"When did Mr. Potter run away?" asked a voice from the group of press representatives, and Larry saw it was his old enemy, Peter Manton, of the Scorcher—a sensational sheet—who had made the inquiry.
"My father didn't run away!" exclaimed Grace indignantly. "If you are going on that assumption I shall give you no information at all."
"That was a mistake," interposed an elderly reporter. "We are only anxious to know when you last saw him," and someone whispered a well-deserved rebuke to Peter.
"To begin at the beginning," Grace resumed, "father went abroad with mother and me several months ago. He was not in good health and his physician recommended a change of air. We traveled in England and on the continent, and then went to Italy. My father preceded us there, as he had some business affairs to look after in Rome.
"When we got to that city we found he had left there, as his business called him away. He left word that he might have to sail for this country ahead of us, but would try to meet us in Naples. We proceeded there, only to find that he had sailed, and he told us to come over on the next steamer. He promised to meet us in New York.
"We sailed on the Messina, expecting my father would meet us at the pier."
"Did he meet you?" asked Larry, for he recalled that day when he had secured the memorable interview with Sullivan, in which Mr. Potter's name played an important part.
"He did not," and there was a catch in the girl's voice. "One of his clerks did, and said he had received a letter from my father, stating that he was unavoidably detained, but that he would be with us soon."
She paused, and pressed her handkerchief to her eyes.
"Well?" asked one of the reporters softly.
"That is all," said Grace. "I have not seen my father since parting with him at Munich, whence he proceeded to Rome. He has never communicated directly with us, and we don't know what to think. It is dreadful!" and she wept softly.
There was a pause of a few seconds, while the girl recovered her composure. Then the reporters began to ask questions, sparing Grace as much as possible.
In this way they learned that Mr. Potter's family could give no description as to was dressed when he disappeared, for quite an interval had elapsed between the time Grace and her mother had last seen him, and when they learned that he was gone.
Nor had Mr. Potter communicated with his office or his business associates, except so far as to send a clerk to meet the steamer. Before going to Europe he had arranged matters so his affairs could be conducted in his absence, and his continued failure to come back worked no harm in that respect. Confidential clerks attended to everything, and the millionaire's large interests were well looked after.
So there was really not much that Grace could tell. She said she and her mother had waited some time, after getting home, hoping Mr. Potter would come back or communicate with them, but when he had not done so they became alarmed. They feared he had met with some mishap, and, after talking the matter over with his lawyers, they had decided it would be best to report the matter to the police.
"We are much obliged to you," said Larry, when it seemed that no more questions were necessary.
"We'll do our best, through the papers, to help find your father," added a gray-haired reporter.
"Now give us his picture," put in Peter Manton, in a commanding tone.
"We have none to give out at present," said Grace coldly. "We are having a number made, showing him as he looked when he went away, and they will be ready in a few days. The lawyers will attend to that, if my father is not found in the meanwhile."
"We've got to have a picture now!" exclaimed Peter.
"You shut up!"—thus in a whisper, from another reporter who stood near the representative of the Scorcher. "You don't know when you've been treated decent. Half the millionaire families in New York wouldn't even let us inside the door, let alone telling us all we wanted to know. Dry up!" And Peter desisted after that rebuke.
Larry managed to be the last one of the reporters to leave the house. He lingered in the hall, and when he and Grace were there alone he said:
"One thing I forgot to ask. When you got back to the house was there any evidence that your father had been here ahead of you? Was the house shut up while you were in Europe?"
"I'm glad you spoke of that," the girl replied. "I had forgotten about it. Yes, the house was closed all the while we were away, and opened the day mother and I got back. But, now that you speak of it, I recollect something that seemed strange at the time. We were a little worried when father did not meet us at the pier, and I had an idea that he might have spent some nights in the house, pending our arrival, though he had said in his letters that if he came over ahead of us he was going to stop at a hotel. I went to his room——"
She broke into tears again, and Larry waited, looking out of the big front doors, for he was embarrassed.
"When I looked over his room," continued Grace, going on bravely, "I saw something was missing, that I knew was on his dresser when we left for Europe."
"What was it?" asked Larry.
"It was a little picture of mother and myself. My father was very fond of it. He must have come to the house and taken it—one of his last acts before he disappeared. It made me feel very sad when I thought of it afterward."
"Perhaps he took the picture to Europe with him, and you did not know it," suggested Larry, who was beginning to develop the instincts of a detective, as all reporters do, more or less.
"No," said Grace positively. "I remember, I was the last one in father's room before we sailed for Europe. The carriage was waiting to take us to the pier, and father went out just ahead of me. He spoke of the picture then, saying he would leave it to keep guard over his room until he came back," and once more Grace could not keep back her tears.
"Could the picture have been stolen?" asked Larry.
"The house was in perfect order when we came in," said the girl. "Nothing else was missing. It seems as if father took that picture to—to remind him of us—and—and that we would never see him again."
"Oh, yes, you will!" exclaimed Larry heartily. "You will find him all right. Perhaps he has some business matters to attend to out West, and hasn't time to come home."
"He could have written."
"Maybe he is some place where the mails are infrequent."
Thus Larry tried to comfort Grace, but it was hard work, for the disappearance of Hamden Potter certainly was strange and difficult to explain.
"I will let you know if we hear any news," said Larry as he prepared to go.
"Will you? That will be very kind of you. I thank you very much for your help. I would never have known what to do if it had not been for your suggestions. Come any time you have any news for us—and I hope you will come soon—and often," Grace added with a blush.
Larry's heart beat a little faster than usual, for it was not every day he received such an invitation to a millionaire's house, nor from such a pretty girl as Grace.
"Afraid I'll not have much chance, though," he thought to himself as he went down the steps. "I'll probably be taken off this case after to-day, and some other reporter will get it. If I had a little more experience they might let me work on it. Never mind, I'll get there some day," and with this Larry comforted himself.
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