Chapter XX. Another's Secret
 

"Tell me something about this artist who called himself Eugene Prince," said Lieutenant Allison, who, propped up in bed with Mr. Wing and the Winnebagos around him, had been looking over the contents of the sketching portfolio which Sahwah had just brought in.

Mr. Wing, still dazed from the shock of learning that the man he had looked upon as such a good friend had played him false, described the artist as well as he could. The lieutenant listened with a puzzled frown until he heard about the funny little drawings that the artist used to make, and then he interrupted with a triumphant exclamation.

"That's he!" he exclaimed. "The very same! Eugene Prince is Waldemar von Oldenbach himself!"

Then he told about him.

"Waldemar von Oldenbach! His father is a German count, his mother was an American. He was educated in England and afterward came to America and entered Cornell. That's where I met him. He was the cleverest scapegrace that ever lived. He could sing like an angel, draw like St. Peter, and knew more languages than an Ellis Island interpreter. He made friends wherever he went. To look at him and hear him talk you would never think he was a German; he's the picture of his American mother, and being in England so much he had learned English perfectly. At the same time he could make himself up like a Frenchman and you'd swear that he and all his ancestors were born in the shadow of Notre Dame. He was a great old actor, all right. After he'd been in America a year or so he went back to Germany and entered the navy and became a first lieutenant on the Eitel Friederich. That's where he was when the war broke out and the Eitel Friederich was interned. But Von Oldenbach wasn't interned with her, not much. He got away before they had a chance to photograph him and label him, and so no official search was ever made for him as it was in the cases of the other sailors from the Eitel Friederich who escaped. I have often wondered what became of him, because I knew he was on the Eitel Friederich when she first came into port, but his name didn't show up among the ship's officers when they were interned. Someone on board said he had died the day before the ship was seized and that was all anybody knew about him. He must have been quietly cruising around the country ever since, disguised and posing as an artist, working himself into one locality after another where he could get information that was of service to his fatherland. These drawings here are mostly of airplane parts which he's picked up in various places and his sketches are mostly all rivers and bridges.

"Eugene Prince, indeed! 'Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter,' that's what they used to call him in college, after an old student song. He had such winning ways he could take up with anybody. Nobody on earth was proof against his charm. You see how it has worked with yourself, Mr. Wing. He made himself such a delightful companion, and became of such real service to you in your work of trailing enemy agents that you never suspected he wasn't the most patriotic American alive. You would have staked your soul on it. When he found out you had this letter which tied up old Prince Karl Augustus with your strike case, he managed to get it away from you and so scored one for the Prince, who is a good friend of his. At the same time he was clever enough to throw suspicion over onto this little Hungarian girl friend of yours, and if this goat hadn't butted in just at the right time he probably never would have been found out. As it is, he'll probably never be caught now. He's too clever. He'll fool the officers yet, as he's done before." Sleep came slowly to the girls that night, there had been so much excitement during the day, but one by one they dropped off at last, even Sahwah, who was so wide awake she thought she would never sleep again. Sometime after midnight the doorbell rang, a loud, ferocious peal that clanged through the silent house like a fire alarm and fetched Sahwah sitting upright in bed with a beating heart. "What's that?" came in a startled tone from Hinpoha's room.

"The doorbell," answered Sahwah, jumping out of bed and putting on her slippers. The other girls were awake by this time, calling to each other. The bell pealed again.

"Don't you go to the door!" cried Hinpoha hoarsely, as she saw Sahwah preparing to go down. "It may be the artist coming back to kill us. I've heard of such things. They come to the door at night and ring the doorbell and then they shoot you through the door when you open it. Don't you dare go down!"

"Oh-h-h-h-wow-w!" shrieked Gladys, with a smothered squeal, her nerves giving away beneath the shock of being wakened so suddenly from sound sleep, together with the picture of horror conjured up by Hinpoha's awful suggestion.

Fright overtook the rest of them then and they stood in a shivering group in the upper hall. Another peal clanged through the house, louder and more insistent than before.

"I'm going to see who's there," said Sahwah hardily. "Come on, all of you, come down with me."

"Wait until we get armed," said Hinpoha, casting about for something that would serve as a weapon of defense. There was nothing in sight but a two-quart bottle of spring water, which she picked up. Gladys went into the kitchen and picked up a frying pan, Sahwah climbed up on the mantel and pulled down the Revolutionary musket that hung there and brought down a three-foot sword for Migwan. It dropped with a clatter upon the hearthstone when Migwan tried to take it from her hand, and the four stood petrified with alarm. Another furious peal at the bell.

"Come on," whispered Sahwah. "I'll open the door a crack and you stand right behind me. I'm not going to turn on the light, because it's easier to rush out and make an attack in the dark." Holding their breath they approached the door with shaking knees. Sahwah turned the key in the lock as quietly as she could and opened the door a tiny crack. "Who's there?" she called in a bold voice, at the same time bringing her gun down on the floor with a warning bang.

"It's I, Nyoda," answered the dearest voice in the world. "Oh, I thought I'd never make you hear!"

The next minute she was inside the room and the light was switched on. One look at the four girls, armed to the teeth, and Nyoda doubled up on the stairs and laughed until she cried, while the Winnebagos looked sheepish and laid their weapons down in a hurry.

"Didn't you get my wire saying I was coming?" asked Nyoda in surprise. "I sent one yesterday saying I would reach Oakwood at eight to-night. Trains were delayed all along the line and I didn't get in until nearly one this morning."

"We never got any telegram," said Migwan.

"I suppose it'll get here to-morrow," said Nyoda resignedly. "The telegraph operator in St. Margaret's was also the postmaster, and I have a suspicion that he was also the expressman, and his messages piled up on him at times. I got your letter about Veronica yesterday and started for home immediately. Now tell me everything exactly as it happened."

She listened with wide-open eyes to the tale which Sahwah, assisted by the other three, poured out excitedly.

At the mention of Veronica's mysterious errands from the house, which had brought suspicion down upon her, Nyoda suddenly turned white and clutched the newel post for support.

"Oh, if I had only known!" she cried wildly. "If I had only been here! Oh, the poor, poor child, why didn't she tell?" Nyoda sank down on the stairs and buried her face in her hands, while the Winnebagos stood around with wondering, startled faces.

Then she looked up at the girls and began to speak.

"Girls," she said in an awed tone, "I simply can't find words to tell you what Veronica has done. No one could express in seven languages the depth of her loyalty to a friend. She has kept a promise of silence about a certain matter at a cost to herself that surpasses belief. But here and now I absolve her from that promise, and propose to tell you the whole matter which has so puzzled and tormented you with its mystery, although it is a matter I urgently wished to keep secret.

"You probably do not know that my husband has a younger brother, Clement, who was a brilliant scholar and a fine musician. His health had always been frail, and he overstudied in college, with the result that in the middle of his junior year he broke down altogether and was ill for a long time. Worry about his condition finally affected his mind and he became quite melancholy at times and mentally unbalanced. It was nothing permanent, the doctors said, and the mental trouble would pass away if he regained his health, but Clement was morbidly sensitive about it and was terribly afraid people would find it out and consider him crazy all the rest of his life, and that his career would be ruined by it

"His distress was so keen that my husband brought him to a little cottage here on the outskirts of Oakwood that stands far back from one of the unfrequented roads, almost hidden by the trees, and established him there with a young doctor friend and an old housekeeper who had been in the family for years and had looked after Clem since he was a youngster. None of his friends knew where he was nor what was the matter with him, so he was safe from the publicity he feared. He began to improve with the quiet outdoor life he led, but still there were times when he grew so melancholy that they feared he would kill himself. He was passionately fond of violin music, and we soon found out he could be speedily brought out of his melancholy fits by the sound of his favorite instrument.

"So I brought Veronica down here this summer, and her playing worked a miracle every time. Whenever Clem grew despondent they would telephone for Veronica and she would go over and play for him. When she went out of the house in the daytime to go over, she went through the cellar passage that opens out into the spring house on the side of the hill, so you girls would not see her leaving with her violin."

A light broke in Sahwah's brain. That was why she had not heard Veronica going out of the front door that afternoon when she disappeared so mysteriously!

"But he usually had those spells at night," continued Nyoda, "because he was always sleepless, but no matter what time it was she would always go and play for him, and the magic strains of her violin would put him to sleep and drive away the melancholy. Of course, I asked her to keep the matter a secret, and never breathe a word about Clem's existence to anybody, and she promised. How little did I guess what it was going to cost her to keep that secret!"

The Winnebagos looked at each other in wonder and awe at the thought of this fiery little wisp of nobility who would not break her word of honor even to clear herself of unjust suspicion. Then with one voice they broke out in a wild cheer of admiration and acclaim that sent the echoes flying through the quiet old house:

  "Oh, Veronica, here's to you,
  Our hearts will e'er be true,
  We will never find your equal
  Though we search the whole world through !"