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Sing Fing excelled himself at the dinner that evening, which was a merry meal because all dangers and worries seemed to belong to the past. Also it was, as Uncle John feelingly remarked, “the first square meal they had enjoyed since the one at Castro’s restaurant.” Of course Runyon stayed, because he was to help search the wall the next day, and as the telephone had been repaired Louise called up Rudolph and Helen Hahn and begged them to drive over and help them celebrate at the festive board.
So the Hahns came—although they returned home again in the late evening—and it was really a joyous and happy occasion. Inez brought in the baby, which crowed jubilantly and submitted to so many kisses that Patsy declared she was afraid they would wear the skin off Toodlum’s chubby cheeks unless they desisted.
Mildred had gone to her room immediately after her confession in the court and Louise had respected her desire for privacy and had ordered her dinner sent in to her.
As they all sat in the library, after dining, in a cosy circle around the grate fire, they conversed seriously on Mildred Leighton and canvassed her past history and future prospects.
“I cannot see,” said Beth, always the nurse’s champion, “that we are called upon to condemn poor Mildred because her father was a criminal.”
“Of course not,” agreed Patsy, “the poor child wasn’t to blame.”
“These criminal tendencies,” remarked the major gravely, “are sometimes hereditary.”
“Oh, but that’s nonsense!” declared Uncle John. “We can’t imagine Mildred’s becoming a smuggler—or smuggleress, or whatever you call it. That hard, cold look in her eyes, which we all so thoughtlessly condemned, was merely an indication of suffering, of hurt pride and shame for the disgrace that had been thrust upon her. I liked the girl better to-day, as with blazing cheeks she told of all her grief and struggles, than ever before since I knew her.”
“The expression of the eye,” said Arthur, “is usually considered an infallible indication of character.”
“That’s a foolish prejudice,” asserted Patsy, whose own frank and brilliant eyes were her chief attraction.
“I do not think so, dear,” objected Louise. “The eyes may not truly indicate character, but they surely indicate one’s state of mind. We did not read the hard look in Mildred’s eyes correctly, I admit, but it showed her to be on guard against the world’s criticism, resentful of her hard fate and hopeless in her longing for a respectable social position. She realized that were her story known she would meet with sneers and jeers on every side, and therefore she proudly held herself aloof.”
“But now,” said Patsy, “circumstances have changed Mildred’s viewpoint. She found that our knowledge of her story only brought her sympathy and consideration, and when she left us I noticed that her eyes were soft and grateful and full of tears.”
Big Runyon had listened to this conversation rather uneasily and with evident disapproval. Now he said, in as positive a tone as his unfortunate voice would permit:
“That girl’s a corker, and I’m proud of her. In the first place, my mother is a shrewd judge of character. You can’t fool her about a person’s worth; just see how accurately she judged my character! When the dear old lady—whose only fault is being so close-fisted—picked up Mildred Leighton and defended her, that act vouched for the girl’s worth beyond dispute. Mrs. Runyon—bless her stingy old heart!—never makes a mistake. Just think of it: she actually spent money in giving Mildred an education as a trained nurse. To my mind that settled the girl’s character for all time. Now, I don’t care a continental whether she finds any smuggled laces or not; she needs a friend, and now that she is away from my mother’s care I’m going to be that friend.”
“Oh, Bul!” cried Louise with lively interest, “are you in love?”
“Me? At my age? Cer-tain-ly not!”
“How old are you?”
“Old enough to know better,” said Uncle John.
“Old enough to need a wife to care for him,” suggested Helen Hahn.
“Honest Injun, Run; aren’t you a little soft on Mildred?” asked Rudolph.
“Well, perhaps a little; but it’s nothing like that currant-jelly, chocolate bonbon, glucose-like feeling which I’ve observed is the outward demonstration of love.”
“Oh, well; marry the girl and be done with it, then,” laughed Arthur.
“And rob me of my nurse?” protested Louise.
“Runyon needs a nurse as much as Jane. In fact, he’s a much bigger baby.”
Mr. Runyon accepted all this jollying with calm indifference.
“The days of chivalry are over,” he sighed. “If a fellow tries to protect a maiden in distress, they think he wants to marry her.”
“Don’t you?” asked Patsy, in a sympathetic tone.
“Why, I hadn’t thought of it before; but it wouldn’t be a half-bad idea,” he confessed. “Ranch life is a bit lonely without women around to bother one.”
“You are all talking foolishly,” observed Beth, who was not romantic. “Mildred might object to washing Mr. Runyon’s dishes.”
“Why, yes; I believe she would,” said Mr. Runyon. “I’m sure she disapproves of my character; that’s why I respect her judgment, so highly. She didn’t seem at all interested in those various mortgages, when I mentioned them; and what else have I to offer a wife?”
Even the cosy library could not hold them very late, for none had been fully restored by the sleep obtained during the day. Bed seemed more alluring than a grate fire and when the Hahns went home the party broke up, to meet again at an eight o’clock breakfast.
As soon as the meal was over Arthur Weldon announced that the first business of the day would be an examination of the secret rooms in the wall of the old East Wing.
“And this must be a thorough and final inspection of the place,” he added. “We must satisfy ourselves and Mildred Travers, without the shadow of a doubt, that we have inventoried every blessed thing in those rooms—even to the rats and beetles.”
“That’s right,” approved Mr. Merrick. “Let us do the job once and for all. We’ve plenty of time at our disposal and there are enough of us with sharp eyes to ferret out every mystery of the place. In Mildred’s interest we must be thorough.”
In the court they found old Miguel, sitting motionless and patient. He was carefully dressed in his best clothes and wore a red necktie, “just as if,” said Patsy, “he was going to a party instead of delving in dusty places.”
The ranchero arose and made his master and mistress one of his best bows. Then he waited silently for instructions.
Beth went to Mildred’s room and brought the girl to join the searchers, for this undertaking had been planned on her account. Her face wore an anxious look, for although she was not very hopeful of results it was the last chance of her securing any of her father’s personal possessions. Otherwise she greeted the party with modesty and with gentle dignity and had never seemed to them more womanly or agreeable.
Together they left the court and proceeded to the nursery. There were no laggards and everyone except the servants was determined to have a part in the fascinating investigation.
Mildred explained to them the manner in which she had first entered the wall, putting in action the secret method taught her as a girl by Cristoval and demonstrating the mechanism before their very eyes. They entered the lower chamber, one by one, and this time the adobe door was not closed behind them, although the light of broad day now flooded the place through the opening discovered by Runyon. This opening led into the garden and was half choked with rose vines. The series of swinging blocks had been propped back against the outer wall to insure a ready exit in case of accident.
And now they eagerly set to work to pry into every crack and corner of the place. The main idea was to find some secret cavity or cupboard in the wall which might contain the missing laces or other valuables. With this in view they had brought levers and pries and all sorts of tools that might be of service.
The girls were mainly useful in taking up and turning the matting, now somewhat decayed by age, and investigating those nooks and shelves already discovered. But they found little more than Mildred had done during her first exploration, and the men who were testing the wall met with no encouragement at all. Aside from the two cleverly constructed openings—one into the nursery and one into the garden—the blocks which composed the wall seemed every one solid and immovable and resisted every attempt to wrest them from their places.
After more than two hours of industry, during which every man believed he had examined every block, they were forced to abandon the lower chamber and ascend the steep stairs to the upper one.
“This,” said Arthur, looking around him, “seems far more promising. Let us give the floor our first attention, for it is not over the lower room but to one side of it. It strikes me that the builder would be quite likely to make a secret pocket in the floor.”
Following this advice they attacked the blocks of the floor with pry and crowbar, but found nothing to reward them. Old Miguel worked steadily and did whatever he was told, but displayed no particle of enthusiasm, or even of interest.
After the floor, the walls were examined, one by one, from floor to ceiling. The panel on the inner wall, which had baffled both Mildred and Runyon on that eventful night of their imprisonment, suddenly disclosed its secret when accidentally pressed on opposite corners at the same time. It slipped down and discovered a similar panel beyond it, which was operated by a spring placed in plain sight. Releasing this, they found they were looking into the vacant second story room which they had once before unsuccessfully searched.
So this was one way from the house into the upper chamber of the wall. Of course there was another way—that through which Runyon had been so abruptly precipitated. In order to find this the more readily, they sent the big rancher into the blue room and asked him to take the same position in the window he had on the night of his disappearance. This he did, pushing against the planking that boxed the window, with both elbows and with his back and shoulders, but without result. Finally, in his attempts, he inadvertently struck the opposite panel with his heel, and the response was startling. The panel, at his back, being released, fell backward without warning and for the second time Runyon tumbled unawares into the chamber of the wall. As soon as his body had fallen through, the panel slammed into place again, urged by a very powerful steel spring, but the major, who had been in the blue room to watch Runyon, had caught the trick and the mystery was solved.
As for Mr. Runyon, he again fell upon the bed and rebounded, knocking over both Mr. Merrick and Miguel as he alighted in the narrow chamber, but fortunately not injuring either of them.
A little dazed by his second precipitation, the big rancher stared a moment and then slapped his thigh a mighty stroke.
“I have it—I have it!” he cried.
“It occurs to me,” said Uncle John, a little resentfully, “that you deserve all you’ve got, and more. It’s a wonder you didn’t break your neck.”
“What have you, Run?” asked Arthur.
“I’ve found the laces.”
“What?—where?” they exclaimed.
“In the blue room, or on the way down?” added Beth sarcastically.
“After I got down,” he answered. “What fools we have all been!”
“Will you kindly explain, Mr. Runyon?” asked Mildred, very earnestly.
“I will. It’s simple enough. Just look at that bed.”
“The bed!” And now every eye was turned upon the couch.
“Of course,” said Runyon. “There’s something more than a mere mattress and springs. I’ve tumbled onto the thing twice, and I ought to know.”
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