Chapter XX. Josiah Crabtree's Game.
 

For the moment the boys were practically dumfounded. Josiah Crabtree and Mrs. Stanhope in this out-of-the-way place? What could it mean?

"They are arguing about something," said Tom, after a long pause. "Hear how earnestly old Crabtree is talking to her?"

"I wonder if Dora is with them."

"I don't see anything of her."

"What shall we do?"

"I don't know--excepting to remain hidden until we learn how the land lays."

The boys considered the situation for a while, and then, by turning back into the woods, managed to come up at a point still closer to the ship, which rested at anchor close to the trunk of a fallen tree.

Here they could hear the most of what was being said, and could also obtain a fair look at the side of Mrs. Stanhope's face. Josiah Crabtree's back was turned to them. They noticed that Mrs. Stanhope's face wore a peculiar, drawn expression, like that of one who is walking in his sleep.

"I'll wager he's been hypnotizing her again," whispered Tom. "Oh, what a rascal he is! Just as bad as the Baxters, every bit!"

"I do not, cannot, understand it all," the lady was saying. "I thought Dora and I were to take this trip alone."

"It will all be clear to you in a few days, Pet," returned the ex-school-teacher soothingly. He had lately gotten to calling the lady "Pet," although that was not her real name.

"Where is my child now? I do not wish to remain on board without her."

"She will be back soon; do not worry."

"I thought the trip would do me much good," continued the lady, with a deep sigh. "But I am more feeble than ever, and I cannot think as clearly as I would wish."

"It may be that this lake air is too strong for you, Pet. To-morrow we will take a run ashore. The village of Nestwood is close at hand, and I dare say I can find very good accommodations for you there."

"Will Dora be with me?"

"Perhaps."

"I do not wish to go ashore without her. She always said we would be safe on the boat."

"And you are safe."

"But she didn't want me to--that is, she didn't expect you to be along."

"She has changed her mind about that, Pet. I had a long talk with her and proved to her that she had been mistaken in me, and that I was not as black as painted."

"But they put you in jail."

"All a mistake, as I told you before. It was the work of those rascally Rover boys."

"I like that," muttered Tom. "Isn't he a peach, though, for smoothing matters over?"

"He has hypnotized her, beyond a doubt," returned Sam. "She would never believe him otherwise."

"And what did Dora say?" went on Mrs. Stanhope, after a pause, during which Josiah Crabtree took a turn up and down the deck.

"She is perfectly willing that we should marry, but under one condition."

"And what is that?"

"I hardly dare to tell you--it is so peculiar. She doesn't wish to be present at the ceremony."

"Not present?"

"No. She says it would not be right. That she very foolishly made a vow never to be present should you marry again, and that she must keep that vow. She feels her position keenly, but she won't break her vow."

Such a statement would have aroused any ordinary woman, but Mrs. Stanhope appeared to be completely in Josiah Crabtree's power, and all she did now was to draw a long sigh and then wipe away a tear which stole down her pallid face.

"I do not think it right that I should marry without Dora being present."

"Pooh! If the girl wishes to remain away, let her do so. She will soon come to her senses and be glad of the way matters have turned."

"You do not know Dora. She is very--very headstrong at times."

"Yes, I do know her, Pet. She is headstrong, and greatly influenced by those Rover boys--especially by Dick Rover, who seems to be--ahem-- somewhat smitten with her."

"Dick always impressed me as being a good youth."

"Good? He is anything but that. Why, if it wasn't for the Rovers, I would now have the finest boarding school for boys on Cayuga Lake. They spoiled all the plans I ever made. But they shall do so no longer. They cross my path again at their peril!"

"The tragic old fraud!" whispered Tom. "I've a good mind to face him just where he stands."

"Go slow! We dun't know who is on board of that ship."

"Evidently friends to Crabtree, or they wouldn't let him hypnotize Dora's mother."

"Where can Dora be?"

"That remains to be found out."

"I wonder where that ship hails from?"

"One of the lake towns. She is an old vessel. There is the name-- Wellington. That sounds as if she might be a Canadian."

"Perhaps Crabtree got both of them into Canada and then cast Dora adrift."

There was now a stir on the ship, and a fat old sailor came on deck.

"How long you say we stay in dees island, hey?" he asked, in a strong French-Canadian accent.

"We will sail as soon as the sun goes down," answered Josiah Crabtree.

"I no lak to stay here," went on the sailor, "You no pay for to stay here."

"I will pay you for your full time," answered the ex-school-teacher smoothly. "Do not worry on that account."

"You go on de land, hey?"

"I think not. We shall set sail for Nestwood, as I told you before."

"Is Dora at Nestwood?" questioned Mrs. Stanhope.

"I expect to meet her there. But she may not show up until after the wedding, my dear."

"It is very, very strange," and Mrs. Stanhope sighed again.

The fat old sailor now went below again, and after a few words more with Mrs. Stanhope Josiah Crabtree followed.

"Now is our chance!" whispered Tom. "You stay here and I'll try to have a talk with Mrs. Stanhope in secret."

So speaking, Tom crawled out upon the fallen tree trunk until he could reach a rope hanging over the Wellington's side. Then he drew himself up silently.

"Oh!" cried Mrs. Stanhope, on catching sight of him. "Is it really you, Tom Rover?"

"Hush, Mrs. Stanhope! not so loud," he replied hastily. "I don't want to let Josiah Crabtree know I am here."

"But where did you come from?"

"From the island. It's a long story. I am here with Sam."

"It is very strange. But many things of late have been strange."

"May I ask how you happen to be here?"

"That, too, is a long story. I was to take a trip with Dora, for the benefit of my health. But, on the way to the lakes Dora disappeared and Mr. Crabtree turned up in her place--and he has been with me ever since."

"He wants to marry you, doesn't he?"

"Yes, he has always wished that, as you know."

"I wouldn't do it. He is after your money, and that is all. He is a fraud, and everybody knows it."

Mrs. Stanhope passed her hand over her brow. Tom's blunt words did much to counteract Josiah Crabtree's strange influence over her.

"Your words impress me deeply," she faltered. "Dora talks that way, too. But--but--Mr. Crabtree, when he is with me, makes me think so differently." She tried to get up, then sank back in her seat. "And I am so weak physically!"

"Don't alarm yourself, Mrs. Stanhope. If you need a friend, I'll stand by you--and so will Sam."

"Where is Dick? You boys are always together."

"I don't know where he is at present. We were carried off by the Baxters, who are not far off."

"The Baxters! Oh, I am afraid of those people--more afraid than I ever was of Mr. Crabtree."

"They are certainly more daring, but no worse morally than Crabtree." Tom ran his hand through his curly hair in perplexity. "Who is aboard of this boat?"

"Mr. Crabtree and myself, two sailors, and one of the sailors' wives, who has been waiting on me."

"Not a very large crowd."

"Mr. Crabtree said he did not wish too many along."

"How long have you been here on the lake?"

"Several days. I did not wish to go, but, but----"

"He has an influence over you?"

"Yes, a strange influence I cannot understand. Oh, I am so wretched!" And the lady suddenly burst into tears.

"Don't, please don't!" said Tom, all sympathy at once. "It's Crabtree's work, and he shan't harm you. I'll see you safe back to Dora and home."

"Will you?" she demanded eagerly. "I do not wish to marry unless Dora is pleased. She said----"

Mrs. Stanhope got no further, for at that instant Josiah Crabtree reappeared on deck. His astonishment at seeing Tom can better be imagined than described.