XX. The Secret
 

Mrs. Chatterton, standing by her toilet table, carefully examining her wealth of gray hair to note the changes in its tint, was suddenly surprised in the very act of picking out an obnoxious white hair, by a slight noise in the further corner of the apartment. And dropping her fingers quickly and turning away from the glass, she exclaimed, "How dare you, Hortense, come in without knocking?"

"If you make a noise I'll kill you," declared a man, standing in the shadow of a portiere and watching her underneath a slouched black hat. There was a slight click that caused the listener's nerves to thrill. But her varied life had brought her nothing if not self-control, and she coolly answered, "If you want my money, say so."

"Not exactly money, ma'am," said the man, "for I don't suppose you have much here. But I'll thank you to hand over that there box of diamonds." He extended the other hand with its dingy fingers toward a large ebony jewel-case elaborate with its brass hinges, and suggestive of double locks, on a corner of the table.

"If you are determined to take it, I suppose I must give it to you," said Mrs. Chatterton, with evident reluctance handing the box designated, very glad to think she had but a few days before changed the jewels to another repository to escape Hortense's prying eyes. In making the movement she gave a sweeping glance out the window. Should she dare to scream? Michael was busy on the lawn, she knew; she could hear his voice talking to one of the under gardeners.

"See here, old lady," warned the man, "you keep your eyes in the room. Now then," his greedy glance fastened on the glittering gems on her fingers, "I'll thank you to rip them things off." Dick, racing along the further end of the hall after his bird with a "Whoop, la--I've almost caught you," startling him, he proceeded to perform the service for himself.

"There he goes!" cried Dick, "in her room. Bother! Well, I must catch him." So without the preamble of knocking, the boy dashed into the dressing-room. The bird whizzing ahead of him, flashed between the drawn folds of the portiere.

"Excuse me," cried Dick, rushing in, "but my swallow--oh!"

"Go back!" cried Mrs. Chatterton hoarsely, "you'll be killed."

The bird flying over his head, and the appearance of the boy, disconcerted the robber for one instant. He held the long white hand in his, tearing off the rings. There was no chance for her to escape, she knew, but she could save Dick.

"Go back!" she screamed again. There was only a moment to think, but Dick dashed in, and with a mighty spirit, but small fists, he flung himself against the stalwart arms and shoulders.

"O heavens!" screamed Mrs. Chatterton. "He's but a boy, let him go. You shall have the rings. Help--help!"

Dick, clutching and tearing blindly at whatever in the line of hair or ragged garment he could lay hold of, was waging an unequal warfare. But what he did was accomplished finely. And the bird, rushing blindly into the midst of the contention, with whirrings and flappings indescribable, helped more than an army of servants, to confuse the man. Notwithstanding, it was soon over, but not before Mrs. Chatterton had wrenched her fingers free, and grasped the pistol from its loose hold in his other hand. The box under his arm fell to the floor, and Dick was just being tossed to the other side of the room; she could hear him strike the cheval-glass with a dull thud.

"I can shoot as well as you," said Mrs. Chatterton, handling the pistol deftly. "Make a noise, and I will."

He knew it, by her eyes, and that she had taken good aim.

"Where are you, Dick?" cried Polly's voice outside, and rapping at the door. "Mrs. Chatterton, have you seen him?"

"Come in," called Mrs. Chatterton, with firmest of fingers on the trigger and her flashing eyes fastened upon the seamed, dirty face before her.

Polly threw wide the door.

"We have a man here that we don't want," said Mrs. Chatterton. "I'll take care of him till you get help. Hurry!"

"Oh, Dick!" cried Polly in a breath, with a fearful glance at the boy lying there.

"I think he's all right, Polly." She dared say no more, for Dick had not stirred.

Polly clasped her hands, and rushed out almost into Jasper's face. "A burglar--a burglar!" and he dashed into Mrs. Chatterton's room.

"Don't interfere," said Mrs. Chatterton. "I'm a splendid markswoman."

"You needn't shoot," said the man sullenly. "I won't stir."

"No, I don't think you will," said the gray-haired woman, her eyes alight, and hand firm as a rock. "Well, here are the men."

Jasper had seized a table-spread, and as Michael and the undergardeners advanced, he went back of the robber, and cleverly threw it over his head. It was easy to secure and bind him then. Polly rushed over to Dick.

"Turn the creature over and let us see how he looks," said Mr. King, hurrying in as the last knot of the rope was made fast. The old slouched hat had fallen off in the struggle, and the man's features came plainly to view. "He's no beauty, and that's a fact."

"I've seen that fellow round here for many a day," said Michael, giving the recumbent legs a small kick. "Oncet he axed me ef we wanted ony wourk done. I mind yees, yer see," with another attention from his gardening boot.

"I want to tie one rope," cried a voice. Dick opened his eyes, rubbed them, and felt of his head. "I'm all right, Polly. I saw stars, but I've got over it, I guess. Let me give him the last knot." He staggered blindly to his feet.

"I'll tie for you," said Jasper, "trust me, Dick's all right, only stunned," he telegraphed to the rapidly increasing group.

"Tell his mother so, do, somebody," said old Mr. King.

"Well, Cousin Eunice, you've covered yourself with glory," he turned on her warmly. She had thrown aside the pistol, and now sank into a chair.

"Never mind," she waved it off carelessly, "I'll imagine the compliments. Just now I want a glass of wine. Call Hortense, will you?"

The man on the floor tried to raise his head. But he couldn't, so was obliged to content himself with an ugly grin.

"That bird has flown," he said. "I'll peep. She put me up to it; we was goin' shares on the old lady's stuff."

With that Mrs. Chatterton's spirit returned. She sprang from her chair, and rushed around from bureau to closet to see the extent of her maid's dishonesty. But beyond a few minor deficiencies of her wardrobe, there was no robbery to speak of. Evidently Hortense had considered it unwise to be burdened with much impedimenta. So the robber was hauled off to justice, and Phronsie, coming wonderingly up the stairs, came softly in upon them, in time to see Dick rush up to Mrs. Chatterton with a "You're a brick!" before them all.

After that, there was no more hope of keeping things quiet in the house for Phronsie's sake. Meanwhile the bird, who had played no mean part in the engagement, now asserted himself, and blindly rushed into capture.

"Isn't he lovely!" cried Phronsie, tearing her gaze off from the wonderful wings, as the swallow fluttered under the mosquito netting speedily brought in.

"Yes, his wings are," said Polly. "Oh, Dick! do tell over again how it all happened."

So Dick rehearsed once more as far as he knew the story, tossing off lightly his part of it.

"Your poor head, does it ache?" cried Polly, feeling of the big bump on the crown.

"No, not a bit," declared Dick, shaking his brown poll. "I'm glad I didn't crack the glass."

"That heavy plate?" cried Polly, looking over at the cheval-glass with a shiver.

Phronsie deserted the fascinating bird, and began to smooth Dick's head with both hands.

"Do let me bathe it," she begged. "I'll get the Pond's Extract."

"No, I won't," said Dick. "It smells awfully, and I've had so much of it for my leg. I'm all right, Phronsie. See his wings now--he's stretching."

But Phronsie was not to be diverted from her purpose.

"I'll get bay rum," she said. "May I?"

Dick made a wry face. "Worse and worse."

"Cologne, then."

"No, I hate it."

"He doesn't want it bathed, Phronsie dear," said Polly. "Boys like to get hurt, you know. 'Tisn't manly to be fixed up."

Phronsie gave a sigh, which so went to Dick's heart, that he said, "All right, bring on some water if you want to. But don't get any brown paper; I had enough of that when I was a boy."

And at the end of that exciting day, the secret came out, after all, in rather a tame fashion. Dr. Fisher and Jasper met Polly in an angle of the hall, as she was running upstairs after dinner for her schoolbooks.

"Polly," asked the little doctor, putting both hands on her shoulders, and looking into the brown eyes, "should you be willing to go abroad with your mother and Phronsie, Mr. King and Jasper?"

"Oh!" Polly gasped. "But you?" came in a later breath, "we couldn't leave you," she cried loyally.

"Well, I suppose I should go along too," said the little doctor, enjoying her face.

"Why, Jasper Elyot King!" cried Polly, slipping out from under the doctor's palms, and seizing the two hands extended, she began to spin around as in the olden days, "did you ever, ever hear of anything so perfectly magnificent! But Ben and Joel and Davie!" and she paused on the edge of another pirouette.

Dr. Fisher made haste to answer, "Polly, Mrs. Whitney will take care of them." And Jasper led her off into the dance again.

"How can we ever leave the boys! Oh! I don't see," cried Polly, a bit reproachfully, her hair blown over her rosy cheeks. As they danced lightly down the long hall, Dr. Fisher leaned against a pillar, and watched them.

"Have to," said Jasper, guiding his partner deftly in the intricacies of the chairs and statuary. "That's a good spin, Polly," he said, as they brought up by the little doctor's side.

"Lovely!" said Polly, pushing back her locks from the sparkling eyes.

"I'm almost tempted to dance myself," said Dr. Fisher. "If I wasn't such an old fellow, I'd try; that is, if anybody asked me."

"I will," said Polly, laughing. "Come, Papa Fisher," holding out her hand, "do give me the honor."

"All right," said Dr. Fisher bravely. So Jasper took the deserted post by the pillar, and whistled a Strauss waltz. Thereupon a most extraordinary hopping up and down the hall was commenced, the two figures bobbing like a pair of corks on a quivering water-surface.

The doors opened, and several faces appeared, amongst the number Mrs. Fisher's.

"I couldn't help it," said the little doctor, coming up red and animated, and wiping his forehead. His spectacles had fallen off long since, and he had let them go. "It looked so nice to see Jasper and Polly, I thought I'd try it. I didn't suppose I'd get on so well; I really believe I can dance."

"Humph!" laughed Mr. King, "it looks like it. Just see Polly."

"Oh, Papa Fisher!" cried Polly with a merry peal in which Jasper, unpuckering his lips from the Strauss effort, had joined, "we must have looked"--Here she went off again.

"Yes," said Jasper, "you did. That's just it, Polly, you did. Lucky you two caperers didn't break anything."

"Well, if you've got through laughing," observed Dr. Fisher, "I'll remark that the secret is out."

"Do you like it, Polly?" asked Mr. King, holding out his hand. "Say, my girl?" And then before she could answer, he went on, "You see, we can't do anything without a doctor on our travels. Now Providence has given us one, though rather an obstinate specimen," he pointed to Father Fisher. "And he wants to see the hospitals, and you want to study a bit of music, and your mother wants rest, and Jasper and Phronsie and I want fun, so we're going, that's all."

"When?" demanded Polly breathlessly.

"In a month."