Chapter XXIV.
 

No other result than the one that followed could have been hoped for. The strain upon Edith was too great. After the funeral of her mother mind and body gave way, and she passed several weeks in a half-unconscious state.

Two women, leading actors in this tragedy of life, met for the first time in over two years--Mrs. Hoyt, alias Bray, and Pinky Swett. It had not gone very well with either of them during that period. Pinky, as the reader knows, had spent the time in prison, and Mrs. Bray, who had also gone a step too far in her evil ways, was now hiding from the police under a different name from any heretofore assumed. They met, by what seemed an accident, on the street.

"Pinky!"

"Fan!"

Dropped from their lips in mutual surprise and pleasure. A little while they held each other's hands, and looked into each other's faces with keenly-searching, sinister eyes, one thought coming uppermost in the minds of both--the thought of that long-time-lost capital in trade, the cast-adrift baby.

From the street they went to Mrs. Bray's hiding-place a small ill-furnished room in one of the suburbs of the city--and there took counsel together.

"What became of that baby?" was one of Mrs. Bray's first questions.

"It's all right," answered Pinky.

"Do you know where it is?"

"Yes."

"And can you put your hand on it?"

"At any moment."

"Not worth the trouble of looking after now," said Mrs. Bray, assuming an indifferent manner.

"Why?" Pinky turned on her quickly.

"Oh, because the old lady is dead."

"What old lady?"

"The grandmother."

"When did she die?"

"Three or four weeks ago."

"What was her name?" asked Pinky.

Mrs. Bray closed her lips tightly and shook her head.

"Can't betray thatt secret," she replied.

"Oh, just as you like;" and Pinky gave her head an impatient toss. "High sense of honor! Respect for the memory of a departed friend! But it won't go down with me, Fan. We know each other too well. As for the baby--a pretty big one now, by the way, and as handsome a boy as you'll find in all this city--he's worth something to somebody, and I'm on that somebody's track. There's mother as well as a grandmother in the case, Fan."

Mrs. Bray's eyes flashed, and her face grew red with an excitement she could not hold back. Pinky watched her keenly.

"There's somebody in this town to-day who would give thousands to get him," she added, still keeping her eyes on her companion. "And as I was saying, I'm on that somebody's track. You thought no one but you and Sal Long knew anything, and that when she died you had the secret all to yourself. But Sal didn't keep mum about it."

"Did she tell you anything?" demanded Mrs. Bray, thrown off her guard by Pinky's last assertion.

"Enough for me to put this and that together and make it nearly all out," answered Pinky, with great coolness. "I was close after the game when I got caught myself. But I'm on the track once more, and don't mean to be thrown off. A link or two in the chain of evidence touching the parentage of this child, and I am all right. You have these missing links, and can furnish them if you will. If not, I am bound to find them. You know me, Fan. If I once set my heart on doing a thing, heaven and earth can't stop me."

"You're devil enough for anything, I know, and can lie as fast as you can talk," returned Mrs. Bray, in considerable irritation. "If I could believe a word you said! But I can't."

"No necessity for it," retorted Pinky, with a careless toss of her head. "If you don't wish to hunt in company, all right. I'll take the game myself."

"You forget," said Mrs. Bray, "I can spoil your game."

"Indeed! how?"

"By blowing the whole thing to Mr.--"

"Mr. who?" asked Pinky, leaning forward eagerly as her companion paused without uttering the name that was on her lips.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Mrs. Bray gave a low tantalizing laugh.

"I'm not sure that I would, from you. I'm bound to know somehow, and it will be cheapest to find out for myself," replied Pinky, hiding her real desire, which was to get the clue she sought from Mrs. Bray, and which she alone could give. "As for blowing on me, I wouldn't like anything better. I wish you'd call on Mr. Somebody at once, and tell him I've got the heir of his house and fortune, or on Mrs. Somebody, and tell her I've got her lost baby. Do it, Fan; that's a deary."

"Suppose I were to do so?" asked Mrs. Bray, repressing the anger that was in her heart, and speaking with some degree of calmness.

"What then?"

"The police would be down on you in less than an hour."

"And what then?"

"Your game would be up."

Pinky laughed derisively:

"The police are down on me now, and have been coming down on me for nearly a month past. But I'm too much for them. I know how to cover my tracks."

"Down on you! For what?"

"They're after the boy."

"What do they know about him? Who set them after him?"

"I grabbed him up last Christmas down in Briar street after being on his track for a week, and them that had him are after him sharp."

"Who had him?"

"I'm a little puzzled at the rumpus it has kicked up," said Pinky, in reply. "It's stirred things amazingly."

"How?"

"Oh, as I said, the police are after me sharp. They've had me before the mayor twice, and got two or three to swear they saw me pick up the child in Briar street and run off with him. But I denied it all."

"And I can swear that you confessed it all to me," said Mrs. Bray, with ill-concealed triumph.

"It won't do, Fan," laughed Pinky. "They'll not be able to find him any more then than now. But I wish you would. I'd like to know this Mr. Somebody of whom you spoke. I'll sell out to him. He'll bid high, I'm thinking."

Baffled by her sharper accomplice, and afraid to trust her with the secret of the child's parentage lest she should rob her of the last gain possible to receive out of this great iniquity, Mrs. Bray became wrought up to a state of ungovernable passion, and in a blind rage pushed Pinky from her room. The assault was sudden and unexpected---so sudden that Pinky, who was the stronger, had no time to recover herself and take the offensive before she was on the outside and the door shut and locked against her. A few impotent threats and curses were interchanged between the two infuriated women, and then Pinky went away.

On the day following, as Mr. Dinneford was preparing to go out, he was informed that a lady had called and was waiting down stairs to see him. She did not send her card nor give her name. On going into the room where the visitor had been shown, he saw a little woman with a dark, sallow complexion. She arose and came forward a step or two in evident embarrassment.

"Mr. Dinneford?" she said.

"That is my name, madam," was replied.

"You do not know me?"

Mr. Dinneford looked at her closely, and then answered,

"I have not that pleasure, madam."

The woman stood for a moment or two, hesitating.

"Be seated, madam," said Mr. Dinneford.

She sat down, seeming very ill at ease. He took a chair in front of her.

"You wish to see me?"

"Yes, sir, and on a matter that deeply concerns you. I was your daughter's nurse when her baby was born."

She paused at this. Mr. Dinneford had caught his breath. She saw the almost wild interest that flushed his face.

After waiting a moment for some response, she added, in a low, steady voice,

"That baby is still alive, and I am the only person who can clearly identify him."

Mr. Dinneford did not reply immediately. He saw by the woman's face that she was not to be trusted, and that in coming to him she had only sinister ends in view. Her story might be true or false. He thought hurriedly, and tried to regain exterior calmness. As soon as he felt that he could speak without betraying too much eagerness, he said, with an appearance of having recognized her,

"You are Mrs.----?"

He paused, but she did not supply the name.

"Mrs.----? Mrs.----? what is it?"

"No matter, Mr. Dinneford," answered Mrs. Bray, with the coolness and self-possession she had now regained. "What I have just told you is true. If you wish to follow up the matter--wish to get possession of your daughter's child--you have the opportunity; if not, our interview ends, of course;" and she made a feint, as if going to rise.

"Is it the child a woman named Pinky Swett stole away from Briar street on Christmas day?" asked Mr. Dinneford, speaking from a thought that flashed into his mind, and so without premeditation. He fixed his eyes intently on Mrs. Bray's face, and saw by its quick changes and blank surprise that he had put the right question. Before she could recover herself and reply, he added,

"And you are, doubtless, this same Pinky Swett."

The half smile, half sneer, that curved the woman's lips, told Mr. Dinneford that he was mistaken.

"No, sir," was returned, with regained coolness. "I am not 'this same Pinky Swett.' You are out there."

"But you know her?"

"I don't know anything just now, sir," answered the woman, with a chill in her tones. She closed her lips tightly, and shrunk back in her chair.

"What, then, are your here for?" asked Mr. Dinneford, showing considerable sternness of manner.

"I thought you understood," returned the woman. "I was explicit in my statement."

"Oh, I begin to see. There is a price on your information," said Mr. Dinneford.

"Yes, sir. You might have known that from the first. I will be frank with you."

"But why have you kept this secret for three years? Why did you not come before?" asked Mr. Dinneford.

"Because I was paid to keep the secret. Do you understand?"

Too well did Mr. Dinneford understand, and it was with difficulty he could suppress a groan as his head drooped forward and his eyes fell to the floor.

"It does not pay to keep it any longer," added the woman.

Mr. Dinneford made no response.

"Gain lies on the other side. The secret is yours, if you will have it."

"At what price?" asked Mr. Dinneford, without lifting his eyes.

"One thousand dollars, cash in hand."

"On production of the child and proof of its identity?"

Mrs. Bray took time to answer. "I do not mean to have any slip in this matter," she said. "It was a bad business at the start, as I told Mrs. Dinneford, and has given me more trouble than I've been paid for, ten times over. I shall not be sorry to wash my hands clean of it; but whenever I do so, there must be compensation and security. I haven't the child, and you may hunt me to cover with all the police hounds in the city, and yet not find him."

"If I agree to pay your demand," replied Mr. Dinneford, "it can only be on production and identification of the child."

"After which your humble servant will be quickly handed over to the police," a low, derisive laugh gurgling in the woman's throat.

"The guilty are ever in dread, and the false always in fear of betrayal," said Mr. Dinneford. "I can make no terms with you for any antecedent reward. The child must be in my possession and his parentage clearly proved before I give you a dollar. As to what may follow to yourself, your safety will lie in your own silence. You hold, and will still hold, a family secret that we shall not care to have betrayed. If you should ever betray it, or seek, because of its possession, to annoy or prey upon us, I shall consider all honorable contract we may have at an end, and act accordingly."

"Will you put in writing, an obligation to pay me one thousand dollars in case I bring the child and prove its identity?"

"No; but I will give you my word of honor that this sum shall be placed in your hands whenever you produce the child."

Mrs. Bray remained silent for a considerable time, then, as if satisfied, arose, saying,

"You will hear from me by to-morrow or the day after, at farthest. Good-morning."

As she was moving toward the door Mr. Dinneford said,

"Let me have your name and residence, madam."

The woman quickened her steps, partly turning her head as she did so, and said, with a sinister curl of the lip,

"No, I thank you, sir."

In the next moment she was gone.