Chapter XXV. Conrad Takes a Bold Step
 

"I hope, Mrs. Hamilton, you don't suspect me of frequenting gambling houses?" said Ben, after his enemy had left the room.

"No," answered Mrs. Hamilton promptly. "I think I know you too well for that."

"I did go on Tuesday evening, I admit," continued Ben. "I saw that Mrs. Hill did not believe it, but it's true. I wish I hadn't lost the letter inviting me there. You might think I had invented the story."

"But I don't, Ben; and, for the best of all reasons, because I found the note on the carpet, and have it in my possession now."

"Have you?" exclaimed Ben gladly.

"Here it is," said the lady, as she produced the note from the desk before her. "It is singular such a note should have been sent you," she added thoughtfully.

"I think so, too. I had no suspicion when I received it, but I think now that it was written to get to into a scrape."

"Then it must have been written by an enemy. Do you know of anyone who would feel like doing you a bad turn?"

"No," answered Ben, shaking his head.

"Do you recognize the handwriting?"

"No; it may have been written by some person I know, but I have no suspicion and no clew as to who it is."

"I think we will let the matter rest for a short time. If we say nothing about it, the guilty person may betray himself."

"You are very kind to keep your confidence in me, Mrs. Hamilton," said Ben gratefully.

"I trust you as much as ever, Ben, but I shall appear not to--for a time."

Ben looked puzzled.

"I won't explain myself," said Mrs. Hamilton, with a smile, "but I intend to treat you coolly for a time, as if you had incurred my displeasure. You need not feel sensitive, however, but may consider that I am acting."

"Then it may be as well for me to act, too," suggested Ben.

"A good suggestion! You will do well to look sober and uneasy."

"I will do my best," answered Ben brightly.

The programme was carried out. To the great delight of Mrs. Hill and Conrad, Mrs. Hamilton scarcely addressed a word to Ben at the supper table. When she did speak, it was with an abruptness and coldness quite unusual for the warm-hearted woman. Ben looked depressed, fixed his eyes on his plate, and took very little part in the conversation. Mrs. Hill and Conrad, on the other hand, seemed in very good spirits. They chatted cheerfully, and addressed an occasional word to Ben. They could afford to be magnanimous, feeling that he had forfeited their rich cousin's favor.

After supper, Conrad went into his mother's room.

"Our plan's working well, mother," he said, rubbing his hands.

"Yes, Conrad, it is. Cousin Hamilton is very angry with the boy. She scarcely spoke a word to him."

"He won't stay long, I'll be bound. Can't you suggest, mother, that he had better be dismissed at once?"

"No, Conrad; we have done all that is needed. We can trust Cousin Hamilton to deal with him. She will probably keep him for a short time, till she can get along without his services."

"It's lucky he lost the letter. Cousin Hamilton will think he never received any."

So the precious pair conferred together. It was clear that Ben had two dangerous and unscrupulous enemies in the house.

It was all very well to anticipate revenge upon Ben, and his summary dismissal, but this did not relieve Conrad from his pecuniary embarrassments. As a general thing, his weekly allowance was spent by the middle of the week. Ben had refused to lend money, and there was no one else he could call upon. Even if our hero was dismissed, there seemed likely to be no improvement in this respect.

At this juncture, Conrad was, unfortunately, subjected to a temptation which proved too strong for him.

Mrs. Hamilton was the possessor of an elegant opera glass, which she had bought some years previous in Paris at a cost of fifty dollars. Generally, when not in use, she kept it locked up in a bureau drawer. It so happened, however, that it had been left out on a return from a matinee, and lay upon her desk, where it attracted the attention of Conrad.

It was an unlucky moment, for he felt very hard up. He wished to go to the theater in the evening with a friend, but had no money.

It flashed upon him that he could raise a considerable sum on the opera glass at Simpson's, a well-known pawnbroker on the Bowery, and he could, without much loss of time, stop there on his way down to business.

Scarcely giving himself time to think, he seized the glass and thrust it into the pocket of his overcoat. Then, putting on his coat, he hurried from the house.

Arrived at the pawnbroker's, he produced the glass, and asked:

"How much will you give me on this?"

The attendant looked at the glass, and then at Conrad.

"This is a very valuable glass," he said. "Is it yours?"

"No," answered Conrad glibly. "It belongs to a lady in reduced circumstances, who needs to raise money. She will be able to redeem it soon."

"Did she send you here?"

"Yes."

"We will loan you twenty dollars on it. Will that be satisfactory?"

"Quite so," answered Conrad, quite elated at the sum, which exceeded his anticipations.

"Shall we make out the ticket to you or the lady?"

"To me. The lady does not like to have her name appear in the matter."

This is so frequently the case that the statement created no surprise.

"What is your name?" inquired the attendant.

"Ben Barclay," answered Conrad readily.

The ticket was made out, the money paid over, and Conrad left the establishment.

"Now I am in funds!" he said to himself, "and there is no danger of detection. If anything is ever found out, it will be Ben who will be in trouble, not I."

It was not long before Mrs. Hamilton discovered her loss. She valued the missing opera glass, for reasons which need not be mentioned, far beyond its intrinsic value, and though she could readily have supplied its place, so far as money was concerned, she would not have been as well pleased with any new glass, though precisely similar, as with the one she had used for years. She remembered that she had not replaced the glass in the drawer, and, therefore, searched for it wherever she thought it likely to have been left. But in vain.

"Ben," she said, "have you seen my glass anywhere about?"

"I think," answered Ben, "that I saw it on your desk."

"It is not there now, but it must be somewhere in the house."

She next asked Mrs. Hill. The housekeeper was entirely ignorant of Conrad's theft, and answered that she had not seen it.

"I ought not to have left it about," said Mrs. Hamilton. "It may have proved too strong a temptation to some one of the servants."

"Or someone else," suggested Mrs. Hill significantly.

"That means Ben," thought Mrs. Hamilton, but she did not say so.

"I would ferret out the matter if I were you," continued Mrs. Hill.

"I intend to," answered Mrs. Hamilton quietly. "I valued the glass far beyond its cost, and I will leave no means untried to recover it."

"You are quite right, too."

When Conrad was told that the opera glass had been lost, he said:

"Probably Ben stole it."

"So I think," assented his mother. "But it will be found out. Cousin Hamilton has put the matter into the hands of a detective."

For the moment, Conrad felt disturbed. But he quickly recovered himself.

"Pshaw! they can't trace it to me," he thought. "They will put it on Ben."