Infomotions, Inc.Aunt Jane's Nieces at Millville / Dyne, Edith Van, 1856-1919



Author: Dyne, Edith Van, 1856-1919
Title: Aunt Jane's Nieces at Millville
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): wegg; mcnutt; patsy; louise; hucks; merrick; captain wegg; millville; beth; uncle john; ethel; nora; old hucks; joe; uncle; wegg farm; thompson; joe wegg; farm; cap'n wegg; joseph wegg; john; major; captain wegg's; john merrick; captain; ethel thompson; w
Contributor(s): Riley, Henry Thomas, 1816-1878 [Translator]
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Title: Aunt Jane's Nieces at Millville

Author: Edith Van Dyne

Release Date: December 1, 2003  [eBook #10359]

Language: English

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AUNT JANE'S NIECES AT MILLVILLE

BY

EDITH VAN DYNE

1908






LIST OF CHAPTERS

    I UNCLE JOHN'S FARM
   II THE AGENT
  III _MILLVILLE HEARS EXCITING NEWS_
   IV ETHEL MAKES PREPARATION
    V THE ARRIVAL OF THE NABOBS
   VI PEGGY PRESENTS HIS BILL
  VII LOUISE SCENTS A MYSTERY
 VIII THE LITTLE SCHOOL-MA'AM
   IX THE "LIVES OF THE SAINTS"
    X THE MYSTERY DEEPENS
   XI THREE AMATEUR DETECTIVES
  XII THE BAITING OF PEGGY McNUTT
 XIII BOB WEST, HARDWARE DEALER
  XIV THE MAJOR IS PUZZLED
   XV THE MAN IN HIDING
  XVI A MATTER OF SPECULATION
 XVII JOE TELLS OF "THE GREAT TROUBLE"
XVIII THE LOCKED CUPBOARD
  XIX THE COURT'N' OF SKIM CLARK
   XX A LOST CAUSE
  XXI THE TRAP IS SET
 XXII CAUGHT!
XXIII MR. WEST EXPLAINS
 XXIV PEGGY HAS REVENGE
  XXV GOOD NEWS AT LAST



CHAPTER I.

UNCLE JOHN'S FARM.

"How did I happen to own a farm?" asked Uncle John, interrupting his
soup long enough to fix an inquiring glance upon Major Doyle, who
sat opposite.

"By virtue of circumstance, my dear sir," replied the Major, composedly.
"It's a part of my duty, in attending to those affairs you won't look
afther yourself, to lend certain sums of your money to needy and
ambitious young men who want a start in life."

"Oh, Uncle! Do you do that?" exclaimed Miss Patricia Doyle, who sat
between her uncle and father and kept an active eye upon both.

"So the Major says," answered Uncle John, dryly.

"And it's true," asserted the other. "He's assisted three or four score
young men to start in business in the last year, to my certain
knowledge, by lending them sums ranging from one to three thousand
dollars. And it's the most wasteful and extravagant charity I ever
heard of."

"But I'm so glad!" cried Patsy, clapping her hands with a delighted
gesture. "It's a splendid way to do good--to help young men to get a
start in life. Without capital, you know, many a young fellow would
never get his foot on the first round of the ladder."

"And many will never get it there in any event," declared the Major,
with a shake of his grizzled head. "More than half the rascals that John
helps go to the dogs entirely, and hang us up for all they've borrowed."

"I told you to help _deserving_ young men," remarked Uncle John, with a
scowl at his brother-in-law.

"And how can I tell whether they're desarving or not?" retorted Major
Doyle, fiercely. "Do ye want me to become a sleuth, or engage detectives
to track the objects of your erroneous philanthropy? I just have to form
a judgment an' take me chances; and whin a poor devil goes wrong I
charge your account with the loss."

"But some of them must succeed," ventured Patsy, in a conciliatory tone.

"Some do," said John Merrick; "and that repays me for all my trouble."

"All _your_ throuble, sir?" queried the Major; "you mane all _my_
throuble--well, and your money. And a heap of throuble that confounded
farm has cost me, with one thing and another."

"What of it?" retorted the little round faced millionaire, leaning back
in his chair and staring fixedly at the other. "That's what I employ
you for."

"Now, now, gentlemen!" cried Patsy, earnestly. "I'll have no business
conversation at the table. You know my rules well enough."

"This isn't business," asserted the Major.

"Of course not," agreed Uncle John, mildly. "No one has any business
owning a farm. How did it happen. Major?"

The old soldier had already forgotten his grievance. He quarreled
persistently with his wealthy employer and brother-in-law--whom he
fairly adored--to prevent the possibility (as he often confided to
Patsy) of his falling down and worshiping him. John Merrick was a
multi-millionaire, to be sure; but there were palliating circumstances
that almost excused him. He had been so busily occupied in industry that
he never noticed how his wealth was piling up until he discovered it by
accident. Then he promptly retired, "to give the other fellows a
chance," and he now devoted his life to simple acts of charity and the
welfare and entertainment of his three nieces. He had rescued Major
Doyle and his daughter from a lowly condition and placed the former in
the great banking house of Isham, Marvin & Company, where John Merrick's
vast interests were protected and his income wisely managed. He had
given Patsy this cosy little apartment house at 3708 Willing Square and
made his home with her, from which circumstance she had come to be
recognized as his favorite niece.

John Merrick was sixty years old. He was short, stout and chubby-faced,
with snow-white hair, mild blue eyes and an invariably cheery smile.
Simple in his tastes, modest and retiring, lacking the education and
refinements of polite society, but shrewd and experienced in the affairs
of the world, the little man found his greatest enjoyment in the family
circle that he had been instrumental in founding. Being no longer
absorbed in business, he had come to detest its every detail, and so
allowed his bankers to care for his fortune and his brother-in-law to
disburse his income, while he himself strove to enjoy life in a shy and
boyish fashion that was as unusual in a man of his wealth as it was
admirable. He had never married.

Patricia was the apple of Uncle John's eye, and the one goddess
enshrined in her doting father's heart. Glancing at her, as she sat here
at table in her plain muslin gown, a stranger would be tempted to wonder
why. She was red-haired, freckled as a robin's egg, pug-nosed and
wide-mouthed. But her blue eyes were beautiful, and they sparkled with a
combination of saucy mischief and kindly consideration for others that
lent her face an indescribable charm.

Everyone loved Patsy Doyle, and people would gaze longer at her
smiling-lips and dancing eyes than upon many a more handsome but less
attractive face. She was nearly seventeen years old, not very tall, and
her form, to speak charitably, was more neat than slender.

"A while ago," said the Major, resuming the conversation as he carved
the roast, "a young fellow came to me who had invented a new sort of
pump to inflate rubber tires. He wanted capital to patent the pump and
put it on the market. The thing looked pretty good, John; so I lent him
a thousand of your money."

"Quite right," returned Uncle John, nodding.

"But pretty soon he came back with a sad tale. He was in a bad fix.
Another fellow was contesting his patent and fighting hard to head him
off. It would take a lot of money to fight back--three thousand, at
least. But he was decent about it, after all. His father had left him a
little farm at Millville. He couldn't say what it was worth, but there
were sixty acres and some good buildings, and he would deed it to you as
security if you would let him have three thousand more."

"So you took the farm and gave him the money?"

"I did, sir. Perhaps I am to blame; but I liked the young fellow's
looks. He was clean-cut and frank, and believed in his pump. I did more.
At the climax of the struggle I gave another thousand, making five
thousand in all."

"Well?"

"It's gone, John; and you've got the farm. The other fellows were too
clever for my young friend, Joseph Wegg, and knocked out his patent."

"I'm so sorry!" said Patsy, sympathetically.

The Major coughed.

"It's not an unusual tale, my dear; especially when John advances the
money," he replied.

"What became of the young man?" asked the girl.

"He's a competent chauffeur, and so he went to work driving an
automobile."

"Where is Millville?" inquired Uncle John, thoughtfully.

"Somewhere at the north of the State, I believe."

"Have you investigated the farm at all?"

"I looked up a real estate dealer living at Millville, and wrote him
about the Wegg farm. He said if any one wanted the place very badly it
might sell for three thousand dollars."

"Humph!"

"But his best information was to the effect that no one wanted it at
all."

Patsy laughed.

"Poor Uncle John!" she said.

The little man, however, was serious. For a time he ate with great
deliberation and revolved an interesting thought in his mind.

"Years ago." said he, "I lived in a country town; and I love the smell
of the meadows and the hum of the bees in the orchards. Any orchards at
my farm, Major?"

"Don't know, sir."

"Pretty soon," continued Uncle John, "it's going to be dreadfully hot in
New York, and we'll have to get away."

"Seashore's the place," remarked the Major. "Atlantic City, or
Swampscott, or--"

"Rubbish!" growled the other man, impatiently. "The girls and I have
just come from Europe. We've had enough sea to last us all _this_
season, at least. What we pine for is country life--pure milk, apple
trees and new mown hay."

"We, Uncle?" said Patsy.

"Yes, my dear. A couple of months on the farm will do all of my nieces
good. Beth is still with Louise, you know, and they must find the city
deadly dull, just now. The farm's the thing. And the Major can run up to
see us for a couple of weeks in the hot weather, and we'll all have a
glorious, lazy time."

"And we can take Mary along to do the cooking," suggested Patsy,
entering into the idea enthusiastically.

"And eat in our shirt-sleeves!" said Uncle John, with a glowing face.

"And have a cow and some pigs!" cried the girl.

"Pah!" said the Major, scornfully. "You talk as if it were a real farm,
instead of a place no one would have as a gift."

Uncle John looked sober again.

"Anyone live on the place, Major?" he inquired.

"I believe not. It's gone to ruin and decay the last few years."

"But it could be put into shape?"

"Perhaps so; at an expense that will add to your loss."

"Never mind that."

"If you want farm life, why don't you rent a respectable farm?" demanded
the Major.

"No; this is my farm. I own it, and it's my bounded duty to live on it,"
said Uncle John, stubbornly. "Write to that real estate fellow at
Millville tomorrow and tell him to have the place fixed up and put into
ship-shape order as quickly as possible. Tell him to buy some cows and
pigs and chickens, and hire a man to look after them. Also a horse and
buggy, some saddle horses----"

"Go slow, John. Don't leave such a job to a country real estate dealer.
If I remember right the fellow wrote like a blacksmith. If you want
horses and rigs, let Hutchinson send you down the right sort, with an
experienced groom and stable hands. But I'm not sure there will be a
place to put them."

"Oh, Uncle!" exclaimed Patsy; "don't let us have all those luxuries. Let
us live a simple life on the farm, and not degrade its charms by adding
city fixin's. The cow and the chickens are all right, but let's cut out
the horses until we get there. Don't you know, dear, that a big
establishment means lots of servants, and servants mean worry and
strife? I want to let down the bars for the cow when she moos, and milk
her myself."

"It takes a skilled mechanic to milk a cow," objected the Major.

"But Patsy's right!" cried her uncle, with conviction. "We don't want
any frills at all. Just tell your man, Major, to put the place into good
living condition."

"Patrichia," softly remarked the Major, with an admiring glance at his
small daughter, "has more sinse in her frizzled head than both of us put
together."

"If she hadn't more than you," retorted Uncle John, with a grin, "I'd
put a candle inside her noodle and call her a Jack-Lantern."



CHAPTER II.

THE AGENT.

The Major hunted up the real estate dealer's former letter as soon as he
reached his office next morning. The printed letter-head, somewhat
blurred, because too much ink had been used, read as follows:

  Marshall McMahon McNutt,
  Real Estate Dealer & Horses to Pasture
  by the week or month.

  Also Plymouth Rock Hens & Road Commissioner
  Agent for Radley's Lives of the Saints
  Insurance and Watermelons My Specialty

  Millville, Mount County, N.Y.

The Major shook his head doubtfully as he read the above announcement;
but Mr. McNutt was the only known person to whom he could appeal to
carry out John Merrick's orders. So he dictated the following letter:


_Dear Sir_:

_Mr. John Merrick, the present owner of the Wegg farm at Millville,
desires to spend his summer vacation on the premises, and therefore
requests you to have the house and grounds put in first-class shape as
soon as possible, and to notify me directly the work is done. Have the
house thoroughly cleaned, the grass mowed around it and the barns and
outbuildings repaired wherever it may be necessary. You are also
instructed to procure for Mr. Merrick's use a good Jersey cow, some pigs
and a dozen or so barnyard fowls. As several ladies will accompany the
owner and reside with him on the place, he would like you to report what
necessary furniture, if any, will be required for their comfort. Send
your bill to me and it will receive prompt attention_.

After several days this reply came:

_Mister Doyle you must be crazy as a loon. Send me fifty cold dollars as
an evvidence of good fayth and I wull see what can be done. Old Hucks is
livin on the place yit do you want him to git out or what? Yours fer a
square deal Marshall McMahon McNutt_.

"John," said the Major, exhibiting this letter, "you're on the wrong
tack. The man is justified in thinking we're crazy. Give up this idea
and think of something else to bother me."

But the new proprietor of the Wegg farm was obdurate. During the past
week he had indulged in sundry sly purchases, which had been shipped, in
his name to Chazy Junction, the nearest railway station to Millville.
Therefore, the "die had been cast," as far as Mr. Merrick was concerned,
for the purchases were by this time at the farm, awaiting him, and he
could not back out without sacrificing them. They included a set of
gardening tools, several hammocks, croquet and tennis sets, and a
remarkable collection of fishing tackle, which the sporting-goods man
had declared fitted to catch anything that swam, from a whale to a
minnow. Also, Uncle John decided to dress the part of a rural gentleman,
and ordered his tailor to prepare a corduroy fishing costume, a suit of
white flannel, one of khaki, and some old-fashioned blue jean overalls,
with apron front, which, when made to order by the obliging tailor, cost
about eighteen dollars a suit. To forego the farm meant to forego all
these luxuries, and Mr. Merrick was unequal to the sacrifice. Why, only
that same morning he had bought a charming cottage piano and shipped it
to the Junction for Patsy's use. That seemed to settle the matter
definitely. To be balked of his summer vacation on his own farm was a
thing Mr. Merrick would not countenance for a moment.

"Give me that letter, Major," he said; "I'll run this enterprise
myself."

The Major resigned with a sigh of relief.

Uncle John promptly sent the real estate agent a draft for five hundred
dollars, with instructions to get the farm in shape for occupancy at the
earliest possible day.

"If Old Hucks is a farm hand and a bachelor," he wrote, "let him stay
till I come and look him over. If he's a married man and has a family,
chuck him out at once. I'm sure you are a man of good taste and
judgment. Look over the furniture in the house and telegraph me what
condition it is in. Everything about the place must be made cozy and
comfortable, but I wish to avoid an appearance of vulgarity or
extravagance."

The answer to this was a characteristic telegram:

_Furniture on the bum, like everything else. Will do the best I can.
McNutt_.

Uncle John did not display this discouraging report to Patsy or her
father. A little thought on the matter decided him to rectify the
deficiencies, in so far as it lay in his power. He visited a large
establishment making a specialty of "furnishing homes complete," and
ordered a new kitchen outfit, including a modern range, a mission style
outfit for a dining-room, dainty summer furniture for the five chambers
to be occupied by his three nieces, the Major and himself, and a variety
of lawn benches, chairs, etc.

"Look after the details," he said to the dealer. "Don't neglect anything
that is pretty or useful."

"I won't, sir," replied the man, who knew his customer was "the great
John Merrick," who could furnish a city "complete," if he wished to, and
not count the cost.

Everything was to be shipped in haste to the Junction, and Uncle John
wrote McNutt to have it delivered promptly to the farm and put in order.

"As soon as things are in shape," he wrote, "wire me to that effect and
I'll come down. But don't let any grass grow under your feet. I'm a man
who requires prompt service."

The days were already getting uncomfortably warm, and the little man was
nervously anxious to see his farm. So were the nieces, for that matter,
who were always interested in the things that interested their eccentric
uncle. Besides Patricia Doyle, whom we have already introduced, these
nieces were Miss Louise Merrick, who had just celebrated her eighteenth
birthday, and Miss Elizabeth--or "Beth"--De Graf, now well past fifteen.
Beth lived in a small town in Ohio, but was then visiting her city
cousin Louise, so that both girls were not only available but eager to
accompany Uncle John to his new domain and assist him to enjoy his
summer outing.



CHAPTER III.

MILLVILLE HEARS EXCITING NEWS.

Millville is rather difficult to locate on the map, for the railroads
found it impossible to run a line there, _Chazy_ Junction, the nearest
station, is several miles away, and the wagon road ascends the foothills
every step of the distance. Finally you pass between Mount Parnassus
(whoever named it that?) and Little Bill Hill and find yourself on an
almost level plateau some four miles in diameter, with a placid lake in
the center and a fringe of tall pines around the edge. At the South,
where tower the northern sentries of the Adirondacks, a stream called
Little Bill Creek comes splashing and dashing over the rocks to force
its way noisily into the lake. When it emerges again it is humble and
sedate, and flows smoothly to Hooker's Falls, from whence it soon joins
a tributary that leads it to far away Champlain.

Millville is built where the Little Bill rushes into the lake. The old
mill, with its race and sluice-gates, still grinds wearily the scanty
dole of grain fed into its hoppers and Silas Caldwell takes his toll and
earns his modest living just as his father did before him and "Little
Bill" Thompson did before him.

Above the mill a rickety wooden bridge spans the stream, for here the
highway from Chary Junction reaches the village of Millville and passes
the wooden structures grouped on either side its main street on the way
to Thompson's Crossing, nine miles farther along. The town boasts
exactly eleven buildings, not counting the mill, which, being on the
other side of the Little Bill, can hardly be called a part of Millville
proper. Cotting's Store contains the postoffice and telephone booth, and
is naturally the central point of interest. Seth Davis' blacksmith shop
comes next; Widow Clark's Emporium for the sale of candy, stationery and
cigars adjoins that; McNutt's office and dwelling combined is next, and
then Thorne's Livery and Feed Stables. You must understand they are not
set close together, but each has a little ground of its own. On the
other side of the street is the hardware store, with farm machinery
occupying the broad platform before it, and then the Millville House, a
two-storied "hotel" with a shed-like wing for the billiard-room and card
tables. Nib Corkins' drug store, jewelry store and music store combined
(with sewing machines for a "side line"), is the last of the "business
establishments," and the other three buildings are dwellings occupied by
Sam Cotting, Seth Davis and Nick Thorne.

Dick Pearson's farm house is scarcely a quarter of a mile up the
highway, but it isn't in Millville, for all that. There's a cross lane
just beyond Pearson's, leading east and west, and a mile to westward is
the Wegg Farm, in the wildest part of the foothills.

It is a poor farming country around Millville. Strangers often wonder
how the little shops of the town earn a living for their proprietors;
but it doesn't require a great deal to enable these simple folk to live.
The tourist seldom penetrates these inaccessible foothills; the roads
are too rough and primitive for automobiles; so Millville is shamefully
neglected, and civilization halted there some half a century ago.

However, there was a genuine sensation in store for this isolated
hamlet, and it was the more welcome because anything in the way of a
sensation had for many years avoided the neighborhood.

Marshall McMahon McNutt, or, as he was more familiarly called by those
few who respected him most highly, "Marsh" McNutt (and sundry other
appellations by those who respected him not at all), became the
recipient of a letter from New York announcing the intention of a
certain John Merrick, the new owner of the Wegg Farm, to spend the
summer on the place. McNutt was an undersized man of about forty, with a
beardless face, scraggly buff-colored hair, and eyes that were big,
light blue and remarkably protruding. The stare of those eyes was
impenetrable, because observers found it embarrassing to look at them.
"Mac's" friends had a trick of looking away when they spoke to him, but
children gazed fascinated at the expressionless blue eyeballs and
regarded their owner with awe.

The "real estate agent" was considered an enterprising man by his
neighbors and a "poor stick" by his wife. He had gone to school at
Thompson's Crossing in his younger days; had a call to preach, but
failed because he "couldn't get religion"; inherited a farm from his
uncle and married Sam Cotting's sister, whose tongue and temper were so
sharp that everyone marveled at the man's temerity in acquiring them.
Finally he had lost one foot in a mowing machine, and the accident
destroyed his further usefulness to the extent of inducing him to
abandon the farm and move into town. Here he endeavored to find
something to do to eke out his meagre income; so he raised "thoroughbred
Plymouth Rocks," selling eggs for hatching to the farmers; doctored sick
horses and pastured them in the lot back of his barn, the rear end of
which was devoted to "watermelons in season"; sold subscription books to
farmers who came to the mill or the village store; was elected "road
commissioner" and bossed the neighbors when they had to work out their
poll-tax, and turned his hand to any other affairs that offered a
penny's recompense. The "real estate business" was what Seth Davis
labeled "a blobbering bluff," for no property had changed hands in the
neighborhood in a score of years, except the lot back of the mill, which
was traded for a yoke of oxen, and the Wegg farm, which had been sold
without the agent's knowledge or consent.

The only surprising thing about the sale of the Wegg farm was that
anyone would buy it. Captain Wegg had died three years before, and his
son Joe wandered south to Albany, worked his way through a technical
school and then disappeared in the mazes of New York. So the homestead
seemed abandoned altogether, except for the Huckses.

When Captain Wegg died Old Hucks, his hired man, and Hucks' blind wife
Nora were the only dependents on the place, and the ancient couple had
naturally remained there when Joe scorned his inheritance and ran away.
After the sale they had no authority to remain but were under no
compulsion to move out, so they clung to their old quarters.

When McNutt was handed his letter by the postmaster and storekeeper he
stared at its contents in a bewildered way that roused the loungers to
amused laughter.

"What's up, Peggy?" called Nick Thorne from his seat on the counter.
"Somebody gone off'n me hooks an' left ye a fortun'?"

"Peggy" was one of McNutt's most popular nicknames, acquired because he
wore a short length of pine where his absent foot should have been.

"Not quite," was the agent's slow reply; "but here's the blamedest
funniest communicate a man ever got! It's from some critter that knows
the man what bought the Wegg farm."

"Let's hear it," remarked Cotting, the store-keeper, a fat individual
with a bald head, who was counting matches from a shelf into the public
match-box. He allowed "the boys" just twenty free matches a day.

So the agent read the letter in an uncertain halting voice, and when he
had finished it the little group stared at one another for a time in
thoughtful silence.

"Wall, I'll be plunked," finally exclaimed the blacksmith. "Looks like
the feller's rich, don't it?"

"Ef he's rich, what the tarnation blazes is he comin' here for?"
demanded Nib Corkins, the dandy of the town. "I was over t' Huntingdon
las' year, 'n' seen how the rich folks live. Boys, this h'ain't no place
for a man with money."

"That depends," responded Cotting, gravely. "I'm sure we'd all be better
off if we had a few real bloods here to squander their substance."

"Well, here's a perposal to squander, all right," said McNutt. "But the
question is, Does he know what he's runnin' up agin', and what it'll
cost to do all the idiotic things as he says?"

"Prob'ly not," answered the storekeeper.

"It's the best built farm house 'round thest parts," announced the
miller, who had been silent until now. "Old Wegg were a sea-cap'n once,
an' rich. He dumped a lot o' money inter that place, an' never got it
out agin', nuther."

"'Course not. Sixty acres o' cobble-stone don't pay much divvydends,
that I ever hearn tell on," replied Seth.

"There's some good fruit, though," continued Caldwell, "an' the berries
allus paid the taxes an' left a little besides. Ol' Hucks gits along
all right."

"Jest lives, 'n' that's all."

"Well, thet's enough," said the miller. "It's about all any of us do,
ain't it?"

"Do ye take it this 'ere Merrick's goin' to farm, er what?" asked Nib,
speculatively.

"I take it he's plumb crazy," retorted the agent, rubbing the fringe of
hair behind his ears. "One thing's certain boys, I don't do nuthin'
foolish till I see the color of his money."

"Make him send you ten dollars in advance," suggested Seth.

"Make him send fifty," amended the store-keeper. "You can't buy a cow,
an' pigs, an' chickens, an' make repairs on much less."

"By jinks, I will!" cried McNutt, slapping his leg for emphasis. "I'll
strike him fer a cool fifty, an' if the feller don't pay he kin go to
blazes. Them's my sentiments, boys, an' I'll stand by 'em!"

The others regarded him admiringly, so the energetic little man stumped
away to indite his characteristic letter to Major Doyle.

If the first communication had startled the little village, the second
fairly plunged it into a panic of excitement. Peggy's hand trembled as
he held out the five hundred dollar draft and glared from it to his
cronies with a white face.

"Suff'rin' Jehu!" gasped Nick Thorne. "Is it good?"

The paper was passed reverently around, and examined with a succession
of dubious head-shakes.

"Send for Bob West," suggested Cotting. "He's seen more o' that sort o'
money than any of us."

The widow Clarke's boy, who was present, ran breathlessly to fetch the
hardware dealer, who answered the summons when he learned that Peggy
McNutt had received a "check" for five hundred dollars.

West was a tall, lean man with shrewd eyes covered by horn spectacles
and a stubby gray mustache. He was the potentate of the town and reputed
to be worth, at a conservative estimate, in the neighborhood of ten
thousand dollars--"er more, fer that matter; fer Bob ain't tellin' his
business to nobody." Hardware and implements were acknowledged to be
paying merchandise, and West lent money on farm mortgages, besides. He
was a quiet man, had a good library in his comfortable rooms over the
store, and took the only New York paper that found its way into
Millville. After a glance at the remittance he said:

"It's a draft on Isham, Marvin & Company, the New York bankers. Good as
gold, McNutt. Where did you get it?"

"A lunitic named John Merrick, him that's bought the Cap'n Wegg farm,
sent it on. Here's his letter, Bob."

The hardware dealer read it carefully and gave a low whistle.

"There may be more than one John Merrick," he said, thoughtfully. "But
I've heard of one who is many times a millionaire and a power in the
financial world. What will you do for him, McNutt, to expend this money
properly?"

"Bless't if I know!" answered the man, his eyes bulging with a helpless
look. "What 'n thunder _kin_ I do, Bob?"

West smiled.

"I don't wish to interfere in business matters," said he, "but it is
plainly evident that the new owner wishes the farm house put into such
shape that it will be comfortable for a man accustomed to modern
luxuries. You don't know much about such things, Mac, and Mr. Merrick
has made a blunder in employing your services in such a delicate matter.
But do the best you can. Ride across to the Wegg place and look it over.
Then get Taft, the carpenter, to fix up whatever is necessary. I'll sell
you the lumber and nails, and you've got more money than you can
probably use. Telegraph Mr. Merrick frankly how you find things; but
remember the report must not be based upon your own mode of life but
upon that of a man of wealth and refinement. Especially he must be
posted about the condition of the furniture, which I can guess is
ill-suited to his needs."

"How 'bout Hucks?" asked the agent.

They all hung eagerly on West's reply, for Old Hucks was a general
favorite. The fact that the old retainer of the Weggs had a blind wife
to whom he was tenderly devoted made the proposition of his leaving the
farm one of intense interest. Old Hucks and his patient wife had not
been so much "hired help" as a part of the Wegg establishment, and it
was doubtful if they had ever received any wages. It was certain that
Hucks had not a dollar in the world at the present time, and if turned
out of their old home the ancient couple must either starve or go to the
poorhouse.

"Say nothing further about Old Hucks or his wife to Mr. Merrick,"
advised West, gravely. "When the owner comes he will need servants, and
Hucks is a very capable old fellow. Let that problem rest until the time
comes for solution. If the old folks are to be turned out, make John
Merrick do it; it will put the responsibility on his shoulders."

"By dum, yer right, Bob!" exclaimed McNutt. slapping the counter with
his usual impulsiveness. "I'll do the best I kin for the rich man, an'
let the poor man alone."

After an examination of the farm house and other buildings (which seemed
in his eyes almost palatial), and a conference with Alonzo Taft, the
carpenter, the agent began to feel that his task was going to prove an
easy one. He purchased a fine Jersey cow of Will Johnson, sold his own
flock of Plymouth Rocks at a high price to Mr. Merrick, and hired Ned
Long to work around the yard and help Hucks mow the grass and "clean up"
generally.

But now his real trouble and bewilderment began. A carload of new
furniture and "fixin's" was sidetracked at the junction, and McNutt was
ordered to get it unloaded and carted to the farm without delay. There
were four hay-rack loads of the "truck," altogether, and when it was all
dumped into the big empty barn at the Wegg farm the poor agent had no
idea what to do with it.

"See here," said Nick Thorne, who had done the hauling, "you've got to
let a woman inter this deal, Peggy."

"That's what my wife says, gum-twist her."

"Keep yer ol' woman out'n it. She'd spile a rotten apple."

"Who then, Nick?"

"Why, school-teacher's the right one, I guess. They've got a vacation
now, an' likely she'll come over here an' put things to rights. Peggy,
that air new furniture's the rambunctionest stuff thet ever come inter
these parts, an' it'll make the ol' house bloom like a rose in Spring.
But folks like us hain't got no call to tech it. You fetch
school-teacher."

Peggy sighed. He was keeping track of his time and charging John Merrick
at the rate of two dollars a day, being firmly resolved to "make hay
while the sun was shining" and absorb as much of the money placed in his
hands as possible. To let "school-teacher" into this deal and be obliged
to pay her wages was an undesirable thing to do; yet he reflected that
it might be wise to adopt Nick Thorne's suggestion.

So next morning he drove the liveryman's sorrel mare out to Thompson's
Crossing, where the brick school-house stood on one corner and Will
Thompson's residence on another. A mile away could be seen the spires of
the little church at Hooker's Falls.

McNutt hitched his horse to Thompson's post, walked up the neat pebbled
path and knocked at the door.

"Ethel in?" he asked of the sad-faced woman who, after some delay,
answered his summons.

"She's in the garden, weedin'."

"I'll go 'round," said the agent.

The garden was a bower of roses. Among them stood a slender girl in a
checked gingham, tying vines to a trellis.

"Morn'n', Ethel," said the visitor.

The girl smiled at him. She was not very pretty, because her face was
long and wan, and her nose a bit one-sided. But her golden hair sparkled
in the sun like a mass of spun gold, and the smile was winning in its
unconscious sweetness. Surely, such attractions were enough for a mere
country girl.

Ethel Thompson had, however, another claim to distinction. She had been
"eddicated," as her neighbors acknowledged in awed tones, and "took a
diploma from a college school at Troy." Young as she was, Ethel had
taught school for two years, and might have a life tenure if she cared
to retain the position. As he looked at her neat gown and noted the
grace and ease of her movements the agent acknowledged that he had
really "come to the right shop" to untangle his perplexing difficulties.

"New folks is comin' to the Cap'n Wegg farm," he announced, as a
beginning.

She turned and looked at him queerly.

"Has Joe sold the place?" she asked.

"Near a year ago. Some fool rich man has bought it and is comin' down
here to spend his summer vacation, he says. Here, read his letters.
They'll explain it better 'n I can."

Her hand trembled a little as she took the letters McNutt pulled from
his pocket. Then she sat upon a bench and read them all through. By that
time she had regained her composure.

"The gentleman is somewhat eccentric," she remarked; "but he will make
no mistake in coming to this delightful place, if he wishes quiet
and rest."

"Don't know what he's after, I'm sure," replied the man. "But he's sent
down enough furniture an' truck to stock a hotel, an' I want to know ef
you'll go over an' put it in the rooms, an' straighten things out."

"Me!"

"Why, yes. You've lived in cities some, an' know how citified things go.
Con-twist it, Ethel, there's things in the bunch that neither I ner Nick
Thorne ever hearn tell of, much less knowin' what they're used for."

The girl laughed.

"When are the folks coming?" she asked.

"When I git things in shape. They've sent some money down to pay fer
what's done, so you won't have to work fer nuthin'."

"I will, though," responded the girl, in a cheery tone. "It will delight
me to handle pretty things. Are Nora and Tom still there?"

"Oh, yes. I had orders to turn the Huckses out, ye see; but I didn't do
it."

"I'm glad of that," she returned, brightly "Perhaps we may arrange it so
they can stay. Old Nora's a dear."

"But she's blind."

"She knows every inch of the Wegg house, and does her work more
thoroughly than many who can see. When do you want me, Peggy?"

"Soon's you kin come."

"Then I'll be over tomorrow morning."

At that moment a wild roar, like that of a beast, came from the house.
The sad faced woman ran down a passage; a door slammed, and then all was
quiet again.

McNutt hitched uneasily from the wooden foot to the good one.

"How's ol' Will?" he enquired, in a low voice.

"Grandfather's about as usual," replied the girl, with trained
composure.

"Still crazy as a bedbug?"

"At times he becomes a bit violent; but those attacks never last long."

"Don't s'pose I could see him?" ventured the agent, still in hesitating
tones.

"Oh, no; he has seen no visitor since Captain Wegg died."

"Well, good-bye, Ethel. See you at the farm in the mornin'."

The girl sat for a long time after McNutt had driven away, seemingly
lost in revery.

"Poor Joe!" she sighed, at last. "Poor, foolish Joe. I wonder what has
become of him?"



CHAPTER IV.

ETHEL MAKES PREPARATION.

The Wegg homestead stood near the edge of a thin forest of pines through
which Little Bill Creek wound noisily on its way to the lake. At the
left was a slope on which grew a neglected orchard of apple and pear
trees, their trunks rough and gnarled by the struggle to outlive many
severe winters. There was a rude, rocky lane in front, separated from
the yard by a fence of split pine rails, but the ground surrounding the
house was rich enough to grow a profusion of June grass.

The farm was of very little value. Back of the yard was a fairly good
berry patch, but aside from that some two acres of corn and a small
strip of timothy represented all that was fertile of the sixty acres the
place contained.

But the house itself was the most imposing dwelling for many miles
around. Just why that silent old sea-dog, Jonas Wegg, had come into this
secluded wilderness to locate was a problem the Millville people had
never yet solved. Certainly it was with no idea of successfully farming
the land he had acquired, for half of it was stony and half covered by
pine forest. But the house he constructed was the wonder of the
country-side in its day. It was a big, two-story building, the lower
half being "jest cobblestones," as the neighbors sneeringly remarked,
while the upper half was "decent pine lumber." The lower floor of this
main building consisted of a single room with a great cobble-stone
fireplace in the center of the rear wall and narrow, prison-like windows
at the front and sides. There was a small porch in front, with a great
entrance door of carved dark wood of a foreign look, which the Captain
had brought from some port in Massachusetts. A stair in one corner of
the big living room led to the second story, where four large
bed-chambers were arranged. These had once been plastered and papered,
but the wall-paper had all faded into dull, neutral tints and in one of
the rooms a big patch of plaster had fallen away from the ceiling,
showing the bare lath. Only one of the upstairs rooms had ever been
furnished, and it now contained a corded wooden bedstead, a cheap pine
table and one broken-legged chair. Indeed, the main building, which I
have briefly described, had not been in use for many years. Sometimes,
when Captain Wegg was alive, he would build a log fire in the great
fireplace on a winter's evening and sit before it in silent mood until
far into the night. And once, when his young wife had first occupied the
new house, the big room had acquired a fairly cosy and comfortable
appearance. But it had always been sparsely furnished, and most of the
decadent furniture that now littered it was useless and unlovely.

The big wooden lean-to at the back, and the right wing, were at this
time the only really habitable parts of the mansion. The lean-to had an
entrance from the living room, but Old Hucks and Nora his wife used the
back door entirely. It consisted of a large and cheerful kitchen and two
rooms off it, one used as a store room and the other as a sleeping
chamber for the aged couple.

The right wing was also constructed of cobble-stone, and had formerly
been Captain Wegg's own chamber. After his death his only child, Joe,
then a boy of sixteen, had taken possession of his father's room; but
after a day or two he had suddenly quitted the house where he was born
and plunged into the great outside world--to seek his fortune, it was
said. Decidedly there was no future for the boy here; in the cities
lurks opportunity.

When Ethel Thompson arrived in the early morning that followed her
interview with McNutt she rode her pony through the gap in the rail
fence, across the June grass, and around to the back door. On a bench
beside the pump an old woman sat shelling peas. Her form was thin but
erect and her hair snowy white. She moved with alertness, and as the
girl dismounted and approached her she raised her head and turned a
pleasant face with deep-set, sightless gray eyes upon her visitor.

"Good morning, Ethel, dear," she said. "I knew the pony's whinney.
You're up early today."

"Good morning, Nora," responded the schoolteacher, advancing to kiss the
withered cheek. "Are you pretty well?"

"In body, dear. In mind both Tom 'n' me's pretty bad. I s'pose we
couldn't 'a 'spected to stay here in peace forever; but the blow's come
suddin-like, an' it hurts us."

"Where is Tom?"

"In the barn, lookin' over all the won'erful things the rich nabob has
sent here. He says most things has strips o' wood nailed over 'em; but
some hasn't; an' Tom looks 'em over keerful an' then tells me 'bout 'em.
He's gone to take another look at a won'erful new cook-stove, so's he
kin describe it to me right pertickler."

"Is he worried, Nora?"

"We's both worried, Ethel. Our time's come, an' no mistake. Peggy McNutt
says as he had real orders to turn Hucks out if he was a married man;
an' there's no disclaimin' he's married, is there? Peggy's a kind man,
an' tol' us to keep stayin' 'til the nabobs arrove. Then I guess we'll
git our walkin'-papers, mighty quick."

"I'm not sure of that," said the girl, thoughtfully. "They must be
hard-hearted, indeed, to turn you out into the world; and you are both
capable people, and would serve the city folks faithfully and well."

"It's my eyes," replied the other, in a simple, matter-of-fact tone.
"Hucks might wait on the nabobs all right, but they won't tol'rate a
blind woman a minute, I'm sure. An' Hucks 'd ruther be with me in the
poor-house than to let me go alone."

"Right y' air, Nora girl!" cried a merry voice, and as the blind woman
looked up with a smile Ethel turned around to face "Old Hucks."

A tall man, but much bent at the shoulders and limping in one leg from
an old hurt aggravated by rheumatism. His form was as gnarled as the
tree-trunks in the apple-orchard, and twisted almost as fantastically.
But the head, uplifted from the stooped shoulders and held a little to
one side, was remarkable enough to attract attention. It had scanty
white locks and a fringe of white whiskers under the chin, and these
framed a smiling face and features that were extremely winning in
expression. No one could remember ever seeing Old Hucks when he was not
smiling, and the expression was neither set nor inane, but so cheery and
bright that you were tempted to smile with him, without knowing why. For
dress he wore a much patched pair of woolen trousers and a "hickory"
shirt of faded blue, with rough top boots and a dilapidated straw hat
that looked as if it might have outlived several generations.

As Ethel greeted the man she looked him over carefully and sighed at the
result; for certainly, as far as personal appearances went, he seemed as
unlikely a person to serve a "nabob" as could well be imagined. But the
girl knew Thomas' good points, and remembering them, took courage.

"If the worst comes," she said, brightly, "you are both to come to us to
live. I've arranged all that with grandmother, you know. But I'm not
much afraid of your being obliged to leave here. From all accounts this
Mr. Merrick is a generous and free-hearted man, and I've discovered that
strangers are not likely to be fearsome when you come to know them. The
unknown always makes us childishly nervous, you see, and then we forget
it's wrong to borrow trouble."

"True's gospil," said Old Hucks. "To know my Nora is to love her.
Ev'body loves Nora. An' the good Lord He's took'n care o' us so long, it
seems like a sort o' sacrelidge to feel that all thet pretty furn'ture
in the barn spells on'y poor-house to us. Eh, Ethel?"

McNutt arrived just then, with big Ned Long, Lon Taft the carpenter, and
Widow Clark, that lady having agreed to "help with the cleanin'." She
didn't usually "work out," but was impelled to this task as much through
curiosity to see the new furniture as from desire to secure the wages.

At once the crowd invaded the living room, and after a glance around
Ethel ordered every bit of the furniture, with the exception of two
antique but comfortable horse-hair sofas, carried away to the barn and
stored in the loft. It did not take long to clear the big room, and then
the Widow Clark swept out and began to scrub the floor and woodwork,
while school-teacher took her men into the right wing and made another
clearing of its traps.

This room interested the girl very much. In it Joe was born and frail
Mrs. Wegg and her silent husband had both passed away. It had two broad
French windows with sash doors opening on to a little porch of its own
which was covered thickly with honeysuckle vines. A cupboard was built
into a niche of the thick cobble-stone wall, but it was locked and the
key was missing.

Upstairs the girl had the rubbish removed for the first time in a
generation. The corded bedstead in the north room was sent to join its
fellows in the barn loft, and Ned Long swept everything clean in
readiness for the scrubbers.

Then, while Widow Clark and Nora cleaned industriously--for the blind
woman insisted on helping and did almost as much work as her
companion--the "men folks" proceeded to the barn and under the
school-teacher's directions uncrated the new furniture and opened the
bales of rugs and matting. Lon Taft was building new steps to the front
porch, but Old Hucks and Ned and McNutt reverently unpacked the "truck"
and set each piece carefully aside. How they marveled at the enameled
beds and colored wicker furniture, the easy chairs for lounging, the
dainty dressers and all the innumerable pretty things discovered in
boxes, bales and barrels, you may well imagine. Even Ethel was amazed
and delighted at the thoughtfulness of the dealer in including
everything that might be useful or ornamental in a summer home.

The next few days were indeed busy ones, for the girl entered
enthusiastically upon her task to transform the old house, and with the
material John Merrick had so amply provided she succeeded admirably. The
little maid was country bred, but having seen glimpses of city life and
possessing much native good taste, she arranged the rooms so charmingly
that they would admit of scant improvement. The big living room must
serve as a dining room as well as parlor; but so spacious was it that
such an arrangement proved easy. No especial furniture for the living
room had been provided, but by stealing a few chairs and odd pieces from
the ample supply provided for the bedrooms, adding the two quaint sofas
and the upright piano and spreading the rugs in an artistic fashion,
Ethel managed to make the "parlor part" of the room appear very cosy.
The dining corner had a round table and high-backed chairs finished in
weathered oak, and when all was in order the effect was not
inharmonious. Some inspiration had induced Mr. Merrick to send down a
batch of eighteen framed pictures, procured at a bargain but from a
reliable dealer. He thought they might "help out," and Ethel knew they
would, for the walls of the old house were quite bare of ornament. She
made them go as far as possible, and Old Hucks, by this time thoroughly
bewildered, hung them where she dictated and made laughable attempts to
describe the subjects to blind Nora.

A telegram, telephoned over from the junction, announced the proposed
arrival of the party on Thursday morning, and the school-teacher was
sure that everything would be in readiness at that time. The paint on
Lon's repairs would be dry, the grass in the front yard was closely
cropped, and the little bed of flowers between the corn-crib and the
wood-shed was blooming finely. The cow was in the stable, the pigs in
the shed, and the Plymouth Rocks strutted over the yard with an absurd
assumption of pride.

Wednesday Ethel took Old Hucks over to Millville and bought for him from
Sam Cotting a new suit of dark gray "store clothes," together with
shirts, shoes and underwear. She made McNutt pay the bill with John
Merrick's money, agreeing to explain the case to "the nabob" herself,
and back up the agent in the unauthorized expenditure. Nora had a new
gingham dress, too, which the girl had herself provided, and on Thursday
morning Ethel was at the Wegg farm bright and early to see the old
couple properly attired to receive their new master. She also put a last
touch to the pretty furniture and placed vases of her own roses and
sweet peas here and there, to render the place homelike and to welcome
the expected arrivals.

"If they don't like it," said the girl, smiling, "they're rather hard to
please."

"They're sure to like it, dear," answered old Nora, touching with
sensitive fingers the flowers, the books and the opened piano. "If they
don't, they're heretics an' sinners, an' there's no good in 'em
whatever."

Then the little school-teacher bade good-bye to Hucks and his wife, told
them to keep brave hearts, and rode her pony cross-lots to
Thompson's Crossing.



CHAPTER V.

THE ARRIVAL OF THE NABOBS.

"Well," said Uncle John, looking out of the car window, "we're nearly
there."

He didn't look the millionaire, or nabob, or anything else but a modest
little man full of joy at getting into the country. His clothing was not
distinctive of wealth, his hands were hard and roughened by years of
toil, and his necktie had a plebeian trick of sliding under his left
ear. Uncle John was just a plain, simple, good-hearted fellow before he
acquired riches, and the possession of millions had in no way altered
his nature.

The three nieces and himself were the only passengers in the coach,
aside from rosy-cheeked Mary, Patricia's cook. Finding that the road did
not run a sleeper to Chazy Junction, Mr. Merrick had ordered one
attached to the train for his especial use; but he did not allow even
Patsy to suspect this extravagance.

"It seems to me," observed Beth, as she peered out while the train
puffed up the steep grade, "as if we'd arrived at the heart of a
wilderness, where farms are likely to be as scarce as Egyptian temples."

"The truth is," replied her uncle, with a cheerful smile, "that none of
us has an idea where we're going, or what that farm of mine looks like.
We're explorers, like Stanley in mid-Africa. That's the beauty of this
excursion."

"I'm glad I didn't bring any party dresses," said dainty Louise, shaking
her blonde head with a doubting expression toward the rock
covered hills.

"Why, you might need them for hay-rides," remarked Patsy, with a laugh;
"that is, if any hay grows in this land of quarries."

The train stopped with a jerk, started with another jerk, and stopped
again with a third that made them catch their breaths and hold fast to
the seats.

"Chazy Junction, seh," said the colored porter, entering in haste to
seize their bags.

They alighted on a small wooden platform and their hand baggage was
deposited beside them. Their trunks were being tumbled off a car
far ahead.

Then the whistle screamed, the train gave a jerk and proceeded on its
way, and Uncle John, his nieces and their maid, found themselves
confronting a solitary man in shirtsleeves, who yawned languidly, thrust
his hands in his pockets and stared at the strangers unmoved.

It was six o'clock. The July sun was set in a clear sky, but the air was
cool and pleasant. Uncle John glanced around with the eye of a practiced
traveler. Back of the station was a huddle of frame buildings set in a
hollow. The station-tender was the only person in sight.

"Isn't there a carriage to meet us?" asked Louise, in a slightly frigid
tone.

"Seems not," replied her uncle. Then he addressed the native. "Can you
tell us, sir, where Millville is?" he asked.

"Sev'n mile up the road."

"Thank you kindly. Is there any carriage to be had?"

The man smiled sardonically.

"Kerridges," he said, "don't grow in these parts. I take it you be the
party fer the Wegg farm."

"You're right," said Mr. Merrick. "I'm glad we are getting acquainted.
Folks all well?"

"Pretty fair."

"Now, sir, we want some breakfast, to begin with, and then some way to
get to my farm."

"Peggy orter 'a' looked after you," remarked the man, eyeing the dainty
gowns of the young ladies reflectively.

"Who's Peggy?"

"That's McNutt, the man you hired to do things."

"Ah, yes; he surely ought to have sent some sort of a team to meet us,"
agreed Uncle John. "What's that group of houses yonder?"

"Thet's the Junction."

"Any hotel?"

"Sure."

"And a livery stable?"

"'Course there is."

"Then we'll get along," said Uncle John, assuming a sudden brisk manner.
"Just keep your eye on our baggage till we get back, my good fellow.
There are no people to interfere with it, but some bears or tigers might
come out of the hills and eat it up. Now, girls, away we go!"

Uncle John's nieces were not so greatly dismayed at this experience as
might have been expected. They had recently accompanied their erratic
relative on a European trip and had learned to be patient under
difficulties.

A quarter of a mile down the dusty road they came to the hotel, a
dismal, unclean looking place that smelled of stale beer. Uncle John
routed out the proprietor.

"Folks up?" he inquired.

"Long ago," said the man.

"Get us some boiled eggs, bread and butter and plenty of fresh
milk--right away," ordered Mr. Merrick. "The quicker it comes the more
I'll pay you. Bring a table out here on the porch and we'll eat in the
open air. Where's the livery stable--eh? Oh, I see. Now, step lively, my
man, and your fortune's made. I'll add a quarter of a dollar for every
five minutes you save us in time."

The fellow stared, then woke up with a start and disappeared within.

"By gum, I'll bet a hen it's thet air nabob!" he muttered.

Leaving his girls and Mary to sit on the wooden benches of the porch
Uncle John crossed the road to the livery stable, where he discovered a
man and a boy engaged in cleaning the half dozen sorry looking nags the
establishment contained. A three-seated democrat wagon was engaged to
carry the party to the Wegg farm at Millville, and a rickety lumber
wagon would take the baggage. The liveryman recognized his customer as
soon as the Wegg farm was mentioned, and determined to "do the city guy
up brown."

"Road's bad an' up hill, an' my time's vallyble," he said in a surly
voice. "I'll hev to charge ye three dollars."

"For what?" asked Uncle John, quietly.

"Fer the two teams to Millville."

"Get them harnessed right away, load up the baggage, and have the
democrat at the hotel in twenty minutes. Here's five dollars, and if
you'll look pleasant you may keep the change."

"Blame my thick skull!" muttered the livery-man, as he watched the
little man depart. "What a cussed fool I were not to say four dollars
instead o' three!"

But he called to his boy to hurry up, and in the stipulated time the
teams were ready.

Uncle John and his nieces were just finishing their eggs, which were
fresh and delicious. The milk was also a revelation. Through the windows
of the hotel several frowsy looking women and an open mouthed boy were
staring hard at the unconscious city folk.

Even Louise was in a mood for laughter as they mounted to the high seats
of the democrat. The glorious air, the clear sunshine and a satisfactory
if simple breakfast had put them all in a good humor with the world.

They stopped at the station for their hand baggage, and saw that the
trunks were properly loaded on the lumber wagon. Then, slowly, they
started to mount the long hill that began its incline just across
the tracks.

"Sure this is the way?" inquired Uncle John, perched beside the driver.

"I were horned here," answered the man, conclusively.

"That seems to settle it. Pretty big hill, that one ahead of us."

"It's the Little Bill. When we cross it, we're at Millville."

Seven miles of desolate country could not dampen the spirits of the
girls. Secretly each one was confident that Uncle John's unknown farm
would prove to be impossible, and that in a day or so at the latest they
would retrace their steps. But in the meantime the adventure was novel
and interesting, and they were prepared to accept the inevitable with
all graciousness.

When, after the long climb up the hill, they saw the quaint mill and the
town lying just across rushing Little Bill Creek; when from their
elevation they beheld the placid lake half hidden by its stately pines
and gazed up the rugged and picturesque foot-hills to the great
mountains beyond, then indeed they drew in deep breaths and began, as
Patsy exclaimed, to be "glad they came."

"That Millville?" asked Uncle John, eagerly.

"Yes, sir."

"And which of those houses belongs to the Wegg farm?"

"Ye can't see the Wegg house from here; the pines hide it," said the
man, urging his horses into a trot as they approached the bridge.

"Pretty good farm?" inquired Uncle John, hopefully.

"Worst in the county," was the disconcerting reply. "Half rocks an' half
trees. Ol' Cap'n Wegg wasn't no farmer. He were a sea-cap'n; so it's no
wonder he got took in when he bought the place."

Uncle John sighed.

"I've just bought it myself," he observed.

"There's a ol' addige," said the man, grinning, "'bout a fool an' his
money. The house is a hunker; but w'at's the use of a house without
a farm?"

"What is a 'hunker,' please?" inquired Louise, curiously.

The liveryman ventured no reply, perhaps because he was guiding his
horses over the rickety bridge.

"Want to stop at the village?" he asked.

"No; drive on to the farm."

The scene was so rude and at the same time so picturesque that it
impressed them all very agreeably. Perhaps they were the more delighted
because they had expected nothing admirable in this all but forsaken
spot. They did not notice the people who stared after them as they
rattled through the village, or they would have seen Uncle John's
"agent" in front of his office, his round eyes fairly bulging from
his head.

It had never occurred to McNutt to be at the Junction to welcome his
patron. He had followed his instructions and set Mr. Merrick's house in
order, and there he considered that his duty ended. He would, of course,
call on the nabob, presently, and render an account of the money he
had received.

Sam Cotting, the store-keeper, gazed after the livery team with a sour
countenance, he resented the fact that five big-boxes of groceries had
been forwarded from the city to the Wegg farm. "What'n thunder's the use
havin' city folks here, ef they don't buy nothin'?" he asked the boys;
and they agreed it was no use at all.

Proceeding at a smart trot the horses came to the Pearson farm, where
they turned into the Jane at the left and straightway subsided to a slow
walk, the wheels bumping and jolting over the stony way.

"What's this?" exclaimed Uncle John, who had narrowly escaped biting his
tongue through and through. "Why did you turn down here?"

"It's the road," returned the driver, with a chuckle; "it's the
cobble-stone lane to yer farm, an' the farm's 'bout the same sort o'
land as the lane."

For a few moments the passengers maintained a dismal silence.

"The country's lovely," said Patsy, glancing at the panorama as they
mounted a slight elevation.

"Are you sure, Uncle, that there is a house, or any place of refuge, on
your farm?" asked Louise, in a mischievous tone.

"Why, there's a rumor of a house, and the rumor says it's a hunker,"
replied Mr. Merrick, in a voice that betrayed a slight uneasiness.

"Doubtless the house matches the farm," said Beth, calmly. "I imagine it
has two rooms and a leaky roof. But never mind, girls. This has been a
pleasant trip, and we can seek shelter elsewhere if the worst comes to
the worst."

"I guess the worst has come a'ready," observed the driver; "for the
house is by odds the best part o' the Wegg farm. It's big enough fer a
hotel, an' cost a lot o' money in its day. Seems like the lunatics all
crowd to thet place--fust ol' Cap'n Wegg wasted of his substance on it,
an' now----"

He paused, perhaps fearing he might become personal in his remarks, and
Uncle John coughed while the girls shrieked with laughter.

Expecting nothing, they were amazed when they passed the orchard and the
group of pines that had concealed the house and suddenly drew up beside
the old-fashioned stile built into the rail fence. Every eye was
instantly upon the quaint, roomy mansion, the grassy sward extending
between it and the road, and the cosy and home-like setting of the
outbuildings.

"Here's Wegg's," said the liveryman.

"Oh, Uncle," cried Beth; "how lovely!"

Louise's pretty face was wreathed with smiles. Patsy drew in a long
breath and scrambled out of the high seat.

On the corner of the front porch stood Nora, arrayed in her neat gray
gown and a cap. Her face was composed, but she felt herself trembling
a little.

Old Hucks came slowly down the steps to greet the company. Never in his
memory had his dress been so immaculate. The queer old fellow seemed to
appreciate this as he raised his smiling face from the stooped shoulders
and poised it on one side like a sparrow.

"Welcome home, sir," he said to Uncle John. "I'm Hucks, sir; Thomas
Hucks," and without more words he proceeded to remove the satchels from
the wagon.

"Ah, yes," returned Mr. Merrick, cheered by the welcome and the smile of
the old man. "I'd forgotten about you, but I'm glad you're here."

"And that is my wife Nora, on the porch. She's the housekeeper, sir."
And then, lowering his voice so that only the girls and Uncle John could
hear, he added simply: "She's blind."

Patsy walked straight up to the eager, pathetic figure of the woman and
took her hand in a warm clasp.

"I'm Patricia, Nora," she said, "and I'm sure we shall be friends."

Beth followed her cousin's lead.

"And I am Beth, Nora. Will you remember me?"

"Surely, miss; by your voice," returned the old woman, beaming
delightedly at these evidences of kindliness.

"Here is another, Nora," said their cousin, in gentle tones. "I am
Louise."

"Three young and pretty girls, Nora; and as good as they are pretty,"
announced Uncle John, proudly. "Will you show us in, Thomas, or will
your wife?"

"Nora will take the young ladies to their rooms, sir."

"Not now, Uncle!" they all protested, in nearly identical words; and
Louise added: "Let us drink in the delights of this pretty picture
before we shut ourselves up in the stuffy rooms. I hope they've
been aired."

Patsy ran to a chicken-coop on the side lawn, where a fussy hen was
calling to her children that strangers had arrived. Beth exclaimed at
the honeysuckle vines and Louise sank into a rustic chair with a sigh
of content.

"I'm so glad you brought us here. Uncle," she said. "What a surprise it
is to find the place so pretty!"

They could hear the rush of the Little Bill in the wood behind them and
a soft breeze stirred the pines and wafted their fragrance to the
nostrils of the new arrivals. Uncle John squatted on the shady steps and
fairly beamed upon the rustic scene spread out before him. Patsy had now
thrown aside her hat and jacket and lay outstretched upon the cool
grass, while the chickens eyed her with evident suspicion. Beth was
picking a bouquet of honeysuckles, just because they were so sweet
and homely.

"I'm almost sure I sent some hammocks and a croquet set," remarked Uncle
John.

"They're here, sir," said Old Hucks, who had watched each one with his
persistent smile and now stood awaiting his new master's commands. "But
we didn't know jest where ye wanted 'em put."

Mary came out. She had taken off her things and donned her white apron.

"The house is quite wonderful, Mr. Merrick," she said. "There is
everything we can possibly need, and all as neat as wax."

The report stirred the girls to explore. They all trooped into the big
living room and were at once captivated by its charm. Nora led them
upstairs to their chambers, finding the way as unerringly as if she
possessed perfect vision, and here a new chorus of delight was evoked.

"The blue room is mine!" cried Louise.

"Mine is the pink room," said Beth.

"And I choose the white room," declared Patsy. "The Major's is just
next, and it will please him because it is all green and gold. But where
will Uncle John room?"

"The master will use the right wing," said old Nora, who had listened
with real pleasure to the exclamations of delight. "It were Cap'n Wegg's
room, ye know, an' we've fitted it all new."

Indeed, Uncle John was at that moment inspecting his apartment, and he
sighed contentedly as he congratulated himself upon his foresight in
sending down the furnishings on the chance of their being needed. They
had effected a complete transformation of the old house.

But who had arranged everything? Surely the perfect taste and dainty
touch evidenced everywhere was not to be attributed to blind Nora. The
little man was thoughtful as he turned to Old Hucks.

"Who did it, Thomas?" he asked.

"Miss Ethel, sir; the school-ma'am."

"Oh. A city girl?"

"No, sir. Crazy Will Thompson's granddaughter. She lives 'bout nine mile
away."

"Is she here now?"

"Went home this mornin', sir. It were a great pleasure to her, she said,
an' she hoped as how you'd like everything, an' be happy here."

Undo John nodded.

"We must call on that girl," he remarked. "We owe her a good deal, I
imagine, and she's entitled to our grateful thanks."



CHAPTER VI.

PEGGY PRESENTS HIS BILL.

Millville waited in agonized suspense for three days for tangible
evidence that "the nabob was in their midst," as Nib Corkins poetically
expressed it; but the city folks seemed glued to the farm and no one of
them had yet appeared in the village. As a matter of fact, Patsy and
Uncle John were enthusiastically fishing in the Little Bill, far up in
the pine woods, and having "the time of their lives" in spite of their
scant success in capturing trout. Old Hucks could go out before
breakfast and bring in an ample supply of speckled beauties for Mary to
fry; but Uncle John's splendid outfit seemed scorned by the finny folk,
and after getting her dress torn in sundry places and a hook in the
fleshy part of her arm Patsy learned to seek shelter behind a tree
whenever her uncle cast his fly. But they reveled in the woods, and
would lie on the bank for hours listening to the murmur of the brook and
the songs of the birds.

The temper of the other two girls was different. Beth De Graf had
brought along an archery outfit, and she set up her target on the ample
green the day following her arrival. Here she practiced persistently,
shooting at sixty yards with much skill. But occasionally, when Louise
tired of her novel and her cushions in the hammock, the two girls would
play tennis or croquet together--Beth invariably winning.

Such delightful laziness could brook no interference for the first days
of their arrival, and it was not until Peggy McNutt ventured over on
Monday morning for a settlement with Mr. Merrick that any from the
little world around them dared intrude upon the dwellers at the
Wegg farm.

Although the agent had been late in starting from Millville and Nick
Thorne's sorrel mare had walked every step of the way, Peggy was obliged
to wait in the yard a good half hour for the "nabob" to finish his
breakfast. During that time he tried to decide which of the two
statements of accounts that he had prepared he was most justified in
presenting. He had learned from the liveryman at the Junction that Mr.
Merrick had paid five dollars for a trip that was usually made for two,
and also that the extravagant man had paid seventy-five cents more to
Lucky Todd, the hotel keeper, than his bill came to. The knowledge of
such reckless expenditures had fortified little McNutt in "marking up"
the account of the money he had received, and instead of charging two
dollars a day for his own services, as he had at first intended, he put
them down at three dollars a day--and made the days stretch as much as
possible. Also he charged a round commission on the wages of Lon Taft
and Ned Long, and doubled the liveryman's bill for hauling the goods
over from the Junction. Ethel Thompson had refused to accept any payment
for what she had done, but Peggy bravely charged it up at good round
figures. When the bill was made out and figured up it left him a
magnificent surplus for his private account; but at the last his heart
failed him, and he made out another bill more modest in its extortions.
He had brought them both along, though, one in each pocket, vacillating
between them as he thought first of the Merrick millions and then of the
righteous anger he might incur. By the time Uncle John came out to him,
smiling and cordial, he had not thoroughly made up his mind which
account to present.

"I must thank you for carrying out my orders so intelligently," began
the millionaire. "Without your assistance I might have found things in
bad shape, I fear."

McNutt was reassured. The nabob would stand for bill No. 1, without a
doubt.

"I tried fer to do my best, sir," he said.

"And you did very well," was the reply. "I hope you kept your
expenditures well within bounds?"

The agent's heart sank at the question and the shrewd, alert look that
accompanied it. Even millionaires do not allow themselves to be
swindled, if they can help it. Bill No. 2 would be stiff enough; he
might even have to knock a few dollars off from that.

"Most things is high in Millville," he faltered, "an' wages has gone up
jest terr'ble. The boys don't seem to wanter do nuthin' without
big pay."

"That is the case everywhere," responded Mr. Merrick, thoughtfully; "and
between us, McNutt, I'm glad wages are better in these prosperous times.
The man who works by the day should be well paid, for he has to pay well
for his living. Adequately paid labor is the foundation of all
prosperity."

Peggy smiled cheerfully. He was glad he had had the forethought to bring
Bill No. 1 along with him.

"Hosses is high, too," he remarked, complacently, "an' lumber an' nails
is up. As fer the live-stock I bought fer ye, I found I had to pay like
sixty for it."

"I suppose they overcharged you because a city man wanted the animals.
But of course you would not allow me to be robbed."

"Oh, 'course not, Mr. Merrick!"

"And that nag in the stable is a sorry old beast."

Peggy was in despair. Why in the world hadn't he charged for "the
beast"? As it was now too late to add it to the bill he replied,
grudgingly:

"The hoss you mention belongs to the place, sir. It went with the farm,
'long o' Old Hucks an' Nora."

"I'm glad you reminded me of those people," said Uncle John, seriously.
"Tell me their history."

Louise sauntered from the house, at this juncture, and sank gracefully
upon the grass at her uncle's feet. She carried a book, but did not
open it.

"Ain't much to tell, sir, 'bout them folks," replied the agent. "Cap'n
Wegg brung the Huckses with him when he settled here. Wegg were a
sea-cap'n, ye see, an' when he retired he Wanted to git as far from the
sea's he could."

"That was strange. A sailor usually loves to be near salt water all his
days," observed Uncle John.

"Wall, Wegg he were diff'rent. He come here when I were a boy, bringin'
a sad-faced young woman an' Ol' Hucks an' Nora. I s'pose Hucks were a
sailor, too, though he never says nuthin' 'bout that. The Cap'n bought
this no'count farm an' had this house built on it--a proceedin' that, ef
I do say it, struck ev'rybody as cur'ous."

"It _was_ curious," agreed Mr. Merrick.

"But the cur'ous'est thing was thet he didn't make no 'tempt at farmin'.
Folks said he had money to burn, fer he loaded it into this fool house
an' then sot down an' smoked all day an' looked glum. Ol' Hucks planted
the berry patch an' looked arter the orchard an' the stock; but Cap'n
Wegg on'y smoked an' sulked. People at Millville was glad to leave him
alone, an' the on'y friend he ever had were crazy Will Thompson."

"Crazy?"

"As a loon." The agent hitched uneasily on the lawn bench, where he was
seated, and then continued, hastily: "But thet ain't neither here ner
there. A baby was born arter a time, an' while he was young the
sad-faced mother sickened an' died. Cap'n Wegg give her a decent fun'ral
an' went right on smokin' his pipe an' sulkin', same as ever. Then
he--he--died," rather lamely, "an' Joe--thet's the boy--bein' then about
sixteen, dug out 'n' run away. We hain't seen him sense."

"Nice boy?" asked Uncle John.

"Joe were pretty well liked here, though he had a bit o' his dad's
sulkiness. He 'n' Ethel Thompson--crazy Will's gran'daughter--seemed
like to make up together; but even she don't know what drav him
off--'nless it were the Cap'n's suddint death--ner where he went to."

Uncle John seemed thoughtful, but asked no more questions, and McNutt
appeared to be relieved that he refrained. But the bill ought to be
forthcoming now, and the agent gave a guilty start as his
patron remarked:

"I want to settle with you for what you have done. I'm willing to pay a
liberal price, you understand, but I won't submit to being robbed
outrageously by you or any of your Millville people."

This was said so sternly that it sent McNutt into an ague of terror. He
fumbled for the smallest bill, tremblingly placed it in Mr. Merrick's
hand, and then with a thrill of despair realized he had presented the
dreadful No. 1!

"It's--it's--a--'count of what I spent out," he stammered.

Uncle John ran his eye over the bill.

"What are Plymouth Rocks?" he demanded.

"He--hens, sir."

"Hens at a dollar apiece?"

"Thoroughbreds, sir. Extry fine stock. I raised 'em myself."

"H-m. You've charged them twice."

"Eh?"

"Here's an item: 'Twelve Plymouth Rocks, twelve dollars;' and farther
down: 'Twelve Plymouth Rocks, eighteen dollars.'"

"Oh, yes; o' course. Ye see, I sold you a dozen first, of the dollar
kind. Then I thought as how, bein' fine young birds, you'd be tempted
fer to eat 'em, an' a dozen don't go fur on the table. So I up an' sold
ye another dozen, extry ol' stock an' remarkable high-bred, fer a
dollar-an'-a-half each. Which is dirt cheap because they's too old to
eat an' jest right fer layers."

"Are they here?"

"Every one of 'em."

"Very good. I'm glad to have them. The cow seems reasonably priced, for
a Jersey."

"It is. Jest extror'nary!" exclaimed Peggy, reassured.

"And your people have all done work of an unusual character in a
painstaking manner. I am very much pleased. There seems to be a hundred
and forty dollars my due, remaining from the five hundred I sent you."

"Here it is, sir," responded McNutt, taking the money from his
pocket-book. In another place he had more money, which he had intended
to pay if the smaller bill had been presented.

Uncle John took the money.

"You are an honest fellow, McNutt," said he. "I hadn't expected a dollar
back, for folks usually take advantage of a stranger if he gives them
half a chance. So I thank you for your honesty as well as for your
services. Good morning."

The agent was thoroughly ashamed of himself. To be "sech a duffer" as to
return that money, when by means of a little strategy he might have kept
it, made him feel both humiliated and indignant. A hundred and forty
dollars; When would he have a chance to get such a windfall again? Pah!
he was a fool--to copy his identical thoughts: "a gol dum
blithering idjit!"

All the way home he reflected dismally upon his lack of business
foresight, and strove to plan ways to get money "out'n thet easy mark."

"Didn't the man rob you, Uncle?" asked Louise, when the agent had
disappeared.

"Yes, dear; but I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing I
realized it."

"That was what I thought. By the way, that Wegg history seems both
romantic and unusual," she said, musingly. "Don't you scent some mystery
in what the man said of it?"

"Mystery!" cried Uncle John. "Lordy, no, Louise. You've been readin' too
many novels. Romances don't grow in parts like these."

"But I think this is where they are most likely to grow, Uncle,"
persisted the girl, "just consider. A retired sea captain hides inland,
with no companions but a grinning sailor and his blind housekeeper
--except his pale wife, of course; and she is described as sad and
unhappy. Who was she, do you think?"

"I don't think," said Uncle John, smiling and patting the fair check of
his niece. "And it don't matter who she was."

"I'm sure it does. It is the key to the whole mystery. Even her baby
could not cheer the poor thing's broken heart. Even the fine house the
Captain built failed to interest her. She pined away and died, and----"

"And that finished the romance, Louise."

"Oh, no; that added to its interest. The boy grew up in this dismal
place and brooded on his mother's wrongs. His stern, sulky old father
died suddenly. Was he murdered?" in a low voice; "did the son revenge
his mother's wrongs?"

"Figglepiff, Louise! You're getting theatric--and so early in the
morning, too! Want to saddle my new farm with a murder, do you? Well,
it's rubbish. Joe Wegg ran away from here to get busy in the world.
Major Doyle helped him with my money, in exchange for this farm, which
the boy was sensible to get rid of--although I'm glad it's now mine. The
Major liked Joe Wegg, and says he's a clean-cut, fine young feller. He's
an inventor, too, even if an unlucky one, and I've no doubt he'll make
his way in the world and become a good citizen."

With these words Uncle John arose and sauntered around to the barn, to
look at the litter of new pigs that just then served to interest and
amuse him. The girl remained seated upon the grass, her hands clasped
over her knee and a look of deep retrospection upon her face.



CHAPTER VII.

LOUISE SCENTS A MYSTERY.

Louise Merrick was the eldest of Uncle John's nieces, having just passed
her eighteenth birthday. In the city she was devoted to the requirements
of fashionable society and--urged thereto by her worldly-minded
mother--led a mere butterfly existence. Her two cousins frankly agreed
that Louise was shallow, insincere and inclined to be affected; but of
the three girls she displayed the most equable and pleasant disposition
and under the most trying circumstances was composed and charming in
manner. For this reason she was an agreeable companion, and men usually
admired her graceful figure and her piquant, pretty face with its crown
of fluffy blonde hair and winning expression. There was a rumor that she
was engaged to be married to Arthur Weldon, a young man of position in
the city; but Uncle John ignored the possibility of losing one of his
cherished nieces and declared that Louise was still too young to think
of marriage.

When away from her frivolous mother and the inconsequent home
environments the girl was more unaffected and natural in her ways, and
her faults were doubtless more the result of education than of
natural tendency.

One thing was indisputable, however: Louise Merrick was a clever girl,
possessing a quick intellect and a keen insight into the character of
others. Her apparent shallowness was a blind of the same character as
her assumed graciousness, and while she would have been more lovable
without any pretence or sham she could not have been Louise Merrick and
allow others to read her as she actually was. Patsy and Beth thought
they knew her, and admired or liked rather than loved their cousin.
Uncle John thought he knew her, too, and was very proud of his eldest
niece in spite of some discovered qualities that were not wholly
admirable.

An extensive course of light literature, not void of "detective
stories," had at this moment primed Louise with its influence to the
extent of inducing her to scent a mystery in the history of Captain
Wegg. The plain folks around Millville might speculate listlessly upon
the "queer doin's" at the farm, and never get anywhere near the truth.
Indeed, the strange occurrences she had just heard were nearly forgotten
in the community, and soon would be forgotten altogether--unless the
quick ear of a young girl had caught the clue so long ignored.

At first she scarcely appreciated the importance of the undertaking. It
occurred to her that an effort to read to the bottom of the sea
captain's romance would be a charming diversion while she resided at
Millville, and in undertaking the task she laughingly accused herself of
becoming an amateur detective--an occupation that promised to be
thrilling and delightful.

Warned, however, by the rebuff she had met with from Uncle John, the
girl decided not to confide either her suspicions or her proposed
investigation to anyone for the present, but to keep her own counsel
until she could surprise them all with the denouement or required
assistance to complete her work.

Inspired by the cleverness and fascination of this idea, Louise set to
work to tabulate the information she had received thus far, noting the;
element of mystery each fact evolved. First, Captain Wegg must have been
a rich man in order to build this house, maintain two servants and live
for years in comfort without any income from his barren farm lands. What
became of his money after his death? Why was his only son obliged to fly
to the cities in order to obtain a livelihood? Secondly, the Captain, a
surly and silent man, had brought hither--perhaps by force--a young
woman as his wife who was so unhappy that she pined away and died. Who
was this woman? What had rendered her so unhappy and despairing?

Thirdly, the Captain's only friend had been a crazy man named Will
Thompson. Was he crazy before the Captain's death, or had he become
crazed at that time, some terrible tragedy unhinging his mind?

Fourthly, the granddaughter of Thompson, Ethel, and the son of Captain
Wegg had been in love with each other, and people expected they would
marry in time. But at his father's sudden death the boy fled and left
his sweetheart without a word. Why--unless something had occurred that
rendered their marriage impossible?

In the fifth place there was Old Hucks and his blind wife to be
considered. What did they know about their old master's secret history?
What tragic memories lurked beneath the man's perpetual smile and the
woman's composed and sightless face?

Surely there was enough here to excite the curiosity and warrant an
effort to untangle the mystery. And as instruments to the end there were
several people available who could be of use to her; McNutt, the agent,
who evidently knew more than he had cared to tell; Old Hucks and his
wife and Ethel Thompson, the school-teacher. There might be others, but
one or another of these four must know the truth, and it would be her
pleasant duty to obtain a full disclosure. So she was anxious to begin
her investigations at once.

When her uncle returned from his visit to the pigs Louise said to him:

"I've been thinking, dear, that we ought to call upon that young lady
who arranged our rooms, and thank her for her kindness."

"That's true," he replied.

"Can't we drive over to Thompson's this morning, Uncle?"

"Beth and Patsy have planned a tramp to the lake, and a row after
water-lilies."

"Then let us make our call together. We can invite the girl to come here
and spend a day with us, when Patsy and Beth will be able to meet her."

"That's a good idea, Louise. I was wondering what I'd do this morning.
Tell Old Hucks to get the nag harnessed."

The girl ran eagerly upon her errand. Old Hucks seemed surprised, and a
curious expression showed for an instant through his smile. But he
turned without a word to harness the horse.

Louise stood watching him.

"Your fingers are quite nimble, Thomas, considering the fact that you
were once a sailor," she said.

"But sailors have to be nimble, miss," he returned, buckling a strap
unmoved. "Who tol' ye I were once a sea-farin' man?"

"I guessed it."

As he appeared indisposed to say more on the subject she asked: "Did you
sail with Captain Wegg?"

"Partly, miss. Dan's already now. Don't jerk the bit, fer his mouth's
tender an' it makes him balky. Ef he balks jest let him rest a time, an'
then speak to him. Dan ain't vicious; he's jest ornery."

She climbed into the dilapidated old buggy and took the reins. Dan
groaned and ambled slowly around to where Uncle John stood awaiting
his niece.

"Let me drive, Uncle," she said; "I understand Dan."

"Well, I don't," returned Uncle John, in his whimsical way, as he
mounted to the seat beside her. "I don't understand how he's happened to
live since the landing of Columbus, or what he's good for, or why
someone don't knock him on the head."

Dan turned his long, lean face as if to give the speaker a reproachful
look; then he groaned again, leaned forward, and drew the buggy slowly
into the stony lane.

"Do you know where the Thompsons live?" inquired Uncle John.

"No. Whoa, Dan!"

That was the best thing the nag did. He knew how to whoa.

"Thomas!" called Uncle John, turning in his seat; and at the summons Old
Hucks came from the barn and approached them. "How do you get to Miss
Thompson's place?"

"Miss Ethel's?" Another fleeting expression of surprise.

"Yes; we're going over to thank her for her kindness to us."

"I--I'm 'most sure as she'll be here soon to call, sir. And--perhaps you
oughtn't to--to go to--Thompson's," stammered Hucks, glancing up at them
with his bright, elusive smile.

"Well, we're going, anyhow," growled Mr. Merrick.

"Then turn left at the main road an' keep straight ahead to Thompson's.
Ye can't miss it, sir. Brick schoolhouse on the other corner."

"Thank you, Thomas. Drive on, Louise."



CHAPTER VIII.

THE LITTLE SCHOOL-MA'AM.

Dan balked only twice on the journey, but even this moderate rebellion
so annoyed Uncle John that he declared he would walk back rather than
ride behind this "mulish antiquity" again.

When they came to the Thompson dwelling it at first sight seemed
deserted. A knock on the front door failed to produce any response.

"Perhaps they're away from home," suggested Louise.

"There's a path around to the back," said Uncle John. "Let's explore in
that direction."

They made their way leisurely toward the rear and had almost passed the
house, when a deep roar broke the stillness. It was succeeded by
another, and another, like the bellowing of a mad bull, and the
intruders stopped short and Louise clung to her uncle in sudden panic.

"Be still, Will! Stop, I say--stop!"

A sharp crack, as of a lash, accompanied the words, and a moan or two
was followed by absolute silence.

Uncle John and Louise looked at one another with startled eyes.

"He must be worse," said the old gentleman, mopping his forehead with a
handkerchief.

With one accord they started softly to retrace their steps when a new
sound halted them again. It was a clear, fresh young voice singing a
plaintive ditty in a nonchalant, careless tone.

"That's Ethel, I'm sure," exclaimed Louise, grasping her uncle's arm.

"Well, what shall we do?" he demanded.

"Mr.--the crazy man seems quiet now," she whispered. "Let us find the
girl, if we can."

So again they traversed the path and this time came to the pretty garden
behind the house. Ethel was tending a flower bed. She wore her gingham
dress and a sunbonnet, and, kneeling in the path, stretched out her slim
brown arm to uproot the weeds. But the crunching of the gravel aroused
her attention, and, observing her visitors, she sprang up and hastened
toward them.

Louise introduced her uncle and herself in her most pleasant and
gracious way, and the school teacher led them to a garden bench and
begged them to be seated.

"The day is lovely," she said, "and I always find my garden more
cheerful than the house. Grandfather's illness makes the house
unpleasant for strangers, too."

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

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

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

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

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

"Has he been--this way--for long?" inquired Louise.

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

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

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

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

"This is a fine old homestead."

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

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

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

"How long have you taught?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And has Thomas always smiled?" Louise inquired.

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

Louise drew a long breath.

"Then the smile is a mask," she said, "and is assumed to conceal the
man's real feelings."

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

"But Nora--how long has she been blind?"

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

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

"I do not remember her."

"They say she was most unhappy."

Ethel dropped her eyes and did not reply.

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

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

"What made him unhappy?" asked Louise, quickly.

Ethel smiled into her eager face.

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

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

"Who killed Captain Wegg?" she demanded, suddenly.

Another smile preceded the reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Will you buy one off me?" she asked.

"Willingly, my dear, if you've an animal to sell."

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

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

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

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

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

"I'll go and ask what grandmother wants."

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

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

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

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

"The price is one hundred dollars, Mr. Merrick."

"I won't pay it. Let me talk with your grandmother."

"She does not see anyone, sir."

Louise looked up sharply, scenting another clue.

"Isn't she well, dear?" she asked in smooth tones.

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

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

Ethel smiled.

"Better buy at my price, Mr. Merrick," she suggested.

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

"But I cannot do that, sir."

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

"My bill?" wonderingly.

"The one I paid McNutt for your services."

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

"Oh! Then McNutt got it, did he?"

"I'm awfully sorry, Mr. Merrick. I told Peggy I would not accept
payment."

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

"If you like. I'll help you."

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

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

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

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

"I'll not forget such a delightful engagement, be sure."

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

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

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

"If he has dared--!" she began, but paused abruptly with a smile of
content.

The rich man had given her exactly one hundred dollars.



CHAPTER IX.

THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS.

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

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

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

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

"Where's the nabob?" he asked blind Nora.

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

"Why, the nabob; the boss; Mr. Merrick."

"Oh. He's in the barn with Tom, I guess."

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

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

"A what?"

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

"Stand out of the light, McNutt."

The agent shifted his position.

"Them books, sir----"

"Oh, take 'em away."

"What!"

"I don't read novels."

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

"The young lady, sir--"

"Oh, the girls are loaded with books," growled the nabob.

The agent became desperate.

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

"Oh; she does, eh?"

"Mighty bad, sir."

Uncle John watched Thomas polish a buckle.

"Is it a moral work?" he asked.

"Nuthin' could be moraler, sir. All 'bout the lives o'--"

"How much is it?"

"Comes pretty high, sir. Three dollars. But it's--"

"Here. Take your money and get out. You're interrupting me."

"Very sorry, sir. Much obleeged, sir. Where'll I leave the book?"

"Throw it in the manger."

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

"Morn'n' to ye, Mr. Merrick."

"Stop a bit," said Uncle John, suddenly.

The agent stopped.

"I believe I paid you ten dollars for Miss Ethel Thompson's services. Is
that correct?"

"Ye--yes, Mr. Merrick."

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

"Very well; see that she gets it."

"Of course, Mr. Merrick."

"And at once. You may go."

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

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

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

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

Then he hastened over to the hammock.

"'Scuse me, miss," said he, in his most ingratiating voice. "Is yer
uncle 'round anywheres?"

"Isn't he in the barn?" asked the girl, looking up.

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

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

"How much were you to be paid for the book?"

"Three dollars, miss."

"Here is the money, then. Tell me--your name is McNutt, isn't it?--how
long have you lived in this place?"

"All my life, miss. Thank 'e, miss. Good day to ye, miss."

He placed the book in the hammock beside her.

"Don't go, please." said the girl. "I'd like you to tell me something
about Captain Wegg, and of his poor wife who died, and--"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They're calling to you, sir," said Patsy to the agent. "Didn't you hear
them?"

"I--I'm a little deaf, miss," stammered McNutt, who recognized the young
ladies as Mr. Merrick's nieces.

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

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

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

Patsy laughed at the little man's excited manner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Five dollars. Uncle. He said--"

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



CHAPTER X.

THE MYSTERY DEEPENS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tell us about Joe Wegg. Did you like him?"

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

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

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

"What do you suppose became of Captain Wegg's money?" asked Louise.

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

"Why, it's really a romance!" cried Patsy, who had listened eagerly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Trouble? Oh, I'm so sorry, dear. What was it?"

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

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

Louise was disappointed, but changed the subject adroitly.

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

"Indeed I did, child."

"What was she like?"

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

"I see. Did she love Captain Wegg?"

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

"Oh. I had an idea he didn't treat her well," remarked the girl,
soberly.

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

"Do you mean after you moved here, to the farm?"

"Yes, deary."

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

"They was good friends always," was the brief reply.

"Did they ever quarrel, Nora?"

"Never that I knows of."

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

"I don't know, child. Air we gettin' near home?"

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

The blind woman shook her head.

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

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

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

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



CHAPTER XI.

THREE AMATEUR DETECTIVES.

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, Louise! That isn't reasonable," objected Beth, who had been
following the story carefully.

"Why not?"

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

"Beth is right," said Patsy, stoutly.

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

They thought that over.

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

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

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

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

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

"But the old crime--the great trouble--"

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

"But now else can you account for the captain's murder?" objected
Louise.

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

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

Louise reflected a moment.

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

"Oh, Louise!" with startled glances over their shoulders.

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

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

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

"Hucks!"

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

"I'm ashamed of you," said Patsy.

"And the man's smile is a mask!" exclaimed Louise.

"Oh, no!" protested Patsy.

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't believe it," said Patsy, stoutly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who is that?"

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

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

"He hasn't enough courage to commit a great crime," observed Beth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas hesitated, and his smile wavered an instant.

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

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

"Oh, sir!"

"And five for Nora."

"You are too good, sir. I--I--"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



CHAPTER XII.

THE BAITING OF PEGGY M'NUTT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I--I hain't got no more on hand," he stammered, fairly nonplussed by
the remarkable statement.

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

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

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

"Ef ye could wait a few days," he began, hopefully, "I might----"

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

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

"Ye--ye couldn't use any duck eggs, could ye?" he said, a sudden thought
seeming to furnish him with a brilliant idea.

"Duck eggs?"

"I got the dum-twistedest, extry fine lot o' duck eggs ye ever seen."

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

"W'y, set 'em under a hen, an' hatch 'em out."

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

McNutt wiggled his toes again, desperately.

"Can't use any sas'frass roots, can ye?"

"No, indeed; all we crave is the 'Lives of the Saints.'"

"Don't want to buy no land?"

"What have you got to sell?"

"Nuth'n, jest now. But ef ye'll buy I kin git 'most anything."

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

"Shoo! Thet ain't no good."

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

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

The girls exchanged quick glances of intelligence.

"Why?"

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

"Don't you, Mr. McNutt?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Are you sure?" asked Louise.

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

"Hasn't he sold berries and fruit since the Captain's death?"

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

"Perhaps Captain Wegg left some money," suggested Patsy.

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

"Were they robbed, do you suppose?" asked Louise.

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

"Perhaps," said Louise, slowly, "some burglar did it."

"Ain't no burglers 'round these parts."

"I suppose not. Only book agents," remarked Beth.

McNutt flushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who is Bob West?" asked Louise, with interest.

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you. Good morning, sir."

"Can't use any buttermilk er Dutch cheese?"

"No, thank you."

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

"Well, let 'em go," he muttered. "This thing ain't ended yit."



CHAPTER XIII.

BOB WEST, HARDWARE DEALER.

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

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

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

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

"Large or small, miss?" he then asked.

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

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

West smiled.

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

"Oh. Didn't Captain Wegg purchase his supplies in the village?" asked
the girl.

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

The nieces laughed pleasantly, and Beth said:

"Are you an old inhabitant, Mr. West?"

"I have been here thirty-five years."

"Then you knew Captain Wegg?" Louise ventured.

"Very well."

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

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

"Yes."

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

"To be sure."

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

"Murder?" in a tone of mild surprise.

"Was it not murder?" she asked, quickly.

He gave his shoulders a quiet shrug.

"The physician pronounced it heart disease, I believe."

"What physician?"

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

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

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

"What do you think, sir?" asked Patsy, who had been watching the man's
expression closely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What sort of a young man was Joseph Wegg?"

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

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

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

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

Then Patsy said, inquiringly:

"Well, girls?"

"We have progressed," announced Louise, seriously.

"In what way?"

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

"What do you make of that?" queried Patsy.

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

"Then that exonerated Old Hucks," said Patsy, relieved.

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

"What else have you learned, Louise?" asked Beth.

"That the man West knows what became of the money."

"He seems like a very respectable man," asserted Patsy.

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

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

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

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

"Joe!"

"Yes. Why don't we suspect him of something? Or Ethel; or old Nora?"

"Do be sensible, Patsy," said Beth, impatiently.

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

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

"In what way, Louise?"

"I'll tell you when I've thought it out," she replied.



CHAPTER XIV.

THE MAJOR IS PUZZLED.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Just so," he said, nodding.

"But I'm sure Old Hucks is innocent!" declared Patsy, emphatically.

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

"He seems afraid of us, or suspicious, and won't let us talk to him,"
answered Beth.

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

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

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

"But the robber--who do you think he was?" asked Louise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



CHAPTER XV.

THE MAN IN HIDING.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Come with me, sir."

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

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

"What's up, Gregory?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man half arose, moving stiffly.

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

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

"H-m! Ha! If I'm not mistaken," said he, "it's Joseph Wegg."

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

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

"I see."

"Are you Mr. Merrick, sir."

"Yes."

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

Uncle John nodded.

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

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

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

Again Uncle John nodded.

"How are you?" he asked.

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

"You have no medical attendance?"

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

"And what are your future plans?"

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

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

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

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

The boy flushed.

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

"Phoo!" said the little man; "aren't you accepting charity from Old
Hucks?"

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

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

"It is not!"

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

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

"Won't you protect me, Major Doyle?" he asked, weakly.

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

"I don't deserve----" began the young man, brokenly; but Uncle John
quickly interrupted him.

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

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

The boy smiled, gratefully.

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



CHAPTER XVI.

A MATTER OF SPECULATION.

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

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

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

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

The one in the east corner of the second floor met with the approval of
Uncle John and the Major, and was promptly engaged. It was cheerful and
sunny, with outlooks on the lake and the village, and contained a lounge
as well as the bed.

When the invalid arrived, he was assisted to this apartment and
installed as its permanent occupant.

"Any baggage?" asked Mr. Merrick.

"There's a small trunk lying at the Junction," said Joe; "but it
contains little of importance."

"Well, make yourself at home, my boy, and get well at your leisure,"
remarked Uncle John. "Mrs. Kebble has promised to look after you, and
the Major and I will stop in now and then and see how you progress."

Then he went out, engaged Nick Thorne to go to the Junction for the
boy's trunk, and selected several things at the store that he thought
might be useful to the invalid. Afterward he marched home again beside
the Major, feeling very well pleased with his morning's work.

When the girls reached home late in the afternoon, they were thrown into
a state of great excitement by the news, briefly related by their uncle,
that Joseph Wegg had returned to Millville "considerably smashed" by an
automobile accident, and was now stopping at the village hotel
for repairs.

They refrained from making remarks upon the incident until they were
alone, when the secret council of three decided to make Joe Wegg's
acquaintance as soon as possible, to discover what light the young man
might be able to throw upon the great mystery.

"Do you know, girls," said Louise, impressively, "it almost seems as if
fate had sent Joe Wegg here to be an instrument in the detection of the
murderer and robber of his poor father."

"If Joe knew about it, why didn't he track the villain down himself?"
inquired Patsy.

"Perhaps he hasn't suspected the truth," said Beth. "Often those who are
closely concerned with such tragedies do not observe the evidences of
crime as clearly as outsiders."

"Where did you get that information?" demanded Patsy.

"From one of Anna Doyle Oppenheim's detective stories," answered Beth,
seriously. "I've been reading up on such things, lately."

"Detective stories," said Louise, reflectively, "are only useful in
teaching us to observe the evidences of crime. This case, for example,
is so intricate and unusual that only by careful thought, and following
each thread of evidence to its end, can we hope to bring the criminal
to justice."

"That seems to me conceited," observed Miss Doyle, composedly.
"Detective stories don't have to stick to facts; or, rather, they can
make the facts to be whatever they please. So I don't consider them as
useful as they are ornamental. And this isn't a novel, girls; it's
mostly suspicion and slander."

"You don't seem able to be in earnest about anything," objected Beth,
turning a little red.

"But I try to be." said Patricia.

"We are straying from the subject now under discussion," remarked
Louise. "I must say that I feel greatly encouraged by the sudden
appearance of the Wegg boy. He may know something of his father's former
associates that will enable us to determine the object of the murder and
who accomplished it."

"Captain Wegg was killed over three years ago," suggested Miss Doyle,
recovering easily from her rebuff. "By this time the murderer may have
died or moved to Madagascar."

"He is probably living within our reach, never suspecting that justice
is about to overtake him," asserted Louise. "We must certainly go to
call upon this Wegg boy, and draw from him such information as we can. I
am almost certain that the end is in sight."

"We haven't any positive proof at all, yet," observed Patsy, musingly.

"We have plenty of circumstantial evidence," returned Beth. "There is
only one way to explain the facts we have already learned, and the
theory we have built up will be a hard one to overthrow. The flight of
Captain Wegg to this place, his unhappy wife, the great trouble that old
Nora has hinted at, the--"

"The great trouble ought to come first," declared Louise. "It is the
foundation upon which rest all the mysterious occurrences following, and
once we have learned what the great trouble was, the rest will be
plain sailing."

"I agree with you," said Beth; "and perhaps Joseph Wegg will be able to
tell us what the trouble was that ruined the lives of his parents, as
well as of Old Hucks and his wife, and caused them all to flee here to
hide themselves."

It was not until the following morning that the Major found an
opportunity to give the confederates a solemn wink to indicate he had
news to confide to them. They gathered eagerly on the lawn, and he told
them of the finding of Joe Wegg in the isolated cabin, and how old
Thomas and Nora, loving the boy as well as if he had been their own
child, had sacrificed everything to assist him in his extremity.

"So ye see, my avenging angels, that ye run off the track in the Hucks
matter," he added, smiling at their bewildered faces.

Patsy was delighted at this refutation of the slanderous suspicions that
Thomas was a miser and his smiling face a mask to hide his innate
villainy. The other girls were somewhat depressed by the overthrow of
one of their pet theories, and reluctantly admitted that if Hucks had
been the robber of his master and old Will Thompson, he would not have
striven so eagerly to get enough money to send to Joe Wegg. But they
pointed out that the old servant was surely hiding his knowledge of
Captain Wegg's past, and could not be induced to clear up that portion
of the mystery which he had full knowledge of. So, while he might be
personally innocent of the murder or robbery, both Beth and Louise were
confident he was attempting to shield the real criminal.

"But who is the real criminal?" inquired Patsy.

"Let us consider," answer Louise, with the calm, businesslike tone she
adopted in these matters. "There is the strolling physician, whom we
call the Unknown Avenger, for one. A second suspect is the man McNutt,
whose nature is so perverted that he would stick at nothing. The third
suspicious individual is Mr. Bob West."

"Oh, Louise! Mr. West is so respectable, and so prosperous," exclaimed
Patsy.

"It's a far jump from McNutt to West," added Beth.

"Leaving out Hucks," continued Louise, her eyes sparkling with the
delightful excitement of maintaining her theories against odds, "here
are three people who might have been concerned in the robbery or murder.
Two of them are under our hands; perhaps Joseph Wegg may be able to tell
us where to find the third."

They pleaded so hard with the Major to take them to call upon the
injured youth that very day, that the old gentleman consented, and,
without telling Uncle John of their plans, they drove to Millville in
the afternoon and alighted at the hotel.

The Major went first to the boy's room, and found him not only very
comfortable, but bright and cheerful in mood.

"At this rate, sir," he said, smilingly, "I shall be able to discharge
my guardian in quick time. I'm twice the man I was yesterday."

"I've brought some young ladies to call upon you," announced the Major.
"Will you see them?"

Joe flushed at first, remembering his plastered skull and maimed
condition. But he could not well refuse to receive his callers, whom he
guessed to be the three girls Old Hucks had praised to him so highly.

"It will give me great pleasure, sir," he replied.

An invalid is usually of interest to women, so it is no wonder that the
three young ladies were at once attracted by the bright-faced boy, who
reclined upon his couch before the vine-covered windows. They thought of
Ethel, too, and did not marvel that the girl grieved over the loss of
this friend of her childhood.

Joe had to recount the adventure with the automobile, which led to his
injuries, and afterward give an account of his life at the hospital.
That led, naturally, to the timely assistance rendered him by the
faithful Thomas, so that Louise was able to broach the subject nearest
her heart.

"We have been greatly interested in your old servants--whom we acquired
with the farm, it seems--and all of us admire their simplicity and
sincerity," she began.

"Nora is a dear," added Beth.

"And Thomas is so cheerful that his smile is enough to vanquish any
attack of the blues," said Patsy.

"The Hucks are the right sort, and no mistake," declared the Major,
taking his cue from the others.

This praise evidently delighted the boy. They could have found no more
direct way to win his confidence.

"Nora was my mother's maid from the time she was a mere girl," said he;
"and Thomas sailed with my father many years before I was born."

They were a little surprised to hear him speak so frankly. But Louise
decided to take advantage of the opening afforded her.

"Nora has told us that some great trouble came to them years ago--a
trouble that also affected your own parents. But they do not wish to
talk about it to us."

His face clouded.

"No, indeed," said he. "Their loving old hearts have never recovered
from the blow. Would you like to know their history? It is a sad story,
and pitiful; but I am sure you would understand and appreciate my old
friends better after hearing it."

Their hearts fairly jumped with joy. Would they like to hear the story?
Was it not this very clue which they had been blindly groping for to
enable them to solve the mystery of the Wegg crime? The boy marked their
interest, and began his story at once, while the hearts of the three
girls sang-gladly: "At last--at last!"



CHAPTER XVII.

JOE TELLS OF "THE GREAT TROUBLE."

"As a young man, my father was a successful sea captain," said the boy,
"and, before he was thirty, owned a considerable interest in the ship he
sailed. Thomas Hucks was his boatswain,--an honest and able seaman in
whom my father became much interested. Hucks was married, and his wife
was an attendant in the employ of Hugh Carter, a wealthy ship chandler
of Edmunton, the port from which my fathers ship sailed. Thomas had some
difficulty in enjoying his wife's society when on shore, because old
Carter did not want him hanging around the house; so Captain Wegg
good-naturedly offered to intercede for him.

"Carter was a gruff and disagreeable man, and, although my father had
been a good customer, he refused his request and threatened to discharge
Nora, which he did. This made Captain Wegg angry, and he called upon
Mary Carter, whose especial attendant Nora had been, to ask her to take
the girl back. Mary was a mild young lady, who dared not oppose her
father; but the result of the interview was that the sea captain and
Mary Carter fell mutually in love. During the next two or three years,
whenever the ship was in port, the lovers frequently met by stealth at
the cottage of Mrs. Hucks, a little place Thomas had rented. Here my
father and mother were finally married.

"Meantime Nora had a son, a fine young chap, I've heard; and presently
my mother, who had a little fortune of her own, plucked up enough
courage to leave her father's roof, and took up her abode in a pretty
villa on the edge of a bluff overlooking the sea. Nora came to live with
her again, bringing her child, and the two women were company for one
another while their husbands were at sea.

"In course of time my mother had two children, a girl and a boy, and
because the Hucks boy was considerably older than they, he took care of
them, to a great extent, and the three youngsters were always together.
Their favorite playground was on the beach, at the foot of the bluff,
and before young Tom was ten years old he could swim like a duck, and
manage a boat remarkably well. The Wegg children, having something of
their mother's timid nature, perhaps, were not so adventurous, but they
seldom hesitated to go wherever Tom led them.

"One day, while my mother was slightly ill and Nora was attending to
her, Tom disobeyed the commands that had been given him, and took his
younger companions out on the ocean for a ride in his boat. No one knows
how far they went, or exactly what happened to them; but a sudden squall
sprang up, and the children being missed, my mother insisted, ill as she
was, in running down to the shore to search for her darlings. Braving
the wind and drenched by rain, the two mothers stood side by side,
peering into the gloom, while brave men dared the waves to search for
the missing ones. The body of the girl was first washed ashore, and my
mother rocked the lifeless form in her arms until her dead son was laid
beside her. Then young Tom's body was recovered, and the horror
was complete.

"When my father arrived, three days later, he not only found himself
bereaved of the two children he had loved so tenderly, but his young
wife was raving with brain fever, and likely to follow her babies to the
grave. During that terrible time, Nora, who could not forget that it was
her own adventurous son who had led all three children to their death,
went suddenly blind--from grief, the doctors said.

"My father pulled his wife back to life by dint of careful nursing; but
whenever she looked at the sea she would scream with horror; so it
became necessary to take her where the cruel sound of the breakers could
never reach her ears. I think the grief of Thomas and Nora was scarcely
less than that of my own parents, and both men had suffered so severely
that they were willing to abandon the sea and devote their lives to
comforting their poor wives. Captain Wegg sold all his interests and his
wife's villa, and brought the money here, where he established a home
amid entirely different surroundings. He was devoted to my mother, I
have heard, and when she died, soon after my birth, the Captain seemed
to lose all further interest in life, and grew morose and unsociable
with all his fellow-creatures.

"That, young ladies, is the story of what Thomas and Nora call their
'great trouble'; and I think it is rightly named, because it destroyed
the happiness of two families. I was born long after the tragedy, but
its shadow has saddened even my own life."

When the boy had finished, his voice trembling with emotion as he
uttered the last words, his auditors were much affected by the sad tale.
Patsy was positively weeping, and the Major blew his nose vigorously and
advised his daughter to "dry up an' be sinsible." Beth's great eyes
stared compassionately at the young fellow, and even Louise for the
moment allowed her sympathy to outweigh the disappointment and chagrin
of seeing her carefully constructed theory of crime topple over like the
house of cards it was. There was now no avenger to be discovered,
because there had been nothing to avenge. The simple yet pathetic story
accounted for all the mystery that, in her imagination, enveloped the
life and death of Captain Wegg. But--stay!

"How did your father die?" she asked, softly.

"Through a heart trouble, from which he had suffered for years, and
which had obliged him to lead a very quiet life," was the reply. "That
was one of the things which, after my mother's death, helped to sour his
disposition. He could not return to the sea again, because he was told
that any sudden excitement was likely to carry him off; and, indeed,
that was exactly what happened."

"How is that, sir?" asked the Major.

"It is more difficult to explain than the first of the story," replied
the boy, thoughtfully gazing through the window; "perhaps because I do
not understand it so well. Our simple life here never made much of an
inroad into my father's modest fortune; for our wants were few; but
Captain Wegg was a poor man of business, having been a sailor during all
his active life. His only intimate friend--an honest, bluff old farmer
named Will Thompson--was as childish regarding money matters as my
father, but had a passion for investments, and induced my father to join
some of his schemes. Mr. Thompson's mind was somewhat erratic at times,
but keen in some ways, nevertheless. Fearing to trust his judgment
entirely, my father chose to lean upon the wisdom and experience of a
shrewd merchant of Millville, named Robert West."

"The hardware dealer?" asked Louise, impulsively.

"Yes; I see you have met him," replied Joseph Wegg, with a smile at the
eager, pretty face of his visitor. "Bob West was a prosperous man and
very careful about his own investments; so he became a sort of business
adviser to my father and Mr. Thompson, and arbitrated any differences of
opinion they might have. For several years, due to West's good offices,
the two oddly mated friends were successful in their ventures, and added
to their capital. Finally West came to them himself with a proposition.
He had discovered a chance to make a good deal of money by purchasing an
extensive pine forest near Almaquo, just across the border in Canada.
West had taken an option on the property, when he found by accident that
the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company was anxious to get hold of the tract and
cut the timber on a royalty that would enable the owners to double their
investment."

"Howld on a jiffy!" cried the Major, excitedly. "Did I understand you to
say the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company?"

"That was the firm, sir. I used to overhear my father and Will Thompson
talking about this matter; but I must admit my knowledge is somewhat
imperfect, because I never was allowed to ask questions. I remember
learning the fact that West had not enough money to swing his option,
and so urged his friends to join him. Relying upon West's judgment, they
put all their little fortunes into the deal, although Thompson grumbled
at doing so, because he claimed he had another investment that was
better, and this matter of West's would prevent him from undertaking it.
The Almaquo tract was purchased, and a contract made with the lumber
company to cut the timber and pay them a royalty of so much a thousand
feet. Yet, although the prospects for profit seemed so good, I know that
for some reason both my father and Thompson were dissatisfied with the
deal, and this may be accounted for by the fact that every penny of
their money was tied up in one investment. West used to come to the
house and argue with them that the property was safe as the Bank of
England, and then old Will would tell him how much more he could have
made out of another investment he had in mind; so that a coolness grew
up between West and the others that gradually led to their estrangement.

"I can well remember the evening when Bob West's pretty financial bubble
burst. Thompson and my father were sitting together in the right wing,
smoking solemnly, and exchanging a few words, as was their custom, when
West arrived with a while face, and a newspaper under his arm. I was in
the next room, lying half asleep upon the sofa, when I heard West cry
despairingly: 'Ruined--ruined--ruined!' I crept to the half-opened
door, then, and looked in. Both men were staring, open-mouthed and
half-dazed, at West, who was explaining in a trembling voice that a
terrible forest fire had swept through the Almaquo section and wiped out
every tree upon the property. He had the full account in the newspaper,
and had begun reading it, when my father uttered a low moan and tumbled
off his chair to the floor.

"Will Thompson gave a wild cry and knelt beside him.

"'My God! he's dead, Bob,--he's dead!--and you've killed him with your
good news!' he screamed, already raving; and then Old Hucks ran in just
in time to prevent the madman from throttling West, for his fingers were
even then twined around Bob's throat. There was a desperate struggle,
and I remember that, scared as I was, I joined Thomas in trying to pull
Thompson off his prey. But suddenly old Will threw up his arms and
toppled backward, still raving like a demon, but unable to move his body
from the waist downward. West helped us to put him in bed, and said he
was paralyzed, which afterward proved to be the truth. Also, his mind
was forever gone; and I think it was father's death that did that,
rather than the loss of his money."

They were all staring, white-faced, at the speaker. Most of the mystery
was being cleared away; indeed, there was now little of mystery
remaining at all.

"West hurried after a doctor," continued Joe, who was almost as much
absorbed in his story as were his listeners, and spoke in a reflective,
musing way, "and he succeeded in finding one who was stopping for a few
days at the hotel. Poor Bob was very kind to us in our trouble, and I
never heard him mention a word about his own losses, which must have
been severe. After the funeral was over, and I found I had nothing to
inherit but the farm, I decided to go to the city and make my way there,
as I had long wished to do. West gave me a little money to start me on
my way, and the rest of my story is not very interesting to anybody.
Major Doyle knows something of it, after the time when I got through my
technical school by working as a servant to pay for my instruction. I'm
a failure in life, so far, young ladies; but if you'll not bear that
against me I'll try to do better in the future."

"Good!" cried the Major, approvingly, as he took the boy's left hand in
both his own and pressed it. "You're developing the right spirit,
Joseph, me lad, and we'll think no more about the sadness of the past,
but look forward to the joy of your future."

"Of course," said Patsy, nodding gravely; "Joe Wegg is bound to be a
great man, some day."



CHAPTER XVIII.

THE LOCKED CUPBOARD.

Louise and Beth returned to the farm in dismal silence. Every prop had
been knocked from beneath their carefully erected temple of mystery. Now
there was no mystery at all.

In a few words, Joe Wegg had explained everything, and explained all so
simply and naturally that Louise felt like sobbing with the bitterness
of a child deprived of its pet plaything. The band of self-constituted
girl detectives had been "put out of business," as Patsy said, because
the plain fact had developed that there was nothing to detect, and never
had been. There had been no murder, no robbery, no flight or hiding on
the part of the Weggs to escape an injured enemy; nothing even
mysterious, in the light of the story they had just heard. It was
dreadfully humiliating and thoroughly disheartening, after all their
earnest endeavor to investigate a crime that had never been committed.

Uncle John rallied his nieces on their somber faces at the dinner table,
and was greatly amused when the Major, despite the appealing looks
directed at him, gave Mr. Merrick a brief resume of the afternoon's
developments.

"Well, I declare!" said the little man, merrily; "didn't I warn you,
Louise, not to try to saddle a murder onto my new farm? How you foolish
girls could ever have imagined such a carnival of crime in connection
with the Weggs is certainly remarkable."

"I don't know about that, sir," returned the Major, seriously. "I was
meself inoculated with the idea, and for a while I considered meself and
the girls the equals of all the Pinkertons in the country. And when ye
come to think of it, the history of poor Captain Wegg and his wife, and
of Nora and Thomas as well, is out of the ordinary entirely, and,
without the explanation, contained all the elements of a
first-class mystery."

"How did you say the Weggs lost their money?" inquired Uncle John,
turning the subject because he saw that it embarrassed his nieces.

"Why, forest fires at Almaquo, in Canada, burned down the timber they
had bought," replied the Major. "And, by the way, John, you're
interested in that matter yourself, for the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company,
in which you own a lot of stock, had contracted to cut the timber on
a royalty."

"How long ago?"

"Three years, sir."

"Well, we've been cutting timber at Almaquo ever since," said Mr.
Merrick.

Louise dropped her fork with a clatter, disclosing, in this well-bred
young lady, an unusual degree of excitement.

"Then there _is_ something to detect!" she cried.

"Eh? What do you mean?" inquired her uncle.

"If you've been cutting timber at Almaquo for three years, the trees
couldn't have burned down," Louise declared, triumphantly.

"That is evident," said the Major, dryly. "I've had it in me mind,
Louise, to take that matter up for investigation; but you are so imbued
with the detective spirit that there's no heading you off a trail."

"Before the dessert comes on," announced Uncle John, impressively, "I
want to make a statement. You folks have tried your hands at the
detective business and made a mess of it. Now it's my turn. I'll be a
detective for three days, and if I don't succeed better than you did,
young women, we'll mingle our tears in all humility. Eh, Major?"

"Put me in the bunch, sir," said the old soldier, "I was as bad as any
of them. And go ahead in your own way, if ye like. It's me humble
opinion, John, that you're no Sherlock Holmes; but ye won't believe it
'til ye satisfy yourself of the fact."

Next morning the loungers around Sam Cotting's store were thrown into a
state of great excitement when "the nabob" came over from the Wegg farm
and held the long-distance telephone for more than an hour, while he
talked with people in New York. The natives knew that their telephone,
which was built into a small booth at one end of the store--next the
post-office boxes--was part of a system that made it possible for one to
talk to those in far away cities. Often the country people would eye the
mysterious-looking instrument with awe and whisper to each other of its
mighty powers; but no one had ever before used it to telephone farther
than the Junction, and then only on rare occasions.

"It'll cost a heap o' money, Sam," said McNutt, uneasily, while Uncle
John was engaged in his remarkable conversation. They could see him in
the booth, through the little window.

"It will, Mac," was the solemn reply. "But the fool nabob may as well
spend it thet way as any other. It's mighty little of his capital er
surplus gits inter _my_ cash-drawer; 'n' thet's a fact."

Uncle John came from the booth, perspiring, but smiling and happy. He
walked across the street to see Joe Wegg, and found the youth seated in
a rocking-chair and looking quite convalescent. But he had company. In a
chair opposite sat a man neatly dressed, with a thin, intelligent face,
a stubby gray moustache, and shrewd eyes covered by horn-rimmed
spectacles.

"Good morning, Mr. Merrick," said Joe, cheerily; "this is Mr. Robert
West, one of the Millville merchants, who is an old friend of
our family."

"I've heard of Mr. West, and I'm glad to meet him," replied Uncle John,
looking at the other calmly, but not offering to shake hands. "I believe
you are the president and treasurer of the Almaquo Timber Tract Company,
are you not?"

Joseph looked startled, and then embarrassed, as he overheard the
question. West, without altering his position of careless ease, glanced
over the rims of his glasses at the speaker.

"I am the humble individual you refer to, Mr. Merrick," he said,
briefly.

"But the Almaquo timber all burned down." remarked Joe, thinking an
explanation was needed.

"That's a mistake," returned Mr. Merrick. "My company has paid Mr. West,
as treasurer of his company, more than fifty thousand dollars during the
last three years."

West's jaw dropped.

"Your company!" he exclaimed, as if mystified.

"Yes; I own the controlling interest in the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company,
which has the contract to cut your timber," answered Mr. Merrick.

The hardware dealer slowly arose and glanced at his watch.

"I must get back to my store," he said. "You are somewhat in error about
your company, Mr. Merrick; but I suppose your interests are so large and
varied that you cannot well keep track of them. Good morning, sir. I'll
see you again soon, Joe. Glad you're improving so rapidly. Let me know
if I can do anything to help you."

With these quiet words, he bowed and left the room, and when he had
gone, Joe said, in a deprecating tone:

"Poor Bob must be very unhappy about having lost my father's money in
that speculation, for he advocated the plan very strongly, believing it
was a good investment. I'm afraid your mistake about paying him all that
money upset him. Don't mind if he was a little brusque, sir. Bob West is
a simple, kindly man, whom my father fully trusted. It was he that
loaned me the money to get away from here with."

"Tell me," said Uncle John, thoughtfully, "did your father receive stock
in the Almaquo Timber Tract Company in exchange for his money?"

"Oh, yes; I have seen it in the steel cupboard," replied Joe.

"Where is that?"

"Why, it is the cupboard in the right wing of our house, which was the
Captain's own room. It was one of his whims, when he built, to provide
what he called his 'bank.' You may have noticed the wooden doors of a
cupboard built into the stone wall, sir?"

"Yes; I occupy the room."

"Behind the wooden doors are others of steel. The entire cupboard is
steel-lined. Near the bottom is a sliding-plate, which, when pushed
aside, discovers a hidden drawer--a secret my father never confided to
anyone but me. He once told me that if his heart trouble earned him off
suddenly I ought to know of the existence of this drawer; so he showed
me how to find it. On the day after his death I took the keys, which he
always carried on a small chain around his neck and concealed underneath
his clothing, and opened the cupboard to see if I could find anything of
value. It is needless to say, I could not discover anything that could
be converted into a dollar. The Captain had filled the cupboard with old
letters and papers of no value, and with relics he had brought from
foreign lands during his many voyages. These last are mere rubbish, but
I suppose he loved them for their association. In the secret drawer I
found his stock in the timber company, and also that of old Will
Thompson, who had doubtless left it with my father for safekeeping.
Knowing it was now worthless, I left it in the drawer."

"I'd like to see it," announced Uncle John.

Joe laughed.

"I've lost the keys," he said.

"How's that, my lad?"

"Why, on the day of the funeral the keys disappeared. I could never
imagine what became of them. But I did not care to look in the cupboard
a second time, so the loss did not matter."

Mr. Merrick seemed thoughtful.

"I suppose I own that cupboard now," he remarked.

"Of course," said Joe. "But without the keys it is not serviceable. If
you drill through the steel doors you destroy their security."

"True; but I may decide to do that."

"If you do, sir, I'd like you to clear out the rubbish and papers and
send them to me. They are family matters, and I did not intend to sell
them with the place."

"You shall have them, Joe."

"Just underneath the left end of the lower shelf you will find the
sliding steel plate. It slides toward the front. In the drawer you will
find the worthless stock and a picture of my mother. I'd like to keep
the picture."

"You shall, Joseph. How are you getting on?"

"Why, I'm a new man, Mr. Merrick, and today I'm feeling as strong as a
buffalo--thanks to your kind guardianship."

"Don't overdo, sir. Take it easy. There's a young lady coming to see you
today."

"Ethel!" the boy exclaimed, his face turning crimson.

"Yes," returned Uncle John, tersely. "You've treated that girl
shamefully, Joseph Wegg. Try to make proper amends."

"I never could understand," said Joe, slowly, "why Ethel refused to
answer the letter I wrote her when I went away. It explained
everything, yet--"

"I'll bet the farm against your lame shoulder she never got your
letter," declared Uncle John. "She thought you left her without a word."

"I gave it to McNutt to deliver after I was gone. But you say she's
coming today?"

"That is her intention, sir."

Joe said nothing more, but his expressive face was smiling and eager.
Uncle John pressed the boy's hand and left him, promising to call
again soon.

"Now, then," muttered the little millionaire, as he walked down the
street, "to beard the lion in his den."

The den proved to be the hardware store, and the lion none other than
Robert West. Mr. Merrick found the merchant seated at his desk in the
otherwise deserted store, and, with a nod, helped himself to the only
other chair the little office contained.

"Sir," said he, "I am here to demand an explanation."

"Of what?" asked West, coldly.

"Of your action in the matter of the Almaquo Timber Tract Company. I
believe that you falsely asserted to Captain Wegg and Mr. Thompson that
the timber had burned and their investment was therefore worthless. The
news of the disaster killed one of your confiding friends and drove the
other mad; but that was a consequence that I am sure you did not intend
when you planned the fraud. The most serious thing I can accuse you of
is holding the earnings of the Wegg and Thompson stock--and big earnings
they are, too--for your own benefit, and defrauding the heirs of your
associates of their money."

West carefully balanced a penholder across his fingers, and eyed it with
close attention.

"You are a queer man, Mr. Merrick," he said, quietly. "I can only excuse
your insults on the grounds of ignorance, or the fact that you have been
misinformed. Here is the newspaper report of the Almaquo fire, which I
showed my friends the night of Captain Wegg's sudden death." He took a
clipping from a drawer of the desk and handed it to Uncle John, who read
it carefully.

"As a matter of fact," continued West, "you are not cutting that portion
of the Almaquo tract which this fire refers to, and which Thompson and
Wegg were interested in, but the north half of the tract, which they had
never acquired any title to."

"I suppose the stock will show that," suggested Mr. Merrick.

"Of course, sir."

"I will look it up."

West smiled.

"You will have some trouble doing that," he said.

"Why?"

"Wegg and Thompson had transferred their entire stock to me before one
died and the other went mad," was the quiet reply.

"Oh, I see." The lie was so evident that Uncle John did not try to
refute it.

"I am rather busy, Mr. Merrick. Anything more, sir?"

"Not today. Bye and bye, Mr. West."

He marched out again and climbed into his buggy to drive home. The
interview with Bob West had made him uneasy, for the merchant's cold,
crafty nature rendered him an opponent who would stick at nothing to
protect his ill-gotten gains. Uncle John had thought it an easy matter
to force him to disgorge, but West was the one inhabitant of Millville
who had no simplicity in his character. He was as thoroughly imbued with
worldly subtlety and cunning as if he had lived amid the grille of a
city all his life; and Mr. Merrick was by no means sure of his own
ability to unmask the man and force him to make restitution.



CHAPTER XIX.

THE COURT'N OF SKIM CLARK.

By this time the summer was well advanced, and the rich people at the
Wegg farm had ceased to be objects of wonder to the Millville folk. The
girls were still regarded with curious looks when they wandered into the
village on an errand, and Mr. Merrick and Major Doyle inspired a certain
amount of awe; but time had dulled the edge of marvelous invasion and
the city people were now accepted as a matter of course.

Peggy McNutt was still bothering his head over schemes to fleece the
strangers, in blissful ignorance of the fact that one of his neighbors
was planning to get ahead of him.

The Widow Clark was a shrewd woman. She had proven this by becoming one
of the merchants of Millville after her husband's death. The poor man
had left an insurance of five hundred dollars and the little frame
building wherein he had conducted a harness shop. Mrs. Clark couldn't
make and repair harness; so she cleared the straps and scraps and
wax-ends out of the place, painted the interior of the shop bright
yellow, with a blue ceiling, erected some shelves and a counter and
turned part of the insurance money into candy, cigars, stationery, and a
meager stock of paper-covered novels.

Skim, her small son, helped her as far as he was able, and between them
they managed things so frugally that at the end of eight years the widow
still had her five hundred dollars capital, and the little store had
paid her living expenses.

Skim was named after his uncle, Peter Skimbley, who owned a farm near
Watertown. The widow's hopeful was now a lank, pale-faced youth of
eighteen, whose most imposing features were his big hands and a long
nose that ended in a sharp point. The shop had ruined him for manual
labor, for he sat hunched up by the stove in winter, and in summer hung
around Cotting's store and listened to the gossip of the loungers. He
was a boy of small conversational powers, but his mother declared that
Skim "done a heap o' thinkin' that nobody suspected."

The widow was a good gossip herself, and knew all the happenings in the
little town. She had a habit of reading all her stock of paper-covered
novels before she sold them, and her mind was stocked with the mass of
romance and adventure she had thus absorbed. "What I loves more'n eat'n'
or sleep'n'," she often said, "is a rattlin' good love story. There
don't seem to be much love in real life, so a poor lone crittur like me
has to calm her hankerin's by a-readin' novels."

No one had been more interested in the advent of the millionaire at the
Wegg farm than the widow Clark. She had helped "fix up" the house for
the new owner and her appreciative soul had been duly impressed by the
display of wealth demonstrated by the fine furniture sent down from the
city. She had watched the arrival of the party and noticed with eager
eyes the group of three pretty and stylishly dressed nieces who
accompanied their rich uncle. Once or twice since the young ladies had
entered her establishment to purchase pens or stationery, and on such
occasions the widow was quite overcome by their condescension.

All this set her thinking to some purpose. One day she walked over to
the farm and made her way quietly to the back door. By good fortune she
found blind Nora hemming napkins and in a mood to converse. Nora was an
especially neat seamstress, but required some one to thread her needles.
Mary the cook had been doing this, but now Mrs. Clark sat down beside
Nora to "hev a little talk" and keep the needles supplied with thread.

She learned a good deal about the nieces, for old Nora could not praise
them enough. They were always sweet and kind to her and she loved to
talk about them. They were all rich, too, or would be; for their uncle
had no children of his own and could leave several millions to each one
when he died.

"An' they're so simple, too," said the old woman; "nothin' cityfied ner
stuck-up about any on 'em, I kin tell ye. They dresses as fine as the
Queen o' Sheba, Tom says; but they romp 'round just like they was borned
in the country. Miss Patsy she's learnin' to milk the cow, an' Miss Beth
takes care o' the chickens all by herself. They're reg'lar girls, Marthy
Clark, an' money hain't spiled 'em a bit."

This report tended to waken a great ambition in the widow's heart. Or
perhaps the ambition had already taken form and this gossip confirmed
and established it. Before she left the farm she had a chance to
secretly observe the girls, and they met with her full approval.

At supper that evening she said to her hopeful:

"Skim, I want ye to go courtin'."

Skim looked up in amazement.

"Me, ma?" he asked.

"Yes, you. It's time you was thinkin' of gittin' married."

Skim held his knife in his mouth a moment while he thought over this
startling proposition. Then he removed the cutlery, heaved a deep sigh,
and enquired:

"Who at, ma?"

"What's that?"

"Who'll I go courtin' at?"

"Skim, you 'member in thet las' book we read, 'The Angel Maniac's
Revenge,' there was a sayin' that fate knocks wunst on ev'ry man's door.
Well, fate's knockin' on your door."

Skim listened, with a nervous glance toward the doorway. Then he shook
his head.

"All fool fancy, ma," he remarked. "Don't ye go an' git no rumantic
notions out'n books inter yer head."

"Skim, am I a fool, er ain't I?"

"'Tain't fer me ter say, ma."

"Fate's knockin', an' if you don't open to it, Skim, I'll wash my hands
o' ye, an' ye kin jest starve to death."

The boy looked disturbed.

"What's aggrivatin' of ye, then?" he enquired, anxiously.

"A millionaire is come right under yer nose. He's here in Millville,
with three gals fer nieces thet's all got money to squander an's bound
to hev more."

Skim gave a low whistle.

"Ye don't mean fer me to be courtin' at them gals, do ye?" he demanded.

"Why not? Yer fambly's jest as respectible as any, 'cept thet yer Uncle
Mell backslided after the last revival, an' went to a hoss race. Yer
young, an' yer han'some; an' there's three gals waitin' ready to be won
by a bold wooer. Be bold, Skim; take fate by the fetlock, an' yer
fortun's made easy!"

Skim did not reply at once. He gulped down his tea and stared at the
opposite wall in deep thought. It wasn't such a "tarnal bad notion,"
after all, and so thoroughly impressed was he with his own importance
and merit that it never occurred to him he would meet with any
difficulties if he chose to undertake the conquest.

"Peggy says marri'ge is the mark of a fool; an' Peggy married money,
too," he remarked slowly.

"Pah! money! Mary Ann Cotting didn't hev but a hundred an' forty
dollars, all told, an' she were an old maid an' soured an' squint-eyed
when Peggy hitched up with her."

"I hain't seen nuthin' o' the world, yit," continued Skim, evasively.

"Ner ye won't nuther, onless ye marry money. Any one o' them gals could
take ye to Europe an' back a dozen times."

Skim reflected still farther.

"Courtin' ought to hev some decent clothes," he said. "I kain't set in
the nabob's parlor, with all thet slick furnitur', in Nick Thorne's
cast-off Sunday suit."

"The cloth's as good as ever was made, an' I cut 'em down myself, an'
stitched 'em all over."

"They don't look like store clothes, though," objected Skim.

The widow sighed.

"Tain't the coat that makes the man, Skim."

"It's the coat thet makes decent courtin', though," he maintained,
stubbornly. "Gals like to see a feller dressed up. It shows he means
business an' 'mounts to somethin'."

"I give Nick Thorne two dollars an' a packidge o' terbacker fer them
clotlies, which the on'y thing wrong about was they'd got too snug fer
comfert. Nick said so himself. But I'll make a bargain with ye, Skim. Ef
you'll agree to give me fifty dollars after yer married, I'll buy ye
some store clothes o' Sam Cotting, to do courtin' in."

"Fifty dollars!"

"Well, I've brung ye up, hain't I?" "I've worked like a nigger, mindin'
shop." "Say forty dollars. I ain't small, an' ef ye git one o' them city
gals, Skim, forty dollars won't mean no more'n a wink of an eye to ye."

Skim frowned. Then he smiled, and the smile disclosed a front tooth
missing.

"I'll dream on't," he said. "Let ye know in the mornin', ma. But I won't
court a minite, mind ye, 'nless I git store clothes."



CHAPTER XX.

A LOST CAUSE.

The boy's musings confirmed him in the idea that his mother's scheme was
entirely practical. He didn't hanker much to marry, being young and
fairly satisfied with his present lot; but opportunities like this did
not often occur, and it seemed his bounden duty to take advantage of it.

He got the "store clothes" next day, together with a scarlet necktie
that was "all made up in the latest style," as Sam Cotting assured him,
and a pair of yellow kid gloves "fit fer a howlin' swell." Skim wasn't
sure, at first, about the gloves, but capitulated when Sam declared they
were "real cityfied."

In the evening he "togged up," with his mother's help, and then walked
over to the Wegg farm.

Beth answered the knock at the door. The living room was brightly
lighted; Uncle John and the Major were playing checkers in a corner and
Patsy was softly drumming on the piano. Louise had a book and Beth had
been engaged upon some fancy-work.

When the door opened Skim bobbed his head and said:

"Evenin', mom. I've come a-visitin'."

Beth conquered an inclination to smile.

"Won't you come in?" she said, sweetly.

"Thankee; I will. I'm Skimbley Clark, ye know; down t' the village. Ma
keeps a store there."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Clark. Allow me to introduce to you my
uncle and cousins," said the girl, her eyes dancing with amusement.

Skim acknowledged the introductions with intense gravity, and then sat
down upon a straight-backed chair near the piano, this being the end of
the room where the three girls were grouped. Uncle John gave a chuckle
and resumed his game with the Major, who whispered that he would give a
dollar for an oil painting of Mr. Clark--if it couldn't be had for less.

Louise laid down her book and regarded the visitor wonderingly. Patsy
scented fun and drew a chair nearer the group. Beth resumed her
embroidery with a demure smile that made Skim decide at once that "he
picked the pretty one."

Indeed, the decision did justice to his discretion. Beth De Graf was a
rarely beautiful girl and quite outshone her cousins in this respect.
Louise might be attractive and Patsy fascinating; but Beth was the real
beauty of the trio, and the most charming trait in her character was her
unconsciousness that she excelled in good looks.

So Skim stared hard at Beth, and answered the preliminary remarks
addressed to him by Patsy and Louise in a perfunctory manner.

"Won't you take off your gloves?" asked Louise, soberly. "It's so warm
this evening, you know."

The boy looked at his hands.

"It's sech a tarnal job to git 'em on agin," he replied.

"Don't put them on, then," advised Patsy. "Here in the country we are
allowed to dispense with much unnecessary social etiquette."

"Air ye? Then off they come. I ain't much stuck on gloves, myself; but
ma she 'lowed that a feller goin' courtin' orter look like a sport."

A chorus of wild laughter, which greeted this speech, had the effect of
making Skim stare at the girls indignantly. He couldn't find anything
funny in his remark; but there they sat facing him and uttering
hysterical peals of merriment, until the tears ran down their cheeks.

Silently and with caution he removed the yellow gloves from his hands,
and so gave the foolish creatures a chance "to laugh out their
blamed giggle."

But they were watching him, and saw that he was disconcerted. They had
no mind to ruin the enjoyment in store for them by offending their
guest, so they soon resumed a fitting gravity and began to assist the
youth to forget their rudeness.

"May I ask," said Patsy, very graciously, "which one of us you intend to
favor with your attentions?"

"I ain't much used to sech things," he replied, looking down at his big
hands and growing a little red-faced. "P'raps I hadn't orter tell,
before the rest o' ye."

"Oh, yes; do tell!" pleaded Louise. "We're so anxious to know."

"I don't s'pose it's right clever to pick an' choose when ye're all by,"
said Skim, regaining confidence. "But ma, she 'lowed thet with three
gals handy I orter git one on 'em, to say the least."

"If you got more than one," remarked Beth, calmly, "it would be
illegal."

"Oh, one's enough," said Skim, with a grin. "Peggy says it's too many,
an' a feller oughtn't to take his gal out'n a grab-bag."

"I should think not, indeed," returned Patsy. "But here are three of us
openly displayed, and unless you turn us all down as unworthy, it will
be necessary for you to make a choice."

"What foolishness are you girls up to now?" demanded Uncle John,
catching a stray word from the other corner while engaged in a desperate
struggle with the Major.

"This is a time for you to keep quiet, Uncle," retorted Patsy, merrily.
"We've got important things to consider that are none of your affairs,
whatever."

Skim reflected that he didn't want this one, except as a last resort.
She was "too bossy."

"When I started out," he said, "I jest come a-courtin', as any feller
might do thet wasn't much acquainted. But ef I've got to settle down to
one o' ye--"

He hesitated.

"Oh, you must really take one at a time, you know," asserted Louise.
"It's the only proper way."

"Then I'll start on thet dark-eyed one thet's a sewin'," he said,
slowly.

Beth looked up from her work and smiled.

"Go ahead, Mr. Clark," she said, encouragingly. "My name is Beth. Had
you forgotten it?"

"Call me Skim," he said, gently.

"Very well, Skim,--Now look here, Patsy Doyle, if you're going to sit
there and giggle you'll spoil everything. Mr. Clark wants to court, and
it's getting late."

"P'raps I've went fur enough fer tonight," remarked Skim, uneasily.
"Next time they'll leave us alone, an' then----"

"Oh, don't postpone it, please!" begged Beth, giving the boy a demure
glance from her soft brown eyes. "And don't mind my cousins. I don't."

"These things kain't be hurried," he said. "Si Merkle courted three
weeks afore he popped. He tol' me so."

"Then he was a very foolish man," declared Patsy, positively. "Just look
at Beth! She's dying to have you speak out. What's the use of waiting,
when she knows why you are here?"

By this time Skim had been flattered to the extent of destroying any
stray sense he might ever have possessed. His utter ignorance of girls
and their ways may have been partly responsible for his idiocy, or his
mother's conviction that all that was necessary was for him to declare
himself in order to be accepted had misled him and induced him to
abandon any native diffidence he might have had. Anyway, the boy fell
into the snare set by the mischievous young ladies without a suspicion
of his impending fate.

"Miss Beth," said he, "ef yer willin', I'll marry ye; any time ye say. I
agreed t' help Dick Pearson with the harvestin', but I'll try to' git
Ned Long to take my place, an' it don't matter much, nohow."

"But I couldn't have you break an engagement," cried Beth, hastily.

"Why not?"

"Oh, it wouldn't be right, at all. Mr. Pearson would never forgive me,"
she asserted.

"Can't ye--"

"No; not before harvest, Skim. I couldn't think of it."

"But arterward--"

"No; I've resolved never to marry after harvest. So, as you're engaged,
and I don't approve of breaking engagements, I must refuse your
proposition entirely."

Skim looked surprised; then perplexed; then annoyed.

"P'raps I didn't pop jest right," he murmured, growing red again.

"You popped beautifully," declared Patsy. "But Beth is very peculiar,
and set in her ways. I'm afraid she wouldn't make you a good
wife, anyhow."

"Then p'raps the gal in blue----"

"No;" said Louise. "I have the same prejudices as my cousin. If you
hadn't been engaged for the harvest I might have listened to you; but
that settles the matter definitely, as far as I am concerned."

Skim sighed.

"Ma'll be mad as a hornet ef I don't get any of ye," he remarked, sadly.
"She's paid Sam Cotting fer this courtin' suit, an' he won't take back
the gloves on no 'count arter they've been wore; an' thet'll set ma
crazy. Miss Patsy, ef yo' think ye could----"

"I'm sure I couldn't," said Patsy, promptly. "I'm awfully sorry to break
your heart, Skim, dear, and ruin your future life, and make you
misanthropic and cynical, and spoil your mother's investment and make
her mad as a hornet. All this grieves me terribly; but I'll recover from
it, if you'll only give me time. And I hope you'll find a wife that will
be more congenial than I could ever be."

Skim didn't understand all these words, but the general tenor of the
speech was convincing, and filled him with dismay.

"Rich gals is tarnal skeerce in these parts," he said, regretfully.

Then they gave way again, and so lusty was the merriment that Uncle John
and the Major abandoned their game and came across the room to discover
the source of all this amusement.

"What's up, young women?" asked their Uncle, glancing from their
laughing faces to the lowering, sullen one of the boy, who had only now
begun to suspect that he was being "poked fun at."

"Oh, Uncle!" cried Patsy; "you've no idea how near you have been to
losing us. We have each had an offer of marriage within the last
half hour!"

"Dear me!" ejaculated Uncle John.

"It shows the young man's intelligence and good taste," said the Major,
much amused. "But is it a Mormon ye are, sir, to want all three?"
directing a keen glance at Skim.

"Naw, 'tain't," he returned, wholly disgusted with the outcome of his
suit. "All three got as't 'cause none of 'em's got sense enough t' know
a good thing when they seen it."

"But I do," said the Major, stoutly; "and I maintain that you're a good
thing, and always will be. I hope, sir, you'll call 'round and see me in
Baltimore next year. I'll not be there, but ye can leave your card, just
the same."

"Please call again, sir," added Uncle John; "about October--just before
snow flies."

The boy got up.

"I don't keer none," he said, defiantly. "It's all ma's fault, gittin'
me laughed at, an' she won't hear the last of it in a hurry, nuther."

"Be gentle with her, Skim," suggested Beth, softly. "Remember she has to
face the world with you by her side."

Having no retort for this raillery, which he felt rather than
understood, Skim seized his hat and fled. Then Patsy wiped the tears
from her eyes and said:

"Wasn't it grand, girls? I haven't had so much fun since I was born."



CHAPTER XXI.

THE TRAP IS SET.

Uncle John was forced to acknowledge to his nieces that his boast to
unmask Bob West within three days was mere blustering. If he
accomplished anything in three weeks he would consider himself
fortunate. But he had no wish to conceal anything from the girls, so he
told them frankly of his interview with the hardware merchant, and also
what Joe Wegg had said about the stock in the locked cupboard. They
were, of course, greatly interested in this new phase of the matter and
canvassed it long and eagerly.

"The man is lying, of course," said Patsy, "for Captain Wegg and poor
Mr. Thompson could not transfer their stock to West after that fatal
night when he brought to them the news of the fire."

"I believe the stock is still in this cupboard," declared Uncle John.

"Unless West stole the keys and has taken it away," suggested Louise.

"I'm sure he did not know about the secret drawer," said her uncle.
"Probably he stole the keys and searched the cupboard; if he had found
the stock he would have left the keys, which would then be of no further
use to him. As he did not find the stock certificates, he carried the
keys away, that he might search again at his leisure. And they've never
yet been returned."

"Why, John, ye're possessed of the true detective instinct," the Major
remarked, admiringly. "Your reasoning is at once clever and
unassailable."

"I wonder," mused Beth, "if we could tempt Mr. West to come again to
search the cupboard."

"He will scarcely venture to do that while we are here," replied Uncle
John.

"I said 'tempt him,' Uncle."

"And what did you mean by that expression, Beth?"

"I'll think it over and tell you later," she returned, quietly.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ethel Thompson would have shown Joe Wegg how much she resented his
leaving Millville without a word to her, had she not learned from Mr.
Merrick the boy's sad condition. Knowing her old friend was ill, she
determined to ignore the past and go to him at once, and Uncle John knew
very well there would be explanations to smooth away all the former
misunderstandings.

Joe was now aware of the fact that his letter to Ethel had never reached
its destination, so, as soon as the girl had arrived and the first
rather formal greetings were over, he sent Kate Kebble to McNutt's to
ask the agent to come over to the hotel at once.

The girl returned alone.

"Peggy says as he can't come," she announced.

"Why not?" asked Joe.

"Says he's jest painted his off foot blue an' striped it with red, an'
it hain't dried yit."

"Go back," said Joe, firmly. "Tell Peggy he's in trouble, and it's
likely to cost him more than a new coat of paint for his foot if he
doesn't come here at once."

Kate went back, and in due time the stump of McNutt's foot was heard on
the stairs. He entered the room looking worried and suspicious, and the
stern faces of Ethel and Joe did not reassure him, by any means. But he
tried to disarm the pending accusation with his usual brazen
impertinence.

"Nice time ter send fer me, this is, Joe," he grumbled. "It's gittin' so
a feller can't even paint his foot in peace an' quiet."

"Peggy," said Joe, "when I went away, three years ago, I gave you a
letter for Miss Ethel. What did you do with it?"

Peggy's bulging eyes stared at his blue foot, which he turned first one
side and then the other to examine the red stripes.

"It's this way, Joe," he replied; "there wa'n't no postige stamp on the
letter, an' Sam Cotting said it couldn't be posted no way 'thout
a stamp."

"It wasn't to be sent through the post-office," said the boy. "I gave
you a quarter to deliver it in person to Miss Ethel."

"Did ye, Joe? did ye?"

"Of course I did."

"Cur'ous," said McNutt, leaning over to touch the foot cautiously with
one finger, to see if the paint was dry.

"Well, sir!"

"Well, Joe, there's no use gittin' mad 'bout it. Thet blamed quarter ye
giv me rolled down a crack in the stoop, an' got lost. Sure. Got lost as
easy as anything."

"Well, what was that to me?"

"Oh, I ain't blamin' you," said Peggy; "but 'twere a good deal to me, I
kin tell ye. A whole quarter lost!"

"Why didn't you take up a board, and get it again?"

"Oh, I did," said McNutt. cheerfully. "I did, Joe. But the money was all
black an' tarnished like, by thet time, an' didn't look at all like
silver. Sam he wouldn't take it at the store, so my ol' woman she 'lowed
she'd polish it up a bit. Ye know how sort o' vig'rous she is, Joe. She
polished that blamed quarter the same way she jaws an' sweeps; she
polished it 'til she rubbed both sides smooth as glass, an' then Sam
wouldn't take it, nuther, 'n' said it wasn't money any more. So I
drilled two holes in it an' sewed it on my pants fer a 'spender butt'n."

"But why didn't you deliver the letter?"

"Did ye 'spect I'd tramp way t' Thompson's Crossing fer nuthin'?"

"I gave you a quarter."

"An' it turned out to be on'y a 'spender butt'n. Be reason'ble, Joe."

"Where is the letter?"

"'Tain't a letter no more. It's on'y ol' fambly papers by this time.
Three years is----"

"Where is it? By thunder, Peggy, if you don't answer me I'll put you in
jail for breach of trust!"

"Ye've changed, Joe," sadly. "Ye ain't no more like----"

"Where is it?"

"Behind the lookin'-glass in my sett'n-room."

"Go and get it immediately, sir!"

"Ef I hev to cross thet dusty road twic't more, I'll hev to paint all
over agin, an' thet's a fact."

"Ethel," said Joe, with the calmness of despair, "you'll have to
telephone over to the Junction and ask them to send a constable here
at once."

"Never mind," cried McNutt, jumping up hastily; "I'll go. Paint don't
cost much, nohow."

He stumped away, but on his return preferred to let Kate carry the
soiled, torn envelope up to the young folks. The letter had palpably
been tampered with. It had been opened and doubtless read, and the flap
clumsily glued down again.

But Ethel had it now, and even after three years her sweet eyes dimmed
as she read the tender words that Joe had written because he lacked the
courage to speak them. "My one great ambition is to win a home for us,
dear," he had declared, and with this before her eyes Ethel reproached
herself for ever doubting his love or loyalty.

When she rode her pony over to the Wegg farm next day Ethel's bright
face was wreathed with smiles. She told her girl friends that she and
Joe had had a "good talk" together, and understood each other better
than ever before. The nieces did not tell her of their newly conceived
hopes that the young couple would presently possess enough money to
render their future comfortable, because there were so many chances that
Bob West might win the little game being played. But at this moment
Ethel did not need worldly wealth to make her heart light and happy, for
she had regained her childhood's friend, and his injuries only rendered
the boy the more interesting and companionable.

Meantime Uncle John had been busily thinking. It annoyed him to be so
composedly defied by a rascally country merchant, and he resolved, if he
must fight, to fight with all his might.

So he wired to his agent in New York the following words:

"What part of the Almaquo timber tract burned in forest fire three years
ago?"

The answer he received made him give a satisfied grunt.

"No forest fires near Almaquo three years ago. Almadona, seventy miles
north, burned at that time, and newspaper reports confounded the names."

"Very good!" exclaimed Uncle John. "I've got the rascal now."

He issued instructions to the lumber company to make no further payments
of royalties to Robert West until otherwise advised, and this had the
effect of bringing West to the farm white with rage.

"What do you mean by this action, Mr. Merrick?" he demanded.

"We've been paying you money that does not belong to you for three
years, sir," was the reply. "In a few days, when my investigations are
complete, I will give you the option of being arrested for embezzlement
of funds belonging to Joseph Wegg and the Thompsons, or restoring to
them every penny of their money."

West stared.

"You are carrying matters with a high hand, sir," he sneered.

"Oh, no; I am acting very leniently," said Uncle John.

"Neither Joe nor the Thompsons own a dollar's interest in the Almaquo
property. It is all mine, and mine alone."

"Then produce the stock and prove it!" retorted Mr. Merrick,
triumphantly.

At that moment Louise interrupted the interview by entering the room
suddenly.

"Oh, Uncle," said she, "will you join us in a picnic to the Falls
tomorrow afternoon? We are all going."

"Then I won't be left behind," he replied, smiling upon her.

"We shall take even Thomas and Nora, and come home late in the evening,
by moonlight."

"That suits me, my dear," said he.

West stood silent and scowling, but as the girl tripped away she saw him
raise his eyes and glance slyly toward the cupboard, for they were in
the right wing room.

"Mr. Merrick," he resumed, in a harsh voice; "I warn you that if your
company holds up the payment of my royalties it will break the contract,
and I will forbid them to cut another tree. You are doubtless aware that
there are a dozen firms willing to take your place and pay me higher
royalties."

"Act as you please, sir," said Uncle John, indifferently. "I believe you
are face to face with ruin, and it won't matter much what you do."

West went away more quietly than he had come, and the girls exclaimed,
delightedly:

"The trap is set, Uncle!"

"I think so, myself," he rejoined. "That picnic was a happy thought,
Louise."

Early the next afternoon they started out with hammocks and baskets and
all the paraphernalia of a picnic party. The three girls, Nora and Uncle
John squeezed themselves into the surrey, while the Major and Old Hucks
rode after them in the ancient buggy, with Dan moaning and groaning
every step he took. But the old horse moved more briskly when following
Joe, and Hucks could get more speed out of him than anyone else; so he
did not lag much behind.

The procession entered Millville, where a brief stop was made at the
store, and then made its exit by the north road. West was standing in
the door of his hardware store, quietly observing them. When they
disappeared in the grove he locked the door of his establishment and
sauntered in the direction of the Pearson farm, no one noticing him
except Peggy McNutt, who was disappointed because he had intended to go
over presently and buy a paper of tacks.

When the village was left behind, Uncle John drove swiftly along,
following the curve of the lake until he reached a primitive lane that
he had discovered formed a short cut directly back to the Wegg farm. Old
Thomas was amazed by this queer action on the part of the picnic party,
but aside from blind Nora, who had no idea where they were, the others
seemed full of repressed eagerness, and in no way surprised.

The lane proved very rocky though, and they were obliged to jolt slowly
over the big cobble stones. So Beth and Patsy leaped out of the surrey
and the former called out:

"We will run through the forest, Uncle, and get home as soon as you do."

"Be careful not to show yourselves, then," he replied. "Remember our
plans."

"We will. And don't forget to tie the horses in the thicket, and warn
Thomas and Nora to keep quiet until we come for them," said Patsy.

"I'll attend to all that, dear," remarked Louise, composedly. "But if
you girls are determined to walk, you must hurry along, or you will keep
us waiting."

The nieces had explored every path in the neighborhood by this time, so
Beth and Patsy were quite at home in the pine forest. The horses started
up again, and after struggling along another quarter of a mile a wheel
of the surrey dished between two stones, and with a bump the axle struck
the ground and the journey was promptly arrested.

"What shall we do now?" asked Uncle John, much annoyed, as the party
alighted to examine the wreck.

"Send Thomas back to the village for another wheel" suggested the Major.

"Not today!" cried Louise. "We mustn't appear in the village again this
afternoon, on any account. It is absolutely necessary we should keep out
of sight."

"True," agreed Uncle John, promptly. "Thomas and Nora must picnic here
all by themselves, until nearly midnight. Then they may drive the buggy
home, leading Daniel behind them. It will be time enough tomorrow to get
a new buggy wheel, and the broken surrey won't be in anybody's way until
we send for it."

If Old Hucks thought they had all gone crazy that day he was seemingly
justified in the suspicion, for his master left the baskets of good
things to be consumed by himself and Nora and started to walk to the
farm, the Major and Louise accompanying him.

"We mustn't loiter," said the girl, "for while West may wait until
darkness falls to visit the farm, he is equally liable to arrive at any
time this afternoon. He has seen us all depart, and believes the house
deserted."

But they were obliged to keep to the lane, where walking was difficult,
and meantime Patsy and Beth were tripping easily along their woodland
paths and making much better progress.



CHAPTER XXII.

CAUGHT.

"We're early," said Beth, as they came to the edge of the woods and
sighted the farm house; "but that is better than being late."

Then she stopped suddenly with a low cry and pointed to the right wing,
which directly faced them. Bob West turned the corner of the house,
tried the door of Uncle John's room, and then walked to one of the
French windows. The sash was not fastened, so he deliberately opened it
and stepped inside.

"What shall we do?" gasped Patsy, clasping her hands excitedly.

Beth was always cool in an emergency.

"You creep up to the window, dear, and wait till you hear me open the
inside door," said she. "I'll run through the house and enter from the
living-room. The key is under the mat, you know."

"But what can we do? Oughtn't we to wait until Uncle John and father
come?" Patsy asked, in a trembling voice.

"Of course not. West might rob the cupboard and be gone by that time.
We've got to act promptly, Patsy; so don't be afraid."

Without further words Beth ran around the back of the house and
disappeared, while Patsy, trying to control the beating of her heart,
stole softly over the lawn to the open window of Uncle John's room.

She could not help looking in, at the risk of discovery. Bob West--tall,
lean and composed as ever--was standing beside the cupboard, the doors
of which were wide open. The outer doors were of wood, panelled and
carved; the inner ones were plates of heavy steel, and in the lock that
secured these latter doors were the keys that had so long been missing.
Both were attached to a slender silver chain.

As Patsy peered in at the man West was engaged in deliberately examining
packet after packet of papers, evidently striving to find the missing
stock certificates. He was in no hurry, believing he would have the
house to himself for several hours; so he tumbled Captain Wegg's
souvenirs of foreign lands in a heap on the floor beside him, thrusting
his hand into every corner of the cupboard in order that the search
might be thorough. He had once before examined the place in vain; this
time he intended to succeed.

Presently West drew a cigar from his pocket, lighted it, and was about
to throw the match upon the floor when the thought that it might later
betray his presence made him pause and then walk to the open window. As
he approached, Patsy became panic-stricken and, well knowing that she
ought to run or hide, stood rooted to the spot, gazing half appealingly
and half defiantly into the startled eyes of the man who suddenly
confronted her.

So for a moment they stood motionless. West was thinking rapidly. By
some error be had miscounted the picnic party and this girl had been
left at home. She had discovered his intrusion, had seen him at the
cupboard, and would report the matter to John Merrick. This being the
case, it would do him no good to retreat without accomplishing his
purpose. If once he secured the stock certificates he could afford to
laugh at his accusers, and secure them he must while he had the
opportunity.

So clearly did these thoughts follow one another that West's hesitation
seemed only momentary. Without a word to the girl he tossed the match
upon the grass, calmly turned his back, and started for the
cupboard again.

But here a new surprise awaited him. Brief as had been his absence,
another girl had entered the room. Beth opened the door even as West
turned toward the window, and, taking in the situation at a glance, she
tiptoed swiftly to the cupboard, withdrew the keys from the lock and
dropped them noiselessly into a wide-mouthed vase that stood on the
table and was partially filled with flowers. The next instant West
turned and saw her, but she smiled at him triumphantly. "Good afternoon,
sir," said the girl, sweetly; "can I do anything to assist you?"

West uttered an impatient exclamation and regarded Beth savagely.

"Is the house full of girls?" he demanded.

"Oh, no; Patsy and I are quite alone," she replied, with a laugh. "Come
in, Patsy dear, and help me to entertain our guest," she added.

Patsy came through the window and stood beside her cousin. The man
stared at them, bit his lip, and then turned again to the cupboard. If
he noted the absence of the keys he did not remark upon the fact, but
with hurried yet thorough examination began anew to turn over the
bundles of papers.

Beth sat down and watched him, but Patsy remained standing behind her
chair. West emptied all the shelves, and then after a pause took out his
pocket knife and began tapping with its end the steel sides of the
cupboard. There was no doubt he suspected the existence of a secret
aperture, and Beth began to feel uneasy.

Slowly the man worked his way downward, from shelf to shelf, and began
to sound the bottom plates, wholly oblivious of the fascinated gaze of
the two young girls. Then a sudden gruff ejaculation startled them all,
and West swung around to find a new group of watchers outside the
window. In the foreground appeared the stern face of John Merrick.

The scene was intensely dramatic to all but the singular man who had
been battling to retain a fortune. West knew in an instant that his
attempt to secure the certificates was a failure. He turned from the
cupboard, dusted his hands, and nodded gravely to the last arrivals.

"Come in, Mr. Merrick," said he, seating himself in a chair and removing
his hat, which he had been wearing. "I owe you an apology for intruding
upon your premises in your absence."

Uncle John strode into the room angry and indignant at the fellow's cool
impertinence. The Major and Louise followed, and all eyes centered upon
the face of Bob West.

"The contents of this cupboard," remarked the hardware merchant, calmly,
"belong to the estate of Captain Wegg, and can scarcely be claimed by
you because you have purchased the house. You falsely accused me the
other day, sir, and I have been searching for proof that the Almaquo
Timber Tract stock is entirely my property."

"Have you found such proof?" inquired Mr. Merrick.

"Not yet."

"And you say the stock was all issued to you?"

West hesitated.

"It was all transferred to me by Captain Wegg and Will Thompson."

"Does the transfer appear upon the stock itself?"

"Of course, sir."

"In that case," said Uncle John, "I shall be obliged to ask your pardon.
But the fact can be easily proved."

He walked to the open cupboard, felt for the slide Joe had described to
him, and drew it forward. A small drawer was behind the orifice, and
from this Mr. Merrick drew a packet of papers.

West gave a start and half arose. Then he settled back into his chair
again.

"H-m. This appears to be the stock in question," said Uncle John. He
drew a chair to the table, unfolded the documents and examined them with
deliberate care.

The nieces watched his face curiously. Mr. Merrick first frowned, then
turned red, and finally a stern, determined look settled upon his
rugged features.

"Take your stock, Mr. West," he said, tossing it toward the man; "and
try to forgive us for making fools of ourselves!"



CHAPTER XXIII.

MR. WEST EXPLAINS.

A cry of amazed protest burst from the girls. The Major whistled softly
and walked to the window.

"I find the stock properly transferred," continued Uncle John, grimly
conscious that he was as thoroughly disappointed as the girls. "It is
signed by both Wegg and Thompson, and witnessed in the presence of a
notary. I congratulate you, Mr. West. You have acquired a fortune."

"But not recently," replied the hardware dealer, enjoying the confusion
of his recent opponents. "I have owned this stock for more than three
years, and you will see by the amount endorsed upon it that I paid a
liberal price for it, under the circumstances."

Uncle John gave a start and a shrewd look.

"Of course you did," said he. "On paper."

"I have records to prove that both Captain Wegg and Will Thompson
received their money," said West, quietly. "I see it is hard for you to
abandon the idea that I am a rogue."

There could be no adequate reply to this, so for a time all sat in moody
silence. But the thoughts of some were busy.

"I would like Mr. West to explain what became of the money he paid for
this stock," said Louise; adding: "That is, if he will be so courteous."

West did not answer for a moment. Then he said, with a gesture of
indifference:

"I am willing to tell all I know. But you people must admit that the
annoyances you have caused me during the past fortnight, to say nothing
of the gratuitous insults heaped upon my head, render me little inclined
to favor you."

"You are quite justified in feeling as you do," replied Uncle John,
meekly. "I have been an ass, West; but circumstances warranted me in
suspecting you, and even Joseph Wegg did not know that the Almaquo stock
had been transferred to you. He merely glanced at it at the time of his
father's death, without noticing the endorsement, and thought the fire
had rendered it worthless. But if you then owned the stock, why was it
not in your possession?"

"That was due to my carelessness," was the reply. "The only notary
around here is at Hooker's Falls, and Mr. Thompson offered to have him
come to Captain Wegg's residence and witness the transfer. As my
presence was not necessary for this, and I had full confidence in my
friends' integrity, I paid them their money, which they were eager to
secure at once, and said I would call in a few days for the stock. I did
call, and was told the notary had been here and the transfer had been
legally made. Wegg said he would get the stock from the cupboard and
hand it to me; but we both forgot it at that time. After his death I
could not find it, for it was in the secret drawer."

"Another thing, sir," said Uncle John. "If neither Wegg nor Thompson was
then interested in the Almaquo property, why did the news of its
destruction by fire shock them so greatly that the result was Captain
Wegg's death?"

"I see it will be necessary for me to explain to you more fully,"
returned West, with a thoughtful look. "It is evident, Mr. Merrick, from
your questions, that some of these occurrences seem suspicious to a
stranger, and perhaps you are not so much to be blamed as, in my
annoyance and indignation, I have imagined."

"I would like the matter cleared up for the sake of Ethel and Joe," said
Mr. Merrick, simply.

"And so would I," declared the hardware dealer. "You must know, sir,
that Will Thompson was the one who first led Captain Wegg into investing
his money. I think the Captain did it merely to please Will, for at that
time he had become so indifferent to worldly affairs that he took no
interest in anything beyond a mild wish to provide for his son's future.
But Thompson was erratic in judgment, so Wegg used to bring their
matters to me to decide upon. I always advised them as honestly as I was
able. At the time I secured an option on the Almaquo tract, and wanted
them to join me, Will Thompson had found another lot of timber, but
located in an out-of-the-way corner, which he urged the Captain to join
him in buying. Wegg brought the matter to me, as usual, and I pointed
out that my proposed contract with the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company would
assure our making a handsome profit at Almaquo, while Thompson had no
one in view to cut the other tract. Indeed, it was far away from any
railroad. Wegg saw the force of my argument, and insisted that Thompson
abandon his idea and accept my proposition. Together we bought the
property, having formed a stock company, and the contract for cutting
the timber was also secured. Things were looking bright for us and
royalty payments would soon be coming in.

"Then, to my amazement, Wegg came to me and wanted to sell out their
interests. He said Thompson had always been dissatisfied because they
had not bought the other tract of timber, and that the worry and
disappointment was affecting his friend's mind. He was personally
satisfied that my investment was the best, but, in order to sooth old
Will and prevent his mind from giving way, Wegg wanted to withdraw and
purchase the other tract.

"I knew there was a fortune in Almaquo, so I went to New York and
mortgaged all I possessed, discounting a lot of notes given me by
farmers in payment for machinery, and finally borrowing at a high rate
of interest the rest of the money I needed. In other words I risked all
my fortune on Almaquo, and brought the money home to pay Wegg and
Thompson for their interest. The moment they received the payment they
invested it in the Bogue tract--"

"Hold on!" cried Uncle John. "What tract did you say?"

"The Bogue timber tract, sir. It lies--"

"I know where it lies. Our company has been a whole year trying to find
out who owned it."

"Wegg and Thompson bought it. I was angry at the time, because their
withdrawal had driven me into a tight corner to protect my investment,
and I told them they would bitterly regret their action. I think Wegg
agreed with me, but Will Thompson was still stubborn.

"Then came the news of the fire at Almaquo. It was a false report, I
afterward learned, but at that time I believed the newspapers, and the
blow almost deprived me of reason. In my excitement I rushed over to
Wegg's farm and found the two men together, whereupon I told them I
was ruined.

"The news affected them powerfully because they had just saved
themselves from a like ruin, they thought. Wegg was also a sympathetic
man, in spite of his reserve. His old heart trouble suddenly came upon
him, aggravated by the excitement of the hour, and he died with scarcely
a moan. Thompson, whose reason was tottering long before this, became
violently insane at witnessing his friend's death, and has never since
recovered. That is all I am able to tell you, sir."

"The Bogue tract," said Uncle John, slowly, "is worth far more than the
Almaquo. Old Will Thompson was sane enough when insisting on that
investment. But where is the stock, or deed, to show they bought that
property?"

"I do not know, sir. I only know they told me they had effected the
purchase."

"Pardon me," said the Major. "Have you not been through this cupboard
before?"

West looked at him with a frown.

"Yes; in a search for my own stock," he said. "But I found neither that
nor any deed to the Bogue property. I am not a thief, Major Doyle."

"You stole the keys, though," said Louise, pointedly.

"I did not even do that," said West. "On the day of the funeral Joe
carelessly left them lying upon a table, so I slipped them into my
pocket. When I thought of them again Joe had gone away and I did not
know his address. I came over and searched the cupboard unsuccessfully.
But it was not a matter of great importance at that time if the stock
was mislaid, since there was no one to contest my ownership of it. It
was only after Mr. Merrick accused me of robbing my old friends and
ordered my payments stopped that I realized it was important to me to
prove my ownership. That is why I came here today."

Again a silence fell upon the group. Said Uncle John, finally:

"If the deed to the Bogue tract can be found, Joe and Ethel will be
rich. I wonder what became of the paper."

No one answered, for here was another mystery.



CHAPTER XXIV.

PEGGY HAS REVENGE.

Joe Wegg made a rapid recovery, his strength returning under the
influence of pleasant surroundings and frequent visits from Ethel and
Uncle John's three nieces. Not a word was hinted to either the invalid
or the school teacher regarding the inquiries Mr. Merrick was making
about the deed to the Bogue timber lands, which, if found, would make
the young couple independent. Joe was planning to exploit a new patent
as soon as he could earn enough to get it introduced, and Ethel
exhibited a sublime confidence in the boy's ability that rendered all
question of money insignificant.

Joe's sudden appearance in the land of his birth and his generally
smashed up condition were a nine days' wonder in Millville. The gossips
wanted to know all the whys and wherefores, but the boy kept his room in
the hotel, or only walked out when accompanied by Ethel or one of the
three nieces. Sometimes they took him to ride, as he grew better, and
the fact that Joe "were hand an' glove wi' the nabobs" lent him a
distinction he had never before possessed.

McNutt, always busy over somebody else's affairs, was very curious to
know what had caused the accident Joe had suffered. Notwithstanding the
little affair of the letter, in which he had not appeared with especial
credit, Peggy made an effort to interview the young man that resulted in
his complete discomfiture. But that did not deter him from indulging in
various vivid speculations about Joe Wegg, which the simple villagers
listened to with attention. For one thing, he confided to "the boys" at
the store that, in his opinion, the man who had murdered Cap'n Wegg had
tried to murder his son also, and it wasn't likely Joe could manage to
escape him a second time. Another tale evolved from Peggy's fertile
imagination was that Joe, being about to starve to death in the city,
had turned burglar and been shot in the arm in an attempt at
housebreaking.

"Wouldn't be s'prised," said the agent, in an awed voice, "ef the p'lice
was on his track now. P'raps there's a reward offered, boys; let's keep
an eye on him!"

He waylaid the nieces once or twice, and tried to secure from them a
verification of his somber suspicions, which they mischievously
fostered.

The girls found him a source of much amusement, and relieved their own
disappointment at finding the "Wegg Mystery" a pricked bubble by getting
McNutt excited over many sly suggestions of hidden crimes. They knew he
was harmless, for even his neighbors needed proof of any assertion he
made; moreover, the investigation Uncle John was making would soon set
matters right; so the young ladies did not hesitate to "have fun" at the
little agent's expense.

One of McNutt's numerous occupations was raising a "patch" of
watermelons each year on the lot back of the house. These he had
fostered with great care since the plants had first sprouted through the
soil, and in these late August days two or three hundreds of fine, big
melons were just getting ripe. He showed the patch with much pride one
day to the nieces, saying:

"Here's the most extry-fine melling-patch in this county, ef I do say it
myself. Dan Brayley he thinks he kin raise mellings, but the ol' fool
ain't got a circumstance to this. Ain't they beauties?"

"It seems to me," observed Patsy, gravely, "that Brayley's are just as
good. We passed his place this morning and wondered how he could raise
such enormous melons."

"'Normous! Brayley's!"

"I'm sure they are finer than these," said Beth.

"Well, I'll be jiggered!" Peggy's eyes stared as they had never stared
before. "Dan Brayley, he's a miser'ble ol' skinflint. Thet man couldn't
raise decent mellings ef he tried."

"What do you charge for melons, Mr. McNutt?" inquired Louise.

"Charge? Why--er--fifty cents a piece is my price to nabobs; an' dirt
cheap at that!"

"That is too much," declared Patsy. "Mr. Brayley says he will sell his
melons for fifteen cents each."

"Him! Fifteen cents!" gasped Peggy, greatly disappointed. "Say,
Brayley's a disturbin' element in these parts. He oughter go to jail fer
asking fifteen cents fer them mean little mellings o' his'n."

"They seem as large as yours," murmured Louise.

"But they ain't. An' Brayley's a cheat an' a rascal, while a honester
man ner me don't breathe. Nobody likes Brayley 'round Millville. Why,
on'y las' winter he called me a meddler--in public!--an' said as I shot
off my mouth too much. Me!"

"How impolite."

"But that's Dan Brayley. My mellings at fifty cents is better 'n his'n
at fifteen."

"Tell me," said Patsy, with a smile, "did you ever rob a melon-patch,
Mr. McNutt?"

"Me? I don't hev to. I grow 'em."

"But the ones you grow are worth fifty cents each, are they not?"

"Sure; mine is."

"Then every time you eat one of your own melons you eat fifty cents. If
you were eating one of Mr. Brayley's melons you would only eat
fifteen cents."

"And it would be Brayley's fifteen cents, too," added Beth, quickly.

Peggy turned his protruding eyes from one to the other, and a smile
slowly spread over his features.

"By jinks, let's rob Brayley's melling-patch!" he cried.

"All right; we'll help you," answered Patsy, readily.

"Oh, my dear!" remonstrated Louise, not understanding.

"It will be such fun," replied her cousin, with eyes dancing merrily.
"Boys always rob melon-patches, so I don't see why girls shouldn't. When
shall we do it, Mr. McNutt?"

"There ain't any moon jest now, an' the nights is dark as blazes. Let's
go ternight."

"It's a bargain," declared Patsy. "We will come for you in the surrey at
ten o'clock, and all drive together to the back of Brayley's yard and
take all the melons we want."

"It'll serve him right," said Peggy, delightedly. "Ol' Dan called me a
meddler onc't--in public--an' I'm bound t' git even with him."

"Don't betray us, sir," pleaded Beth.

"I can't," replied McNutt, frankly; "I'm in it myself, an' we'll jest
find out what his blame-twisted ol' fifteen-cent mellings is like."

Patsy was overjoyed at the success of her plot, which she had conceived
on the spur of the moment, as most clever plots are conceived. On the
way home she confided to her cousins a method of securing revenge upon
the agent for selling them the three copies of the "Lives of
the Saints."

"McNutt wants to get even with Brayley, he says, and we want to get even
with McNutt. I think our chances are best, don't you?" she asked.

And they decided to join the conspiracy.

There was some difficulty escaping from Uncle John and the Major that
night, but Patsy got them interested in a game of chess that was likely
to last some hours, while Beth stole to the barn and harnessed Joe to
the surrey. Soon the others slipped out and joined her, and with Patsy
and Beth on the front seat and Louise Inside the canopy they drove
slowly away until the sound of the horse's feet on the stones was no
longer likely to betray them.

McNutt was waiting for them when they quietly drew up before his house.
The village was dark and silent, for its inhabitants retired early to
bed. By good fortune the sky was overcast with heavy clouds and not even
the glimmer of a star relieved the gloom.

They put McNutt on the back seat with Louise, cautioned him to be quiet,
and then drove away. Dan Brayley's place was two miles distant, but in
answer to Peggy's earnest inquiry if she knew the way Beth declared she
could find it blind-folded. In a few moments Louise had engaged the
agent in a spirited discussion of the absorbing "mystery" and so
occupied his attention that he paid no heed to the direction they had
taken. The back seat was hemmed in by side curtains and the canopy, so
it would be no wonder if he lost all sense of direction, even had not
the remarks of the girl at his side completely absorbed him.

Beth drove slowly down the main street, up a lane, back by the lake road
and along the street again; and this programme was repeated several
times, until she thought a sufficient distance had been covered to
convince the agent they had arrived at Brayley's. They way was pitch
dark, but the horse was sensible enough to keep in the middle of the
road, so they met with no accident more than to jolt over a stone
now and then.

But now the most difficult part of the enterprise lay before them. The
girls turned down the lane back of the main street and bumped over the
ruts until they thought they had arrived at a spot opposite McNutt's own
melon patch.

"What's wrong?" asked the agent, as they suddenly stopped with a jerk.

"This ought to be Brayley's," said Beth; "but it's so dark I'm not
certain just where we are."

McNutt thrust his head out and peered into the blackness.

"Drive along a little," he whispered.

The girl obeyed.

"Stop--stop!" said he, a moment later. "I think that's them contwisted
fifteen-cent mellings--over there!"

They all got out and Beth tied the horse to the fence. Peggy climbed
over and at once whispered:

"Come on! It's them, all right."

Through the drifting clouds there was just enough light to enable them
to perceive the dark forms of the melons lying side by side upon their
vines. The agent took out his big clasp knife and recklessly slashed one
of them open.

"Green's grass!" he grumbled, and slashed another.

Patsy giggled, and the others felt a sudden irresistible impulse to join
her.

"Keep still!" cautioned McNutt. "Wouldn't ol' Dan be jest ravin' ef he
knew this? Say--here's a ripe one. Hev a slice."

They all felt for the slices he offered and ate the fruit without being
able to see it. But it really tasted delicious.

As the girls feasted they heard a crunching sound and inquired in low
voices what it was.

McNutt was stumping over the patch and plumping his wooden foot into
every melon he could find, smashing them wantonly against the ground.
The discovery filled them with horror. They had thought inducing the
agent to rob his own patch of a few melons, while under the delusion
that they belonged to his enemy Brayley, a bit of harmless fun; but here
was the vindictive fellow actually destroying his own property by the
wholesale.

"Oh, don't! Please don't, Mr. McNutt!" pleaded Patsy, in frightened
accents.

"Yes, I will," declared the agent, stubbornly. "I'll git even with Dan
Brayley fer once in my life, ef I never do another thing, by gum!"

"But it's wrong--it's wicked!" protested Beth.

"Can't help it; this is my chance, an' I'll make them bum fifteen-cent
mellings look like a penny a piece afore I gits done with 'em."

"Never mind, girls," whispered Louise. "It's the law of retribution.
Poor Peggy will be sorry for this tomorrow."

The man had not the faintest suspicion where he was. He knew his own
melon patch well enough, having worked in it at times all the summer;
but he had never climbed over the fence and approached it from the rear
before, so it took on a new aspect to him from this point of view, and
moreover the night was dark enough to deceive anybody.

If he came across an especially big melon McNutt would lug it to the
carriage and dump it in. And so angry and energetic was the little man
that in a brief space the melon patch was a scene of awful devastation,
and the surrey contained all the fruit that survived the massacre.

Beth unhitched the horse and they all took their places in the carriage
again, having some difficulty to find places for their feet on account
of the cargo of melons. McNutt was stowed away inside, with Louise, and
they drove away up the lane. The agent was jubilant and triumphant, and
chuckled in gleeful tones that thrilled the girls with remorse as they
remembered the annihilation of McNutt's cherished melons.

"Ol' Dan usu'lly has a dorg," said Peggy, between his fits of laughter;
"but I guess he had him chained up ternight."

"I'm not positively sure that was Brayley's place," remarked Beth; "it's
so very dark."

"Oh, it were Brayley's, all right," McNutt retorted. "I could tell by
the second-class taste o' them mellings, an' their measley little size.
Them things ain't a circumstance to the kind I raise."

"Are you sure?" asked Louise.

"Sure's shootln'. Guess I'm a jedge o' mellings, when I sees 'em."

"No one could see tonight," said Beth.

"Feelin's jest the same," declared the little man, confidently.

After wandering around a sufficient length of time to allay suspicion,
Beth finally drew up before McNutt's house again.

"I'll jest take my share o' them mellings," said Peggy, as he alighted.
"They ain't much 'count, bein' Brayley's; but it'll save me an' the ol'
woman from eatin' our own, or perhaps I kin sell 'em to Sam Cotting."

He took rather more than his share of the spoils, but the girls had no
voice to object. They were by this time so convulsed with suppressed
merriment that they had hard work not to shriek aloud their laughter.
For, in spite of the tragic revelations the morrow would bring forth,
the situation was so undeniably ridiculous that they could not resist
its humor.

"I've had a heap o' fun," whispered McNutt. "Good night, gals. Ef ye
didn't belong to thet gum-twisted nabob, ye'd be some pun'kins."

"Thank you, Mr. McNutt. Good night."

And it was not until well on their journey to the farm that the girls
finally dared to abandon further restraint. Then, indeed, they made the
grim, black hills of the plateau resound to the peals of their
merry laughter.



CHAPTER XXV.

GOOD NEWS AT LAST.

It was on the morning following this adventure that Uncle John received
a bulky envelope from the city containing the result of the
investigation he had ordered regarding the ownership of the Bogue tract
of pine forest. It appeared that the company in which he was so largely
interested had found the tract very valuable, and had been seeking for
the owners in order to purchase it or lease the right to cut the timber.
But although they had traced it through the hands of several successive
owners the present holders were all unknown to them until Mr. Merrick's
information had furnished them with a clue. A year ago the company had
paid up the back taxes--two years overdue--in order to establish a claim
to the property, and now they easily succeeded in finding the record of
the deed from a certain Charles Walton to Jonas Wegg and William
Thompson. The deed itself could not be found, but Uncle John considered
the county record a sufficient claim to entitle the young folks to the
property unless the ownership should be contested by others, which was
not likely.

Uncle John invited Ethel and Joe to dine with him that evening, and Mary
was told the occasion merited the best menu she could provide. The young
folks arrived without any idea of receiving more than a good dinner and
the pleasure of mingling with the cordial, kindly household at the farm;
but the general air of hilarity and good fellowship pervading the family
circle this evening inspired the guests with like enthusiasm, and no
party could be merrier than the one that did full justice to Mary's
superior cookery.

One of the last courses consisted of iced watermelon, and when it
appeared the three girls eyed one another guiltily and then made frantic
attempts to suppress their laughter, which was unseemly because no one
but themselves understood the joke. But all else was speedily forgotten
in the interest of the coming ceremony, which Mr. Merrick had carefully
planned and prepared.

The company was invited to assemble in the room comprising the spacious
right wing, and when all were seated the little gentleman coughed to
clear his throat and straightway began his preamble.

He recited the manner in which Captain Wegg and Will Thompson, having
money to invest, were led into an enterprise which Bob West had
proposed, but finally preferred another venture and so withdrew their
money altogether from the Almaquo tract.

This statement caused both Joe and Ethel to stare hard, but they said
nothing.

"Your grandfather, Ethel," continued the narrator, "was much impressed
by the value of another timber tract, although where he got his
information concerning it I have been unable to discover. This piece of
property, called the Bogue tract, was purchased by Wegg and Thompson
with the money they withdrew from Almaquo, and still stands in
their name."

Then he recounted, quite frankly, his unjust suspicions of the hardware
dealer, and told of the interview in which the full details of this
transaction were disclosed by West, as well as the truth relating to the
death of Captain Wegg and the sudden insanity and paralysis of old
Will Thompson.

Joe could corroborate this last, and now understood why Thompson had
cried out that West's "good news" had killed his father. He meant, of
course, their narrow escape from being involved in West's supposed ruin,
for at that time no one knew the report of the fire was false.

Finally, these matters being cleared up, Uncle John declared that the
Pierce-Lane Lumber Company was willing to contract to cut the timber on
the Bogue property, or would pay a lump sum of two hundred thousand
dollars for such title to the tract as could be given. He did not add
that he had personally offered to guarantee the title. That was an
unnecessary bit of information.

You may perhaps imagine the happiness this announcement gave Joe and
Ethel. They could scarcely believe the good news was true, even when the
kindly old gentleman, with tears in his eyes, congratulated the young
couple on the fortune in store for them. The Major followed with a happy
speech of felicitation, and then the three girls hugged the little
school teacher rapturously and told her how glad they were.

"I think, sir," said Joe, striving to curb his elation, "that it will be
better in the end for us to accept the royalty. Don't you?"

"I do, indeed, my boy," was the reply. "For if our people make an offer
for the land of two hundred thousand you may rest assured it is worth
much more. The manager has confided to me in his letter that if we are
obliged to pay royalties the timber will cost us nearly double what it
would by an outright purchase of the tract."

"In that case, sir," began Joe, eagerly, "we will--"

"Nonsense. The company can afford the royalty, Joe, for it is making a
heap of money--more than I wish it were. One of my greatest trials is to
take care of the money I've already made, and--"

"And he couldn't do it at all without my help," broke in the Major.
"Don't ye hesitate to take an advantage of him, Joseph, if ye can get
it--which I doubt--for Mr. Merrick is most disgracefully rich already."

"That's true," sighed the little millionaire. "So it will be a royalty,
Joe. We are paying the same percentage to Bob West for the Almaquo
tract, but yours is so much better that I am sure your earnings will
furnish you and Ethel with all the income you need."

They sat discoursing upon the happy event for some time longer, but Joe
had to return to the hotel early because he was not yet strong enough to
be out late.

"Before I go, Mr. Merrick," he said, "I'd like you to give me my
mother's picture, which is in the secret drawer of the cupboard. You
have the keys, now, and Ethel is curious to see how my mother looked."

Uncle John went at once to the cupboard and unlocked the doors. Joe
himself pushed the slide and took out of the drawer the picture, which
had lain just beneath the Almaquo stock certificates.

The picture was passed reverently around. A sweet-faced, sad little
woman it showed, with appealing eyes and lips that seemed to quiver even
in the photograph.

As Louise held it in her hand something induced her to turn it over.

"Here is some writing upon the back," she said.

Joe bent over and read it aloud. It was in his father's handwriting.

"'Press the spring in the left hand lower corner of the secret drawer.'"

"Hah!" cried Uncle John, while the others stared stupidly. "That's it!
That's the information we've been wanting so long, Joseph!"

He ran to the cupboard, even as he spoke, and while they all thronged
about him thrust in his hand, felt for the spring, and pressed it.

The bottom of the drawer lifted, showing another cavity beneath. From
this the searcher withdrew a long envelope, tied with red tape.

"At last, Joseph!" he shouted, triumphantly waving the envelope over his
head. And then he read aloud the words docketed upon the outside:
"'Warranty Deed and Conveyance from Charles Walton to Jonas Wegg and
William Thompson.' Our troubles are over, my boy, for here is the key to
your fortune."

"Also," whispered Louise to her cousins, rather disconsolately, "it
explains the last shred of mystery about the Wegg case. Heigh-ho! what a
chase we've had for nothing!"

"Not for nothing, dear," replied Patsy, softly, "for we've helped make
two people happy, and that ought to repay us for all our anxiety
and labor."

       *       *       *       *       *

A knock was heard at the door, and Old Hucks entered and handed Mr.
Merrick a paper.

"He's waiting, sir," said he, ambiguously.

"Oh, Tom--Tom!" cried Joe Wegg, rising to throw his arms around the old
man's neck, "I'm rich, Tom--all my troubles are over--and Mr. Merrick
has done it all--for Ethel and me!"

The ever smiling face of the ancient retainer did not change, but his
eyes softened and filled with tears as he hugged the boy close to
his breast.

"God be praised. Joe!" he said in a low voice. "I allus knew the
Merricks 'd bring us luck."

"What the devil does this mean?" demanded Uncle John at this juncture,
as he fluttered the paper and glared angrily around.

"What is it, dear?" inquired Louise.

"See for yourself," he returned.

She took the paper and read it, while Patsy and Beth peered over her
shoulder. The following was scrawled upon a sheet of soiled stationery:


"John Merrak, esquare, to
  Marshall McMahon McNutt, detter.

"To yur gals Smashin' 162 mellings at 50 cents a one
  .....................$81.00
    Pleas remitt & save trouble."

The nieces screamed, laughing until they cried, while Uncle John
spluttered, smiled, beamed, and then requested an explanation.

Patsy told the story of the watermelon raid with rare humor, and it
served to amuse everybody and relieve the strain that had preceded the
arrival of McNutt's bill.

"Did you say the man is waiting, Thomas?" asked Uncle John.

"Yes, sir."

"Here--give him five dollars and tell him to receipt the bill. If he
refuses, I'll carry the matter to the courts. McNutt's a rascal, and a
fool in the bargain; but we've had some of his melons and the girls have
had five dollars' worth of fun in getting them. But assure him that this
squares accounts, Thomas."

Thomas performed his mission.

McNutt rolled his eyes, pounded the floor with his stump to emphasize
his mingled anger and satisfaction, and then receipted the bill.

"It's jest five more'n I 'spected to git, Hucks," he said with a grin.
"But what's the use o' havin' nabobs around, ef ye don't bleed 'em?"

       *       *       *       *       *

This story is one of the delightful "Aunt Jane Series" in which are
chronicled the many interesting adventures in the lives of those
fascinating girls and dear old "Uncle John." The other volumes can be
bought wherever books are sold. A complete list of titles, which is
added to from time to time, is given on page 3 of this book.

(_ Complete catalog sent free on request._)



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