They came down the narrow board walk
together, Percival carefully holding the lady’s
arm to prevent her tripping over the loosened planks,
but neither exchanging a word. The man was smiling,
the fingers of one hand toying with the curl of his
moustache, but Natalie appeared somewhat sobered by
her visit, and West noticed that she had tied a light
veil over her face, which slightly shadowed her features.
It was only as they reached the curb that she spoke,
her voice rather low and listless.
“Would you mind driving the
car back?” she asked Coolidge. “Really
I feel quite unnerved.”
“No wonder,” he returned
sympathetically, “I have never witnessed a sadder
case; the conditions were even worse than I imagined.
I should never have brought you with me, my dear.”
“Oh, I am not sorry I came;
but it has been a lesson to me. I do not think
before I ever realized what such poverty meant.”
The words trembled from her lips,
and were spoken slowly as though chosen with care.
“The sad plight of the children particularly
appealed to me.”
“There are children then?”
West questioned, as Coolidge assisted her into the
car. The latter cast a swift glance of inquiry
into the younger man’s face.
“Children!” he exclaimed,
“Of course; we spoke of them on the way down.”
“I know; that was what made
me wonder when one of the lads playing out here in
the street said there were no kids in the cottage.”
“Oh, I see,” a bit sarcastically.
“So you have been amusing yourself questioning
the neighbours, have you?”
“To a very small extent,”
West confessed, keeping his temper. “One
of the players chased a stray ball under the automobile,
and I asked him a question or two. The cottage
appeared so deserted, and you were absent for such
a length of time, I became somewhat curious.”
“And what did he tell you?”
“Only that the occupants had
moved in within a few days, and that he had seen no
kids about; no one in fact but a middling old woman.”
“Did he mention any names?”
“No; I didn’t ask. It was nothing
“I should say it was not.
So the kid told you there were no children, did he?
Well, you heard what Natalie said just now which
are you going to believe?”
“The lady, of course,”
smilingly. “Surely this is no matter to
“No, Captain West,” she
broke in, leaning forward in the seat, and speaking
again in the peculiar strained voice. “The
boy was merely mistaken. He had not seen the
children because they were kept closely in the house.
They were turned out of their former home, and have
absolutely nothing; no furniture even; only straw
to sleep on. It was most pitiful.”
“Do not think of it any longer,
Natalie,” Coolidge insisted rather gruffly.
“They are all right now. I shall telephone
for a doctor as soon as we get back, and attend to
the rent the first thing tomorrow.”
“I know, Uncle, but I cannot
forget so easily. Do you know anything about
poverty, Captain West?”
“Nothing very direct. Of
course, in a way I have occasionally come in contact
with suffering of that nature. I have been hungry
enough in the army, but usually I have experienced
little need. I regret,” he added apologetically,
“that what I said was taken as criticism.
I had no such meaning.”
turned the car around as he spoke. “Be as
free with that as you please; what I object to is
your intruding at every opportunity. It looks
as though you were trying to find out something is
that your game?”
“Not at all. I naturally
spoke to the kid, and the only topic which occurred
to me at the moment concerned the people you were visiting.
I see no occasion for any misunderstanding.”
“And there is none,” she
asserted cordially, her eyes meeting his own frankly.
“So let’s drop the subject, and enjoy our
ride. I am not going to have the whole day spoiled
because of these people. They are all right now.
What is that big building over there?”
Coolidge emitted some answer, but
devoted his attention to running the car, his jaw
set. It was clear enough that West’s explanation
was not altogether satisfactory, and his dislike for
the younger man had in no way lessened. The young
woman, however, easily regained her vivacity, and
devoted herself to making the ride homeward as pleasant
as possible. West found her unusually entertaining,
with a deep sense of humor he had not before suspected,
and an occasional lapse into slang which rather surprised
him. He had previously entertained the thought
that she was rather conventional and not particularly
easy to approach, but this conception vanished quickly
in a free flow of conversation, to which Coolidge
apparently paid small attention. Indeed, there
were moments when her extreme frankness of speech
rather surprised West, even her voice striking strangely
upon his ears, but the happy laugh, and swift glance
of the eyes reassured him. No doubt she was playing
a part for the benefit of Percival Coolidge in which
he must co-operate. Later all would be explained,
and made clear. This belief encouraged him to
keep up his end of the conversation, ignoring Coolidge
entirely, and devoting his attention exclusively to
The returning ride seemed very brief,
and, almost before West realized it, the car whirled
in through the Coolidge gate, and came to a stop at
the door. Coolidge by this time had recovered
from his spell of ill-nature, or else chose to so
appear, and the party separated pleasantly. Natalie
disappeared somewhere within, while the two men strolled
out to the tennis court where the guests were enjoying
a spirited game. All met again at lunch, and
then separated, some to motor over to the lake, the
others amusing themselves as they saw fit. Both
Coolidge and Natalie vanished, while West, finding
himself alone, chose a book from the library, and,
solaced by a cigar, sought a shady nook on the porch.
The book, however, was but a mark
for his thoughts, which continually revolved about
the strange surroundings in which he found himself.
He was apparently making no progress, was no nearer
a solution of the mystery confronting him. Thus
far, at least, no direct clue had presented itself.
Numerous things had occurred to strengthen suspicion,
and to increase interest in the quest. But beyond
this nothing. He liked the girl and
was completely enlisted in her service. He disliked
Percival, and was convinced the fellow was planning
evil. Several incidents had already strengthened
this belief; yet there was nothing positive upon which
to build; no path of adventure for him to follow.
To speculate was easy enough, but real facts eluded
Yet, in spite of this feeling of failure,
West’s reflections centred more upon the young
woman than upon the particular problem which he had
to solve. The ride back from the city had revealed
a phase of her character he had never observed before she
had shown herself vivacious, light of speech, a bit
slangy and audacious. He was not altogether sure
that this new revealment quite pleased him, and yet
it possessed a certain charm. He had before learned
to think of her as rather quiet and reserved, and
now must change his whole conception. It was difficult
to adjust his mind at once to the different standard.
He found himself wondering why she had afforded him
glimpses of her nature so strangely unlike. What
could have occurred within the cottage to thus make
so suddenly manifest this new side to her character?
The change in her only served to increase the mystery,
and, he confessed, his admiration also. Her very
freedom evidenced to his mind that he was really accepted,
had been taken into a new intimacy; no longer to be
held and treated as an interloper, a stranger employed
for a purpose. She had deliberately cast aside
the conventional, and become natural in his presence free
to speak and act as the spirit moved. This was
a victory, and he chose to interpret it as proof that
she already really liked and trusted him. Actuated
by this feeling, she no longer deemed it necessary
to dissemble in his presence. It was a long step
He had arrived at this very pleasant
conclusion, when Sexton appeared in the door, evidently
looking for some one. The man espied him there
in the shadow of the vines, and came forward.
“Miss Coolidge requests your
presence, sir, for a few moments,” he said gravely.
“Why, certainly; did she say where, Sexton?”
“In the library, sir; she is waiting there now.”
West hesitated an instant. There
was a question he was eager to ask, but immediately
thought better of it. Interviewing servants was
not in his line, and there were other ways of learning
“Very well,” he said quietly.
“I will join her at once. Thank you, Sexton,”
and disappeared into the cool, darkened hall.