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Title: The Case and the Girl
Author: Parrish, Randall, 1858-1923
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Case and the Girl" ***

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                          THE CASE AND THE GIRL

                           BY RANDALL PARRISH

                                  1922



CONTENTS

CHAPTER


     I THE LADY IN THE LIMOUSINE

    II A SUDDEN ENGAGEMENT

   III THE COOLIDGE HOME

    IV MISS COOLIDGE EXPLAINS

     V WEST WINS THE FIRST HAND

    VI UNTANGLING THREADS

   VII A VISIT TO THE INDIGENT

  VIII A NEW MISS COOLIDGE

    IX AN UNEXPECTED DISMISSAL

     X THE BODY OF A SUICIDE

    XI SUSPICION VERIFIED

   XII AGAINST A STONE WALL

  XIII 238 WRAY STREET

   XIV TRAPPED

    XV THE EDGE OF COMPROMISE

   XVI WEST MAKES HIS CHOICE

  XVII FACING DEATH

 XVIII UNDER COVER

   XIX THE COMING OF A MESSAGE

    XX WHAT THE TELEPHONE TOLD

   XXI THE YACHT "SEMINOLE"

  XXII KIDNAPPED

 XXIII THE FATE OF A PRISONER

  XXIV THE SINKING YACHT

   XXV FREE OF THE YACHT

  XXVI THE COMING OF DAWN

 XXVII LOVE BREAKS SILENCE

XXVIII AN ESCAPE FROM THE RAFT

  XXIX THE HOUSE IN THE BLUFFS

   XXX HOBART FORGETS AND TALKS

  XXXI McADAMS BLOWS IN

 XXXII A BRIDGE OF LOVE



THE CASE AND THE GIRL



CHAPTER I

THE LADY IN THE LIMOUSINE


West, still attired in khaki uniform, but wearing the red chevron of
honourable discharge on his left sleeve, sat in the Club writing room,
his feet comfortably elevated, endeavouring to extract some entertainment
from the evening paper. The news was not particularly interesting,
however, and finally, obsessed with the feeling that it would soon be
time for him to seriously contemplate the procuring of suitable
employment, the young man turned the sheet about rather idly, and ran his
eyes down the columns devoted to classified advertising.

Half way down the first column, under the head of "miscellaneous," he
paused and read a paragraph with some interest; then read it over again,
emitting a soft whistle between his teeth.

"Well, by Jove!" he said to himself slowly, "That doesn't sound so bad
either; out of the ordinary, at least. Say, Thompson," and he turned to
a tall young fellow busily writing at the adjoining desk, and shoved the
paper under his eyes, pointing at the paragraph which had attracted
attention, with one finger, "What do you make out of that, old man?"

The other, rather sober-faced, and slow of speech, read the advertisement
word by word, with no change of expression.

"Rot," he said solemnly. "Either a joke, or some scheme on. Why?
interested in it?"

"In a measure, yes. Sounds rather business-like to me. I've got a good
mind to answer, and take a chance."

"You're a fool if you do, Matt," decisively, and turning back to his
writing. "That is some game being pulled off, and the first thing you
know, you'll be in bad. Likely as not it means blackmail. Besides there
is no address."

"That's one thing I like about it," retorted the other. "They are in
earnest, and taking no chances of having their purpose guessed at. There
is a way to reach them, if the one answering is sufficiently in earnest.
By Jove, I don't see how any one can get in bad, merely by finding out
what it all means."

"Well, do as you please; you would anyhow. Only you have my advice."

West read the item again. He had been eighteen months in France, and his
discharge from the army had left him bored and dissatisfied with the dull
routine of civil life. He dreaded to get back into the harness of a
prosaic existence; even his profession as a civil engineer had someway
lost its charm. He had tasted the joy of adventure, the thrill of danger,
and it was still alluring. This advertisement promised a mystery which
strangely attracted his imagination.

_"Wanted: Young man of education and daring for service involving some
personal peril. Good pay, and unusual reward if successful. May have to
leave city. Purpose disclosed only in personal interview."_

As Thompson had pointed out, this was not signed, nor any address given.

West crossed over to an unoccupied desk, and wrote a reply, changing the
wording several times, and finally making a clean copy. Thompson glanced
across at him, but said nothing. The answer read:

_"To Advertiser: Am 26; late captain of Engineers; University graduate
adventurous disposition. Would be glad to consider your proposition.
Address, Box 57, University Club."_

He placed this in an envelope, called a Club messenger, and, handing the
boy a sum of money, sent him over to the newspaper office.

Two days elapsed before an answer appeared in his box; a small envelope,
addressed in a lady's handwriting apparently, and mailed from one of the
sub-postoffices. West tore it open rather eagerly, and read the contents
with surprise. The words within had been written by the same hand which
appeared upon the envelope, but the language used gave him no clue to the
purpose of the writer. The brief note read:

"Box 57 University Club.

"Your answer to advertisement makes a good impression, and I am willing
to put you to the further test of a personal meeting. If you are in
earnest in this matter, and quite prepared to assume the necessary risk,
you will be at the north-west corner of Spaulding Park at 5:30 to-morrow
afternoon. Do not come in uniform, but it will be well to bring evening
clothes in a bag. Be sure of yourself, and be prompt.

"Very truly yours,

"The Advertiser."

West read this over, again and again, smoking furiously, and endeavouring
to weigh each word. He saw Thompson in the other room, but decided not to
submit the epistle to his criticism. The letter sounded honest and
sincere; the writer evidently had a purpose in view, and was selecting
an agent with great care and secrecy. No hint as to what that object was
would be revealed blindly--he must be tried in every way first;
thoroughly tested as to both character and courage. Undoubtedly steps had
already been taken to do this. The delay in reply would have afforded
opportunity for some investigation, as his address would give the
necessary clue to his identity. The request for evening clothes, however,
rather reassured him; evidently his first plunge into this mystery was
not to occur in any stratum of low society; no vast amount of personal
danger could be involved in such preliminaries. The truth was, the note
only increased his former interest in the case, and his determination to
probe more deeply into its mystery. So the advertiser was a woman! This
fact also stimulated his imagination, and rendered him the more eager. By
Jove! he would see the thing through!

His decision was reached, yet West, although still young and adventurous,
had received the rigorous training of the soldier, and learned lessons of
discretion. He would go, but would make every effort to protect himself
against any possible treachery. He had a room at the Club, and wrote a
letter or two before proceeding to dress, arranging for their personal
delivery in case he failed to return at a designated time; carefully
examined his service revolver, and deposited it in the pocket of the
business suit he decided to wear. Satisfied with these arrangements, he
dressed rapidly, and then packed his bag, bearing it in his hand as he
departed in ample time for the point of rendezvous. A cab took him to the
place designated, and he found himself alone in a rather desolate spot,
with which he was in no way familiar. No doubt he had passed there again
and again, as a boulevard extended along one side of the small park, yet
his memory retained no clear recollection of the place. There were a few
small stores opposite, while the park itself was well kept, and populated
almost entirely by nursemaids, judging from the number of baby carriages
trailing along the walks. Back of the curb were a few benches, but West
chose to remain outside, depositing his bag in plain view of any one
passing, and then walked back and forth somewhat nervously. He was there
several minutes ahead of time, and compared his watch by a clock in a
church tower a block away. He had no knowledge of how he was to be
approached, or identified, but his being requested to bring a bag
containing evening clothes, somehow suggested riding, rather than
walking, and consequently his eyes followed more or less intently the
constant stream of automobiles.

He grew restless, and more doubtful as the moments slipped past. Surely
he could not have mistaken the place of appointment or the hour? He
glanced at the scene to again reassure himself. No, that was impossible;
the park name was plainly decipherable beside the entrance, and his watch
coincided exactly with the clock in the tower. He stood beside his bag,
staring up and down the boulevard, permitting his eyes to occasionally
wander to the scene within the enclosure. Nothing rewarded his scrutiny.
Then suddenly, without slightest warning, a black limousine whirled in
alongside the curb, and came to a stop immediately in front of where he
waited. The chauffeur, dressed in plain dark livery, stepped out, and
threw open the rear door, without asking so much as a question. Except
that the fellow stood there, looking directly toward him, his fingers on
the latch, expectantly, West would not have known that he was wanted. Yet
it was all so obvious he could not question. Silently he picked up his
bag, and stepped forward. He saw no one within, but firm in the belief
that the chauffeur must have his orders, he entered blindly, the door
closing instantly behind him. The curtains were drawn, the interior
gloomy and indistinct, and the driver had resumed his seat, and started
the motor, before West realized that he was not alone. In one corner of
the wide back seat, drawn back from any possible observation from
without, sat a woman.

At first glance he could only barely distinguish the outlines of her
figure, dimly discernable against the dark background of the upholstery,
but, as his eyes accustomed themselves to the faint light, her features
also became dimly visible--enough so, at least, to convince him that she
was young. Neither spoke for some moments, while the automobile gathered
speed, and West had an uncomfortable feeling that the lady was watching
him with great intentness. Slightly embarrassed, and uncertain as to his
best course of action, the young man remained silent, his eyes on the
burly back of the chauffeur, revealed through the front glass. He could
only quietly await her explanation of this strange situation. The delay
was not a long one. She laughed, nervously perhaps, yet with a sense of
humour at the awkward position.

"Quite melodramatic, is it not, Captain West?" she asked, in a decidedly
pleasant voice. "I trust it appeals thoroughly to that disposition for
adventure of which you wrote. I assure you I have arranged the details
to the best of my ability."

"Nothing more could be desired, I am sure," he confessed, surprised at
her tone, and glancing toward her. "I certainly am left completely in the
dark, unable even to clearly distinguish my mysterious companion in
adventure."

"And there really is no longer any occasion for such concealment." She
lifted the heavy curtain beside her, permitting the grey light to rest
upon her face. "I preferred not to be seen at the park for obvious
reasons; but here, alone with you, such precaution is quite
unnecessary. We are to be either friends, or enemies, so frankness is
the best course."

He saw the face of a young woman of twenty-four, or five, with dark eyes
and hair, her cheeks flushed with health and excitement, her lips
smiling. It was a face of unusual attractiveness, not regular, perhaps,
in any of its features, yet filled with character, and glowing with life.
It was to him a totally unfamiliar countenance, but one which as
instantly awakened his interest. He liked the girl, and believed in her.

"I can only thank you," he said, rather lamely. "Although I do not
understand now how we could ever become enemies. Surely, that is not
a threat?"

"Oh, no, it is far too true. You have yet to learn what I require. Yet
that was very nicely said. I take it to mean your first impression of me
is not unfavourable?"

"Very far from it. I am already deeply interested in my task. If I lacked
an incentive before, you have furnished it. I am only too glad I was the
fortunate volunteer."

She laughed again softly, her eyes still on his face.

"Really, I had not anticipated such a sincere compliment. No doubt you
learned these delightful speeches in France," she answered, a very faint
tinge of sarcasm in the words. "However, this is a very serious matter,
Captain West, and really has nothing to do with my personal appearance. I
am, of course, being a woman, glad that I please you, but we must
consider this particular affair from an entirely different standpoint. I
am seeking neither flirtation nor compliment; merely a trustworthy agent.
First of all, it is necessary that you comprehend this."

He bowed, impressed by her manner, and somewhat ashamed of his
impetuousity.

"I accept the reproof," he said quietly, "and will endeavour henceforth
not to offend in any way. I am entirely at your service."

"There is no offence; I merely thought it best there should be no
misunderstanding. Now, I am sure, we can proceed intelligently. Indeed, I
am going to frankly confess, I also like your appearance. This mutual
liking ought to be half the battle. We have quite a ride before us yet;
you may question me if you wish."



CHAPTER II

A SUDDEN ENGAGEMENT


West gazed out through the window, wondering where they were. In his
interest in his companion, he had until this moment, taken no note of
things without, nor did his eyes rest now upon any familiar scene. They
were swiftly, and noiselessly, passing blocks of respectable residences,
none of these particularly distinguished. Her sudden invitation rather
startled him.

"You mean I am to question you freely."

"Assuredly; while I am to remain quite as free in my answers. That is
perfectly fair, is it not?"

"At least, it sounds so. Where am I being transported then? And why the
dress-suit?"

His questions evidently amused, for her eyes sparkled.

"Naturally that query comes first; and especially the dress-suit. You
have the prejudices of your sex, I see, and without regret. I shall
endeavour to reply catagorically, yet with reservations. We are going to
a country home, where we dine, in company with a few guests."

"I see; I am first of all to be projected into society. Are any of these
guests known to me?"

"God forbid; and I may even venture to predict that you will never care
to know any of them again. You are to be present as my guest, and will so
be welcomed."

"I feel the honour; but would it not be well under these circumstances
for me to know more clearly whose guest I am? Suppose, for instance, I
had to refer to our long friendship, it would be extremely awkward not to
even be able to mention your name."

"My name! Why, of course, you do not know what it is. Well, really I am
not altogether certain that I do either. We will therefore compromise on
the one I am known by; which will be safer. Allow me, Captain West, to
present to you Miss Natalie Coolidge."

She held out frankly a neatly gloved hand, which he as instantly took,
and retained in his own, the girl making no immediate effort to
withdraw it.

"This is very kind of you, Miss Coolidge," he acknowledged, adapting
himself to her present mood. "But it seems there is no necessity for me
to present myself. Apparently my identity is already known."

"Otherwise you would not be among those present," she admitted frankly.
"You must surely realize that I needed, at least, to have some
information relative to a man in whom I expected to confide. Telling
secrets--especially family secrets--to strangers is not my specialty."

"Then, I judge you have not accepted me blindly?"

"No, I have not," earnestly, and now releasing her hand. "I do not think
we ever really know any one except through personal intercourse; but I do
know who you are, and something of what your life thus far has been. It
was two days after I received your answer before I replied to it. This
time was devoted exclusively to making me somewhat better acquainted with
my correspondent."

"But how could you? I signed no name."

She smiled, again quite at her ease.

"The box number at the Club was amply sufficient. I have friends there;
once possessed of your name and army rank, the department records at
Washington furnished all further information. A Senator kindly attended
to that end, and was also able to supply a little additional gossip
through one of his Southern colleagues. So you perceive, Captain, I am
not altogether reckless. Are you interested in learning what I know?"

"I am; both from records and gossip. Will you tell me?"

"Willingly," and she checked the points off on her gloved fingers. "You
are Matthew West, the only son of Judge Robert Peel West, of Atlanta,
Georgia. Your mother, who was of the well-known Bullock family, died when
you were about fifteen, and her widowed sister has since been the
house-keeper. You are a graduate of the university of Virginia, being
fourth in your class in Scholarship. Your engineering course was
completed in Massachusetts, and you later became connected with the Wyant
Contracting Company, of Chicago. You were here, however, only a very
brief time, making but few acquaintances, when the War broke out. You
immediately entered the first officers' training school at Fort Sheridan,
graduating with the rank of First Lieutenant, and were assigned to a
regiment of Engineers, among the earliest to sail for France. While there
you were wounded twice, and cited once for special gallantry in the
rescue of a seriously injured private. Your last wound caused your return
to the United States on a special mission, and also won you the rank of
Captain. Since then you have been honourably discharged, but have made
no effort to resume professional work. You are twenty-six, and unmarried.
Is there anything else you care to know?"

"I think not; really your agency has been most efficient. Could you tell
me also if I have ever been in love?"

"In love! Really I made no inquiries, as that did not interest me in the
least. I am prepared to be confessed to, however, if you feel it
necessary."

"I may have to confess later. Just now it might be better to let matters
remain as they are. And so this review satisfied you that I was really
the man you sought?"

"No, it did not wholly satisfy, but it looked promising. You were
evidently courageous, and a gentleman. These qualities were essential;
whether in other respects you measured up to my purpose, could only be
ascertained through a personal interview. There was no other way."

"And now?" he persisted.

"Still encouraging. I must admit, although the test is not yet complete.
However, we are now approaching the end of our journey. Before we turn in
I am going to ask a favour of you--call me Natalie."

"Natalie; that will be easy."

"And also forgive me if I fail in always addressing you formally as
Captain West. I presume your friends say Matt, do they not?"

"Some have that habit."

"Then I claim also the privilege."

She bewildered him, left him in wonderment as to what she would do next,
but there was scarcely time in which to answer before the speeding
limousine turned abruptly into a private drive-way, curving gracefully to
the front of a rather imposing stone mansion, set well back from the
road. West caught a glimpse of a green lawn, a maze of stables at the
rear, and a tennis-court with several busily engaged players. Then they
were at the side entrance, and a servant, in the same unobtrusive livery
as the chauffeur, was quietly opening the door. He turned and helped his
companion to emerge.

"Take the gentleman's bag to the Blue Room, Sexton," she said calmly,
"and then lay out his evening clothes."

"Yes, miss."

"I will be in the hall when you come down, Captain, but there is
no hurry."

West followed the servant up the softly carpeted stairs, finding the
apartment assigned him not only extremely comfortable, but even elegant
in its furnishing. He stood at the window looking down on the tennis
court, while Sexton opened the bag, and spread out the required
garments on the bed. Evidently he was in a home of wealth and
refinement. The grounds outspread before his eyes were spacious and
attractive; in the distance he even perceived an artificial lake with
paths winding enticingly along its shore, and through strips of
woodland. Who could this strange girl be? this Natalie Coolidge? And
what could she possible desire of him? These questions remained
unanswered, yet continually tantalized. He could not even grasp her
personality. In spite of her apparent friendliness, her irresistible
smile, her lack of conventionality, there remained a certain reserve
about the young woman he felt quite unable to penetrate. Whatever game
she was playing she kept the cards securely in her own hands. He was
not yet admitted to her confidence. He stood there immersed in these
thoughts still, when Sexton spoke.

"Shall I assist you, sir?"

"No; it will not be necessary. You have laid out everything?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well; that will do, at present. What is the hour for dinner?"

"Seven o'clock, sir."

"I have ample time then. That will be all." The man retired noiselessly,
closing the door after him, and West began slowly to dress, rather amused
at the care he took, that all details should be as correct as possible.
Unquestionably the girl interested him oddly. She was original, a new
type, and he made no effort to drive her from his imagination. He had not
been long back from the war zone, his acquaintance in the city was
extremely limited, and consequently this girl, thus suddenly brought into
his life, had made a far greater impression than she might otherwise. Yet
under any conditions, she would have proven noticeable, and attractive.
He endeavoured to analyse what constituted this peculiar attractiveness,
but without arriving at any definite conclusion. She was young, of
course, and undeniably pretty, with eyes really remarkable, and a smile
not to be easily forgotten. She possessed a sense of humour, and had left
upon him a strong impression of frank sincerity. Yet in these qualities
she did not differ so greatly from others he had known. Perhaps mystery
had much to do with her power of enticement--a continual wonderment as to
what she might do next. Then she was so self-poised, so confident of
herself, so naturally informed. All these things had their charm, and,
coupled with her undoubted beauty, left his brain in a whirl.

He was satisfactorily dressed at last, although obliged to switch on the
lights before this was accomplished. The reflection of himself in the
pier glass quite met his deliberate approval, and he glanced inquiringly
at his watch, rather eager to delve deeper into this adventure. It was a
few moments of seven, and she would undoubtedly be waiting for him in the
hall below. He descended the broad stairs, conscious of a thrill of
expectancy; nor was he doomed to disappointment.

Miss Coolidge met him in the dimly lighted vacancy of the hall, with
smiling eyes of welcome. They were mocking, puzzling eyes, the depths of
which he could not fathom--they perplexed, and invited at the same
instant. She was in evening dress, a creamy satin, revealing white
shoulders, and rounded, beautifully mounded arms, visible beneath folds
of filmy lace. If he had dreamed the girl attractive before in the
plainness of street costume, he now beheld her in a new vision of
loveliness. His heart throbbed at the sight, every nerve tingling to the
intimate tones of her voice. And she met him in a more delightful mood of
informality than had found expression even during their afternoon ride.
She was apparently in the highest spirits, eager to overstep all
conventionality.

"Again you please me," she said, surveying him critically. "Really this
is too much, the wonderful way in which you meet every test."

"You mean in clothes?"

"In everything, so far. Clothes--yes; do they not reveal the very soul of
a man? I hardly think I could ever have forgiven if you had come down not
looking the part you are to play."

"Nor could I have forgiven myself, if I am to enjoy the pleasure of
taking you in to dinner."

"That privilege is yours even without the asking. But," quizzically, and
glancing up frankly into his eyes, "You may not care when the time comes.
For the great test arrives first. So, buck up, Captain, for you are going
to have the shock of your life. Whatever you do, even if you feel that
you are about to faint, don't, for my sake, let your face show it."

"But," he protested, "give me some warning, some opportunity to prepare
for such an emergency."

"No," she laughed gaily, "there is no time; it is ordained to fall upon
you like a thunder-bolt. They are all in there waiting for us now. You
will offer me your arm."

He accompanied her, amused, yet bewildered, through the wide archway into
the more brilliantly lighted drawing-room. It was a magnificent
apartment, containing a half dozen people. The one nearest the entrance
was a man of middle age, exceedingly pompous and dignified, who
immediately arose to his feet, expectantly. Miss Coolidge cordially
extended her hand in greeting.

"So glad to learn you could be out, Judge," she said, the least
perceptible hesitancy in her voice. "Permit me to present Judge Cable, of
the Supreme Court; Captain West, my fiancé."



CHAPTER III

THE COOLIDGE HOME


For an instant West was absolutely helpless to assert himself. The calm
assurance of the girl's voice in this unexpected introduction left his
brain paralysed with bewilderment. Yet his features did not betray his
condition, nor did he entirely lose control over himself. His fingers met
the outstretched hand of the Judge, and he seemed to gaze calmly into the
latter's searching eyes. Fortunately he was not compelled to speak, as
Cable voiced his own surprise fluently.

"Well, well," he exclaimed. "This is certainly startling, Natalie. I am,
indeed, bereft of words, yet I congratulate you, sir. Captain--Captain
West, I think was the name? You are then in the service, sir?"

"Discharged from the Engineers."

"Ah, exactly. I can hardly adjust myself. Friends, come forward. I have
to make an announcement extraordinary. It seems this sly minx has
arranged a surprise for all of us. Perchance this was the purpose of our
little dinner party?"

"Oh, no, Judge," protested Miss Coolidge, her cheeks flushed, yet
otherwise perfectly cool and self-possessed. West ventured to glance
aside into her face, surprised at the quietness of her voice. "Really,
this was unexpected, even to myself. I was not so much as aware that
Captain West was in the city until a very short time ago. I am sure he
will bear me out in this statement."

"I could not do otherwise, and be truthful," West felt compelled to
admit. "The announcement was quite unexpected."

"But what is this all about?" asked a female voice eagerly. "Remember we
have not heard, Judge Cable."

"It is my pleasure then," he said gallantly, bowing, and at once
instituting himself as master of ceremonies, "to introduce to you, Miss
Natalie's fiancé, Captain West--Mrs. Lonsdale, Professor Scott, Miss
Margaret Willis, Colonel LeFranc, Mrs. Wilber Somers. Possibly there may
be no necessity of my presenting the next gentleman--Mr. Percival
Coolidge."

"Oh, but there is," the last mentioned interposed, a tall rather portly
man, with grey hair and moustache, "I must confess this is as much a
surprise to me as to any one present. However," he grasped West's hand
with apparent cordiality, "I hasten to add my congratulations, and to
wish Natalie all the happiness possible."

The group slowly broke up, the members still discussing the undoubted
surprise of this announcement, Miss Coolidge talking animatedly with Mrs.
Lonsdale, and seemingly having forgotten West's presence in the room. He
was utterly unable to even catch her eye, and finally found himself
confronting Colonel LeFranc and Percival Coolidge, the latter instantly
engaging him in conversation, evidently seeking more definite
information.

"This engagement with my niece," he said uneasily, "must have been rather
sudden? Even your name is quite unfamiliar to me."

"It was, indeed," admitted West, who had now completely recovered
his nerve, and even begun to enjoy the situation. "Since my return
from abroad."

"You were with the army in France?"

"In an Engineer Regiment. I have been in America only two weeks."

"Ah, indeed. And this is your home?"

Realizing that the elder Coolidge was diligently searching for
information, West decided the best method would be a full confession.

"Oh, no," he said candidly, "I am from the South--Atlanta, Georgia. My
father is a District Judge, Robert Peel West, quite widely known, and my
mother belonged to the Bullock family. I am a graduate of the University
of Virginia, and also of the Massachusetts Polytechnic. Before the war I
was connected for a short time, with a well-known firm of Engineers in
this city, but, since my return, I have not resumed professional work.
Having been wounded in France, I have felt entitled to a little rest
after my return."

"Quite interesting, I am sure," Coolidge turned to the Colonel. "You are
Southern also, I believe?"

"Very much so," was the quick response. "And I chance to know the name
of Judge West rather well. I congratulate your niece on her choice of a
life companion. There is no better blood in Georgia. I would be very
pleased to hear more of your father, Captain West. I have not met him
for several years."

West, by this time, thoroughly impressed with the spirit of the occasion,
passed the ensuing evening rather pleasantly, although obliged to be
always on his guard against any incautious remark, and keenly interested
in all that was occurring about him. He found the company rather pleasant
and entertaining, although not quite able to gauge the real feelings of
Mr. Percival Coolidge, who he imagined was not altogether satisfied with
the state of affairs just revealed. The gentleman was outwardly cordial
enough, yet his manner continued distinctively reserved, and somewhat
cold. West, however, attributed this largely to the nature of the man,
and finally dismissed the thought from his mind altogether. The person
who continued to puzzle him most was Natalie Coolidge, nor was he able to
approach her in any way so as to obtain a whispered private word of
guidance. The girl unquestionably avoided him, easily able to accomplish
this by devoting her entire attention to the other guests.

She appeared in excellent humour, and there was laughter, and brilliant
conversation wherever she paused, but not once could he encounter her
glance, or find her for a moment alone. Nor dare he ask questions of
those he conversed with, so as to gain any fresh insight into this
mystery. He ventured upon thin ice once or twice most carefully, but the
information obtained was infinitesimal, although it bore to some extent
on the problem confronting him. The Colonel innocently lifted the veil
slightly, permitting him to learn that this was a week-end party, and
that Miss Coolidge was the mistress of the place, her parents having been
dead for two years. Percival Coolidge, her father's brother, and a
manufacturer in the city, was her guardian, and the affairs of the estate
were not yet entirely liquidated. West drew the impression that Colonel
LeFranc possessed a rather low opinion of the uncle, although he was
careful to choose his words. Beyond this he apparently knew nothing of
the family history, which he felt at liberty to communicate. As West had
a delicacy in asking questions, the subject was pursued no further.

He was assigned to escort Miss Willis, a tall willowy blonde, and quite
talkative, in to dinner, but her conversation ran largely to the
theatrical offerings in town, and he found it impossible to change her
trend of thought into other channels. The hostess sat nearly opposite,
where she could easily overhear the young lady, whose voice was decidedly
penetrating, so West made no serious attempt to be otherwise than
complacent. Once the smiling Natalie appealed to him, familiarly
calling him "Matt" across the table, and he responded with equal
intimacy, yet her eyes avoided his, and it was plainly evident to his
self-consciousness, that her remark was merely part of the play. More
and more her actions mystified and perplexed; he could not discover the
key to her hidden motive, or guess at her purpose in this masquerade.
Nothing remained but for him to go quietly forward, playing the part
assigned. He had pledged himself blindly to her, and could only wait for
the future to reveal the object of it all. Sometime he would succeed in
getting the girl alone once more, and then he would compel a full
confession.

But this was not destined to take place that evening. She coolly and
deliberately defeated every effort he made to get her alone, and yet this
was accomplished in a manner so as not to attract the attention of
others. Even Percival Coolidge, who, West felt, was watching them both
shrewdly, never suspected the quiet game of hide and seek being played
under his very eyes. Nevertheless, it was this growing suspicion of the
man which prevented West from indulging in more rigorous methods. As the
evening progressed he became almost convinced that her principal object
was to deceive this gentleman; that she really cared nothing for what the
others might think, or say. And she did her part to perfection, being
with West often, although never alone, speaking to him intimately, and
requesting of him little acts of service most natural under the
circumstances. He played opposite her in a fourhanded game of bridge; he
turned the leaves of her music when she sang, and her arm rested within
his as they all stood on the porch watching the moon rise. It was all a
masterpiece of acting, so exceedingly well done, as to finally convince
the young man that she was greatly in earnest as to its success. She
desired Percival Coolidge to have no lingering doubt of her engagement.
And, finding all opportunity of explanation denied him, he yielded to the
inevitable, and, for the evening at least, silently accepted his fate.

Nor did circumstances favour him when the company finally broke up, and
retired for the night. He had thought this moment might be propitious,
but she calmly outgeneraled him again, suddenly bidding the men remain
and smoke as long as they pleased, and, disappearing herself up the
stairway with Miss Willis, without so much as a glance backward,
indicative of any lingering interest. West, convinced that her retirement
was final, and early wearying of the rather drowsy conversation about
him, soon sought his own room. It was eleven o'clock of a bright,
moonlight night, and, feeling in no degree sleepy, West seated himself
at the window to finish his cigar. He heard the others pass along the
hall on their way to the rooms assigned them, and finally all became
quiet, even the servants apparently having retired. Outside was likewise
noiseless, the moon revealing the scene almost as clearly as though it
was day, yet leaving weird shadows to confuse the eye. Occasionally a
belated motor car passed along the road, invisible because of the trees.
Again and again his mind reviewed the strange events of the evening,
unable to arrive at any definite conclusion. The harder he sought to
delve into the mystery, the more obscure it became. The young woman
herself thoroughly baffled him. If this was merely a test, it was
certainly a most unusual one, and he hoped he had met the requirements to
her entire satisfaction. He already frankly acknowledged to himself, at
least, that she had become of personal interest to him. He fell a
peculiar desire to be of service; but this desire was now permeated with
a firm determination to know the whole truth. He would no longer remain
ignorant of her object, for what purpose he was being used. She must
trust him, and tell him frankly, if he was to continue to play a part. He
would know whether this was tragedy or comedy, first of all.

He had, indeed, reached some conclusions already. These might not be
correct, yet they were already implanted in his mind. The guests of the
night were mere puppets, having no real connection with the game being
played, utterly ignorant of what was going on behind the scenes. The only
one present having any real part was Percival Coolidge, and West had
taken an instinctive dislike to this man. Moreover, he had some reason to
believe this feeling was warmly reciprocated; that the latter already
suspected and watched him. Only one explanation flashed into his mind to
account for Miss Coolidge's unexpected announcement of an engagement
between them--this would excuse any future intimacy; would enable them to
meet alone freely without arousing comment. She had deliberately chosen
this course to disarm suspicion, and had failed to warn him in advance
that she might test his nerve and discretion. This appealed to him as the
most reasonable explanation of the situation. But beyond this vague
guess, it was impossible to delve. He possessed no facts, no knowledge;
he could only keep faith in her, and wait the time of explanation.

Tired by the uselessness of such thinking West finally sought the bed,
and must have slept, although scarcely aware that he had closed his eyes.

Some slight noise aroused him. The door leading into the hall, which he
had failed to lock, stood partially ajar, and his eyes caught the vague
glimpse of a figure gliding swiftly through the opening. With one bound
he was upon his feet, springing recklessly forward. The hall was dark,
but for a patch of moonlight at the further end. Against this he caught
an instant, flitting glimpse of the intruder. It was a woman, yet even
as his eyes told him this, she seemed to vanish into thin air--the hall
was empty.



CHAPTER IV

MISS COOLIDGE EXPLAINS


Vague and indistinct as was that fleeting vision in the moonlight, West
felt no doubt as to the identity of his visitor--the woman was Natalie
Coolidge. His one glimpse of her vanishing figure assured him of this
fact, and he drew back instantly, unwilling to follow. Where she had gone
he neither knew, nor cared. She had come to his room secretly, supposing
him asleep, and this surprising knowledge dominated his mind. What could
such an act mean? This was certainly a home of respectability, of wealth.
The guests being entertained were evidence of that; yet this secret
entrance into his private apartment at such an hour suggested theft, or
even some more desperate crime. There was mystery here, at least, a
mystery beyond his power of discernment. However, this recognition rather
hardened him to his task, than otherwise. He had been forced into the
strange environment, and now meant to penetrate its every secret.

This time he locked the outer door carefully, and lay down on the bed,
wondering if there would be any further developments. As he attempted to
think, he was listening eagerly for the slightest sound of movement in
the hall. There were none; the transom stood partially open, but no noise
reached his ears from the outside; clearly enough the night prowler,
assured that he was still awake, had decided to make no further effort.
Doubtless she believed her escape had been unseen, or, at least, that she
had remained unrecognized in the gloom, and would now resort to some
entirely different method for achieving her end, whatever it could be. He
could only wait, and watch for the next move. Perhaps the morning would
bring full explanation. With this conception in his mind, his head sought
the pillow, and he lapsed into unconsciousness.

The long training of army service caused West to awaken early, while the
house was yet quiet, but with the dawn already red in the East. He
crossed to the window, and looked out. It was a beautiful morning, the
green lawn yet sparkling with dew; the estate was evidently a fine one,
quite extensive and carefully attended to. To the right of the tennis
court was a well arranged flower garden, criss-crossed by white paths, an
ornate summer-house in its centre, completely concealed by vines. Beyond
this, conspicuous against the green back-ground, West caught the flutter
of a white skirt, realizing instantly that, early as the hour was,
Natalie Coolidge was already up and about. He wondered if her presence
might not be an invitation for him? Perhaps she had deliberately chosen
this early hour, before the others awoke, to explain her strange conduct
of the previous evening? At least, here was an opportunity to see and
talk with her alone.

He dressed swiftly, and slipped noiselessly down-stairs, unlocking the
front door, and emerging into the fresh air, without encountering any
stray members of the household. Not even a servant was visible. He passed
beyond the vine draped arbour before she realized his approach, and
straightened up, a freshly cut rose in one gloved hand, the pruning
shears in the other, welcoming him with a little laugh, her eyes full of
demure mischief.

"I rather suspected army discipline had not entirely worn off," she said
pleasantly, "and that you might still prove to be an early riser."

"And does this expectation account for your presence?"

"Not wholly; it has become a habit with me. I am always the first one
out in the morning, and it will be an hour yet before breakfast is
served. However, I promised to be very frank with you, did I not? Then I
will begin now; this morning I really hoped I might see you for a moment
before the others were stirring--we have so much to talk about."

"It certainly seems so to me," he responded honestly, yet not greatly
encouraged by the amusement in her eyes. "The night has been full of
surprises."

"During which you bore yourself exceedingly well. I have always read of
the initiative of the American soldier, Captain, and in this case, you
met my every expectation."

"Then I have passed the test?"

She hesitated, her eyes seeking his, and then falling before his gaze.

"Yes," she acknowledged slowly, "I can scarcely say anything else now;
the--the affair has progressed so far already there is nothing to do but
go on with it."

"Yet I remain wholly in the dark," he protested.. "Surely you cannot
expect real service when given so blindly?"

"No, I do not. I mean to trust you fully. It is the only way; but do you
still truly wish to serve?"

"I am enlisted in the cause without reserve," he insisted warmly. "While
I learned but little last evening, that little was enough to convince me
there is something strange under the surface. Your calling me to your
assistance is no joke--you actually need me."

"I need some one on whose judgment and courage I can rely," she
answered earnestly, "and I believe now that you are the one. It is
rather an odd situation, Captain West, but the circumstances surely
justify my action. Perhaps I shall have time to partly explain now. Let
us slip into the concealment of this summer-house; no one can approach
without being seen."

It was dark and cool under the shadow of the vines, but, for a moment
after they were seated, neither spoke. West waited expectantly for his
companion to break the silence, and she seemingly found it difficult to
begin her story. The flush deepened on her cheeks, and her lips parted.

"It really seems so ridiculous," she explained at last desperately.
"Almost like a dream of fancy, and I hardly know how to put the situation
into words. If I were ten years younger I would almost be convinced
myself that it was all imaginary, yet everything I tell you is true. I
wonder if you will believe me?"

"Do not question that. I realize fully your earnestness."

"Yet I am going to test your credulity, just the same. But it would be
very foolish to venture as far as I have already, and then fail to go on.
So I'll tell you just what I know, and--and then leave it there. That
will be the best way. Those people you met last evening have nothing to
do with the story--none of them, at least, unless it may possibly be
Percival Coolidge. I am rather afraid of him; I always have been. I
believe he knows what all this trouble means, but I do not dare go
and talk with him about it. That is really what is the matter, I
suppose--there is no one I can talk to; they would only laugh at me. If
you do, I shall never forgive you."

"I am not at all so inclined. Tell me the story from the very beginning."

"Yes, I will. My father was Steven Coolidge, and was very wealthy. He did
not marry until late in life, and, I have reason to believe it was a
great disappointment to his brother Percival that a child was born.
Perhaps I ought not to make such a statement, but much has occurred to
impress me with his dislike--"

"He is your guardian?"

"Yes; you learned that last night?"

"From the Colonel; he seemed to enjoy talking, and naturally, I was
curious. Has Percival Coolidge wealth of his own?"

"Only what my father left him, which was a considerable sum, and a
limited interest in the business. He was very much dissatisfied with his
share. Originally he was one of the two trustees in charge of the estate,
but the other died, leaving him entirely in control. Before I was born he
had confidently expected to inherit everything."

"The estate then is not settled?"

"Not until I am twenty-five; within a few days now."

"And your mother?"

"She died at my birth."

West leaned forward eagerly. "It is the estate then that troubles you?"
he asked swiftly. "You imagine it has wasted?"

"No, not at all. They tell me it has increased in value. My father's
lawyer assures me as to this. Percival Coolidge is a good business man,
but something strange is going on behind the scenes. I cannot talk with
the lawyer about it; I can scarcely be sure myself. I--I am simply up
against a mystery I am unable to solve. Everywhere I turn I run into a
blank wall."

"But I do not understand."

"How could you expect to, when it is so utterly obscure to me? I seem to
be fighting against a ghost."

"A ghost!"

"Yes; now don't laugh at me! Do you suppose I would ever have done
anything as reckless as advertising for help if I had not been actually
desperate? Can you imagine a respectable girl performing so ridiculous an
act, as putting her whole trust in a stranger, inviting him to her home,
introducing him as her promised husband to her relatives and friends?
Why, it almost proves me crazed, and, in a measure, I think I must be.
But it is because I have exhausted all ordinary methods. I do not seem to
be opposing anything of flesh and blood; I am fighting against shadows. I
cannot even explain my predicament to another."

"You must try," he insisted firmly, affected by her evident distress. "I
must be told everything if I am to be of any value. A half way confidence
can accomplish nothing."

"But it sounds so foolish; I am being haunted! I know that, yet that is
all I do know."

"Haunted, in what way?"

"I do not even know that; but by a woman, I think--a woman who must
strangely resemble me. She pretends to be me--to my friends, to my
servants, at my bank. I never see the creature, but I hear of her from
others. She has actually drawn checks in my name, imitating my signature,
and having them cashed by clerks who know me well. She has given orders
to my servants, and they protest that I gave them. She meets and talks
with my friends in places where I never go. I am sure she has actually
been in this house, and ridden in my car undiscovered. I am constantly
reported as being seen at restaurants and hotels where I have not been,
and with parties I do not know. This has been going on for a month now. I
am unable to prove her an imposter, even to identify her. I have
endeavoured to discuss the situation with a few people, but they only
laugh at the strange idea. No one will listen to me seriously. My lawyer
actually believes I am demented."

"And you conceived the thought that perhaps a total stranger might prove
more sympathetic?"

"Yes," she admitted. "If he was young and adventurous; provided I
interested him at all. It would seem to offer me a chance; and then, if
unknown to the party impersonating me, such a one might learn the truth
unsuspected. Do you believe me, Captain?"

"I have no reason to doubt what you say. What you describe is not
impossible, and there surely must be an adequate explanation for it. I
mean to do my very best to uncover the mystery. You have these
fraudulent checks?"

"Yes; one was returned to me only yesterday."

"I shall want them, together with one you drew yourself. Also the names
of the servants who have apparently been approached by this person, and
the circumstances."

"Certainly."

"You do not mind if I ask you one or two rather direct personal
questions?"

"Assuredly not."

"What caused you to announce our engagement?"

She laughed, but from sudden embarrassment.

"It was silly, wasn't it! Really I do not exactly know; a sudden impulse,
and the words were spoken. It occurred to me that our intimacy could be
accounted for in no other way."

"So I supposed. Well, there is no harm done, but now, you understand, we
must play out the game."

"Play it out?"

"Surely; act natural, permit no suspicion to be aroused. Even if I should
feel impelled by duty, to kiss you, it is my privilege."

"Why--why, you cannot mean that!"

"Oh, but I do. This is no threat that I shall insist on carrying the
matter to such an extreme, yet I must insist on the right if it becomes
necessary. You would scarcely dare refuse, would you?"

"No," she confessed, her eyes suddenly meeting his, "I--I suppose not;
but--but is it necessary to discuss that now?"

"Perhaps not, only I must know. You will play the game?"

Her eyes fell, the breath pulsing between her lips.

"I am not afraid," she said rather proudly. "Yes, I will play the game."

"Good! I knew you would. And now for the second question; why did you
come to my room last night?"

She stared at him incredulously, the flush fading from her cheeks.

"Your room! I come to your room! Assuredly no; what can you mean?"

"Then it must be that I have already encountered the ghost," he declared
smilingly. "For the very counterpart of you certainly visited me. I had a
clear view of her in the moon-light, but she vanished down the hall. I
would have sworn she was you."

"A woman?"

"Absolutely a woman; flesh and blood, no doubt as to that."

"When was this?"

"After midnight."

"It was not I, Captain West; please believe that--but hush; there comes
Percival Coolidge!"



CHAPTER V

WEST WINS THE FIRST HAND


The newcomer stood at the edge of the front steps, and paused long enough
to light a cigarette before descending. His features were as clear cut as
though done in marble, and about as expressive. To all outward
appearances, the man was cold, emotionless, selfish egotism written on
every feature. For the first time, in the glare of the bright morning
light, West took stock of the fellow, and realized his true nature.
Instinctively he felt that here was the particular antagonist he was to
be pitted against. Whatever might be the truth as to a strange woman,
this man must be the controlling factor in any conspiracy. His companion
must have sensed the same fact, for she swiftly drew back beneath the
shadow of the vines.

"You meet him," she whispered, "alone. I would rather he did not find us
together."

"But can you escape unseen?"

"Yes, under cover of the hedge. But be very careful what you say."

She had vanished before he could interpose, slipping away so noiselessly,
he was scarcely aware of her swift action. His eyes followed the more
deliberate movements of the man, who slowly descended the broad steps,
pausing when once on the gravelled walk to glance curiously back at the
house. West thought his interest centred on the open window of the room
he had occupied, but this was merely a conjecture, for the delay was but
for a moment; shortly after Coolidge strolled on directly toward the
summer-house, the blue smoke of the cigarette marking his progress. West
stepped carelessly forth from the concealment of the vines, watchful for
any change of expression on the face of the other. There was none, not
even a look of surprise, or a tightening of the lip.

"Ah! Captain," he said easily, tossing his stub aside, and drawing forth
his case for another. "Glorious air this morning; the advantage of early
rising; you indulge, I presume?"

"An army habit, I mean to do away with later. Thanks. I suppose breakfast
is not ready?"

"Hardly yet," glancing about inquiringly. "My niece is usually out here
at this hour, which accounts for my venturing forth. She is not here?"

"Not now, although there are evidences that she has been," indicating
the gloves and pruning shears visible beside the walk. "We must have
arrived too late."

"So it seems. You came with the same purpose, no doubt?"

"If you mean the hope of encountering Natalie, your guess is correct. She
would not give me a word last night, and has even overturned my plans
this morning. Does she play hide and seek with you also?"

"Does she! One never knows what she will do. But this last escapade is
the strangest of all."

"You refer to our engagement?"

"Assuredly; I had no warning, no conception of such a thing."

"Do you mean, sir, that she had never consulted you? never even mentioned
me to you before?"

"Exactly. You are aware of who I am, I presume? the position I hold
relative to her property?"

"Certainly; you are her uncle and guardian. Under the terms of the will
you remain in full control until she is twenty-five, now almost at hand,
except for an annual income payable to her monthly. Is not that the
situation?"

"You have apparently made very careful inquiry," he commented with a
perceptible sneer. "No doubt this was a matter of deep interest to you."

"Of some interest, I confess," acknowledged West, controlling his temper.
"Although my information has not come from inquiry. Miss Natalie was kind
enough to talk to me about her affairs, presupposing my interest in them.
However, I assure you, I have no personal ambition along this line."

"Indeed; not fortune-hunting then?"

"Far from it," good humouredly, but keenly aware that he was touching
Coolidge. "My family is far from poverty stricken, and I have a very good
profession. It is quite right you should know this."

"What profession, may I ask?"

"Civil Engineer."

"But not established, I imagine?"

"I had very good connections before the war. Since returning from France,
I have made no effort to renew these, or seek others. I, of course,
expect to do so later, and shall be in no way dependent upon Miss
Coolidge's fortune."

"Although quite willing to share it, I presume?"

"I think you have insinuated that often enough," returned West, at last
fully aroused by the insolent words and manner of the other. "Perhaps it
may be well for us to have a plain understanding without further delay,
Mr. Percival Coolidge. My engagement to Miss Natalie may be sudden and
unexpected--perhaps not altogether pleasant from your standpoint--yet it
hardly warrants you in thus attributing to me mercenary motives. As a
matter of fact, I was not aware until last evening that she was an
heiress to considerable property. I knew nothing of her relationships. I
will say, however, that now I feel perfectly justified in showing an
interest in her affairs. As I understand matters, you are her guardian
under the special provisions of your brother's will?"

"You are perfectly right, sir, and I should have been consulted previous
to this engagement." Coolidge said with dignity. "Even now it is subject
to my approval."

"I think not. Your guardianship was merely a special provision of the
will, with reference to the estate. So I understand, at least. At
twenty-one, she became mistress of her own personal affairs, and no
longer needed to consult you."

"I controlled her income."

"Only the surplus; a certain sum was to be paid her each month until she
was twenty-five; then the entire estate came into her possession. Beyond
this you exercised no legal authority."

"You seem well posted."

"The lady herself informed me as to these facts."

"Since yesterday?"

"Yes, since yesterday."

"Where, may I ask?"

"In the summer-house here, a few moments ago."

Coolidge gave utterance to an oath, which burst from his lips before it
could be wholly restrained.

"Damn you! just what is your game?" he exclaimed roughly, forgetting his
pose. "Are you trying to get your nose into my affairs?"

"Most certainly not," returned West coolly, yet facing the other with a
steady eye. "I can have no possible interest in your affairs. But I may
be led to investigate those of Miss Coolidge, if she should so request.
It seems she possesses no one to represent her at present--not even the
family lawyer."

"What do you imply by that remark?"

"That she has gone to you, and to the attorney, who represents the
estate, relative to some very strange occurrences of late, only to be
laughed at. No effort has been made to relieve her anxiety."

"You mean that fool story about some one else pretending to be her?"

"It cannot altogether be a fool story when this mysterious party passes
forged checks at the bank."

"There was only one; that means nothing; the girl isn't using good sense.
So this is the stuff she is filling you up with? And you propose
investigating her wild imaginings, hey? By Gad, you are going to have an
interesting time."

"I hope so; at least I am hoping to discover some truth."

"Good. I wish you well," and his tone was one of decided relief. "Your
adventures ought to prove quite amusing."

Coolidge laughed heartily, the whole affair apparently taking on a new
aspect, now that he felt he comprehended the real purpose of the other.

"Oh, by the way, West, you must pardon me if I send Sexton into your room
for a valise I left there. You see I occupied that suite until you came."

"Oh, indeed," surprised, "I noticed no other grip there."

"It is in the closet. That has always been my room whenever I visit
here. I do not know why Natalie decided to change me this time--naturally
wished to reserve the best for you, I presume."

"Very kind of her, I am sure. There is Sexton now."

"Which means breakfast is served. Shall we go in?"

The two men walked slowly up the gravelled path, leading to the side
door. West's thoughts were busy with this new discovery. Had he
inadvertently stumbled upon a clue? So he had occupied the room usually
reserved for Percival Coolidge. Perhaps here was the explanation of the
coming of his strange visitor. If so, then it was already clearly evident
that whatever the plot might be, this fellow had a hand in it. West
glanced aside at the face of his unconscious companion, deciding quickly
to venture a chance shot.

"Were you expecting a caller last night?" he asked calmly.

Coolidge wheeled about, startled out of his self-control.

"A caller! Of course not. What put that in your head?"

"Because I had one, in that room you say you always occupied. The
visitor vanished as soon as I was seen, and the thought occurred to me
just now that you might have been the one sought."

"Perfectly absurd, West. You must have had a night-mare. What did she
look like?"

"Oh, I only had a glimpse in the moon-light; resembled a ghost more than
anything else."

"And just about what it was," with a laugh of relief. "Some dream you
better forget about. Come along; they are waiting on us."

They passed up the steps together; and into the pleasant breakfast room,
where the remainder of the company were already gathered. Coolidge was
again perfectly at his ease, genially greeting the guests, and had
apparently already dismissed the incident from his mind. Evidently even
West did not consider it of any serious importance; he had clearly enough
not recognized the intruder, and either decided the whole affair a freak
of imagination, or else, at the worst, some midnight escapade of a
servant. But West's mind had in reality settled on a point which Coolidge
overlooked. He had gained the very information desired. He had carefully
refrained from even suggesting the sex of his mysterious visitor.
Percival Coolidge knew, without being told, that the caller was a woman.
Then he also knew who that woman was.



CHAPTER VI

UNTANGLING THREADS


The morning meal proved delightfully informal, Natalie gracefully
presiding, and apparently in the highest spirits. West found his place
reserved on her right with Miss Willis next, and, between the two, was
kept extremely busy. The Colonel sat directly across the table, with
Percival Coolidge just beyond the hostess. No intimation of anything
wrong burdened those present, the single servant silently performing his
duties to the constant laughing chatter of those about the table. Even
Coolidge, somewhat distant at first, yielded finally to the prevailing
humour, and joined freely in the conversation. This turned at last to the
plans for the day, revealing a variety of desires, which Natalie arranged
to gratify. The Colonel and two of the ladies expressed an inclination to
attend church, the limousine being offered them for the purpose. Others
decided on a match with the racquets, while Coolidge, rather to the
surprise of the lady, suggested that Natalie accompany him into the city
on a special errand of mercy. At first, amid the ceaseless clatter of
tongues, West was unable to grasp the nature of his plea, or her reply,
but finally overheard enough to arouse his personal interest, especially
when his own name was mentioned in the discussion.

"I was not aware you ever concerned yourself in such matters," she said
soberly. "Is this a particular case?"

"Decidedly so; the man before he died, was in my employ, but I did not
learn until late yesterday of the condition in which his family was left.
I understand something must be done for them at once. You are always
interested in such cases, so I supposed you would accompany me gladly. It
is extremely disagreeable duty for me."

"It must be attended to today?"

"The case is very urgent I am told."

"But how can I leave my guests--especially Captain West?"

West leaned forward.

"Do not hesitate on my account. I can easily amuse myself; or, if there
is room, and it is not disagreeable to Mr. Coolidge, I might enjoy being
of the party."

"Why, of course," she coincided eagerly. "Why couldn't he come along?
There will be plenty of room if I operate the car. It is a case of
destitution of which Uncle Percival has just learned--a widow and three
children actually suffering. Surely it can do no harm for Captain West to
accompany us?"

Coolidge exhibited no enthusiasm over the proposition; indeed West felt
his response almost discourteous, yet this very suspicion aroused his
own desire to make one of the party. The fellow evidently disliked him
instinctively, and would exert every influence possible to discredit
him in the eyes of Natalie. The suggestion even came that this sudden
call to charity might prove only an effort on Coolidge's part to get
the girl alone where she could be plainly talked to. The man was not
pleased with this new proposal, that was evident enough; but the niece
unquestionably desired him to accept the invitation. Not only her lips,
but equally her eyes, pressed the matter, and West experienced no
hesitancy in saying yes.

"Why, of course I will go," he returned heartily, "and I will be ready
whenever you are."

"About half an hour then."

He retired to the room upstairs, partly for the purpose of exchanging
his coat, but also half tempted to make a hasty examination of the
valise which Coolidge had thoughtlessly left overnight in the closet.
The conception had already taken strong hold on his mind that his
visitor of the evening before had been the mysterious impersonator of
Natalie Coolidge; and that she had come there with some deliberate
purpose--no-doubt a secret conference with Percival. If her resemblance
to the mistress of the house was as remarkable as he had been led to
believe, her entrance to the place would be comparatively easy of
accomplishment, and the danger of discovery correspondingly small. It
never occurred to him to question Natalie's story. To be sure there were
details he found it difficult to fully accept as true, but the girl
certainly believed all she had told him. She denied earnestly having
been the one invading his room, and he believed her implicitly; yet the
person who had visited him was so closely her image as to make it still
seem almost an impossibility that she could be a separate individual.
Nothing less than Natalie's own word would have brought conviction. And
this person had supposed she was visiting the apartment occupied by
Percival Coolidge. This was the only satisfactory explanation of her
presence there; whether she came that night for the first time, or as a
supplement to other similar visits, it was unquestionably Coolidge
whom she sought.

For what purpose? To West's mind only one object appeared probable. The
man was too far advanced in life--certainly much above sixty from his
appearance--to be involved in a love affair with so young and attractive
a woman. Moreover in such a case she would scarcely seek him out here in
this private home, where he was merely a transient guest; he would never
venture to use a place like this as a rendezvous. That was unthinkable.
Some other purpose, demanding immediate attention, must furnish the
reason for her venturing to enter this house at such an hour, and coming
directly to the room where she supposed Coolidge to be sleeping. To
West's mind there could be but one answer. The two were mutually involved
in a conspiracy of some nature, undoubtedly connected with the
approaching settlement of the Coolidge estate. This girl, so strangely
resembling Natalie, had in some way been discovered by the scheming
guardian, who was now using her for his own selfish ends. The plot had
been carefully perfected, and the time must now be near for execution.
This girl had been selected, and trained to act a part--the part of
Natalie Coolidge. Her ability to deceive had been tested in various
ways. Now the moment approached when they were ready to play out the real
game. Yet the nature of that game was in no way apparent. He could only
keep quiet, and wait for some further development, even appear
indifferent, while he secretly watched every suspicious movement of
Percival Coolidge.

It was not at all probable the satchel contained any incriminating
evidence, yet the temptation was strong to obtain, if possible, a hasty
glance at the contents. But for this he was already too late, scarcely
reaching the room indeed, before Sexton appeared, announcing his mission.
West, perched on the arm of a chair, smoking, and watched the man bring
forth the valise, and start toward the door.

"Coolidge tells me he usually occupied this room," he ventured curiously,
"How did it happen I was put in here?"

Sexton paused, and faced about respectfully.

"It was upon orders from Miss Natalie, sir. But she did not mention the
change in time to remove the bag. The truth is, I forgot, sir, that it
was here."

"Oh, I see; this is not the grip he usually travels with then?"

"No, sir; this was sent down in advance, sir. Mr. Percival Coolidge is
here quite frequently."

"Naturally. As I understand he has no home of his own?"

"No, sir; he was never married, sir. In the city he stops at one of
the big hotels. Of late he quite frequently spends the end of the week
out here, sir. Of course he is deeply interested in the prosperity of
the estate."

"As the guardian of Miss Natalie, you mean?"

"Just so, sir."

"How long have you been here, Sexton?"

"Sixteen years, sir."

"You knew Miss Natalie's father then, and must enjoy the place to
remain so long?"

"It has been very pleasant, sir, until the last month or so,"
regretfully, yet evidently glad of the opportunity to talk, lingering
with one hand on the knob of the door. "Since then things haven't been
just the same."

"In what way?"

"Well, I don't exactly know, sir. Miss Natalie seems to change her mind,
an' we never can please her. That's the trouble mostly. Last night I
waited up until you all went to bed, an' then locked the house, the way
she told me to. But that didn't suit her at all, for she stopped me on
the stairs, an' made me go back an' leave the side door unlocked--just
said she'd attend to that herself."

"Miss Natalie told you? You are sure, Sexton?"

"Oh, it was her, sir; there was a light burning in the hall, an' she was
all dressed up as though she was goin' out. 'Taint the first time,
either. I ain't got no right to say anything, but it puzzles me what she
wants to go out for at that time o' night. And I thought maybe I ought to
speak to Mr. Percival Coolidge about it."

"No. I wouldn't, Sexton," said West quietly. "It would likely enough only
get you into trouble. Probably she cannot sleep well, and so walks in the
garden. Anyway this is none of our business, my man. Where are Miss
Natalie's apartments?"

"In the other wing, sir; the first door beyond the head of the stairs."

"And the door you were asked to leave open?"

"At the farther end of the hall."

As West made no further effort to continue the conversation, but began to
carelessly roll a cigarette, Sexton slipped silently through the opening,
the valise in his hand, and closed the door behind him. West touched a
match to the cigarette, scarcely aware of the action.

This attempt to dig information out of a servant was not a pleasant
experience, yet he felt that in this case it was fully justified. To be
sure he had gained little, yet that little helped to clear away the fog,
and sustain the girl's theory that she was being impersonated by another
even to her own servants. If West had retained any lingering doubt as to
what had occurred the previous night, this doubt had entirely vanished in
the face of Sexton's testimony. His visitor, and the one who had ordered
the servant to leave the side door unlocked, had been the same--not
Natalie Coolidge, but strangely resembling her. Whoever she was, she knew
the house well, and possessed some means of entrance. Whatever else her
purpose might be, one object was clearly connected with the presence
there of Percival. She had sought his room, fleeing immediately on
discovering it to be occupied by another. Very well! this meant that he
already had two distinct lines of investigation opened to him--the woman,
and the man. The first was like pursuing a shadow, but Coolidge was real
enough. He determined to keep in touch with the fellow, confident that he
would thus be eventually led to a discovery of his companion. Beyond all
question, they were involved in the same scheme of conspiracy. West had
deliberately arrived at this conclusion, rather pleased at his success,
when a gentle knock sounded at the door.

"What is it?"

"Sexton, sir. Miss Natalie has the car at the door, and is waiting for
you."

"All right. I will be down immediately."



CHAPTER VII

A VISIT TO THE INDIGENT


The guests had either retired to their rooms, or were wandering about
the spacious grounds; at least none were in evidence when West emerged
on to the side terrace, where Miss Natalie and Percival Coolidge
waited. The car was an electric runabout, the single broad seat ample
for the three, and West found himself next to the girl who took charge.
Few words were exchanged until they turned into the main high-way,
headed toward the city. Even then conversation scarcely touched on the
special object of their trip. Indeed, Coolidge seemed inclined to avoid
the subject entirely, turning the conversation into other channels
whenever the matter was broached. This was so persistently done as to
arouse West's notice, but Natalie appeared indifferent, interested only
in her guidance of the car. It was not a long ride, the point sought
being a short submerged street in the southwestern section of the
city. To West this district was entirely unknown, even the street names
being unfamiliar, but he learned through the conversation of the others
that they were in the neighbourhood of some of the Coolidge factories,
many of the surrounding houses being the homes of employees. Percival
called his attention to a few of these, more substantial than the
others, as evidence of the wages paid in their establishments, and also
expatiated to some extent upon the benevolent oversight shown their
workmen. The girl, however, remained quiet, her attention concentrated
upon the street.

Indeed it needed to be if they were to escape accident, for the streets
traversed were, on this Sunday morning, evidently filled from curb to
curb with children engaged in all manner of games, with their elders
massed on the steps in front of the houses, watching them apathetically.
The runabout felt its way cautiously forward through the jostling throng
of screaming youngsters, and finally turned into Arch Street, only two
blocks in length, with low, two storied, wooden cottages on either side.
Percival, plainly nervous at the surroundings, indicated the place
sought in the middle of the first block, and Natalie ran the car up
against the curb.

"Is this the place?" she asked doubtfully, eyeing the rather
disreputable cottage, which seemed deserted. "I have never been
here before. What a mass of kids! Do they always play like that in
the street?"

Coolidge unfastened the door, and stepped out.

"Yes, it's all right," he answered sharply. "You might wait here, West;
we'll only be gone a few minutes. Come along, Natalie,"

The girl hesitated, evidently not altogether satisfied.

"Is it necessary that I go in?" she asked.

"That was why I asked you to come," impatiently. "Because you understand
these matters, and, being a woman, can judge better what steps should be
taken. Come; it will only require a few moments--West won't mind."

"Certainly not," the younger man said heartily, "I shall be very
comfortable; don't bother about me."

He had a distinct impression that Coolidge did not desire his company any
further, yet this suspicion aroused no resentment. This was a matter with
which he was in no way concerned, and the only interest he felt was
strictly impersonal. His eyes followed the two as they advanced up the
board walk to the front door of the cottage, and he felt a measure of
surprise at seeing Coolidge calmly open the door without knocking. Both
disappeared amidst the darkness within, and he dismissed the whole affair
from his mind almost instantly. Sinking comfortably back in the seat, his
gaze centred on the maze of children playing in the street. Their antics
amused him for some time, but, at last, he began wondering at the delay
of those within, and his mind drifted to the peculiar conditions with
which he was confronted. Over and over again he reviewed the facts told
him, and compared these with his own observations. That something was
wrong was beyond doubt; he could no longer question this, but no
satisfactory clue to the mystery had yet presented itself. If some
conspiracy was on foot against Natalie, what could be its object? and who
were directly involved? There was apparently no way to settle this,
except to wait patiently for some move on the part of the others. Any
attempt at guessing would only lead him astray. Seemingly, Percival
Coolidge was the only person who could be directly interested should
misfortune occur to his niece; he was the guardian of her inheritance,
and responsible for what remained of her father's estate. Undoubtedly he
also was the next heir at law. His interest in the matter was therefore
easily figured out. Yet there was nothing to prove that the fellow was a
villain at heart, or had any reason to attempt desperate methods. The
mere fact that some other woman amused herself in pretending to be
Natalie proved nothing criminally wrong. It might be a mere lark, with no
vicious object in view. Indeed, but for the deep interest West already
felt in the girl herself, he would have dismissed this angle of the
problem entirely from consideration. It seemed far too melodramatic and
improbable to be taken seriously, although, from mere curiosity, he
purposed to round up this masquerader, and satisfy himself as to why she
was thus publicly impersonating the girl. Yet this appeared a matter of
minor importance, his real task being to learn the condition of the
Steven Coolidge estate, and whether or not, Percival had administered it
justly. Once satisfied upon that point, he would know better what further
steps to take. His whole mind had unconsciously centred upon a distrust
of the man. He believed him to be a sneaking scoundrel, at present
engaged in seeking some means for gaining possession of the trust funds
left in his care. And yet, West had to confess to himself that this
belief was largely founded upon prejudice--confidence in Natalie, and a
personal dislike of the man himself. He possessed no proof of the
fellow's perfidy, nor had he even determined in his own mind the means to
be employed for learning the truth. He had nothing to build upon but the
statement of the girl, which was extremely vague in detail, and largely
mere suspicion. The more thoroughly he analyzed the situation the more
complicated it became, and the less confident he felt regarding an early
solution. If Coolidge was engaged in some criminal scheme the man was
certainly shrewd enough to carefully cover his trail. It was no sudden
temptation to which he had yielded, but a deeply laid plan, formed,
perhaps, as long ago as his brother's death, and now just coming to a
head. Even the books of the estate might have been so carefully
manipulated as to leave no clue. Besides West possessed no authority by
which to examine the books, or even question the bankers in whose hands
the funds were supposed to be. The only immediate hope of striking a
trail apparently lay in his discovery of the strange woman who was
impersonating Natalie Coolidge, and learning her object in carrying on
such a masquerade. Of course, even that might lead nowhere in particular,
as she might be merely amusing herself, and have no connection with
Percival whatever; yet such an investigation offered a chance not to be
neglected.

His glance took in the surroundings, but with no conception that they
would have any direct bearing upon the mystery he was endeavouring to
solve. It was a block of irregular houses, a tenement on the corner, a
dirty looking brick, the other houses of wood, mostly two stories in
height, rather disreputable in appearance, but the one before which the
machine waited, was a frame cottage, well back from the street, and
rather respectable in appearance, although it must have been some years
since last painted. Its original white was dingy, and the tightly
closed blinds gave an appearance of desertion. The door was shut. The
chimney indicated no sign of smoke, the front yard gave every evidence
of long neglect.

An urchin, chasing a ball, plunged recklessly beneath the auto, emerging
with the sphere in his grimy fist. West stopped him with a question.

"Who lives in there?"

"I do' know."

"You don't know? Live 'round here, don't you?"

"Sure; but these folks just come in. They ain't got no kids. G'wn; what
yer asking me fer? Here ye are, Micky!"

"Wait a minute. Here's a dime for you. You say these people just
moved in?"

"Yep."

"When?"

"Couple days maybe. Shucks, mister, I do' know. Hooligans moved out 'bout
a week ago, an' then, a while after that, these guys moved in. I ain't
seen nobody round, but a sorter middlin' ol' woman. Maybe Micky knows who
they be--he lives in that next house. Hey, Micky; here's a guy wants to
ask you som'thin'!"

But Micky refused to be interested, beyond a derisive wiggling of his
fingers at his nose, and West, having abstracted all the information
possible, made no further effort. The knowledge thus obtained as to the
present occupants of the cottage did not exactly coincide with the story
Coolidge had told. He had spoken of a widow with three children in
destitute circumstances following the father's death. The boy asserted
there were no children in the family. And they had just moved in, within
a very few days, during which time the neighbourhood had only glimpsed a
"middling old" woman. It was strange at least, adding distinctly to the
puzzle of the whole affair. West grew nervous, wondering why the two
should remain so long within, out of sight and hearing. If this was
merely a charitable visit, it surely did not need require such a length
of time. He had been waiting now for three-quarters of an hour. He opened
the door of the car, and stepped out upon the curb, almost tempted to
investigate the cause of delay. As he stood there undecided, the two
emerged from the cottage, and descended the steps together. Through the
opened door he caught no glimpse of any one within, yet some unseen hand
closed it quickly behind them.



CHAPTER VIII

A NEW MISS COOLIDGE


They came down the narrow board walk together, Percival carefully holding
the lady's arm to prevent her tripping over the loosened planks, but
neither exchanging a word. The man was smiling, the fingers of one hand
toying with the curl of his moustache, but Natalie appeared somewhat
sobered by her visit, and West noticed that she had tied a light veil
over her face, which slightly shadowed her features. It was only as they
reached the curb that she spoke, her voice rather low and listless.

"Would you mind driving the car back?" she asked Coolidge. "Really I feel
quite unnerved."

"No wonder," he returned sympathetically, "I have never witnessed a
sadder case; the conditions were even worse than I imagined. I should
never have brought you with me, my dear."

"Oh, I am not sorry I came; but it has been a lesson to me. I do not
think before I ever realized what such poverty meant."

The words trembled from her lips, and were spoken slowly as though
chosen with care. "The sad plight of the children particularly
appealed to me."

"There are children then?" West questioned, as Coolidge assisted her
into the car. The latter cast a swift glance of inquiry into the younger
man's face.

"Children!" he exclaimed, "Of course; we spoke of them on the way down."

"I know; that was what made me wonder when one of the lads playing out
here in the street said there were no kids in the cottage."

"Oh, I see," a bit sarcastically. "So you have been amusing yourself
questioning the neighbours, have you?"

"To a very small extent," West confessed, keeping his temper. "One of the
players chased a stray ball under the automobile, and I asked him a
question or two. The cottage appeared so deserted, and you were absent
for such a length of time, I became somewhat curious."

"And what did he tell you?"

"Only that the occupants had moved in within a few days, and that he had
seen no kids about; no one in fact but a middling old woman."

"Did he mention any names?"

"No; I didn't ask. It was nothing to me."

"I should say it was not. So the kid told you there were no children,
did he? Well, you heard what Natalie said just now--which are you going
to believe?"

"The lady, of course," smilingly. "Surely this is no matter to
quarrel over."

"No, Captain West," she broke in, leaning forward in the seat, and
speaking again in the peculiar strained voice. "The boy was merely
mistaken. He had not seen the children because they were kept closely in
the house. They were turned out of their former home, and have absolutely
nothing; no furniture even; only straw to sleep on. It was most pitiful."

"Do not think of it any longer, Natalie," Coolidge insisted rather
gruffly. "They are all right now. I shall telephone for a doctor as soon
as we get back, and attend to the rent the first thing tomorrow."

"I know, Uncle, but I cannot forget so easily. Do you know anything about
poverty, Captain West?"

"Nothing very direct. Of course, in a way I have occasionally come in
contact with suffering of that nature. I have been hungry enough in
the army, but usually I have experienced little need. I regret," he
added apologetically, "that what I said was taken as criticism. I had
no such meaning."

"Criticism!" Coolidge turned the car around as he spoke. "Be as free with
that as you please; what I object to is your intruding at every
opportunity. It looks as though you were trying to find out something--is
that your game?"

"Not at all. I naturally spoke to the kid, and the only topic which
occurred to me at the moment concerned the people you were visiting. I
see no occasion for any misunderstanding."

"And there is none," she asserted cordially, her eyes meeting his own
frankly. "So let's drop the subject, and enjoy our ride. I am not going
to have the whole day spoiled because of these people. They are all right
now. What is that big building over there?"

Coolidge emitted some answer, but devoted his attention to running the
car, his jaw set. It was clear enough that West's explanation was not
altogether satisfactory, and his dislike for the younger man had in no
way lessened. The young woman, however, easily regained her vivacity, and
devoted herself to making the ride homeward as pleasant as possible. West
found her unusually entertaining, with a deep sense of humor he had not
before suspected, and an occasional lapse into slang which rather
surprised him. He had previously entertained the thought that she was
rather conventional and not particularly easy to approach, but this
conception vanished quickly in a free flow of conversation, to which
Coolidge apparently paid small attention. Indeed, there were moments when
her extreme frankness of speech rather surprised West, even her voice
striking strangely upon his ears, but the happy laugh, and swift glance
of the eyes reassured him. No doubt she was playing a part for the
benefit of Percival Coolidge in which he must co-operate. Later all would
be explained, and made clear. This belief encouraged him to keep up his
end of the conversation, ignoring Coolidge entirely, and devoting his
attention exclusively to her.

The returning ride seemed very brief, and, almost before West realized
it, the car whirled in through the Coolidge gate, and came to a stop at
the door. Coolidge by this time had recovered from his spell of
ill-nature, or else chose to so appear, and the party separated
pleasantly. Natalie disappeared somewhere within, while the two men
strolled out to the tennis court where the guests were enjoying a
spirited game. All met again at lunch, and then separated, some to motor
over to the lake, the others amusing themselves as they saw fit. Both
Coolidge and Natalie vanished, while West, finding himself alone, chose a
book from the library, and, solaced by a cigar, sought a shady nook on
the porch.

The book, however, was but a mark for his thoughts, which continually
revolved about the strange surroundings in which he found himself. He was
apparently making no progress, was no nearer a solution of the mystery
confronting him. Thus far, at least, no direct clue had presented itself.
Numerous things had occurred to strengthen suspicion, and to increase
interest in the quest. But beyond this--nothing. He liked the girl and
was completely enlisted in her service. He disliked Percival, and was
convinced the fellow was planning evil. Several incidents had already
strengthened this belief; yet there was nothing positive upon which to
build; no path of adventure for him to follow. To speculate was easy
enough, but real facts eluded him.

Yet, in spite of this feeling of failure, West's reflections centred more
upon the young woman than upon the particular problem which he had to
solve. The ride back from the city had revealed a phase of her character
he had never observed before--she had shown herself vivacious, light of
speech, a bit slangy and audacious. He was not altogether sure that this
new revealment quite pleased him, and yet it possessed a certain charm.
He had before learned to think of her as rather quiet and reserved, and
now must change his whole conception. It was difficult to adjust his mind
at once to the different standard. He found himself wondering why she had
afforded him glimpses of her nature so strangely unlike. What could have
occurred within the cottage to thus make so suddenly manifest this new
side to her character? The change in her only served to increase the
mystery, and, he confessed, his admiration also. Her very freedom
evidenced to his mind that he was really accepted, had been taken into a
new intimacy; no longer to be held and treated as an interloper, a
stranger employed for a purpose. She had deliberately cast aside the
conventional, and become natural in his presence--free to speak and act
as the spirit moved. This was a victory, and he chose to interpret it as
proof that she already really liked and trusted him. Actuated by this
feeling, she no longer deemed it necessary to dissemble in his presence.
It was a long step in advance.

He had arrived at this very pleasant conclusion, when Sexton appeared in
the door, evidently looking for some one. The man espied him there in
the shadow of the vines, and came forward.

"Miss Coolidge requests your presence, sir, for a few moments," he
said gravely.

"Why, certainly; did she say where, Sexton?"

"In the library, sir; she is waiting there now."

West hesitated an instant. There was a question he was eager to ask, but
immediately thought better of it. Interviewing servants was not in his
line, and there were other ways of learning the truth.

"Very well," he said quietly. "I will join her at once. Thank you,
Sexton," and disappeared into the cool, darkened hall.



CHAPTER IX

AN UNEXPECTED DISMISSAL


The shades had been drawn closely to exclude the sun, and, for a moment
after he first crossed the threshold of the library, West was unable to
distinguish any occupant. He heard Sexton silently close the door behind
him, but it was not until she moved slightly that he was able to
perceive her presence directly across from where he stood. Her voice
broke the silence.

"You will find a seat next to the window, Captain," she said quietly. "It
was very good of you to come."

"The pleasure was mine," he replied. "Only I am blinded coming in here
from the bright sunshine without."

"I have had a touch of headache--nervous, no doubt, from the visit this
morning--and so ordered Sexton to draw the shades. Your eyes will soon
accustom themselves to the lack of light. I see you quite well."

"Oh, I am all right now," and he sank into the vacant chair, facing her,
expectantly. "You wished to speak with me, the servant said."

"Yes," she leaned back against the couch on which she rested, with face
now clearly revealed, one hand nervously twirling a fan. "Although it is
not easy for me to transform into words exactly what I mean. This is a
very strange situation in which we find ourselves, Captain West."

"I have felt so," he admitted, surprised at this beginning. "Yet I must
confess, I am now becoming quite reconciled."

She sat up suddenly, with eyes searching his face.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Perhaps I ought not to say," he answered boldly. "Yet circumstances
seemingly justify frankness between us. I mean that I feel far more
deeply interested in the final outcome of this affair today than I did
yesterday--it means more to me."

"Indeed! Why?"

"Largely, I imagine, because I am privileged to know you much better.
That naturally makes a difference."

"Does it indeed? You imply then an increased interest in myself as an
individual brings with it a greater desire to serve me?"

"Assuredly, yes."

"Then you render my task doubly hard," she said soberly, yet with a
certain hardness in the tone. "I had not suspected any personal side
whatever. You were a total stranger to me, Captain West, and I employed
you in this matter merely in a business way, as--as--a detective. Surely
you understood this clearly?"

"In a measure that is quite true," feeling the sharp sting of her words.
"Yet the comparison is hardly fair, is it? I am not a detective in the
sense with which you employ the term. No question of pay even has been
discussed between us. The appeal to my services was from an entirely
different stand-point. More, you even investigated rather carefully my
social and financial standing before taking me into your confidence, or
admitting me to your home. Is this not true?"

"Undoubtedly. I had reason to wish assurance in these matters. I had to
present you to my friends."

"Yet this very knowledge of my social position placed me on a totally
different plane from that of a detective picked up at some agency. You
knew I was not serving you for pay."

"Did I?"

"I should hope you did," his voice hardening slightly.

"But for what other end did you volunteer your services?"

"Perhaps that is not so easily explained. It was a spirit of adventure
which first led me to answer your advertisement, I presume. At least, I
can give it no other name. Then, when we met, you appealed to me
personally; I felt a desire to further our acquaintance and--well, your
story aroused my interest."

"Is that all?"

"It might have been had not you chosen methods of procedure which led me
to other thoughts."

She laughed.

"Oh, I see! All this has happened because I introduced you to the others
as my fiancé. Why, that is positively funny. Didn't you know that was
only a part of the game being played?"

"Yes," he said, ignoring the humour of it, and feeling oddly sober, "I
understood, and was playing, the same as you. Only both of us, I think,
forget an important fact."

"What, please?"

"That we were young, socially on a level, and that you were an
exceedingly charming young woman."

She laughed again, yet this time with more restraint.

"That is quite ridiculous, Captain West. Surely, you are not actually
making love to me?"

"No, I am not. I am merely facing the situation very frankly. It would be
useless for me to claim lack of interest in you. From our very first
meeting, you have appealed to me strongly--more so than any other woman
of my acquaintance. Then, perhaps, the peculiarity of our relationship,
with the trust you seemed to impose in me, tended to deepen that
interest. I confess I began to care for you--as a woman."

"Really you are quite flattering. I never dreamed I possessed such
marvellous powers." She remained silent a moment, her eyes shaded by
their long lashes; then uplifted them again to his face. "This makes it
all the more necessary that I now speak plainly," she went on at length.
"That I should explain to you it has all been a mistake. That was why I
asked you to come here now."

"All a mistake! Not the trouble you were in surely?"

"Yes. I must have dreamed most of it, I think. I have just had a long
confidential talk with Percival Coolidge, and we understand each other
perfectly. Everything has been explained. So there is no necessity for
our pretending any longer."

West rose to his feet, comprehending her full meaning, yet unwilling to
yield his position without further explanation.

"Your words are certainly plain enough," he said slowly, "yet I trust I
may be pardoned if I ask a question or so."

"Is it necessary?"

"Perhaps not, but I feel my curiosity is justified. You told me a rather
remarkable story and requested my aid in the solving of a strange
mystery. Now you abruptly dismiss me from that service. Do you mean the
mystery is already solved without my further assistance?"

"I am convinced there was no mystery; that it was only imagination,
Captain West. My calling you was a mistake."

"Percival Coolidge assures you of this?"

"Positively; we have discussed it from every angle, and all that appeared
mysterious has been made clear."

"There is no one else impersonating you?"

"No."

"The checks at the bank; the strange person using your name; all these
were myths?"

She laughed.

"Of course. I really believed all I said to you at the time, but
everything has been explained since, and I realize how very foolish I
have been. Uncle Percival has been very nice about it. He simply didn't
understand before how worried I was."

"No doubt. You sent for me then merely to say I was dismissed?"

"Yes."

"And you told Coolidge, of course, how I came to be here?"

"Yes."

"And the others? What will they think?"

"Why, that can make no difference. They can be told that you were
suddenly called away. Let them suppose we had a quarrel, and that our
engagement is broken," and she laughed again, evidently vastly amused
at the idea.

"But you, personally?" he insisted.

She sobered instantly, also rising, and facing him.

"Captain West, let us be sensible. I invited you here for a certain
purpose. You were employed as much as any of my other servants. Is that
a sufficient answer?"

"It certainly is. I will depart at once."

"Thank you. The limousine will be at the door. You will return to the
Club, I presume?"

"Temporarily, until other arrangements are made."

He bowed and left her standing there in the shadows, the expression of
her face veiled, but there seemed no response, no softening in the
rigid attitude of her figure. She did not care; was only interested in
his immediate departure. The change had occurred with such abruptness,
West was unable as yet to realize its full significance, but, with no
attempt to combat her decision, left the room, closing the door behind
him. In that moment his mood changed. The dismissal had been so curt,
his pride rose in rebellion. Finding Sexton in the front hall, he
addressed him crisply.

"My bag will be ready in ten minutes."

"Yes, sir; you are going away, sir?"

"Immediately. A call to return to the city at once."

"I am very sorry, sir," he said respectfully, yet in a tone of such
earnestness, as to cause West to glance toward him sharply. For an
instant it was upon the lips of the younger man to ask a question, but
Sexton turned away, and it remained unasked. Promptly at the time
mentioned came the servant's soft rap on the door.

"I came for the bag, sir."

West handed it over with a glance at the rather expressionless face.

"You said you regretted to see me leave, Sexton," he remarked jovially.
"I presume you meant nothing in particular by that remark?"

"Oh, no, sir," standing motionless, bag in hand. "Only you have been very
kind, sir, and--and--of course, it is none of my business, but I hope
there is no quarrel, sir?"

"Quarrel! With Miss Natalie, you mean? Why should you suspect that?"

"I--I spoke, sir, very thoughtlessly, sir," he stammered. "You will
pardon me, sir."

"Yes, but you must have had a reason, Sexton?"

"Only that she has seemed very much out of humour, sir, since her trip to
town," he explained rather lamely. "I have never known her to be so hard
to please, sir. I'm sure something is wrong, but that is no reason why I
should say what I did, sir."



CHAPTER X

THE BODY OF A SUICIDE


As the car whirled West down the circling driveway, the only sign of
life visible about the house was the motionless figure of Sexton on the
steps. If either Miss Natalie, or Percival Coolidge, took interest enough
in the proceedings to witness his departure, they chose to remain
carefully concealed within. His glance searched the front of the mansion
vainly; no window revealed an occupant. From behind where the guests were
at play, sounded a distant murmur of voices, and laughter, but the house
itself expressed only calm indifference. There was no pretence even at
speeding the parting guest. He had simply been dismissed, turned out,
decently enough, perhaps, considering his status, yet with a certain
measure of contempt which rankled nevertheless.

The young man could not altogether reconcile this style of treatment with
his preconceived conception of Miss Natalie Coolidge. He had been too
deeply impressed by her to easily relinquish his previously formed
opinion of her character. This latest action did not at all coincide with
her former open friendliness. He had not gone to her as a servant, nor
had she in any way treated him as such. What could account for so
remarkable a change? Even if she had felt his present usefulness was
ended; that she had made a mistake in ever admitting him to her
confidence, the dismissal could have been much more pleasantly achieved.
She could still have exhibited friendliness, and an interest in his
departure. Her words and manner had been extremely abrupt, and her
explanation far from satisfactory.

Perhaps it was the influence of Percival Coolidge which accounted for the
sudden change in the girl. This explanation seemed probable. The man had
in some way regained her confidence, and then, through trickery, had
succeeded in poisoning her mind. There was no doubt he would do this, if
possible, and the probability was that he had finally discovered a way.
From the very first, West had felt the antagonism of the other; there had
never been any love lost between them. Coolidge disliked him
instinctively, and made no effort to conceal his feelings; he resented
the intimacy between him and Natalie, naturally enough, and would use
every means possible to get the younger man completely out of the house.
No doubt he looked upon him as dangerous. But why? There could only be
one answer to this query. His own dishonesty; his secret knowledge of
some trickery relative to the funds of the estate. He had convinced the
girl of his honesty, but, more than ever, West believed the fellow a
rascal. His very helplessness to intervene rendered him the more
convinced.

These thoughts flitted through his mind, yet not consecutively, as the
car left the grounds, and turned on to the main road, leading citywards.
They were still skirting the Coolidge estate, although the house behind
was concealed by shrubbery. The road descending into a ravine spanned by
a concrete bridge, and a rather dense growth of trees shut out the
surrounding landscape. Nothing moving was in sight. Suddenly, just as
they cleared the bridge, and began to mount the opposite grade, there
came a sharp report, sounding so close at hand the chauffeur clamped on
his brake, and glanced anxiously over the side of the car.

"Blow-out, wasn't it, sir?"

"No," said West shortly, staring himself out into the thicket of trees at
their left. "It was a shot fired over there; a revolver I should say.
Wait a second, Sanders, until I see what has happened."

It was largely curiosity which led him to leave the car. The very
conviction that it was a revolver which had been discharged brought a
desire to learn the cause of the shot. The sound of either a rifle or a
shot-gun in that lonely spot would have been instantly dismissed as
natural enough, but a pistol was different. That was no place for such a
weapon. It somehow had a grimly sinister sound. Led forward by a dim
path, he plunged down the sharp incline of the hill, and pressed his way
through the thick fringe of trees beyond. Behind these ran a wire fence,
guarding a stretch of meadow, the high, uncut grass waving in the wind.
Nothing was in sight except this ripening field of clover sweeping upward
to the summit of an encircling ridge. The silence was profound; the
loneliness absolute.

It was this fact which startled West from curiosity into suspicion.
Surely there had been a shot fired--a revolver shot--almost on the very
spot where he stood. He could not doubt the evidence of his own ears. Yet
who had fired? For what purpose? and how had the party disappeared so
completely during that narrow margin of time? There was no place where a
man could hide unless he lay flat in the clover; and what occasion would
any one have to thus seek concealment? Even if the shooter knew of the
passing automobile, or heard his approach through the trees, there could
be no reasonable cause for concealment. Determined now to learn exactly
what had happened, West pressed his passage forward through the vines of
the fence, and emerged into the field beyond. A half dozen yards and he
found the clover trampled, as though a man had passed that way. The trail
led into a shallow depression, past a rather large boulder, near which
the trampling of the grass was even more plainly revealed, as though the
stranger had remained here for some time, had even seated himself, and
then, abruptly ended a few yards away. Evidently the fellow had turned
back at this point, and retraced his steps.

West, now thoroughly puzzled, and already convinced that some mystery
hovered over the place, began to circle through the untrampled clover,
but without any defined purpose. All at once, at the lower end of the
gully he came, unexpectedly, upon another trail, this one well marked,
apparently frequently used, which led straight across the field, and
terminated at a small gate leading through the wire fence. Evidently
here was a short cut to the road, well known to the servants on the
estate, and possibly others. The discovery, however, told nothing
further than this, and contenting himself with another glance about the
unchanged field of rustling clover, West proceeded along the course of
the path, intending to thus rejoin the automobile, waiting his return
behind the trees.

Within a few steps of the gate, which was closed, he came to a sudden,
horrified pause, staring ahead at a strange something huddled in the
path. It was a shapeless thing, bearing no resemblance to a human being,
until he advanced closer; then he recognized the form of a man, curled up
as a dog sleeps, face down hidden by his arm, and limbs drawn up, as if
in a sudden spasm of agony. A hat was in the path beyond, where it had
fallen, and a revolver lay glittering in the sunlight a few feet away.
There was nothing familiar about either figure or clothing, yet
unquestionably there lay the body of a suicide. The single shot they had
heard, the tell-tale revolver close to the dead man's hand, were clear
evidence of what had occurred.

The unexpectedness of this discovery, the peculiar position of the dead
man, the loneliness of that deserted field in which he lay, shocked West
and, for a moment left him strangely hesitant. Who was the man? What
could have led up to the pitiful tragedy? Yet he advanced step by step
nearer to the hideous object in the path. The man had been shot directly
behind the right ear, killed instantly, no doubt, as the deadly bullet
crashed through the brain. West lifted the arm which concealed the face,
already shrinking from the suspicion, which had begun to assail him. Then
he knew who the dead man was--Percival Coolidge.



CHAPTER XI

SUSPICION VERIFIED


Affairs progressed far too rapidly for some hours for West to reflect
seriously over this experience. He could only act swiftly, answer
questions, and do all in his power to assist others. The real meaning of
the tragedy he made no effort to solve; for the time being, at least, he
must leave that to others.

He stood guard beside the body until servants came and bore it to the
house, but made no effort to follow. Instead he gave his address to
Sexton, and continued his journey into the city. After what had passed
between them he had no desire to again encounter Miss Natalie; and under
these circumstances, actually shrank from meeting her. Just what this
man's death might mean to the girl he could not safely conjecture, yet
deep down in his own heart, he felt convinced that this act of
self-destruction would later prove to be a confession of guilt. Yet, be
that as it may, he was already definitely ruled out of the matter. Not,
unless she personally sent for him, could he ever venture to go to her
again in any capacity. To his mind this decision was final.

He was called for the inquest and gave his testimony. The hearing was
brief, and the facts ascertained so clear, there remained no doubt in the
minds of any one, but what this was a case of suicide. No particular
attempt was made to probe into the cause, the personal affairs of the
dead man being left for later investigation. West saw Natalie at the
inquest for the very few moments she was upon the stand, but their eyes
did not meet, nor did the girl give any evidence of recognition. She was
pale, yet calm, answering the questions asked her quietly. These
pertained entirely to her last meeting with Coolidge, and had no direct
bearing on the verdict. The moment she was released she retired from the
room; and West merely lingered long enough to learn the decision of the
jury. Somehow the impression the young woman had left upon him in those
few moments was not a pleasant one. He could not clearly analyse this
result, yet she was either acting a part to conceal her true emotions, or
else she was really indifferent.

It was not until the following day that reason began to reassert itself,
and he succeeded in marshalling the facts of the case more clearly in
his own mind. He even began to doubt and question his own testimony, yet,
before he reached any real conclusion, one of the Club servants
approached his chair.

"Captain West, there is a man out here asking to see you."

"A man! Where?"

"I had him wait in the anteroom, sir. He would give no name, and seems to
be of the working class; so I thought I better tell you first, sir."

"Very well, Mapes. I'll soon find out what he wants."

It was Sexton, twirling his hat nervously in his hands, and still
standing irresolutely in the middle of the floor. As sight of West he
took a hasty step forward, eager to explain the cause of his presence.

"You'll pardon me, sir," he burst forth in apology. "But I must see
you, sir."

"That's quite all right, Sexton. You have some message?"

"Not--not from any one else, sir. It's just my own business, but--but I
thought you would help me, sir."

"Certainly; only too glad. Let's step in here where we can talk quietly."

He pointed the way into a private card room, closing the door behind
his visitor.

"Take the seat over there, Sexton. You came in to see me from Fairlawn?"

"No, sir, I didn't. The fact is, I'm not out there any longer."

"Not there! What do you mean?"

"I've been discharged, sir, with two other servants, since the funeral
yesterday."

"Discharged! Why I understood you had been employed there for years."

"Several years, sir."

"And now discharged! By whom? Not Miss Natalie surely?"

"Yes, sir. She didn't give no reason; just said we were not wanted any
longer. That's one reason why I came here to see you, sir."

"But I hardly know how I can be of help. I have no house of my own,
and--well, the truth of the matter is, Sexton, just at present I am not
on very good terms with the young lady myself."

"I know that, sir," more confidently. "And it isn't a position I am
seeking, at all. I have quite a tidy bit of money laid away, and could
get plenty of work. That's not the point, sir. Why should Miss Natalie
tell me to go like that? It isn't a bit like her, sir; she ain't seemed
natural at all lately, and I tell you there's something wrong goin' on
out there. I'm sure o' that, sir."

"Sure of what?"

"Well, for one thing, it's my opinion that Percival Coolidge never killed
himself, sir."

West sat up stiffly, as though struck a blow. These words startled him;
drove his own mind into sudden activity.

"What makes you think that, Sexton?" he questioned slowly.

"Well, there's more than one thing," as though glad to have made the
plunge, and anxious to justify himself. "But first of all that wasn't his
revolver they found lying beside him. He always had one in his valise,
an' it's there now, or was when I looked to see."

"You didn't tell that to the coroner."

"No, sir; he never put me on the stand. Besides I didn't know about it
then. After I thought about it, I told Miss Natalie, sir."

"Oh, you did! and what did she say?"

"She didn't think that proved anything; that he probably had the other in
his pocket."

"This was before you were dismissed?"

"Yes, sir; the evening before, sir."

West whistled gravely, his gaze on the other's face.

"And is that all, Sexton?" he asked finally. "Is there any other reason
why you doubt Coolidge killed himself?"

"Did you notice where he was shot, sir?"

"Behind the right ear; the wound was plainly visible."

"Not very easy for a man to do himself, sir."

"No, but possible, nevertheless. The coroner was satisfied on that
point."

"Yes, sir, but the coroner overlooked one thing, sir. He was sure it was
a suicide case, and wanted to get done with it in a hurry. I and
Simmons, sir, washed the body to get it ready for burial, an' I combed
the hair down over the bullet wound. There wasn't no powder marks on the
skin, an' not a hair was singed, sir. That's what makes me say he never
killed himself."

West sat silent and motionless, looking straight at the man opposite,
endeavouring to decide on a course of action. Someway in the depth of his
earnestness, Sexton no longer appeared a servant. He was a man, voicing a
man's heart. West realized the change instinctively; here was an
intelligent loyal fellow, to be met frankly, and for the time being, at
least, on the ground of equality. It would be useless to try to either
mislead, or deceive.

"Sexton," he began finally, "this is a pretty serious charge you make,
my man, but since I have been thinking things over, I confess some
suspicious circumstances have arisen in my own mind. Of course I was
not aware of these facts you have just related, but they fit in nicely
with some observations of my own. The truth is," he confessed frankly,
"I did not tell all I knew to the coroner's jury. I meant to do so, but
the right questions were not asked me, and certain details slipped my
memory until too late. Do you recall a boulder of rock out in that
clover field?"

"Yes, sir, to the right of the path; it is mostly hidden now by
the growth."

"Entirely concealed a few yards away. Well, when I crawled through the
fence after hearing that shot fired, I saw nothing, and heard nothing. I
had advanced into the field several rods when I came upon the trail of
some one leading directly north. It was not a path; merely evidence that
a single person had passed that way. I followed, and came to this
boulder. Here there was every proof visible that the previous party had
remained for some time, seated and lying on the ground under protection
of the stone. The occupancy was a recent one. Then evidently, whoever it
was, had advanced to the right in the general direction of the gate
through the fence, near where Coolidge's body was found. The marks of
advance did not lead that far, or even to the marked path through the
field. They ended on a little rise, some ten yards from the boulder,
where the fellow apparently turned about, and retraced his steps."

"How far was that from the gate into the road, sir?" he asked
breathlessly.

"Within easy shooting distance for a revolver of that calibre, I should
say. Any good marksman could have rung the bell."

"And you saw no one?"

"No; not a sign; the fact is I failed at the time to put two and two
together. The thought of a possible murder never occurred to me. It was
only afterwards that I began to appreciate what all this might mean, and
now what you have said has driven it home."

"You think it was murder then, sir?"

"Yes, I do," replied West gravely. "It has all the marks, but who
committed the crime? What was the motive? It will never do for us to make
such a charge, after the coroner's verdict, without positive proof."

"No, sir."

"And you know of nothing which might clear this up?"

"No, sir; I've been with the Coolidges, sir, ever since Miss Natalie was
a little girl, and I ain't heard of any trouble that ought to end in
murder, sir."

"How old was Miss Coolidge when her father died?"

"She must have been seventeen, sir."

"And since then Percival Coolidge had full charge of the estate?"

"Practically, yes, sir; there was another trustee, but he died; and then,
as I understand, Miss Natalie had some funds of her own."

West took a cigar from his pocket, and lit it. Although not altogether
clear in his own mind, he had begun to see light. For a moment he smoked
in silence in an endeavour to figure out his own duty, while Sexton,
nervously clinching and unclinching his hands, watched and waited.



CHAPTER XII

AGAINST A STONE WALL


Was this discovery anything to him? What difference could it make whether
Percival Coolidge had died by his own hand, or been treacherously shot
from ambush? How would it benefit Natalie Coolidge to have the truth
revealed? And, if it would benefit her, why should he devote his time and
labour to such an effort? She had cast him off, thrown him aside; her
affairs had no further interest for him. Let her lawyer take care of
them. These were West's first thoughts.

All true, yet this state of mind brought no satisfaction. He was
interested; he could not escape his first impressions of the girl, or
drive from him a desire to serve her, whether she wished it, or not.
She might, indeed, be in equal danger from an assassin. He could not
determine this until he learned the cause of the slaying of Percival.
Then, on the other hand, suppose some one else's suspicions were also
aroused. Who would they naturally look to as guilty of this horrible
crime? There was but one answer--Natalie Coolidge. She was seemingly
the only person to directly benefit by this sudden death. All these
considerations urged him on, overcame his doubt and indecision. Then
he desired to learn the truth himself. His eyes rested on Sexton's
anxious face.

"I've been thinking it over," he admitted quietly, "and I guess it is up
to you and me to find out what this means."

"Yes, sir," hesitatingly. "You--you don't think it was Miss
Natalie, sir?"

"No, I do not, Sexton. I have my own reasons for saying that. Yet
naturally she is the one to be first suspected. Do you know anything?"

"Only that I am sure she was in the garden, sir, when the shot was fired.
I saw her there just after you drove away."

"That is conclusive then, so far as her personal actions are concerned.
But there is an odd angle to this matter, and I might as well explain it
to you first as last. Perhaps you can help figure the oddness out. I was
not engaged to Miss Natalie, Sexton; I was not even a friend. I came to
the house, employed to perform a certain task. She introduced me as her
fiancé merely to explain my presence there, and make the way clear. It
was the impulse of a moment."

"You don't say, sir! What, may I ask, was it you was expected to do?"

"To discover who was masquerading in this city under her name."

"Was there some one, sir?"

"So she told me; we went into that rather thoroughly. She claimed it had
been going on for some months; checks had been cashed at the bank; even
her servants had been approached by some one so closely resembling her as
to deceive them; and she had been reported at various places she never
visited. She was very much exercised over it."

"And she engaged you just to find this other woman?"

"Yes; her lawyer and Percival Coolidge only laughed at her story."

"But you believed it, sir?"

"Well, perhaps not at first altogether. It seemed too strange and
impossible. I thought something must have got on her nerves and caused
her to imagine things. But the first night I remained out there gave me a
shock. I do not know whether I left my door unlocked, or whether a
pass-key was used, but I woke up suddenly to discover a woman in the
room. I only had a glimpse of her, for she slipped out instantly, and
disappeared down the hall; but it was moonlight and I would have sworn
the intruder was Miss Natalie. I asked her the next day."

"And she denied being there?"

"Absolutely, and convinced me it was true. There is no doubt in my mind,
Sexton, but what she really is being impersonated by some one who
resembles her most remarkably. Who this person is I have not the remotest
idea; nor what her real object can be. Just at this moment, I am inclined
to believe it has something to do with the Coolidge estate--a criminal
scheme of some kind, and that Percival Coolidge had connection with it."

"I can hardly believe that, sir."

"No doubt you find it difficult. You told me yourself that had always
been his room, the one I occupied."

"Yes, sir."

"That woman knew it; she came there to consult with him." He stopped
suddenly. "By Gad! Sexton, maybe she came there to kill him. I hadn't
thought of that."

"It is too much for me, sir," the other said soberly. "I don't know why
any one should want to kill him. But there's got to be a reason
somewhere. Where was it the three of you went on Sunday in the runabout,
Captain West?"

"To a house over in the factory district; some charity case that Coolidge
was interested in--the widow of one of his employees, I believe."

"Did you see the people?"

"No, I didn't go in; waited outside in the car; it was no affair of mine.
Why?" he asked in surprise.

"Because, sir, Miss Natalie seemed like a different person when she got
back. Not in looks, or nothing like that I don't mean, but in the way she
talked and acted. Nothing suited her all the rest of the day. You know
how she was to you, sir. Well she was just that snappy with all of us,
even after we brought the body back to the house. And she wouldn't look
at him, sir, not even after he was dressed proper and laid out. She just
went off up stairs, and stayed there; had a bit of toast an' tea, an'
that's all."

"I hardly believe," said West thoughtfully, "you can attribute her state
of mind to anything that occurred on that trip. Indeed she was in high
spirits all the way home."

"I can't help that, sir," Sexton insisted blindly. "It was something that
happened yesterday what set her wrong, an' if I was you, sir, I'd find
out what happened in that house first of all. Could you find the place?"

"Yes, I think so. I'll look it up, although I don't have much faith in
your theory." He glanced at his watch. "I'll go out there now. You come
back here about five, and we will talk over any discoveries I may make."

"And what shall I do, sir?"

Both were standing, West with hand on the knob of the door. The light in
his eyes hardened.

"Nothing occurs to me now, Sexton, unless you can find an excuse to
return to Fairlawn, after something you have forgotten, let us say. If we
can learn what Miss Natalie proposes doing it might furnish a clue."

"Very well, sir, and I am to be here at five o'clock?"

"Yes, at five; I will leave word with the doorman to show you in at
once."

West picked up a taxi-cab for the trip, bidding the chauffeur to drive to
a certain section of the city, and then up and down the various streets
until told to stop. He had no idea that his quest would reveal anything
of importance relative to the death of Coolidge, yet no better
suggestion occurred to him and he felt that he must do something. His
conversation with Sexton had greatly strengthened his conviction that
this was a murder, and he had determined to ferret out the truth if
possible. Yet, thus far there was nothing to build upon, no clue, no
motive, no suspicion as to who had perpetrated the deed. He simply faced
a blank wall, in which no entrance was apparent, yet there must be one,
if he was only fortunate enough to stumble upon it. Deep down in his
heart West was conscious that he possessed a motive in this search far
more worthy than mere curiosity. That motive was Natalie Coolidge. He
smiled at the thought, yet confessed it true. In spite of her curt
dismissal, his memory of the girl centred about those earlier hours of
their acquaintance. Something mysterious had occurred to make her change
so quickly, and he was unwilling to condemn her before learning the real
reason. This murder must have some relation to the Coolidge estate; he
could conceive of no other motive for such a cold-blooded affair; and
hence its solving must prove of vital importance to her and her future.
Now, when the verdict of the coroner's jury had been suicide, and when
only he, and the servant Sexton suspected otherwise, it was of the
utmost importance that they endeavour to unravel the crime. For her
sake he could do no less, thus serving and protecting her to the best of
his ability.

The chauffeur drove slowly up and down obscure streets for half an hour
before West recognized familiar surroundings, and motioned for him to
draw up against the curb. He had discovered the place sought, but from
the street it exhibited no signs of occupancy, nor did any knocking at
the front door bring response from within. He circled the building,
finding an uncurtained window at the rear, which merely revealed an
unfurnished room. Every door was locked, but, as he passed along the
other side to regain the taxi, a man emerged from the next house, and
hailed him.

"Say, what're yer snoopin' round there for? Lookin' for somebody?"

"Yes, the parties who were here Sunday. What's become of them."

"Hobart, you mean?"

"Is that his name? I met him down town, and he told me to come here,"
West explained rapidly. "We had a deal on."

"Oh, yer did, hey," leaning his arms on the fence. "Well, Jim Hobart was
the name he giv' me. That's my house, which is why I happen to know
what his name was. Something queer about that fellar, I reckon, but
'tain't none o' my business. You ain't a detective, or nothin' like
that, are yer?"

"Nothing at all like that," West laughed, although interested. "Why? Did
you think the police might be after him?"

"Not for anything I know about, only he skipped out mighty sudden. Paid
me a month rent, and only stayed there three days. That looks sorter
queer. Then Sunday that fellar what committed suicide out south--I read
about in the papers--came to see him in a car. I got a boy workin' in his
factory; that's how I come to know who the guy was. The next night
Hobart, an' them with him, just naturally skipped out. So I didn't know
but what the police might want him for something."

"I don't know anything about that. I just called on a private matter.
Where did he go to?"

"Hell, man, I didn't even know he was goin'."

"Who did he have with him here--a family?"

"A woman 'bout his age I should say, an' a younger one. I didn't see 'em
only from the window; didn't get no sight o' the girl's face at all, but
could tell the way she walked she was young. They didn't have nothin'
with 'em; that's all my stuff in the house there."

Feeling the uselessness of trying to learn anything more, West thanked
him, and returned to the taxi.

"Back to the Club," he ordered briefly, and settled into his seat to
think.



CHAPTER XIII

238 WRAY STREET


The information thus gained had been small enough, yet sufficient to
stimulate his belief that he was at least upon the right trail. The
sudden departure of this man Hobart, and the fact that no young children
were in the family, were important items to consider. Coolidge then had
not visited this cottage to aid a widow and orphans. There had been some
other object in his call. The girl must have known and understood the
real purpose; that was why they both acquiesced so readily to his
remaining outside in the car. It was part of their mutual plan to thus
leave him in ignorance. Yet they had made a mistake in taking him along
at all. This error alone gave him now an opportunity to unravel the
riddle. But did it? What did he know? Merely that Coolidge had not gone
to this house on an errand of charity; that the occupant called himself,
temporarily, perhaps, Jim Hobart; that his family consisted of two
women, undescribed except as to age; and that all three had mysteriously
disappeared together. He might take it for granted that this
disappearance was caused by the death of Coolidge, but, they had left no
trail, no inkling as to where they had gone. He might suspect this sudden
vanishing had direct connection with the crime he was endeavouring to
solve, but he possessed absolutely no proof, and, apparently, any further
movement on his part was completely blocked.

More puzzled than ever, although now fully convinced that murder had been
committed, West could do nothing but wait the reappearance of Sexton. The
latter arrived promptly on time, but, much to West's disappointment,
merely nodded his head negatively to the general inquiry as to whether or
not he had made any discoveries. The early hour enabled the host to
secure a secluded table in the dining room, but there was no effort at
conversation until after the meal had been ordered. Then West told his
story. The retelling of these incidents of the afternoon, coupled with
Sexton's evident interest in the narrative, and the questions the man
asked, caused the discoveries made to assume a greater importance than
before. His listener seemed to sense the situation clearly.

"It wasn't no mistake, your goin' out there, sir," he said, confidently.
"What we know now gives us something to work on anyhow, an' it's just
what I thought--that trip Sunday led up to this killin', an' something
happened while they was in there to stir Miss Natalie all up. Now we got
to find this fellow--what did you say his name was, sir?"

"Hobart--Jim Hobart; that is he was known by that name there."

"And you say he has simply dropped out o' sight?"

"That's true; never left a clue behind him."

"Well, sir, I'm not quite so sure about that. You listen to me, sir. I
walked out to Fairlawn from the car-line, an' come in across the fields
to the house. I didn't have no good excuse for goin' back there, sir, an'
was sorter afraid to meet up with Miss Natalie. She might have thought I
was just spyin' 'round. But I didn't have no need for being afraid, for
it seems she'd driven into town about noon, an' hadn't got back. There
wasn't nobody but the servant around the place, sir. Do you remember
Lizzie, the second maid--sorter full face, an' light hair?"

West nodded, wondering what all this might be leading to.

"Well, she an' I always hit it off together, an' I talked with her quite
a bit. She's goin' to quit too, because of something what happened, so it
was safe enough to question her. She told me, sir, that Miss Natalie had
a telephone call this morning that took her into the city. Lizzie she
went to the 'phone when it rang, an' it was a man's voice. He wouldn't
leave no message, but insisted on speaking to Miss Natalie. Lizzie had to
call her down from upstairs."

"Did the girl overhear the conversation?"

"Not so as to make very much out of it, sir. She was sorter
interested, the man's voice being strange, and hung around in the hall
listening, but about all she could make out was what Miss Natalie
said. It seemed like he was givin' her some kind of address, which she
didn't exactly understand, an' so she repeated it after him two or
three times to be sure."

"What was the address?"

"238 Ray Street, sir."

"You are certain of that?"

"That was what Lizzie said; she was pretty positive, sir; an' then about
an hour later, Miss Natalie ordered her car, an' drove into town."

"Alone?"

"Yes, sir; it was the electric she took."

West remained silent, tapping with his knife on the table. This might
prove important, and he could not afford to ignore the information. While
to his mind it was hardly likely Hobart had called the girl, yet the
possibility remained.

"I never heard of a Ray Street," he said at length, "but of course, there
may be one. Oh, Charlie," he stopped a waiter passing. "Bring me up a
City directory, will you. You will find one in the office down stairs.
Tell the Secretary Captain West wishes it and will return it at once."

The first course had been served when the man returned with the book,
placing it on a chair next West, who immediately deserted his soup to
inspect the volume.

"Ray Street," he said doubtfully, fingering the pages. "There is no such
street here, Sexton. Are you sure you got that right?"

"That's what she said, sir; I made her say it over twice."

"Ray Street; wonder if it could be spelled with a W? By Jove, it
is--Wray! Here we have it, only five blocks long, extending from Conway
to Grogan. Rather tough section I should judge."

"I don't know, sir. I never heard of any of those streets before. How do
you get there?"

"By car you mean? Well, let's see on the map. Oh yes, that's plain
enough; Milwaukee Avenue to Gans, and then walk east three blocks. It
wouldn't do any harm to take a look around there either. Perhaps that is
where Hobart went; he might have been the one calling Natalie. Rather a
wild guess, but it will give us something to do. What number was it?"

"238, sir."

"Good; we'll try our luck after we finish dinner; there will be a couple
of hours of daylight yet. Are you game, Sexton?"

"Quite so, sir."

The sinking sun was still above the sky-line of the buildings fronting on
Milwaukee Avenue, when the two men alighted at the intersection of Gans
Street. West hardly took the adventure seriously, being more influenced
by curiosity than any other motive, but Sexton was deeply in earnest, in
full faith they were upon the right trail. Doubtful as he was, West had
neglected no precautions. The map assured him that they were invading a
disorderly section of the city, where to be well-dressed would only
invite suspicion, and might lead to trouble. To avoid this possibility,
he had donned his most shabby suit, and wore a cap largely concealing his
face. In one pocket of his jacket within easy reach lay hidden his
service revolver loaded, and he had induced Sexton to accept a smaller
weapon in case of emergency.

Gans Street was not inviting, the saloon on the corner being flanked by
several small factories. The brick side-walk was in bad condition, and
littered with junk of all kinds, while the road-way was entirely uncared
for, and deeply rutted from heavy traffic. Half way down the block, was a
tannery, closed now for the night, but with its odour yet permeating the
entire atmosphere. Altogether, the scene was desolate and disagreeable
enough, but the street was deserted of pedestrians, the factory doors
tightly closed for the night.

The two men pressed their way through along the narrow passage, finding
less obstruction as they advanced, the second block being composed
entirely of houses, largely of the tenement type, and apparently
principally populated by children. Wray Street, once attained, was of an
entirely different character, being lined with homes, usually humble
enough outwardly, yet the throughfare was clean, and the small yards had
generally an appearance of neatness in marked contrast to its
surroundings. 238 was a three story brick, on the corner, the second
story evidently utilized for living purposes, and the ground floor
occupied as a saloon. The upper story exhibited no signs of occupancy,
the windows unwashed, and two of them boarded up. The saloon possessed a
fairly respectable appearance, the lettering across the front window
proclaiming it as "Mike's Place," and seemed to be doing some business,
several entering and departing by way of its hospitable door, while the
two lingered in uncertainty opposite. Standing there idly however did not
appeal to West.

"Well, let's go over," he said impatiently. "There is nothing to be
learned here."

It was an ordinary bar-room, and their entrance apparently aroused no
special interest. Besides the man behind the bar, a rather rough looking
foreigner, a Pole in West's judgment, three customers were in the place,
two with feet upon the rail talking with the drink dispenser, and, one at
a small table moodily contemplating a half emptied stein of beer. There
were three other tables in the room, and the Captain with a swift glance
about, drew out a chair and sat down, his action being imitated by
Sexton. The bar-tender came forward around the end of the bar, while the
man nearest shifted his position slightly so as to look them over,
conversation instantly ceasing. Something indefinable in the fellow's
attitude, and steady stare, gave West a feeling of hostility, which was
not dispelled by the gruff greeting of the bar-tender.

"Well, what is it you fellers want?"

"A stein apiece, and a sandwich--you serve them, don't you?"

"Sure; ham or beef?"

"Ham."

There was no cordiality, no welcome in either manner or speech. It was
plainly evident the proprietor of the saloon felt no enthusiasm over his
unknown customers. The eyes of the two men met understandingly, but the
few words exchanged between them were entirely foreign to the situation.
Mike came back with the beer and sandwiches, pausing this time to wipe
off the table, as an excuse for speech.

"You guys live 'round here?" he asked gruffly, "Don't remember ever
seein' yer in here before."

"No," returned West indifferently, looking directly into the hard face.
"I'm a smoke inspector, an' we just dropped in on our way back to the
office. Why?"

"Oh, nuthin'; only we don't get much trade outside the neighbourhood. I
wish ter hell ye'd get after that tannery; can't hardly breathe here
sometimes."

"That's what we were looking after; had some complaints lately."

"Sure, I been kickin' 'bout it for a month. You fellers have another
beer on me."

He walked back toward the bar, pausing an instant to whisper a word to
the taller man who still stood there staring moodily at the table. What
he said apparently determined action, for the fellow addressed, crossed
the room to where West and Sexton sat, deliberately pulled up a vacant
chair, and joined them.

"Bring me another, Mike," he ordered. "That is, if these gents don't
object to my joining 'em awhile."



CHAPTER XIV

TRAPPED


West smiled pleasantly, glad the man had taken the initiative, thus
naturally opening up a way for asking certain questions. Whatever his own
immediate object might be in thus scraping an acquaintance made no
difference. It would doubtless develop in time, but meanwhile here was
the opportunity sought to discuss the affairs of the neighbourhood. Yet
the subject must be approached with due caution. The very indifference of
the bar-tender coupled with the evident desire of this hanger-on to form
an acquaintance, served to reveal the real nature of "Mike's Place."
Plainly enough strangers were viewed with suspicion, and this was no
ordinary saloon, catering to whatever trade drifted within its doors.
More than likely it was rather a thieves' hang-out, ever suspicious of
the activity of the police.

Yet this fellow bore no outward semblance to the common conception of the
under-world. Nor did his actions or words exhibit any motive other than
ordinary good-fellowship. He was well dressed, easy of manner, with an
exceptionally intelligent face, blue eyes meeting West's gaze frankly, a
carefully trimmed moustache, with white teeth good humouredly showing
when he smiled, and threads of grey in his hair. His very appearance
invited confidence and comradeship, while his outspoken words increased
this impression.

"Excuse my butting in," he explained genially. "But it's damn dull around
here tonight. Nobody to talk with but a couple o' bums. You see I don't
belong around here; just dropped in for a bit of business with Mike."

"I see," admitted West, puzzled, and wondering how far he dared venture.
"You can get lonelier in a big city than anywhere else."

"You bet you can. I like some one I can talk to; some guy with ideas. You
see I run a broker's office down town, an' its pretty blame slow around a
dump like this--you get me?"

"Sure; this seems to be a pretty quiet place."

"Quiet! Hell! it isn't always so quiet. I've dropped in here when it was
lively enough, believe me. But tonight it's the limit. Fact is I come up
for a little excitement, as much as anything else, but must have struck
an off night. You're a smoke inspector, Mike says?"

West nodded.

"Know Fred Karvan, I suppose?"

"Oh, yes; friend of yours?"

"Used to be; we were kids together down on the southside. He's got a
pretty soft job now; stands in strong with the City Hall, they tell me.
Mean to drop in and see him some of these days."

"You'll find him a mighty good fellow," asserted West to whom the name
was entirely unfamiliar.

"Well, I'm not so sure about that. He's got pretty stiff the last few
years they tell me. But then you work under him, and ought to know. Head
of your department, isn't he?"

"Yes, but I only meet him in a business way, of course."

"Sure; but that is the way you get to know them best. Been a soldier,
haven't you?"

"Yes, but what made you think that?" in some surprise at the unexpected
query. The man laughed, lighting a cigar carelessly.

"Oh, it has not been so long since, that the evidence is obliterated.
I've got a habit of noticing things. The way you sit, and square your
shoulders told me you'd been in uniform; besides you're the right age.
Get across to France?"

"Had over a year there," wondering what the fellow could be angling
after. "You didn't get in?"

"No; I was over the limit. I was thinking you might be interested in
looking over a collection of war relics Mike has got stowed away here
somewhere. He had two boys over there, and I reckon they must have put in
most of their time gathering up souvenirs. Anyhow they brought back the
greatest collection of war junk I've ever seen. Say, Mike, what did you
do with those war relics the boys sent home?"

The fellow addressed leaned over the bar, his face glowing with
sudden interest.

"They vas in the back-room, all spread out. Why you ask? The gentlemen
would see them, what?"

"Yes; this one was a soldier himself. Maybe he can tell more about them
than the boys could. How is it? You fellows like to see the things?"

West hesitated for just an instant, his eyes turning unconsciously toward
Sexton, who had not spoken. He felt no suspicion, merely a vague doubt as
to what this invitation might conceal. Yet it had all been natural
enough, and promised an opportunity for him to learn something more of
the place. An accident might reveal the very discovery he was eagerly
seeking. Besides there could be no danger; both he and Sexton were armed,
and apparently the invitation was innocently extended. To refuse to
accept would be churlish.

"Certainly," he said at last, quaffing the last of his beer and
rising to his feet. "It will be nothing new to me, I imagine, but
we'll have a look."

The other man, who had been leaning against the bar, had disappeared,
while the fellow at the table had seemingly fallen asleep. Mike came
forward with a bunch of keys in his hand.

"I keep dot room locked," he exclaimed gruffly, "for some beoples run off
with all dings they get their fingers on. Hey, you, Carl," and he roughly
shook the sleeper into semi-consciousness, "wake up, and see to the bar
awhile. I've got some business. Whoever comes, you keep them
here--understand. All right, gents."

The three stood close behind him as Mike inserted the key, and opened the
door. It was already growing dusk without, and the tightly closed room,
with shade drawn at the single window, was so dark that West could
scarcely discern its shape and contents. Mike, without hesitation,
stepped within, his great bulk blotting out whatever view there was.

"Come right in, gents," he insisted. "Von minute, an' I turn on
the light."

West never understood why he responded so recklessly to this invitation,
and advanced without hesitation. He had no suspicion of any trick, no
conception of being in any danger. He stepped in directly behind the
leader, and Sexton followed. An instant later, the door closed, with the
sharp click of a night latch, and Mike flashed on the light. As he did
so, he wheeled about, and shot one mighty clinched fist straight into
West's face. This was done so suddenly, so unexpectedly, the man
attacked found no opportunity to even throw up a hand in self-defence.
The giant Pole flung his whole weight into the crashing blow, and the
ex-soldier went down as though struck by a pole-ax. For an instant, he
realized that Sexton was in a fierce struggle; that his assailant stood
poised above him ready to land again if he moved; then consciousness
left him entirely.

He woke up, sitting in a chair, his hands bound to the arms with strips
of cloth. For a moment everything about seemed tinged with yellow, the
various objects in sight vague and shapeless. It hurt him to move his
head, and his mind functioned dully. He could not think, or bring back to
memory a recollection of what had occurred. Yet slowly the mist cleared
and the objects about him assumed natural form. He was in a room of some
size--not the one in which he had been attacked he felt sure--fitted up
with a long table, and a number of chairs. There was no other furniture;
the walls were bare, and only a small rag rug partially covered the
floor. At first he perceived no other occupants; only as, painfully, he
finally twisted his head to the right, his eyes distinguished two men
seated against the wall. The sight of their faces restored instantly his
memory of what had occurred. The Pole rested back, with feet on the table
and eyes closed, but the other--the younger man--was watching him
closely, an unlighted cigar gripped in his teeth.

"So, you've come out of it," the latter said unpleasantly. "I'd begun to
think Mike had handed you a real knock-out that time. Ready to answer a
few questions?"

West, his brain clearing rapidly, sat up straighter in the chair,
determined to play out his part the best he could.

"Perfectly ready," he replied struggling to control his voice. "Only I
should like to know what all this means? Why attack me?"

"You'll find that out soon enough, Captain; but first I'll do the
questioning."

"Not until I know one thing, at least--what has become of the man who
was with me?"

"Well, I might as well tell you," carelessly. "He got hurt; the fool
compelled me to hit him with a gat; so he's out of it, and you might as
well come through clean--that guy isn't going to help you any."

"You mean you killed him?"

"Well, he's out of the game; that's enough. And as for you, your best
play right now is to talk up straight." He laughed sneeringly, "Unless
you want to call up your friend Karvan, at the City Hall, you know. Hell,
but you was easy!"

"Easy?"

"That's what I said. I knew you all right when you first blew in, only I
wasn't quite sure. Just had a glimpse of you once before. I naturally
guessed your smoke-inspector stunt was a sham. So, I ran that Fred Karvan
stuff in on you. You ate it up, which gave you clean away, for I never
knew any guy of that name. Do you see the point, Captain West?"

"Yes, I see all that plainly enough, but it does not explain the attack
on me. You evidently know my name, and this assault has been
deliberately made. Why? What have you against me? I have never seen
either of you before."

"Perhaps I'll tell you when you explain. What brought you into this
neighbourhood. Hunting some one, wasn't you?"

"Not exactly."

"Oh, don't lie; that will bring you nothing, West. You were sticking your
nose into a private matter which does not concern you in any way. That's
right, isn't it? Very well, you've had your lesson, and now it is simply
up to you to either drop this thing, or else take another. It's up to you
how far we go. Now listen. I believe it was merely curiosity that brought
you here. That's true, isn't it?"

"Largely, yes."

"You suspected something, and wanted to find out if it was so. Well, you
came into a bad neighbourhood. We are not nice to your kind around here.
What really caused your seeking me?"

"I do not know that I did," West answered honestly. "In fact I haven't
the slightest idea who you are."

The other laughed.

"So you are as green as that. Then I'll give you the information. My
name is Hobart, Jim Hobart. I am the guy you were looking for?"

"Yes," West admitted, seeing no reason to refuse an answer.

"I thought so, although darned if I know how you ever located me here.
However, the sooner we come to some understanding, the better. What do
you know about me?"

"Nothing."

"Is that so! You knew my name when I spoke it. It was the Coolidge matter
that sent you hunting me. Oh, hell, you might as well cough up, West, for
I've got your number. You thought the girl was here, didn't you?"

"I had reason to believe she came here."

"I see; how did you gain that news?"

"A conversation by telephone was overheard."

"Now we are getting down to facts. And this comprises your entire
information, doesn't it? Let's check up. You connected me with the case
because you were with the uncle and her on their call Sunday. You
discovered in some way that I had since disappeared from that
neighbourhood. Then you accidentally got on to this telephone call, and
decided to run me down. Some cute little detective, I'll say. But what's
the object? What is it you are trying to connect me up with? What
possible cause can you have for butting in on this affair?"

"I told you before; merely curiosity."

"And who was the guy with you?"

"An old servant of the Coolidge family."

"It was mere curiosity in his case also, I presume?"

"So far as I know, yes."

Hobart smiled, showing his teeth cruelly.

"West," he said slowly, "you are a damned good liar, but I am about to
spike your gun. Go on out Mike, and send in the first witness."



CHAPTER XV

THE EDGE OF COMPROMISE


The two men sat silently watching each other, Hobart pretending a
carelessness he was far from feeling, uncertain as to West's real
purpose. The latter realized now the true seriousness of his position,
yet this only increased his belief in the reality of the crime.
Previously his mind had harboured doubts, but the very fact that Hobart
would resort to such desperate methods was ample proof of his
apprehension of danger. If Percival Coolidge had committed suicide, this
fellow would surely have nothing to fear; he could safely ignore any
efforts to trap him; indeed would possess no suspicions along that line.
It was his own guilty conscience which drove him to desperation. Coolidge
had been murdered, and this man was either guilty of the crime, or else
knew the one who was, and had personal reasons for protecting the party.

These thoughts took possession of his mind and were convincing. He no
longer questioned but what he was on the track of crime, yet his thought
at that moment concentrated more vividly on his own personal peril. How
could he escape? What was he about to be confronted with? Nothing around
him afforded inspiration. He was bound helplessly; Sexton had
disappeared, whether dead or a prisoner, he did not know; the walls of
the room exhibited no signs of weakness, while Hobart eyed his every
movement coldly, evidently enjoying his predicament. Apparently the man
comprehended the nature of his thought.

"Perfectly useless, West," he said carelessly. "This place was
constructed for the purpose, and you are not the only one who has tested
its strength. You will get out when I say so, and not before."

"Do you intend to say so?"

"Well, that depends," shrewdly. "Not if your release means my taking
any chances. But frankly, I do not believe it will. So far as I can see
you possess no particular interest in this matter--only the attraction
a young fellow always feels in a pretty woman. Have I got that doped
out right?"

"To an extent at least."

"Yes, to a very large extent. Of course, curiosity also played a part,
while everybody possesses a sneaking desire to do a detective act. Miss
Coolidge filled you up with a lot of bunk; she was good looking, and you
fell for it. Certain things happened that you failed to understand, so
you rather naturally jumped to the conclusion that some crime was being
concocted. That was what brought you here. Now I take it that,
ordinarily, you are a man of some sense. Consequently I mean to try to
get you to drop the whole affair, as being none of your business. If you
agree to this, I accept your pledge, the door opens, and you go free;
otherwise--" he waved his hand expressively.

"Otherwise what?" asked West quietly.

"I will see that you are removed from all temptation; my plans are too
important to be interfered with by a meddlesome fool."

"But you can scarcely expect me to give such a promise?"

"Well, I don't know about that. It doesn't pay to be too obstinate. You
have been in the army, I understand; then you are aware there is a harsh
side to life, a way to make or break men. All right, now I've got the
power; I can keep you locked up here; I could even kill you if necessary.
You are utterly helpless. There is an argument worth your consideration.
But I will give you yet another which may have even more weight."

"What?"

The door opened quietly, and then closed, leaving Natalie Coolidge
standing there in the light, her eyes slightly frowning as she looked
silently at the two men.

"The lady, of course," explained Hobart, rising to his feet, "you will,
at least, be gentleman enough to accept her word!"

She waited, seemingly unable to quite grasp the situation, or realize the
part she was called upon to perform, but as West failed to respond,
finally asked a question.

"What is it, Jim? You sent for me?"

"Yes, as a last resort. You recognize this man?"

"Of course," indifferently; "what is he doing here?"

Hobart laughed.

"It seems the fellow hasn't taken his dismissal very seriously, Natalie,"
he explained, "and remains very much interested in your affairs. That
covers the principal known facts in the case."

"You mean he followed me here?"

"He was on the trail, but just for what particular purpose I have failed
to learn; the lad is a bit close mouthed, but it looks to me as though he
was in love with you."

The girl smiled, tossing her head as she stepped forward.

"In love with me," she echoed. "That is a joke, yet I had some such
suspicion when I told him to quit the job. He acted like a fool then, and
began to question me as though he had a right. It was that being engaged
business most likely."

"Sure; he thought he had you copped, fortune and all, and it looks to me
like he needs another jolt to put the idea entirely out of his head. That
is what I brought you in for. I'll explain first just how it happened.
This army guy blew in here before dark, along with another fellow,
Sexton, who used to be a servant out at Fairlawn--you know him?"

"Yes; he was discharged yesterday."

"I was standing by the bar talking with Issy, and I was sure I knew this
lad's face. I was stumped a bit at first where I had seen him; then all
at once it came to me--he was the guy sitting out there alone in the
automobile over on Arch Street. I knew then what he was over here for,
and got to talking with him. He give himself away the first thing, and
that is why we got him up in this dump."

"How did he know I was here?"

"Some of your precious help out there heard you talk to me over the
'phone, and passed it on."

"And what does he want? What do these men want?"

"Well Sexton don't want much of anything--he's knocked out; the fool made
a fight, and had to be hit; and, as to this bird, I rather think he was
just naturally nosing around out of curiosity, and because he was stuck
on you. I don't figure he is anything to be afraid of, but I am not going
to have the fellow gum-shoeing around. I'll take his word to get out, and
stay out; otherwise he and I are going to have a little seance of our
own. That's all there is about it."

West had said nothing, watching the others, and waiting to choose some
course of action. His mind was confused, uncertain, yet he found
encouragement in Hobart's statement of the case. The fellow felt no
serious fear of him; had no suspicion as yet that anyone believed
Percival Coolidge murdered. The probability was that not even the girl
dreamed of such a thing. Whatever her connection might be with this man,
she must be innocent of so foul a crime. If he could only speak to her
alone; bring to her the truth; reveal to her the real character of this
man Hobart, there would be no doubt of the result. In spite of the
strange situation he yet retained faith in the girl; she had been
deceived, led astray in some manner, but his first impression of her true
nature still controlled his thought. He could only believe her a victim
of scheming villains, driven by circumstances to play a part utterly
foreign to her character. His only hope of learning the facts from her
own lips, or of re-establishing her faith in him, lay in a moment's
conversation alone. His mind instantly leaped to this conclusion, and his
eyes met her own. They were wide-open, full of curiosity yet not unkind.
He spoke swiftly.

"That sounds fair enough, Hobart," he said quietly, taking the chance as
though it was the most natural thing in the world. "I am not hunting
trouble in any way, or seeking to butt in where I am not wanted. Your
guess as to my purpose in coming here is about right. I had no other
object but to be of some service to this young lady. If I can talk with
her a moment alone, and thus assure myself as to her wishes, I'll give
you any pledge you want, and forget all about the affair. Is that
satisfactory?"

"Alone, you said? You want to see her alone?"

"Absolutely; no other arrangement will answer. I want her to talk
freely; to answer my questions with no interference."

Hobart glanced toward his companion inquiringly, evidently inclined to
deny the request.

"Hell, you don't want much," he said rather gruffly. "What do you think
about this proposition, Natalie?"

The girl smiled, her eyes still on West's face.

"Fair enough," she admitted as though the whole matter was a joke. "The
man can do me no harm, and I am willing enough to be interviewed. It
looks like the easiest way out."

His mood changed, influenced, no doubt, by her confidence in the result.

"All right, if you say so. It is my guess you are equal to the job. How
much time do you want, West?"

"Ten or fifteen minutes. I want to get down to the bottom of this thing."

"Oh, you do, hey? Modest as ever, I see. Well, here's luck to you. You
needn't be afraid of the guy, Natalie; we got his gat before we brought
him up here, and if he makes any break, I'll be out in the hall ready to
take a hand. You're still for it?"

"Yes," indifferently, seating herself on a convenient chair. "We might
as well talk it out now as any time. You go on, Jim, and leave it to me."

Hobart was not entirely satisfied, hesitating as he lit a fresh cigar,
his keen eyes watchful of them both. However, it was plain to be seen the
girl had made her decision, and he evidently knew her well enough to
realize the uselessness of revolt.

"All right, then," he replied finally, turning to the door. "Suit
yourself, only watch your step. Anyhow, I'll be within calling distance,
if this guy gets gay."

"Don't worry about that," a flash of anger in her eyes. "I am no baby,
Jim Hobart. Go on now, and leave Captain West to me."

He closed the door behind him, and the two were alone in the room. No
sound reached them from without, not even an echo of Hobart's footsteps
in the hall. West looked across at the girl, who sat motionless, her eyes
shaded by long lashes, and ringless fingers clasped in her lap. She
appeared indifferent, uninterested, scarcely aware of his presence. He
wondered if Hobart was listening at the door; what had become of Mike,
and whether Sexton was alive or dead. For the moment he could scarcely
make himself realize the true situation. His silence served to arouse her
interest, for she suddenly lifted her head and looked at him.

"Well," she said soberly. "You have something to ask?"

"Much--yes; but first, are we alone?"

"Certainly--why?"

"This man Hobart, you are sure he is not listening at the door?"

She glanced about; then laughed.

"Little good that would do him; there is no key-hole, no chance for sound
to penetrate. We are quite alone, Captain, and you are perfectly free to
say whatever you please."

"But even then, is this wholly fair?"

"What do you mean?"

"I came here," he explained earnestly, "with no bad intention; no desire
to injure any one, Miss Coolidge; my only thought the possibility of
being of some service to you."

"That is very interesting, I am sure. I am quite grateful."

"Then I am going to ask you a favour. Release my hands and feet. You need
not be afraid; I give my pledge to make no attempt at escape while we are
together. Will you do this?"



CHAPTER XVI

WEST MAKES HIS CHOICE


The girl neither answered, nor hesitated, but crossed the room swiftly,
her hands seeking the lashings about his wrists. Her movement thrilled
him, and his blood leaped at the soft touch of her fingers.

"Really, I did not realize you were tied into the chair," she exclaimed
indignantly. "Hobart is a fool to do such a thing. Why, what has caused
him to become so frightened? Tell me, Captain West, how all this
occurred?"

"You know nothing?"

"Only what has been said since I entered the room. Mike simply told me
they had a man here who Hobart thought was a detective, and he wanted me
to come in a moment. I came, and found you. Now, please, what does it
all mean?"

She slipped back to her seat again, her eyes on his face, as he arose and
stretched his limbs to restore circulation. To his quick glance her face
expressed only sympathy, and innocent interest. Any doubt he may have
felt as to the sincerity of the girl vanished instantly; whatever of
crime was concealed here, she had no suspicion. He could tell her the
whole story without fear.

"I'll try and explain, Miss Natalie," he began rather lamely, "although
perhaps, you may not wholly understand the motives which have prompted
me. This, of course, is really no business of mine, and the only thing
that has involved me is the deep interest I have felt in you."

"In me! why that is rather interesting. It was to serve me you
came here?"

"At least I thought so. Shall I make it more definite? No doubt you are
aware that you are an unusually pretty woman. Well, at least, I think so
for one, and our first meeting, with its subsequent adventures, was
romantic enough to shake me out of a commonplace existence. In fact, I
became quite deeply interested in you."

"Why really, Captain," she interrupted, slightly puzzled. "I perhaps do
not fully comprehend to what you refer. Do you mean there was something
between us? Some special intimacy?"

"Oh, no; not that; probably no dream of what was occurring in your mind.
Yet the circumstances of our meeting were peculiar; they rendered a very
brief acquaintance into what promised to become a real friendship."

"How do you mean?"

"Surely you cannot have forgotten so soon," he exclaimed in surprise at
her attitude, seating himself once more and facing her determinedly. "I
came to you in response to a strange advertisement; you trusted me so
completely as to introduce me to your friends as your fiancé, and later
confided to me the special trouble you were in. I pledged you my
assistance, and it was surely very natural that, under these
circumstances, I as a young man, should have become rather deeply
interested--"

"In both the case, and the girl."

"Yes; so much so, indeed, that even when I was rather harshly dismissed,
I could not accept it without a protest. I had grown to feel that this
was not a mere business arrangement between us. Do you understand now?"

"I can see it from your stand-point. But nevertheless, I am surprised,
Captain West. You--you mean you actually fell in love with me?"

"I felt a very, very deep interest in you," he admitted gravely, "a
greater interest than I have ever felt in any other woman. That is my
sole excuse for becoming involved in your affairs. I could not bear to
see you make a mistake it might be in my power to prevent."

"What mistake?"

"Well, first of all, trusting in this man Hobart."

She laughed, her eyes glancing up quickly into his face.

"And why now, please? Remember your confession; I may think this only
jealousy."

"You are not so silly as that," earnestly. "Moreover, I may as well be
perfectly frank. I did confess an interest in you, and in a measure, I
still feel eager to serve you in every possible way; but you have
changed so greatly, Miss Natalie, that my confidence in you has been
severely tried."

"You no longer believe?"

"I hardly know; I fail utterly to understand you of late; you seem an
entirely different girl. For one thing, you have deliberately
deceived me."

"Indeed! in what?"

"In your visit to Arch Street with Percival Coolidge. That was no mission
of charity to a poor widow and children."

"What then?"

"An arranged conference with this fellow Hobart. He rented that cottage
for no other purpose, and left it the next day. You made a mistake when
you took me along."

She straightened up slightly in the chair, yet spoke rather
indifferently, her voice cold.

"No doubt I did," she said tersely. "Indeed I have already discovered,
Captain West, that I made an even greater mistake when I first took you
into my service. You have proven altogether too inquisitive. Now I will
be plain with you. Whatever need I once supposed I had for your services
ended with the explanation I received in that Arch Street cottage. I told
you so very distinctly after our return home. You recall that interview,
no doubt?"

He bowed, waiting for her to go on.

"You were then and there dismissed from my service. That should have been
sufficient. I knew nothing of your silly feeling of personal interest in
me; nor did I realize any occasion for discussing with you the reasons
causing me to change my plans. You were my employee, and I discharged
you; that was all. It is true Percival Coolidge took me to that cottage
to have certain mysterious things explained, and they were explained to
my complete satisfaction."

"By Hobart?"

"Yes."

"You knew the fellow before?"

She hesitated slightly, although there was no perceptible change in the
answering voice.

"For several years; he was in my father's employ; the--the whole trouble
originated in a joke, and--and was quite amusing, once I understood. Of
course, after that, I had no further need for you. Why did you persist in
annoying me?"

West hesitated an instant, his mind struggling with the situation. Was
she honest, truthful, in this statement? Could he say anything which
would change her viewpoint? She must have been deceived by these men, yet
how could he expose them so she would comprehend? He was so little
certain of the facts himself, that he had nothing but suspicion to offer.

"Why do you not answer, Captain West?"

The girl's eyes were clear, insistent, a little amused; they somehow
aroused his determination.

"I will endeavour to make you understood, Miss Natalie," he explained
slowly. "I would not have you feel that I deliberately pushed myself into
this affair. When I left Fairlawn after your dismissal, I had no thought
of ever seeing you again. I have already told you the interest I had felt
in you up to that time, but your abruptness during our last interview,
left me angry, and with no inclination to seek your presence again. You
can scarcely blame me for such a feeling?"

"No," she confessed. "I--I was so excited and nervous I was not
very nice."

"You certainly hurt me. I departed with a sense of wrong rankling, and no
desire to come back. But fate intervened. You know, perhaps, that I
overheard the shot which ended the life of Percival Coolidge, and I was
the first to discover his dead body. This made no particular impression
on me at the time. I supposed it a case of suicide, and so bore witness
at the inquest. The whole matter would have ended there; but the next day
you discharged Sexton also, and the man sought me out at the Club."

She leaned forward, her lips parted, a new light in her eyes.

"He told you something? He made you suspicious?" she asked breathlessly.

"He caused me to see the affair from a somewhat different point of
view--a point of view which, I confess, revived my interest in you. I
began to believe you had been deceived, and your treatment of me arose
through a misunderstanding; I thought you a victim, and that I would be a
cad if I failed to stand by you. We put this and that together, carried
out some investigations quietly, and arrived at a definite conclusion."

"What investigations?"

"In the field where the body was found first," West went on steadily, but
no longer looking at her, "tracing the different tracks through the
clover. Then I looked up that cottage in Arch Street, and thus learned
about Hobart. Somehow he seemed to fit into the picture, and your
mysterious visit there made me anxious to interview the man. He had left
no address however, just faded out of sight suddenly, which increased
suspicion. Then, when we were completely baffled, Sexton learned about
your conversation over the telephone."

"How? Was he at the house?"

"Yes; he went out at my suggestion."

"And heard me repeat this number?"

"It makes no difference how he got the information; we knew you were
coming here this afternoon, and jumped at the conclusion that you were
going to meet Hobart for some reason."

"Very bright, I am sure," and there was a tone of relief in her voice.
"And that is your whole story, I suppose? What does it amount to?"

"Not very much, perhaps."

"And the two of you came out here seeking to learn my business, to pry
into my personal affairs. That was not a very gentlemanly act, Captain
West, and I hardly see how you can justify yourself."

"I had two purposes," he insisted, "either of which justify. I felt it
a duty to locate this man Hobart; and also to warn you of the danger
you were in."

"Warn me!" she laughed scornfully. "That is ridiculous enough surely. I
have a perfectly good reason for being here, but I am not accountable to
you in any way for my movements. A duty you say--a duty to locate this
man? A duty to whom?"

"To the State, if no one else," he answered gravely. "Percival Coolidge
did not commit suicide; he was murdered."

"Murdered!" she came to her feet with utterance of the word. "You cannot
think that!"

"I know it, Miss Natalie; the evidence is beyond question; he was
murdered in cold blood."

"But by whom? for what purpose?"

"These points are not yet determined; I am only sure of the crime."

"Yes, but--but you suspect Jim Hobart. Isn't that true? You came here
seeking him--yes, and me. You even think I know how this death occurred.
You--you connect it with my fortune."

"No, Miss Natalie," he protested stoutly, moved by her agitation. "The
cause is a mystery, and who did it equally mysterious. The evidence thus
far unearthed is all circumstantial."

"Then why did you come out here searching for Hobart?"

"Because of his strange meeting with Percival Coolidge the very day of
his death; because his sudden disappearance furnished the only clue."

"And that is all the knowledge you possess, absolutely all?"

"Yes; I am no more than groping in the dark. My main object in coming was
to put you on your guard."

"You have repeated these suspicions to no one else? The Police?"

"To no one. Only Sexton and I have even talked the matter over. We are
both too loyal to you to ever say a word which might be to your injury."

She suddenly held out her hand, and he took it, conscious of the firm
clasp of her fingers.

"I thank you, Captain West," she said sincerely, "and believe your
purpose was honourable. You have told me frankly all you suspect, and
doubtless you have reasons. You have simply made a mistake, that is all.
Percival Coolidge was not murdered; he killed himself because he had
muddled my affairs, and knew he was about to be discovered. You have got
upon a wrong trail. Will you accept my word for this, and drop the whole
matter here?"

West was almost convinced, but not quite; the explanation had not been
sufficiently explicit.

"This man Hobart--who is he? What connection does he have with
your affairs?"

She hesitated slightly, yet her eyes did not fall, or her apparent
cordiality change.

"Mr. Hobart," she explained, "I have known for years. I told you before
he was once in my father's employ. Now he is a private detective, and
was employed on my case, before I advertised for you. I thought then he
was not accomplishing anything, but at our interview Sunday, all was
cleared up."

"In the presence of Percival Coolidge?"

"Yes; he was given a week in which to straighten matters. That was why he
killed himself."

"But why is it necessary for you to meet Hobart in a place like this--a
veritable thieves' den?"

She shrugged her shoulders, releasing his hand.

"He has not completed his work, and does not think it best for us to be
seen together. I know him so well I am not at all afraid, even here. Is
that all, Captain West?"

"It seems to explain everything," he admitted, yet far from satisfied.

"And you will drop the whole affair?" she asked anxiously.

"If I say yes--what?"

"You will be released from here of course, and the whole misunderstanding
forgotten."

"And otherwise?"

"I have no means of knowing what the men intend to do. They will accept
your pledge, I am sure."

"Possibly, but I am not so sure I will consent to give such a pledge."

"Then you do not accept my word; do not believe what I have told you?"

"Not that exactly, Miss Natalie; I could have faith in your word, except
that I believe you to be mistaken, deceived. Hobart is not square; he is
using you for his own ends. Under these conditions, I would be a coward
to give such a promise, and leave you helpless in this man's power."

"You intend then to refuse?"

"I do; I'll fight it out."

She stared at him, scarcely believing her own ears, her lips parted, a
look of angry fright in her eyes.

"You are a fool, Captain West," she burst forth at last, unable to hold
back the words. "I have done my best for you, and you spurn that. Now
look out."

She stepped backward, still fronting him, and, with hand behind her,
rapped sharply on the panel of the door.



CHAPTER XVII

FACING DEATH


The change in the girl was so pronounced, her action so impetuous, as to
leave West startled and silent. The thought came to him instantly that
she was not the innocent victim he had supposed. Her words, and movements
expressed disappointment, rather than regret. She was angry at his
choice, ready to withdraw from him all sympathy, all assistance. Her plea
had failed, and the woman had become a tigress. Then she must have been
endeavouring to deceive him; as deeply interested as these others--in
getting him safely off the trail of this crime. It was a hard lesson, one
that instantly turned all his theories upside down, but the truth came to
him with blinding, sickening force--she was as guilty as Hobart; they
were both working to the same end, endeavouring to get him safely out of
the way. They would accomplish this with lies if possible, if not then
with force. It was for no other purpose he had been granted this
interview alone--in the hope that he might thus be deceived by her. Now
he saw through the trick.

These thoughts swept West's brain in a sudden flash of revelation, but
he had no chance to act; to denounce her, to make a single movement,
before the door opened swiftly, and Hobart slipped eagerly into the
room. The first glance the fellow had of the prisoner, standing erect
and unbound, must have deceived him into believing the girl had
succeeded in her quest.

"So you've set him free," he exclaimed. "The fellow has come to his
senses, has he?"

"No, he has not," she snapped with temper darkening her eyes. "I was not
afraid of him, so I let him loose, but he's made me no promise. Now it is
up to you; I'm done."

She slipped out through the opening, and Hobart leaned against the door,
pushing it shut behind her, his scowling eyes watching West intently.

"So, that is how it stands, is it, my man?" he growled threateningly.
"You even refuse to accept the word of the lady, do you?"

"Those are very nearly the facts," West replied steadily. "Then I told
her I thought she must be mistaken; now I believe she was sent here for
no other purpose but to deceive me. If I ever had any doubt of a crime,
it has vanished since this interview."

"What crime?"

"Murder; the killing of Percival Coolidge. Is that plain enough, Hobart?
I want you to understand. I am fighting this case from now on in the
open; it is going to be man to man."

"What the hell do you mean, you cur?"

"I'll tell you," went on West coldly, determined now to so anger the
fellow as to bring the whole matter to a climax, reckless of the
consequences. "I charge you with murder. I haven't the proof, but I'll
get it; I do not know the object, but I'll find out."

"You fool! you'll never get away from here. My God, you must be crazy!"

"Never was saner in all my life, Hobart. I am a soldier, and am taking a
soldier's chance. Now listen. I feel no particular interest in the death
of Percival Coolidge. In my judgment the world is just as well off with
him dead as alive. But what this means to Natalie Coolidge is another
matter entirely."

"She told you--"

"Yes, she told me--a lie. That is what hurts; what makes me ready to take
any chance to put you where you belong. You have lied to her, deceived
her, made her your accomplice in crime. I'm fighting for a woman, because
she has got no one else to fight for her."

"Oh, I see; in love, hey--with her, or her money?"

"With neither so far as I know," frankly. "She is a woman helpless in
your hands; that is sufficient."

"But, hell, she hasn't any use for you--didn't she tell you so?"

"Quite plainly--yes. But that is no excuse for any man to play the
coward. I am not afraid of you, Hobart, or your gang. You got me before
by treachery; I was not looking for trouble. But now I am. I am going
through that door, and if you try to stop me you are going to get hurt."

The fellow grinned, one hand thrust into the outer pocket of his coat,
his eyes narrowed into ugly slits.

"You think so! You haven't a weapon on you, West, and if you take a
step, I'll put you out of commission. I know how to handle your kind,
you big bluffer. What I want to know is what you have got in your head,
for, believe me, I don't take any stock in this woman stuff. Are you
after the coin?"

"What coin?"

"Well, maybe a slice of old Coolidge's boodle. There's enough of it for
all hands to have a dip. How does that hit you?"

"Sounds interesting at least," admitted West, so earnestly as to attract
the other's attention. "But let's talk it over among ourselves--who is
listening there?"

Hobart glanced behind at the nearly closed door. It was for only a second
he was off guard, yet that was enough. With one leap forward, West
struck, his clinched fist smashing against the side of the fellow's jaw.
It was a wicked, vicious blow, with all the propelling force of the body
behind it, and Hobart went down stunned, crashing the door tightly shut
as he fell. Once he strove blindly to reach his feet, tugging madly at
the weapon in his pocket, but West, feeling no mercy, and wide awake to
the fact that any shooting would mean a call for help, struck again,
sending his groggy opponent flat, and unconscious. It was all the swift
work of a minute, and there had been no noise to arouse alarm. Hobart had
not even cried out; the only audible sounds being the sharp click of the
door, and the dull thud of a falling body.

West emptied the man's pockets, slipping two revolvers into his own; then
stood for an instant motionless, staring down into the white upturned
face. He had followed the impulse of the moment; had struck savagely;
knowing it was his only chance. Thus far he had done well; but what next?
He was conscious of but one thought, one purpose--to escape from this
house, unpledged and still free to act. Yet how could this be
accomplished? He had no plan, no knowledge even of his surroundings, of
what lay beyond the walls of this room. His eyes swept the bare interior,
seeing nothing to inspire hope. Hobart had said this room was practically
a prison, and it looked it--the walls bare, and unbroken, and a rough
single cot. All possibility of egress lay in the closed door, and a
narrow window high up in the opposite wall, also tightly shut, and shaded
by a heavy curtain.

His hand tried the door cautiously; the knob turned easily enough, but
there was no yielding to his pressure. The lock was evidently on the
outside, and he could discover no key-hole, no possibility of operating
it from within. Then, besides in all probability, a guard would be posted
outside in the hall, waiting for some signal from Hobart. West glanced
again at the recumbent figure, bending over to make sure of his
condition, then, gripping a chair, silently crossed the room.

There was not a minute to lose. He knew that he must choose quickly
whatever course he pursued. Any instant Hobart might recover
consciousness, and gain assistance by a rap on the door; indeed his
confederates without might not wait for the signal. The silence within,
the length of time, might arouse suspicion. The only chance lay in
immediate action. Standing on the chair West found the window had been
securely nailed into place, but this had been done so long ago, it was
quite possible for him to work the nails loose, yet it required all his
strength to press up the warped sash sufficiently far to enable him to
gain a view outside. It was not encouraging. Evidently he was upon the
third floor, at the rear of the building, looking down into a cluttered
up back yard. His eyes could scarcely distinguish what was below, as the
only glimmer of light came from a far distant street lamp at the end of
an alley, the faint rays creeping in through holes in the fence. Yet one
black shadow seemed to promise the sloping roof of a shed directly below;
but even with that to break his fall, it was a desperate leap.

He stared into those uncertain depths, endeavouring to measure the
distance, deceived by the shifting shadows, afraid of what lay hidden
below. For the moment he forgot all that was behind him, his whole mind
concentrated on the perils of so mad a leap into the dark. The awakening
came suddenly, the chair jerked from beneath his feet, his body hurled
backward. He fell, gripping at the window seat, so that he was flung
against the support of a side wall, able to retain his feet, but not to
wholly ward off a vicious blow, which left him staggering. Half blinded,
West leaped forward to grapple with the assailant, but was too late.
Hobart rushed back out of reach of his arms, and rapped sharply on the
door panel. It opened instantly, and big Mike, closely followed by
another man, pushed forward into the room. West was trapped, helpless;
one man pitted against three. He backed slowly away, brushing tack the
dishevelled hair from his eyes, watching them warily, every animal
instinct on the alert.

Mike took one comprehensive glance at the scene, at the overturned chair,
the half-open window, the trapped man crouching motionless against the
further wall. The meaning of it all was plain, and his bar-room training
gave quick insight as to the part he was to play. He spoke gruffly out
into the dark of the hall behind him, an order to some one concealed
there; then shut the door tightly, and faced West, his head lowered like
a bull about to charge. West understood; he was locked in to fight it
out--three against one. Hobart was nearest to him, his face swollen and
red, his eyes ugly slits, with teeth snarling between thin lips. The
fellow laughed sneeringly, as their glances met.

"Now we'll take care of you, Captain," he taunted. "Never mind his guns,
Mike; there's not a load in either of them. Give the guy what he is
looking for. Come on you terriers!"

But West did not wait. There was only one chance, and he took it--to
carry the fighting to them. He had no doubt of the emptiness of his guns,
and hurled one straight at Hobart's head, leaping forward with the other
clutched in his hand straight at Mike, who had scarcely time to fling up
one hand in defence. The thrown weapon missed its mark by a narrow inch,
striking the wall behind, and falling clattering to the floor, but the
other broke through the big saloon-keeper's guard, and sent him reeling
to his knees, a gush of blood reddening his hair. Again and again West
struck him, driving him prone to the floor before the other two dragged
him away, wrestled the weapon from his hand, and closed with him in a
desperate death grapple.

What followed he never could relate. He was mad with fury of the fight.
A mere animal defending life with every means at hand, caring nothing for
either wound or hurt so that he won out in the end. Mike was out of it,
but the two grappling him fought like wild cats, rough barroom fighters,
resorting to any tactics to disable their opponent. Yet it was this that
saved him. Crazed as he was, madly as his brain whirled in the fierce
struggle, his long training held supreme--he knew how to fight,
remembered instinctively every trick and guard. Again and again his
clinched fist reached its mark, and slowly he broke away from clutching
hands, and regained his feet. It was a terrific struggle, but luck, as
well as skill, was with him. The next he knew, out of the red ruck, was
that he had Hobart by the throat, jammed against the wall, with fingers
clinched in the throat. Then he saw the other coming, a dim, shapeless
thing, that he kicked at viciously. The boot must have landed, for he was
suddenly free to strike the purple face fronting him, and fling the
helpless rocking body in a huddled mass on the floor.

By God, it was over with; he had won breathing space, a chance to see
what was about him. Yet that was all. The fellow he had kicked was
already up, doubled from the pain of the blow, but with mad eyes
glaring at him. Hobart had struggled to his knees, cursing fiercely as
he swept the blood out of his eyes. They would both be on him again in a
minute, more desperate than ever, and the door was locked--there was no
chance there. The window! Ay! there was the window. Death either way,
yet a chance; and he was man enough to take it. He leaped on the chair,
and clambered up; he heard Hobart swear, and felt the grip of a hand on
his dangling leg; kicked himself free, and was on the ledge. He never
looked below, or took time to poise for the leap. Heedless, desperate,
scarcely realizing what he was doing, he flung his body out over the
edge, and fell.



CHAPTER XVIII

UNDER COVER


The shed roof was below, and he struck it, fortunately feet first, but
the sharp slant of the boards sent him hurtling forward over the edge
into a miscellaneous pile of boxes beneath, his body finally resting on
the hard ground. He lay there dazed, the breath knocked entirely out of
him, bruised, and scarcely certain whether he was dead or alive. For the
moment, he seemed to have lost all consciousness, unable to realize even
what had occurred in that upper room, or to comprehend the necessity of
immediate flight. All about him was intense darkness, and, after the
crash of his fall, no sound broke the silence. He could see nothing, hear
nothing to arouse his faculties; his flesh quivered with pain, although
he felt sure no bones were fractured, for he could move both arms and
limbs freely, while after the first shock, his mind returned to activity,
dominated by the single conviction that he must get away from there
before those men could get down stairs.

But how? He retained no strength, no ability to use his limbs sufficient
to carry him away from the neighbourhood swiftly. He felt paralysed,
numb, even his brain functioning strangely, the danger of his helpless
condition its only incentive to action. He endeavoured to rise, rolling
partially over in the effort which failed, but the movement, slight as it
was, left one hand dangling over an excavation at his right. His fingers
explored the edge of this opening cautiously, revealing a cellar-way,
leading down into the basement. The opening was black, silent,
mysterious, yet it was a hiding place. If he could manage to roll down
those steps into those depths below, he might hide there unseen, until he
regained strength, until the first effort at pursuit had been abandoned.
Then there might be a chance for escape.

West grasped the idea clearly enough. Those fellows would be there
swiftly. If they found him gone they would have no doubt but what he
landed safely, and had made a get-away. They would search, of course,
perhaps out into the alley, hoping he might have been injured, but it was
hardly probable they would think to explore the cellar. Even if they did,
he could surely creep into some dark corner where he might escape
observation. Anyway, crippled as he was, this offered the one and only
chance. He could not argue and debate; he must act.

He rolled over, and lowered himself down into the opening, locating the
half-dozen broken and rotted steps with his feet. He made no attempt to
stand, but simply slid down, finding a partially closed door at the
bottom, the passage-way blocked by a litter, the exact nature of which
could not be determined in the darkness. With some difficulty, and more
than ever conscious of his weakness, and the pain of bruises, he managed
to crawl over this pile of debris, and crouch down finally in the intense
blackness within. He felt like a trapped rat, still gasping for breath,
his body quivering from exertion.

Yet his retreat had been none too rapid. The silence above was broken by
the creak of an opening door, the sound of excited voices, and a sudden
gleam of light, finding entrance through the open cellar-way. West
startled, crept back into a corner, every nerve alert at approaching
peril. He recognized Hobart's voice, as the fellow plunged down the steps
from the first floor out into the yard.

"To hell, of course he's here!" he stormed. "My God, man, he dived out
head first; I saw him. He'll be dead as a door nail now. Come on with
that lantern, Turner. Where in thunder is the ladder--does any one know?"

"You think he lies on the roof?"

"Why not? That's where he must have struck, ain't it, Shorty? I don't
know though; it is so steep he'd most likely roll off. Here, you, let me
take the glim. There's nothing here in these boxes. Ah, there's the
ladder; climb up, Shorty, and see if the guy is stuck anywhere on the
roof. Go on! What are you afraid of; if he's there, he's a stiff all
right, believe me."

Turner's voice, hoarse and rumbling, came back from above.

"There ain't nuthin' up here, Jim. Damn me, if I don't believe the cuss
got clean away. Gee, but he was sure a nervy guy all right."

"Nervy? Crazy, you mean. But he never took that fall without busting
something. The bird is lying about here somewhere. You make sure he ain't
up there, Shorty."

"Well, he ain't; I kin see every inch o' this roof. Perhaps he fell in
between them barrels down there."

The two evidently searched thoroughly, the rays of the lantern dancing
wildly about, while Hobart savagely cursed his companion, and reiterated
his belief that no man could ever take that plunge, and escape unhurt.

"It couldn't be done, I tell you; maybe he could crawl, but that would be
all. Why he went down head first; I saw him go out the window, and that
drop would daze a cat. Say, Shorty, maybe the stiff dropped down into
this cellar-way. Let's take a look."

The light streamed in through the narrow opening, and some one
scrambled cautiously down the rotted steps. West, drawing himself
securely back behind the protection of his barrel, saw the lantern
thrust forward, and a face behind it peering in the shadows. The fellow
did not advance into the room, but Hobart did, pressing his way roughly
past, and standing there full in the glow of light, staring about into
the dim shadows. He evidently saw nothing to arouse suspicion, for his
voice was angry with disgust.

"Not a damn sign here, Shorty. It looks like the fellow maybe did get
away. But it beats me how. There ain't no place now for us to look but
the alley."

"An' if he ain't there?"

"Then we'll hop this dump mighty sudden, I'm telling you. We'll slip out
and leave Mike to explain how he got his coco cracked. With that guy
loose, it won't be healthy for me hanging around here."

"He ain't got the goods on you, has he?"

"No, he ain't got the goods, but he is dead wise to some things, and he
didn't get out of that shindy up stairs without getting hurt. He'll be
sore all right, and will raise all the hell he can. It's safer to keep
out of the way."

"An' what about that other buck, Hobart? It won't do to have him picked
up, if this guy gets the harness bulls to take a look around here."

"That ain't his style, Shorty; he won't spiel anything to the cops about
this row. He's an ex-soldier, a Captain, and he's nuts on the girl.
That's why he dipped into this mess--trying to save her--see? Maybe he
won't be so keen now, after the song and dance she gave him up stairs.
I'm half inclined to think the guy will drop out entirely, damn glad to
get off alive, now he believes she is as rotten as the rest of us. But I
ain't sure--maybe he is the kind that sticks. That's why I don't take any
chances just now. Things ain't quite ripe for a get away--see?"

"Sure; she gave him some straight stuff, hey?"

"She certainly did; she's as smart as she is good looking. It somehow
don't strike me this guy is going to bother her any more. I'm figuring
that he's out of it."

"But his partner?"

"Oh, we'll leave him somewhere propped up against a door. Likely he'll
never know what happened to him, or where. He ain't nothing to be afraid
of--just a butler with a cracked head. It's the other guy who has got the
brains. Come on; let's take a look out in the alley."

Their shadows vanished up the stairs, the glow of light disappearing, and
leaving the cellar in impenetrable darkness. West did not venture to
move, however, content to wait until thoroughly assured the way for
escape was clear. He had not learned much from this conversation, except
to increase his conviction that a serious crime was being consummated.
The full nature of this conspiracy was as obscure as ever; rendered even
more doubtful indeed by the active participation of Natalie Coolidge.
This was what puzzled and confused him the most. He could no longer
question her direct interest in the affair, or her willingness to assist
in overcoming his efforts. Even without the free testimony of the men
this fact was sufficiently clear. She had deliberately lied to him,
attempted deceit, and then, when he refused to yield to her efforts, had
so reported to Hobart, and left him to his fate. It was manifestly
impossible for him to believe in her any longer. Yet what could it all
mean? How could she hope to benefit by such an association? Why could she
thus shield the murderers of Percival Coolidge? What possible object
could there be in the commission of this crime, except to gain possession
of her own fortune? It was all mystery to his mind; a new unanswerable
question arising wherever he looked.

What strange influence could this man Hobart exercise over the girl? To
West's judgment he was in no way the sort of man to appeal to Natalie
Coolidge. He was of a low, cunning order, with some degree of outward
polish, to be sure, yet inherently tough, and exhibiting marks of a
birth-right which indelibly stamped him of a social class far below her
own. Surely, she could not love the fellow, yet unquestionably he
possessed a mysterious power over her, difficult to explain through any
other hypothesis. If West had not known the young woman under different
conditions, he might have accepted this theory, and dismissed the whole
matter from mind. But it was the haunting memory of that earlier Natalie
Coolidge, the mistress of Fairlawn, which would not permit his complete
surrender. She had seemed all that his dream of womanhood called for.
Unconsciously, he had given her his heart, and he could not tear the
remembrance from mind. There was something wrong, terribly wrong; what it
was he had no means of knowing, yet, there in the dark, he determined he
would know, would never be content until he learned the whole truth. All
his hope, all his future, depended on the answer.

Hobart and Turner were absent for some little while; the sound of their
voices ceased, but the distant flicker of the lantern enabled West to
trace their progress up the alley, and then back again. They returned in
no pleasant humour, convinced that their expected victim had escaped
safely, but made no further effort to search the yard. Hobart said enough
to make it plain that his immediate project was to disappear, leaving
Mike to his own devices. With this point settled the two tramped heavily
up the stairs, and disappeared within. West, confident at last, that the
way was left clear, wriggled out from his place of concealment behind the
barrel, and stood erect. He felt stronger now, and in less pain,
convinced that his injuries were in no degree serious. He could move his
limbs freely and his mind was active. The darkness was so intense he had
to grope his way forward, anxious to make no noise which might betray
his presence. No doubt the basement could be reached in some way from the
floor above, and any unusual sound below might easily attract attention.

In the intensity of the gloom, his sense of direction failed, taking him
somewhat further back before he finally located the exact position of
those outer steps. Then as he turned abruptly, his foot came in contact
with an obstacle on the floor. For an instant he could not determine what
it was; then, with a thrill of horror, he realized the presence of a
human body. There was no sound, no movement, and West drew back from
contact with the object, shrinking in horror. Then he gripped himself
sternly--whoever, whatever this was, he must know. Alive or dead he must
determine the truth. He bent over, feeling with his hands in the
darkness. Good God, the flesh was warm; it was no cold corpse he touched,
but a living human being; ay! tied like a mummy, unable to move hand or
foot. Then, as suddenly, his groping fingers, eager enough now,
discovered the cause of silence--the man was gagged, cruelly gagged,
helpless to utter a sound.



CHAPTER XIX

THE COMING OF A MESSAGE


The situation once realized, West worked rapidly. If this bound man was
Sexton, the quicker he could be released the better. Hobart had already
revealed his plans, and might appear at any moment for the purpose of
executing them. If escape was to be achieved, it must be accomplished at
once. In the darkness his fingers could do nothing with the knot, but the
sharp blade of a knife quickly severed the twisted cloth, and the gag was
instantly removed from between the clinched teeth. The man moaned,
breathing heavily, but made no other sound while West slashed at the
cords lashing his limbs, finally freeing them entirely. Not until this
had been accomplished did he pause long enough to ask questions.

"There; that's the last. Now who are you--Sexton?"

"Yes, sir," weakly, and in a mere whisper, "an' I know yer voice, sir.
Thank God, yer found me, sir."

"It was a bit of luck; but we'll talk that over later. Now we've got to
get out of here. Can you walk?"

"I don't know, sir; after a fashion, maybe. I'm mighty stiff and
numb, sir. Oh, Lord, but that hurts; give me a hand, an' perhaps I
can make it."

"Take it easy; work your legs up and down like that; good, that will
restore the circulation. How long have you been lying here?"

"I don't know, sir," his voice strengthening. "I must have been hit, the
way my head aches. The first thing I knew after I went into that room
with you, I was lyin' here in the dark. I couldn't move or speak, sir,
an' it was so black, I kind of got it into my head maybe I was dead and
buried. If it hadn't been for my hearing things--voices talking, and all
that--I guess I would have gone clear batty. Maybe I didn't get
everything straight, sir, but one o' them fellows was Hobart, wasn't he?"

"Yes; we walked right into his trap. The fellow who came over to the
table and talked to us was Jim Hobart. He knew me at first sight it
seems, and easily guessed what we were there for."

"And was Miss Coolidge here too, sir?"

"Yes, she was; I had a talk with her that has mixed me all up, Sexton.
She seems to be hand in glove with these fellows. But how did you suspect
she was here?"

"I heard her voice, sir; up there somewhere, sir, soon after I come to
my senses. She and some man went along outside. Sounded like he was
makin' her go with him. I couldn't get much of what was said, but he
sure talked awful rough, an' she seemed to be pleadin' with him. They
wasn't there but just a minute, an' then, a little later, I heard an
automobile start up."

"You have no idea how long ago this was?"

"No, I ain't, sir. I been lyin' here about half dead, I guess, an' I
don't seem to have known anything after that, until those fellows come
down here with the lantern. Were they hunting after you?"

"Yes; I outwitted them up stairs, and jumped from a window. But that is
enough talk now; we'll go over the whole affair when we are safely away
from this place. How is it? do you think you can navigate?"

Sexton responded by getting slowly to his feet. He trembled, and was so
uncertain, as he attempted to grope forward, that West grasped him
firmly, helping him slowly toward the foot of the steps. Even this
effort, however, helped the man to recover somewhat the use of his
numbed limbs, while his breathing became much easier. The two crept up
the stairs cautiously, and surveyed the cluttered up yard as best they
might in the dim light of the distant street lamp. It appeared entirely
deserted, nor was there any evidence that the building above was
occupied. No doubt lights were burning within, but if so the shades must
have been drawn closely, allowing no reflection to escape. No better
opportunity for evading notice could be hoped for, and West, alert now to
every chance, made instant decision.

"They are all inside. Creep along behind that pile of lumber to where you
see the hole in the fence. I'll be just behind you. That's the way."

The narrow alley was much lighter, yet still dark enough to conceal their
movements, as they clung close to the deeper shadows. Except for an old
cart it was unoccupied, the surface covered with ashes, so packed as to
leave no trace of wheels. Ahead of them at the end of the block, glowed
the only street lamp visible. Sexton, by now largely recovered from his
late experiences, broke into a run, with West following closely behind.
Both were eager to escape from the immediate neighbourhood unseen.
Suddenly Sexton stumbled, but arose almost instantly to his feet again,
grasping something which gleamed like silver in his hand.

"Not hurt, are you?" asked West anxiously.

"No; what's this I found?"

The other took it impatiently.

"What is it? Why a small pocket knife, of course. Come on, man, don't
stand mooning there." He slipped the article carelessly into his pocket.
"Let's get out into the open while the road is clear."

"Where are you going?" Sexton panted, endeavouring to keep beside him.
"Have you anything planned out?"

"Not very much; Milwaukee Avenue first. There is sure to be an all-night
restaurant somewhere in sight. Telephone for a taxi, don't dare to risk a
street car, we both look too tough."

"Suppose they will follow us?"

"Hardly; they will have no idea which way we went, or how long we'll have
been gone. All Hobart will think about now will be getting out of sight
himself. Once we turn off this street, we'll be safe enough."

It was considerably past midnight when the two men finally reached the
University Club; they had lunched at an all-night restaurant, washed and
made themselves as presentable as possible, yet were hardly recognizable
as they entered the Club lobby. Neither possessed a hat; Sexton was in
his shirt sleeves, while West's coat clung to him in rags. Without
waiting to explain anything to the servant in charge, except to state
briefly that Sexton would be his guest for the night, the Captain hurried
into the waiting elevator, and accompanied by his companion, ascended to
his apartment above.

The reaction from the excitement of the evening left Sexton dull and
drowsy once he felt secure from any possible danger. His only desire was
to lie quiet, and forget. Stretched out on a comfortable lounge, he fell
asleep almost instantly, making no effort even to remove his clothes.
West was of a different temperament, his mind far too active to find
sleep possible. His only desire was to think, plan, decide upon some
future course of action. With mind busy, forgetful of the very presence
of his companion, he indulged in a bath, again dressed himself, and,
lighting a cigar, settled back into an easy chair to fight the whole out
alone with himself.

The adventures of the night had greatly changed his conception of this
affair in which he had become so strangely involved. The mystery
confronting him appeared more difficult of solution than ever. His first
vague theory of the case had already gone completely to smash. Question
after question rose before him which remained unanswered. He was more
thoroughly convinced than ever that Percival Coolidge had been murdered;
that the act had been committed either by Hobart himself, or under his
direction. He possessed no proof, however, nor could he figure out a
motive for the crime. Who was this Jim Hobart? That was one of the first
things to be learned. Was he in any way personally interested in the
fortune left by Stephen Coolidge? Or did he hold any special relationship
with the murdered man? How could he expect to profit by the sudden death
of Percival? More important still, what peculiar influence did the fellow
exert over the girl? Here was by far the deeper mystery, the one that
troubled him most. The others seemed possible of explanation, but the
sudden change in Natalie Coolidge was beyond all understanding.

Except in face, form, dress, outward appearance, she no longer seemed to
West as being the same woman he had formerly known. His original interest
in her had vanished; he had learned to distrust and doubt her sincerity
and truth. Beyond all question she was openly playing an important part
in this tragedy under Hobart's direction, but for the life of him he
could not figure out to what end. Still the very mystery of it had its
fascination. While he felt no longer any special desire to serve her, to
further risk his life in her cause, yet he experienced a fierce
determination to learn what all this really meant; to uncover the object
these conspirators had in view. Although he imagined love no longer
spurred him on, his real interest in the affair became even more intense,
with an aroused desire to read the riddle. He convinced himself that from
henceforth this was to be his only object--not the girl, nor any
attraction she once had for him, but a stern determination to solve this
crime, and bring its perpetrators to justice. If she was involved it
could not be helped, she would have to suffer with the rest; his own duty
was clear.

Yet how could he begin action? What clue did he possess which could be
followed? Practically none. Before morning, that saloon on Wray Street
would unquestionably be deserted, except perhaps by its proprietor, and
Mike would simply deny everything. A search of the place would be
useless, for Hobart would be too sly a fox to leave any trail. Two
possibilities remained; the police might have some record of the fellow,
might know his favourite haunts, even be able to locate his next probable
hiding place. If not, the only hope remaining would seem to be Natalie
Coolidge. She would undoubtedly return to Fairlawn; was probably there
already, and, by shadowing her, the whereabouts of Hobart would surely be
revealed either sooner or later.

But possibly there was a quicker way to learn their purpose than by
thus seeking to find either. If it was the Coolidge fortune which was
at stake, why not endeavour to learn in whose trust it was being held,
and what steps were being taken to safe-guard it? This investigation
ought not to be particularly difficult, even though he possessed no
authority; he could explain the nature of his interest to an attorney,
and be advised how to proceed. Determined to take all three steps the
first thing next day, West rested back comfortably in the chair,
already half asleep. One hand rested in his pocket, and as his fingers
fumbled some object there, he suddenly recalled the knife Sexton had
found in the alley.

He drew the article forth curiously, and looked at it under the glow of
the electric light--it was a small silver handled pen-knife, such as a
lady might carry, a rather strange thing to be discovered in a dirt alley
back of Wray Street. The incongruity struck him forcibly, and he sat up,
wide awake once more, seeking for some mark of identification on the
polished handle. There was none, not an inscription of any kind, but he
noted that the single slender blade did not fit closely down into its
place. He opened it idly to learn the cause--beneath appeared the white
gleam of tightly folded paper.



CHAPTER XX

WHAT THE TELEPHONE TOLD


All West's indifference vanished instantly. He had to pry the paper out,
so closely had it been wedged in beneath the closed knife blade, and it
required a moment in which to straighten it out so that the writing was
discernable. Even then the marks were so faint, and minute, he could not
really decipher them until he made use of a magnifying glass lying on the
desk. A woman's hand, using a pencil, had hastily inscribed the words on
a scrap of common paper, apparently torn from some book--the inspiration
of an instant, perhaps, a sudden hope born of desperation. He fairly had
to dig the words out, letter by letter, copying them on an old envelope
until he had the message complete: "_Please notify police to search
Seminole quick_."

West read this over, word by word, again and again. What did it mean? Did
it mean anything? Had it any possible connection with the case in which
he was interested? There was no signature, nothing to guide him; yet in
some way the plea sounded real, was a cry of distress, an appeal for
help. It could be given no other meaning, yet how long had it been lying
there in the alley? Not any great length of time surely, for the polished
silver was far too conspicuous to escape notice. It must have been
dropped during the night, within a very short time of its discovery. But
what did the words signify? "_Notify police_" was clear enough, but
"_search Seminole_" meant absolutely nothing. What was "Seminole"--an
apartment house? A hotel? A saloon? Perhaps the police would know;
evidently the writer so believed, or she would never have used the name
with such confidence. A familiar name to her, she assumed that the police
would have no difficulty in instantly locating the place meant. The haste
with which the message had apparently been written, its short, sharp
words, bespoke urgent need, the consciousness of imminent peril. Plainly
the writer had used the only means at hand in a hurried desperate effort
to gain assistance.

"The police." The request had been for the police; then why not appeal to
the police? Why not take the note now directly to headquarters, and let
them help solve its mystery? At first West hesitated, yet a moment's
thought convinced him this would be the logical course to pursue. He
could accomplish nothing alone, unguided. His appealing to the police
need not necessarily involve any disclosure relative to the Coolidge
matter. He had found this note accidentally in an alley in the northwest
section of the city; his being there need require no special explanation;
he did not understand its meaning, but it was quite evidently a police
matter, and consequently he placed it in their hands. That all sounded
natural enough. Besides at this hour of the night there was no other
place to which he could go for information.

He looked at Sexton, who was sleeping soundly, and decided not to awaken
the man. He had no use for his services just now; the City Hall was only
a few blocks away, and he might not be out more than an hour himself. He
would leave a note so that if by any chance he should be delayed, Sexton
would understand what had occurred. He scratched this off hastily, placed
it in a conspicuous place, and swiftly departed, after extinguishing the
light. He was no longer conscious of fatigue, or the pain of bruises, his
mind eager to learn the meaning of this new discovery.

It had been a quiet night at the City Hall Station, and West encountered
no difficulty in reaching the presence of the lieutenant in charge. The
latter gazed at his caller curiously over an early edition of the morning
paper, as the officer who had opened the door to the inner office, said
rather doubtfully.

"This guy wants to see you personally, sir; he wouldn't talk to no
one else."

"All right, Slavin; shut the door, and I'll hear what he has to say. What
is it, my man?"

West explained swiftly and clearly, his manner of speech, as well as his
statement as to who he was, evidently making a favourable impression on
his listener, who interrupted the brief narrative with several
respectfully asked questions. He look the note, spread it out on the
desk, and studied it carefully.

"Looks genuine enough," he commented at last, "but not very clear. I
don't know any place in this town called Seminole. Wait a minute though;
perhaps one of the boys may have an idea."

He pressed a button on top of the desk, and in response to the summons, a
side door opened, and a main in plain clothes entered.

"You rang, sir?"

"Yes, McAdams; this gentleman here--"

"Captain West, as I am a sinner!" he exclaimed. "Gee! but I am glad to
see you again, old man! Say. By Gad! you don't remember me."

"Oh, but I certainly do, Mac," and West grasped the extended hand
heartily. "It's a devil of a surprise, that's all. Saw you last at Brest,
the day you sailed for home. So this was your job, Sergeant?"

"Been with the department ever since I was a kid. Put me in plain clothes
since I came back. Lieutenant, this is Captain West, over across the pond
with the Engineers; we were buddies for about two months. What was
wanted, sir?"

"Well, Captain West has just been telling me a rather peculiar story, and
wanted some information I thought perhaps you could give; you know the
old town right now better than I do. First of all, do you recall any
crook by the name of Hobart--Jim Hobart?"

"Hobart? Hobart? no, not off hand, I don't. How old a man is he,
Captain?"

"Middle-aged, anyway; an active fellow enough, but his hair is
quite grey."

"Do you know where he hangs out?"

"The last I saw of him was in a saloon known as Mike's Place over on
Wray Street."

"Off Milwaukee; yes, I know. Mike is a big Pole, but has never had any
serious trouble so far as I know. However, being there is no special
recommendation to a guy, but I don't believe this man Hobart has been
pulled since I've been on the force. And you don't recall the name,
Lieutenant?"

"No; but he might be an old timer come back. Look him up in the index,
Mac. That will soon tell you whether we have got any such mug, or not."

McAdams drew out a thick volume from a near-by cabinet, and ran his
fingers swiftly down a long column of names, indexed under the letter
"H." Suddenly he stopped, with an exclamation.

"The lad is here all right--Government offence, fifteen years ago, third
arrest; mugged number 28113. Let's look him up, and see if he is the same
man. Come over here, Captain."

"Is that the fellow?" he asked.

West studied the face seriously.

"Yes, I believe it is, Mac," he said at length. "He looks much older now,
but those are his features all right. What was his game?"

"'Con' mostly, according to the record; only one conviction though, two
years in Detroit for using the mails to defraud. Oh, yes, here is
something different, 'assault with intent to kill'--indeterminate
sentence to Joliet for that. Nothing heard of him since. So he is back,
and at the old game again. Do you want him brought in, Captain?"

"No, not yet. I haven't anything against the man now but a suspicion. I
wanted to learn his record, that's all. This inquiry was only incidental.
What I'm really interested in just at present is something I picked up in
the alley back of Mike's Place three or four hours ago. It's a note in a
woman's hand-writing, and when I found it, it was hidden in a small
silver pen-knife, such as a lady might carry. I thought it might have
some connection with the case I'm trying to catch this fellow Hobart in."

"There is a woman in it, then?"

"Yes; but I haven't got things hitched up sufficiently to talk about it.
The note itself is blind."

"In what respect?"

"Well, here it is. Can you make it out? I'll read it for you--'_Please
notify police to search Seminole quick_.'"

"No signature?"

"None."

"But that is plain enough, isn't it?"

"Yes, if you know what she means by Seminole; what is it? a street? an
apartment house? a saloon? Do you know of anything under that name?"

McAdams stood motionless thinking.

"No, by thunder, I don't," he admitted reluctantly. "There is no street
of that name in the city. There used to be a shady hotel over on Ontario
Street called 'The Seminole,' but that was torn down ten years ago. I
never heard of any other--did you, Dave?"

"No," answered the lieutenant slowly, sucking away at a cigar. "I just
been looking over the directory, and I don't find nothing. Maybe it's the
name of a boat--seems to me I've heard some such name before, but I don't
just recollect where."

"A boat! Well, that's a straw anyway, and worth looking up." Mac picked
up the telephone. "Who is on at the Harbour Master's office this time
of night?"

"Winchell, usually, and he'll have a record there."

The detective jiggled the receiver impatiently.

"Yes, this is police headquarters calling. Give me the Harbour Master's
office, please--I said the Harbour office. Oh, is this you, Dan? Bob
McAdams speaking. Do you know of any boat on the lakes called the
_Seminole_? What's that? A lumber schooner at Escanaba? Never makes this
port, you say? And you don't know of any other by that name? Sure, I'll
hold the wire; look it up."

"Not a very promising lead," he said over his shoulder, "but Dan will
have the dope for us in a minute."

He suddenly straightened up, the receiver at his ear.

"I didn't quite get that, Dan. A medium sized yacht, you say? Where is
it? Oh, at the Jackson Park lagoon. I see; and who did you say owned it?
What's that? I didn't quite catch the name--Coolidge? What Coolidge?
Exactly; the fellow who killed himself out south. Hold the wire."

He swung about to face West, the receiver still at his ear.

"This mean anything to you?"

"It surely does," eagerly. "The girl I spoke of was Natalie Coolidge. By
all the gods, we are on the right track."

"All right, Dan," resuming his conversation. "What's that? Coolidge had
the boat up the river a few weeks ago trying to sell it. That's how you
happened to remember the name--I see. Say, is there any one out at
Jackson Park I could talk to at this hour? Who? Oh, yes, the Life
Saving Station. Sure: somebody will be on duty there. Thanks, old
man--good night."

He hung the receiver up on the hook, and reached for the telephone
directory.

"Some luck, I say. Jackson Park--oh, yes, here it is. All right, Central;
sure, that is the proper number. This is the City Hall Police
Headquarters again; hustle it up, please. Hullo, Jackson Park Life Saving
Station? Good; this is McAdams speaking from the City Detective Bureau.
Is there a yacht out there in the lagoon called the Seminole? belongs to
a man named Coolidge; medium sized boat, with gas engine. Yes; what's
that? Not there now; went out into the lake about two hours ago. The hell
it did! Who was aboard? do you know? Say that again; oh, you wasn't on
watch when she sailed; your partner said what? Three men and a woman. All
right, yes, I got it. Say now, listen; this is a police matter, so keep
your eyes open. It will be daylight pretty soon, and if you get sight of
that boat, call up the City Hall Station at once. Do you get me?"

He wheeled about, smiling whimsically.

"It's on again, off again, Flannigan. We had it, and we have it not.
Dave I am getting interested; I feel the lure of the chase. What say
you? Can you spare me for a day or two? You can? good enough; we'll comb
the lakes until we find out who is sailing aboard the _Seminole_. You're
with me, old man?"

West extended his hand silently, and the fingers of the two clasped in a
mutual pledge.



CHAPTER XXI

THE YACHT "SEMINOLE"


There was little to do but wait impatiently for some further message of
guidance. McAdams dispatched a few telegrams to nearby lake ports, and
briefly outlined certain plans of action for the morrow, provided nothing
further was heard from the missing boat; these included a possible visit
to Fairlawn, and a city-wide search for Hobart, who both men decided
could not be included among the party on the yacht. West told his new
assistant the entire story in detail, and Mac's interest in ferreting out
the matter became intense. It was the kind of case which fascinated him
with its mystery, but no theory he could spin born from long police
experience, seemed to exactly fit all the revealed facts. The great
puzzle revolved about the strange actions of the girl; her part in the
affair presenting an unsolvable riddle. They must have talked for an
hour, discussing the situation frankly from every angle, yet arriving at
no definite conclusion. The sky in the east was red with dawn when both
men fell fast asleep in their chairs, still waiting.

It was nine o'clock, and still no word. The two had eaten a hasty
breakfast in a restaurant across the street, discussing the situation
again thoroughly, but to no more satisfactory result. It seemed
impossible to reconcile certain facts. If the silver knife, with its call
for help, had indeed been dropped by Natalie Coolidge, and she was being
held a prisoner in the hands of villains on board the _Seminole_, why had
she acted toward West as she did in that house on Wray Street? To all
appearances there she had been hand in glove with the conspirators,
willing even to connive at the Captain's murder if necessary to the
success of their crime. Only one theory was possible; that the girl was
under constraint, driven to her strange act by personal fear. She dare do
nothing else, terrorized by the threats of Hobart, and her own sense of
utter helplessness in his power. This, and this only, must be the answer
to the riddle.

McAdams, unable to remain quiet, departed to get his police search
started in an attempt to discover Hobart in his new hiding place. The
fellow could not be on the yacht, as that had sailed from Jackson Port at
far too early an hour for him to have possibly made one of the party. He
would still be in the city then, securely concealed in some dive of the
underworld, perfecting his plans, whatever they might be, and, perhaps,
arranging to join those on the boat later. The detective even thought
this unlikely, his theory being that Hobart merely desired to get the
girl safely out of the way for a length of time sufficient to enable him
to complete his nefarious scheme. He argued that Natalie was in no real
danger; she would be held no doubt, kept out of sight as long as was
necessary, but otherwise left uninjured. This was no strong-arm crime,
but a high class confidence game, and the important thing was to quickly
lay hands on Hobart. With him once in the toils, the whole conspiracy
would instantly collapse. With this end in view, McAdams took up the
man's trail, leaving West to stand guard over the telephone.

The latter called up Sexton, and hurried him out to Fairlawn, with
instructions to find out all he could from the servants there relative
to any late developments. He expected no important revelation from this
point, as Natalie could not have returned home, yet there might have
been a telephone communication, or some other occurrence of interest to
furnish a clue. Sexton was instructed to report the result of his
investigation at the earliest moment possible. This accomplished,
nothing remained for West to do, but sit down and wait for something
else to happen.

The delay was shorter than he anticipated. There was a sharp ringing of
the bell, the police operator responding quickly.

"Police Headquarters. What's wanted? McAdams; no he is not in just
now. Who is calling him? Harbour Master's office; all right; hold the
wire a minute."

He turned his head around.

"Must be your case, Captain; better hear what they have to say."

West grasped the receiver eagerly.

"Is this the Seminole matter?" he asked swiftly. "Certainly, I
understand about it. What's that. Oh, Winchell told you to call up if
you learned anything. Of course; what is it? Yes, I hear; just found her
tied up at north side of Municipal Pier. What's the trouble? Engine
working bad, and had to come in, hey? All right--thanks; I'll go
straight over and see them."

This was great luck, yet there was very little he could hope to
accomplish alone, without the help and authority of McAdams. Even if the
vessel had been stolen--which was probably not true--he possessed no
power of arrest. All he could hope to do would be to keep the fellows in
sight until Mac showed up, and, if possible, prevent them from putting
out into the lake again. Even in that he needs must be cautious not to be
seen by any of the gang who might recognize him. An alarm, proving they
were being followed, would doubtless send them scattering instantly. If
they were to be trapped, no suspicion could be aroused.

West thought of all these things as a taxi bore him across the city to
the pier, and acted accordingly. The open air restaurant accorded him
every reasonable opportunity for concealment, while affording ample view
of whatever was going on. It was a bright, sunshiny day, the waters of
the lake a deep blue. No crowd was present, yet enough people were at the
tables, or lounging about the pier, to make his presence unnoticeable.
The pleasure boat for Lincoln Park, a band aboard, and with a barker
industriously busy, was close by, surrounded by a bevy of women and
children. Beyond these, on the same side, snuggled close against the
cement wall, lay the yacht. West ordered a drink, and sat down at a table
within easy view, although partially concealed himself by a pillar
supporting the roof.

The _Seminole_ was a much larger boat than he had anticipated seeing,
yet he could not doubt her being the vessel sought. The name was plainly
stencilled on the bow, as well as upon the dingy towing astern. Her deck
lay almost even with the promenade, and he was able to trace her lines
clearly from where he sat. The craft had evidently been constructed for
comfort as well as speed. He noted two short masts unrigged, a bridge
forward of the wheel-house, together with a decidedly commodious cabin
aft. The deck space between was clear, except for the hatchway leading
down to the engine. The planking was clean, as though newly scrubbed,
while every handrail glistened in the sun. The cabin appeared tightly
closed, even the windows being heavily draped. Some mechanics were
evidently working below; there was a sound of hammering, and occasionally
a fellow in overalls appeared at the hatch opening. No one wearing any
semblance of a yacht uniform was visible, although four or five men
lounged about the deck, or close at hand on the pier, apparently
connected with the vessel. Two were well-dressed, rather gentlemanly
appearing fellows, the others of a decidedly rougher class, although
bearing no outward marks of being sea-men. While an air of carelessness
was assumed by all these, yet West, watching them closely, felt that
they were very much on their guard, anxiously waiting an opportunity to
depart. No face among the party had any familiarity; he had encountered
none of them at Mike's Place the evening before. Satisfied as to this, he
left the table, and strolled out on to the promenade, joining the crowd
watching the Lincoln Park boat get underway. So far as he could observe
this movement attracted no attention, although a moment later his eyes
plainly caught a bit of drapery drawn slightly aside at one of the cabin
windows of the _Seminole_, and, he felt convinced, the quick gesture of a
woman's hand.

There was a woman on board then! This certainty of knowledge by evidence
of his own eyes, set his blood leaping. Whatever the purposes of these
people he was again upon the right trail. The uplifted curtain was
immediately lowered, and, if any signal had thus been conveyed, there was
no other evidence visible. A little later one of the two better dressed
fellows loafing on the pier, a rather heavily built man, with closely
clipped red moustache, and a scar over one eye, slowly crossed the deck,
and entered the cabin. He came forth again a moment later, asked some
question of the workmen below and then clambered back carelessly over
the rail, joining his companion on the pier.

"A half hour yet; it was quite a job the boy's had, but they are making
time. Come over here a minute."

They walked forward, out of earshot from where West sat on a bench in the
sun. He watched the fellows closely, yet without neglecting the boat, but
they neither glanced toward him, or seemed aware of his existence.
Convinced that they felt no suspicion, but were merely exercising
ordinary precaution not to be overheard, the watcher soon banished all
fear of them from his mind. His whole thought centred on the early
arrival of McAdams. Until the detective came, there was nothing he could
do but sit there quietly and wait. But what if the necessary repairs were
completed, and the _Seminole_ sailed before Mac got there? The fellow
called Joe had mentioned half an hour, and he probably meant that was the
time set by the mechanics for completing their job on the engine. Beyond
doubt, the intention was to depart immediately. Was there any means in
his power by which this could be prevented? The only suggestion which
came to him was the picking of a quarrel in some way, with the two men
ashore. The boat would never depart unless they were aboard, as they
were evidently the leaders of the gang, yet this would be a most
desperate expedient, to be resorted to only when all other effort had
failed. The two were husky chaps, and he would probably be the one to
suffer most in such an encounter. Besides it would put them on their
guard, and possibly avail nothing. Why not speak to the fellows
pleasantly, and naturally? They had no reason to be suspicious of him; he
was but one of many others lounging idly about the pier. His curiosity
would seem reasonable enough, and he might thus gain some clue as to
their destination. Then, even if they did sail before Mac appeared, they
could be safely intercepted in time for a rescue. Indeed, such
information, if it could be gained, would give opportunity to plan
effective action.

Circumstances seemed to work to this end, the two men strolling
carelessly back toward where he sat, pausing within a few feet of him,
all their attention apparently riveted upon the yacht.

"Had some hard luck?" he ventured. "Engine give out?"

The red-moustached one glanced about, his eyes surveying the speaker
indifferently.

"Broke a piston, and had to be towed in," he replied carelessly, "We'll
be off again presently."

"Nice day for a sail."

"Sure is."

The very indifference of the fellow led West to take a chance.

"Some nice boat you've got there. The Coolidge yacht, isn't it? Haven't
seen it out lately."

"Are you a yachtsman?"

"A bit of an amateur, yes; have a cat-boat I play with some. Belong to
the Columbia Club."

"Off Grant Park; this boat quarters in the Jackson lagoon. We left there
last night. You knew Coolidge?"

"No, never met him; recognized the boat though. Has it been sold?"

"Not yet. It wasn't his anyway; belonged to the estate. I'm one of the
trustees; that's how I've got the use of it--see? Ever looked it over?"

West shook his head.

"No, but I wouldn't mind; she's a dandy."

"She sure is; better inside than out to my notion. Come aboard; we've got
time enough. Not thinking of buying a yacht, are you?"

"Well, I might, if the price is not too steep. I've got the fever all
right; what I lack maybe, is money. It costs a lot to run a yacht."

"Oh, I don't know. We operate this with three men as a crew. That's not
so bad. Come along with us, Mark; we'll take a look at the cabin first,
and then go forward."

The three men stepped over the low rail, and moved aft across the deck,
the leader talking fluently, and pointing out various things of interest.
His only object apparently was to arouse in West a desire to purchase.
The other man never spoke, and the latter gave no thought to his
presence. He had been rarely fortunate so far, and was looking for an
opportunity to question his guide on the purpose of their voyage. He
would wait until later; until the examination had been completed,
perhaps, when they believed him a possible purchaser. Joe opened the
cabin door, and West stepped inside, the interior darkened by drawn
curtains. The dusk was confusing, and he stood still after the first
step, hearing the latch click behind him.



CHAPTER XXII

KIDNAPPED


A hand gripped his shoulder as though in a vise, and swung him around;
the muzzle of an automatic confronted him, and behind it the threatening
eyes of Joe glared directly into his own.

"Not a move, you damned spy," a voice said coldly. "Now, Mark, frisk the
cuss, and be lively about it. Had a gun, hey; I thought so. Give it to
me. Now get the cord over there and give him a turn or two. A very good
job, old boy; the fellow is safe enough, I should say."

He turned his eyes away, searching the cabin, confident that West was
sufficiently secured.

"Come on out, Mary," he said sharply. "Who is this guy, anyhow?"

A woman came forward through the shadows. West had a glimpse of her face,
but the features were unfamiliar. A woman of forty, perhaps, still
attractive in appearance, with dark hair and bold black eyes that met
his own defiantly. He was puzzled, doubtful as to what it all meant. So
this was the woman he had seen on board; not Natalie Coolidge at all.
There had been a mistake of some kind; but if so, why had these people
given him this sort of reception aboard? These thoughts swept his mind in
a flash, as the woman peered forward to see his features more clearly.
For a moment she said nothing, and Joe broke out impatiently.

"He's the lad, ain't he?" he asked. "We ain't gone an' picked up the
wrong guy?"

"No; he's the bird all right. I never lamped him but once before myself.
I heard his name then, but forgot it. He's her friend, there ain't no
doubt o' that, Joe, and it ain't likely he's hanging around here just for
fun, is it? My idea was it would be safer to take him in."

"Sure; what's yer name, young fellow?"

Concealment was useless; they evidently had him correctly spotted; to lie
would do no good.

"Matthew West."

"That's the name," the woman exclaimed eagerly. "He is a soldier--a
Captain, or something like that. Jim told me about him; he's the same
fellow who was snooping about Mike's Place last night, before we
pulled out."

"Is that so? How the hell did you get out of there?"

"We had a little trouble," West admitted, "but they let me go."

"Yes, they did! I know better than that; Hobart don't do business
that way. I reckon we've played his game all right taking you in.
Well, you don't get out of here so easy, let me tell you. How'd you
come to get onto us?"

"That's my business."

"Oh, is it? Well, we'll make it ours from now on. There is one thing
pretty sure--you were here playing a lone hand. So it don't make much
difference what yer idea was. We'll take the bird along with us, Mary;
then he'll be out of temptation."

The woman nodded.

"Jim will know what to do with him," she said. "All we got to do is keep
him safe."

"I'll attend to that; come on, Mark, let's throw the damn sneak into that
left-hand stateroom. He'll stay there all right. Aw, take hold; don't be
afraid of hurting the fellow."

They roughed him forward, but West made no attempt to resist; his hands
were bound, and he was helpless. The woman threw open the narrow door,
and he was bundled unceremoniously across the threshold, and thrown
heavily to the floor. He struggled partially upright, protesting against
being left in that helpless condition, but the red-moustached man only
laughed, shutting the door tightly, and locking it. The single port hole
was covered by heavy drapery, the stateroom in total darkness. Through
the door panels he could hear a voice speaking.

"He's better off that way until we get out of here. You stay here, Mary,
till I can attend to him myself. Those fellows ought to have that engine
fixed by this time. Mark and I better go up on deck awhile."

"But, Joe, do you think they have caught on to us?" she asked anxiously.

"No, I don't; this guy wouldn't be snooping about alone if they had. He
ain't no fly cop, and just happened to be loafin' here--that's my guess.
He knew this was the Coolidge Yacht, and that set him to asking
questions. That guy don't look to me like he was the kind to be afraid
of. All we got to do is hold him here until Jim decides what he's up to.
I don't want to hurt him none, unless I have to. Everything else all
right, I suppose?"

"Sure; quiet as a mouse; asleep, I guess."

"That's good; well you stay here until I come back. Want a gun?"

She did not answer so as to be heard, but West could distinguish the
movement of feet in the outer cabin, and then the closing of a door.
Undoubtedly the two men had gone on deck, leaving the woman there alone.
His feet were not tied, and he could sit up, although the hands were
tightly bound behind him. With eyes accustoming themselves to the gloom,
he could discern something of his surroundings. He was in the ordinary
stateroom of a small yacht, with barely space in which to move about
comfortably. Two bunks were at one side, with a metal stand at their foot
for washing purposes. A rug covered the floor, the beds were made, and a
stool, screwed to the deck, occupied a position just below the porthole.
A few hooks were in evidence on the opposite wall; but no garments
dangled from them to tell of previous occupancy. Indeed the place was
scrupulously clean, as though unused for some time.

West made his way to the port, pushed aside the curtain with his
shoulders and looked out. The smallness of the opening made any hope of
escape in that way impossible; nor could he expect to attract the
attention of any one ashore. His view was limited to the east and north,
a wide expanse of blue water, the only thing in sight being the pleasure
boat bound for Lincoln Park, already little more than a black dot in the
distance. Convinced of his complete helplessness, he sat down on the
stool to consider the situation.

He had been a fool; there was no doubt as to that; the only thing now was
how he could best retrieve his folly. He had walked blindly into a trap,
suspecting nothing, confidently relying on his own smartness, believing
himself unknown. Now he must find his way out. It angered him to realize
how easily it had been accomplished; not so much as a blow struck; no
opportunity even for him to cry out an alarm--only that dark cabin, and
the threatening revolver shoved against his cheek. He wondered where
McAdams was; perhaps hunting him even then on the pier; and Sexton, what
had he succeeded in discovering out at Fairlawn? That Natalie Coolidge
had returned home, no doubt. At least he no longer believed she was with
this yachting party--evidently there was but one woman on board. Yet,
whether she was there or not, it was clear enough from what he had heard
that this sudden voyage of the _Seminole_ had some direct connection with
the mystery he was endeavouring to solve. That was why he had been
decoyed aboard, and made prisoner--to keep him silent; to get him
securely out of the way. Yet this knowledge revealed nothing as to what
their real purpose was.

What did they intend doing with him now that he was in their hands? Joe
had declared his fate would be left with Hobart. Then it must be that
they had a rendezvous arranged somewhere with that arch-conspirator, some
hidden spot along the lake shore where they were to meet shortly, and
divide the spoils, or make further plans. Hobart unquestionably was the
leader of the gang; but who was the woman? She had evidently been in
Mike's Place the night before, and had a glimpse of his face. She must
have left with that party in the automobile, yet she surely was not the
one who had dropped that note begging the police to search this vessel.

What then had become of the other? If she was being held prisoner, it was
not at all probable she had been left somewhere ashore; apparently she
had reason to know where she was being taken--to the _Seminole_;
otherwise she would never have written as she did. She must have
overheard their plans, before she hastily scratched off the note
desperately; and yet those plans might have been changed. However, if so,
why were these people--accomplices of Hobart no doubt--fleeing in the
yacht, seeking to conceal their identity in an effort to disappear? What
were they fleeing from? Why were they so fearful of discovery by the
police? What would cause them to kidnap him, merely on suspicion that he
was a friend of Natalie Coolidge? The very act was proof positive of the
desperation of their crime. It could be accounted for on no other theory.

West paced the narrow space, his brain whirling, as he attempted to
reason the affair out, his own helplessness becoming more and more
apparent. What could he do? There was but one answer--absolutely nothing
as he was then situated. He could only wait for some movement on the
part of the others; his fate was out of his own hands; he had been a
fool, and must pay the price. The cords about his wrists chafed and hurt
with each movement. The metal wash-stand gave him an inspiration; its
upper strip was thin, and somewhat jagged along the edge; possibly it
might be utilized to sever the strands. It was better to try the
experiment than remain thus helplessly bound. With hands free he could
at least defend himself.

He made the effort, doubtfully at first, but hope came as the sharp edge
began to tear at the rope. It was slow work, awkward, requiring all the
strength of his arms, yet he felt sure of progress. He could feel the
strands yield little by little, and redoubled his efforts. It hurt, the
rope lacerating his wrists, and occasionally the jagged steel cut into
the flesh cruelly, but the thought of freedom outweighed the pain, and he
persevered manfully. At last, exercising all his muscle, the last frayed
strand snapped. His wrists were bleeding, and the hands numb, but the
severed cord lay on the floor and he again had the free use of his arms.
The sudden freedom brought new hope and courage. He listened at the door,
testing the knob cautiously. There was no yielding, and for the moment no
sound reached him from without. The woman was doubtless there on guard,
and any effort he might make to break down the door would only bring the
whole gang upon him. Unarmed, he could not hope to fight them all. As he
stood there, hesitating, unable to determine what to attempt, he became
aware of a throbbing under foot, increasing in intensity. West knew
instantly what it meant--they were testing out the engine; if all worked
well, the boat would cast off.

He sprang back to the port and stared out, eagerly hoping that, as they
swept out into the lake, he might find some opportunity to communicate
with some one on the pier. Perhaps by this time Mac would have arrived,
and be watching their departure, unable to intervene, as he had no
warrant for arrest, or any definite knowledge that the yacht was being
used for a criminal purpose. He had not long to wait. Hurrying steps
echoed along the deck; a voice shouted out some order, and the end of a
loosened rope dropped splashing into the water astern; the boat trembled
to the pulsations of the engine, and West realized that it was at first
slowly, then more swiftly, slipping away into the broad water. Already he
could perceive the white wake astern, and, an instant later, as the turn
to the right widened, he had a glimpse of the pier, already separated
from him by a broad expanse of trembling water. Above the noise his voice
would scarcely reach that distance. A crowd of people stood there
watching, clinging along the edge of the promenade--McAdams was not among
them. It would be useless to strive to attract their attention; not one
among them would comprehend; even if they did, not one of them could
help. He still stood there, gazing back at the fast receding pier,
gradually becoming blurred in the distance, but hopelessly. He knew now
he must face his fate alone.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE FATE OF A PRISONER


The _Seminole_ headed straight out into the lake, its course evidently a
little to the north of east. The steady throb of the engine exhibited no
lack of power, the snowy wake behind telling of rapid progress. There was
a distinct swell to the water, increasing as they advanced, but not
enough to seriously retard speed, the sharp bow of the yacht cutting
through the waves like the blade of a knife, the broken water churning
along the sides. West clung to his perch, peering out through the open
port, watching the fast disappearing shore line in the giant curve from
the Municipal Pier northward to Lincoln Park. In spite of the brightness
overhead, there must have been fog in the air, for that distant view
quickly became obscure and then as suddenly vanished altogether. There
remained no sign of land in sight; only the seemingly limitless expanse
of blue water, not so much as a trail of smoke breaking the encircling
rim of the sky.

Except for the occasional tread of feet on the deck above, and the faint
call of a voice giving orders, the yacht seemed deserted, moving unguided
across the waste of waters. No sound of movement or speech reached West's
ears from the cabin, and he settled down into moody forgetfulness, still
staring dully out through the open port. What was to be, would be, but
there was nothing for him to do but wait for those who held him prisoner,
to act. He was still seated there, listless, incapable even of further
thought, when the door was suddenly unlocked. He had barely time to arise
to his feet, when the man with the red moustache stepped within, facing
him, as he pushed tightly shut the door behind. The fellow's eyes saw the
severed rope on the floor, and he smiled, kicking the strands aside
contemptuously.

"Smart enough for that, were you?" he asked. "Well, I would have taken
them off myself, if I had thought about it. How did you manage? Oh, I
see; rather a bright trick, old man. Feeling pretty fit, are you?"

West did not answer at once; this fellow had come with an object in mind,
and his only desire was to baffle him. It was to be a contest of wits,
and helpless as the prisoner was physically, he had no intention of
playing into the other's hands.

"I might be, if I knew what all this meant," he said at last. "Haven't
you got hold of the wrong party?"

The man laughed, standing where he blocked all passage.

"I might have been convinced that I had an hour ago," he answered coldly.
"But since then I find I've made rather a good bet. I have the honour of
addressing Captain West, I believe?"

"You have the name correct; there is no reason why I should deny that.
Unfortunately, I do not know with whom I am conversing."

"Quite easily remedied. I am Joe Hogan, commonly called 'Red' Hogan. The
moniker means nothing to you."

"I never heard it before."

"I thought not, which merely proves you are not a 'fly-cop,' only a
measly busy-body sticking your nose into some one else's business. Well,
we know how to take care of your kind, and this is likely to prove the
last case you'll dabble in for a while, my man."

"What does that mean--a threat?"

"Never mind what it means; it is a straight tip. Now listen,
West--Captain West I believe is the proper term of address--and you will
understand better. When I got you in here I had no real knowledge as to
who you were. I merely took a chance on what Mary had to say, and she
twigged you at once. She's smart, that woman; never forgets a face. She
sure did a good job this time. But after you were locked in safe, and
nobody knew what had happened, and you certainly handled easily enough, I
slipped ashore into the restaurant and called up Jim Hobart on the wire.
Did he give me your pedigree? He did. Jim was about the happiest guy in
the town when he learned we had you bottled. Raised hell last night,
didn't you? All right, my friend, you are going to pay the piper today.
What got you into this muss, anyhow? You are no relation to the Coolidge
girl, are you?"

"None whatever; merely a friend."

"Friend, hey! Well, she's a good looker; so this friendship stuff is
easily accounted for. Friend, hell!" he laughed. "You must have it bad to
put on all these stunts for sweet friendship's sake. You wouldn't even
quit when she told you to."

"I believed she was compelled to say what she did to me," replied West
quietly. "That she was in Hobart's power, afraid of her life. There was
no other explanation of her strange action possible."

"Is that so?"

"I am willing to listen to such an explanation, Hogan, and if satisfied
she really wishes me to keep out of the affair, I will."

"And if not?"

"Then I am going to fight in her cause to the very end of things. You
cannot frighten me; your only chance to influence my action is to make
things clear. I confess I have been fighting in the dark, not even
comprehending your purpose. I do know that the main stake your gang is
after is the Coolidge fortune; that, in order to get hold of it, you are
obliged to keep control over Miss Natalie. But I can conceive no reason
why she should assist in the conspiracy. She certainly cannot be
benefited by having her own fortune stolen. This is what puzzles me, but
it hasn't changed my loyalty to her. I still believe in her, and feel
that she is simply a victim of circumstances beyond her control. Am I
frank enough?"

"Sure; it all means you intend to remain a blunder-headed fool defending
a girl who does not desire any defence--a Don Quixote tilting at
wind-mills. That is your choice, is it?"

"Unless you care to explain clearly just how Miss Natalie's interests are
being protected."

"Which I am not at liberty to do at present. She is satisfied, and has
practically told you so, according to Jim Hobart. If you will not accept
her word, there is no use of my saying anything about the matter.
Besides, West, frankly I don't give a damn what you think. We've got you
safe enough, where you can't do anything, even if you want to--so, why
worry? Twenty-four hours more will finish our little job, and, until that
time is up, you'll remain right here; after that we don't care where in
hell you go, or what you do--the game will have been played."

The man's tone, and air of confidence was impressive; beyond doubt
he felt that the cards were all in his hands. West drew in his
breath sharply.

"Apparently you are right," he said quietly. "May I ask a question or
two?"

"Fire away; I'll answer as I please."

"Who is the woman on board?"

"Mary, you mean? Hobart's wife."

"She came from the place on Wray Street last night in an auto?"

"Yes; I brought her along myself."

"Alone?"

"There were two of us, Mark and I--why? what are you driving at?"

"Just putting some broken threads together. Then Natalie Coolidge is not
on this yacht?"

"I should say not. What would we be doing with her out here?"

"Where is she then?"

"Oh, I begin to see what brought you aboard so easily, West. You thought
we had the lady kidnapped, and was sailing off with her. Some stunt that.
What put the idea in your head?"

West hesitated a moment, but decided a truthful answer would do no harm.

"I knew an automobile had driven out of the alley back of Mike's Place;
and that a woman was in it. When I got away a little later, I picked up a
message--a note which had been dropped. It was written in a woman's hand
but unsigned--"

"The little cat! She dropped it?"

"It seems so. You forgot yourself that time. So she was with you, was
she?"

"I don't know what you mean. I told you who were with me. Go on; what did
the note say?"

"It was only a request for the police to search the _Seminole_ at once."

"Oh, that's the way the wind blows. But you preferred to tackle the job
yourself. I am certainly obliged to you, West."

"You have no reason to be. I took that note to the police, and they are
on the case. They are combing the city right now for Hobart, and if they
get him, this bubble of yours is likely to be pricked."

"Hell, they won't get him. There isn't a fly-cop in Chicago who could
locate Jim in a week, and as for Natalie, believe me she is quite able to
take care of herself."

"But where is she?"

"At home, of course, if you must know--'Fairlawn,' isn't that the name of
the place? We left her there on our way to Jackson Park."

"Then the girl was with you?"

"Spilled the beans, didn't I? That comes from talking too much.
However, there is no harm done. Sure she left with us, but we dropped
her out at Fairlawn. It was her machine we were riding in. Say, you've
questioned me about enough, so let up. Listen now--you will stay in
this stateroom until we get ready to let you out. Don't try any funny
business either, for if you do, you are going to get hurt. There is a
guard outside in the cabin, and we are not afraid to shoot out here on
the lake. Nobody knows where you are, West; so if you want to live,
keep quiet--that's my advice."

He started back, one hand on the knob of the door, but West stopped him.

"Do you mind telling me where we are bound?" he questioned.

Hogan smiled, but the smile was not altogether a pleasant one.

"You will have to wait, and find that out for yourself, Captain. My
orders are not to talk."

"From Hobart?"

"Sure; Jim is engineering this deal, and whatever he says goes, for he's
the guy who has his hands on the dough--see?"

He slipped out, closing and locking the door behind him. West, more
thoroughly confused than ever over the situation in which he found
himself, paced the brief length of the narrow stateroom, and then paused
to stare moodily out of the port. His eyes rested on the same wide
expanse of water, no longer brightened by the glow of the sun. A mass of
clouds veiled the sky, while a floating bank of fog obscured the horizon,
limiting the scope of his vision. Everything appeared grey and desolate,
and the restless surge of waves were crested with foam. It was hard to
judge just where the sun was, yet he had an impression the vessel had
veered to the north, and was proceeding straight up the lake, already
well out of sight from either shore.

He had learned little of the slightest value; merely that Natalie had
been of the party leaving in the automobile the night before. She,
undoubtedly, had been the one who had dropped the note. Then, in spite of
all they said about her, in spite of what she had told him, she was
actually a prisoner, desperately begging for assistance to escape. As to
the other things Hogan had told him, the probability was they were mostly
lies. West did not believe the girl had returned to 'Fairlawn,' the story
did not sound natural. If she had written that note, these fellows would
never trust her alone, where she could communicate with friends. They
might venture to send her in to talk with him, knowing her every word was
overheard, but surely they would never be reckless enough to leave her
free to act as she pleased. That was unthinkable. Besides why should they
have taken this yacht, and sailed it out secretly in the night unless she
was hidden away aboard? The only conceivable object would be to thus keep
her safely beyond sight and hearing. And that would be a reason why
Hobart's wife should also be on board--to look after the girl. The longer
he thought it all over, the more thoroughly was he convinced they were
both prisoners on the same vessel. Yet what could he do? There was no
answer forthcoming; no possibility of breaking forth from that room was
apparent; he was unarmed, helpless. If he did succeed in breaking through
the door, he would only encounter an armed guard, and pit himself against
five or six men, criminals probably, who would count his death a small
matter compared to their own safety. He sank down, with head in his
hands, totally unnerved--it was his fate to attempt nothing; only to wait
on fortune.

Mark brought in food, merely opening the door slightly, and sliding the
tray in on the floor. No words were exchanged, nor was the tray removed
until just at twilight, when the fellow appeared again on a similar
mission. It became dark, but no light was furnished. Outside the clouds
had thickened, and a heavy swell was tossing the vessel about rather
roughly. Seemingly the engine was merely endeavouring to maintain
head-way, with no port in immediate prospect; they were steering
aimlessly into the promise of a stormy night. No sound reached him from
the cabin, and finally, worn out mentally and physically, West flung
himself on the lower bunk, and lay there motionless, staring up into the
intense darkness.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE SINKING YACHT


Lying there motionless, yet wide awake, his senses alert, every slightest
sound and movement made clearer the situation. He could feel the laboured
efforts of the vessel, the slap of waves against the side, the rush of
water astern. Occasionally the echo of a voice reached him from the deck
above, and once footsteps were audible almost over his head. The engine
strokes were regular, but slow, the vibrations shaking the boat in its
sturdy battling against the forces of the sea. The _Seminole_ rolled
heavily, yet there was nothing at all alarming in her actions, and West
felt no premonition of illness, or fear as to the sea-worthiness of the
little craft. Whoever was handling her was evidently a seaman, quite
capable of conquering a storm of this magnitude. No noise came to him
from the cabin, yet he had no thought it could be deserted. Hogan would
certainly retain a guard there, and probably others--with no duties of
seamanship weighing on them--would seek refuge there from the wind-swept
deck above. No doubt the fellows had a skipper, as neither Hogan, nor the
man Mark, bore any resemblance to a lake sailor. Quite possibly the
entire crew were innocent of what was actually transpiring aboard, and
equally indifferent, so long as their wages were satisfactory. Yet it was
even more probable that they had been selected for this special service
because of lack of ordinary scruples; men who would never question so
long as the pay was adequate for the danger involved. It seemed to West
the wind and sea were slowly decreasing in violence; there was less noise
and turmoil. The movement of the vessel began to lull him into
forgetfulness, his vigilance relapsed, his mind drifting in thought. He
endeavoured to arouse himself, to keep awake, but finally fatigue
conquered, and he sank into a deep sleep. He had no knowledge of how long
this slumber lasted, or what suddenly awakened him, so startled at the
moment that he sat up in the berth, staring into the blackness. Was it a
dream, or a reality? Had some one spoken? He could neither see nor hear
anything; the boat seemed to be motionless, not even throbbing now to the
beat of the engine--the silence was uncanny. It seemed to him his own
heart had stopped, so still it was, and he felt a cold perspiration
break out on his flesh. Something was wrong, must be wrong. Where were
they--at anchor in some harbour? or helplessly adrift on the lake? The
sea must have gone down; waves no longer dashed against the side, and
there was no shriek of wind overhead; the yacht rocked gently, as though
the swell of the sea no longer buffeted her; there was no sound of action
on the deck above. Then he heard a voice again, outside, reaching him
this time plainly through the open port.

"All set, Mapes," it said sharply. "Come on down. You finished the job?"

"Ay, ay, sir," the answer gruff, but with a tinge of excitement in the
tone. "She's fixed all right. Hold hard, now, mate."

West, thoroughly aroused, realizing instantly the importance of this
new move, and as quickly suspecting its purpose, leaped to the
port-hole, and, endeavoured to gain a glimpse without. The night was
still intensely black, the sky overcast and starless, the only glimmer
of light the reflecting of foam tipped surges. If land was near it
remained invisible, nor could he even be sure of the close proximity of
a boat. There seemed to be a smudge there at the left, a black, lumping
shadow, shapeless against the background of sea; yet he could not be
sure. Even as he gazed at it doubtfully, the dim object disappeared,
fading away like a mirage. No sound reached him to cause the vision to
seem real--no voice, no creak of oars, no flap of a sail; yet something
told him that mysterious shadow was a boat, a boat filled with men,
creeping away silently into the night, fleeing from the yacht, and
vanishing into the darkness.

My God, what could such action mean? Why were these fellows deserting the
_Seminole_, leaving him helpless aboard, locked into that stateroom? Was
the yacht disabled? sinking? and had they merely forgotten him in their
own eagerness to escape? Were they in mid-lake? or close to some point of
land? Had every one gone, leaving the vessel totally abandoned, a wreck
buffeted by the surges, doomed to go down, unseen, its final fate
unknown? Unknown! The word rising to his brain was the answer. There was
the crest of the plot. What could be easier, or safer, than this ending?
Who would ever know the truth? Who could ever prove anything, even if
they suspected? And who was there to suspect?

No one had reason to believe he was aboard the _Seminole_; not even
McAdams. If it was to their interest to get him permanently out of the
way--if Hobart had so decided--what simpler method could be found than
the sinking of the yacht? The very crew might be innocent of the
purpose, dupes of the conspiracy; they might even be unaware of his
presence aboard, and deceived by Hogan into the belief that the vessel
had opened a seam, and must sink shortly, would take to the boat without
suspecting any one was left behind. They could so testify in all honesty
if any question ever arose. The very simplicity of the scheme meant
safety; yet the possibility of such cold blooded murder had never before
occurred to him. Unknown! without a trace left; only a boat crew landing
somewhere on the coast at dawn, and scattering to the four winds. It was
a plot infernal.

West stopped, his hands clinched, his heart seeming to stop its pulsing.
But if Natalie Coolidge was also prisoner on board, what of her? Wasn't
that the very thing most probable? Of course it was; how foolish he had
been. These men, recklessly criminal, as they were, would never sacrifice
the yacht, and risk their own lives, merely to put him out of the way. He
was not important enough for that; he was but an incident. It was an
accident which had made him a prisoner. While this was--must be--a
carefully arranged plan. The girl then must be the real victim; his own
plight arose merely because he chanced to be there, and the villains dare
not leave him alive to tell the story.

The certainty of this acted like an electric shock. He had not felt
seriously alarmed before as to his own fate. He had only been conscious
of a deep anger, a mad determination to make Hogan pay. If the _Seminole_
was sinking, and beyond doubt this was the intention of those deserters,
it was going down slowly, so slowly there would be ample time for escape.
He was not asleep, but wide awake, and far from paralyzed by the danger.
He was not the sort to give up while there was any hope left. Surely the
guard in the cabin would have departed with the others, leaving him free
to act. He could smash his way out through that door, and find something
on deck to construct a raft from. This was Lake Michigan, not the ocean,
and not many hours would pass before he was picked up. Vessels were
constantly passing, and daylight would bring rescue.

But now the task became difficult. He must find the girl, and serve her.
To his surprise, his heart beat rapidly in contemplation of the task.
Surely she must welcome his coming to her assistance now. She would be
alone, free to reveal the truth of all this strange mix-up of affairs;
perhaps the old trust, the old confidence between them would be renewed.
At least in the midst of such peril, alone on the sinking yacht, facing
possible death together, he would again discover the real Natalie
Coolidge. The hope instantly inspired action. Every minute might mean
life or death; the work must be accomplished now, if ever. The _Seminole_
was evidently deserted, the boat containing the fleeing crew already far
enough away to be beyond sound of any noise he might make. He already
felt the wallowing of the deck beneath his feet, a dead, dull feeling,
evidence enough that the deserted vessel was slowly, but surely going
down. The condition could not last long; faster and faster the water
would seep into her hold, until suddenly, without warning, perhaps, she
must go down like a stone.

All these thoughts flashed across his mind almost in an instant; there
was no hesitancy, no waste of time. His eager eyes searched the narrow
confines of the stateroom for some possible weapon with which to assail
the door. The stout stool alone seemed available. Swinging this over his
shoulder, hampered by the narrowness of space, he struck again and again,
with all his strength, the upper panel splintering beneath the third
crashing blow. He could see nothing, but felt with his fingers along the
jagged ends of the shattered wood, and redoubled his efforts, striking
wildly, but with effect, until suddenly the lock gave, and the door burst
open. He was in the main cabin, which was unlit and deserted. Standing
there confused in the grim silence, unable for the instant to determine
how to advance in the dark, he could hear the rapid beating of his own
heart, and the continuous lap of waves outside. God! how sodden the deck
felt under foot; what a sickening swell hurled the craft, and such
stillness! If the girl was aboard why did she not cry out? Surely she
must have heard that noise, the rain of blows, the crunch of wood.

He stood, crouched, listening intently for something to guide him in the
right direction. And yet, even if Natalie had heard, what reason would
the girl have to suspect the truth? Likely enough she was sound asleep,
completely worn out, and with no knowledge of what had occurred on board.
It was only the sound of that voice speaking loudly in the boat alongside
which had aroused him. She had no reason to suspect desertion, no
occasion to believe any other prisoner than herself was aboard. The noise
of crashing wood, even if it awoke her, would have no special meaning to
her mind, only perhaps to add to her terror. He must act alone; there was
no other way. If he could only have a light of some kind, and not be
compelled to grope blindly about in that intense darkness.

He stepped cautiously forward, with hands outstretched, swaying to the
sudden roll of the sinking hulk underneath his feet. He struck a piece of
furniture, a bench bolted to the deck, and then his groping fingers came
in sudden contact with the cabin wall, which he followed, circling to the
left. In this manner he succeeded in finally locating the door opening
out on to the deck, and had grasped the knob, when a deep moan from the
black void behind caused him to become suddenly erect, his heart beating
like a trip-hammer. No other sound followed, no repetition, and yet there
could be no mistaking what he had heard. It was a groan, a human groan,
emanating from a spot but a few feet away. He took a single step in that
direction; then hesitated, fearful of some trap; in the silence as he
stood there poised, he could faintly distinguish the sound of some one
breathing unnaturally.

"Who is there? Who moaned just now?" he asked, struggling to control
his voice.

"I did," the answer was a mere husky whisper out of the darkness.
"Masters, the watchman; but who are you? I don't know your voice."

"It makes no difference; are you hurt? Where are you? How can I
get a light?"

"Yes, sir; I'm about done for I guess; you're over by the door, ain't
you? There's a hangin' lantern just up above, if you've got a match with
you. Say, that looks good; I didn't hardly know but I was dead, it was so
black. But I never saw you before; how did you get aboard here?"

The flame of the match caught the wick, and flared up, throwing a dim
illumination over the cabin interior. West drew down the glass, before he
ventured to glance in the direction of the voice. A man lay facing him,
curled up on the deck, his hair, matted with blood, hanging over eyes
that were burning with fever. He made no attempt to rise, apparently was
unable to move, and a dark, bloody stain covered the deck. West sprang
forward, and lifted the head on his arm.

"You are hurt--badly?" he exclaimed. "What can I do for you?"

"Nuthin', I reckon," still in that same strained whisper. "I'm done
for; no doubt of it. That guy got me. You ain't one o' that murderin'
gang, are you?"

"No; I was a prisoner on board; I came here to help a girl."

"A girl! Miss Coolidge you mean, sir?"

"Yes, Natalie Coolidge; do you know anything about her? Where she is?"

"Sure, I know; the damn whelps left her here; that was their dirty game,
sir. 'Twas because I tried to unlock her door that Hogan slugged me. The
boat's goin' down, ain't it? I know'd it was; I heard the skunks talk
about what they was goin' to do, an' then I tried to get her out, sir."

"You were the watchman?"

"Yes, sir; down in the lagoon at Jackson Park. These fellows come off to
the yacht about midnight, an' they had Miss Coolidge with 'em. That's
what fooled me, sir, an' I let 'em get aboard, thinkin' it must be all
right. After that I couldn't do nuthin'--there was six to one, an' that
'Red' Hogan had a gun in his mitt. They hustled me down into the cabin. I
didn't even know she was a prisoner until they locked her into a
stateroom; then I got wise, but it was too late."

"And she is there yet, Masters? What room is it?"

"The last one to the right, sir. Don't you mind about me; I'm done for,
but maybe there's a chance for you two."



CHAPTER XXV

FREE OF THE YACHT


The man was evidently dying. West, from his experience on European
battle-fields, felt assured the end was indeed close at hand. His face
under the flitting rays of the swinging light was ghastly and drawn, his
words were barely audible, and painfully uttered, while, as the arm
supporting his head was withdrawn, he sank back heavily into his former
position, and his eyes instantly closed. Only as West bent lower could he
determine the surety of his breathing still.

There was nothing to be done for Masters; no occasion for lingering there
helplessly. The yacht was sinking under their feet, going down slowly,
but surely, and the end could not be far off. The very movement of the
vessel sickened him, brought to him a sensation of fear. Moreover he knew
the truth now, and saw clearly his duty. The watchman had not told much,
but it was sufficient to verify all his former suspicions. These fellows
he fought were desperate criminals, playing for high stakes, conspiring
to even commit murder to achieve their object--which could be nothing
less than gaining possession of the Coolidge fortune. To that end they
had coolly planned the sinking of the _Seminole_ in mid-lake, with the
helpless girl locked securely in her cabin. It was a cowardly, diabolical
crime, and yet, no doubt, they had figured it as the safest method of
completely disposing of her. And, but for the accident of his presence on
board, and his having been awakened by that incautious voice, the foul
plot would probably have proven successful. They had already got safely
away, leaving her behind a prisoner, her only possible rescuer this
watchman wounded unto death. The yacht was sinking in the dark, going
steadily down in those night shrouded waters. Who would ever know? The
main body of the crew, perhaps, never even dreamed of her presence
aboard. There was no evidence, nothing to convict the men really guilty.
Here was the scheme of a master-mind in crime. West weaved his way across
the rolling deck of the cabin to the stateroom door Masters had pointed
out as the one sheltering the girl. There was no sound from within, nor
would the knob yield to his grasp. It was locked, the key gone. There
was no time to wait and hunt for that missing piece of metal doubtless
safely hidden in Hogan's pocket, or else thrown overboard; he must break
a way in; but first he must explain to her, so as to spare her the sudden
fright of such an assault. He rapped sharply on the panel, pausing an
instant for a response. None came, and he knocked again more roughly.

"Miss Coolidge: you are there, are you not?"

"Yes; who is that?" almost a cry of delight in the voice. "You--you have
a voice I know."

"I am Matthew West; but do not ask questions now. The yacht is going
down, and I must break this door in to release you. Stand back while I
smash the boards. You hear and understand?"

"Yes--yes: I am safely away; have no fear."

The light revealed the weapon he required just beyond where Masters
lay--a heavy hatchet, still stained with blood, probably the very
instrument with which the watchman had been brutally struck down. That
made no difference now, and West snatched it up, and began to splinter
the wood with well directed blows. He worked madly, feverishly, unable to
judge there in the cabin whether he had a minute, or an hour, in which to
effect their rescue. All he knew was that every second was worth saving,
and with this impulse driving him, swung the sharp blade with all his
strength and skill, gouging out great splinters of wood, and finally
forcing the lock to yield. He sprang eagerly through the opening, the
hatchet still in his grasp, and faced her.

She stood there looking straight at him, seemingly unable even yet to
wholly realize the marvellous truth of his presence. The light from the
swinging lamp in the big cabin beyond, streamed in through the shattered
doorway, and revealed her face, pale, but unafraid, the eyes wide-open,
the lips parted. An instant both paused, and then she cried out in
sudden relief.

"Oh, it is really you, Captain West. I know now. What has happened? How
did you come to be here?"

"Not now," he insisted. "Don't ask me now. Just come as quick as you can.
Do you not realize the boat is sinking, going down under our very feet?
For all I know it may take the plunge before we can reach the deck. There
is no time for anything but action. Quick; let me take your hand."

She obeyed without a word, and he pressed her before him out through the
door into the more brightly lighted cabin. Her eyes opened in horror at
the sight of Masters, and she drew back trembling against West's arm.

"Who--who is that? A dead man?"

"I fear so; wait just a second until I learn; if he still lives we cannot
leave him here."

West bent over the motionless figure; the flesh was no longer warm; and
he could detect no breath. Satisfied, he regained his feet.

"It is all over with," he said gravely. "He is beyond human aid."

"But--but, please, who is he?" she insisted, clinging to his arm. "Surely
I have seen the man before; what has happened?"

"He was the watchman on the yacht--Masters he said his name was," West
explained impatiently. "He was still alive when I first came, and told me
where you were confined. He tried to serve you when the others left, and
was struck down by Hogan."

"The others left! Is the boat deserted? Are we here all alone?"

"Yes; the villains left us both locked into state-rooms to die. They
deserted the yacht, expecting it to sink, and take us both down with it.
The craft is near foundering now, and our only hope is to obtain the
open deck at once. Do not question any more, but do just as I say. You
trust me, do you not?"

"Trust you! of course I do."

"Then let's talk afterwards. All I can think about now is how best to
save your life."

She permitted him to draw her through the door on to the black, deserted
deck. For the first moment, as they hesitated there, little could be
perceived other than vague shadows. The sky was overcast, but the wind
light, yet with sufficient swell to the water to cause the yacht to
wallow uncomfortably. West, bracing himself to the sudden plunging,
managed to reach the rail. He drew back, sick at heart at the sight of
the waves lapping the side almost on a level with the sloping deck on
which he stood. The sight brought home to him as never before the drear
deadly peril in which they were. It was already a matter of minutes; any
second indeed that labouring hulk might take the fatal plunge. The
knowledge brought back all his soldier instincts of command, his rough
insistence. He would find some means of rescue; he must! He was back
instantly, grasping her arm.

"Quick," he cried. "You knew this yacht; what small boats did she carry?"

"Only the one; the other was so warped it had been taken ashore."

"Only one! Those fellows put off in that. There was nothing else to save
life aboard?"

"There are life-belts here; see, hung to the front of the cabin. Was that
what you meant?"

"Yes, and no." He snatched one from the hook, and hastily strapped it
about her. "These may help, but we shall need more. Was there no
life-raft? My God! there must surely be something of that kind."

"Yes, there is; I remember now. It is forward there, near the engine-room
hatch. Percival Coolidge explained to me how it worked once. But--but I
don't believe just the two of us could ever launch it over the rail."

"We will, because we must--it is our only hope. I'll take the other belt;
now come. We haven't an instant to waste--the water is even now almost
level with the deck; any second we may be awash, and go down like a
stone. Hold on tight to me."

The deck was already sloping to port in a dangerous degree, and West was
compelled to cling to the rail, as they slowly made passage forward
through the darkness. Their eyes had by then adapted themselves to the
night, so as to distinguish larger objects, and, as there was no litter
to encounter, as in the case of a ship wrecked by storm, the two
progressed safely as far as the engine-hatch. Neither spoke, but West
still clasped the hatchet, peering anxiously about for some signs of the
life-raft. He located it at last, securely fastened to the side of the
deck house, and, leaving the girl to hold herself upright as best she
could, began to hack it loose. It was quite an affair, cork-lined, and
evidently capable of sustaining considerable weight when once launched in
the water, but cumbersome and hard to handle on deck, more particularly
because of its awkward form.

Fortunately it hung to the port side with a rather steep slant to the
rail, which was not high. The waters of the lake, threatening to engulf
them with every sodden roll of the vessel, were almost within reach of an
outstretched hand, while occasionally a wave danced along the bulwark,
and scattered its spray over the deck. West, working with feverish
impatience, realized suddenly that his companion had deserted the place
where he had left her and was also tugging and slashing at the lashings
of the raft. These finally yielded to their blind attack. Without the
exchange of a word the two grasped the sides and shoved the thing hard
down against the port rail.

"Wait now," he cried exultantly. "Stay behind, and brace yourself against
the hatch-cover. I'll get underneath and lift. Once on the rail the two
of us must shove it free overboard. Here, keep a grip on this line, so
the raft can't float away."

She understood instantly, and, with a single swift glance at her dimly
revealed figure, West straightened up, bearing the full weight on his
shoulders, every muscle strained to the utmost, as he thus pressed it
over inch by inch across the wooden barrier. Twice he stopped,
breathless, trembling in every limb, seemingly unable to exert another
pound of strength. Perspiration dripped from his face, his teeth clinched
in desperate determination. At the second pause, she was beside him,
pressing her way in also beneath the sagging burden. He felt the pressure
of her body.

"No, no; I can make it alone," he panted indignantly.

"Not so well as we both can, working together. I am strong, Captain West.
Try it again now, and see."

Suddenly the great unwieldy mass moved, slid forward, poised itself an
instant on the rounded rail. The yacht rolled sharply to port, flinging
both on to the deck together, but sending the raft crunching overboard,
clear of the side. West grasped her, and dragged her to her feet. His one
thought was that they were actually going down, but, even as he held her
in his arms, ready to leap out into the black water, the shuddering
vessel, with a last despairing effort, partially righted herself, and
staggered on.

"The rope," he questioned. "Did you lose grip on the rope?"

"No, it is here. I can feel the jerk of the raft."

"Thank God for that; let's pull it closer to the side. We can't wait to
take anything with us; even if I knew where provision and blankets were,
I could never find them in this darkness. I would not dare leave you to
search; another dip like that must be the very last. Here, let me hold
you up; can you see the raft?"

"Yes; I'm sure it is just below; why I could almost touch it."

"Can you jump to it from the rail? It is either that, or the water. Are
you afraid to try?"

"Afraid--no. Hold me; yes; that way, but--but what are you going to do?"

"Follow, of course; but I shall take to the water. There are no oars
here. Nothing to use as a substitute for them. I'll have to swim, and
push that old ark as far away as possible. When the yacht goes down, the
suction is liable to swamp us, if we are close in."

"But I can swim, Captain West."

"I am glad to know that; but now you do just as I say. There is no
necessity for both of us getting wet through. Are you ready?"

She poised herself, held steady by the grip of his hands, her eyes on the
dark outline of the floating raft. There was no hesitancy, no
questioning.

"Say when," he said sharply.

"Now."

She sprang outward, and came down, sinking to her knees, and clinging
fast, as the raft bobbed up and down under her sudden weight, dipping
until the water rolled completely over it.



CHAPTER XXVI

THE COMING OF DAWN


West leaned far out, and stared off at the faint blotch made by the raft
against the water surface. He could perceive little except a bare,
shapeless outline.

"Did you make it? Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm safe enough; but wet just the same; the thing bobbed under."

"It will hold us up though, don't you think?"

"Why, of course, it will float; it is supposed to support four people. It
rides dry enough now. But--but, Captain West, I want you to come."

"I'm coming; I'll throw my shoes and coat over there to you first. To be
rid of them will make swimming easier. Watch out now--good! Now draw in
the line; we may need it. Got it all right? Very well; here goes."

He made the plunge, coming up to the surface close beside the raft, the
edge of which he quickly grasped with his hands. The girl remained
motionless, barely perceptible through the gloom, but with anxious eyes
marking his every movement. The frail support beneath her rose and fell
on the swell of the waters, occasionally dipping beneath the surface.
Beyond, a grim, black, threatening shadow, wallowed the wreck. West swam
steadily, urging the unwieldy raft away from the menacing side of the
vessel, driven by the necessity of escaping the inevitable suction when
she went down. It was a hard, slow push, the square sides of the raft
offering every obstacle to progress. Yet the waves and wind helped
somewhat, the raft being lighter than the water-sogged _Seminole_, so
that gradually the distance widened, until there extended a considerable
waste of water between the two. Exhausted by his exertion, and breathing
hard, West glanced back over his shoulder at the dimmer shadow of the
yacht, now barely revealed against the clouded sky. The bulk of it seemed
scarcely visible in any defined form above the level of the sea--the end
must be almost at hand.

Satisfied that they were far enough away for safety, he clambered
cautiously upon the platform, the girl as carefully making room for him
on the few dry planks. The raft tossed dizzily under the strain, but he
made it at last, the water draining from his soaked clothing, his flesh
shivering at the touch of the cool night air. He sat up, his limbs
braced to hold him erect, glancing aside at her, wondering at her
continued silence. Even in the darkness she must have known his eyes were
searching her face.

"You are cold," she said, doubtfully. "Here is your coat, and I have kept
it dry--no, really, I do not need it; I am quite warmly dressed."

He threw the garment over his wet shoulders, gratefully, and the two sat
there very close together, staring back at the labouring _Seminole_.
There was nothing to say, nothing to do; for the moment at least they
were safe, and perhaps morning would bring rescue. Suddenly West
straightened up, aroused by a new interest--surely that last wave went
entirely over the yacht's rail; he could see the white gleam of spray as
it broke; and, yes, there was another! Unconsciously his hand reached
out and clasped that of his companion. She made no effort to draw away,
and they sat there in awed silence, watching this weird tragedy of the
sea, with bodies braced to meet the bobbing of the unwieldy support
beneath them.

At first the labouring vessel seemed to hold its own, fighting
desperately to remain afloat, a mere shadow above the surface. Then,
almost without warning, the end came. She went down bow first, the stern
lifting until West could discern the dark outlines of the screw, and then
dropped like a stone, vanishing almost instantly. One moment she was
there; the next had disappeared, the black waters closing over. There was
but little evidence of what occurred; only a deeper swell, tossing the
raft giddily about for a moment, and causing West to tighten his grip on
the girl's hand. She gave utterance to a half-smothered cry, and her body
dropped forward as though she would hide the scene from her eyes.

"That is the last of the _Seminole_" West said, feeling the necessity of
strengthening her. "But it is nothing to frighten you. We are safe
enough here."

"Oh, it is not that," she explained hastily, lifting her head, and facing
him. "I--I do not think I am frightened. I have not broken down before,
but--but I thought then of that dead man lying there all alone in the
dark cabin. It seemed so terrible when the yacht sank. Please do not find
fault with me."

"That was not why I spoke. But you must keep your nerve; we may be afloat
for hours yet before we are picked up."

"You are sure we will be?"

"The probability is altogether in our favour," he insisted, as much to
encourage himself as her. "This is Lake Michigan in summer time, and
boats are plying everywhere. We shall surely be sighted by something when
daylight returns. There is no sign of a storm brewing, and all we need do
now is hold on."

She was silent a moment, with head again bent forward.

"What do you suppose became of the men who deserted the yacht?" she
asked, her voice natural and quiet.

"Ashore, perhaps, by this time."

"Then we cannot be far away from land?"

"I have no means of knowing. Probably not, if they relied upon oars."

"Why should they? There was a mast and sails stowed in the boat; they
were always kept there for an emergency." She lifted her eyes, and stared
about into the gloom. "Do you suppose, Captain West, they could have
remained nearby to make sure the yacht sank?"

"No, I do not," he said firmly. "I thought of that once myself; but it is
not at all probable. They were too certain they had done a good job, and
too eager to get away safely. Hogan never deemed it possible for us to
get away alive. As it was, the escape was almost a miracle."

"A miracle!" softly. "Perhaps so, yet I know who accomplished it. I owe
my life to you, Captain West," she paused doubtfully, and then went on
impulsively. "Won't you explain to me now what it all means? How you came
to be here? and--and why those men sought in this way to kill me?"

"You do not know?"

"Only in the vaguest way; is it my fortune? I have been held prisoner;
lied to, and yet nothing has been made clear. This man who went down in
the cabin--you said he died trying to save me?"

"Yes; he endeavoured to release you from the stateroom, and was caught by
Hogan. In the struggle he received a death wound."

"I heard them fight. This Hogan then was the leader?"

"Of those on board--yes. But he is only the tool of others. This devilish
conspiracy has been plotted for a long while. There must be a dozen
involved in it, one way or another, but, as near as I can learn, the
chief devil, the brains of the gang, is the fellow named Hobart. Have you
known him--long?"

She hesitated, and West glanced aside wonderingly. Would she venture to
deny her knowledge of the man?

"No," she said at last doubtfully, "not unless his other name was Jim.
There was a fellow they called Jim. He was my jailer after that woman
locked me into a room."

"A woman? The same one who was with you on the yacht?"

"Yes."

"Where was this?"

"Why surely you must know. In that cottage where we stopped with Percival
Coolidge."

He drew a deep breath, more thoroughly puzzled than ever. What could be
her purpose to make so bold an effort to deceive? Did she imagine for a
moment that he could be made to believe she had been continuously held
prisoner since that Sunday morning? It was preposterous. Why, he had seen
her again and again with his own eyes; had talked with her, and so had
Sexton. His heart sank, but he determined to go on, and learn how far she
would carry this strange tale. Perhaps out of the welter he could discern
some truth.

"The fellow's name is Jim, all right, Jim Hobart. I've looked him up in
the police records. He is a confidence man, with one charge of assault
with attempt to kill against him. Nothing lately, however; it seems he
disappeared about ten years ago, and has just drifted back. The woman
passes as his wife. You knew nothing of all this?"

"No; I only saw the man twice; he was very rough then, and swore when I
questioned him."

"And the woman?"

"She would not talk either; only once she told me that Percival
Coolidge had committed suicide. That made me wonder, for I believed
he had something to do with my being held there. What did he say when
he returned to the auto without me? What explanation did he make for
my absence?"

"Explanation! He needed none; you came out of the cottage with him."

"I? What do you mean?"

"But I saw you with my own eyes, talked with you, and all three of us
drove back to 'Fairlawn' together. My God, Miss Natalie, have you lost
your mind? Do you even deny dismissing me from your service?"

She gazed at him through the gloom, utterly unable to comprehend.

"I must have, if what you say is true," she admitted, "For I certainly
have no such recollection."

"You remember nothing of going back with us to 'Fairlawn'?"

"Absolutely nothing."

"Or of a conversation had with me later in the library?"

"No, Captain West."

He stared off into the black night, his lips pressed closely together.
Could this be false? Could she sit there calmly, in the midst of such
peril as surrounded them, and still deliberately endeavour to deceive?

"And you knew nothing of the death of Percival Coolidge, except what was
told you by that woman?"

"She brought me a newspaper which I read; that was all I knew."

"And in that house on Wray Street where I met you again last night. I
suppose you were not there either?"

"Wray Street? I do not know; I was at some place with a saloon on the
ground floor. I could not tell you where it was."

"That is where it was--Wray Street, on the northwest side, a thieves'
rendezvous. And you talked with me there; tried to get me to quit
following you. You surely haven't forgotten that already?"

She dropped her face wearily into her hands, and her voice
sounded listless.

"I--I almost believe you are the crazy one, Captain West. I swear I have
never knowingly met, or spoken to you since we drove to that cottage on
Sunday. I cannot believe what you say."

"Yet it is true, every word true"; he asserted stoutly. "Why else should
I be here? You returned with us to 'Fairlawn,' and we chatted together
pleasantly all the way. Later you seemed to change, and discharged me
rather rudely. Then Percival Coolidge was killed--shot down by an
assassin, not a suicide. I know because I found the body. You were at the
inquest, and testified. I saw you with my own eyes. The next day you
discharged Sexton, and later he learned, and reported to me, that some
one called you on the phone from Wray Street, and wanted you to come over
there at once."

"Was that why you went there?"

"Yes; I felt something was wrong; the killing of Percival Coolidge had
aroused my suspicions; and I sought to learn who those people were you
had visited in the cottage. They were gone, and only for this telephone
call, I should have lost the trail entirely. I found you there, and this
fellow Hobart with you."

"But, Captain West, I never saw you; I never left the room in the third
story where I was locked in, except when they took me away in a machine
to the yacht."

"You dropped a note in the alley, enclosed in a silver knife?"

"Yes, I did. I dared not hope it would be found, but I took the chance.
Did you find it?"

"Sexton did, and that was what brought me here."

"But it is all so strange," she exclaimed despairingly. "How could I have
done all these things, been in all these places, and yet know nothing
about it? Could I have been drugged? or influenced in some way by those
people? I have read there is such a power--where one person can make
another obey absolutely, with no knowledge of what he is doing; what do
they call that?"

"Hypnotism. I have seen it cut some odd capers; but I do not believe you
were either hypnotized or drugged. Good God; why did I not think of this
solution before? I must have been blind; that was not you; I can recall a
hundred little things now to convince me."

"What is it you mean?"

"Another woman played your part; a woman most wonderfully like you, even
to the voice. There is no other solution of the problem. And that reveals
the plan of robbery--to get you out of the way, and then have her take
the fortune. Who would ever suspect such a fraud?"

She sat silent, motionless, apparently unable at once to grasp all the
meaning in his words. It seemed unbelievable, and her gaze was straight
out across the black waters, one hand clinging firmly to offset the
rocking of the frail raft. Then she pointed away into the distance.

"See, there is light over there," she exclaimed eagerly. "That must be
the east, and it is morning."



CHAPTER XXVII

LOVE BREAKS SILENCE


West was so immersed in his own thoughts, awakened by these new
developments, he apparently did not hear what the girl said. She reached
out and pressed his arm.

"Do you not see, Captain West? Daylight is coming; it is much lighter
over there."

He lifted his head, and looked where she pointed. A dull, grey light
topped the waters, and the sky above held a faint tinge of crimson. The
wan glow accented the loneliness, and for the moment left him depressed.
Was there ever a more sombre scene than was presented by that waste of
tumbling waves, stretching to the horizon, arched over by a clouded sky?
It grew clearer, more distinct, yet remained the same dead expanse of
restless water, on which they tossed helplessly and alone. Nothing broke
the grimness of it, not even a bird in the air, or a leaping fish;
complete desolation met the eye in every direction, a threatening,
menacing dreariness amid which each approaching swell seemed about to
sweep them to destruction. The wind increased slightly with the dawn,
buffeting the frail raft to which they clung desperately, and showering
them with spray, while, as the light became stronger, they searched
vainly for any sign of ship, or shadow of land. Nothing appeared within
range of vision to break the drear monotony of grey sea and sky. Neither
felt any desire to speak; they could only stare out silently across the
desolation of waters, feeling their helplessness and peril. This then was
the morning they had struggled forward to--this green, grey monster,
whose dripping jaws showered wet foam over them; this terrible
nothingness which promised death.

Her head sank forward into her hands, as though she would thus shut out
the whole weird picture, and West, aroused by the slight movement,
glanced quickly aside. The sight of her distress gave him instant mastery
over his own depression. His hand sought her own, where it gripped for
support, and closed over it warmly.

"It cannot be as bad as it seems," he insisted, trying to say the words
cheerfully. "I know these waters, and they are never long deserted. Luck
will change surely; perhaps within the hour we shall be picked up, and
can laugh at all this experience."

She lifted her head, and their eyes met frankly.

"I am not afraid," she protested. "Not physically, at least. Truly I have
not felt fear since you joined me, Captain West. Before that I was alone,
and was frightened because I could not in the least understand why I was
being held a prisoner, or what my fate was to be. Now all I must meet is
the danger of the sea, with you to share the peril with me."

"But you are very tired?"

"Perhaps so, yet I have not thought about that. There are other things;
you do not believe in me."

"Why say that?" he asked, in astonishment. "There is no question of the
kind between us now."

"Truly, is there not? There has been, however; I know from the way you
spoke. What was it you believed of me--that--that I was part of this
conspiracy?"

"I do not know what I believed, if I actually believed anything, Miss
Natalie," he explained rather lamely. "I cannot make the situation
altogether clear even to myself. You see I kept meeting and talking with
you--or I thought I did--and yet never found you to be the same. I was
all at sea, unable to get anything straight. One moment I was convinced
of your innocence; the next something occurred to make you appear guilty,
a co-conspirator with Jim Hobart. Under the circumstances, you cannot
condemn me justly."

"Condemn! I do not. How could I? You must have kept faith in me
nevertheless, or you would never be here now. That is what seems
marvellous to me--that you actually cared enough to believe."

"I realize now that I have," he said gravely. "Through it all I have kept
a very large measure of faith in you."

"Why should that faith have survived?" she questioned persistently, as
though doubt would not wholly leave her mind, "we had no time to really
know each other; only a few hours at the most, and even then you must
have deemed me a strange girl to ask of you what I did. Surely there was
never a madder story told than the one I told you, and I couldn't have
proven an item of it."

"Yet it has shown itself true," he interrupted.

"You actually believe then that there is another woman--a counterfeit
of myself?"

"It is the only theory feasible; you have convinced me of that."

"Yet this does not answer my question altogether. You are convinced now,
perhaps, because you accept my word, but how have you kept faith in me
when you believed just as strongly that it was actually I who met and
talked with you? I who was playing in the game with the man Hobart?"

"Will you believe what I say?"

"Implicitly."

"Perhaps it sounds like a fairy tale," he spoke frankly, his eyes seeking
her own, all their surroundings forgotten in the eagerness of the moment,
"but I will tell you the exact truth. Before this misunderstanding
occurred you had confided in me, trusted me, although I was a stranger
and I believed absolutely in your story. I had that basis to rest on. In
addition to this, those few hours I passed at 'Fairlawn' served to
confirm my faith. I got hold of various odds and ends of evidence which
convinced me that something was wrong--that you were actually being
conspired against. I even gained a suspicion that Percival Coolidge was
the actual leader of the conspiracy."

"Percival Coolidge! but why? What could he gain by such a crime?"

"I have not found the answer yet, but my conviction remains
strong--stronger, indeed, than ever since our talk last night. You could
never have been made prisoner in that cottage without his connivance; he
must have lured you there for that particular purpose, so that this other
girl could take your place without danger of discovery. It was a neat
trick, so well done as to even deceive me. The reason for Percival's
participation is only a guess, but my theory is the fellow had so juggled
your fortune, and the time for final accounting was so near, he had to
take a desperate chance in order to save himself."

"You mean the opportunity came, and he could not resist?"

"Perhaps so, and perhaps it was his own deliberate plan. That remains to
be discovered. My own theory is that when Hobart learned what Percival
Coolidge proposed doing, his own criminal tendencies told him that here
was some easy money. The girl was undoubtedly wholly under his control;
some denizen of the underworld probably. She had already played her part
sufficiently well to convince Hobart of success. Why then, shouldn't he
have this money instead of Percival? There was no reason except that
Percival was in the way. That was why he was killed."

"By Hobart?"

"He may not have fired the shot, but I have no doubt he inspired it; and
the job was so expertly done the coroner called it suicide. The way was
open; you were a prisoner, and the false Natalie Coolidge safely
installed as mistress of 'Fairlawn.' No one apparently suspected
anything wrong."

"And," she questioned breathlessly, "the man meant to murder me also?"

"Not at that time in my judgment," West answered thoughtfully. "Such an
additional crime was not a part of the original plan. There was no
apparent necessity. Your estate was about to be settled finally, and
given over to your control in accordance with the terms of your father's
will. Hobart must have known all this from Percival Coolidge, and exactly
what steps must be taken to secure it. Once the money, and other
property, were delivered to the fake Natalie, the cashing in and get away
would be easy; even the identity of the thieves would be concealed.
Killing you was not at all necessary to the success of their scheme."

"But they did try to kill me."

"Yes, later, by the sinking of the yacht. Probably I am largely
responsible for that."

"You?"

"Yes; the persistency with which I stuck to the trail. They became
frightened. My appearance in Wray Street must have been quite a shock,
and when I succeeded in escaping from their trap there, Hobart very
evidently lost his head completely. He did not dare risk my ever finding
you. The knowledge that I was free, perhaps in communication with the
police, led to your night trip to the _Seminole_, and the secret sinking
of the yacht. He had gone too far by then to hesitate at another murder."

She waited breathlessly for him to go on, her eyes on the tumbling waste
of water. He remained quiet, motionless, and she turned toward him
expectantly.

"I--I think I understand now," she admitted, "how all this occurred; but
why--why were you so persistent? There--there must have been a reason
more impelling than a vague suspicion?"

"There was--the most compelling impulse in the world."

"You mean faith in me?"

"Even more than that; love for you. Natalie, listen; what I have to say
may sound strange, cruel even under such conditions as now surround us,
but you force me to say them. I love you, have loved you all the time,
without fully realizing exactly what it meant. There have been times when
I have doubted you, when I could not wholly escape the evidence that you
were also concerned personally in this fraud. I have endeavoured to
withdraw from the case, to forget, and blot everything from memory. But
something stronger than will prevented; I could not desert you; could not
believe you were wilfully wrong. You understand what I mean."

"Yes," the words barely reaching him. "It was the other girl; she
undermined your faith."

"That is the truth; yet how could it be, do you suppose? My very love
should have enabled me to detect the difference. I can see now, thinking
back, where the fraud was even apparent--in mood, temper, action--and yet
at the time these made no such impression. Even Sexton never questioned
her identity; in face, figure, dress the resemblance was absolutely
perfect. Good heavens, but she is an actress!"

She touched his arm with her hand, and under the slight pressure he
looked aside at her.

"You know now," she said softly, "and I know. All this is passed and gone
between us. We are here alone, the sport of the waves, and I have no
reason to be other than frank. I believe in you, Matthew West; in your
honesty and manhood. You say you love me?"

"With all my heart and soul; it seems to me now I have always loved
you--you came to me, the lady of my dreams."

Her eyes were wet with unshed tears, yet she smiled back into his face,
her voice trembling as she answered.

"And I," she said slowly, "have had no thought but of you since our
morning in the garden together. How far away that seems."

"You mean you love me?"

"Yes; I love you; there is no word stronger, but I would speak it--is
that not enough?"

He held her in his arms, in spite of the trembling raft, tossed by the
swell of the sea, and crushed her against him in the ardent strain of
passion. An instant she held her head back, her eyes gazing straight into
his; then, with sigh of content, yielded, and their lips met, and clung.

The very silence aroused them, startled both into a swift realization of
that dreary waste in which they floated helplessly alone, a drifting chip
on the face of the waters. Her eyes swept the crest of the waves, and she
withdrew herself partially from his arms.

"Why, we must be crazed to dream of happiness here," she exclaimed. "Was
there ever before so strange a confession of love? I am trying to be
brave--but--but that is too much; that waste of green water, with the
grey sky overhead. There is no ending to it--just death mocking us in
every wave. Oh, Matthew, can this be all? Only this little moment, and
then--the end?"

He held her hands tightly, his heart throbbing, but his courage and
hope high.

"No, dear," he whispered eagerly. "Don't think that for a moment. We have
passed through too much to dream of such an ending now. There will be
ships--there must be. Look! what is that, yonder against the sky-line? It
is, sweet-heart; it is the smoke of a steamer."



CHAPTER XXIII

AN ESCAPE FROM THE RAFT


They watched with sinking hearts, West rising to his knees, and shading
his eyes with his hand, as that thin spiral of smoke crept along the
horizon, and finally disappeared into the north. The raft rode so low in
the water that no glimpse of the distant steamer could be perceived, and,
when the last faint vestige of smoke vanished, neither said a word, but
sat there silent, with clasped hands. The bitterness of disappointment
wore away slowly, and as the uneventful hours left them in the same
helpless condition, they fell again into fitful conversation, merely to
thus bolster up courage, and lead their minds to other thoughts. It was
maddening to sit there motionless and stare off across the desolate
water, seeing nothing but those white-crested surges sweeping constantly
toward them, and to feel the continuous leap and drop of the frail raft,
which alone kept them afloat.

The hours went by monotonously, with scarcely an occurrence to break the
dreariness or bring a ray of hope. The clouds obscured the sky, yet
occasionally through some narrow rift, came a glimpse of the sun, as it
rose to the zenith, and then began sinking into the west. The air was
soft, the breeze dying down, and the height of the waves decreasing; the
raft floated more easily, and it no longer became necessary for them to
cling tightly to the supports to prevent being flung overboard. But there
came out of the void no promise of rescue; the sea remained desolate and
untraversed, and finally a mist hung over the water, narrowing the
horizon. During the day they saw smoke but always far to the east, and
quickly disappearing. Once West felt assured his eyes caught the glimmer
of a white sail to the southward, but it was too far away for him to be
sure. At best, it was but a momentary vision, fading almost instantly
against the grey curtain of sky. He had scarcely attempted to point it
out to Natalie when it completely vanished.

Their effort to talk to each other ceased gradually; there was so little
they could say in the presence of the growing peril surrounding them.
They had become the helpless sport of the waves, unable to act, think or
plan, surrounded by horror, and aimlessly drifting toward the gloom of
another night. Wearied beyond all power of resistance, the girl sank
lower and lower until she finally lay outstretched in utter abandonment.
West thrust his coat beneath her head, securely binding her to the raft
by the rope's end, and sat beside her dejectedly, staring forth into the
surrounding smother. She did not speak, and finally her eyes closed.
Undoubtedly she slept, but he made every effort to remain awake and on
watch, rubbing his heavy eyes, and struggling madly to overcome the
drowsiness which assailed him. How long he won, he will never know; the
sun was in the west, a red ball of fire showing dimly through the cloud,
and all about the same dancing expanse of sea, drear, and dead. The raft
rose and fell, rose and fell, so monotonously as to lull his
consciousness imperceptibly; his head drooped forward, and with fingers
still automatically gripped for support, he fell sound asleep also.

The raft drifted aimlessly on, the waves lapping its sides, and tossing
it about as though in wanton play. The currents and the wind held it in
their relentless grip, and bore it steadily forward, surging along the
grey surface of the sea. The girl lay quiet, her face upturned,
unconscious now of her dread surroundings; and the man swayed above her,
his head bent upon his breast, both sleeping the sleep of sheer
exhaustion. Out of the dim mist shrouding the eastern sky the vague
outline of a distant steamer revealed itself for a moment, the smoke from
its stacks adding to the gathering gloom. It was but a vision fading
swiftly away into silence. No throb of the engines awoke the unconscious
sleepers; no eye on the speeding deck saw the low-lying raft, or its
occupants. The vessel vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving
nothing but a trackless waste of sea. The two slept on.

It was the startled cry of Natalie that roused West, and brought his
drooping head, upright. She was sitting up, still held safely by the coil
of rope, and pointing excitedly behind him.

"Oh, see there! Look where I point--isn't that land?"

The raft rocked as he swung his body hastily about, and gazed intently in
the direction indicated. Land! of course it was land; land already so
close at hand, his eyes could trace its conformation--the narrow strip of
sand beach, the sharp bluff beyond, the fringe of trees crowning the
summit. He rubbed his eyes, scarcely able to credit his sight, half
believing it a mirage. Yet the view remained unchanged; it was land, a
bit of the west shore, a short promontory running out into the lake
toward which the raft, impelled by some hidden current, was steadily
drifting. His arm clapped the girl in sudden ecstasy.

"Yes, it's land, thank God!" he exclaimed thoughtfully. "We are floating
ashore, Natalie--saved in spite of ourselves. Why, we could not have been
so far out in the lake after all. That must be why all those vessels
passed to the east of us. I ought to have thought of that before; those
villains would never have deserted the yacht in mid-lake, and taken to
the boat. They must have known they could make shore easily."

Her glance searched the face of the bluff, which with each moment was
becoming more distinctly visible.

"You don't suppose they landed here, do you?"

"Not very likely; even if they did they are not here now. They would have
made it before daylight this morning. All the time we have been drifting
out there they had to get away in. There is no danger that Hogan is
anywhere along this shore now."

"You think he and--and those others have all gone?"

"Yes; why should they hang around here? The last idea in their heads
would be the possibility of our ever drifting in alive. Hogan has gone
back to Chicago to make a report to Hobart, and the rest have scattered
like a covey of partridges. Not one of them has a thought but that we
went down in the _Seminole_. Now they'll pull off their graft, and pull
it quick."

"And what will you do?"

"Get safely ashore first. It will be dark in less than an hour; but we
are too far out yet to venture swimming. We shall have to hang tight to
the raft a while yet, and drift; the current is carrying us all right. Do
you see any sign of life over there--houses, or smoke?"

"No; I have been looking; the whole shore-line appears utterly deserted.
Have you any idea where we can be?"

"Not the slightest; only this is certainly the west shore; there is no
such abandoned spot anywhere between Chicago and Milwaukee, and we must
be much farther north. They had plenty of time to put the yacht quite a
ways up shore before they sank her."

"Hogan must have known where he was."

"Unquestionably; it was all planned out; he knew exactly where he
intended to land, and how long it would take them to reach there after
they left the yacht."

"Perhaps," she suggested hesitatingly, "the gang had some rendezvous up
here in these north-woods, a place where they could hide."

West shook his head negatively.

"No, I don't think that; they may know the country, and how best to get
away quickly. But those fellows are city thieves--Hobart and Hogan
anyway--and would feel far safer back in their haunts in Chicago. There
is no place like a big city to hide in, and besides, even if they have
got the money already,--which I doubt--there has been no chance to divide
it, and 'Red' would never let Hobart get away without paying him his
share. They are not loitering around here, Natalie, waiting for ghosts to
appear; they are back in town hours ago."

"But what can we do?"

"Get ashore first, of course, and discover the quickest way to return to
the city. None of this shore is deserted, and we'll find houses back
behind that fringe of woods. I figure we have a big advantage. We know
their real game now, and they are so sure we are both dead, they'll
operate in the open--walk right into a trap. By this time McAdams must
have discovered some clue as to the whereabouts of Hobart. With him under
arrest, and our story told, some of these fellows will confess, and it
will all be over with."

"But suppose they have already succeeded in their purpose?"

"That can hardly be possible, Natalie. There hasn't been time yet.
Certain legal forms must be complied with. You could only draw a
limited amount."

"Until I reached a certain age; after which there was no restriction. I
attained that age yesterday."

"And they are aware of it, no doubt. Yet there must be some legal
authorization necessary which may cause delay. The sooner we reach
Chicago, the better. It is twilight already--the sun has gone down behind
the bluff, but it will require an hour yet for this raft to drift into
shallow water. You swim, you told me?"

"Yes, very well indeed."

"Shall we risk it then together? It is not far to the end of the
point yonder."

She looked where he pointed and smiled, glancing back into his
questioning eyes.

"Why, that involves no danger at all. I will do anything to get off this
raft. But if we are going to have light we must start at once."

The two slipped silently over the edge of the dipping raft, and struck
out for the nearest point of land, West loitering slightly behind, afraid
lest she might be hampered, and perhaps dragged down by her water-soaked
clothes. A few strokes reassured him as to this, as she struck out
vigorously, her every motion exhibiting trained skill. She glanced back
at him, and smiled at his precaution; then faced resolutely toward the
distant shore, swimming easily. He followed closely, timing his strokes
to her own, confident, yet watchful still, while behind them, now but a
dim speck in the grey sea, wallowed the deserted raft.

The distance was greater than it had seemed, the twilight deceiving their
eyes, while their clothing had a tendency to retard progress. Weakened by
lack of food, and buffetted by cross currents, both were decidedly
exhausted by the time their lowering feet finally touched bottom. Natalie
staggered, faint and dizzy from the exertion, but West grasped her in his
arms before she could fall, and carried her across the sand beach to the
foot of the cliff. She laughed as he laid her gently down in the soft
sand, putting up her arms to him like a child, and drawing his face down
until their lips met.

"Oh," she exclaimed breathlessly, "That was glorious, but I hardly had
enough strength left to make it. It--it was an awfully long way."

"There are currents off shore," he explained. "That was what made the
swimming so difficult. You are all right now."

"Yes; at least I think so," she sat up. "Why, it is almost dark already.
I cannot see the old raft at all. I--I wish it would come ashore; it gave
you to me, Matt."

"And you are not sorry, even now, safe here on shore?"

"Sorry! Why I am the happiest girl in all the world this minute. I can
hardly think about that money at all, or those scoundrels trying to rob
me. I am here with you, and you love me--what more can I ask? Is that
silly, dear?"

He laughed, and kissed her, neither giving a thought to their dripping
garments, or a regret for the hardships they had passed through. They
were there alone, safe, together--all else for the moment mattered not.

"Yes, I love you, Natalie, dear," he answered. "So it is not silly at
all. But we must seek shelter and food. Are you strong enough now to
climb the bluff? See, there is a ravine leading up yonder, where the
footing is easier."

She nodded her readiness to try, too happy for words, and hand in hand
they toiled their way upward through the gloom.



CHAPTER XXIX

THE HOUSE IN THE BLUFFS


The cleft in the bluff was both narrow and steep, but it gave them
passage. At the upper end Natalie's reserve strength suddenly deserted
her, and she sank down on the grass, labouring for breath, feeling unable
to advance a step farther. The days and nights of excitement, coupled
with lack of food and sleep, had left her physically weakened; now
suddenly, even her will and courage both gave away.

"No, it is nothing," she explained in a whisper. "I am just completely
tired out, I guess. You go on, Matt, and find some place of shelter.
Leave me to lie here; I'll not move, and you can find me easily. All I
want now is to rest a few moments. Afraid! no I'll not be afraid. Why,
what is there to fear? this is a civilized country, isn't it? I'll
just sit where I am now until you come back--only--only don't go very
far away."

She held out her hand, and endeavoured to smile.

"Desert me! Of course you are not, dear. I am bidding you go. I shall
not mind being left here alone. I am so tired."

They were at the summit of the bluff, looking out over the lake, now a
mere darker blot. They could hear the dash of waves below them along the
edge of sand. But in the opposite direction rose a somewhat higher ridge
on which trees grew, completely excluding the view beyond. Between the
branches the distant sky still retained a purple tinge from the sinking
sun, leaving the impression that it was much lighter up there. West felt
the importance of gaining a view inland before the closing down of night
obscured everything, and therefore reluctantly left her alone there while
he made his way to the top of the ridge. Once there he could look across
the promontory of land, down into a little cove on the opposite side. It
was well sheltered, and already wrapped in gloomy shadows, yet his eyes
detected the outline of a boat of some size drawn up on the sandy beach.
Beyond the dim certainty of what it was he could perceive nothing with
which to identify the craft, and deeming it some fishing boat, gave its
presence there no further heed.

Glancing back to assure himself that Natalie was still safe where he had
left her, he picked his way swiftly forward through the thick fringe of
forest trees, until he came to the western edge of the wood, and could
view the country beyond in the last spectral glow of the dying day. It
was a wild, broken country thus revealed to his gaze, a land of ridges
and ravines, rugged and picturesque, but exhibiting no evidence of roads,
or inhabitants. Its very roughness of outline, and its sterile soil,
explained the barrenness and desolation--a no-man's land, impossible of
cultivation, it remained neglected and unused. At first he was sure of
this, his heart sinking at the deserted landscape. They must plunge
blindly forward in the dark over that rough, trackless country, seeking
some possible shelter beyond. Weakened and exhausted as they both were
the task seemed almost an impossible one. Then his eyes caught a thin
spiral of smoke rising from out a narrow valley almost directly beneath
where he stood, the depths of which were totally concealed from sight. As
he stared at this, uncertain of its reality, a single spark of light
winked out at him through the darkness. There was certainly a habitation
of some kind hidden away down there--a fisherman's hut likely--but it
would at least afford temporary shelter for the night; and there must be
a road or path of some kind leading from it to the nearest village. If
he could only leave Natalie there in safe hands, in the security of a
home, however humble, food would give him strength to push on alone. The
one thought in his mind now was to telegraph McAdams, so as to circumvent
the plans of those rascals in Chicago. This must be done, and it must be
done at the earliest moment possible. Perhaps the fisherman might possess
a horse, or would carry the necessary message into town himself. West
turned and hastened back through the woods, clambering down the slope of
the ridge in darkness to the spot where he had left the girl. For the
moment he could not distinguish her presence in the gloom, and, fearing
he might have gone astray, called her name aloud.

"Yes," she answered. "I am here; to your right. I am, standing up. Have
you discovered anything?"

"There is a house of some kind over yonder in a hollow just beyond the
ridge--more than likely a fisherman's hut, as there is a boat of some
kind beached in the cove the other side of this promontory. We will have
to stumble along through the dark. Do you think you can make it?"

"Of course, I can," and she placed her hand confidingly in his. "I am all
right now; really I am; I guess all I needed was to get my breath. Do we
go up here--the way you came back?"

"I presume so; I know no other passage, and found no path."

"But," she urged. "If there is a boat on the beach, isn't it likely there
would be a trail from there to this fisherman's hut?"

"Why, of course; it was stupid of me not to think of this before. The
sooner we start, the quicker we shall arrive. I want most of all to
telegraph McAdams."

"Who?"

"McAdams, the detective I told you about in Chicago, an old army buddy of
mine. He'll have Hobart located by this time, no doubt, and will put the
screws on him when he learns what has happened to us."

"I see," she agreed softly, "and if he does know the whole story we need
not be so crazy to get back. He will attend to everything."

"Yes; we can wait up here until morning at least; you need a night's
rest, and no wonder."

He grasped her arm, helping her to clamber up the steep bank, suddenly
becoming aware that the sleeve felt dry.

"Why, Natalie, your clothes seem to have all dried off already; mine are
soaked through," he exclaimed in surprise. "What necromancy is this?"

She laughed, a faint tinge of mockery in the sound.

"No mystery whatever; only a difference in texture, I imagine. This light
stuff dries quickly, exposed to the air. Did you think you had hold of
the wrong girl?"

The tone of her voice stung slightly, causing him to make a sober answer.

"That would, of course, be improbable, but I have been so completely
deceived, even by daylight, that I dare not affirm that it would prove
impossible. Your counterfeit is certainly a wizard."

"She must be. But as she is miles away from here, you might let the
suspicion rest. Is this where we go down?"

She led the way, the action awakening no question in his mind. If he
thought at all about her thus assuming the initiative, the suspicion was
dismissed with the idea that probably her eyes were more keen to discover
the best path. In this she was certainly successful, and he contented
himself by following her closely. The night was already dark, the way
irregular and confusing. She was but a dim shadow, advancing
confidently, and now and then in their descent, he reached out and
touched her to make sure of her presence. This action seemed to irritate
for she turned once, and objected shortly.

"Oh, don't do that, please; it startles me. My nerves are all on edge."

"Of course they are, dear," he confessed apologetically. "I should have
known better. It was so dark I almost thought you had slipped away. The
boat I told you about must be close at hand."

"The boat; oh, yes, but it can be of no use to us now. Feel here with
your feet; I am sure this must be a path that I am in, and it can lead
nowhere except to that house you saw."

"Can you follow it?"

"I think so; it seems to go straight up through the ravine; see, you can
trace the bluff against the sky, and there is the opening just ahead of
us. You may take my arm again now," she added graciously, "and then there
will be no danger of either getting lost."

He gladly did as she suggested, yet, strangely enough, continued to feel
dissatisfied. Vaguely he felt that in some almost imperceptible manner
she had changed her mood. He could not base his thoughts on a single
word, or action, yet he felt the difference--this was not the Natalie of
the raft. She was too irritable; too sharp of speech. But then, no doubt,
she was tired, worn out, her nerves broken; indeed he found it hard to
control himself, and he must not blame her for exhibiting weakness under
the strain. So he drove the thought from him, clinging close to her arm,
and vaguely wondering how she was able to trace the path so easily. They
seemed to progress through an impenetrable wall of blackness, and yet the
way had been cleared of obstacles, and was reasonably smooth. The slope
upward was quite gradual, and the summit led directly into the mouth of a
small valley. By this time even West could recognize that they were
proceeding along a well used path, and he was not surprised when she
announced the presence of the house before them, pointing out the dim
shadow through the gloom. Otherwise his eyes might have failed to
distinguish the outlines, but under her guidance he could make out enough
of its general form to assure him that they were approaching no mere
fisherman's shack.

"That is no hut," he exclaimed in surprise. "It looks more like a
mansion."

"And why not?" pleasantly enough. "I have always heard these bluffs were
filled with summer homes. Unfortunately this one appears to be deserted.
But we must go on, and try to discover some inhabitant."

There was no light to guide them, yet the path was easily followed,
through what apparently was an orchard, then through the gate of a rustic
fence to a broad carriage drive, circling past the front door. All was
silence, desolation; no window exhibited a gleam of radiance, nor did a
sound greet them from any direction. They paused an instant before the
front door, uncertain how to proceed.

"But there must be some one about here," West insisted. "For this was
the house I saw from the ridge, and there was a light burning then in
one of the windows, and there was a wisp of smoke rising from a chimney.
Perhaps the shutters are all closed, or, early as it is, the people may
have retired."

She stepped boldly forward, and placed her hand on the knob of the door.

"Why," she whispered, excitedly. "It is unlocked; see, I can open it.
Perhaps something is wrong here. What shall we do?"

"Knock first; then if there is no response, we can feel our way about
inside. My matches are all wet."

She rapped sharply on the wood; waited for some reply, and then called
out. Not a sound reached them from within. The situation was strange,
nerve-racking, and she shrank back as though frightened before the black
silence confronting her. West, his teeth clinched, stepped in through the
open door, determined to learn the secret of that mysterious interior.
With hands outstretched he felt his way forward, by sense of touch alone
assuring himself that he traversed a hall, carpeted, his extended arms
barely reaching from wall to wall. He encountered no furniture, and must
have advanced some two yards, before his groping disclosed the presence
of a closed door on the left. He had located the knob, when the outer
door suddenly closed, as though blown shut by a draught of wind, and, at
the same instant, his eyes were blinded by a dazzling outburst of light.

This came with such startling, unexpected brilliancy that West staggered
back as though struck. For the instant he was positively blind; then he
dimly perceived a man standing before him--a man who, little by little,
became more clearly defined, recognizable, suddenly exhibiting the
features of Jim Hobart, sarcastically grinning into his face.

"You are evidently a cat of nine lives, West," he said sneeringly. "But
this ought to be the last of them."



CHAPTER XXX

HOBART FORGETS AND TALKS


For a moment West lost all control over himself. He was too completely
dazed for either words or action; could only stare into that mocking
countenance confronting him, endeavouring to sense what had really
occurred. He was undoubtedly trapped again, but how had the trick been
accomplished? What devilish freak of ill luck had thus thrown them once
more into the merciless hands of this ruffian? How could it have happened
so perfectly? The boat on the sand in the cove yonder; perhaps that was
the key to the situation. Those fellows who had left the _Seminole_ to
sink behind them, knew where they were when they deserted the yacht; they
landed at the nearest point along shore, where they had a rendezvous
already arranged for. Then what? The helpless raft had naturally drifted
in the same direction, blown by the steady east wind, until gripped by
the land current, and thus finally driven into this opening on the
coast. His mind had grasped this view, this explanation, before he even
ventured to turn his head, and glance at the girl. She stood leaning back
against the closed door as though on guard, her uncovered hair ruffled, a
scornful, defiant look in her eyes, the smile on her lips revealing the
gleam of white teeth. In spite of a wonderful resemblance, a mysterious
counterfeit in both features and expression, West knew now this was not
Natalie Coolidge. Her dress, the way in which her hair was done, the
sneering curl of her red mouth, were alike instantly convincing. He had
permitted himself to be tricked again by the jade; the smart of the wound
angered him beyond control.

"You are not Miss Coolidge," he insisted hotly. "Then who are you?"

She laughed, evidently enjoying the scene, confident of her own
cleverness.

"Oh, so even Captain West has at last penetrated the disguise. No, I am
not the lady you mention, if you must know."

"Then who are you?"

She glanced toward Hobart, as though questioning, and the man answered
the look gruffly.

"Tell him if you want to, Del," he said, with an oath. "It will never do
the guy any good. He's played his last hand in this game; he'll never
get away from me again. Spit it out."

"All right," with a mocking curtsey. "I've got an idea I'd like to tell
him; it is too good a joke to keep, and this fellow has certainly been an
easy mark. You never did catch on to me until I got into the wrong
clothes, did you, old dear? Lord, but I could have had you making love to
me, if I'd only have said the word--out there on the hills in the dark,
hey! I sure wanted to laugh; but that tender tone of yours told me what
you were up to; what sent you trailing us around the country--you was
plumb nutty after this Natalie Coolidge. That's the straight goods, isn't
it, Mister Captain West?"

"I care very much for Miss Coolidge, if that is what you mean."

"Sure you do; and you've put up a game fight for her too, my boy.
I'd like it in you if I wasn't on the other side. But you see we
can't be easy on you just because of that. Sentiment and romance is
one thing, while business is another. You and I don't belong in the
same worlds--see? You can't rightly blame me because I was born
different, can you?"

"Perhaps not; what would you make me believe?"

"I thought I'd put it that way so you'd understand, that's all. There's
a difference in people, ain't there. I'm just as good looking as this
Natalie Coolidge, ain't I? Sure I am; you can't even tell us apart when
we are dressed up alike. I could come in here, and have you make love to
me inside of twenty minutes. But we ain't a bit alike for all that. She's
a lady, and I'm a crook--that's the difference. She's been brought up
with all the money she wants, while I've had to hustle for every penny
since I was a kid. Now life don't ever look the same to any two people
like that."

"No," West admitted, beginning to realize her defence. "It is hardly
probable it would."

"That's why I'm in this case," she went on, apparently unheeding his
interruption. "I was brought up a thief, and I don't know anything else.
I never did care much, but in this Coolidge matter, I've got just as much
right to all that kale as she has--so naturally I'm going after it."

"As much right, you say? Why, who are you?"

She stood up straight, and looked at him, her eyes burning.

"Me!" scornfully, "Why I am Delia Hobart--'Diamond Del,' they call me."

"Yes, but that is not what you mean; that gives you no such right as you
claim. You are Hobart's daughter then?"

"I didn't say so, Mister Captain West. I told you my moniker, that's all.
Jim here brought me up, but he ain't no father to me, and his wife ain't
my mother. It took me a while to find that out, but I got the thing
straight at last. I saw then just what those two were driving at; first I
didn't take no particular interest in the scheme; then I got to thinking
until finally I hated that soft, downy thing; damn her, she'd robbed me,
and I had a right to my share even if I had to steal it."

"What soft, downy thing?"

"Natalie Coolidge! Bah, I went out to see her once. Jim took me and
we hid in the garden; and when I came back I was raving mad. Lord,
why should that little idiot have everything while half the time I
was hungry?"

"You mean you envied her?"

"Envied, hell! Didn't I have a right? Wasn't she my twin sister? Didn't
she have it all, and I nothing?"

He gasped for breath at this sudden revelation. Then he laughed,
convinced it could not be possible.

"Who told you that?"

"Why, don't you believe it? Has she never said a word about it to you?"

"Certainly not. I am sure she possesses no knowledge of ever having had a
sister. Moreover, I do not believe it is true. If you had proof of such
relationship, why didn't you go to her, and openly claim your share?"

"Go to her! me? Do you hear that Jim? Isn't he the cute little fixer?
Why, of course, she knew it; there was nothing doing on the divide. It's
all straight enough, only we couldn't quite prove it by law; anyhow that
is what they told me--so we got at it from another direction."

She seemed so convinced, so earnest in her statement that West in
perplexity turned to glance at Hobart.

"Do you make this claim also?" he asked.

"What claim?"

"That this girl is a twin sister to Natalie Coolidge? Why, it is
preposterous."

"Is it? Damned if I think so. Now look here, West; I don't know just what
the Coolidge girl has been told; maybe she never even heard she had a
twin sister. If they ever told her that she had, then they must have told
her also that the sister died in infancy. Anyhow, that's how it stands on
the records. There were just two people who knew different--do you get
me? One of them is dead, but one of them is still alive."

"Which one is dead?"

"Percival Coolidge; he knew too much and got gay; he planned to cop the
whole boodle. The fact is he started the whole scheme, soon as he learned
who Del was, and planned it all out. He was up against it hard just then
for money; he'd lost all his own, and couldn't get hold of Natalie's
because the old family lawyer watched things so close."

"But if this girl was really entitled to a part of it, why not claim
it by law?"

"We talked about that, but the chance didn't look good. Everything showed
the second child died; hospital records, doctor's certificate; there
wasn't a link in the chain we could break. Percival wouldn't go on the
stand, and there wasn't much he could swear to if he did."

"But who was the other witness--the living one?"

"The nurse; she made the exchange of the dead baby for the living one. It
was easily done as the child was really sick."

"But for what object--revenge?"

"She was poor, and yielded to temptation. Percival Coolidge paid her to
make the exchange. I have never been able to learn what his original
purpose was, but she thinks he believed the stolen child was a boy, and
that later, through him, the Coolidge money might be controlled. However
the woman lost her nerve, and disappeared with the infant. She brought it
up as her own in the west, where she married again. I am her second
husband, and that is how I learned the truth."

"The woman on the yacht?"

"Yes, you saw her. The child was brought up in our life; I figured on
this coup for years, and finally when all was ready, we came back east
again. I had a plan, but I wasn't quite sure it would work until I could
see the two girls together. After that it was like taking candy from a
kid. Hell, you are the only one who has even piped off the game."

West looked closely at the man, who was thus coolly boasting of his
exploits, and then at the silent girl, whose eyes sullenly gave back
their challenge. What did it all mean? Why were they calmly telling him
these things? Was it merely the egotism of crime, pride of achievement?
or did Hobart hope in some way to thus win his assistance, or at least
his silence?

"Why do you tell all this to me, Hobart?" he asked shortly. "You do not
expect me to play with you in the game, do you?"

"You!" the fellow laughed coarsely. "We don't care what you do, you young
fool. Del started this talking, and I let her go on. Then, when she
stopped, I thought you might as well learn the rest of it. The fact is,
West, we're fixed now so whatever you know won't hurt us any. We have as
good as got the swag; and, to make it absolutely safe, we've got both you
and the girl. I'll say this for you, old man, you've sure put up a game
fight. I don't know how the hell you ever got out of that yacht alive, or
ever happened to drift in here. It was nothing but bull luck that gave us
a glimpse of you tossing round on that raft--but after that it was dead
easy. Del here is some actorine."

"Yes," she broke in, "but I came near falling down this time. I forgot
they had been in the water, and my dress was dry as a bone--say, I
thought he'd tripped me sure."

"You say you've got the swag?"

"All but in our hands; nobody can get it away from us. The court order
was issued today; the entire estate placed, in accordance with the terms
of the will, in the possession of Natalie Coolidge. Once the proper
receipt is signed, all monies can be checked out by her. That about
settles it, doesn't it? Tomorrow Del and I will go down to the city, and
turn the trick, and after that there is nothing left but the get-away."

It was a cold blooded proposition, but neither face exhibited any
regret; both were intoxicated by success; untroubled by any scruples
of conscience. West felt the utter uselessness of an attempt to appeal
to either.

"Where is Natalie Coolidge?" he asked, his own determination hardening.
"What do you propose doing with her?"

Hobart's teeth exhibited themselves in a sardonic grin.

"That is our business, but you can bet she'll not interfere."

"And a similar answer, I presume, will apply also to my case?"

"It will. Don't make the mistake, West, of believing we are damn fools. I
don't know just why I've blowed all this to you, but it ain't going to
help you any, you can be sure of that. In fact your knowing how the thing
was worked is liable to make things a blame sight harder in your case. We
won't do no more talking; so go on in through that door."

The fellow's demeanour had entirely changed; he was no longer pretending
to geniality, and his words were almost brutal. Apparently, all at once,
it had dawned sharply upon him that they had made a mistake--had boasted
far too freely. Any slip now, after what had been said, would wreck the
ship. West faced him watchfully, fully aware of the desperate situation,
instinctively feeling that this might be his last chance.

"In there, you say?" indicating the closed door.

"Yes; move!"

He did; with one swift leap forward, the whole impetus of his body behind
the blow, West drove his fist straight into the face confronting him. The
fellow reeled, clutched feebly at the smooth wall for support, dropped
helplessly forward, and fell headlong, with face hidden in outstretched
arms. The assailant sprang back, and turned, in a mad determination to
crash his way out through the locked door behind, but as suddenly stopped
startled by the vision of a levelled revolver pointed at his head.

"Not a move," the girl said icily. "Take one step, and I'll kill you."

Hobart lifted his head groggily, and pushed himself half-way up on
his knees.

"Don't shoot unless he makes you, Del," he ordered grimly. "We don't want
that kind of row here." He dragged himself painfully to the side door,
and pressed it open.

"Hey you!" he cried. "Come on out here. Now then, rough-house this guy!"



CHAPTER XXXI

McADAMS BLOWS IN


It was a real fight; they all knew that when it was finished. But it was
three to one, with Hobart blocking the only open door, and egging them
on, and the excited girl, backed into a corner out of the way, the
revolver still gripped in her hand, ready for any emergency. The
narrowness of the hall alone afforded West a chance, as the walls
protected him, and compelled direct attack from in front. Yet this
advantage only served to delay the ending. He recognized two of the
fellows--"Red" Hogan and Mark--while the third man was a wiry little
bar-room scrapper, who smashed fiercely in through his guard, and finally
got a grip on his throat which could not be wrenched loose. The others
pounded him unmercifully, driving his head back against the wall. Hogan
smashed him twice, crashing through his weak attempt at defence, and with
the second vicious drive, West went down for the count, lying motionless
on the floor, scarcely conscious that he was still living.

Yet in a dazed, helpless way, he was aware of what was occurring about
him; he could hear voices, feel the thud of a brutal kick. Some one
dragged him out from the mess, and turned his face up to the light; but
he lay there barely breathing; his eyes tightly closed.

"It's a knock-out all right," Hogan declared. "That guy is good for an
hour in dream-land. What's the dope?"

"We got to keep him here, that's all; and there's goin' to be no get-away
this time."

"How'd he do it before, Jim? did he tell you?"

"Not a damned word; I was fool enough to do all the talking. But this
fellow is too slick to take any more chances with."

"Do you want him croaked?"

"No, I don't--not now. What the hell's the use? It would only make things
harder. We're ready to make our get-away, ain't we? After tomorrow all
hell can't get onto our trail. This guy's life wouldn't help us none, so
far as I can see."

"Getting squeamish, ain't you?"

"No, I'm not. I've got as much reason to hate the fellow as you have,
'Red.' He certainly swiped me one. Before we had the swag copped, I was
willing enough to put him out of the running. That was business. You sure
did a fine job then, damn you; now I don't think it is your time to howl.
Listen here, will you? From all I learn, this bird amounts to something;
he ain't just a dago to be bumped off, and nobody care what's become of
him. This guy has got friends. It won't help us any to be hunted after
for murder on top of this other job. If we cop the kale, that's all we're
after. Is that right, Del?"

The girl seemed to come forward, and face them defiantly.

"Sure it's right. I never was for the strong arm stuff, Hogan. This is my
graft, anyhow, and not one of you stiffs gets a penny of it unless I
split with you. This fellow isn't going to be slugged--that's flat. It is
only because he's fell in love with the Coolidge girl that he is here,
and once we've skipped out, I don't wish the guy any bad luck."

"You ought to have caught him yourself, Del," some one said. "The bird
never would have known the difference."

She laughed, quickly restored to good humour.

"You're about right there, Dave," she answered. "That was another
mistake; the only chance I ever had of marrying in high social circles.
But hell, I'll be a lady tomorrow, so let's let the poor devil go. Wrap
him up, and lay him away out in the garage. The walls are two foot solid
stone; he'll stay buried there all right."

Hogan growled in derision, yet it was evident that she and Hobart would
have their way. Some one brought a rope, which was deftly wound about
him, West continuing to feign unconsciousness. He secretly hoped this
condition might result in some carelessness on their part, in either
speech or action. Anyway it would undoubtedly save him from further
brutal treatment. He had no reason to suspect that his ruse was
questioned. The fellows spoke freely while making him secure, but he
gained very little information from their conversation--not a hint as to
where Natalie was confined, or how long it was proposed to hold them
prisoners. Then "Red" and Dave lugged his limp body through several
rooms, out upon a back porch, finally dragging him down the steps and
along a cement drive way, letting him lie there a moment in the dark,
while one of them unlocked a door. The next instant he was carelessly
thrown inside, and the door forced back into place. He could hear Hogan
swear outside, and then the sound of both men's feet on the drive as
they departed.

With a struggle West managed to sit up, but could scarcely attempt more,
as his arms were bound closely to his sides. The darkness about him was
intense, and, with the disappearance of the two men up the steps, all
outside sounds had ceased. He knew he had been flung into the garage and
was resting there on the hard cement floor. He could neither feel nor see
any machine, nor was there probably the slightest prospect of his getting
out unaided. Those fellows would never have left him there without guard,
had they dreamed any escape was possible. The girl had affirmed the
building was constructed of stone, two feet thick. He stared around at
the impenetrable black wall completely defeated. Undoubtedly they had him
this time. He was weak from hunger, tired nearly to death; bruised and
battered until it seemed as though every muscle in his body throbbed with
pain. Yet his mind was not on these things, only incidentally; his
thought, his anxiety centred altogether on Natalie Coolidge. What had
become of her; where was she now? He had no reason to believe her in any
great personal danger. If this gang, satisfied of success, were disposed
to spare his life, it was hardly probable they would demand her's. Now
both the desire for murder, and the necessity, had passed. The fellows
felt supremely confident the spoils were already theirs, and that all
that was needed now to assure complete success was sufficient time in
which to drop safely out of sight. Murder would hinder, rather than help
this escape.

But what a blind fool he had been; how strangely he had permitted this
girl to lead him so easily astray. Why really, to his mind now, she
possessed no real resemblance to Natalie; not enough, at least, to
deceive the keen eyes of love. She had the features, the eyes, the hair,
the voice, a certain trick of speech, which, no doubt, she had
cultivated--but there were a thousand things in which she differed. Her
laugh was not the same, nor the expression of her lips; she was like a
counterfeit beside a good coin. It was easy to conceive how others might
be deceived by her tricks of resemblance--servants, ordinary friends,
even the old lawyer in charge of the estate--but it was inexcusable for
him to have thus become a plaything. Yet he had, and now the mistake was
too late to mend. He had left Natalie alone on the cliff, and then
blindly permitted this chit to lead him straight into Hobart's set trap.
Angered beyond control at the memory, West swore, straining fiercely in
the vain endeavour to release his arms. Then, realizing his utter
helplessness, he sank back on the floor, and lay still.

What was that? He listened, for an instant doubtful if he had really
heard anything. Then he actually heard a sound. He doubted no longer, yet
made no effort to move, even holding his breath in suspense. There was
movement of some kind back there--a cautious movement; seemingly the slow
advance of something across the floor, a dog perhaps. West's heart
throbbed with apprehension; suppose it was a dog, he had no means of
protection from the brute. Cold sweat tingled on his flesh; there was
nothing he could do, no place where he could go. The thing was moving
nearer; yet surely it could not be a dog; no dog would ever creep like
that. He could bear the strain no longer; it was beyond endurance.

"What's moving back there?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

There was a moment of utter silence; then, a man's voice said in low,
cautious tone.

"The fellow ain't dead, Mac; anyhow he seems able to talk yet."

"All right, we'll find out what he's got to say--go on along."

West sat up, his heart bounding with sudden remembrance.

"My God! McAdams is that you?"

"You have the name--who's speaking?"

"Matt West. Good God, but this is like a miracle. I'd played my last
card. Come here, one of you, and cut these strings. I cannot even move,
or stand up. Is it really you, Mac? Yes, yes, I am all right; they
bruised me up a bit, of course, but that is nothing. Now I have a chance
to pay them out. But who are with you? and how did you come to be here?"

McAdams ran his knife blade through the lashings, feeling for them in the
dark. Neither could see the other, but West realized that another man had
crept up on the opposite side of him, and crouched there silently in the
blackness.

"Need any help, Mac?" the latter questioned in a whisper.

"No, I've got him cut loose. This is the lad I told you about, Carlyn.
You go on back, and, as soon as West gets limbered up a bit, and I hear
his story, we join you out there. Then we'll know how the ground lies."

The fellow crept away unseen, and McAdams gripped West's hand.

"Say, but this is mighty good luck, old boy," he blurted out. "I was
afraid you'd gone down in that yacht last night."

"You were! How did you know about it?"

"Stumbled on to the story, the way most detectives solve their mysteries.
That is, I stumbled on some of it, and the rest I dug out for myself. It
won't take long to explain and perhaps you better understand. They told
me at the office when I got back about the _Seminole_ being tied up at
the Municipal Pier, and that you had gone down there. Well, I made it as
quick as I could, but the yacht was three hundred yards out in the lake
by the time I arrived. There wasn't a damn thing to take after it in,
and, besides, just then, I didn't really know any good police reason for
chasing her. First thing I did was to try and find you, so we could get
our heads together. But you wasn't there, and so I naturally jumped to
the conclusion you must have got aboard someway. Say I combed that pier,
believe me, West, and finally I ran across a kid who put me wise. He saw
you go across the deck, and into the cabin with two other guys. They came
out again, but you didn't. I pumped him until I got a pretty good
description of both those fellows, and I decided one of them must be
'Red' Hogan, about the toughest gun-man in Chicago."

"It was Hogan."

"I made sure of that afterwards. Then I got busy. If you was in the hands
of that guy, and his gang, the chances was dead against you. But there
wasn't a darn thing I could do, except to hunt up Hobart, wire every town
along the north shore to keep an eye out for the yacht, and pick up a
thread or two around town. I got a bit at that to wise me up. We found
Hobart hid away in a cheap hotel out on Broadway, and put a trailer on
him. The girl had disappeared; she'd been to a bank, and then to the
Coolidge lawyer and signed some papers; after that we lost all trace of
her for awhile. Your man Sexton, out at 'Fairlawn,' reported that she
hadn't returned there. Then I got desperate and decided I'd blow the
whole thing to the Coolidge lawyer, and get him to take a hand. I was
afraid they were already for the get-a-way--see? I couldn't round 'em up
alone; besides I'm a Chicago police officer, and have to keep more or
less on my own beat."

"And you told the lawyer?"

"Everything I knew, and some I guessed at. I thought the old guy would
throw a fit, but he didn't. He came through game after the first shock.
But say, that dame had sold him out all right. He never had an inkling
anything was wrong; no more did the banks. We went over, and talked to
the president of one of them--a smooth guy with white mutton chops--and
the girl had signed up the preliminary papers already, and tomorrow the
whole boodle was going to drop softly into her lap. Say, I felt better
when I learned they hadn't copped the swag yet. But just the same I
needed help."

"And you got it?"

"Sure; those two duffers coughed up money in a stream. Called in a
detective agency, and gave me three operatives to work under me. Got the
chief on the wire, and made him give me a free hand. Then I had a cinch."



CHAPTER XXXII

A BRIDGE OF LOVE


He paused, listening, but all remained quiet without, and he resumed his
story. "There is not much else to it, West. A little after one o'clock
the shadow phoned in from the Union depot that Hobart had just purchased
two tickets for Patacne. We hustled over, but were too late to catch that
train, but learned the girl had accompanied him on the trip. We caught
another rattler two hours later, and got off at Patacne, which is about
three miles west of here. It is not much of a job to gather up gossip in
a small burg, and, inside of ten minutes, I had extracted all I needed
from the station agent. It seems this outfit was the summer sensation out
here. We hoofed it for reasons of our own, and came around by way of the
lake shore, aiming to keep out of sight until after dark. That is how we
discovered that _Seminole_ boat hauled up on the beach, but with no yacht
in sight. One of the fellows with me said Hogan did a boat-sinking job
before and got away with it, and that is how I figured that maybe you
was at the bottom of Lake Michigan--see? Well, we crept up here through
the woods, but nothing happened. Didn't look as if the place had a soul
within a hundred miles of it--no smoke, no light; not a damn sound. We
laid out and waited, not sure what we were up against. Finally we jimmied
open the back door of this garage, just to find out whether those guys
had a car out here, or not. They had, but we no more than located it when
those two fellows came dragging you out of the back door of the house,
and flung you in here like a bag of old linen. We lay still, and let them
go back, but we hadn't any notion whether you was dead or alive--or
whether it was really you; so we crawled up to find out. That's the
story. Now what do you think we better do?"

West moved his arms in an effort to restore circulation.

"How many with you?"

"Four altogether--hard boiled, too--five with you. Is there any fight
left in you, old man?"

"I'll say there is; I'd certainly like to get in one clip at 'Red' before
the fracas is over."

"That sounds vicious. Now who is inside?"

"I saw five, and there may be others. If the crew of the _Seminole_ are
here also, that would make quite a bunch."

"I don't think they are, Captain. The station agent said several men
bought tickets to Chicago early this afternoon. It is the real gang we've
got cornered. Do you know just who they are?"

"Those I saw were Hobart, 'Red' Hogan, the girl, a big fellow they called
Mark who was on the yacht--"

"Mark Sennett; he's Hogan's side-kick, and tough as they make 'em."

"And a wiry little black-haired devil by the name of Dave."

"Hell, is he in this too? that must be 'Dago Dave.' That guy would cut
your throat for fifty dollars. Any others?"

"Those were all I saw. No doubt Hobart's wife is in the house somewhere,
guarding Natalie Coolidge probably."

"Six altogether, counting the women."

"Yes, and you better count them, for they will fight like tigers. The
girl held me up at the point of a gun."

"We've got to get the drop first, that's all. They're yellow, the whole
outfit is yellow. Shootin' in the back is their style. Now, you know the
lay inside the house; what is our best chance?"

West studied over the situation, his eyes staring into the darkness, and
McAdams waited.

"Well, Mac," he said finally. "This is a new job for me, but I'd put a
man out in front, and then take the others in through the back door. We'd
have to rush it, of course. I know the front door is locked, and it
couldn't be broken down quickly. I listened when those fellows went back,
and I heard no click, as though they had locked the door behind them.
They don't know anybody has been after them except me, and they believe I
am done for. They feel so safe out here, they are a bit careless. I'll
wager something we can walk straight in on the outfit; how does that
strike you?"

"As the only feasible plan. Let's crawl out of here."

The arrangements were quickly perfected; a short, whispered conference
in the dark; then one man crept silently away through the night toward
the front of the house. McAdams added a few more words of instruction to
the others, and, with West slightly in advance, revolvers drawn and
ready, the five stole forward in the direction of the rear porch. The
windows were either heavily curtained, or covered by outside shades, for
no gleam of light was anywhere visible. West mounted the back steps
silently, with McAdams close at his heels. A second later the entire
bunch of officers were grouped before the door, poised breathless,
listening for any sound from within. Nothing broke the impressive
silence, and McAdam's hand closed over the knob, which he turned slowly.
The door opened quietly into a darkened interior. For an instant he bent
forward, peering through the narrow crack, endeavouring to learn what
lay hidden beyond, the others quivering behind him. There was scarcely
the sound of a breath audible. The detective hesitated; such luck, such
carelessness on the part of criminals seemed almost uncanny; he half
suspected some trap. Then he became convinced that this was only the
result of recklessness--the fellows felt so safe in this hidden hole in
the woods as to neglect all precaution. He stepped cautiously inside,
leaving the door ajar for the others to follow. Then they
paused--straight ahead a double swinging door divided the kitchen in
which they were from another room beyond. Through the centre crack shone
a single bar of light, barely visible, and forth through that same
orifice came the sound of a voice speaking. McAdams flung up his hand in
signal, and then crept silently forward.

It was apparently a quarrel among thieves over the spoils, each fearful
lest the other was double-crossing. Hobart and "Red" Hogan were doing
most of the talking, although occasionally others chimed in, and once
there was a woman's voice added to the debate. Seemingly the whole gang
were present; a strong odour of tobacco smoke stole through the crack in
the door, and both Hobart and Hogan swore angrily. Who was to remain out
there on guard while Hobart and the girl returned to Chicago for the
money was evidently the question, Hogan wishing to accompany them to make
sure of his share. The woman sided with Hobart, the other men apparently
ranged up with "Red," and some very plain talking was indulged in.

McAdams listened grimly, the light through the crack showing his lips
curled in a smile of appreciation. He lowered his head, and with one eye
at the slight opening gained a glimpse of the lighted room beyond. A
moment, motionless, he stared in on the scene; then straightened up, and,
with revolver in hand, signalled to the others to close in closer. They
stood there for a tense instant, poised and eager; then the doors were
flung crashing back, and they leaped recklessly forward, out of the
darkness into the light. It was a furious fight--sharp, merciless,
uncompromising. The thieves, startled, desperate, were hurled back by the
first rush against the further wall, tables and chairs overturned, the
shrieking woman pushed headlong into one corner, and one of the fellows
downed by the crashing butt of a revolver. But the others rallied,
maddened, desperate, rats caught in a trap, fighting as animals fight.
Hobart fired, catching an assailant in the arm; Hogan snatched up a chair
and struck viciously at West, who leaped straight forward, breaking the
full force of the blow, and driving his own fist into the man's face. It
was all over within a minute's fierce fighting--the surprise turning the
trick. Hobart went down cursing, the gun kicked out of his hand, his arm
broken; Hogan, struggling still, but pinned to the floor by three men,
was given a blow to the chin which left him unconscious, while the other
two threw up their hands and yelled for mercy. McAdams wiped his
streaming face, and looked around.

It was a shambles, the floor spotted with blood, the table overturned and
broken, a blanket over one of the windows torn down, a smashed chair in
one corner. The detective who had been shot was still lying in front of
the door, "Red" lay motionless, a ghastly cut over his eye, and Hobart,
his arm dangling, sat propped up against the wall, cursing, malevolent,
but helpless. On the other side stood Sennett and "Dago Dave," their
hands high above their heads; each looking into the levelled barrel of a
gun. The woman had got to her knees, still dazed from the blow which had
felled her. The ex-service man smiled grimly, well satisfied.

"Some surprise party, eh, Jim?" he asked pleasantly. "This rather puts a
crimp in your little game, I would savy, old boy. Going to cop the whole
boodle tomorrow, was you?"

"Who the hell are you?"

"Well, if I answer your questions, perhaps you will answer mine. I am
McAdams of the City Hall Station, Chicago, and I know exactly what I am
here after. So the best thing you guys can do, is cough up. Who's that
girl who has been working with you?"

Hobart glared sullenly, but made no response.

"You'll not answer?"

"Oh, go to hell!"

"All right, old top. She is in this house somewhere, and can't get out.
Somers, look around a bit; try behind those curtains over there."

The officer stepped forward, but at the same instant the draperies
parted, and two girls stood beside each other in the opening, framed
against the brighter glare of light beyond--two girls, looking so alike,
except for dress and the arrangement of their hair, as to be almost
indistinguishable--Natalie white faced, frightened, gazing with wide-open
eyes on the strange scene before her; the other smiling, and audacious,
her glance full of defiance. It was the voice of the latter which broke
the silence.

"Am I the one you want, Mr. Bob McAdams?" she asked clearly. "Very well,
I am here."

McAdams stared at them both, gulping in startled surprise at the vision
confronting him, unable to find words. Then his eyes fixed themselves on
the face of the speaker.

"What!" he burst forth. "You, Del? Great Scott! your name was Hobart,
wasn't it? Why I never once connected you two together. Is--is this guy
your father?"

"I don't know about that," she returned indifferently. "It is a matter of
argument I believe. However, Bob, what's the odds now? I am the one
you're after, Mister fly-cop; and here I am."

She walked forward, almost proudly, her eyes shining, and gazing
fearlessly into his. He stepped back, one hand extended.

"No, Del, this must be a mistake. I--I can't believe it of you, you--you
are not a crook."

"Oh, yes I am," she insisted, but with a tremor in the low voice.
"I've never been anything else, Bobby boy--thanks, thanks to that
thing down there."

Natalie still remained poised uncertainly in the door-way, scarcely
realizing what was occurring before her; she saw suddenly a familiar
face, and held out her hands.

"Oh, Matt, what is it?" she cried. "Is--is it all over?"

"Yes, all over, dear; these are police officers."

"And that--that girl? She looks so much like me. Who is she? do
you know?"

West clasped her hands tightly, his voice sunk to a whisper.

"She is your sister, Natalie," he asserted soberly, "Your twin sister."

Her unbelieving eyes swept to his face.

"My sister; my twin sister? But I had none."

"Yes, but you did," he insisted gently. "You never knew it, but Percival
Coolidge did. This was his devilish scheme, plotted years ago when you
were born. Now here is the end of it--the girl is your sister. There is
no doubt of that."

"No doubt, you say! My sister!" Her head lifted, and there was a flame of
colour in her cheeks. "My sister!" she repeated, as though she would thus
make it seem more true. "Then I will go to her, Matthew West."

She loosened the clasp of her fingers and walked forward, unseeing her
surroundings, her eyes misted with tears. Straight across the room she
went, her hands outstretched to where the other shrank back from her in
embarrassment--between them still the gulf which love must bridge.


THE END





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enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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