Chapter XIII. An Honorable Retreat
 
    "For I will ease my heart
     Although, it be with hazard
     Of my head."

Miss Bell sat in her neat little office, with the evening paper in her hand. The hour before tea was the one time of the day she reserved for herself. Susie Smithers declared that she sat before the fire at such times and took naps, but Susie's knowledge was not always trustworthy --it depended entirely on the position of the keyhole.

At any rate, Miss Bell was not sleeping to-night; she moved about restlessly, brushing imaginary ashes from the spotless hearth, staring absently into the fire, then recurring again and again to an item in the paper which she held:

DIED. Kate Rider, in her twenty-fourth year, from injuries received in an accident.

Miss Bell seemed to cringe before the words. Her face looked old and drawn. "And to think I kept her from having her child!" she said to herself as she paced up and down the narrow room. "No matter what else Kate was, she was his mother and had the first right to him. But I acted for the best; I could see no other way. If I had only known!"

There were steps on the pavement without; she went to the window, and shading her eyes with her hands, gazed into the gathering dusk. Some one was coming up the walk, some one very short and fat. No; it was a girl carrying a child. Miss Bell reached the door just in time to catch Tommy in her arms as Lovey Mary staggered into the hall. They were covered with sleet and almost numb from the cold.

"Kate's dead!" cried Lovey Mary, as Miss Bell hurried them into the office. "I didn't know she was going to die. Oh, I've been so wicked to you and to Kate and to God! I want to be arrested! I don't care what they do to me."

She threw herself on the floor, and beat her fists on the carpet. Tommy stood near and wept in sympathy; he wore his remnant trousers, and his little straw hat, round which Mrs. Wiggs had sewn a broad band of black.

Miss Bell hovered over Lovey Mary and patted her nervously on the back. "Don't, my dear, don't cry so. It's very sad--dear me, yes, very sad. You aren't alone to blame, though; I have been at fault, too. I-- I--feel dreadfully about it."

Miss Bell's face was undergoing such painful contortions that Lovey Mary stopped crying in alarm, and Tommy got behind a chair.

"Of course," continued Miss Bell, gaining control of herself, "it was very wrong of you to run away, Mary. When I discovered that you had gone I never stopped until I found you."

"Till you found me?" gasped Lovey Mary.

"Yes, child; I knew where you were all the time."

Again Miss Bell's features were convulsed, and Mary and Tommy looked on in awed silence. "You see," she went on presently, "I am just as much at fault as you. I was worried and distressed over having to let Tommy go with Kate, yet there seemed no way out of it. When I found you had hidden him away in a safe place, that you were both well and happy, I determined to keep your secret. But oh, Mary, we hadn't the right to keep him from her! Perhaps the child would have been her salvation; perhaps she would have died a good girl."

"But she did, Miss Bell," said Lovey Mary, earnestly. "She said she was sorry again and again, and when she went to sleep Tommy's arms was round her neck."

"Mary!" cried Miss Bell, seizing the girl's hand eagerly, "did you find her and take him to her?"

"No, ma'am. I brought her to him. She didn't have no place to go, and I wanted to make up to her for hating her so. I did ever'thing I could to make her well. We all did. I never thought she was going to die."

Then, at Miss Bell's request, Lovey Mary told her story, with many sobs and tears, but some smiles in between, over the good times in the Cabbage Patch; and when she had finished, Miss Bell led her over to the sofa and put her arms about her. They had lived under the same roof for fifteen years, and she had never before given her a caress.

"Mary," she said, "you did for Kate what nobody else could have done. I thank God that it all happened as it did."

"But you'd orter scold me and punish me," said Lovey Mary. "I'd feel better if you did."

Tommy, realizing in some vague way that a love-feast was in progress, and always ready to echo Lovey Mary's sentiments, laid his chubby hand on Miss Bell's knee.

"When my little sled drows up I'm doin' to take you ridin'," he said confidingly.

Miss Bell laughed a hearty laugh, for the first time in many months. The knotty problem which had caused her many sleepless nights had at last found its own solution.