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In somber procession the men trailed up the stairs to the big library, where a dapper little man sat reading a book and puffing at a huge cigar. He looked up, as they entered, and nodded a head as guiltless of hair as was that of Uncle John. But his face was fresh and chubby, despite his fifty years, and the merry twinkle in his gray eyes seemed out of place, at first thought, in this house of anxiety and distress.
“Ah, Weldon; what news of little Jane?” he cheerfully inquired.
“No trace at all?”
“That’s good,” declared the doctor, removing the ash from his cigar.
“Of course. No news is good news. I’ll wager my new touring-car that our Jane is sound asleep and dreaming of the angels, this very minute.”
“Has your new car a self-starter?” inquired Runyon anxiously, as if about to accept the wager.
“I wish I might share your belief, Doctor,” said Arthur with a deep sigh. “It all seems a terrible mystery and I can think of no logical explanation to assure me of baby’s safety.”
“Yes, it’s a mystery,” agreed Dr. Knox. “But I’ve just thought of a solution.”
“What is it?” cried half a dozen voices.
“Sit down and light up. I hope you all smoke? And you need refreshment, for you’ve been working under a strain.”
“Refreshments are coming presently,” said Rudolph. “What’s your solution, Doc?”
“The young ladies have been telling me every detail of the disappearance, as well as the events leading up to it. Now, it seems Mildred Travers is an old resident of this section of California. Was born here, in fact.”
This was news to them all and the suggestion it conveyed caused them to regard Dr. Knox attentively.
“The old Travers Ranch is near San Feliz—about thirty miles south of here. I know that ranch by reputation, but I’ve never been there. Now for my solution. The Travers family, hearing that Mildred is at El Cajon, drive over here in their automobile and induce the girl to go home with them. She can’t leave baby, so she takes little Jane along, and also Inez to help care for her. There’s the fact, in a nutshell. See? It’s all as plain as a pikestaff.”
For a moment there was silence. Then big Runyon voiced the sentiment of the party in his high treble.
“You may be a good doctor,” said he, “but you’re a thunderin’ bad detective.”
“If I could telephone to the Travers Ranch, I’d convince you,” asserted the doctor, unmoved by adverse criticism; “but your blamed old telephone is out of order.”
“As for that,” remarked Rudolph, taking a cigar from a box, “I’ve been a visitor at the Travers Ranch many times. Charlie Benton lives there. There hasn’t been a Travers on the place since they sold it, ten or twelve years ago.”
“Well,” said the doctor, “I’m sorry to hear that. It was such a simple solution that I thought it must be right.”
“It was, indeed, simple,” admitted Runyon. “Ah! here comes food at last.”
Patsy, Beth and Helen bore huge trays containing the principal dishes of the untasted dinner, supplemented with sandwiches and steaming coffee. This last the thoughtful Sing Fing had kept in readiness all the evening, knowing it would be required sooner or later.
Neither Uncle John nor the major was loth to partake of the much-needed refreshment. They even persuaded Arthur to take a cup of coffee. It was noticeable that now, whenever baby Jane was mentioned, they spoke her name in hushed whispers; yet no one could get away, for long, from the one enthralling subject of the little one’s mysterious disappearance.
“What can we do now?” asked Arthur pleadingly. “I feel guilty to be sitting here in comfort while my darling may be suffering privations, or—or—”
“Really, there is nothing more to be done, just now,” said Patsy, interrupting him before he could mention any other harrowing fears. “You have all done everything that mortals could do, for to-night, and in the morning we will resume the search along other lines. In my opinion you all ought to get to bed and try to rest, for to-morrow there will be a lot for you to do.”
“What?” asked Arthur helplessly.
“Well, I think you ought to telegraph for detectives. If ever a mystery existed, here is one, and only a clever detective could know how to tackle such a problem.”
“Also,” added Beth, “you ought to telegraph to every place in California, ordering the arrest of the fugitives.”
“I’ve done that already.”
“Can’t anyone think of a reason for the disappearance of these three persons—the baby and her two nurses?” inquired Mrs. Hahn earnestly. “It seems to me that if we knew what object they could have in disappearing, we would be able to guess where they’ve gone.” Then the pretty little woman blushed at her temerity in making such a long speech. But the doctor supported her.
“Now that,” said he, “strikes me as a sensible proposition. Give us the reason, some of you who know.”
But no one knew a reason.
“Here are some facts, though,” said Patsy. “Inez was baby’s first nurse, and resented Mildred’s coming. Somehow, I always get back to that fact when I begin to conjecture. The two nurses hated each other—everybody admits that. Mildred hated mildly; Inez venomously.”
“Miguel told me that Inez has threatened to kill Mildred,” said Arthur. “And there is another thing: one of the women said Inez brought the baby to the quarters, at about noon, and while there they discovered Mildred watching them from the shelter of a hedge. This incensed Inez and she hurried away to the house, followed stealthily by Mildred.”
“That,” said Dolph, “was perhaps the beginning of the quarrel. We don’t know what happened afterward, except that both were seen in the court with baby at about two o’clock.”
“Afterward,” said Patsy, “one of the housemaids saw Inez go out—as if for a walk. She may have returned. I think she did, for otherwise it was Mildred who carried the baby away. I can see no reason for her doing that.”
“Of course Inez returned,” declared Arthur, “for nothing would induce her to run away from us and leave her beloved baby. I believe the poor girl would rather die than be separated for good from little Jane. You’ve no idea how passionately she worshiped the child.”
“All of which,” the doctor stated, “indicates a tragedy rather than some feminine whim—which last I much prefer as a solution. But if both nurses were fond of little Jane—who is the finest baby I ever knew, by the way—no quarrel or other escapade would permit them to injure the dear infant. Let us worry about the two girls, but not about little Jane.”
Such advice was impossible to follow, and doubtless the shrewd doctor knew it; but it was a comforting thought, nevertheless, and had already done much to sustain the despairing father.
No one seemed willing to adopt Patsy’s suggestion that they go to bed and get some much needed rest, in preparation for the morrow. Arthur left them for a time to visit Louise, but soon returned with word that she was quietly sleeping under the influence of the potion the doctor had administered. The three girls—for Mrs. Hahn was only a girl—sat huddled in one corner, whispering at times and trying to cheer one another. The doctor read in his book. Rudolph smoked and lay back in his chair, gazing reflectively at the ceiling. Bul Run had his feet on a second chair and soon fell into a doze, when he snored in such a high falsetto that Arthur kicked his shins to abate the nuisance. The major sat stiffly, gazing straight ahead, and Uncle John tramped up and down the room untiringly. The baby had grown very dear to the hearts of these last two men in the few days they had known her and her sudden loss rendered them inconsolable.
The suspense was dreadful. Had it been day, they could have done something to further the search, but the night held them impotent and they knew they must wear out the dreary hours as best they might.
At one o’clock Patsy drew her father aside and prevailed upon him to go to his room and lie down.
“This tedious waiting is merely wearing you out,” she said, “and for dear baby’s sake you should be fresh and vigorous in the morning.”
That seemed to the major to be very sensible, especially as he felt the need of rest, so he slipped away and went to the blue room, which was located in the old wing and just above the nursery.
Then the girl approached Uncle John, but he would not listen to her. He was too nervous to rest, he insisted, and she realized that he spoke truly. Just as she abandoned the argument they were all startled by the sound of wheels rolling up the driveway and Arthur rushed to an open window and looked out.
An automobile had just arrived.
“Who is it?” he called.
“Id’s me, Meisteh Veldon—id’s Peters, de constable,” called a rich voice in strong German dialect. “I got your baby here, und der Mexico girls to boots!”
“What!” they all shrieked, springing up to crowd around the window.
“Bring her in, Peters!” yelled Arthur, a great gladness in his voice, and now he was half running, half tumbling down the stairs in his haste to reach the door, while the others trailed after him like the tail of a comet.
As the door was thrown open Peters—a stout German—entered with a bundle in his arms, followed by a weeping, angry Mexican woman who was fat and forty and as unlike Inez as was possible.
Even as Arthur’s eyes fell on this poor creature his heart sank, and the revulsion of feeling was so severe that he tottered and almost fell. Runyon grabbed his arm and supported him while Peters fumbled with the wrappings of the baby.
“Do I gets me dot rewards—heh?” asked the constable, holding up a fat little Mexican baby, whose full black eyes regarded the group wonderingly.
The father turned away, heartsick.
“Give him some money and get rid of him,” he moaned.
Dolph took the constable in hand.
“You blooming idiot!” he exclaimed. “Why did you drag that poor woman here?”
“Id iss a rewards for der Mexico girl unt a baby; dot iss what ef’rybody say. How do I know id iss not Herr Veldon’s baby?” demanded the indignant German. “Do his baby gots a sign on id, to say id iss de right baby, vot iss lost unt must be foundt? No, py jimminy! He yust say he hass a lost baby, unt a Mexico girl hass runned avay mit id. * * * So I finds me a Mexico girl unt a baby—unt here id iss!”
Patsy took the baby, a good little thing, and placed it in its mother’s arms.
“Who are you, and where did this man find you?” the girl asked sympathetically.
The woman first shook her head and then burst into a voluble stream of Spanish, not a word of which could be understood.
“She cannot speak de Ingliss, like me, so I cannod tell if she iss de right Mexico vomans or nod,” explained the constable. “Bud I brings her mit me, yust de same, unt id costs me four dollars to rendt me an automobubbles.”
“Take her back,” said Hahn, giving him a ten-dollar note; and then he gave the woman some money and kissed the baby, which smiled at him approvingly.
Beth ran to get some of the sandwiches for the woman, while Patsy brought milk for the baby and Uncle John offered the constable a cigar. Then the three were sent away and the automobile rolled back to town.
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