A little crowd, mostly men, were gathered about the depot door to watch the arrival of the westward-bound evening train. A few yards farther from the track, Miriam Heath, seated in a buggy, had reined in her horse and was quietly waiting. At the first sound of the whistle, instantly followed by the rush and roar of the train, the animal started aside, snorting, and rolling his eyes wildly.
“Shall I take his head, miss?” asked a voice in a rich Irish brogue, and Phelim O’Rourke, hurrying from Bangs’s stable to join the waiting throng, sprang hastily forward and seized the bridle-rein.
“No; I can hold him; he will be quiet enough as soon as he sees what it is,” Miriam answered shortly, not overpleased at the officiousness of the man.
He stepped away a few paces and regarded her with a malignant scowl.
Her words were made good almost before they had left her lips. The train swept into sight, and her horse stood quiet as a lamb, while the engine puffed, snorted, and blew off steam, and the passengers poured out and scattered themselves hither and thither.
A middle-aged man, with a sober, honest Scotch face, in decent farmer dress, and carrying a satchel in his hand, was among the first to alight.
“You’re a gude leddy, as weel’s a bonny ane, Miss Miriam,” he said, hurrying toward her. “I’m no ill pleased to forego the pleasure o’ a tramp through the cauld and ower the frozen, rough roads.”
“I thought you would come back tired, Sandy,” she returned, resigning the reins to him as he took the seat by her side, having already bestowed his satchel in the bottom of the buggy. “Besides, it will be safer, in case—”
“Wait a wee, Miss Miriam,” he interrupted, in an undertone. “Along wi’ ye! lively now, Robin!” to the horse, who at once set off at a brisk trot in the direction of home.
O’Rourke had watched the little scene with a sort of covert eagerness, and as the buggy whirled away up the road his eyes followed it with a look of lurking triumph and greed.
Neither of its occupants spoke again till quite clear of the town. Then, having first sent a cautious glance from side to side, Sandy, again speaking in a low key, as if fearful of being overheard, said: “It’s gude news I bring ye, Miss Miriam; by the blessing o’ Providence the wheat sold uncommon weel, and they paid doon; so that I hae a matter o’ $1500 for ye—a trifle o’ odd dollars ower that.”
“Oh, Sandy, that is good!” she cried, joyously. “But I wish it were safe in the bank. If we could only have got it here in time!”
“Three hours sooner. I wish it could have been done, Miss Miriam. But we’ll try to tak’ care o’t the night, and deposit it betimes i’ the morn.”
“Oh, if we only can, Sandy! Just think; we shall be able at once to pay off the interest on the mortgage and half the principal; and another such year will give us the place entirely free from incumbrance,” she said, her eyes shining.
Sandy McAllister was her right-hand man on the farm, working with steady industry for day’s wages; her true and trusted friend as well, knowing her affairs almost as intimately as she did herself, and taking a fatherly interest in her success and the prosperity of the whole family.
“Yes; what’s ower and abune will be sufficient, wi’ what the potatoes, and cabbage, and a’ the ither crops o’ vegetables, and the fruits will bring in, to keep the pot boilin’ till anither harvest,” he remarked, reflectively. “Ye’ll win through, Miss Miriam; there’s promises to the widow and the fatherless, and the Lord’s aye faithful to His word.”
It was nearly dark when they reached Lakeside, but there was light and warmth in its cosey sitting-room, whither Miriam carried the satchel, while Sandy drove around to the stable and put up the horse.
The grandmother was dishing up the supper, Ronald keeping the little ones quiet with a story; but on Miriam’s entrance they left him, and ran to meet her with a shout of joy.
“Oh, sister, we’re so glad you’ve come home! We were ’fraid you’d got lost.”
“Were you?” she said, stooping to caress them in turn.
“Yes; we were beginning to be uneasy; it was growing so dark,” said her grandmother, filling the teapot and setting it on the table. “Come now, dears, tea is ready.”
“I believe the train was a few minutes behind time,” Miriam answered. “Grandmother,” and putting an arm round the old lady’s neck, she whispered in her ear something that brought a pleased, thankful look into the placid face.
Then going to the side of Ronald’s easy-chair, “The wheat sold well; so well that we shall be able to pay the interest on the mortgage and half the principal,” she said, in a low, joyous tone, leaning over him, her eyes shining and her cheeks dimpling with a glad smile.
“That is good news indeed!” he cried, his face reflecting the brightness of hers. “If we continue to prosper so, we’ll have the place clear in another year; also, I trust I may be able by that time to relieve you of at least a part of the burden of supporting the family.”
“Ah, it takes two to make a bargain; and I may not be willing to resign my sceptre,” she answered, gayly, as she threw off bonnet and shawl and took her seat with the rest at the table.
The meal was enlivened by cheerful chat, though the same anxious thought pressed more or less heavily upon the heart of each of the elders of the party. No one gave it utterance till the little ones were quiet in their nest; then, with every door locked and bolted, every shutter closed and barred, and the curtains drawn, the four (Sandy being always taken into their counsels) drew together and examined the contents of the satchel.
“A thousand-dollar bill!” Ronald said, turning it about in his hands, “and marked with some one’s initials. Well, if the burglars should rob us of it they would hardly dare venture to use it.”
“True, sir,” said Sandy; “an’ what’s to hinder us frae spoilin’ these ither anes for their use in the same way? Here’s four one-hundred-dollar notes, one fifty, and the rest in fives, tens, and siller.”
“A good idea,” assented Ronald. “Mirry, please bring pen and ink.”
The marking was done, and they were discussing the probabilities of a visit from the burglars infesting the country, and the best disposition to be made of the money for the night, when a loud knocking at the kitchen door startled them and set the hearts of the two ladies to beating almost audibly. Sandy rose to answer it, while Miriam hastily concealed the notes in the bosom of her dress.
“Mirry,” whispered Ronald, “give them up rather than suffer yourself to be roughly handled. Sandy, don’t open the door till you know who is there.”
“Surely not, sir,” returned the man, as he left the room, carefully closing the door behind him.
The others sat silent, straining their ears to hear.
Sandy held a moment’s parley with some one; then the bolt was withdrawn, and the tones of a female voice, speaking with a rich Irish brogue, penetrated to the inner room.
“Nora!” exclaimed Miriam, in a tone of relief.
“A friend instead of an enemy, as we feared,” added Mrs. Heath.
They had full confidence in Nora’s honesty and good will; scarcely less in those of Barney.
“But she may come to warn us of danger,” said Ronald, in a low tone of great anxiety.
The others had not thought of that. But Sandy was ushering Nora into the room.
“Good avenin’ till yees, leddies an’ Misther Ronald, sor,” she said, dropping a courtesy; “an’ I ax yer pardons fer throublin’ yees this toime o’ noight; but it’s all along o’ Barney an’ me a thinkin’ yees moight be a thrifle onaisy in yer moinds, considerin’ there’s so manny thaves about, an’ Misther McAllisther jist home from the city, an’ maybe suspected o’ bringin’ money wid him, an’ the bank closed so he couldn’t put it there for safe kapin’. An’ Barney”—she drew nearer, glanced cautiously around, and lowered her voice to a loud whisper—“he says, says he, ‘Nora, I’m onaisy about Miss Miriam an’ the rest, for I see that raskil Phalim O’Rourke a prowlin’ round while I was cuttin’ wood in the back yarrud this afthernoon. He’d brought Bangs’s sisther in the buggy, an’ while she was intil the house talkin’ wid the ould lady, he was makin’ hisself acquainted wid the premisis. An’ I’ll be bound it wasn’t fer no good, nayther.’”
“Is he one of the burglars?” asked Miriam, paling visibly.
“Barney an’ me cudn’t jist say that same, Miss Mirry; but it’s a thafe he was in the war; an’ he’s makin’ his ould fayther an’ mither moighty comfortable in a nice little house in the town, that he’s bought an’ paid fer, an’ nobody knows where the money come from; fer how cud the spalpeen mak’ the loike o’ that same workin’ round fer the farmers an’ takin’ care o’ Bangs’s horse?”
“It certainly looks suspicious,” said Ronald; “but what is it you have to propose, Nora?”
“Jist this, sor; that if it’s agrayable till the leddies an’ yersilf, and wull make yees anny aisier in yer moinds, Barney’ll come an’ help guard the house till to-morrow mornin’, an’ not lave at all at all till the sun’s up an’ shinin’.”
“That is very kind,” said Miriam; “but what would become of you and the children if the burglars should take a fancy to pay you a visit?”
“An’ sure, miss, what would they be afther in our poor bit of a hut?” laughed Nora. “There ain’t nothin’ there to stale, barrin’ me an’ the childer.”
The kind proposal was acceded to with hearty thanks. Nora, rejecting McAllister’s proffered services as escort, hastened away, and in a few minutes Barney presented himself in their midst.
The intervening time had been employed by them in disposing of the money for the night. Ronald would have had it laid under his pillow; but Miriam entered an indignant protest.
“What,” she asked, “was the money worth in comparison with his life? That should not be risked by having the filthy lucre in the same room with him.”
“The money is worth a great deal as the means of sustaining all our lives,” Ronald answered, quietly; “but since you reject my plan, what other have you to offer?”
“I will take the smaller notes and conceal them upstairs. If they come and find the larger ones, they will probably think that is all and look no farther; so none of our lives will be endangered, and the notes, being marked, may be recovered.”
“Yes,” the grandmother said; “we will put them in the parlor, and in not too unlikely a place, lest they should come to our bedrooms in search of them, and if we happen to wake, kill us to keep us from telling of them, and so bringing them to justice.”
These suggestions were immediately carried out. Miriam went into the parlor, without a light, fearing that even a slight gleam might furnish a clew to a lurking foe, put the bank-notes into a little chimney cupboard, locked it, and took away the key.
They retired early, as was their custom. Mrs. Heath, Miriam, and the two children slept upstairs; but Ronald’s bedroom was on the ground floor, opening into the sitting-room where they had passed the evening.
In this last Sandy and Barney took up their quarters for the night, each armed with a loaded revolver. It had been agreed that each should take his turn in watching while the other slept, and that upon any sound of approaching footsteps, or an attempt of any one outside to open window or door, the sleeper should be instantly roused by his companion.
McAllister took the first watch, keeping himself awake with a book. Shortly after one o’clock he roused Barney, shaking him somewhat roughly, and saying in an undertone, “Come, me mon; it’s my turn the noo; and richt glad I am, for I can scarce keep my een open ony langer.”
They exchanged places. Sandy began to snore the moment he had stretched himself upon the lounge from which Barney had just risen; while the latter, weary with a hard day’s work, and heavy with sleep, yawned in his chair, shook himself, sat erect, and stretched his eyes wide open with a determined air, then rose and paced the room, but with a stealthy tread, lest he should disturb Ronald.
He meant to be faithful to his trust, had no mind to be conquered by sleep, but fatigue presently sent him back to his chair; half unconsciously his head dropped upon the table, his eyes closed, and in another moment he was wrapped in profound slumber.
The clock on the mantel struck two, but both he and his fellow-watcher remained deaf to the sound. The hands moved steadily on and pointed to ten minutes of three, as something—he did not know what—startled and awoke him.
He sat up and listened. There was a slight noise—where? in the parlor? Yes; as of some one stepping cautiously across the floor.
Barney sprang to his feet, dealt McAllister a smart blow to rouse him, seized a pistol, threw open the door into the hall, and rushed across into the parlor.
As he did so a man dashed past him to one of the front windows, which was open, as Barney at once perceived by the glimmer of light from the snow outside and the draught of cold air.
He sprang after the retreating figure and grasped it about the waist as it gained the window-sill.
But with a desperate effort, and a blow in the face that felled Nolan to the floor, the burglar freed himself, and springing lightly to the ground, sped away like the wind.
Barney was up in an instant and in hot pursuit, crying at the top of his voice, “Stop thafe! stop thafe!”
Sandy, too, taking a flying leap through the window, joined in the race, echoing the cry with all the strength of his lungs, but with the Scotch accent instead of the Irish brogue.
But the burglar, being younger and fleeter of foot than they, and having the start of them, soon distanced their pursuit; and uncertain which direction he had taken, and bethinking themselves of the defenceless state of those left behind at Lakeside, should accomplices of the fleeing scoundrel be lingering about, they made haste to return.
They found Ronald and the ladies awake and in great anxiety and alarm.
An examination of the parlor at once disclosed the fact that the cupboard door had been opened with a skeleton key and the money taken. Its loss was a great blow to the family, yet the fact that the notes were marked gave them some hope of their final recovery.
“I dinna see ony evidence that the mon had accomplices,” remarked McAllister, when a thorough search of the house had been made.
“The tracks in the snow will settle that question when daylight comes to enable us to see them,” said Ronald.
“Na, na, sir; it’s snowin’ fast the noo, and they’ll be all covered up brawly by that,” responded McAllister.
“Then take a lantern and look for them at once,” Miriam said, speaking with energy and decision.
“An’ so we wull! Sure, thin, the young misthress is the smartest o’ the lot o’ us all!” cried Barney, seizing a light and leading the way, McAllister following.
“Well?” Ronald asked, in an excited tone, as they re-entered the room.
“’Twas as I surmised, sir; the mon came his lane,” said McAllister.
“An’ it’s mesilf that cud a’most tak’ me oath that ’twas Phalim O’Rourke,” added Barney, setting down the light, and turning from one to another of the little group in strong excitement. “I cudn’t see his face that plain, to be sure, fer the darkness, but I got a glimpse o’t; and the soize o’ the raskil was as loike Phalim as the twin brother o’ ’im.”
“And who is Phelim O’Rourke?” asked Miriam. “Nora spoke of him, but I don’t remember to have heard of him before.”
“Sure, Miss Miriam, he’s a returned sojer as wurruks fer Lawyer Bangs—takin’ care o’ his horse an’ doin’ anny ither chores wanted in the fam’ly. An’ it’s mesilf that niver loiked the look o’ him, let alone that he didn’t git the best o’ characters from annybody in the rigiment; in fact, miss, he had the name o’ bein’ as big a thafe as the nixt one.”
“Are you willing to repeat what you have just said before a magistrate?” asked Ronald.
“Sure, sor; an’ fer what wouldn’t I?”
“It will probably anger Bangs, as O’Rourke is in his employ.”
“Sorra a bit wad I care fer that same, sor,” returned Barney, with a scornful laugh, “barrin’ the thrifle o’ plisure it moight affoord me,” he added, with a gleam of fun in his eye.