Chapter XIX. An Artful Confession
 

This Monday morning Bub appeared at the Lodge and had the car ready before Mr. Conant had finished his breakfast. Mary Louise decided to drive to Millbank with them, just for the pleasure of the trip, and although the boy evidently regarded her presence with distinct disapproval he made no verbal objection.

As Irene wheeled herself out upon the porch to see them start, Mary Louise called to her:

"Here's your chair cushion, Irene, lying on the steps and quite wet with dew. I never supposed you could be so careless. And you'd better sew up that rip before it gets bigger," she added, handing the cushion to her friend.

"I will," Irene quietly returned.

Bub proved himself a good driver before they had gone a mile and it pleased Mr. Conant to observe that the boy made the trip down the treacherous mountain road with admirable caution. Once on the level, however, he "stepped on it," as he expressed it, and dashed past the Huddle and over the plain as if training for the Grand Prix.

It amused Mary Louise to watch their quaint little driver, barefooted and in blue-jeans and hickory shirt, with the heavy Scotch golf cap pulled over his eyes, taking his task of handling the car as seriously as might any city chauffeur and executing it fully as well.

During the trip the girl conversed with Mr. Conant.

"Do you remember our referring to an old letter, the other day?" she asked.

"Yes," said he.

"Irene found it in one of those secondhand books you bought in New York, and she said it spoke of both my mother and my grandfather."

"The deuce it did!" he exclaimed, evidently startled by the information.

"It must have been quite an old letter," continued Mary Louise, musingly.

"What did it say?" he demanded, rather eagerly for the unemotional lawyer.

"I don't know. Irene wouldn't let me read it."

"Wouldn't, eh? That's odd. Why didn't you tell me of this before I left the Lodge?"

"I didn't think to tell you, until now. And, Uncle Peter, what, do you think of Miss Lord?"

"A very charming lady. What did Irene do with the letter?"

"I think she left it in the book; and--the book was stolen the very next day."

"Great Caesar! Who knew about that letter?"

"Miss Lord was present when Irene found the letter, and she heard Irene exclaim that it was all about my mother, as well as about my grandfather."

"Miss Lord?"

"Yes."

"And the book was taken by someone?"

"The next day. We missed it after--after Miss Lord had visited the den alone."

"Huh!"

He rode for awhile in silence.

"Really," he muttered, as if to himself, "I ought to go back. I ought not to take for granted the fact that this old letter is unimportant. However, Irene has read it, and if it happened to be of value I'm sure the girl would have told me about it."

"Yes, she certainly would have told you," agreed Mary Louise. "But she declared that even I would not be interested in reading it."

"That's the only point that perplexes me," said the lawyer. "Just--that- -one--point."

"Why?" asked the girl.

But Mr. Conant did not explain. He sat bolt upright on his seat, staring at the back of Bub's head, for the rest of the journey. Mary Louise noticed that his fingers constantly fumbled with the locket on his watch chain.

As the lawyer left the car at the station he whispered to Mary Louise:

"Tell Irene that I now know about the letter; and just say to her that I consider her a very cautious girl. Don't say anything more. And don't, for heaven's sake, suspect poor Miss Lord. I'll talk with Irene when I return on Friday."

On their way back Bub maintained an absolute silence until after they had passed the Huddle. Before they started to climb the hill road, however, the boy suddenly slowed up, halted the car and turned deliberately in his seat to face Mary Louise.

"Bein' as how you're a gal," said he, "I ain't got much use fer ye, an' that's a fact. I don't say it's your fault, nor that ye wouldn't 'a' made a pass'ble boy ef ye'd be'n borned thet way. But you're right on one thing, an' don't fergit I told ye so: thet woman at Bigbee's ain't on the square."

"How do you know?" asked Mary Louise, delighted to be taken into Bub's confidence--being a girl.

"The critter's too slick," he explained, raising one bare foot to the cushion beside him and picking a sliver out of his toe. "Her eyes ain't got their shutters raised. Eyes're like winders, but hers ye kain't see through. I don't know nuth'n' 'bout that slick gal at Bigbee's an' I don't want to know nuth'n'. But I heer'd what ye said to the boss, an' what he said to you, an' I guess you're right in sizin' the critter up, an' the boss is wrong."

With this he swung round again and started the car, nor did he utter another word until he ran the machine into the garage.

During Mary Louise's absence Irene had had a strange and startling experience with their beautiful neighbor. The girl had wheeled her chair out upon the bluff to sun herself and read, Mrs. Conant being busy in the house, when Agatha Lord strolled up to her with a smile and a pleasant "good morning."

"I'm glad to find you alone," said she, seating herself beside the wheeled chair. "I saw Mr. Conant and Mary Louise pass the Bigbee place and decided this would be a good opportunity for you and me to have a nice, quiet talk together. So I came over."

Irene's face was a bit disdainful as she remarked:

"I found the cushion this morning."

"What cushion do you refer to?" asked Agatha with a puzzled expression.

Irene frowned.

"We cannot talk frankly together when we are at cross purposes," she complained.

"Very true, my dear; but you seem inclined to speak in riddles."

"Do you deny any knowledge of my chair cushion!"

"I do."

"I must accept your statement, of course. What do you wish to say to me, Miss Lord?"

"I would like to establish a more friendly understanding between us. You are an intelligent girl and cannot fail to realize that I have taken a warm interest in your friend Mary Louise Burrows. I want to know more about her, and about her people, who seem to have cast her off. You are able to give me this information, I am sure, and by doing so you may be instrumental in assisting your friend materially."

It was an odd speech; odd and insincere. Irene studied the woman's face curiously.

"Who are you, Miss Lord?" she inquired.

"Your neighbor."

"Why are you our neighbor?"

"I am glad to be able to explain that--to you, in confidence. I am trying to clear the name of Colonel Weatherby from a grave charge--the charge of high treason."

"In other words, you are trying to discover where he is," retorted Irene impatiently.

"No, my dear; you mistake me. It is not important to my mission, at present, to know where Colonel Weatherby is staying. I am merely seeking relevant information, such information as you are in a position to give me."

"I, Miss Lord?"

"Yes. To be perfectly frank, I want to see the letter which you found in that book."

"Why should you attach any importance to that?"

"I was present, you will remember, when you discovered it. I marked your surprise and perplexity--your fear and uncertainty--as you glanced first at the writing and then at Mary Louise. You determined not to show your friend that letter because it would disturb her, yet you inadvertently admitted, in my hearing, that it referred to the girl's mother and-- which is vastly more important--to her grandfather."

"Well; what then, Miss Lord?"

"Colonel Weatherby is a man of mystery. He has been hunted by Government agents for nearly ten years, during which time he has successfully eluded them. If you know anything of the Government service you know it has a thousand eyes, ten thousand ears and a myriad of long arms to seize its malefactors. It has not yet captured Colonel Weatherby."

"Why has he been hunted all these years?"

"He is charged, as I said, with high treason. By persistently evading capture he has tacitly admitted his guilt."

"But he is innocent!" cried Irene indignantly.

Miss Lord seemed surprised, yet not altogether ill-pleased, at the involuntary exclamation.

"Indeed!" she said softly. "Could you prove that statement?"

"I--I think so," stammered the girl, regretting her hasty avowal.

"Then why not do so and by restoring Mary Louise to her grandfather make them both happy?"

Irene sat silent, trapped.

"This is why I have come to you," continued Agatha, very seriously. "I am employed by those whose identity I must not disclose to sift this mystery of Colonel Weatherby to the bottom, if possible, and then to fix the guilt where it belongs. By accident you have come into possession of certain facts that would be important in unravelling the tangle, but through your unfortunate affliction you are helpless to act in your own capacity. You need an ally with more strength and experience than yourself, and I propose you accept me as that ally. Together we may be able to clear the name of James J. Hathaway--who now calls himself Colonel James Weatherby--from all reproach and so restore him to the esteem of his fellow men."

"But we must not do that, even if we could!" cried Irene, quite distressed by the suggestion.

"Why not, my dear?"

The tone was so soft and cat-like that it alarmed Irene instantly. Before answering she took time to reflect. To her dismay she found this woman was gradually drawing from her the very information she had declared she would preserve secret. She knew well that she was no match for Agatha Lord in a trial of wits. Her only recourse must be a stubborn refusal to explain anything more.

"Colonel Weatherby," she said slowly, "has better information than I of the charge against him and his reasons for keeping hidden, yet he steadfastly refuses to proclaim his innocence or to prove he is unjustly accused, which he might very well do if he chose. You say you are working in his interests, and, allowing that, I am satisfied he would bitterly reproach anyone who succeeded in clearing his name by disclosing the truth."

This argument positively amazed Agatha Lord, as it might well amaze anyone who had not read the letter. In spite of her supreme confidence of the moment before, the woman now suddenly realized that this promising interview was destined to end disastrously to her plans.

"I am so obtuse that you will have to explain that statement," she said with assumed carelessness; but Irene was now on guard and replied:

"Then our alliance is dissolved. I do not intend, Miss Lord, to betray such information as I may have stumbled upon unwittingly. You express interest in Mary Louise and her grandfather and say you are anxious to serve them. So am I. Therefore I beg you, in their interests, to abandon any further attempt to penetrate the secret."

Agatha was disconcerted.

"Show me the letter," she urged, as a last resort. "If, on reading it, I find your position is justifiable--you must admit it is now bewildering- -I will agree to abandon the investigation altogether."

"I will not show you the letter," declared the girl positively.

The woman studied her face.

"But you will consider this conversation confidential, will you not?"

"Since you request it, yes."

"I do not wish our very pleasant relations, as neighbors, disturbed. I would rather the Conants and Mary Louise did not suspect I am here on any especial mission."

"Very well."

"In truth," continued Agatha, "I am growing fond of yon all and this is a real vacation to me, after a period of hard work in the city which racked my nerves. Before long I must return to the old strenuous life, so I wish to make the most of my present opportunities."

"I understand."

No further reference was made to the letter or to Colonel Weatherby. They talked of other things for a while and when Miss Lord went away there seemed to exist--at least upon the surface--the same friendly relations that had formerly prevailed between them.

Irene, reflecting upon the interview, decided that while she had admitted more than was wise she had stopped short of exposing the truth about Colonel Weatherby. The letter was safely hidden, now. She defied even Miss Lord to find it. If she could manage to control her tongue, hereafter, the secret was safe in her possession.

Thoughtfully she wheeled herself back to the den and finding the room deserted she ventured to peep into her novel hiding-place. Yes; the precious letter was still safe. But this time, in her abstraction, she failed to see the face at the window.