Chapter XVI.
 

It was past midday when Mr. Dinneford returned home after his fruitless search. Edith, who had been waiting for hours in restless suspense, heard his step in the hall, and ran down to meet him.

"Did you see the baby?"' she asked, trying to keep her agitation down.

Mr. Dinneford only shook his head,

"Why, not, father?" Her voice choked.

"It could not be found."

"You saw Mr. Paulding?"

"Yes."

"Didn't he find the baby?"

"Oh yes. But when I went to Grubb's court this morning, it was not there, and no one could or would give any information about it. As the missionary feared, those having possession of the baby had taken alarm and removed it to another place. But I have seen the mayor and some of the police, and got them interested. It will not be possible to hide the child for any length of time."

"You said that Mr. Paulding saw it?"

"Yes."

"What did he say?" Edith's voice trembled as she asked the question.

"He thinks there is something wrong."

"Did he tell you how the baby looked?"

"He said that it had large, beautiful brown eyes."

Edith clasped her hands, and drew them tightly against her bosom.

"Oh, father! if it should be my baby!"

"My dear, dear child," said Mr. Dinneford, putting his arms about Edith and holding her tightly, "you torture yourself with a wild dream. The thing is impossible."

"It is somebody's baby," sobbed Edith, her face on her father's breast, "and it may be mine. Who knows?"

"We will do our best to find it," returned Mr. Dinneford, "and then do what Christian charity demands. I am in earnest so far, and will leave nothing undone, you may rest assured. The police have the mayor's instructions to find the baby and give it into my care, and I do not think we shall have long to wait."

An ear they thought not of, heard all this. Mrs. Dinneford's suspicions had been aroused by many things in Edith's manner and conduct of late, and she had watched her every look and word and movement with a keenness of observation that let nothing escape. Careful as her husband and daughter were in their interviews, it was impossible to conceal anything from eyes that never failed in watchfulness. An unguarded word here, a look of mutual intelligence there, a sudden silence when she appeared, an unusual soberness of demeanor and evident absorbed interest in something they were careful to conceal, had the effect to quicken all Mrs. Dinneford's alarms and suspicions.

She had seen from the top of the stairs a brief but excited interview pass between Edith and her father as the latter stood in the vestibule that morning, and she had noticed the almost wild look on her daughter's face as she hastened back along the hall and ran up to her room. Here she stayed alone for over an hour, and then came down to the parlor, where she remained restless, moving about or standing by the window for a greater part of the morning.

There was something more than usual on hand. Guilt in its guesses came near the truth. What could all this mean, if it had not something to do with the cast-off baby? Certainty at last came. She was in the dining-room when Edith ran down to meet her father in the hall, and slipped noiselessly and unobserved into one of the parlors, where, concealed by a curtain, she heard everything that passed between her husband and daughter.

Still as death she stood, holding down the strong pulses of her heart. From the hall Edith and her father turned into one of the parlors--the same in which Mrs. Dinneford was concealed behind the curtain--and sat down.

"It had large brown eyes?" said Edith, a yearning tenderness in her voice.

"Yes, and a finely-formed bead, showing good parentage," returned the father.

"Didn't you find out who the women were--the two bad women the little girl told me about? If we had their names, the police could find them. The little girl's mother must know who they are."

"We have the name of one of them," said Mr. Dinneford. "She is called Pinky Swett, and it can't be long before the police are on her track. She is said to be a desperate character. Nothing more can be done now; we must wait until the police work up the affair. I will call at the mayor's office in the morning and find out what has been done."

Mrs. Dinneford heard no more. The bell rang, and her husband and daughter left the parlor and went up stairs. The moment they were beyond observation she glided noiselessly through the hall, and reached her chamber without being noticed. Soon afterward she came down dressed for visiting, and went out hastily, her veil closely drawn. Her manner was hurried. Descending the steps, she stood for a single moment, as if hesitating which way to go, and then moved off rapidly. Soon she had passed out of the fashionable neighborhood in which she lived. After this she walked more slowly, and with the air of one whose mind was in doubt or hesitation. Once she stopped, and turning about, slowly retraced her steps for the distance of a square. Then she wheeled around, as if from some new and strong resolve, and went on again. At last she paused before a respectable-looking house of moderate size in a neighborhood remote from the busier and more thronged parts of the city. The shutters were all bowed down to the parlor, and the house had a quiet, unobtrusive look. Mrs. Dinneford gave a quick, anxious glance up and down the street, and then hurriedly ascended the steps and rang the bell.

"Is Mrs. Hoyt in?" she asked of a stupid-looking girl who came to the door.

"Yes, ma'am," was answered.

"Tell her a lady wants to see her;" and she passed into the plainly-furnished parlor. There were no pictures on the walls nor ornaments on the mantel-piece, nor any evidence of taste--nothing home-like--in the shadowed room, the atmosphere of which was close and heavy. She waited here for a few moments, when there was a rustle of garments and the sound of light, quick feet on the stairs. A small, dark-eyed, sallow-faced woman entered the parlor.

"Mrs. Bray--no, Mrs. Hoyt."

"Mrs. Dinneford;" and the two women stood face to face for a few moments, each regarding the other keenly.

"Mrs. Hoyt--don't forget," said the former, with a warning emphasis in her voice. "Mrs. Bray is dead."

In her heart Mrs. Dinneford wished that it were indeed so.

"Anything wrong?" asked the black-eyed little woman.

"Do you know a Pinky Swett?" asked Mrs. Dinneford, abruptly.

Mrs. Hoyt--so we must now call her--betrayed surprise at this question, and was about answering "No," but checked herself and gave a half-hesitating "Yes," adding the question, "What about her?"

Before Mrs. Dinneford could reply, however, Mrs. Hoyt took hold of her arm and said, "Come up to my room. Walls have ears sometimes, and I will not answer for these."

Mrs. Dinneford went with her up stairs to a chamber in the rear part of the building.

"We shall be out of earshot here," said Mrs. Hoyt as she closed the door, locking it at the same time. "And now tell me what's up, and what about Pinky Swett."

"You know her?"

"Yes, slightly."

"More than slightly, I guess."

Mrs. Hoyt's eyes flashed impatiently. Mrs. Dinneford saw it, and took warning.

"She's got that cursed baby."

"How do you know?"

"No matter how I know. It's enough that I know. Who is she?"

"That question may be hard to answer. About all I know of her is that she came from the country a few years ago, and has been drifting about here ever since."

"What is she doing with that baby? and how did she get hold of it?"

"Questions more easily asked than answered."

"Pshaw! I don't want any beating about the bush, Mrs. Bray."

"Mrs. Hoyt," said the person addressed.

"Oh, well, Mrs. Hoyt, then. We ought to understand each other by this time."

"I guess we do;" and the little woman arched her brows.

"I don't want any beating about the bush," resumed Mrs. Dinneford. "I am here on business."

"Very well; let's to business, then;" and Mrs. Hoyt leaned back in her chair.

"Edith knows that this woman has the baby," said Mrs. Dinneford.

"What!" and Mrs. Hoyt started to her feet.

"The mayor has been seen, and the police are after her."

"How do you know?"

"Enough that I know. And now, Mrs. Hoyt, this thing must come to an end, and there is not an instant to be lost. Has Pinky Swett, as she is called, been told where the baby came from?"

"Not by me."

"By anybody?"

"That is more than I can say."

"What has become of the woman I gave it to?"

"She's about somewhere."

"When did you see her?"

Mrs. Hoyt pretended to think for some moments, and then replied:

"Not for a month or two."

"Had she the baby then?"

"No; she was rid of it long before that."

"Did she know this Pinky Swett?"

"Yes."

"Curse the brat! If I'd thought all this trouble was to come, I'd have smothered it before it was half an hour old."

"Risky business," remarked Mrs. Hoyt.

"Safer than to have let it live," said Mrs. Dinneford, a hard, evil expression settling around her mouth. "And now I want the thing done. You understand. Find this Pinky Swett. The police are after her, and may be ahead of you. I am desperate, you see. Anything but the discovery and possession of this child by Edith. It must be got out of the way. If it will not starve, it must drown."

Mrs. Dinneford's face was distorted by the strength of her evil passions. Her eyes were full of fire, flashing now, and now glaring like those of a wild animal.

"It might fall out of a window," said Mrs. Hoyt, in a low, even voice, and with a faint smile on her lips. "Children fall out of windows sometimes."

"But don't always get killed," answered Mrs. Dinneford, coldly.

"Or, it might drop from somebody's arms into the river--off the deck of a ferryboat, I mean," added Mrs. Hoyt.

"That's better. But I don't care how it's done, so it's done."

"Accidents are safer," said Mrs. Hoyt.

"I guess you're right about that. Let it be an accident, then."

It was half an hour from the time Mrs. Dinneford entered this house before she came away. As she passed from the door, closely veiled, a gentleman whom she knew very well was going by on the opposite side of the street. From something in his manner she felt sure that he had recognized her, and that the recognition had caused him no little surprise. Looking back two or three times as she hurried homeward, she saw, to her consternation, that he was following her, evidently with the purpose of making sure of her identity.

To throw this man off of her track was Mrs. Dinneford's next concern. This she did by taking a street-car that was going in a direction opposite to the part of the town in which she lived, and riding for a distance of over a mile. An hour afterward she came back to her own neighborhood, but not without a feeling of uneasiness. Just as she was passing up to the door of her residence a gentleman came hurriedly around the nearest corner. She recognized him at a glance. It seemed as if the servant would never answer her ring. On he came, until the sound of his steps was in her ears. He was scarcely ten paces distant when the door opened and she passed in. When she gained her room, she sat down faint and trembling. Here was a new element in the danger and disgrace that were digging her steps so closely.

As we have seen, Edith did not make her appearance at the mission sewing-school on the following Thursday, nor did she go there for many weeks afterward. The wild hope that had taken her to Briar street, the nervous strain and agitation attendant on that visit, and the reaction occasioned by her father's failure to get possession of the baby, were too much for her strength, and an utter prostration of mind and body was the consequence. There was no fever nor sign of any active disease--only weakness, Nature's enforced quietude, that life and reason might be saved.