ALTHOUGH in staying at the Rodneys’ one takes one’s life, or at any rate one’s digestion, in one’s hands, a resultant case of chronic dyspepsia would be a light price to pay for the pleasure of their society. Meals in their big, ramshackle wreck of a colonial mansion by the sea, are served when it pleases Providence, or the whim of such unwilling handmaids as have been enticed down to this lonely retreat on the dunes; and any repast is likely to be tinctured with a sub-taste of cobalt, rose-madder, or whatever particular pigment that exasperating young couple, Bob and Hallie Rodney, are especially bedaubed with at the time, in the creation of their exquisite marines.
It must not, therefore, be charged up too heavily against the account of Will Rogers, that, as he strode vigorously along the beach, his appetite sharpened by the keen, salt air, he should reflect a little ruefully on the morning coffee, and the evening roast, of the week which he was to spend with his former college chum. But then, not to mention Bob and Hallie, there was the glorious hope that this time he was really to meet — could she be torn from the custody of two dragon maiden aunts — Hallie’s bosom friend, the sequestered, the gazelle-eyed Kathleen Graham.
“ Hallie,” asked Bob some hours later, after a repast quite in keeping with his wife’s reputation as a provider, “ where are you going to stow Billie to-night? ”
“ Oh, I don’t know; wherever he likes,” replied Mrs. Rodney absently. “ Just listen to that wind! ”
The Rodneys and their guest were gathered by a glorious driftwood blaze in the living-room, listening luxuriously to the howl and beat of the maddened wind and rain. In the flickering glow Hallie’s yellow, tousled head gleamed bright above her open-throated painting blouse, and the somewhat pronounced ruddy bronze on the noses of the two men was pleasantly softened.
“ Well, all I can say is,” continued Bob, with a comfortable yawn and stretch, “ that on a night like this every blessed room upstairs leaks like a sieve. You’ll have to put Billy down on this floor in the garden-room. Where — ” sweeping his hand along the shelf of the high mantelpiece in a fruitless search — “ where in thunder are the candles? ”
Mrs. Rodney, suddenly called down to confront one of those ever-recurring domestic conundrums, w rinkled her forehead.
“ I just remember, Norah told me today we were completely out of candles and kerosene oil, too. That’s why we’ve been sitting so long in the firelight.”
“Oh, was that it? I supposed it was to add to the glamour of the romantic descriptions you have been giving Will of Kathleen. Well, she certainly did a mighty plucky thing last week when she pulled that young rapscallion out of a briny grave.”
“ Oh, what was that ? You never told me about that? What young rapscallion ? ”
“ What, did n’t we tell you about that ? Why, we were out walking one day, and Hal and I saw a subject for a sketch further on, and left Kathleen on the pebbly beach. Suddenly she heard a sort of a gasping, strangled cry, and looking out into the surf, she saw something dark and shiny like a seal’s head bobbing up and down. But seals don’t make that kind of noise; she looked again and then down she tore into the water, with all her clothes on.”
“ No, not all her clothes,” amended Hallie; “ she had taken off her shoes and stockings some time before to paddle in a pool, and when she heard that sound she just slipped off her dress skirt.”
“ For which piece of impropriety the aunts have n’t forgiven her yet,” interposed Rodney.
“ But still,” continued Hallie, “ she must have been frightfully hampered by her petticoats, and that wretched boy — ”
“ That young limb,” interrupted Bob, “ was scared blue, and when she clutched him, he clung to her like a leech, and what do you think that girl — brought up in cotton-batting as she has been — had the sense and nerve to do ? Why, she doubled up her fist and gave him one over the temple and stunned him, and then, somehow or other, she got him to that big black rock out there, that only shows at low tide — the one they call the Nose — and scrambled up in her lace petticoat and bare feet and screamed for help till Cap’n Sands, who was out at his lobster-pots, came sculling along for dear life and picked them off. Now, are you people going to sit here all night ? ”
But the entranced guest sat immovable. “ How did such a cotton-batting girl learn to swim like that ? ” he asked.
“ Swimming school in town,” replied Hallie. “ She’s always been wild about the water, but the aunts would never allow her to bathe in the ocean. Well, she has picked up one admirer: that young reprobate — funny, flinty little chap we always found him — adores the ground she treads on.”
“ Yes,” added Rodney with a yawn, “ nice little girl, Kathleen is. Pity we can’t get her here.”
“ You said,” rejoined Rogers in an aggrieved voice, “ you distinctly said in your last letter that she was going to be here.”
“Yes, I know, but you see, Billy — ”
“ Is there some other man ? ”
“There ought to be if there is n’t; she’s pretty enough.” This from Bob; but Hallie, interrupting, continued with her somewhat unenlightening explanations.
“ I’m doing my best to get her here, but there is — yes, I admit, there is — an obstacle, a — well, I can’t explain; I vowed I would n’t, and neither am I quite prepared to sacrifice — but you see I can’t explain. Just have patience and it will probably come all right in time, and you see — ”
“ Oh yes, he sees,” interposed Bob, “ it’s absolutely lucid as you put it. How a woman does love to play around a secret! But I’m going to bed, and so is Billy, and I’m going to give him a little blaze on the hearth to go to bed by.”
And with a swoop of his long arms into the wood-basket, Bob caught up some sticks and kindling and kicked open the half-shut door leading into the draughty passage. But Hallie, a determined little figure, stood in the way.
“ Bob Rodney, did you propose putting Billy into the garden-room? ”
“ I did.”
“ Now, Bob! ”
“ Why not? ”
“ Why not? Now you know perfectly well.”
“ My dear child, it’s the only dry bed in the house.”
“ I don’t care, he can’t sleep there; why, Bob, I promised, solemnly promised — ”
“ Oh, nonsense! ”
“ But I tell you — Beg pardon a moment, Billy.” And drawing her husband into the passage, dark head and blonde close together, a whispered and heated colloquy ensued.
The few words that reached Rogers’s ears were hardly reassuring.
“ Can’t you cover it up, then ? ” came a muffled suggestion from Bob.
“Ssh! he’ll hear —and if—solemnly promised —not a soul — awful shock— poor girl — ”
“ See here,” broke in Will at this juncture. “ Is that a haunted chamber? Go ahead, I’m game! ”
“ Just a minute, Billy,” came soothingly from Hallie, and then an emphatic, “Keep him here a moment, Bob;” and the trip, trip of her little heels was heard beating a rapid retreat down the long hallway.
Rogers joined his host. “ What’s wrong? Why is Hallie so set on my not sleeping in that room ? ”
“ Oh, just some feminine nonsense. There, she’s calling to us now; come on; ” and following Rodney down the passage, Rogers was ushered into a large and gloomy chamber, across the uncurtained windows of which a jagged flash of lightning tore as they entered. In the roar and crash of thunder that followed, Bob’s avalanche of firewood on the hearth was indistinguishable, and the next flash revealed Hallie in a remote corner of the room, bending over a sort of witch’s caldron of sputtering flame.
“ Don’t light the fire, Bob; I’m starting a bonfire of matches in his basin; it’s quite light enough to brush his teeth by; you know we often do it when there aren’t any candles.” And prodigally casting a whole bunch into the conflagration, she withdrew, and Bob followed.
In the uncertain flicker of the washbasin bonfire, Rogers took a hasty review of the “ haunted chamber.” Two battered chairs, an elaborately carved fourposter, and a kitchen table for his toilet articles, constituted its furniture, and the only attempt to cover the bare floor was concentrated in an arrangement of three small but priceless Persian rugs, which had been stiffly laid in a row between the corner windows.
“ Queer kind of a storm, this; something almost uncanny about it! ” he said to himself, as the rain came beating with equal fury against both sides of the house at once. “ Well, I’ll have to have some air, if it does flood in.” And before climbing into the imposing colonial fourposter, he threw open the two corner windows, and then, in mad flight from the wind which lashed in after him, he flung himself into bed, and drew up the clothes under his chin.
He was awakened, how soon after he could not tell, by a light touch on his forehead.
Springing to a sitting posture his hand involuntarily sought his forehead, where an instant ago he had felt the airy impact, and his bewildered eyes swept the chamber for the mysterious presence whose touch had roused him from slumber. The storm was past, the sky brilliant. In the great bare chamber no sign of life was visible. Stay! What was that white motion on the floor in the square of moonlight ? That snowy whirl of tiny bodies circling round and round in a fairy ring? What could it be ? Rose-petals blown in by the breeze? What! little furry, fourfooted things with tails ? Mice ? White mice ? Surely the ghosts of mice, for when, he asked himself with starting eyes, had he ever before beheld mice filled with such elfin glee, mice that whirled and twirled until the motions of their tiny feet were lost in one vague blur!
In and out they danced, now each by himself, now madly gyrating around one another; and anon pausing a brief moment to lift strangely shaped and preternaturally flexible muzzles upward, as if to snuff the dawn and discover whether cock-crow were near and the time for Black spirits and white, red spirits and gray to vanish into thin air.
How long Rogers, leaning absorbed from his pillow, might have watched these gambols, it is impossible to say; but of a sudden a harsh and discordant cry from without rent the silence of the night, and the ghostly dancers fled palpitating to cover. Jumping to the floor, Rogers ran to the window. Approaching him down the shadow-flecked path came drifting a shimmering something. Was it vapor from the sea? Wraith from its grave? White, white! From the delicate aigrette on the small proud head to the filmy laces of the sweeping train was ever anything so white! But now it dilates, and the trailing vestments, swept as by a wind, rise, fan the perfumed air, and in a quivering halo of tremulous pearl, encircle the whole slender form. And enwrought in the nimbus, themselves all white, appear a host of mystic wheels like the emblematic eyes in a peacock’s tail. A peacock! Ah, the spell was broken, and Rogers knew his shimmering wraith to be that ghostly and mysterious bird, Hallie’s famous white peacock.
Motionless, with extended plumes, the glorious creature dominated the moonlit garden, and for a moment the fancy struck Rogers that it was no living bird, but a marvelous imitation, done in precious ivory by a cunning craftsman of the Celestial Empire. How exquisitely had been finished the elegantly dainty aigrette on the sleek head, how minutely copied — as accurately as dead white may render the gorgeous blazon — the eyes on the encircling tail. But even as he half cheated himself into this belief, the serpentine throat rippled and undulated, and the polished beak opened to emit the same hoarse cry that had startled the furry dancers.
When one has been credulous enough to be befooled, some outlet to one’s feelings is imperative, and it was a relief to Rogers to snatch up the nearest missile from the table and hurl it at the disturber of his peace. That it was perhaps unwise to choose his writing-pad of Russia leather for ammunition did not occur to him till he was safely tucked away in bed again and somewhat calmed down. Still it had accomplished its purpose; the whited sepulchre of a fowl had betaken himself elsewhere; and, untroubled by visions of the Russia-leather pad lying out in rain-soaked grass, Rogers sank into a dreamless sleep. When he awoke it was early morning, and the sky behind the garden shrubbery was of that ethereal and tender luminousness only seen when day is at its freshest. But — oh, marvel of marvels! — it was not only the young day who was looking in at his window! Against the trellis gleamed a face: cheek of rose-petal framed in dusky hair; parted lips and sweeping lashes. The eyes he could not see, for they were bent in brooding intentness on the floor of his room. He held his breath.
Ah, the drooping lids were lifting, beautiful great eyes were meeting his! A look of exquisite, shrinking maiden terror — and the apparition was gone.
Through the open window stole the scent of the roses, the snowy clusters of which he could perceive tossing lightly in the breeze from the deep blue plane of the sea. Across from the orchard came the pipe of an oriole. Still, in spite of all this smiling and debonair aspect of Dame Nature, she had evidently suffered more or less betouslement from the elements. The lawn was bestrewn with leaves and twigs, some of which had even been whipped into the room and mingled in wild confusion with half the contents of the open grip; while the prim row of Persian rugs had been pounced upon by the invading Boreas and whirled into a heap, revealing on the unpainted floor — what, what was that on the floor, between the corner windows ? Footprints ? A track of bewildering little footprints ? Had then some spirit visitant come and gone?
Incredulous, his eyes starting from his head, Rogers raised himself on his elbow, and then with a bound was out of bed.
Yes, real footprints: an exquisite little track, as mysterious and baffling as those delicate tracings of shy, wild creatures one comes across in snow-bound woodland fastnesses. But these had human shape, and were as of a child or woman: feet, slender and high-arched, with trim heel and well separated Grecian toes. What fairy or familiar spirit had, in the small hours of the night, come flitting in and out, leaving the dewy impress of its tread ?
Just outside the low casement at which the footprints started, swayed the white roses, running out on a trellis, and excitedly Rogers peered into their fragrant masses; but no, “ It ” had gone the other way, and he ran to the opposite window. From that a rough stretch of grass and a tumbledown summer-house, half-smothered in grape-vines, met his eye. The summer-house must be searched; and, dashing through bath and dressing, he hurried into the open.
Nothing! Nobody! In fact no sign, either, of Bob or Hallie. In despair he sought the breakfast-room, and there, on a littered table, a cocked-hat note disclosed the unpleasant information that host and hostess had departed at three A. M. to a distant beach to catch the sunrise on the fishing-smacks putting out to sea; in a postscript-afterthought it suggested that, when ready for his toast and coffee, their guest should stand at the bottom of the attic stairs, and halloa loudly for Norah and Lena, who invariably overslept.
Rogers spent his morning in the rather unprofitable alternation of smokes on the front stoop, and visits to his chamber to persuade himself that the footprints were not figments of his imagination, but were really as trim and dainty as they seemed to his mental vision when he sat and conjured them up. Why, however, did they not fade out ? Reluctantly he was forced to renounce the poetic theory that the feet that had made them had lightly brushed the dews of morning from the greensward.
Whether it was the oppressive stillness of the house, or the uncompromising solemnity of the deep-voiced clock in the passage, little by little the solitary guest began to tell himself that, after all, strange riddles did present themselves in this prosaic world, — unsolvable mysteries before which even modern science stands baffled and dumb. The evident perturbation, the preceding night, of so easygoing a nature as Hallie’s; Rodney’s whispered injunction to hide away something obnoxious from sight; the halfsmothered reference to that “ poor girl,” — might it not, nay, did it not, all point to some dark secret connected with this weather-beaten old house; some tragic manifestation which his light-hearted friends would instinctively wish to cover up, metaphorically speaking or otherwise ? How many palaces had their records of past crimes ingrained in deepdyed stains that “ would not out.” And these bare boards, gray, nay in spots fairly worm-eaten with age, — what records might they not retain! Lovely girls had undoubtedly grown to maidenhood in this once stately mansion by the sea; might not one of them have been foully done to death, and as she fled from her assailant, left, to cry aloud down the ages, this imprint of her innocent feet ?
With a start Rogers came to himself. What tricks had not a cup of execrable coffee, an empty house, and the monotone of the waves been playing with his fancy!
It was not until nearly noon that he pulled himself out of his nether world. Going to the front door for a whiff of the salt air, he became aware that a black speck in motion was breaking the solitude of the dunes. Could it be Bob and Hallie? In a flash the little footprints tripped across his mental vision. Now he should know about them. Bob and Hallie could explain. But could that snaillike vehicle really be propelled by that erratic pair ? On it came over the sandy road, a carryall drawn by an apoplectic, sober-faced gray. Through the gate, and up to the steps it dragged, and Rogers, rising and taking off his hat, was confronted by the somewhat severe gaze of two elderly ladies.
“ Pardon me,” said one of the old ladies with formal precision, “ may I ask if Mrs. Rodney is at home ? ”
Rogers expressed polite regret that she was not.
“ Pardon me, but permit me to trouble you further by inquiring when Mrs. Rodney will be at home.”
“ I really have no idea.”
“ Do I understand you to state that Mrs. Rodney left her residence, and failed to indicate the exact hour of her return ? ”
With a growing sense of guilt upon him, as of one proved an accomplice in some awful breach of decorum, Rogers produced in exculpation the cocked-hat note, but realizing its inadequacy thrust it hastily back into his pocket and only ventured a lame, “ Oh, well, these artists, you know — ”
But here, in an impressive bass voice, the other and statelier of the old ladies interposed: “ Pardon me, Sir, we know nothing about artists and their ways. Drive back, sister.”
“ Is there, perhaps,” suggested Rogers, “ is there, perhaps, some message I could give Mrs. Rodney ? ”
But at this proposition both old ladies drew up in offended propriety.
“ You are very courteous, Sir, but the matter is one ” —
“ Of the most extreme delicacy,” this from the statelier sister, “ and would admit of no discussion.” A pause, and then in an agitated duet, “ of no discussion whatever, with a gentleman.” And bowing with great decorum, the two ladies, with no little flapping of the reins, and after several fruitless adjurations to their steed to bestir himself, drove away. They were — he knew it by intuition — Kathleen’s dragon aunts.
Rogers returned to some reading of proof, and also to the vain search for a scrap of paper which had unaccountably vanished. It was a mere scrap, but on it he had penned the night before the dedication of his volume of essays; that is, the dedication he would like to use if he dared. It was a dedication, though without mentioning her by name, to Kathleen. During the year in which he had been writing the essays, little things that Hallie had told him of the girl had kept running in his head, and involuntarily he had fallen into the habit of asking himself, what would she think of this, how would she like that. And after all, what was the harm in dedicating this virgin effort of his pen to so charming an embodiment of beauty and purity. No one would know, not she herself, to whom he referred. And then, if he and Kathleen ever did meet, and if — and if —
Long after sunset, disheveled, ravenous, gloriously happy and superbly innocent of offense, the solitary guest’s recreant host and hostess straggled in at the front door. But no sooner had Rogers unbosomed himself of the mysterious adventure of the night than they pleaded sleep and hurried off to bed, explaining nothing.
That night Rogers again woke with a start, and the vague consciousness of a presence in the room. It — whatever it was, for the chamber was in utter darkness — must have entered through the low window. A stealthy footstep was faintly to be distinguished above the murmur of the waves on the beach. For an instant he lay tense; then with a bound was out of bed, and stretching groping hands after the intruder. It, with quickened breathing and half-suppressed pants of fear, could be heard retreating before him. Relentless he pursued; he was hard upon it, his fingers swept its garments, almost they closed upon its substance. Now it was gone — but not far; there — there — betrayed by the soft pad of its bare feet — he was on it now — he seized it — held it firm ! An arm, a shoulder, a warm, quivering throat, a cheek, palpitating and soft as a peach.
“Lemme go!” panted the terrified treble of a boy.
Rogers only held the tighter, and gave the figure a vigorous shake.
“ You imp, you! Who are you ? ”
“ Lemme go, I say.”
Securely grasping his captive with one hand, with the other Rogers reached out to the table near which they were struggling, and fumbling for a match, lit the candle.
“ You limb, what have you got in your pockets ? Turn them inside out.”
The boy’s rough, brown little paws went to work on his pockets, and in the medley of string, fish-hooks, marbles, and other odds and ends of boyish treasures, Rogers recognized nothing of his own; but suddenly something bright and hard fell to the floor. The little fellow tried to pounce upon it, but the young man was before him.
“My pencil!” he exclaimed, “my gold pencil! ”
“I never” — blurted out the boy; then, growing crimson, the first sign of grace he had yet shown, relapsed into silence.
Now this gold pencil, of old-fashioned make, was one that had belonged to Rogers’s father; and though the getting it fitted to leads was a difficult matter, he always carried it with him, and loved to use what he so vividly remembered seeing in his father’s hands. The sight of it hardened his heart.
“ What else have you stolen? Strip! ”
Still without a word the boy slipped out of his two slight garments, a shirt and a pair of trousers, and stood, a slim, white little figure, in the flickering candle light. Rogers turned the carefully patched garments inside out, but not even the most minute search revealing any other loot, he tossed them back.
“ See here, my boy,” he said, “ how did you happen to get into a scrape like this ? Is it hard times at home ? ”
For a moment it seemed as if the embryo burglar would be touched by this appeal, but suddenly catching up shirt and trousers he made one bound for the open window, and was out into the night.
“ May I see you and Bob a minute? ” asked Rogers of his hostess, when breakfast was over.
“ Come into the garden,” said Hallie; and making their way there, the three seated themselves on a bench near the sun-dial.
“ More spirits ? ” asked Bob, lighting a cigarette.
“ No,” answered Rogers, and related his midnight adventure. The Rodneys looked grave.
“ Dave, of course,” said Hallie.
“ He was a rather wild little chap,” added Bob, reflectively, “ before Kathleen took him in hand, but since then he has seemed quite a reformed character.”
“ How did she happen to take him in hand? ”
“ Why, he was the youngster she pulled out of the water; and he’d swear black was white if she told him to. I say,” exclaimed Rodney, with a hopeful gleam in his eyes, “ Hallie, don’t you suppose he came to — that perhaps some one sent him to — and that that accounts for — ”
“ I wondered when that woidd dawm upon you,” replied Mrs. Rodney with the serene compassion women so often bestow on the slower intuitions of their spouses.
“When what would dawn upon you ? ” asked Rogers in almost irritable bewilderment.
“ Why that some one has been suborning Dave to paint out Kathleen’s footprints.”
“ Kathleen’s footprints! ” exclaimed the more and more perplexed Rogers.
“ Now, Bob, you’ve gone and done it,” reproved his wife.
“ Oh, nonsense. Whose did you suppose they were, anyway, Billy ? The garden ghost’s ? ”
“ But how did they get there ? ”
“ Oh, quite simply. When Kathleen ran up dripping wet from the beach after pulling Dave out of the water, she climbed into the house through the low window in the garden-room, forgetting that Hallie had just painted the floor, and before she knew it she had made that little track.”
Rogers looked at his friend with eyes of reproachful incredulity. “ Can’t you invent a more plausible yarn than that, Bob ? Painted the floor! Any child could see that floor had n’t had a lick of paint on it for a hundred years! ”
For answer Bob slapped his knee with a delighted chuckle, and Hallie, jumping up, swept a triumphant courtesy.
“ I always insisted it was my chefd’œuvre, that floor,” she exclaimed. Rogers’s face fell.
“ Oh, so you painted in those footprints ? ”
“ Not at all; the footprints are Kathleen’s; I merely induced on a hideous, brand-new floor, just laid, that beguiling appearance of age you so admire. Yes, knot-holes and all — my work,”
“ Nonsense, the boards are fairly worm-eaten.”
“Are they? Run in and look more carefully. Rub your fingers over the boards. No, my friend, that is art, pure art. And then Kathleen unwittingly gave just that touch of human interest to the masterpiece to make it perfect. Of course she wanted them painted out, but we would n’t.”
“ I should say not,” added Bob. “ You see, Will, you are an ignoramus in art, but I can tell you that you don’t see a foot like that — not once in a blue moon.”
“ But Kathleen’s aunts — ” exclaimed Hallie.
“ Yes, the aunts,” broke in Rodney, his eyes dancing at the memory of an exciting encounter; “ when they heard about the footprints they hurried over hotfoot. Would Mrs. Rodney at once remove those witnesses to the fact of their niece’s possessing feet? No, Mrs. Rodney would not. Did Mrs. Rodney care to have their niece visit her again ? She certainly did. Well, Kathleen should never darken our doors again till those footprints were removed.”
“ I might have agreed to it, you know,” interposed Hallie, “ if they had not gone at it as they did, making me out to be such an indecent person. I did compromise, however, by solemnly swearing no men guests should be put into the room. I did put you in, I had to, but I covered the footprints up carefully with that line of rugs only — you — you peeked under to see if the floor was clean.”
“ I did not; it was the wind.”
“ Well, I won’t paint them out, anyway, would you now ? Bob, would you now ? ” reiterated Hallie, turning to her husband.
“ I give it up. Kathleen, or the footprints. It’s every bit as bad as The Lady or the Tiger.”
“ There’s the fog bell,” exclaimed Hallie, “ good-by to our sail on the Curlew.” Then jumping excitedly to her feet, and pointing off over the downs, “ There she comes now.”
“ Who? ”
Yes, toward them over the downs, and as if in answer to the summons of the bell, hurrying, breaking every now and then into little runs, came a young girl, bareheaded, and in white. As she drew near, Rogers could see that her hair was massy and dark, and dark likewise the starry eyes above her peach-bloom cheeks. Then for the first and last time in his life, he went cold and faint. It was the dreamface he had seen at his window in the early dawn.
But now she was close at hand. She had pushed open the rickety gate, all overgrown with wild grape, and run up to Hallie, whom she seized by both hands.
“ He’s entirely innocent,” she panted, “ it was all my fault! Dave kept silent to — to save me.”
“Yes, dear, yes, yes,” replied Hallie, disengaging one hand but keeping a firm hold of the excited girl with the other; “ we’ll talk it all over later. In the mean time, this is Mr. Rogers.”
It struck each member of the trio that it was well that Hallie had a detaining hand on her visitor, for something like an electric shock seemed to go through her; she started, flushed furiously all over her face and throat, and tried to pull away from her friend.
“I — I — am glad to have the pleasure,” stammered Rogers, and Kathleen bent her head slightly in acknowledgment, but retired behind Hallie.
“ Could n’t we go in the house? ” she murmured.
But Hallie threw an arm about the girl, and laughed. “ Come,” she said, “ let’s make an end of this foolish business. You don’t mind, really, do you, dear ? You wanted those footprints out so you could come over and stay, and you bribed Dave to do it. Is that it ? ”
“ Yes,” faltered Kathleen, picking up courage, but still keeping Hallie between herself and the man it was obvious to her delighted friends she was yearning to meet. “ But I did n’t tell him to go at night. Was n’t that like a boy ? He probably sleeps so soundly himself that cannon-balls could n’t wake him, and he thought that Mr. — Mr. — ” here another violent accession of color followed the former wave—“Rogers was like him.”
“ But what I want to know is,” said Bob, “ what he was going to paint with.”
Kathleen edged a little bit round the protecting presence. “ Oh, he had his brush, only when he heard Mr. Rogers he threw it out of the window. He’s not a bad boy, indeed, indeed he is not.” And now Kathleen came out of eclipse, and boldly confronting Rogers, lifted a pair of imploring eyes. “ It’s true that once before he did annoy you, I know — he told me about it — by letting Hallie’s Japanese dancing mice escape into your room. He had been playing with them, and they got loose, and he did n’t find them till the next morning. I hope they did n’t run over your face or anything in the night.”
“ If they did,” replied Rogers, “ they made up for it by dancing for me most charmingly.”
“ Sit down, Kathleen,” said Bob, patting the bench beside him. “ You’ve made it all right and clear, of course, except I’m awfully sorry to bother you, as you’re so fond of the little chap, but there’s one thing I don’t quite understand, — that is, what Dave was doing with Mr. Rogers’s gold pencil. Of course, you don’t know about that; Dave’s confidences did not probably get quite to that point, but he had that gold pencil in his possession.”
If Kathleen had flown signals of flaming distress before, those she now hoisted were of a fairly alarming character. She sank down on the bench beside Bob, but was as quickly on her feet again. It was evident that some desperate resolve was fluttering in her breast beneath its undulating folds of cambric.
“ As Hallie says,” she burst out at last, “ it’s best to make a clean breast of everything. He was n’t stealing that pencil, he was returning it.”
“ Oh, he had stolen it before! ”
“ No, I stole it! ”
‘ Kathleen! ”
“ That is — I found it — one morning — in the garden.”
“ In the garden ? But you have n’t been in the garden since Mr. Rogers was here.”
Kathleen had now turned completely away, and was pulling nervously at the strings of the broad-brimmed hat she was carrying. She was evidently nerving herself for a final effort.
“ Yes, I was once, very early, that time you were off at the wreck. I — I — came over — the aunts never knew — but I came over to see — to look in and see — I supposed the room was empty — to see if — if — the footprints — ”
“ Jove! ” exclaimed Rodney, “ a good thing Rogers did n’t see you: he would have taken you for the garden ghost.”
Rogers looked straight ahead. There was a moment’s pause, and Kathleen took up the thread of her confession.
“ I found — there was — there was — in the grass — a pad with — with some writing on it.”
“ It was a very wrong thing to do — but — but — I don’t know why, I looked at it, and because I did n’t understand it very well I thought I would look at it some more, and then — then, something frightened me, and I ran home, and when I got there I found I still had the pad in my hand, and there was a gold pencil stuck into the little leather ring, and I gave them both to Dave to bring back, and then — ”
“ You must have dropped your pad and pencil yourself in the garden,” said Hallie in a matter-of-fact tone, to turn the attention from Kathleen’s painful if becoming droop of embarrassment.
“ No,” said Rogers, finding tongue at last, “ I fired it out of the window at that blessed white peacock.”