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The meal over, Charlie Swift took out a pencil and paper. "Now," said he. "To business!"
Samuel pulled up his chair and the other drew a square. "This is a house I've been studying. It's on a corner--these are streets, and here's an alley. This is the side door that I think I can open. There's a door here and one in back here. Fix all that in your mind."
"I have it," said the boy.
"You go in, and here's the entrance hall. The front stairs are here. What I'm after is the family plate, and it's up on the second floor. I'll attend to that. The only trouble is that over here beyond the library there's a door, and, somebody sleeps in that room. I don't know who it is. But I want you to stay in the hall, and if there's anyone stirs in that room you're to dart upstairs and give one whistle at the top. Then I'll come."
"And what then?"
"This is the second floor," said Charlie, drawing another square. "And here's the servant's stairway, and we can get down to this entrance in the rear, that I'll open before I set to work. On the other hand, if you hear me whistle upstairs, then you're to get out by the way we came. If there's any alarm given, then it's each for himself."
"I see," said Samuel; and gripped his hands so that his companion might not see how he was quaking.
Charlie got out his kit and examined it to make sure that the police had kept nothing. Then he went to a bureau drawer and got a revolver, examined it and slipped it into his pocket. "They kept my best one," he said. "So I've none to lend you."
"I--I wouldn't take it, anyway," stammered the other in horror.
"You'll learn," said the burglar with a smile.
Then he sat down again and drew a diagram of the streets of Lockmanville, so that Samuel could find his way back in case of trouble. "We don't want to take any chances," said he. "And mind, if I get caught, I'll not mention you--wild horses couldn't drag it out of me. And you make the same promise."
"I make it," said Samuel.
"Man to man," said Charlie solemnly; and Samuel repeated the words.
"How did you come to know so much about the house?" he asked after a while.
"Oh! I've lived here and I've kept my eyes open. I worked as a plumber's man for a couple of months and I made diagrams."
"But don't the police get to know you?"
"Yes--they know me. But I skip out when I've done a job. And when I come back it's in disguise. Once I grew a beard and worked in the glass works all day and did my jobs at night; and again I lived here as a woman."
"A woman!" gasped the boy.
"You see," said the other with a laugh, "there's more ways than one to prove your fitness." And he went on, narrating some of his adventures- -adventures calculated to throw the glamour of romance about the trade of burglar. Samuel listened breathless with wonder.
"We'd better get a bit of sleep now," said Charlie later on. "We'll start about one." And he stretched himself out on the bed, while the other sat motionless in the chair, pondering hard over his problem. There was no sleeping for Samuel that night.
He would carry out his bargain--that was his decision. But he would not take his share of the plunder, except just enough to pay Mrs. Stedman. And he would never be a burglar again!
At one o'clock he awakened his companion, and they set out through the deserted streets. They crossed the bridge to the residential part of town; and then, at a corner, Charlie stopped. "There's the place," he said, pointing to a large house set back within a garden.
They gazed about. The coast was clear; and they darted into the door which had been indicated in the diagram. Samuel crouched in the doorway, motionless, while the other worked at the lock. Samuel's knees were trembling so that he could hardly stand up.
The door was opened without a sound having been made, and they stole into the entrance. They listened--the house was as still as death. Then Charlie flashed his lantern, and Samuel had quick glimpses of a beautiful and luxuriously furnished house. It was nothing like "Fairview," of course; but it was finer than Professor Stewart's home. There was a library, with great leather armchairs; and in the rear a dining room, where mirrors and cut glass flashed back the far-off glimmer of the light.
"There's your door over there," whispered Charlie. "And you'd better stay behind those curtains."
So Samuel took up his post; the light vanished and his companion started for the floor above. Several times the boy heard the stairs creaking, and his heart leaped into his throat; but then the sounds ceased and all was still.
The minutes crawled by--each one seemed an age. He stood rooted to the spot, staring into the darkness--half-hypnotized by the thought of the door which he could not see, and of the person who might be asleep behind it. Surely this was a ghastly way for a man to have to gain his living--it were better to perish than to survive by such an ordeal! Samuel was appalled by the terrors which took possession of him, and the tremblings and quiverings which he could not control. Any danger in the world he would have faced for conscience' sake; but this was wrong--he knew it was wrong! And so all the glow of conviction was gone from him.
What could be the matter? Why should Charlie be so long? Surely he had had time enough to ransack the whole house! Could it be that he had got out by the other way--that he had planned to skip town, and leave Samuel there in the lurch?
And then again came a faint creaking upon the stairs. He was coming back! Or could it by any chance be another person? He dared not venture to whisper; he stood, tense with excitement, while the sounds came nearer--it was as if some monster were creeping upon him in the darkness, and folding its tentacles about him!
He heard a sound in the hall beside him. Why didn't Charlie speak? What was the matter with him? What--
And then suddenly came a snapping sound, and a blinding glare of light flashed up, flooding the hallway and everything about him. Samuel staggered back appalled. There was some one standing there before him! He was caught!
Thus for one moment of dreadful horror. And then he realized that the person confronting him was a little girl!
She was staring at him; and he stared at her. She could not have been more than ten years old, and wore a nightgown trimmed with lace. She had bright yellow hair, and her finger was upon the button which controlled the lights.
For fully a minute neither of them moved. Then Samuel heard a voice whispering: "Are you a burglar?"
He could not speak, but he nodded his head. And then again he heard the child's voice: "Oh, I'm so glad!"
"I'm so glad!" she repeated again, and her tone was clear and sweet. "I'd been praying for it! But I'd almost given up hope!"
Samuel found voice enough to gasp, "Why?"
"My mamma read me a story," said the child. "It was about a little girl who met a burglar. And ever since I've been waiting for one to come."
There was a pause. "Are you a really truly burglar?" the child whispered.
"I--I think so," replied Samuel.
"You look very young," she said.
And the other bethought himself. "I'm only a beginner," he said. "This is really my first time."
"Oh!" said the child with a faint touch of disappointment. "But still you will do, won't you?"
"Do for what?" asked the boy in bewilderment.
"You must let me reform you," exclaimed the other. "That's what the little girl did in the story. Will you?"
"Why--why, yes"--gasped Samuel. "I--I really meant to reform."
Then suddenly he thought he heard a sound in the hall above. He glanced up, and for one instant he had a glimpse of the face of Charlie peering down at him.
"What are you looking at?" asked the child.
"I thought--that is--there's some one with me," stammered Samuel, forgetting his solemn vow.
"Oh! two burglars!" cried the child in delight. "And may I reform him, too?"
"I think you'd better begin with me," said Samuel.
"Will he go away, do you think?"
"Yes--I think he's gone now."
"But you--you won't go yet, will you?" asked the child anxiously. "You'll stay and talk to me?"
"If you wish"--gasped the boy.
"You aren't afraid of me?" she asked.
"Not of you," said he. "But if some one else should waken."
"No, you needn't think of that. Mamma and grandma both lock their doors at night. And papa's away."
"Who sleeps there?" asked Samuel, pointing to the door he had been watching.
"That's papa's room," said the child; and the other gave a great gasp of relief.
"Come," said the little girl; and she seated herself in one of the big leather armchairs. "Now," she continued, "tell me how you came to be a burglar."
"I had no money," said Samuel, "and no work."
"Oh!" exclaimed the child; and then, "What is your work?"
"I lived on a farm all my life," said he. "My father died and then I wanted to go to the city. I was robbed of all my money, and I was here without any friends and I couldn't find anything to do at all. I was nearly starving."
"Why, how dreadful!" cried the other. "Why didn't you come to see papa?"
Your father?" said he. "I didn't want to beg--"
"It wouldn't have been begging. He'd have been glad to help you."
"I--I didn't know about him," said Samuel. "Why should he---"
"He helps everyone," said the child. "That's his business."
"How do you mean?"
"Don't you know who my father is?" she asked in surprise.
"No," said he, "I don't."
"My father is Dr. Vince," she said; and then she gazed at him with wide-open eyes. "You've never heard of him!"
"Never," said Samuel.
"He's a clergyman," said the little girl.
"A clergyman!" echoed Samuel aghast. Somehow it seemed far worse to have been robbing a clergyman.
"And he's so good and kind!" went on the other. "He loves everyone, and tries to help them. And if you had come to him and told him, he'd have found some work for you."
"There are a great many people in Lockmanville out of work," said Samuel gravely.
"Oh! but they don't come to my papa!" said the child. "You must come and let him help you. You must promise me that you will."
"But how can I? I've tried to rob him!"
"But that won't make any difference! You don't know my papa. If you should tell him that you had done wrong and that you were sorry--you are sorry, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'm very sorry."
"Well, then, if you told him that, he'd forgive you--he'd do anything for you, I know. If he knew that I'd helped to reform you, he'd be so glad!--I did help a little, didn't I?"
"Yes," said Samuel. "You helped."
"You--you weren't very hard to reform, somehow," said the child hesitatingly. "The little girl in the story had to talk a good deal more. Are you sure that you are going to be good now?"
Samuel could not keep back a smile. "Truly I will," he said.
"I guess you were brought up to be good," reflected the other. "I don't think you were very bad, anyway. It must be very hard to be starving."
"It is indeed," said the boy with conviction.
"I never heard of anyone starving before," went on the other. "If that happened to people often, there'd be more burglars, I guess."
There was a pause. "What is your name?" asked the little girl. "Mine is Ethel. And now I'll tell you what we'll do. My papa's on his way home--his train gets here early in the morning. And you come up after breakfast--I'll make him wait for you. And then you can tell it all to him, and then you won't have any more troubles. Will you do that?"
"You think he won't be angry with me?" asked Samuel.
"No, I'm sure of it."
"And he won't want to have me arrested?"
"Oh, dear me!" exclaimed Ethel with an injured look. "Why, my papa goes to see people in prison, and tries to help them get out! I'll promise you, truly."
"Very well," said Samuel, "I'll come."
And so they parted. And Samuel found himself out upon the street again, with the open sky above him, and a great hymn of relief and joy in his soul. He was no longer a burglar!
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