Kenneth and Beth refrained from telling the other girls or Uncle John of old Will Rogers's visit, but they got Mr. Watson in the library and questioned him closely about the penalty for forging a check.
It was a serious crime indeed, Mr. Watson told them, and Tom Gates bade fair to serve a lengthy term in state's prison as a consequence of his rash act.
"But it was a generous act, too," said Beth.
"I can't see it in that light," said the old lawyer. "It was a deliberate theft from his employers to protect a girl he loved. I do not doubt the girl was unjustly accused. The Squierses are a selfish, hard-fisted lot, and the old lady, especially, is a well known virago. But they could not have proven a case against Lucy, if she was innocent, and all their threats of arresting her were probably mere bluff. So this boy was doubly foolish in ruining himself to get sixty dollars to pay an unjust demand."
"He was soft-hearted and impetuous," said Beth; "and, being in love, he didn't stop to count the cost."
"That is no excuse, my dear," declared Mr. Watson. "Indeed there is never an excuse for crime. The young man is guilty, and he must suffer the penalty."
"Is there no way to save him?" asked Kenneth.
"If the prosecution were withdrawn and the case settled with the victim of the forged check, then the young man would be allowed his freedom. But under the circumstances I doubt if such an arrangement could be made."
"We're going to try it, anyhow," was the prompt decision.
So as soon as breakfast was over the next morning Beth and Kenneth took one of the automobiles, the boy consenting unwillingly to this sort of locomotion because it would save much time. Fairview was twelve miles away, but by ten o'clock they drew up at the county jail.
They were received in the little office by a man named Markham, who was the jailer. He was a round-faced, respectable appearing fellow, but his mood was distinctly unsociable.
"Want to see Tom Gates, eh? Well! what for?" he demanded.
"We wish to talk with him," answered Kenneth.
"Talk! what's the good? You're no friend of Tom Gates. I can't be bothered this way, anyhow."
"I am Kenneth Forbes, of Elmhurst. I'm running for Representative on the Republican ticket," said Kenneth, quietly.
"Oh, say! that's different," observed Markham, altering his demeanor. "You mustn't mind my being gruff and grumpy, Mr. Forbes. I've just stopped smoking a few days ago, and it's got on my nerves something awful!"
"May we see Gates at once?" asked Kenneth.
"Sure-ly! I'll take you to his cell, myself. It's just shocking how such a little thing as stoppin' smoking will rile up a fellow. Come this way, please."
They followed the jailer along a succession of passages.
"Smoked ever sence I was a boy, you know, an' had to stop last week because Doc said it would kill me if I didn't," remarked the jailer, leading the way. "Sometimes I'm that yearning for a smoke I'm nearly crazy, an' I dunno which is worst, dyin' one way or another. This is Gates' cell—the best in the shop."
He unlocked the door, and called:
"Here's visitors, Tom."
"Thank you, Mr. Markham," replied a quiet voice, as a young man came forward from the dim interior of the cell. "How are you feeling, today?"
"Worse, Tom; worse 'n ever," replied the jailer, gloomily.
"Well, stick it out, old man; don't give in."
"I won't, Tom. Smokin' 'll kill me sure, an' there's a faint hope o' livin' through this struggle to give it up. This visitor is Mr. Forbes of Elmhurst, an' the young lady is—"
"Miss DeGraf," said Kenneth, noticing the boy's face critically, as he stood where the light from the passage fell upon it. "Will you leave us alone, please, Mr. Markham?"
"Sure-ly, Mr. Forbes. You've got twenty minutes according to regulations. I'll come and get you then. Sorry we haven't any reception room in the jail. All visits has to be made in the cells."
Then he deliberately locked Kenneth and Beth in with the forger, and retreated along the passage.
"Sit down, please," said Gates, in a cheerful and pleasant voice. "There's a bench here."
"We've come to inquire about your case, Gates," said Kenneth. "It seems you have forged a check."
"Yes, sir, I plead guilty, although I've been told I ought not to confess. But the fact is that I forged the check and got the money, and I'm willing to stand the consequences."
"Why did you do it?" asked Beth.
He was silent and turned his face away.
A fresh, wholesome looking boy, was Tom Gates, with steady gray eyes, an intelligent forehead, but a sensitive, rather weak mouth. He was of sturdy, athletic build and dressed neatly in a suit that was of coarse material but well brushed and cared for.
Beth thought his appearance pleasing and manly. Kenneth decided that he was ill at ease and in a state of dogged self-repression.
"We have heard something of your story," said Kenneth, "and are interested in it. But there is no doubt you have acted very foolishly."
"Do you know Lucy, sir?" asked the young man.
"Lucy is very proud. The thing was killing her, and I couldn't bear it. I didn't stop to think whether it was foolish or not. I did it; and I'm glad I did."
"You have made her still more unhappy," said Beth, gently.
"Yes; she'll worry about me, I know. I'm disgraced for life; but I've saved Lucy from any disgrace, and she's young. She'll forget me before I've served my term, and—and take up with some other young fellow."
"Would you like that?" asked Beth.
"No, indeed," he replied, frankly. "But it will be best that way. I had to stand by Lucy—she's so sweet and gentle, and so sensitive. I don't say I did right. I only say I'd do the same thing again."
"Couldn't her parents have helped her?" inquired Kenneth.
"No. Old Will is a fine fellow, but poor and helpless since Mrs. Rogers had her accident."
"Oh, did she have an accident?" asked Beth.
"Yes. Didn't you know? She's blind."
"Her husband didn't tell us that," said the girl.
"He was fairly prosperous before that, for Mrs. Rogers was an energetic and sensible woman, and kept old Will hard at work. One morning she tried to light the fire with kerosene, and lost her sight. Then Rogers wouldn't do anything but lead her around, and wait upon her, and the place went to rack and ruin."
"I understand now," said Beth.
"Lucy could have looked after her mother," said young Bates, "but old Will was stubborn and wouldn't let her. So the girl saw something must be done and went to work. That's how all the trouble came about."
He spoke simply, but paced up and down the narrow cell in front of them. It was evident that his feelings were deeper than he cared to make evident.
"Whose name did you sign to the check?" asked Kenneth.
"That of John E. Marshall, the manager of the mill. He is supposed to sign all the checks of the concern. It's a stock company, and rich. I was bookkeeper, so it was easy to get a blank check and forge the signature. As regards my robbing the company, I'll say that I saved them a heavy loss one day. I discovered and put out a fire that would have destroyed the whole plant. But Marshall never even thanked me. He only discharged the man who was responsible for the fire."
"How long ago were you arrested?" asked Beth.
"It's nearly two weeks now. But I'll have a trial in a few days, they say. My crime is so serious that the circuit judge has to sit on the case."
"Do you know where Lucy is?"
"She's at home, I suppose. I haven't heard from her since the day she came here to see me—right after my arrest."
They did not think best to enlighten him at that time. It was better for him to think the girl unfeeling than to know the truth.
"I'm going to see Mr. Marshall," said Kenneth, "and discover what I can do to assist you."
"Thank you, sir. It won't be much, but I'm grateful to find a friend. I'm guilty, you know, and there's no one to blame but myself."
They left him then, for the jailer arrived to unlock the door, and escort them to the office.
"Tom's a very decent lad," remarked the jailer, on the way. "He ain't a natural criminal, you know; just one o' them that gives in to temptation and is foolish enough to get caught. I've seen lots of that kind in my day. You don't smoke, do you, Mr. Forbes?"
"No, Mr. Markham."
"Then don't begin it; or, if you do, never try to quit. It's—it's awful, it is. And it ruins a man's disposition."
The mill was at the outskirts of the town. It was a busy place, perhaps the busiest in the whole of the Eighth District, and in it were employed a large number of men. The office was a small brick edifice, separated from the main buildings, in which the noise of machinery was so great that one speaking could scarcely be heard. The manager was in, Kenneth and Beth learned, but could not see them until he had signed the letters he had dictated for the noon mail.
So they sat on a bench until a summons came to admit them to Mr. Marshall's private office.
He looked up rather ungraciously, but motioned them to be seated.
"Mr. Forbes, of Elmhurst?" he asked, glancing at the card Kenneth had sent in.
"I've been bothered already over your election campaign," resumed the manager, arranging his papers in a bored manner. "Some girl has been here twice to interview my men and I have refused to admit her. You may as well understand, sir, that I stand for the Democratic candidate, and have no sympathy with your side."
"That doesn't interest me, especially, sir," answered Kenneth, smiling. "I'm not electioneering just now. I've come to talk with you about young Gates."
"Oh. Well, sir, what about him?"
"I'm interested in the boy, and want to save him from prosecution."
"He's a forger, Mr. Forbes; a deliberate criminal."
"I admit that. But he's very young, and his youth is largely responsible for his folly."
"He stole my money."
"It is true, Mr. Marshall."
"And he deserves a term in state's prison."
"I agree to all that. Nevertheless, I should like to save him," said Kenneth. "His trial has not yet taken place, and instead of your devoting considerable of your valuable time appearing against him it would be much simpler to settle the matter right here and now."
"In what way, Mr. Forbes?"
"I'll make your money loss good."
"It has cost me twice sixty dollars in annoyance."
"I can well believe it, sir. I'll pay twice sixty dollars for the delivery to me of the forged check, and the withdrawal of the prosecution."
"And the costs?"
"I'll pay all the costs besides."
"You're foolish. Why should you do all this?"
"I have my own reasons, Mr. Marshall. Please look at the matter from a business standpoint. If you send the boy to prison you will still suffer the loss of the money. By compromising with me you can recover your loss and are paid for your annoyance."
"You're right. Give me a check for a hundred and fifty, and I'll turn over to you the forged check and quash further proceedings."
Kenneth hesitated a moment. He detested the grasping disposition that would endeavor to take advantage of his evident desire to help young Gates. He had hoped to find Mr. Marshall a man of sympathy; but the manager was as cold as an icicle.
Beth, uneasy at his silence, nudged him.
"Pay it, Ken," she whispered.
"Very well, Mr. Marshall," said he, "I accept your terms."
The check was written and handed over, and Marshall took the forged check from his safe and delivered it, with the other papers in the case, to Mr. Forbes. He also wrote a note to his lawyer directing him to withdraw the prosecution.
Kenneth and Beth went away quite happy with their success, and the manager stood in his little window and watched them depart. There was a grim smile of amusement on his shrewd face.
"Of all the easy marks I ever encountered," muttered Mr. Marshall, "this young Forbes is the easiest. Why, he's a fool, that's what he is. He might have had that forged check for the face of it, if he'd been sharp. You wouldn't catch 'Rast Hopkins doing such a fool stunt. Not in a thousand years!"
Meantime Beth was pressing Kenneth's arm as she sat beside him and saying happily:
"I'm so glad, Ken—so glad! And to think we can save all that misery and despair by the payment of a hundred and fifty dollars! And now we must find the girl."
"Yes," replied the boy, cheerfully, "we must find Lucy."