The robbery at Walnut Hill caused a good deal of excitement in Prairieville and for miles up and down Wild River Valley, but no clew to the perpetrators could be discovered.
O’Rourke and his confederates scattered themselves about for the time, seeking work here and there among the farmers, with whom it was a busy season, behaved through the day like industrious working-men who had no thought of anything but earning an honest living by the sweat of their brows; and if they met at night while others slept, to hatch their schemes of villainy, it was always in some lonely and unfrequented spot—the depths of a forest, a cave among the hills, or by the river-side, far from any dwelling. Thus cunningly they continued to elude suspicion for weeks and months, till at length it began to be said that the burglars must have been strangers to the community, who had committed the one act and then fled from the vicinity.
But when the harvest was garnered, and some farmers, having sold their wheat, were popularly supposed to have money in their houses, these were entered and rifled night after night—now here, now there, at places miles apart; now near Prairieville, now five, ten, or fifteen miles away, either up or down the valley; and anon, the villains, emboldened by success in eluding justice, ventured occasionally even to enter the town and rob stores and dwellings where they had any reason to expect to find rich booty.
Excitement and indignation grew apace as it became evident to all that the valley was infested by an organized band of desperadoes.
Bangs, who was a prominent lawyer in Prairieville, very generally feared and disliked, tried again and again to fix suspicion upon Barney Nolan as one of the gang, but without success, as Nolan was liked in the community, being entirely inoffensive, good-tempered, and industrious.
Though a bachelor, Lawyer Bangs owned and lived in one of the finest dwelling-houses in the town. He had it very handsomely furnished, too, especially his parlor, bedroom, and private office.
His sister, Mrs. Wiley, kept house for him, and ruled with a high hand over her husband, an orphan niece, who was so unfortunate as to have no other home, and the maid of all work; the last named, however, being treated far more leniently than the other two, because she might go away if too hardly dealt with.
Mrs. Wiley dressed richly and sometimes wore expensive jewelry. Lawyer Bangs liked a display of solid silver on his table; he was said to have brought home a quantity of it when he returned from the war; how procured was best known to himself; so that there was probably more to tempt burglars in that house than in any other private dwelling of the town, and it stood upon the outskirts, apparently more unprotected than most; yet, strange to say, it was not entered. Phelim O’Rourke, it would seem, had neglected to pay it a nocturnal visit, but he had been there frequently in broad daylight, closeted for an hour or more with the lawyer in his office.
But Phelim’s name had not been connected with the burglaries; and no one denounced the scoundrels more loudly and indignantly than Bangs—or the colonel, as he preferred to be called, though he had resigned his commission with the close of the war.
Both he and Captain Charlton had been during all these weeks very frequent visitors at Lakeside. The latter had become a great favorite with all the family; his coming was ever hailed with delight by Ronald and the little ones; the grandmother invariably welcomed him with a smile and cordial grasp of the hand; and though Miriam’s greeting was somewhat more formal and distant, the brightening of her eye at his approach and the slight deepening of the rose on her cheek did not betoken dislike or even indifference to her brother’s friend.
Bangs, on the other hand, could not but perceive that his visits were barely tolerated. The children shunned him, and Miriam did the same whenever she could without absolute rudeness.
It fired him with resentment and hatred toward Charlton, whom he looked upon as a favored rival, and filled him with a dogged determination to win the girl by fair means or by foul; she should marry him—willingly, if she would; but her hand he would have, whether her heart went with it or not.
Having come to this determination, he forthwith set his wits to work to find means to accomplish his end.
“If I could get a hold upon the property,” he said to himself, “that would be the likeliest thing to bring her around. She’s attached to the place; still more to that crippled brother and the little ones, and would sooner sacrifice herself than see them come to want. Yes, that will be my very best chance. I wonder if they have the farm quite clear of incumbrance, and if the title is without a flaw? I must find out.”
It was one evening, while on his way home from a very unsatisfactory call at Lakeside, that Bangs held this conversation with himself. He had that day engaged a man to attend to his horse, and as he rode up to his stable the fellow stepped out and took the bridle.
Bangs alighted, and saying, “Rub her down well, O’Rourke, and give her a good feed of oats when she has cooled off,” he walked into the house.
The sound of repeated vigorous blows, mingled with sobs and cries of pain, fright and entreaty in a shrill female voice, “Oh, Aunt Dora, I will be good! I will be good!” met his ear as he entered.
“What’s all this about?” he growled, throwing open the door of the sitting-room, where a short, stout, broad-faced woman was belaboring with a rattan a thin, pale, under-grown girl of fourteen, who, held fast in the strong grasp of her tormentor, was vainly struggling to get free, and as vainly endeavoring to dodge the furious storm of blows rapidly descending upon her shoulders and arms.
“Oh, Uncle Avery, save me! she’s killing me!” shrieked the girl.
“No interference; she richly deserves all she’s getting!” exclaimed the operator between her set teeth, and turning on him a pair of light blue eyes, glittering with passion, as he strode across the room toward herself and the victim of her rage.
“What has she done now?” he demanded. “You wear yourself out in beating her, Dora; and I don’t see that she’s a whit the better for it. Come, come; whatever she’s done she’s had enough for this time, and I want to talk with you.”
At that Mrs. Wiley released the girl, who threw herself, trembling and sobbing, on a lounge.
Bangs glanced at her half pityingly, half contemptuously; then turning to his sister, “Were you going out?” he asked. “I see you have on your bonnet and shawl.”
“No; I’ve just come home from church; where, by the way, you ought to have been with me.”
“Not I, indeed,” he returned, sneeringly. “I have no religious character to keep up; never made any pretensions in that line; one saint in the family is sufficient—especially of the kind I’m most familiar with.”
“I fully understand your insinuations,” she said, her eyes flashing with anger; “but I shall do my duty by Mary, nevertheless. I must help her to conquer that dreadful temper of hers.”
“‘Example is better than precept,’” he quoted, significantly; “but what particular exhibition of temper had she given to entitle her to so thorough a flogging?—a punishment, by the way, rather unsuited, in my humble opinion, to a girl of her years.”
“It’s the only thing that has any effect,” Mrs. Wiley asserted, with decision. “I reproved her for mislaying her gloves (she had laid them on the table in the parlor instead of carrying them up to her room and putting them in their proper place), and you should have seen the scowl she gave me when I spoke to her about it.”
“Well, well, enough said, Dora; though it strikes me that if I professed to be a saint, and had just come home from church, I’d feel called upon to exercise some patience with the faults and follies of youth. But come into my private office, for, as I said, I want a little talk with you on a matter of business.”
Having led the way, and seen her dumpy figure comfortably ensconced in the large, leather-cushioned arm-chair, which usually held his own spare person, he opened the conference with an abrupt query.
“You are intimately acquainted at Lakeside, are you not? and esteemed there as a burning and shining light in the church?”
“How should I know whether they think me that or not?” she asked, reddening and tossing her head.
“Well, answer to the best of your knowledge.”
“We’ve not visited much; but only because we lived so far apart, and are all busy with our own affairs and church work. They know I’m always active in those things; and I presume they have every confidence in my piety—as most people have who know me.”
“But not too well—eh, Dora?” he supplemented, with a sneer.
“Avery, if you have nothing but insults for me, I’ll go back to my own part of the house,” she said, rising with dignity, while her face flushed hotly and her eyes sparkled with anger.
“Nonsense! we understand each other, Dora,” he returned, with an unpleasant laugh, as he pushed her back into her seat—not roughly. “Stay and hear me out. I think you’ll find it to your advantage to do that and something besides, which I am going to propose.”
She yielded, though ungraciously and with a frowning face.
He told her of his purpose to wed Miriam Heath, and the small encouragement he had to hope she would ever become his bride of her own free will.
Mrs. Wiley’s face grew darker as he proceeded. “Why do you seek her, then?” she asked in impatience. “She is no such prize that—”
“Pardon me, madam, if I venture to differ from you there,” he interrupted, drawing himself up with a haughty air. “Miriam Heath is an uncommonly fine girl in both looks and character. Where, let me ask, could you find another who could and would do what she has done—carry on a farm and support a family in comfort?”
“I don’t see what you want to marry for; you are much better off as you are,” remarked his sister, ignoring his query.
“There, again, your opinion and mine fail to coincide. I tell you, I am determined to make Miriam Heath my wife—willingly, if possible; otherwise unwillingly.”
“I don’t see how you can force her into it.”
“I think I do; and I want your help in carrying out my scheme.” He then unfolded his plans, and told her her part must be to cultivate the acquaintance of the family, and when an opportunity offered to worm out of Mrs. Heath the desired information. “Remember, she is the one,” he said in conclusion; “the girl and Ronald would be too sharp to give it; the children are too young to know anything about such matters; but the old lady, of course, knows everything; and she is very simple-hearted, frank, and doubtless has entire confidence in you.”
Mrs. Wiley demurred; was not sure it would be quite right to do what he wished—so she said; but the truth of the matter was that she did not want him to marry; for should he remain single, and she outlive him, she would be his natural heir.
He read her motives, and set them aside by remarking that if he could get the desired hold upon Miriam, and she refuse in spite of all to give him her hand, he would add Lakeside to his property.
The pale blue eyes opposite him brightened visibly. “And we might move out there,” she observed, with ill-concealed eagerness. “It’s a lovely place. I have always thought the Heaths very fortunate in owning it. Well, Avery, every one must look after his own interests. I’ll do as you wish.”
“That’s right, Dora,” he returned with satisfaction; “but let me caution you not to broach the subject too soon, lest the old lady should think you prying and be put upon her guard.”
“You may trust me to play my cards skilfully,” she returned, bridling.
“And not to let the grass grow under your feet? Love is impatient, you know.”
“Greed also,” she added, with a malicious smile. “No; there shall be no unnecessary delay. Lend me Phelim and the horse and buggy to-morrow, and I’ll drive over and open proceedings by making a call.”
“They are all at your service whenever wanted for that purpose. You’ll do, Dora.”
Mrs. Wiley drove over to Lakeside the next afternoon. It was a bleak November day, and as she alighted at the gate Phelim growled out a protest against “bein’ left to sit waitin’ out here in the cowld.”
“Keep yourself warm by exercise,” she said, sharply. “You can fasten the horse, and pace back and forth in the path along the fence side there.”
Bertie opened the door in answer to her ring, and ushered her into the sitting-room, where Ronald, reclining in a large arm-chair, was reading aloud to his grandmother, who sat placidly knitting by his side. Miriam was not at home, as Mrs. Wiley knew, having passed her in the town.
The old lady rose with a polite greeting to the visitor, while Bertie set a chair for her, then returned to his play—helping Olive to build block houses in a corner of the room.
Mrs. Wiley was very sweet and condescending (how Ronald detested her for that last!), made a few commonplace remarks on the weather and the crops, then condoled with the lad on his protracted sufferings, and with Mrs. Heath because of the care that devolved upon her in the rearing of her grandchildren.
“I know how to sympathize with you,” she sighed, “having burdened myself with the bringing up of an orphan niece. It is a great responsibility. I feel that she can never repay me for all I am doing for her; but I look to the Lord for my reward.”
“And I am sure, if you are doing it for His sake, He will not leave you unrewarded,” returned the old lady, her eyes glistening. “But, indeed, I cannot rate so highly my poor services to my son’s children, and shall feel amply recompensed if they grow up to be good and useful members of society. In fact, Mrs. Wiley, they repay me now by their dutiful and affectionate behavior.”
“Oh, grandma, you put too low an estimate upon your good deeds!” remarked Ronald, half playfully, half tenderly.
“Child, I have never done any worth the name,” she returned, with unaffected humility.
Mrs. Wiley changed the subject. Turning to Ronald, she spoke in glowing terms of the debt of gratitude owed by the country to her “brave boys in blue,” the noble fellows who had fought and bled to save the Union (she must say it, even though her dear brother Avery was one of them), and she would try to do a little toward cancelling her own share of the obligation to Ronald by sending over some little delicacy now and then to tempt his sickly appetite; she was reckoned a good cook—she did not say it boastingly—though, of course, not better than his own grandmother and sister; but something sent in from a neighbor’s was appreciated by an invalid just because it came from abroad.
Ronald thanked her, not too warmly, and added that he could not have her put herself to so much trouble; his appetite was not bad, and home cooking really suited him better than any other.
At that her cheek flushed, and for an instant she looked ill pleased; then laughing lightly, she remarked that no one ought to blame him for his partiality to those who were so very near and dear. Yet, as it was often desirable and beneficial to vary the diet, she would venture to do as she had proposed. It would be no trouble at all; on the contrary, a real pleasure, for she loved to do good and to give.
“But we of this family are not in need, madam,” he returned, his tone slightly sarcastic, “and your alms were better bestowed upon those who are.”
“Oh, fie! you must not be so proud,” she said, adopting a sportive tone, though evidently with an effort. “You are a reader, I see,” she added, glancing at the book he had laid aside on her entrance. “I hope you don’t neglect your Bible?”
“No, he does not,” said his grandmother, answering for him; “Ronald is a good boy.”
“I rejoice to hear it,” was the gracious rejoinder, “and I shall do myself the pleasure of bringing him some good books, of which I keep a supply constantly on hand on purpose to lend or give where I think they may prove useful.”
Ronald could not bring himself to thank her; but his grandmother did it for him, and with a parting nod and smile, and an injunction to him to take care of himself and get well as fast as possible, the visitor took her departure.
“What a good woman she is!” Mrs. Heath said, coming back from seeing her off. “What an earnest, faithful, working Christian! always at the prayer-meeting, she tells me; always engaged heart and soul in some good work. I wish I were more like her,” and she sighed involuntarily as she resumed her knitting and her rocker by the side of her boy.
“And I do not, grandma,” he returned, with warmth; “you would not be half so dear and lovable as you are.”
“My dear boy, how can you say it?” she asked, in mild surprise.
“Grandma, doesn’t the Bible say it is not he that commendeth himself who is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth? And why does that woman put on such airs of condescension toward you? She is not your superior in any respect; no, nor half your equal in very many.”