Chapter XII.
 

One morning, about two weeks later, Mr. Freeling did not make his appearance at his place of business as usual. At ten o'clock a clerk went to the hotel where he boarded to learn the cause of his absence. He had not been there since the night before. His trunks and clothing were all in their places, and nothing in the room indicated anything more than an ordinary absence.

Twelve o'clock, and still Mr. Freeling had not come to the store. Two or three notes were to be paid that day, and the managing-clerk began to feel uneasy. The bank and check books were in a private drawer in the fireproof of which Mr. Freeling had the key. So there was no means of ascertaining the balances in bank.

At one o'clock it was thought best to break open the private drawer and see how matters stood. Freeling kept three bank-accounts, and it was found that on the day before he had so nearly checked out all the balances that the aggregate on deposit was not over twenty dollars. In looking back over these bank-accounts, it was seen that within a week he had made deposits of over fifty thousand dollars, and that most of the checks drawn against these deposits were in sums of five thousand dollars each.

At three o'clock he was still absent. His notes went to protest, and on the next day his city creditors took possession of his effects. One fact soon became apparent--he had been paying the rogue's game on a pretty liberal scale, having borrowed on his checks, from business friends and brokers, not less than sixty or seventy thousand dollars. It was estimated, on a thorough examination of his business, that he had gone off with at least a hundred thousand dollars. To this amount Mrs. Dinneford had contributed from her private fortune the sum of twenty thousand dollars. Not until she had furnished him with that large amount would he consent to leave the city. He magnified her danger, and so overcame her with terrors that she yielded to his exorbitant demand.

On the day a public newspaper announcement of Freeling's rascality was made, Mrs. Dinneford went to bed sick of a nervous fever, and was for a short period out of her mind.

Neither Mr. Dinneford nor Edith had failed to notice a change in Mrs. Dinneford. She was not able to hide her troubled feelings. Edith was watching her far more closely than she imagined; and now that she was temporarily out of her mind, she did not let a word or look escape her. The first aspect of her temporary aberration was that of fear and deprecation. She was pursued by some one who filled her with terror, and she would lift her hands to keep him off, or hide her head in abject alarm. Then she would beg him to keep away. Once she said,

"It's no use; I can't do anything more. You're a vampire!"

"Who is a vampire?" asked Edith, hoping that her mother would repeat some name.

But the question seemed to put her on her guard. The expression of fear went out of her face, and she looked at her daughter curiously.

Edith did not repeat the question. In a little while the mother's wandering thoughts began to find words again, and she went on talking in broken sentences out of which little could be gleaned. At length she said, turning to Edith and speaking with the directness of one in her right mind,

"I told you her name was Gray, didn't I? Gray, not Bray."

It was only by a quick and strong effort that Edith could steady her voice as she replied:

"Yes; you said it was Gray."

"Gray, not Bray. You thought it was Bray."

"But it's Gray," said Edith, falling in with her mother's humor. Then she added, still trying to keep her voice even,

"She was my nurse when baby was born."

"Yes; she was the nurse, but she didn't--"

Checking herself, Mrs. Dinneford rose on one arm and looked at Edith in a frightened way, then said, hurriedly,

"Oh, it's dead, it's dead! You know that; and the woman's dead, too."

Edith sat motionless and silent as a statue, waiting for what more might come. But her mother shut her lips tightly, and turned her head away.

A long time elapsed before she was able to read in her mother's confused utterances anything to which she could attach a meaning. At last Mrs. Dinneford spoke out again, and with an abruptness that startled her:

"Not another dollar, sir! Remember, you don't hold all the winning cards!"

Edith held her breath, and sat motionless. Her mother muttered and mumbled incoherently for a while, and then said, sharply,

"I said I would ruin him, and I've done it!"

"Ruin who?" asked Edith, in a repressed voice.

This question, instead of eliciting an answer, as Edith had hoped, brought her mother back to semi-consciousness. She rose again in bed, and looked at her daughter in the same frightened way she had done a little while before, then laid herself over on the pillows again. Her lips were tightly shut.

Edith was almost wild with suspense. The clue to that sad and painful mystery which was absorbing her life seemed almost in her grasp. A word from those closely-shut lips, and she would have certainty for uncertainty. But she waited and waited until she grew faint, and still the lips kept silent.

But after a while Mrs. Dinneford grew uneasy, and began talking. She moved her head from side to side, threw her arms about restlessly and appeared greatly disturbed.

"Not dead, Mrs. Bray?" she cried out, at last, in a clear, strong voice.

Edith became fixed as a statue once more.

A few moments, and Mrs. Dinneford added,

"No, no! I won't have her coming after me. More money! You're a vampire!"

Then she muttered, and writhed and distorted her face like one in some desperate struggle. Edith shuddered as she stood over her.

After this wild paroxysm Mrs. Dinneford grew more quiet, and seemed to sleep. Edith remained sitting by the bedside, her thoughts intent on the strange sentences that had fallen from her Mother's lips. What mystery lay behind them? Of what secret were they an obscure revelation? "Not dead!" Who not dead? And again, "It's dead! You know that; and the woman's dead, too." Then it was plain that she had heard aright the name of the person who had called on her mother, and about whom her mother had made a mystery. It was Bray; if not, why the anxiety to make her believe it Gray? And this woman had been her nurse. It was plain, also, that money was being paid for keeping secret. What secret? Then a life had been ruined. "I said I would ruin him, and I've done it!" Who? who could her mother mean but the unhappy man she had once called husband, now a criminal in the eyes of the law, and only saved by insanity from a criminal's cell?

Putting all together, Edith's mind quickly wrought out a theory, and this soon settled into a conviction--a conviction so close to fact that all the chief elements were true.

During her mother's temporary aberration, Edith never left her room except for a few minutes at a time. Not a word or sentence escaped her notice. But she waited and listened in vain for anything more. The talking paroxysm was over. A stupor of mind and body followed. Out of this a slow recovery came, but it did not progress to a full convalescence. Mrs. Dinneford went forth from her sick-chamber weak and nervous, starting at sudden noises, and betraying a perpetual uneasiness and suspense. Edith was continually on the alert, watching every look and word and act with untiring scrutiny. Mrs. Dinneford soon became aware of this. Guilt made her wary, and danger inspired prudence. Edith's whole manner had changed. Why? was her natural query. Had she been wandering in her mind? Had she given any clue to the dark secrets she was hiding? Keen observation became mutual. Mother and daughter watched each other with a suspicion that never slept.

It was over a month from the time Freeling disappeared before Mrs. Dinneford was strong enough to go out, except in her carriage. In every case where she had ridden out, Edith had gone with her.

"If you don't care about riding, it's no matter," the mother would say, when she saw Edith getting ready. "I can go alone. I feel quite well and strong."

But Edith always had some reason for going against which her mother could urge no objections. So she kept her as closely under observation as possible. One day, on returning from a ride, as the carriage passed into the block where they lived, she saw a woman standing on the step in front of their residence. She had pulled the bell, and was waiting for a servant to answer it.

"There is some one at our door," said Edith.

Mrs. Dinneford leaned across her daughter, and then drew back quickly, saying,

"It's Mrs. Barker. Tell Henry to drive past. I don't want to see visitors, and particularly not Mrs. Barker."

She spoke hurriedly, and with ill-concealed agitation. Edith kept her eyes on the woman, and saw her go in, but did not tell the driver to keep on past the house. It was not Mrs. Barker. She knew that very well. In the next moment their carriage drew up at the door.

"Go on, Henry!" cried Mrs. Dinneford, leaning past her daughter, and speaking through the window that was open on that side. "Drive down to Loring's."

"Not till I get out, Henry," said Edith, pushing open the door and stepping to the pavement. Then with a quick movement she shut the door and ran across the pavement, calling back to the driver as she did so,

"Take mother to Loring's."

"Stop, Henry!" cried Mrs. Dinneford, and with an alertness that was surprising sprung from the carriage, and was on the steps of their house before Edith's violent ring had brought a servant to the door. They passed in, Edith holding her place just in advance.

"I will see Mrs. Barker," said Mrs. Dinneford, trying to keep out of her voice the fear and agitation from which she was suffering. "You can go up to your room."

"It isn't Mrs. Barker. You are mistaken." There was as much of betrayal in the voice of Edith as in that of her mother. Each was trying to hide herself from the other, but the veil in both cases was far too thin for deception.

Mother and daughter entered the parlor together. As they did so a woman of small stature, and wearing a rusty black dress, arose from a seat near the window. The moment she saw Edith she drew a heavy dark veil over her face with a quickness of movement that had in it as much of discomfiture as surprise.

Mrs. Dinneford was equal to the occasion. The imminent peril in which she stood calmed the wild tumult within, as the strong wind calms this turbulent ocean, and gave her thoughts clearness and her mind decision. Edith saw before the veil fell a startled face, and recognized the sallow countenance and black, evil eyes, the woman who had once before called to see her mother.

"Didn't I tell you not to come here, Mrs. Gray?" cried out Mrs. Dinneford, with an anger that was more real than feigned, advancing quickly upon the woman as she spoke. "Go!" and she pointed to the door, "and don't you dare to come here again. I told you when you were here last time that I wouldn't be bothered with you any longer. I've done all I ever intend doing. So take yourself away."

And she pointed again to the door. Mrs. Bray--for it was that personage--comprehended the situation fully. She was as good an actor as Mrs. Dinneford, and quite as equal to the occasion. Lifting her hand in a weak, deprecating way, and then shrinking like one borne down by the shock of a great disappointment, she moved back from the excited woman and made her way to the hall, Mrs. Dinneford following and assailing her in passionate language.

Edith was thrown completely off her guard by this unexpected scene. She did not stir from the spot where she stood on entering the parlor until the visitor was at the street door, whither her mother had followed the retreating figure. She did not hear the woman say in the tone of one who spoke more in command than entreaty,

"To-morrow at one o'clock, or take the consequences."

"It will be impossible to-morrow," Mrs. Dinneford whispered back, hurriedly; "I have been very ill, and have only just begun to ride out. It may be a week, but I'll surely come. I'm watched. Go now! go! go!"

And she pushed Mrs. Bray out into the vestibule and shut the door after her. Mrs. Dinneford did not return to the parlor, but went hastily up to her own room, locking herself in.

She did not come out until dinner-time, when she made an effort to seem composed, but Edith saw her hand tremble every time it was lifted. She drank three glasses of wine during the meal. After dinner she went to her own apartment immediately, and did not come down again that day.

On the next morning Mrs. Dinneford tried to appear cheerful and indifferent. But her almost colorless face, pinched about the lips and nostrils, and the troubled expression that would not go out of her eyes, betrayed to Edith the intense anxiety and dread that lay beneath the surface.

Days went by, but Edith had no more signs. Now that her mother was steadily getting back both bodily strength and mental self-poise, the veil behind which she was hiding herself, and which had been broken into rifts here and there during her sickness, grew thicker and thicker. Mrs. Dinneford had too much at stake not to play her cards with exceeding care. She knew that Edith was watching her with an intentness that let nothing escape. Her first care, as soon as she grew strong enough to have the mastery over herself, was so to control voice, manner and expression of countenance as not to appear aware of this surveillance. Her next was to re-establish the old distance between herself and daughter, which her illness had temporarily bridged over, and her next was to provide against any more visits from Mrs. Bray.