Before the sun was an hour high Prairieville was greatly excited over the news of the burglary at Lakeside and the subsequent arrest of O’Rourke on suspicion of having been concerned in it.
He was, however, speedily at large again, Nolan not being able to swear positively to his identity, and Colonel Bangs coming forward with an alibi in his favor. He made oath that O’Rourke had been with him in his private office at the precise time when he was supposed to have been at Lakeside taking the money from the parlor cupboard.
He (Bangs) had had a fit of wakefulness, and thinking it must be time to rise, had summoned Phelim to light a fire in the office. On looking at his watch, when Phelim came in answer to the summons, he had found it barely three o’clock. Still, feeling sure he should not be able to sleep again, he had his order carried out. The fire was slow to burn, and Phelim did not leave the room till the clock had struck four—long after McAllister and Nolan had given up their pursuit of the burglar and returned to Lakeside.
This testimony, of course, completely exonerated O’Rourke, unless upon the unlikely supposition that Lawyer Bangs was perjuring himself to shield one in whom he had no greater interest than that of a master in his servant. Barney Nolan was, perhaps, the only person who still indulged strong suspicions against Phelim.
There was a grain of truth in the lawyer’s story. He had called Phelim from his bed between two and three o’clock that morning, but it was by an arrangement entered into the previous evening, during a private interview held shortly after O’Rourke’s return from the depot; and without waiting to light a fire at all the Irishman had set out on his evil errand.
After making good his escape from his pursuers (McAllister and Nolan) he gained Bangs’s residence by a circuitous route, and, under cover of the darkness, crept cautiously in at a back door, opened for him by the lawyer himself, who had a few moments before taken his stand beside it, and was waiting there, listening intently for the expected sound of approaching footsteps.
“Ah, at last!” he exclaimed, half under his breath, as his accomplice stepped in. “Don’t breathe so loud if you can help it; some one may be listening. This way—into the office.”
They groped their way through the dark passage into a room beyond, dimly lighted by a smouldering fire. Bangs struck a match and lighted a lamp.
“Won’t it shine out intil the street, sor?” asked Phelim, glancing apprehensively around at the windows.
“No; can’t you see that the shutters are closed and the blinds drawn down? Now, what success? I was never on any former occasion so anxious to have you succeed.”
“I s’pose not, sor, seein’ as there’s on’y us two to divide the plunder this toime. An’ it’s mesilf as should pocket the lion’s share, I’m a thinkin’, seein’ as yer honor kep’ safe under shelter here, while I done all the wurruk an’ tuk all the resk.”
“Ah, but if suspicion fastens upon you, I’m the man to save you from the clutches of the law! But here, man, let’s see what the spoil amounts to before we quarrel over the division.”
At that Phelim drew a little package from his breast-pocket and opened it, Bangs looking on with eagle-eyed watchfulness and suspicion.
“Ah, what’s that? a thousand-dollar note!” he exclaimed, clutching eagerly at it.
“Half’s moine, sor; don’t ye forgit that!” growled Phelim, keeping fast hold of one end.
“Tut, man! it’s marked—do you see?—and won’t be of any use to either of us,” grunted Bangs, letting go of the note in disgust.
“Eh! What difference does that make?” queried Phelim, examining it critically and with a crestfallen air.
“All the difference in the world; for, of course, we couldn’t pass it without exposing ourselves to almost certain detection as having had a share in the robbery.”
Phelim ripped out an oath, adding, “They’s all marked—ivery wan ov thim; an’ I’ve resked a tarm o’ years in the pinetintiary fer jist nothin’ at all at all!”
“Never fear; I’ll take care of that,” returned Bangs, grimly. “I can’t afford to let you rot in prison so long as you share your profits with me,” he added, with an unpleasant laugh. “You’d better leave these with me. They’ll be of no use to you, and if found on your person would send you to jail in spite of all I or anybody else could do to keep you out of it.”
“Mabbe they moight come intil use wan o’ these days,” muttered Phelim, turning the smaller notes over in his hands and gazing ruefully at them. “I’ll kape these fer the prisent, and yer honor can hide that big wan in yer strong box, rememberin’ it’s to be divided atween us whin the toime comes.”
“All right,” said Bangs, adding to himself, with an inward chuckle, “but possession’s nine points of the law.”
Then he went on to urge the wisdom of leaving the smaller notes also in his care, assuring Phelim it would be highly dangerous for him to retain them in his possession, till at length all but one were surrendered to him.
Phelim then stole on tiptoe to the attic room appropriated to his use, undressed, and got into bed, where, some hours later, he was found by the constable, fast asleep, and taken into custody.
Bangs, having seen the prisoner discharged, went directly from the magistrate’s office to Lakeside to condole with the family on their loss and suggest measures for the recovery of the money and the apprehension of the thief.
On being told that the notes were marked, he expressed himself so confident of their final recovery that the despoiled family were quite cheered, and Miriam, in her thankfulness for the hope his words gave them, was more gracious to him than she had been for a long time.
He observed it with great satisfaction, and, thinking he had made a favorable opening, began putting questions, though in a guarded way, with the design of obtaining the information he so greatly desired in respect to their hold upon the property and the extent to which this loss was likely to embarrass them.
But divining his motive, her manner at once changed to one of extreme coldness and hauteur, as she gave him distinctly to understand that she would brook no prying into her affairs.
He replied with an angry denial of the correctness of the implication; his queries were put from a sincere desire to be of service, and from no other motive; prying curiosity was utterly beneath him—utterly foreign to his character. And with that he rose, bowed himself out, and went away in a rage.
“Mirry, dear,” remonstrated the gentle old grandmother, “I’m afraid you are too proud and ready to take offence. It may be the colonel only meant to be kind.”
“I don’t believe it, grandma; I doubt if the man ever did anything from a purely unselfish motive.”
“I fear you have mortally offended him,” remarked Ronald, with a slight laugh.
“I hope so, indeed,” she returned, her breast heaving and her eyes sparkling, “and that his sister may take up his quarrel sufficiently to secure us against a visit of condolence from her.”
Vain hope! Bangs’s anger was not of the kind to lead him to abandon his purpose; and the next day Mrs. Wiley, as sweet, smiling, and gracious as ever, again presented herself at their door.
Bertie showed her into the sitting-room, which she found quite deserted, though through the open door of the adjoining bedroom she caught a glimpse of Ronald reclining upon his couch.
“Is your poor, dear brother worse?” she asked.
“He’s not quite so well to-day, ma’am,” Bertie answered, placing a chair for her near the fire. “Please sit down, and I’ll call grandmother.”
“Sister Miriam too, my dear; I came to see them both.”
“Mirry is busy with the baking; she can’t come, I know; but I’ll tell her,” the child answered, softly closing Ronald’s door, in obedience to a sign from him, then passing into the kitchen, where the ladies of the family were busied with housewifely labors, the grandmother preparing vegetables for dinner, Miriam making pies and baking bread; for they kept no servant or cook except in the busy harvest time.
Both turned an anxious look upon Bertie as he came in. They had thought, on hearing the ring, that the caller was probably Mr. Himes, the holder of the mortgage, coming for his interest. It was due that day; he had always been very punctual in calling for it, and hitherto had never failed to find it ready for him.
Bertie did not wait to be questioned. “It’s that lady that always smiles and calls everybody ‘dear,’” he said, “and she came to see you both—grandmother and Mirry.”
“Mrs. Wiley!” ejaculated Miriam, her cheeks flushing hotly. “I wish she had less leisure to bestow upon us—enough to do at home to keep her there.”
“Ah, well, child, we must try to have patience! I dare say she means to be very kind,” sighed the old lady, hastily washing her hands and taking off the large work-apron worn to protect her neat calico dress. “I hope she won’t stay long, though, or I shall not be able to get these potatoes and turnips ready in time for dinner.”
“Never mind that, grandma,” returned Miriam; “I can manage it all if you will excuse me to her; but I cannot and will not leave my baking to see her for even a moment.”
Bangs had given his sister a detailed account of his yesterday’s interview with Miriam, arousing in her breast fierce anger against the girl. “How dared she treat advances from my brother in that style!” she exclaimed, grinding her teeth. “She shall be well paid for it, the impudent hussy! I hope you are cured now of the desire to make her your wife; but get the property if you can. I’ll do all in my power to help you.”
“And with such an ally I can hardly fail,” he responded, with grim satisfaction.
So this was the secret object of her call.
She had at first wished to see Miriam; but before Mrs. Heath came to her she decided that events had shaped themselves in the very best manner for the carrying out of her schemes; the old lady was likely to be just now in the state of mind most favorable to her designs upon her; gentle-tempered and loath to see the feelings of another wounded, she would naturally feel anxious to make amends for Miriam’s rudeness to Avery; and with a mind full of their recent loss, she would open her heart in response to well-simulated sympathy.
The event proved Mrs. Wiley’s shrewdness and penetration; the guileless old lady straightway fell into her trap. But of course the wily woman approached her object in a roundabout way, and while she listened to a circumstantial account of the robbery, given in response to her earnest request, there was a second arrival.
Miriam, glancing from the window, saw the holder of the mortgage drive up to the gate in his farm wagon.
“There he is!” she exclaimed. “Bertie, run out and ask Mr. Himes if he will mind coming to the kitchen to see me. Tell him I can’t leave my baking just now, and as there is a lady caller in the sitting-room, and no fire in the parlor, this is the only place where we can have a comfortable private talk.”
Bertie obeyed, and in another minute or two Mr. Himes was stamping the snow from his feet on the back porch.
Miriam opened the door, bade him a cheerful good-morning, invited him in, and set a chair near the fire, apologizing at the same time for asking him there.
“Needn’t say another word, Miss Heath,” he said, seating himself and glancing about him; “it’s a nice, comfortable place to come to out o’ the cold and the snow; neat as wax and warm as toast. But I’m in somethin’ of a hurry, having a long ride to get back home, ye know, and it’s snowing so fast that the roads will be dreadful heavy afore night; so you’ll excuse me if I begin on business at once.”
Miriam had grown pale, and he noticed it.
“I don’t want to be hard on ye,” he said; “you’ve always been prompt with that interest, and I know you was a hopin’ fer to pay off a part o’ the principal this fall. I don’t calkilate ye can do that now (I heard in town this mornin’ ye’d been robbed; and I’m mighty sorry fer it, fer your sake as well’s my own; and I say that gang o’ burglars had ought to be strung up higher’n Haman, every one on ’em); but I hope they didn’t git all, and that you kin let me have the interest, for I’m wantin’ it bad.”
“I wish I could, Mr. Himes,” Miriam said, low and falteringly; “but the burglar got so nearly all, that I can pay only fifty dollars to-day.”
“Why, that’s only a quarter of it!”
“Yes, I know; and I’m very sorry.”
She went on to explain about the loss of the notes and the ground of their hope of speedily recovering them, adding a promise to pay off the remainder of the interest and half the principal immediately upon their restoration.
“Well, well, I hope ye’ll git it,” he said. “I don’t want to be hard on ye,” he repeated; “if ye can’t, ye can’t; and though it’s dreadful inconvenient, I’ll wait a little, hoping the rascal will be caught with all he stole from you.”
Miriam took her purse from her pocket and a fifty-dollar note from it. “You see I expected you, Mr. Himes,” she said, with a sad sort of smile, and pointing to a little side table, where were pen, ink, and paper. “Will you write me a receipt for this? And then, if you are not in too great haste, you must let me set you out a lunch, for you must be hungry after your long ride.”
“Thank’e; I am that; and your cookin’ has a powerful good smell,” he returned, pocketing the note, seating himself at the table, and taking up the pen; “I don’t know but it’ll pay to take time to snatch a mouthful or so.”
Regarding this as an acceptance of her invitation, Miriam moved briskly about, spread a snowy cloth on one end of the large table at which she had been at work, and by the time the farmer had gone through with the business of writing the receipt—a slow and toilsome one to him—had quite a tempting little repast of cold meat, hot rolls and butter, pie, and gingerbread ready for him.
He did it hasty but ample justice—eating being more in his line than writing—thanked her with hearty praise of her cooking, and went away, his parting words a strongly expressed hope that the apprehension of the thief would soon put her in a position to keep her promises of payment to him.
As Miriam closed the door upon him and turned to her work again, her heart was heavy with a sad foreboding of the consequences to her dear ones and herself should that hope fail of realization.
“Bertie,” she said, noticing the child standing at the window intently watching Mr. Himes as he made his way down the garden-path toward his horses and wagon, “what made you stare so at the man while he was eating? I was quite ashamed of your rudeness.”
“Why, sister,” returned the child, slowly, “he never thanked the Lord at all for his victuals, and I was watching to see him choke—you know grandmother said the other day she should expect to choke if she did that way. But he didn’t, though, not a bit.”
“Grandma would tell you that our Father in heaven is very kind and patient with us all, and that that is another reason why we should not abuse His goodness,” Miriam answered, in a cheerful tone, the thought of that goodness helping her to throw off for a time her heavy burden of care.
Not much occurring in her vicinity ever escaped the sharp eyes and ears of Madam Wiley. She had seen Mr. Himes piloted by Bertie to the kitchen door, and full of curiosity in regard to his errand there, had strained her ears to hear the talk between him and Miriam; but the girl’s tones were low, the farmer’s utterance was indistinct, and Miriam had purposely seated him on the side of the room farthest from the communicating door between it and the sitting-room; besides, there was the distracting necessity of listening to and answering the remarks of Mrs. Heath.
With all these hindrances, the seeker after information found the task she had set herself beset with difficulties. She could not get so much as an inkling of the subject-matter of discourse in the kitchen.
It was very provoking; and only by the most determined effort was she able to maintain her suavity of speech and manner and pay sufficient attention to what the old lady said, to avoid answering wide of the mark. But at last the farmer went, and rallying all her energies to the successful carrying out of her purpose, she skilfully drew the old lady on to pour into her sympathizing ear the story of their family difficulties and perplexities.
“But, dear Mrs. Heath, you surely need not feel quite cast down by this loss, seeing that you own this lovely place. You have it quite clear of incumbrance, have you not?—no mortgage on it? no flaw in the title?” she at length queried in her sweetest, most tenderly sympathetic tones; and her victim was just beginning a sad-voiced, hesitating reply when Ronald, who had some time before softly set his door ajar, called:
“Ah! excuse me for a moment, my boy is wanting something,” the old lady said, hastily rising and hurrying to him.
He motioned to her to close the door after her; then, drawing her down to him, whispered in her ear, “Grandmother, don’t trust that woman; don’t let her know anything of our affairs.”
“Well, no, child, not if it vexes you; but I’m sure she means very kindly. But what shall I do? I never was good at evading questions; I can’t tell a lie, and don’t know any other way to avoid telling the truth.”
“Well, I’d sooner talk to her as Mirry did to her brother the other day than let her pry into the family secrets. But bring her in here to see me, and let me always be present at your interviews after this. I’ll warrant she’ll put a curb upon her curiosity when I’m by.”
In accordance with his wishes, the invitation was promptly given; but suddenly, finding it high time she was at home, the unwelcome visitor took her departure.