Chapter XXIV. "The Flower-Girl."
 

"By gracious, if that isn't Ida!" exclaimed Jack, in profound surprise.

He had been sauntering along Chestnut Street, listlessly, troubled by the thought that though he had given Mrs. Hardwick into custody, he was apparently no nearer the discovery of his foster-sister than before. What steps should he take to find her? He could not decide. In his perplexity he came suddenly upon the print of the "Flower-Girl."

"Yes," said he, "that is Ida, plain enough. Perhaps they will know in the store where she is to be found."

He at once entered the store.

"Can you tell me anything about the girl that picture was taken for?" he asked, abruptly of the nearest clerk.

The clerk smiled.

"It is a fancy picture," he said. "I think it would take you a long time to find the original."

"It has taken a long time," said Jack. "But you are mistaken. It is the picture of my sister."

"Of your sister!" repeated the clerk, with surprise, half incredulous.

There was some reason for his incredulity. Jack was a stout, good-looking boy, with a pleasant face; but Ida's beauty was of a delicate, refined type, which argued gentle birth,--her skin of a brilliant whiteness, dashed by a tinge of rose,--exhibiting a physical perfection, which it requires several generations of refined habits and exemptions from the coarser burdens of life to produce. The perfection of human development is not wholly a matter of chance, but is dependent, in no small degree, upon outward conditions. We frequently see families who have sprung from poverty to wealth exhibiting, in the younger branches, marked improvement in this respect.

"Yes;" said Jack, "my sister."

"If it is your sister," said the clerk, "you ought to know where she is."

Jack was about to reply, when the attention of both was called by a surprised exclamation from a lady who had paused beside them. Her eyes, also, were fixed upon "The Flower-Girl."

"Who is this?" she asked, hurriedly. "Is it taken from life?"

"This young man says it is his sister," said the clerk.

"Your sister!" said the lady, her eyes bent, inquiringly, upon Jack. In her tone, too, there was a slight mingling of surprise, and, as it seemed, disappointment.

"Yes, madam," said Jack, respectfully.

"Pardon me," she said, "there is so little family resemblance, I should hardly have supposed it."

"She is not my own sister," said Jack, "but I love her just the same."

"Do you live in (sic) Philadelphia? Could I see her?" asked the lady, eagerly.

"I live in New York, madam," said Jack; "but Ida was stolen from us nearly a fortnight since, and I have come here in pursuit of her. I have not been able to find her yet."

"Did you say her name was Ida?" demanded the lady, in strange agitation.

"Yes, madam."

"My young friend," said the lady, rapidly, "I have been much interested in the story of your sister. I should like to hear more, but not here. Would you have any objection to coming home with me, and telling me the rest? Then we will, together, concert measures for discovering her."

"You are very kind, madam," said Jack, somewhat bashfully; for the lady was elegantly dressed, and it had never been his fortune to converse with many ladies of her rank; "I shall be very much obliged to you for your advice and assistance."

"Then we will drive home at once."

Jack followed her to the street, where he saw an elegant carriage, and a coachman in livery.

With natural gallantry, Jack assisted the lady into the carriage, and, at her bidding, got in himself.

"Home, Thomas!" she directed the driver; "and drive as fast as possible."

"Yes, madam."

"How old was your sister when your parents adopted her?" asked Mrs. Clifton. Jack afterwards ascertained that this was her name.

"About a year old, madam."

"And how long since was it?" asked the lady, bending forward with breathless interest.

"Eight years since. She is now nine."

"It must be," said the lady, in a low voice. "If it is indeed so, how will my life be blessed!"

"Did you speak, madam?"

"Tell me under what circumstances your family adopted Ida."

Jack related, briefly, the circumstances, which are already familiar to the reader.

"And do you recollect the month in which this happened?"

"It was at the close of December, the night before New Years."

"It is--it must be she!" ejaculated the lady, clasping her hands while tears of happy joy welled from her eyes.

"I--I do not understand," said Jack.

"My young friend, our meeting this morning seems providential. I have every reason to believe that this child--your adopted sister--is my daughter, stolen from me by an unknown enemy at the time of which you speak. From that day to this I have never been able to obtain the slightest clew that might lead to her discovery. I have long taught myself to look upon her as dead."

"It was Jack's turn to be surprised. He looked at the lady beside him. She was barely thirty. The beauty of her girlhood had ripened into the maturer beauty of womanhood. There was the same dazzling complexion--the same soft flush upon the cheeks. The eyes, too, were wonderfully like Ida's. Jack looked, and what he saw convinced him.

"You must be right," he said. "Ida is very much like you."

"You think so?" said Mrs. Clifton, eagerly.

"Yes, madam."

"I had a picture--a daguerreotype--taken of Ida just before I lost her. I have treasured it carefully. I must show it to you."

The carriage stopped before a stately mansion in a wide and quiet street. The driver dismounted, and opened the door. Jack assisted Mrs. Clifton to alight.

Bashfully, he followed the lady up the steps, and, at her bidding, seated himself in an elegant apartment, furnished with a splendor which excited his wonder. He had little time to look about him, for Mrs. Clifton, without pausing to take off her street-attire, hastened down stairs with an open daguerreotype in her hand.

"Can you remember Ida when she was brought to your house?" she asked. "Did she look like this?"

"It is her image," said Jack, decidedly. "I should know it anywhere."

"Then there can be no further doubt," said Mrs. Clifton. "It is my child whom you have cared for so long. Oh, why could I not have known it? How many sleepless nights and lonely days would it have spared me! But God be thanked for this late blessing! Pardon me, I have not yet asked your name."

"My name is Crump--Jack Crump."

"Jack?" said the lady, smiling.

"Yes, madam; that is what they call me. It would not seem natural to be called by another."

"Very well," said Mrs. Clifton, with a smile which went to Jack's heart at once, and made him think her, if anything, more beautiful than Ida; "as Ida is your adopted sister, that makes us connected in some way, doesn't it? I won't call you Mr. Crump, for that would seem too formal. I will call you Jack."

To be called Jack by such a beautiful lady, who every day of her life was accustomed to live in a state which he thought could not be exceeded, even by royal state, almost upset our hero. Had Mrs. Clifton been Queen Victoria herself, he could not have felt a profounder respect and veneration for her than he did already.

"Now Jack," said Mrs. Clifton, "we must take measures immediately to discover Ida. I want you to tell me about her disappearance from your house, and what steps you have taken thus far towards finding her out."

Jack began at the beginning, and described the appearance of Mrs. Hardwick; how she had been permitted to carry Ida away under false representations, and the manner in which he had tracked her to Philadelphia. He spoke finally of her arrest, and her obstinate refusal to impart any information as to Ida's whereabouts.

Mrs. Clifton listened attentively and anxiously. There were more difficulties in the way than she had supposed.

"Do you think of any plan, Jack?" she asked, at length.

"Yes, madam," said our hero. "The man who painted the picture of Ida may know where she is to be found."

"You are right," said the lady. "I should have thought of it before. I will order the carriage again instantly, and we will at once go back to the print-store."

An hour later, Henry Bowen was surprised by the visit of an elegant lady to his studio, accompanied by a young man of eighteen.

"I think you are the artist who designed 'The Flower-Girl,'" said Mrs. Clifton.

"I am, madam."

"It was taken from life?"

"You are right."

"I am anxious to find out the little girl whose face you copied. Can you give me any directions that will enable me to find her out?"

"I will accompany you to the place, if you desire it, madam," said the young man. "It is a strange neighborhood to look for so much beauty."

"I shall be deeply indebted to you if you will oblige me so far," said the lady. "My carriage is below, and my coachman will obey your orders."

Once more they were on the move. A few minutes later, and the carriage paused. The driver opened the door. He was evidently quite scandalized at the idea of bringing his lady to such a place.

"This can't be the place, madam," he said.

"Yes," said the artist. "Do not get out, madam. I will go in, and find out all that is needful."

Two minutes later he returned, looking disappointed.

"We are too late," he said. "An hour since a gentleman called, and took away the child."

Mrs. Clifton sank back, in keen disappointment.

"My child, my child!" she murmured. "Shall I ever see thee again?"

Jack, too, felt more disappointed than he was willing to acknowledge. He could not conjecture who this gentleman could be who had carried away Ida. The affair seemed darker and more complicated than ever.