that an avenger wouldn’t be the nicest person to exact retribution from the wicked captain. But avengers don’t always turn up, in real life, when they ought to, girls; so we mustn’t be too sure that one turned up in this case.”

“But now else can you account for the captain’s murder?” objected Louise.

“Well, some one else might know he had money, and that Ethel’s grandfather had money, too,” was the reply. “Suppose the robbery and murder had nothing to do with the old crime at all, but that the murderer knew this to be a deserted place where he could make a good haul without being discovered. The two old men sat in the right wing, quite unsuspicious, when—-“

“When in walks Mr. Murderer, chokes the captain, knocks his friend on the brain-box, and makes off with the money!” continued Patsy, gleefully. “Oh, girls, I’m sure we’ve got it right this time.”

Louise reflected a moment.

“This country is almost a wilderness,” she mused, aloud, “and few strangers ever come here. Besides, a stranger would not know positively that these two men had money. If we abandon the idea of an avenger, and follow Beth’s clue, then the murderer is still right here in Millville, and unsuspected by any of his neighbors.”

“Oh, Louise!” with startled glances over their shoulders.

“Let us be sensible, reasoning girls; not silly things trying to figure out possible romances,” continued Louise, with a pretty and impressive assumption of dignity. “Do you know, I feel that some angel of retribution has guided us to this lonely farmhouse and put the idea into my head to discover and expose a dreadful crime.”

“Succotash!” cried Patsy, irrelevantly. “You’re romancing this minute, Louise. The way you figure things out I wouldn’t be surprised if you accused me, or Uncle John, any time during the next half hour. Adopting your last supposition, for the sake of argument, I’m interested to know what inhabitant of sleepy old Millville you suspect.”

“Don’t get flighty, Patricia,” admonished Beth. “This is a serious matter, and Louise is in earnest. If we’re going to help her we mustn’t talk rubbish. Now, it isn’t a bad suggestion that we ought to look nearer home for the key to this mystery. There’s old Hucks.”

“Hucks!”

“To be sure. No one knew so well as he the money affairs of the two men who were robbed.”

“I’m ashamed of you,” said Patsy.

“And the man’s smile is a mask!” exclaimed Louise.

“Oh, no!” protested Patsy.

“My dear, no person who ever lived could smile every minute, winter and summer, rain or shine, day and night, and always have a reason for the smile.”

“Of course not,” agreed Beth. “Old Hucks is a curious character. I realized that when I had known him five minutes.”

“But he’s poor,” urged Patsy, in defense of the old man. “He hasn’t a penny in the world, and McNutt told me if we turned Thomas and Nora away they’d have to go to the poorhouse.”

“That is no argument at all,” said Louise, calmly. “If we consider the fact that Old Hucks may be a miser, and have a craving for money without any desire to spend it, then we are pretty close to a reason why he should bide his time and then murder his old master to obtain the riches he coveted. Mind you, I don’t say Hucks is guilty, but it is our duty to consider this phase of the question.”

“And then,” added Beth, “if Hucks should prove to be a miser, it is easy to guess he would hide his wealth where he could secretly gloat over it, and still continue to pose as a pauper.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Patsy, stoutly.

“You’ll never make a successful detective if you allow your personal feelings to influence you,” returned Louise. “I, too, sincerely hope that Thomas is innocent; but we are not justified in acquitting him until we have made a careful investigation and watched his actions.”

“I’m quite sure he’s connected with the mystery in some way,” said Beth. “It will do no harm to watch Old Hucks, as Louise suggests.”

“And you might try to pump him, Patsy, and see if you can get him to talk of the murder. Some careless remark might give us just the clue we need and guide us to the real criminal. That would free Thomas from all suspicion, you see.”

“But why do you ask me to do this?” demanded Patsy. “Thomas and I are good friends, and I’d feel like a traitor to try to get him to confess a murder.”

“If he is innocent, you have done no harm,” said her eldest cousin; “and if he is guilty you don’t want him for your friend.”

“He likes you, dear,” added Beth, “and perhaps he will tell you frankly all we want to know. There’s another person, though, Louise, who might tell us something.”

“Who is that?”

“The little man with the golf-ball eyes; McNutt.”

“Now, there’s some sense in suspecting him,” exclaimed Patsy. “We know he’s a robber, already, and a man who is clever enough to sell Uncle John three ‘Lives of the Saints’ would stick at nothing, I’m sure.”

“He hasn’t enough courage to commit a great crime,” observed Beth.

“But he may be able to give us some information,” Louise asserted; “so I propose we walk over to the town tomorrow morning and interview him.”

This was promptly agreed to, for even Patsy, the least enthusiastic detective of the three, was eager to find some sort of a solution of the Wegg mystery. Meantime they decided to watch Old Hucks very carefully.

Beth happened to be present when Uncle John paid Thomas his weekly wage that evening, and was interested to notice how the old man’s hand trembled with eagerness as he took the money.

“How much are you accustomed to receive?” Uncle John had asked.

“Nothing ‘tall, sir, since Cap’n Wegg died,” was the reply. “We was glad enough to have a home, Nora an’ me, ‘thout ‘spectin’ wages.”

“And there was no one here for you to serve,” mused Uncle John. “But in Captain Wegg’s day, how much did he give you?”

Thomas hesitated, and his smile wavered an instant.

“My old master was also my old friend,” said he, in a low voice; “an’ I ast him fer little money because my needs were little.”

“Well, the conditions are now different,” remarked Uncle John, carelessly; “and while you are in my employ you shall have your wages regularly. Will ten dollars a week be satisfactory?”

“Oh, sir!”

“And five for Nora.”

“You are too good, sir. I–I–“

“Never mind, Thomas. If you want more at any time let me know.”

It was then, as the old man took the fifteen dollars extended to him, that Beth noted a flash in the mild blue eyes and a trembling of the horny hands. Hucks was very glad to get the money; there was little doubt of that.

She spoke of this incident to Louise, and the following morning they tested the man again. All three girls being present, Beth tendered Old Hucks two dollars, saying it was intended as a slight mark of her appreciation of his attention. Thomas demurred at first, but on being urged took the money with the same eager gesture he had before displayed. Louise followed with a donation of a like sum, and Patsy gave the old man still another two dollar bill. This generosity so amazed him that tears stood in his eyes as he tried to thank them all. It was noticed that the smile did not give way even to the tears, although it was tinged with a pathetic expression that proved wonderfully affecting. He concealed the offerings with a stealthy motion, as if ashamed of his weakness in accepting them, and then hurried away to his work.

“Well,” said Louise, when they were alone, “is Thomas a miser or not?”

“He clutched the money almost as if he loved it,” observed Beth, in a musing and slightly regretful tone.

“But think how poor he has been,” pleaded Patsy, “and how destitute both he and Nora are yet. Can we blame him for being glad to earn something substantial at last?”

Somehow that did not seem to explain fully the old man’s behavior, and the girl who had championed him sighed and then gave a sudden shiver as she remembered the awful suspicion that had fallen upon this strange individual. If the proof must be accepted that Hucks had miserly instincts, had not Beth accidentally stumbled upon a solution of the whole mystery?

But Patsy would not believe it. If Thomas’ open countenance lied, it was hard to put faith in any one.

CHAPTER XII.

THE BAITING OF PEGGY M’NUTT.

By this time the three nieces were so thoroughly impressed with the importance of the task they had undertaken that more ordinary things failed to interest them. Louise longed to solve the mystery. Beth wanted to punish the wrongdoers. Patsy yearned to exonerate the friends whom she imagined unjustly accused. Therefore the triple alliance for detective purposes was a strong one.

By mutual agreement they kept the matter secret from Uncle John, for they realized what a triumph it would be to surprise the old gentleman with proofs of their cleverness. To confide in him now would mean to invite no end of ridicule or good natured raillery, for Uncle John had not a grain of imagination or romance in his nature and would be unable to comprehend the delights of this secret investigation.

Because he was in the dark the significant looks and unnatural gravity of his nieces in the succeeding days puzzled the poor man greatly.

“What’s wrong, girls?” he would ask. “Aren’t you happy here? Do you miss anything you’d like? Is it too quiet and dull at Millville to suit you?”

“Oh, no!” they would exclaim. “We are having a splendid time, and would not leave the farm for anything.”

And he often noticed them grouped in isolated places and conversing in low, eager tones that proved “something was up.” He felt somewhat grieved that he was not their confidant, since these girls and their loyal affection for him constituted the chief joy of his life. When he put on his regulation fishing costume and carried his expensive rod and reel, his landing net and creel to the brook for a day’s sport, he could no longer induce one of his girls to accompany him. Even Patsy pleaded laughingly that she had certain “fish to fry” that were not to be found in the brook.

Soon the three nieces made their proposed visit to McNutt, their idea being to pump that individual until he was dry of any information he might possess concerning the Wegg mystery. They tramped over to the village after breakfast one morning and found the agent seated on the porch before his little “office,” by which name the front room of his cottage was dignified. He was dressed in faded overalls, a checked shirt and a broad-brimmed cheap straw hat. His “off foot,” as he called it with grim humor, was painted green and his other foot was bare and might have been improved in color. Both these extremities rested on the rail of the porch, while McNutt smoked a corncob pipe and stared at his approaching visitors with his disconcerting, protruding eyes.

“Good morning, Mr. McNutt,” said Louise, pleasantly. “We’ve come to see if you have any books to sell.”

The agent drew a long breath. He had at first believed they had come to reproach him for his cruel deception; for although his conscience was wholly dormant, he had at times been a bit uneasy concerning his remarkable book trade.

“Uncle is making a collection of the ‘Lives of the Saints.'” announced Patsy, demurely. “At present he has but three varieties of this work, one with several pages missing, another printed partly upside down, and a third with a broken corner. He is anxious to secure some further variations of the ‘dee looks’ Lives, if you can supply them.”

Peggy’s eyes couldn’t stare any harder, so they just stared.

“I–I hain’t got no more on hand,” he stammered, fairly nonplussed by the remarkable statement.

“No more? Oh, how sad. How disappointed we are,” said Beth.

“We were depending so much on you. Mr. McNutt,” added Louise, in a tone of gentle reproach.

McNutt wiggled the toes of his good foot and regarded them reflectively. These city folks were surely the “easiest marks” he had ever come across.

“Ef ye could wait a few days,” he began, hopefully, “I might—-“

“Oh, no; we can’t possibly wait a single minute,” declared Patsy. “Unless Uncle can get the Saints right away he will lose interest in the collection, and then he won’t care for them at all.”

McNutt sighed dismally. Here was a chance to make good money by fleecing the lambs, yet he was absolutely unable to take advantage of it.

“Ye–ye couldn’t use any duck eggs, could ye?” he said, a sudden thought seeming to furnish him with a brilliant idea.

“Duck eggs?”

“I got the dum-twistedest, extry fine lot o’ duck eggs ye ever seen.”

“But what can we do with duck eggs?” inquired Beth, wonderingly, while Patsy and Louise tried hard not to shriek with laughter.

“W’y, set ’em under a hen, an’ hatch ’em out.”

“Sir,” said Beth, “I strongly disapprove of such deceptions. It seems to me that making a poor hen hatch out ducks, under the delusion that they are chickens, is one of the most cruel and treacherous acts that humanity can be guilty of. Imagine the poor thing’s feelings when her children take to water! I’m surprised you could suggest such a wicked use for duck eggs.”

McNutt wiggled his toes again, desperately.

“Can’t use any sas’frass roots, can ye?”

“No, indeed; all we crave is the ‘Lives of the Saints.'”

“Don’t want to buy no land?”

“What have you got to sell?”

“Nuth’n, jest now. But ef ye’ll buy I kin git ‘most anything.”

“Don’t go to any trouble on our account, sir; we are quite content with our splendid farm.”

“Shoo! Thet ain’t no good.”

“Captain Wegg thought it was,” answered Louise, quickly seizing this opening. “Otherwise he would not have built so good a house upon it.”

“The Cap’n were plumb crazy,” declared the agent, emphatically. “He didn’t want ter farm when he come here; he jest wanted to hide.”

The girls exchanged quick glances of intelligence.

“Why?”

“Why?” repeated McNutt. “Thet’s a thing what’s puzzled us fer years, miss. Some thinks Wegg were a piret; some thinks he kidnaped thet pretty wife o’ his’n an’ took her money; some thinks he tried to rob ol’ Will Thompson, an’ Will killed him an’ then went crazy hisself. There’s all sorts o’ thinks goin’ ’round; but who _knows_?”

“Don’t you, Mr. McNutt?”

The agent was flattered by the question. As he had said, the Weggs had formed the chief topic of conversation in Millville for years, and no one had a more vivid interest in their history than Marshall McMahon McNutt. He enjoyed gossiping about the Weggs almost as much as he did selling books.

“I never thought I had no call to stick my nose inter other folkses privit doin’s,” he said, after a few puffs at the corncob pipe. “But they kain’t hide much from Marsh McNutt, when he has his eyes open.”

Patsy wondered if he could possibly close them. The eyelids seemed to be shy and retiring.

“I seen what I seen,” continued the little man, glancing impressively at his attentive audience. “I seen Cap’n Wegg livin’ without workin’, fer he never lifted a hand to do even a chore. I seen him jest settin’ ’round an’ smokin’ his pipe an’ a glowerin’ like a devil on ev’ryone thet come near. Say, once he ordered me off’n his premises–me!”

“What a dreadful man,” said Patsy. “Did he buy any ‘Lives of the Saints?'”

“Not a Life. He made poor Ol’ Hucks fetch an’ carry fer him ev’ry blessid minnit, an’ never paid him no wages.”

“Are you sure?” asked Louise.

“Sure as shootin’. Hucks hain’t never been seen to spend a cent in all the years he’s been here.”

“Hasn’t he sold berries and fruit since the Captain’s death?”

“Jest ‘nough to pay the taxes, which ain’t much. Ye see, young Joe were away an’ couldn’t raise the tax money, so Ol’ Hucks had to. But how they got enough ter live on, him an’ Nora, beats me.”

“Perhaps Captain Wegg left some money,” suggested Patsy.

“No; when Joe an’ Hucks ransacked the house arter the Cap’n’s death they couldn’t find a dollar. Cur’ous. Plenty o’ money till he died, ‘n’ then not a red cent. Curiouser yet. Ol’ Will Thompson’s savin’s dis’peared, too, an’ never could be located to this day.”

“Were they robbed, do you suppose?” asked Louise.

“Nat’rally. But who done it? Not Ol’ Hucks, fer he’s too honest, an’ hasn’t showed the color of a nickel sense. Not Joe; ’cause he had to borrer five dollars of Bob West to git to the city with. Who then?”

“Perhaps,” said Louise, slowly, “some burglar did it.”

“Ain’t no burglers ’round these parts.”

“I suppose not. Only book agents,” remarked Beth.

McNutt flushed.

“Do ye mean as I did it?” he demanded, angrily. “Do ye mean as I killed Cap’n Wegg an’ druv 01′ Will crazy, an’ robbed the house?”

His features were fairly contorted, and his colorless eyes rolled fearfully.

“If you did,” said Beth, coolly, “you would be sure to deny it.”

“I kin prove a alybi,” answered the little man, calming down somewhat. “I kin prove my ol’ woman had me locked up in the chicken-coop thet night ’cause I wouldn’t split a lot o’ cordwood thet were full o’ knots.” He cast a half fearful glance over his shoulder toward the interior of the cottage. “Next day I split ’em,” he added, mildly.

“Perhaps,” said Louise, again, “someone who knew Captain Wegg in the days before he came here followed him to his retreat and robbed and murdered him.”

“Now ye’ve hit the nail on the head!” cried the agent, slapping his fat thigh energetically. “Thet’s what I allus claimed, even when Bob West jest shook his head an’ smiled sort o’ superior like.”

“Who is Bob West?” asked Louise, with interest.

“He’s our implement man, an’ hardware dealer. Bob were the on’y one o’ the Millville folks thet could git along with Cap’n Wegg, an’ even he didn’t manage to be any special friend. Bob’s rich, ye know. Rich as blazes. Folks do say he’s wuth ten thousan’ dollars; but it don’t set Bob up any. He jest minds his business an’ goes on sellin’ plows an’ harvesters to the farmers an’ takin’ notes fer ’em.”

“And you say he knew Captain Wegg well?” inquired Patsy.

“Better ‘n’ most folks ’round here did. Once er twicet a year the Cap’n ‘d go to Bob’s office an’ set around an’ smoke his pipe. Sometimes Bob would go to the farm an’ spend an’ ev’nin’; but not often. Ol’ Will Thompson might be said to be the on’y friend the Cap’n really hankered fer.”

“I’d like to meet Mr. West,” said Louise, casting a shrewd look at her cousins. For here was another clue unearthed.

“He’s in his store now.” remarked McNutt, “Last buildin’ on the left. Ye can’t miss it.”

“Thank you. Good morning, sir.”

“Can’t use any buttermilk er Dutch cheese?”

“No, thank you.”

McNutt stared after them disconsolately. These girls represented so much money that ought to be in his pockets, and they were, moreover, “innercent as turtle doves”; but he could think of no way to pluck their golden quills or even to arrest their flight.

“Well, let ’em go,” he muttered. “This thing ain’t ended yit.”

CHAPTER XIII.

BOB WEST, HARDWARE DEALER.

A few steps down the little street brought the girls to the hardware store, quite the most imposing building in town. They crossed the broad platform on which stood samples of heavy farm machinery and entered a well-stocked room where many articles of hardware and house furnishings were neatly and systematically arranged.

The place seemed deserted, for at that time of day no country people were at Millville; but on passing down the aisle the visitor approached a little office built at the rear of the store. Behind the desk Bob West sat upon his high stool, gravely regarding his unusual customers over the rims of his spectacles.

“Good morning,” said Louise, taking the lead. “Have you a stew pan?”

The merchant left the office and silently walked behind the counter.

“Large or small, miss?” he then asked.

The girls became interested in stew pans, which they were scarcely able to recognize by their official name. Mr. West offered no comment as they made their selection.

“Can you send this to the Wegg farm?” asked Louise, opening her purse to make payment.

West smiled.

“I have no means of delivering goods,” said he; “but if you can wait a day or two I may catch some farmer going that way who will consent to take it.”

“Oh. Didn’t Captain Wegg purchase his supplies in the village?” asked the girl.

“Some of them. But it is our custom here to take goods that we purchase home with us. As yet Millville is scarcely large enough to require a delivery wagon.”

The nieces laughed pleasantly, and Beth said:

“Are you an old inhabitant, Mr. West?”

“I have been here thirty-five years.”

“Then you knew Captain Wegg?” Louise ventured.

“Very well.”

The answer was so frank and free from embarrassment that his questioner hesitated. Here was a man distinctly superior to the others they had interviewed, a man of keen intellect and worldly knowledge, who would be instantly on his guard if he suspected they were cross-examining him. So Louise, with her usual tact, decided to speak plainly.

“We have been much interested in the history of the Wegg family,” she remarked, easily; “and perhaps it is natural for us to speculate concerning the characters of our predecessors. It was so odd that Captain Wegg should build so good a house on such a poor farm.”

“Yes.”

“And he was a sea captain, who retired far from the sea, which he must have loved.”

“To be sure.”

“It made him dissatisfied, they say, as well as surly and unsociable; but he stuck it out even after his poor wife died, and until the day of the murder.”

“Murder?” in a tone of mild surprise.

“Was it not murder?” she asked, quickly.

He gave his shoulders a quiet shrug.

“The physician pronounced it heart disease, I believe.”

“What physician?”

“Eh? Why, one who was fishing in the neighborhood for trout, and staying at the hotel. Old Dr. Jackson was in Huntington at the time, I remember.”

The girls exchanged significant glances, and West noted them and smiled again.

“That murder theory is a new one to me,” he said; “but I see now why it originated. The employment of a strolling physician would give color to the suspicion.”

“What do you think, sir?” asked Patsy, who had been watching the man’s expression closely.

“I? What do I think? Why, that Captain Wegg died from heart disease, as he had often told me he was sure to do in time.”

“Then what made old Mr. Thompson go mad?” inquired Beth.

“The shock of his friend’s sudden death. He had been mentally unbalanced for some time previous–not quite mad, you understand, but showing by his actions at times that his brain was affected.”

“Can you explain what became of their money?” asked Louise, abruptly.

West gave a start, but collected himself in an instant and covered the action with another shrug.

“I cannot say what become of their money,” he answered.

It struck both Beth and Louise that his tone indicated he would not, rather than that he could not say. Before they had time to ask another questioned he continued:

“Will you take the saucepan with you, then, or shall I try to send it in a day or so?”

“We will take it, if you please,” answered Louise. But as he wrapped it into a neat parcel she made one more effort.

“What sort of a young man was Joseph Wegg?”

“Joe? A mere boy, untried and unsettled. A bright boy, in his way, and ambitious to have a part in the big world. He’s there now, I believe.”

He spoke with an air of relief, and handed Louise the parcel.

“Thank you, young ladies. Pray call again if I can be of service to you,” he added, in a brisker tone.

They had no recourse but to walk out, which they did without further words. Indeed, they were all three silent until they had left the village far behind and were half way to the farm.

Then Patsy said, inquiringly:

“Well, girls?”

“We have progressed,” announced Louise, seriously.

“In what way?”

“Several things are impressed upon my mind,” replied the girl. “One is McNutt’s absurd indignation when he thought we hinted that he was the murderer.”

“What do you make of that?” queried Patsy.

“It suggests that he knows something of the murder, even if he is himself wholly innocent. His alibi is another absurdity.”

“Then that exonerated Old Hucks,” said Patsy, relieved.

“Oh, not at all. Hucks may have committed the deed and McNutt knows about it. Or they might have been partners in the crime.”

“What else have you learned, Louise?” asked Beth.

“That the man West knows what became of the money.”

“He seems like a very respectable man,” asserted Patsy.

“Outwardly, yes; but I don’t like the cold, calculating expression in his eyes. He is the rich man of this neighborhood. Do you suppose he acquired a fortune honestly in this forsaken district, where everyone else is poor as a church mouse?”

“Seems to me,” said Patsy, discontentedly, “that the plot thickens, as they say in novels. If we interview many more people we shall find ourselves suspecting an army.”

“Not at all, my dear,” replied Louise, coldly. “From our present knowledge the murder lies between the unknown avenger and Hucks, with the possibility that McNutt is implicated. This avenger may be the stranger who posed as a physician and said Captain Wegg died of heart disease, in order to prevent the simple people from suspecting a murder. His fishing was all a blind. Perhaps McNutt was his accomplice. That staring scarecrow would do anything for money. And then we come to the robbery. If Hucks did the murder he took the money, and perhaps West, the hardware dealer, knows this. Or West may have arrived at the house after the mysterious stranger committed the deed, and robbed the two men himself.”

“And perhaps he didn’t,” said Patsy, skeptically. “Do you know, girls, I’d like to find Joe Wegg. He could put us right, I’m sure.”

“Joe!”

“Yes. Why don’t we suspect him of something? Or Ethel; or old Nora?”

“Do be sensible, Patsy,” said Beth, impatiently.

But Louise walked on a way in silence. Presently she remarked:

“I’m glad you mentioned Joe Wegg. The boy gives me an idea that may reconcile many conflicting suspicions.”

“In what way, Louise?”

“I’ll tell you when I’ve thought it out,” she replied.

CHAPTER XIV.

THE MAJOR IS PUZZLED.

Ethel came frequently to visit the girls at the Wegg farm, and at such times Uncle John treated her with the same affectionate consideration he bestowed upon his nieces, and made her so cordially welcome that the little school teacher felt entirely at her ease. The girls did not confide to Ethel their investigation of the Wegg mystery, but in all other matters gave her their full confidence. Together they made excursions to the Falls, to the natural caves on the rocky hill called Mount Parnassus, or rowed on the lake, or walked or drove, as the mood seized them. But mostly they loved the shade of the pines and the broad green beside the quaint mansion Captain Wegg had built, and which now contained all the elements of a modern summer home.

Once Louise asked Ethel, casually, if she knew what “great trouble” had come to Hucks and his wife in their early life, but the girl frankly answered that the old people had never referred to anything of the kind in her presence.

Finally a telegram announced the arrival of Major Doyle to join the party at the farm. Patsy was in the seventh heaven of delight, and drove Joe over to the Junction to meet her father on the arrival of the morning train.

The Major was a prime favorite with all the party and his coming infused new life into the household. He was the type of educated, polished, open-hearted Irish gentleman it is always a delight to meet, and Uncle John beamed upon his brother-in-law in a way that betokened a hearty welcome. It was a source of much satisfaction to lug the Major over the farm and prove to him how wise Mr. Merrick had been in deciding to spend the summer on his own property; and the Major freely acknowledged that he had been in error and the place was as charming as anyone could wish. It was a great treat to the grizzled old warrior to find himself in the country, away from every responsibility of work, and he promised himself a fortnight of absolute rest, with the recreation of beholding his beloved Patsy as often as he pleased.

Of course, the girl would tell her father about the Wegg mystery, for Patsy had a habit of telling him everything; therefore the cousins decided to take the Major freely into their confidence, so as to obtain the benefit of his opinion. That could not be done the first day, of course, for on that day Uncle John insisted on displaying the farm and afterward carrying the Major a willing prisoner to watch him fish in the brook. But on the following morning the girls surrounded Patsy’s father and with solemn faces recounted their suspicions, the important clues they had unearthed, and their earnest desire to right the great wrong that had been done by apprehending the criminal.

The Major smoked his after breakfast cigar and listened attentively. The story, told consecutively, was quite impressive. In spite of his long experience in buffeting the world, the old soldier’s heart was still as simple as that of a child, and the recital awakened his sympathies at once.

“‘Tis evident, me children,” said he, in his quaint way, “that you’ve shtumbled on the inside of a crime that doesn’t show on the outside. Many of the things you mention are so plain that he who runs may read; but I’ve remarked that it’s just the things ye don’t suspect in real life that prove to be the most important.”

“That is true, Major,” commented Louise. “At first it was just to amuse ourselves that we became amateur detectives, but the developments are so startling and serious that we now consider it our duty to uncover the whole dreadful crime, in the interests of justice.”

“Just so,” he said, nodding.

“But I’m sure Old Hucks is innocent!” declared Patsy, emphatically.

“Then he is,” asserted the Major; “for Patsy’s always right, even when she’s wrong. I’ve had me eye on that man Hucks already, for he’s the merriest faced villain I ever encountered. Do you say he’s shy with you girls?”

“He seems afraid of us, or suspicious, and won’t let us talk to him,” answered Beth.

“Leave him to me,” proposed the Major, turning a stern face but twinkling eyes upon the group. “‘Twill be my task to detect him. Leave him to me, young women, an’ I’ll put the thumb-screws on him in short order.”

Here was the sort of energetic confederate they had longed for. The Major’s assurance of co-operation was welcome indeed, and while he entered heartily into their campaign he agreed that no mention of the affair ought to reach Uncle John’s ears until the case was complete and they could call upon the authorities to arrest the criminal.

“It’s me humble opinion,” he remarked, “that the interesting individual you call the ‘avenger’ was put on the trail by someone here–either Thomas Hucks, or the timber-toed book agent, or the respectable hardware man. Being invited to come and do his worst, he passed himself as a docther on a fishing excursion, and having with deliberate intent murthered Captain Wegg, got himself called by the coroner to testify that the victim died of heart disease. A very pretty bit of scoundrelism; eh, me dears?”

“But the robber–who do you think he was?” asked Louise.

“That I’ve still to discover. You inform me that Hucks is eager for money and acts like a miser. I’ve seen the time I was eager for money meself, and there’s not a miserly hair on me bald head. But exceptions prove the rule. I’ll watch our smiling Thomas and make a report later.”

Within half an hour he was telling Hucks a funny story and slapping the old man upon the back as familiarly as if he had known him for years. He found an opportunity that same day to give Thomas a dollar in return for a slight service, and was amazed at the eagerness with which the coin was clutched and the earnestness of the thanks expressed. It really did seem as if the man was fond of money. But when the Major tried to draw Hucks into speaking of his past history and of Captain Wegg’s singular life and death, the old fellow became reserved at once and evaded the inquiries most skillfully.

That night, as the Major strolled in the orchard to smoke his last cigar after all the others had retired to bed, he noticed Hucks leave the back door of the lean-to with a parcel under his arm and pass hurriedly around the barn. After a little hesitation he decided to follow the man, and crept stealthily along in the shadow of the trees and buildings until he found himself at the edge of the berry-patch that was in the rear of the outbuildings. But there he paused irresolutely, for Thomas had completely disappeared.

The Major was puzzled, but decided to watch for the man’s return. So he took a position where he could watch the rear door of the house and smoked patiently for nearly an hour before Hucks returned and let himself quietly in.

He said nothing to the girls next day of this mysterious proceeding, but on the following night again took his station in the orchard to watch.

Sure enough, as soon as the house was quiet the old servant came out with a bundle underneath his arm; but this time he led his blind wife by the other hand.

The Major gave a low whistle and threw away his cigar. The night was so dark that he had little difficulty in following the aged pair closely enough to keep their shadowy forms in sight, without the risk of being discovered. They passed around the barn and along a path that led through the raspberry bushes back of the yard. There were several acres of these bushes, and just now they were full-leaved and almost shoulder high. The path wound this way and that, and branched in several directions. Twice the Major thought he had lost his quarry, but was guided aright by their soft footfalls. The ground dipped here and there, and as they entered one of the hollows Major Doyle was startled to observe the twinkle of a dim light ahead. A minute later he saw the outlines of a little frame building, and within this Old Hucks and Nora presently disappeared.

CHAPTER XV.

THE MAN IN HIDING.

Cautiously the Major approached the cabin, which seemed to have been built as a place for the berry pickers to assemble and pack their fruit. It was constructed of rough boards and had a little window in the side nearest the dwelling house and a door on the opposite side.

Creeping near to the window the Major obtained a clear view of the interior. Upon a dilapidated wicker settee, which had one end propped with a box, partially reclined the form of a man whose right arm was in splints and supported by a sling, while his head was covered with plasters and bandages. The man’s back was toward the window, but from his slender form and its graceful poise the Major imagined him young.

Old Nora held the left hand of this mysterious person in a warm clasp, bending now and then to press a kiss upon it, while Hucks busied himself opening the parcel he had brought and arranging various articles of food on a rickety stand at the head of the couch. The old man’s smile was more benevolent and cheery than ever, and his actions denoted that strange, suppressed eagerness the Major had marked when he had taken the money.

The three spoke little, and in tones so low that the spy outside the window failed to catch them. Soon the injured man began to eat, feeding himself laboriously with his left hand. But his hunger was quickly satisfied, and then he lay back wearily upon his pillows, while Nora tenderly spread a coverlet over him.

After this the old couple did not linger long. Hucks poured some water from a jug into a tumbler, glanced around the little room to see that everything was in order, and then–after he and Nora had both kissed the bandaged forehead–blew out the candle and retired.

The Major crouched low in the berry bushes until the couple had passed by; then he rose and thoughtfully followed after them.

Whatever Patsy’s father might have thought of the Wegg farm mystery before, this adventure convinced him that the girls were not altogether foolish in imagining a romance connected with the place. And, notwithstanding Patsy’s loyal defense of Old Hucks, he was evidently tangled up in the affair to a large extent, and could explain if he chose much that was now puzzling the girl detectives.

After careful thought the Major decided to confide in Uncle John, at this juncture, rather than in the nieces; since the latest developments were more fitted for a man’s interference.

By good fortune the girls had an engagement the next day, and set out together in the surrey to visit Ethel Thompson and lunch with her in the rose bower, which was the pride of the little school teacher’s garden. As soon as they were gone the Major hunted up Uncle John and said:

“Come with me, sir.”

“I won’t,” was the brisk reply; “I’m going fishing, and whoever wishes my society must come with me.”

“You’ll not catch anything fishing, but you’re very liable to catch something if you follow my lead,” said the Major, meaningly.

“What’s up, Gregory?”

“I’m not sure what it is, John.” And then he carefully explained his discovery that an injured man was occupying the cabin in the berry patch, and seemed to be the object of the Hucks’ tender care.

“It’s the secrecy of the thing that astounds me most, sir,” he added. “If all was open and above board, I’d think little enough of it.”

Uncle John’s kindly interest was at once aroused, and he proposed that they go directly to the cabin and interview the man in hiding. Hucks being at the time busy in the barn, the two men sauntered into the berry patch without being observed, and then walked briskly along the winding paths until they sighted the building.

Pausing at the window, they saw the man still reclining upon his cot, and holding in his left hand a book–one of Patsy’s, the Major observed–which he was quietly engaged in reading. Then they moved around to the door, which Uncle John pushed open.

Without hesitation, the two men entered and stood gazing down upon the strange occupant of the place.

“Good morning,” said Mr. Merrick, while the Major nodded a greeting.

The man half arose, moving stiffly.

“Pardon me, sirs,” he said, rather startled at the interruption; “I regret that I am physically unable to receive you with more courtesy.”

The Major gazed into the partially bandaged face with a glimmer of awakening recognition.

“H-m! Ha! If I’m not mistaken,” said he, “it’s Joseph Wegg.”

“Oh; is it?” asked Uncle John, looking upon the young man curiously. “What’s happened to you, Joseph?”

“Just an automobile accident, sir. The steering gear broke, and we went over an embankment.”

“I see.”

“Are you Mr. Merrick, sir.”

“Yes.”

“I owe you an apology for intruding upon your premises in this way, and beg you to forgive the seeming impertinence. But I’ve been rather unlucky of late, sir, and without this refuge I don’t know what would have become of me. I will explain, if you will permit me.”

Uncle John nodded.

“After I had squandered the money you paid me, through Major Doyle, for this farm, in a vain endeavor to protect a patent I had secured, I was forced to become a chauffeur to earn my livelihood. I understand automobiles, you know, and obtained employment with a wealthy man who considered me a mere part of his machine. When the accident occurred, through no fault of mine, I was, fortunately, the only person injured; but my employer was so incensed over the damage to his automobile that he never even sent to inquire whether I lived or died. At a charity hospital they tried to mend my breaks and tinker up my anatomy. My shoulder-blade was shattered, my arm broken in three places, and four ribs were crashed in. The wounds in my head are mere abrasions of the scalp, and not serious. But it has taken me a long time to mend, and the crowded, stuffy hospital got on my nerves and worried me. Being penniless and friendless, I wrote to Thomas and asked him if he could find a way to get me to the old farm, for I never imagined you would yourself take possession of the deserted place you had bought.

“Thomas and Nora have cared for me since I was born, you know, and the old man was greatly distressed by the knowledge of my sad condition. He did not tell me you were here, for fear I would hesitate to come, but he sent me the money you had given him and Nora for wages, together with all that the young ladies had kindly given him. I was thus enabled to leave the hospital, which I had come to detest, and journey to my old home. I arrived at the Junction on a night train, and Thomas met me with your surrey, drove me here under cover of darkness, and concealed me in this out-of-the-way place, hoping you would not discover me.

“I regret that I was thus foisted upon you, believe me, sir; but, being here, I have no means of getting away again. Thomas Hucks has had little worldly experience, and cannot realize the full extent of the imposition he has practiced. He feeds me from your table, and is hoarding up his money for me against the time I shall have recovered sufficiently to leave. I think that is the full explanation, Mr. Merrick.”

Again Uncle John nodded.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Doing finely, sir. I can walk a little, and my appetite is improving. The doctors said my shoulder would never be very strong again, but I’m beginning to hope they were mistaken. My ribs seem all right, and in another ten days I shall remove the splints from my arm.”

“You have no medical attendance?”

“Not since I left the hospital. But I imagine this pure, bracing air is better for me than a dozen doctors,” was the cheerful reply.

“And what are your future plans?”

The young man smiled. He was little more than a boy, but his questioner noticed that he had a fine manly face and his eye was clear and steadfast.

“Nothing further than to get to work again as soon as I am able to undertake it,” he said.

Uncle John looked thoughtfully, and drummed with his finger upon the little table.

“Joseph,” he remarked, presently, “I bought this farm at a price altogether too small, considering its value.”

The boy flushed.

“Please do not say that!” he exclaimed, hastily. “I am well aware that I virtually robbed you, and my only excuse is that I believed I would win my fight and be able to redeem the place. But that is over now, and you must not think that because I am ill and helpless I am an object of charity.”

“Phoo!” said the little man; “aren’t you accepting charity from Old Hucks?”

“But he stands as a second father to me. He is an old retainer of my family, and one of my ambitions is to secure a home for him and Nora in their old age. No; I do not feel at all embarrassed in accepting money or assistance from Thomas.”

“Young man,” said Uncle John, sternly, “one of the follies of youth is the idea of being independent of the good-will of your fellow-creatures. Every person who lives is dependent on some other person for something or other, and I’ll not allow you to make a fool of yourself by refusing to let me take you in hand. Your brain is affected–“

“It is not!”

“You are mentally unbalanced, and need a guardian. That’s me. You are helpless and cannot resist, so you’re my prisoner. Dare to defy me, dare to oppose my wishes in any way, and I’ll have you put in a straight-jacket and confined in a padded cell. Understand me, sir?”

Joseph Wegg looked into the little man’s round face until the tears filled his own eyes and blurred his vision.

“Won’t you protect me, Major Doyle?” he asked, weakly.

“Not I,” said the Major, stoutly. “This brother-in-law of mine, who connected himself with me without asking permission, is a perfect demon when ‘roused, and I’ll not meddle with any opposition to his desires. If you value your life and happiness, Joseph Wegg, you’ll accept Mr. Merrick as a guardian until he resigns of his own accord, and then it’s likely you’ll wish he hadn’t.”

“I don’t deserve—-” began the young man, brokenly; but Uncle John quickly interrupted him.

“No one deserves anything,” said he; “but everyone gets something or other, nevertheless, in this vale of tears. If you’ll kindly remember that you’ve no right to express an opinion in the presence of your guardian, we’ll get along better together. Now, then, you’re going to leave here, because the place is not comfortable. My guests fill every room in my house, so you can’t go there. But the hotel in Millville is a cheerful-looking place, and I’ve noticed some vine-covered windows that indicate pleasant and sunny rooms. Major, go and tell Hucks to hitch that groaning, balky Daniel to the ancient buggy, and then to drive this young man over to the hotel. We’ll walk.”

The Major started at once, and Uncle John continued: “I don’t know whether this arrangement suits you or not, Joseph, but it suits me; and, as a matter of fact, it’s none of your business. Feel able to take a ride?”

The boy smiled, gratefully.

“Yes, indeed, Mr. Merrick,” said he, and was shrewd enough not to venture a word of thanks.

CHAPTER XVI.

A MATTER OF SPECULATION.

Old Hucks, still smiling, but dreadfully nervous over the discovery of Joe, and Mr. Merrick’s sudden activity in the boy’s behalf, speedily harnessed Daniel and induced the reluctant steed to amble down the path to the cabin. Leaning on Uncle John’s arm, the invalid walked to the buggy and was assisted to mount to the seat beside Thomas. Then away they started, and, although Dan obeyed Hucks more willingly than any other driver, the Major and Uncle John walked ‘cross-lots and reached the hotel a good fifteen minutes in advance of the equipage.

The Millville Hotel depended almost entirely for patronage upon the commercial travelers who visited the place periodically to sell goods to the merchants, and these did not come too often, because trade was never very energetic and orders never very large. Bob West boarded at the hotel, and so did Ned Long, a “farm hand,” who did sundry odd jobs for anyone who needed him, and helped pay his “keep” by working for Mrs. Kebble when not otherwise engaged.

Mrs. Kebble was the landlady, and a famous cook. Kate Kebble, a slatternly girl of sixteen, helped her mother do the work and waited on the table. Chet Kebble, the landlord, was a silent old man, with billy-goat whiskers and one stray eye, which, being constructed of glass, usually assumed a slanting gaze and refused to follow the direction of its fellow. Chet minded the billiard-room, which was mostly patronized Saturday nights, and did a meager business in fire insurance; but he was “so eternal lazy an’ shifless,” as Mrs. Kebble sharply asserted, that he was considered more a “hanger-on” of the establishment than its recognized head.

The little rooms of the hotel were plainly furnished but maintained with exceptional neatness.