Average Jones by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Chapter XI. The Million-Dollar Dog
To this day, Average Jones maintains that he felt a distinct thrill at first sight of the advertisement. Yet Fate might well have chosen a more appropriate ambush in any one of a hundred of the strange clippings which were grist to the Ad-Visor's mill. Out of a bulky pile of the day's paragraphs, however, it was this one that leaped, significant, to his eye.
WANTED--Ten thousand loathly black beetles, by A leaseholder who contracted to leave a house in the same condition as he found it. Ackroyd, 100 W. Sixteenth St. New York
"Black beetles, eh?" observed Average Jones. "This Ackroyd person seems to be a merry little jester. Well, I'm feeling rather jocular, myself, this morning. How does one collect black beetles, I wonder? When in doubt, inquire of the resourceful Simpson."
He pressed a button and his confidential clerk entered.
"Good morning, Simpson," said Average Jones.
"Are you acquainted with that shy but pervasive animal, the domestic black beetle?"
"Yes, sir; I board," said Simpson simply.
"I suppose there aren't ten thousand black beetles in your boarding-house, though?" inquired Average Jones.
Simpson took it under advisement. "Hardly," he decided.
"I've got to have 'em to fill an order. At least, I've got to have an installment of 'em, and to-morrow."
Being wholly without imagination, the confidential clerk was impervious to surprise or shock. This was fortunate, for otherwise, his employment as practical aide to Average Jones would probably have driven him into a madhouse. He now ran his long, thin, clerkly hands through his long, thin, clerkly hair.
"Ramson, down on Fulton Street, will have them, if any one has," he said presently. "He does business under the title of the Insect Nemesis, you know. I'll go there at once."
Returning to his routine work, Average Jones found himself unable to dislodge the advertisement from his mind. So presently he gave way to temptation, called up Bertram at the Cosmic Club, and asked him to come to the Astor Court Temple office at his convenience. Scenting more adventure, Bertram found it convenient to come promptly. Average Jones handed him the clipping. Bertram read it with ascending eyebrows.
"Hoots!" he said. "The man's mad."
"I didn't ask you here to diagnose the advertiser's trouble. That's plain enough--though you've made a bad guess. What I want of you is to tap your flow of information about old New York. What's at One Hundred West Sixteenth Street?"
"One hundred West Sixteenth; let me see. Why, of course; it's the old Feltner mansion. You must know it. It has a walled garden at the side; the only one left in the city, south of Central Park."
"Any one named Ackroyd there?"
"That must be Hawley Ackroyd. I remember, now, hearing that he had rented it. Judge Ackroyd, you know, better known as 'Oily' Ackroyd. He's a smooth old rascal."
"Indeed? What particular sort?"
"Oh, most sorts, in private. Professionally, he's a legislative crook; head lobbyist of the Consolidated."
"Ever hear of his collecting insects?"
"Never heard of his collecting anything but graft. In fact, he'd have been in jail years ago, but for his family connections. He married a Van Haltern. You remember the famous Van Haltern will case, surely; the million-dollar dog. The papers fairly, reeked of it a year ago. Sylvia Graham had to take the dog and leave the country to escape the notoriety. She's back now, I believe."
"I've heard of Miss Graham," remarked Average Jones, "through friends of mine whom she visits."
"Well, if you've only heard of her and not seen her," returned Bertram, with something as nearly resembling enthusiasm as his habitual languor permitted, "you've got something to look forward to. Sylvia Graham is a distinct asset to the Scheme of Creation."
"An asset with assets of her own, I believe," said Average Jones. "The million dollars left by her grandmother, old Mrs. Van Haltern, goes to her eventually; doesn't it?"
"Provided she carries out the terms of the will, keeps the dog in proper luxury and buries him in the grave on the family estate at Schuylkill designated by the testator. If these terms are not rigidly carried out, the fortune is to be divided, most of it going to Mrs. Hawley Ackroyd, which would mean the judge himself. I should say that the dog was as good as sausage meat if 'Oily' ever gets hold of him."
"H'm. What about Mrs. Ackroyd?"
"Poor, sickly, frightened lady! She's very fond of Sylvia Graham, who is her niece. But she's completely dominated by her husband."
"Information is your long suit, Bert. Now, if you only had intelligence to correspond--" Average Jones broke off and grinned mildly, first at his friend, then at the advertisement.
Bertram caught up the paper and studied it. "Well, what does it mean?" he demanded.
"It means that Ackroyd, being about to give up his rented house, intends to saddle it with a bad name. Probably he's had a row with the agent or owner, and is getting even by making the place difficult to rent again. Nobody wants to take a house with the reputation of an entomological resort."
"It would be just like Oily Ackroyd," remarked Bertram. "He's a vindictive scoundrel. Only a few days ago, he nearly killed a poor devil of a drug clerk, over some trifling dispute. He managed to keep it out of the newspapers but he had to pay a stiff fine."
"That might be worth looking up, too," ruminated Average Jones thoughtfully.
He turned to his telephone in answer to a ring. "All right, come, in, Simpson," he said.
The confidential clerk appeared. "Ramson says that regular black beetles are out of season, sir," he reported. "But he can send to the country and dig up plenty of red-and-black ones."
"That will do," returned the Ad-Visor. "Tell him to have two or three hundred here to-morrow morning."
Bertram bent a severe gaze on his friend. "Meaning that you're going to follow up this freak affair?" he inquired.
"Just that. I can't explain why, but--well, Bert, I've a hunch. At the worst, Ackroyd's face when he sees the beetles should be worth the money."
"When you frivol, Average, I wash my hands of you. But I warn you, look out for Ackroyd. He's as big as he is ugly; a tough customer."
"All right. I'll just put on some old clothes, to dress the part of a beetle-purveyor correctly, and also in case I get 'em torn in my meeting with judge 'Oily.' I'll see you later--and report, if I survive his wrath."
Thus it was that, on the morning after this dialogue, a clean-built young fellow walked along West Sixteenth Street, appreciatively sniffing the sunny crispness of the May air. He was rather shabby looking, yet his demeanor was by no means shabby. It was confident and easy. On the evidence of the bandbox which he carried, his mission should have been menial; but he bore himself wholly unlike one subdued to petty employments. His steady, gray eyes showed a glint of anticipation as he turned in at the gate of the high, broad, brown house standing back, aloof and indignant, from the roaring encroachments of trade. He set his burden down and, pulled the bell.
The door opened promptly to the deep, far-away clangor. A flashing impression of girlish freshness, vigor, and grace was disclosed to the caller against a background of interior gloom. He stared a little more patently than was polite. Whatever his expectation of amusement, this, evidently, was not the manifestation looked for. The girl glanced not at him, but at the box, and spoke a trifle impatiently.
"If it's my hat, it's very late. You should have gone to the basement."
"It isn't, miss," said the young man, in a form of address, the semi-servility of which seemed distinctly out of tone with the quietly clear and assured voice. "It's the insects."
"The bugs, miss."'
He extracted from his pocket a slip of paper, looked from it to the numbered door, as one verifying an address, and handed it to her.
"From yesterday's copy of the Banner, miss. You're not going back on that, surely," he said somewhat reproachfully.
She read, and as she read her eyes widened to lakes of limpid brown. Then they crinkled at the corners, and her laugh rose from the mid-tone contralto, to a high, bird-like trill of joyousness. The infection of it tugged at the young man's throat, but he successfully preserved his mask of flat and respectful dullness.
"It must have been Uncle," she gasped finally. "He said he'd be quits with the real estate agent before he left. How perfectly absurd! And are those the creatures in that box?"
"The first couple of hundred of 'em, miss."
"Two hundred!" Again the access of laughter swelled the rounded bosom as the breeze fills a sail. "Where did you get them?"
"Woodpile, ash-heap, garbage-pail," said the young man stolidly. "Any particular kind preferred, Miss Ackroyd?"
The girl looked at him with suspicion, but his face was blankly innocent.
"I'm not Miss Ackroyd," she began with emphasis, when a querulous voice from an inner room called out: "Whom are you talking to, Sylvia?"
"A young man with a boxful of beetles," returned the girl, adding in brisk French: "Il est tres amusant ce farceur. Je ne le comprends pas du tout. Cest une blague, peut-etre. Si on l'invitait dans la maison pour un moment?"
Through one of the air-holes, considerately punched in the cardboard cover of the box, a sturdy crawler had succeeded in pushing himself. He was, in the main, of a shiny and well-groomed black, but two large patches of crimson gave him the festive appearance of being garbed in a brilliant sash. As he stood rubbing his fore-legs together in self-congratulation over his exploit, his bearer addressed him in French quite as ready as the girl's:
"Permettez-moi, Monsieur le Colioptere, de vous presenter mes excuses pour cette demoiselle qui s'exprime en langue etrangere chez elle."
"Don't apologize to the beetle on my account," retorted the girl with spirit. "You're here on your own terms, you know, both of you."
Average Jones mutely held up the box in one hand and the advertisement in the other. The adventurer-bug flourished a farewell to the girl with his antennae, and retired within to advise his fellows of the charms of freedom.
"Very well," said the girl, in demure tones, though lambent mirth still flickered, golden, in the depths of the brown eyes. "If you persist, I can only suggest that you come back when Judge Ackroyd is here. You won't find him particularly amenable to humor, particularly when perpetrated by a practical joker in masquerade."
"Discovered," murmured Average Jones. "I shouldn't have vaunted my poor French. But must I really take my little friends all the way back? You suggested to the mystic voice within that I might be invited inside."
"You seem a decidedly unconventional person," began the other with dawning disfavor.
"Conventionality, like charity, begins at home," he replied quickly. "And one would hardly call this advertisement a pattern of formal etiquette."
"True enough," she admitted, dimpling, and Average Jones was congratulating himself on his diplomacy, when the querulous voice broke in again, this time too low for his ears.
"I don't ask you the real reason for your extraordinary call," pursued the girl with a glint of mischief in her eyes, after she had responded in an aside, "but auntie thinks you've come to steal my dog. She thinks that of every one lately."
"Auntie? Your dog? Then you're Sylvia Graham. I might have known it."
"I don't know how you might have known it. But I am Sylvia Graham-- if you insist on introducing me to yourself."
"Miss Graham," said the visitor promptly and gravely, "let me present A.V.R.E. Jones: a friend--"
"Not the famous Average Jones!" cried the girl. "That is why your face seemed so familiar. I've seen your picture at Edna Hale's. You got her 'blue fires' back for her. But really, that hardly explains your being here, in this way, you know."
"Frankly, Miss Graham, it was just as a lark that I answered the advertisement. But now that I'm here and find you here, it looks-- er--as if it might--er--be more serious."
A tinge of pink came into the girl's cheeks, but she answered lightly enough:
"Indeed, it may, for you, if uncle finds you here with those beetles."
"Never mind me or the beetles. I'd like to know about the dog that your aunt is worrying over. Is he here with you?"
The soft curve of Miss Graham's lips straightened a little. "I really think," she said with decision, "that you had better explain further before questioning."
"Nothing simpler. Once upon a time there lived a crack-brained young Don Quixote who wandered through an age of buried romance piously searching for trouble. And, twice upon a time, there dwelt in an enchanted stone castle in West Sixteenth Street an enchanting young damsel in distress--"
"I'm not a damsel in distress," interrupted Miss Graham, passing over the adjective.
The young man leaned to her. The half smile had passed from his lips, and his eyes were very grave.
"Not--er--if your dog were to--er--disappear?" he drawled quietly.
The swift unexpectedness of the counter broke down the girl's guard.
"You mean Uncle Hawley," she said.
"And your suspicions jump with mine."
"They don't!" she denied hotly. "You're very unjust and impertinent."
"I don't mean to be impertinent," he said evenly. "And I have no monopoly of injustice."
"What do you know about Uncle Hawley?"
"I won't hear a word against my aunt."
"Not from me, be assured. Your aunt, so you have just told me, believes that your dog is in danger of being stolen. Why? Because she knows that the person most interested has been scheming against the animal, and yet she is afraid to warn you openly. Doesn't that indicate who it is?"
"Mr. Jones, I've no right even to let you talk like this to me. Have you anything definite against Judge Ackroyd?"
"In this case, only suspicion."
Her head went up. "Then I think there is nothing more to be said."
The young man flushed, but his voice was steady as he returned:
"I disagree with you. And I beg you to cut short your visit here, and return to your home at once."
In spite of herself the girl was shaken by his persistence. "I can't do that," she said uneasily. And added, with a flash of anger, "I think you had better leave this house."
"If I leave this house now I may never have any chance to see you again."
The girl regarded him with level, non-committal eyes.
"And I have every intention of seeing you again--and--again--and again. Give me a chance; a moment,"
Average Jones' mind was of the emergency type. It summoned to its aid, without effort of cerebration on the part of its owner, whatever was most needed at the moment. Now it came to his rescue with the memory of judge Ackroyd's encounter with the drug clerk, as mentioned by Bertram. There was a strangely hopeful suggestion of some link between a drug-store quarrel and the arrival of a million-dollar dog, "better dead" in the hopes of his host.
"Miss Graham; I've gone rather far, I'll admit," said Jones; "but, if you'll give me the benefit of the doubt, I think I can show you some basis to work on. If I can produce something tangible, may I come back here this afternoon? I'll promise not to come unless I have good reason."
"Very well," conceded Miss Graham reluctantly, "it's a most unusual thing. But I'll agree to that."
"Au revoir, then," he said, and was gone.
Somewhat to her surprise and uneasiness, Sylvia Graham experienced a distinct satisfaction when, late that afternoon, she beheld her unconventional acquaintance mounting the steps with a buoyant and assured step. Upon being admitted, he went promptly to the point.
"I've got it."
"Your justification for coming back?" she asked.
"Exactly. Have you heard anything of some trouble in which judge Ackroyd was involved last week?"
"Uncle has a very violent temper," admitted the girl evasively. "But I don't see what--"
"Pardon me. You will see. That row was with a drug clerk."
"In an obscure drug store several blocks from here."
"The drug clerk insisted--as the law requires--on judge Ackroyd registering for a certain purchase."
"Perhaps he was impertinent about it."
"Possibly. The point is that the prospective purchase was cyanide of potassium, a deadly and instantaneous poison."
"Are you sure?" asked the girl, in a low voice.
"I've just come from the store. How long have you been here at your uncle's?"
"Then just about the time of your coming with the dog, your uncle undertook to obtain a swift and sure poison. Have I gone far enough?"
"I--I don't know."
"Well, am I still ordered out of the house?"
"Thank you for your enthusiastic hospitality," said Average Jones so dryly that a smile relaxed the girl's troubled face. "With that encouragement we'll go on. What is your uncle's attitude toward the dog?"
"Almost what you might call ingratiating. But Peter Paul--that's my dog's name, you know--doesn't take to uncle. He's a crotchety old doggie."
"He's a wise old doggie," amended the other, with emphasis. "Has your uncle taken him out, at all?"
"Once he tried to. I met them at the corner. All four of Peter Paul's poor old fat legs were braced, and he was hauling back as hard as he could against the leash."
"And the occurrence didn't strike you as peculiar?"
"Well, not then."
"When does your uncle give up this house?"
"At the end of the week. Uncle and aunt leave for Europe."
"Then let me suggest again that you and Peter Paul go at once."
Miss Graham pondered. "That would mean explanations and a quarrel, and more strain for auntie, who is nervous enough, anyway. No, I can't do that."
"Do you realize that every day Peter Paul remains here is an added opportunity for judge Ackroyd to make a million dollars, or a big share of it, by some very simple stratagem?"
"I haven't admitted yet that I believe my uncle to be a--a murderer," Miss Graham quietly reminded him.
"A strong word," said Average Jones smiling. "The law would hardly support your view. Now, Miss Graham, would it grieve you very much if Peter Paul were to die?"
"I won't have him put to death," said she quickly. "That would be, cheating my grandmother's intentions."
"I supposed you wouldn't. Yet it would be the simplest way. Once dead, and buried in accordance with the terms of the will, the dog would be out of his troubles, and you would be out of yours."
"It would really be a relief. Peter Paul suffers so from asthma, poor old beastie. The vet says he can live only a month or two longer, anyway. But I've got to do as Grandmother wished, and keep Peter Paul alive as long as possible."
"Admitted." Average Jones fell into a baffled silence, studying the pattern of the rug with restless eyes. When he looked up into Miss Graham's face again it was with a changed expression.
"Miss Graham," he said slowly, "won't you try to forget, for the moment, the circumstances of our meeting, and think of me only as a friend of your friends who is very honestly eager to be a friend to you, when you most need one?"
Now, Average Jones's birth-fairy had endowed him with one priceless gift: the power of inspiring an instinctive confidence in himself. Sylvia Graham felt, suddenly, that a hand, sure and firm, had been outstretched to guide her on a dark path. In one of those rare flashes of companionship which come only when clean and honorable spirits recognize one another, all consciousness of sex was lost between them. The girl's gaze met the man's level, and was held in a long, silent regard.
"Yes," she said simply; and the heart of Average Jones rose and swore a high loyalty.
"Listen, then. I think I see a clear way. Judge Ackroyd will kill the dog if he can, and so effectually conceal the body that no funeral can be held over it, thereby rendering your grandmother's bequest to you void. He has only a few days to do it in, but I don't think that all your watchfulness can restrain him. Now, on the other hand, if the dog should die a natural death and be buried, he can still contest the will. But if he should kill Peter Paul and hide the body where we could discover it, the game would be up for him, as he then wouldn't even dare to come into court with a contest. Do you follow me?"
"Yes. But you wouldn't ask me to be a party to any such thing."
"You're a party, involuntarily, by remaining here. But do your best to save Peter Paul, if you will. And please call me up immediately at the Cosmic Club, if anything in my line turns up."
"What is your line?" asked Miss Graham, the smile returning to her lips. "Creepy, crawly bugs? Or imperiled dogs? Or rescuing prospectively distressed damsels?"
"Technically it's advertising," replied Average Jones, who had been formulating a shrewd little plan of his own. "Let me recommend to you the advertising columns of the daily press. They're often amusing. Moreover your uncle might break out in print again. Who knows?"
"Who, indeed? I'll read religiously."
"And, by the way, my beetles. I forgot and left them here. Oh, there's the box. I may have a very specific use for them later. Au revoir--and may it be soon!"
The two days succeeding seemed to Average Jones, haunted as he was by an importunate craving to look again into Miss Graham's limpid and changeful eyes, a dull and sodden period of probation. The messenger boy who finally brought her expected note, looked to him like a Greek godling. The note enclosed this clipping:
LOST-Pug dog answering to the name of Peter Paul. Very old and asthmatic. Last seen on West 16th Street. Liberal reward for information to Anxious. Care of Banner office.
Dear Mr. Jones (she had written):
Are you a prophet? (Average Jones chuckled, at this point.) The enclosed seems to be distinctly in our line. Could you come some time this afternoon? I'm puzzled and a little anxious.
Average Jones could, and did. He found Miss Graham's piquant face under the stress of excitement, distinctly more alluring than before.
"Isn't it strange?" she said, holding out a hand in welcome. "Why should any one advertise for my Peter Paul? He isn't lost."
"I am glad to hear that," said the caller gravely.
"I've kept my promise, you see," pursued the girl. "Can you do as well, and live up to your profession of aid?"
"Very well, do you know what that advertisement means?"
"Then you're a very extraordinary person."
"Not in the least. I wrote it."
"Wrote it! You? Well--really! Why in the world did you write it?"
"Because of an unconquerable longing to see," Average Jones paused, and his quick glance caught the storm signal in her eyes, "your uncle," he concluded calmly.
For one fleeting instant a dimple flickered at the corner of her mouth. It departed. But departing, it swept the storm before it.
"What do you want to see uncle about, if it isn't an impertinent question?"
"It is, rather," returned the young man judicially. "Particularly, as I'm not sure, myself. I may want to quarrel with him."
"You won't have the slightest difficulty in that," the girl assured him.
She rang the bell, dispatched a servant, and presently judge Ackroyd stalked into the room. As Average Jones was being presented, he took comprehensive note and estimate of the broad-cheeked, thin-lipped face; the square shoulders and corded neck, and the lithe and formidable carriage of the man. Judge "Oily" Ackroyd's greeting of the guest within his gates did not bear out the sobriquet of his public life. It was curt to the verge of harshness.
"What is the market quotation on beetles, judge?" asked the young man, tapping the rug with his stick.
"What are you talking about?" demanded the other, drawing down his heavy brows.
"The black beetle; the humble but brisk haunter of household crevices," explained Average Jones. "You advertised for ten thousand specimens. I've got a few thousand I'd like to dispose of, if the inducements are sufficient."
"I'm in no mood for joking, young man," retorted the other, rising.
"You seldom are, I understand," replied Average Jones blandly. "Well, if you won't talk about bugs, let's talk about dogs."
"The topic does not interest me, sir," retorted the other, and the glance of his eye was baleful, but uneasy.
The tapping of the young man's cane ceased. He looked up into his host's glowering face with a seraphic and innocent smile.
"Not even if it--er--touched upon a device for guarding the street corners in case--er--Peter Paul went walking--er--once too often?"
Judge Ackroyd took one step forward. Average Jones was on his feet instantly, and, even in her alarm, Sylvia Graham noticed how swiftly and naturally his whole form "set." But the big man turned away, and abruptly left the room.
"Were you wise to anger him?" asked the girl, as the heavy tread died away on the stairs.
"Sometimes open declaration of war is the soundest strategy."
"War?" she repeated. "You make me feel like a traitor to my own family."
"That's the unfortunate part of it," he said; "but it can't be helped."
"You spoke of having some one guard the corners of the block," continued the girl, after a thoughtful silence. "Do you think I'd better arrange for that?"
"No need. There'll be a hundred people on watch."
"Have you called out the militia?" she asked, twinkling.
"Better than that. I've employed the tools of my trade."
He handed her a galley proof marked with many corrections. She ran through it with growing amazement.
HAVE YOU SEEN THE DOG? $100-One Hundred Dollars-$100 FOR THE BEST ANSWER IN 500 WORDS OPEN TO ALL HIGH SCHOOL BOYS Between now and next Saturday an old Pug Dog will come out of a big House on West 16th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. It may be by Day. It may be at any hour of the Night. Now, you Boys, get to work. REMEMBER: $100 IN CASH HERE ARE THE POINTS TO MIND-- 1. Description of the Dog. 2. Description of Person with him. 3. Description of House he Comes from. 4. Account of Where they Go. 5. Account of What they Do. Manuscripts must be written plainly and mailed within twenty-four hours of the discovery of the dog to A. JONES: AD-VISOR ASTOR COURT TEMPLE, NEW YORK
"That will appear in every New York paper tomorrow morning," explained its deviser.
"I see," said the girl. "Any one who attempts to take Peter Paul away will be tracked by a band of boy detectives. A stroke of genius, Mr. Average. Jones."
She curtsied low to him. But Average Jones was in no mood for playfulness now.
"That restricts the judge's endeavors to the house and garden," said he, "since, of course he'll see the advertisement."
"I'll see that he does," said Miss Graham maliciously.
"Good! I'll also ask you to watch the garden for any suspicious excavating."
"Very well. But is that all?" Miss Graham's voice was wistful.
"Isn't it enough?"
"You've been so good to me," she said hesitantly. "I don't like to think of you as setting those boys to an impossible task."
"Oh, bless you!" returned the Ad-Visor heartily; "that's all arranged for. One of my men will duly parade with a canine especially obtained for the occasion. I'm not going to swindle the youngsters."
"It didn't seem like you," returned Miss Graham warmly. "But you must let me pay for it, that and the advertising bill."
"As an unauthorized expense--" he began.
She laid a small, persuasive hand on his arm.
"You must let me pay it. Won't you?"
Average Jones was conscious of a strange sensation, starting from the point where the firm, little hand lay. It spread in his veins and thickened his speech.
"Of course," he drawled, uncertainly, "if you--er--put it--er--that way!"
The hand lifted. "Mr. Average Jones," said the owner, "do you know you haven't once disappointed me in speech or action during our short but rather eventful acquaintance?"
"I hope you'll be able to say the same ten years from now," he returned significantly.
She flushed a little at the implication. "What am I to do next?" she asked.
"Do as you would ordinarily do; only don't take Peter Paul, into the street, or you'll have a score of high-school boys trailing you. And--this is the most important--if the dog fails to answer your call at any time, and you can't readily find him by searching, telephone me, at once, at my office. Good-by."
"I think you are a very staunch friend to those who need you," she said, gravely and sweetly, giving him her hand.
She clung in his mind like a remembered fragrance, after he had gone back to Astor Court Temple to wait. And though he plunged into an intricate scheme of political advertising which was to launch a new local party, her eyes and her voice haunted him. Nor had he banished them, when, two days later, the telephone brought him her clear accents, a little tremulous now.
"Peter Paul is gone."
"Since ten this morning. The house is in an uproar."
"I'll be up in half an hour at the latest."
"Do come quickly. I'm--I'm a little frightened."
"Then you must have something to do," said Average Jones decisively. "Have you been keeping an eye on the garden?"
"Go through it again, looking carefully for signs of disarranged earth. I don't think you'll find it, but it's well to be sure. Let me in at the basement door at half-past one. Judge Ackroyd mustn't see me."
It was a strangely misshapen presentation of the normally spick-and-span Average Jones that gently rang the basement bell of the old house at the specified hour. All his pockets bulged with lumpy angles. Immediately, upon being admitted by Miss Graham herself, he proceeded to disenburden himself of box after box, such as elastic bands come in, all exhibiting a homogeneous peculiarity, a hole at one end thinly covered with a gelatinous substance.
"Be very careful not to let that get broken," he instructed the mystified girl. "In the course of an hour or so it will melt away itself. Did you see anything suspicious in the garden?"
"No!" replied the girl. She picked up one of the boxes. "How odd!" she cried. "Why, there's something in it that's alive!"
"Very much so. Your friends, the beetles, in fact."
"What! Again? Aren't you carrying the joke rather far?"
"It's not a joke any more. It's deadly serious. I'm quite sure," he concluded in the manner of one who picks his words carefully, "that it may turn out to be just the most serious matter in the world to me."
"As bad as that?" she queried, but the color that flamed in her cheeks belied the lightness of her tone.
"Quite. However, that must wait. Where is your uncle?"
"Up-stairs in his study."
"Do you think you could take me all through the house sometime this afternoon without his seeing me?"
"No, I'm sure I couldn't. He's been wandering like an uneasy spirit since Peter Paul disappeared. And he won't go out, because he is packing."
"So much the worse, either for him or me. Where are your rooms?"
"On the second floor."
"Very well. Now, I want one of these little boxes left in every room in the house, if possible, except on your floor, which is probably out of the reckoning. Do you think you could manage it soon?"
"I think so. I'll try."
"Do most of the rooms open into one another?"
"Yes, all through the house."
"Please see that they're all unlocked, and as far as possible, open. I'll be here at four o'clock, and will call for judge Ackroyd. You must be sure that he receives me. Tell him it is a matter of great importance. It is."
"You're putting a fearful strain on my feminine curiosity," said Miss Graham, the provocative smile quirking at the comers of her mouth.
"Doubtless," returned the other dryly. "If you strictly follow directions, I'll undertake to satisfy it in time. Four o'clock sharp, I'll be here. Don't be frightened whatever happens. You keep ready, but out of the way, until I call you. Good-by."
With even more than his usual nicety was Average Jones attired, when, at four o'clock, he sent his card to judge Ackroyd. Small favor, however, did his appearance find, in the scowling eyes of the judge.
"What do you want?" he growled.
"I'll take a cigar, thank you very much," said Average Jones innocently.
"You'll take your leave, or state your business."
"It has to do with your niece."
"Then what do you take my time for, damn your impudence."
"Don't swear." Average Jones was deliberately provoking the older man to an outbreak. "Let's--er--sit down and--er--be chatty."
The drawl, actually an evidence of excitement, had all the effect of studied insolence. Judge Ackroyd's big frame shook.
"I'm going to k-k-kick you out into the street, you young p-p-p-pup," he stuttered in his rage.
His knotted fingers writhed out for a hold on the other's collar. With a sinuous movement, the visitor swerved aside and struck the other man, flat-handed, across the face. There was an answering howl of demoniac fury. Then a strange thing happened. The assailant turned and fled, not to the ready egress of the front door, but down the dark stairway to the basement. The judge thundered after, in maddened, unthinking pursuit. Average Jones ran fleetly and easily. And his running was not for the purpose of flight alone, for as he sped through the basement rooms, he kept casting swift glances from side to side, and up and down the walls. The heavyweight pursuer could not get nearer than half a dozen paces.
From the kitchen Average Jones burst into the hallway, doubled back up the stairs and made a tour of the big drawing-rooms and living-rooms of the first floor. Here, too, his glance swept room after room, from floor to ceiling. The chase then led upward to the second floor, and by direct ascent to the third. Breathing heavily, judge Ackroyd lumbered after the more active man. In his dogged rage, he never thought to stop and block the hall-way; but trailed his quarry like a bloodhound through every room of the third floor, and upward to the fourth. Half-way up this stairway, Average Jones checked his speed and surveyed the hall above. As he started again he stumbled and sprawled. A more competent observer than the infuriated pursuer might have noticed that he fell cunningly. But judge Ackroyd gave a shout of savage triumph and increased his speed. He stretched his hand to grip the fugitive. It had almost touched him when he leaped, to his feet and resumed his flight.
"I'll get you now!" panted the judge.
The fourth floor of the old house was almost bare. In a hall-embrasure hung a full-length mirror. All along the borders of this, Average Jones' quick ranging vision had discerned small red-banded objects which moved and shifted. As the glass reflected his extended figure, it showed, almost at the same instant, the outstretched, bony hand of "Oily" Ackroyd. With a snarl, half rage, half satisfaction, the pursuer hurled himself forward--and fell, with a plunge that rattled the house's old bones. For, as he reached, Jones, trained on many a foot-ball field, had whirled and dived at his knees. Before the fallen man could gather his shaken wits, he was pinned with the most disabling grip known in the science of combat, a strangle-hold with the assailant's wrist clamped in below and behind the ear. Average Jones lifted his voice and the name that came to his lips was the name that had lurked subconsciously, in his heart, for days.
"Sylvia!" he cried. "The fourth floor! Come!"
There was a stir and a cry from two floors below. Sylvia Graham had broken from the grasp of her terrified aunt, and now came up the sharp ascent like a deer, her eyes blazing with resolve and courage.
"The mirror," said Average Jones. "Push it aside. Pull it down. Get behind it somehow. Lie quiet, Ackroyd or I'll have to choke your worthless head off."
With an effort of nervous strength, the girl lifted aside the big glass. Behind it a hundred scarlet banded insects swarmed and scampered.
"It's a panel. Open it."
She tugged at the woodwork with quick, clever fingers. A section loosened and fell outward with a bang. The red-and-black beetles fled in all directions. And now, judge Ackroyd found his voice.
"Help!" he roared. "Murder!"
The sinewy pressure of Average Jones' wrist smothered further attempts at vocality to a gurgle. He looked up into Sylvia Graham's tense, face, and jerked his head toward the opening.
"Unless my little detectives have deceived me," he said, "you'll find the body in there."
She groped, and drew forth a large box. In it was packed the body of Peter Paul. There was a cord about the fat neck.
"Strangled," whispered the girl. "Poor old doggie!" Then she whirled upon the prostrate man. "You murderer!" she said very low.
"It's not murder to put a dying brute out of the way," said the shaken man sullenly.
"But it's fraud, in this case," retorted Average Jones. "A fraud of which you're self-convicted. Get up." He himself rose and stepped back, but his eye was intent, and his muscles were in readiness.
There was no more fight in judge "Oily" Ackroyd. He slunk to the stairs and limped heavily down to his frightened and sobbing wife. Miss Graham leaned against the wall, white and spent. Average Jones, his heart in his eyes, took a step forward.
"No!" she said peremptorily. "Don't touch me. I shall be all right"
"Do you mind my saying," said he, very low, "that you are the bravest and finest human being I've met in a--a somewhat varied career."
The girl shuddered. "I could have stood it all," she said, "but for those awful, crawling, red creatures."
"Those?" said Average Jones. "Why, they were my bloodhounds, my little detectives. There's nothing very awful about those, Sylvia. They've done their work as nature gave 'em to do it. I knew that as soon as they got out, they would find the trail."
"And what are they?"
"Carrion beetles," said Average Jones. "Where the vultures of the insect kingdom are gathered together, there the quarry lies."
Sylvia Graham drew a long breath. "I'm all right now," she pronounced. "There's nothing left, I suppose, but to leave this house. And to thank you. How am I ever to thank you?" She lifted her eyes to his.
"Never mind the thanks," said Average Jones unevenly. "It was nothing."
"It was everything! It was wonderful!" cried the girl, and held out her slender hands to him.
As they clasped warmly upon his, Average Jones' reason lost its balance. He forgot that he was in that house on an equivocal footing; he forgot that he had exposed and disgraced Sylvia Graham's near relative; he forgot that this was but his third meeting with Sylvia Graham herself; he forgot everything except that the sum total of all that was sweetest and finest and most desirable in womanhood stood warm and vivid before him; and, bending over the little, clinging hands, he pressed his lips to them. Only for a moment. The hands slipped from his. There was a quick, frightened gasp, and the girl's face, all aflush with a new, sweet fearfulness and wondering confusion, vanished behind a ponderous swinging door.
The young man's knees shook a little as he walked forward and put his lips close to the lintel.
There was a faint rustle from within.
"I'm sorry. I mean, I'm glad. Gladder than of anything I've ever done in my life."
Silence from within.
"If I've frightened you, forgive me. I couldn't help it. It was stronger than I. This isn't the place where I can tell you. Sylvia, I'm going now."
"The work is done," he continued. "You won't need me any more." Did he hear, from within, a faint indrawn breath? "Not for any help that I can give. But I--I shall need you always, and long for you. Listen, there mustn't be any misunderstanding about this, dear. If you send for me, it must be because you want me; knowing that, when I come, I shall come for you. Good-by, dear."
"Good-by." It was the merest whisper from behind the door. But it echoed in the tones of a thousand golden hopes and dismal fears in the whirling brain of Average Jones as he walked back to his offices.
Two days later he sat at his desk, in a murk of woe. Nor word nor sign had come to him from Miss Sylvia Graham. He frowned heavily as Simpson entered the inner sanctum with the usual packet of clippings.
"Leave them," he ordered.
"Yes, sir." The confidential clerk lingered, looking uncomfortable. "Anything from yesterday's lot, sir?"
"Haven't looked them over yet."
"Or day before's?"
"Haven't taken those up either."
"Pardon me, Mr. Jones., but--are you ill, sir?"
"No," snapped Average Jones.
"Ramson is inquiring whether he shall ship more beetles. I see in the paper that judge Ackroyd has sailed for Europe on six hours' notice, so I suppose you won't want any more?"
Average Jones mentioned a destination for Rawson's beetles deeper than they had, ever digged for prey.
"Yes, Sir," assented Simpson. "But if I might suggest, there's a very interesting advertisement in yesterday's paper repeated this morn--"
"I don't want to see it."
"No, Sir. But--but still--it--it seems to have a strange reference to the burial of the million-dollar dog, and an invitation that I thought--"
"Where is it? Give it to me!" For once in his life, high pressure of excitement had blotted out Average Jones' drawl. His employee thrust into his hand this announcement from the Banner of that morning:
DIED-At 100 West 26th Street, Sept. 14, Peter Paul, a dog, for many years the faithful and fond companion of the late Amelia Van Haltern. Burial in accordance with the wish and will of Mrs. Van Haltern, at the family estate, Schuylkill, Sept. 17, at o'clock. His friend, Don Quixote, is especially bidden to come, if he will.
Average Jones leaped to his feet. "My parable," he cried. "Don Quixote and the damsel in distress. Where's my hat? Where's the time-table? Get a cab! Simpson, you idiot, why didn't you make me read this before, confound you! I mean God bless you. Your salary's doubled from to-day. I'm off."
"Yes, Sir," said the bewildered Simpson, "but about Ramson's beetles?"
"Tell him, to turn 'em out to pasture and keep 'em as long as they live, at my expense," called back Average Jones as the door slammed behind him.
Miss Sylvia Graham looked down upon a slender finger ornamented with the oddest and the most appropriate of engagement rings, a scarab beetle red-banded with three deep-hued rubies.
"But, Average," she said, and the golden laughter flickered again in the brown depths of her eyes, "not even you could expect a girl to accept a man through a keyhole."
"I suppose not," said Average Jones with a sigh of profoundest content. "Some are for privacy in these matters; others for publicity. But I suppose I'm the first man in history who ever got his heart's answer in an advertisement."