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Mr. Duncan had been dreading the inevitable interview with Mr. Armstrong. He knew him to be a sharp man of business, clear-sighted and keen, and he felt that this part of the conference would be an awkward and embarrassing one. He had tried to nerve himself for the interview, and thought he had succeeded, but when the servant brought Mr. Armstrong's card he felt a sinking at his heart, and it was in a tone that betrayed nervousness that he said: "Bring the gentleman in."
"My dear sir," he said, extending his hand and vigorously shaking the hand of his new arrival, "this is an unexpected pleasure."
"Unexpected? Didn't you get my letter from London?" said Mr. Armstrong, suffering his hand to be shaken, but not returning the arm pressure.
"In which I mentioned my approaching departure?"
"Yes, certainly; but I didn't know on what day to expect you.
Pray sit down. It seems pleasant to see you home safe and well."
"Humph!" returned Armstrong, in a tone by no means as cordial.
"Have you found my box of bonds?"
"Not yet, but—"
"Permit me to ask you why you allowed me to remain ignorant of so important a matter? I was indebted to the public prints, to which my attention was directed by an acquaintance, for a piece of news which should have been communicated to me at once."
"My dear sir, I intended to write you as soon as I heard of your arrival. I did not know till this moment that you were in America."
"You might have inferred it from the intimation in my last letter.
Why did you not cable me the news?"
"Because," replied Duncan awkwardly, "I did not wish to spoil your pleasure, and thought from day to day that the box would turn up."
"You were very sparing of my feelings," said Armstrong, dryly— "too much so. I am not a child or an old woman, and it was your imperative duty, in a matter so nearly affecting my interests, to apprise me at once."
"I may have erred in judgment," said Duncan meekly, "but I beg you to believe that I acted as I supposed for the best."
"Leaving that out of consideration at present, let me know what steps you have taken to find out how the box was spirited away, or who was concerned in the robbery."
"I think that you will admit that I acted promptly," said the bank president complacently, "when I say that within twenty-four hours I arrested a party on suspicion of being implicated in the robbery, and tried him myself."
"Who was the party?" asked the capitalist, not betraying the knowledge he had already assessed on the subject.
"A boy in the village named Luke Larkin."
"Humph! What led you to think a boy had broken into the bank?
That does not strike me as very sharp on your part."
"I had positive evidence that the boy in question had a tin box concealed in his house—in his mother's trunk. His poverty made it impossible that the box could be his, and I accordingly had him arrested."
"Well, what was the result of the trial?"
"I was obliged to let him go, though by no means satisfied of his innocence."
"A man—a stranger—a very suspicious-looking person, presented himself, and swore that the box was his, and that he had committed it to the charge of this boy."
"Well, that seems tolerably satisfactory, doesn't it?—that is, if he furnished evidence confirming his statement. Did he open the box in court?"
"And the bonds were not there?"
"The bonds were not there only some papers, and what appeared to be certificates of stock."
"Yet you say you are still suspicious of this man and boy."
"Explain your grounds."
"I thought," replied the president, rather meekly, "he might have taken the bonds from the box and put in other papers."
"That was not very probable. Moreover, he would hardly be likely to leave the box in the village in the charge of a boy."
"The boy might have been his confederate."
"What is the boy's reputation in the village? Has he ever been detected in any act of dishonesty?"
"Not that I know of, but there is one suspicious circumstance to which I would like to call your attention."
"Since this happened Luke has come out in new clothes, and wears a silver watch. The family is very poor, and he could not have had money to buy them unless he obtained some outside aid."
"What, then, do you infer?"
"That he has been handsomely paid for his complicity in the robbery."
"What explanation does he personally give of this unusual expenditure?"
"He admits that they were paid for by this suspicious stranger."
"Has the stranger—what is his name, by the way?"
"Roland Reed, he calls himself, but this, probably, is not his real name."
"Well, has this Reed made his appearance in the village since?"
"If so, he has come during the night, and has not been seen by any of us."
"I can't say I share your suspicion against Mr. Reed. Your theory that he took out the bonds and substituted other papers is far-fetched and improbable. As to the boy, I consider him honest and reliable."
"Do you know Luke Larkin?" asked Mr. Duncan quickly.
"Last summer I observed him somewhat, and never saw anything wrong in him."
"Appearances are deceitful," said the bank president sententiously.
"So I have heard," returned Mr. Armstrong dryly. "But let us go on.
What other steps have you taken to discover the lost box?"
"I have had the bank vaults thoroughly searched," answered Duncan, trying to make the best of a weak situation.
"Of course. It is hardly to be supposed that it has been mislaid. Even if it had been it would have turned up before this. Did you discover any traces of the bank being forcibly entered?"
"No; but the burglar may have covered his tracks."
"There would have been something to show an entrance. What is the character of the cashier and teller."
"I know nothing to their disadvantage."
"Then neither have fallen under suspicion?"
"Not as yet," answered the president pointedly.
"It is evident," thought John Armstrong, "that Mr. Duncan is interested in diverting suspicion from some quarter. He is willing that these men should incur suspicion, though it is clear he has none in his own mind."
"Well, what else have you done? Have you employed detectives?" asked
"I was about to do so," answered Mr. Duncan, in some embarrassment, "when I heard that you were coming home, and I thought I would defer that matter for your consideration."
"Giving time in the meanwhile for the thief or thieves to dispose of their booty? This is very strange conduct, Mr. Duncan."
"I acted for the best," said Prince Duncan.
"You have singular ideas of what is best, then," observed Mr. Armstrong coldly. "It may be too late to remedy your singular neglect, but I will now take the matter out of your hands, and see what I can do."
"Will you employ detectives?" asked Duncan, with evident uneasiness.
Armstrong eyed him sharply, and with growing suspicion.
"I can't say what I will do."
"Have you the numbers of the missing bonds?" asked Duncan anxiously.
"I am not sure. I am afraid I have not."
Was it imagination, or did the bank president look relieved at this statement? John Armstrong made a mental note of this.
After eliciting the particulars of the disappearance of the bonds, John Armstrong rose to go. He intended to return to the city, but he made up his mind to see Luke first. He wanted to inquire the address of Roland Reed.
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