Chapter XVIII. The Pryor Mystery
 
        "And now old Dodson, turning pale,
         Yields to his fate--so ends my tale."

It didn't take me long to see why Shelley liked Robert Paget. He was one of the very most likeable persons I ever had seen. We were sitting under the apple tree, growing better friends every minute, when we heard a smash, so we looked up, and it was the sound made by Ranger as Mr. Pryor landed from taking our meadow fence. He had ridden through the pasture, and was coming down the creek bank. He was a spectacle to behold. A mile away you could see that Thomas had told him he had seen Robert, and where he was. Father had been mistaken in thinking Mr. Pryor would go to the house. He had lost his hat, his white hair was flying, his horse was in a lather, and he seemed to be talking to himself. Robert took one good look. "Ye Gods!" he cried. "There he comes now, a chattering madman!"

"The Station," I panted. "Up that ravine! Roll back the stone and pull the door shut after you. Quick!"

He never could have been inside, before Mr. Pryor's horse was raving along the embankment beside the fence.

"Where is he?" he cried. "Thomas saw him here!"

I didn't think his horse could take the fence at the top of the hill, but it looked as if he intended trying to make it, and I had to stop him if I could.

"Saw who?" I asked with clicking teeth.

"A tall, slender man, with a handsome face, and the heart of a devil."

"Yes, there was a man here like that in the face. I didn't see his heart," I said.

"Which way?" raved Mr. Pryor. "Which way? Is he at your house?"

Then I saw that he had the reins in his left hand, and a big revolver in his right. So there was no mistake about whether he'd really shoot. But that gun provoked me. People have no business to be careless with those things. They're dangerous!

"He didn't do what you think he did," I cried, "and he can prove he didn't, if you'll stop cavorting, and listen to reason."

Mr. Pryor leaned over the fence, dark purple like a beet now.

"You tell me where he is, or I'll choke it out of you," he said.

I guess he meant it. I took one long look at his lean, clawlike fingers, and put both hands around my neck.

"He knew Thomas saw him. He went that way," I said, waving off toward the north.

"Hah! striking for petticoats, as usual!" he cried, and away he went in the direction of his house. Then I flew for the Station.

"Come from there, quick!" I cried. "I've sent him back to his house, but when he finds you're not there, he will come here again. Hurry, and I'll put you in the woodshed loft. He'd never think of looking there."

He came out and we started toward the house, going pretty fast. Almost to the back gate we met Shelley.

"Does mother know?" I asked.

"I just told her," she said.

"Father," I cried, going in the back dining-room door. "Mr. Pryor was down in the meadow on Ranger. Thomas did see Robert, and his father is hunting him with a gun. We saw him coming, so I hid Robert in the Station and sent Mr. Pryor back home--I guess I told him a lie, father, or at least part of one, I said he went `that way,' and he did, but not so far as I made his father think; so he started back home, but when he gets there and doesn't find Robert he'll come here again, madder than ever. Oh father, he'll come again, and he's crazy, father! Clear, raving crazy! I know he'll come again!"

"Yes," said father calmly. "I think it very probable that he will come again."

Then he started around shutting and latching windows, closing and locking the doors, and he carefully loaded his gun, and leaned it against the front casing. Then he put on his glasses, and began examining the papers they had brought out again. Robert stood beside him, and explained and showed him.

"You see with me out of the way, the English law would give everything to my cousin," he said, and he explained it all over again.

"And to think how he always posed for a perfect saint!" cried the Princess. "Oh I hope the devil knows how to make him pay for what all of us have suffered!"

"Child! Child!" cried mother.

"I can't help it!" said the Princess. "Let me tell you, Mr. Stanton."

Then she told everything all over again, but it was even more interesting than the way Robert explained it, because what she said was about how it had been with her and her mother.

"It made father what he is," she said. "He would have killed Robert, if our friends hadn't helped him away. He will now, if he isn't stopped. I tell you he will! He sold everything he could legally control, for what any one chose to give him, and fled here stricken in pride, heartbroken, insane with anger, the creature you know. In a minute he'll be back again. Oh what are we going to do?"

Father was laying out the papers that he wanted to use very carefully.

"These constitute all the proof any court would require," he said to Robert. "If he returns, all of you keep from sight. This is my house; I'll manage who comes here, in my own way."

"But you must be allowed to take no risk!" cried Robert. "I cawn't consent to youah facing danger for me."

"There will be no risk," said father. "There is no reason why he should want to injure me. As the master of this house, I am accustomed to being obeyed. If he comes, step into the parlour there, until I call you."

He was busy with the papers when he saw Mr. Pryor coming. I wondered if he would jump the yard fence and ride down mother's flowers, but he left his horse at the hitching rack, and pounded on the front door.

"Did any of you notice whether he was displaying a revolver?" asked father.

"Yes father! Yes!" I cried. "And he's shaking so I'm afraid he'll make it go, when he doesn't intend to."

Father picked up and levelled his rifle on the front door.

"Leon," he said, "you're pretty agile. Open this door, keep yourself behind it, and step around in the parlour. The rest of you get out, and stay out of range."

Those nearest hurried into the parlour. Candace, May, and I crouched in the front stairway, but things were so exciting we just had to keep the door open a tiny crack so we could see plain as anything. There had been nothing for Mrs. Freshett to do all afternoon, so she had gone over to visit an hour with Amanda Deam. Now Mr. Pryor probably thought father would meet him with the Bible in his hand, and read a passage about loving your neighbour as yourself. I'll bet anything you can mention that he never expected to find himself looking straight down the barrel of a shining big rifle when that door swung open. It surprised him so, he staggered, and his arm wavered. If he had shot and hit anything then, it would have been an accident.

"Got you over the heart," said father, in precisely the same voice he always said, "This is a fine day we are having." "Now why are you coming here in such a shape?" This was a little cross. "I'm not the man to cringe before you!" This was quite boastful. "You'll get bullet for bullet, if you attempt to invade my house with a gun." This pinged as if father shot words instead of bullets.

"I want my daughter to come home," said Mr. Pryor. "And if you're sheltering the thief she is trying to hide, yield him up, if you would save yourself."

"Well, I'm not anxious about dying, with the family I have on my hands, neighbour," said father, his rifle holding without a waver, "but unless you put away that weapon, and listen to reason, you cannot enter my house. Calm yourself, man, and hear what there is to be said! Examine the proof, that is here waiting to be offered to you."

"Once and but once, send them out, or I'll enter over you!" cried Mr. Pryor.

"Sorry," said father, "but if only a muscle of your trigger finger moves, you fall before I do. I've the best range, and the most suitable implement for the work."

"Implement for the work!" Well, what do you think of father? Any one who could not see, to have heard him, would have thought he was talking about a hoe. We saw a shadow before we knew what made it; then, a little at a time, wonderingly, her jolly face a bewildered daze, her mouth slowly opening, Mrs. Freshett, half- bent and peering, stooped under Mr. Pryor's arm and looked in our door. She had come back to help get supper, and because the kitchen was locked, she had gone around the house to see if she could get in at the front. What she saw closed her mouth, and straightened her back.

"Why, you two old fools!" she cried. "If ye ain't drawed a bead on each other!"

None of us saw her do it. We only knew after it was over what must have happened. She had said she'd risk her life for mother.

She never stopped an instant when her chance came. She must have turned, and thrown her big body against Mr. Pryor. He was tired, old, and shaking with anger. They went down together, she gripping his right wrist with both hands, and she was strong as most men. Father set the gun beside the door, and bent over them. A minute more and he handed the revolver to Leon, and helped Mrs. Freshett to her feet. Mr. Pryor lay all twisted on the walk, his face was working, and what he said was a stiff jabber no one could understand. He had broken into the pieces we often feared he would.

Robert and Laddie came running to help father carry him in, and lay him on the couch.

"I hope, Miss Stanton," said Mrs. Freshett, "that I wa'n't too rough with him. He was so shaky-like, I was 'feered that thing would go off without his really makin' it, and of course I couldn't see none of yourn threatened with a deadly weepon, 'thout buttin' in and doin' the best I could."

Mother put her arms around her as far as they would reach. She would have had to take her a side at a time to really hug all of her, and she said: "Mrs. Freshett, you are an instrument in the hands of the Lord this day. Undoubtedly you have kept us from a fearful tragedy; possibly you have saved my husband for me. None of us ever can thank you enough."

"Loosen his collar and give him air," said Mrs. Freshett pushing mother away. "I think likely he has bust a blood vessel."

Father sent Leon flying to bring Dr. Fenner. Laddie took the carriage and he and Robert went after Mrs. Pryor, while father, mother, Mrs. Freshett, the Princess, May, and I, every last one, worked over Mr. Pryor. We poured hot stuff down his throat, put warm things around him, and rubbed him until the sweat ran on us, trying to get his knotted muscles straightened out. When Dr. Fenner came he said we were doing all he could; maybe Mr. Pryor would come to and be all right, and maybe his left side would be helpless forever; it was a stroke. Seemed to me having Mrs. Freshett come against you like that, could be called a good deal more than a stroke, but I couldn't think of the right word then. And after all, perhaps stroke was enough. He couldn't have been much worse off if the barn had fallen on him. I didn't think there was quite so much of Mrs. Freshett; but then she was scared, and angry; and he was about ready to burst, all by himself, if no one had touched him. He had much better have stayed at home and listened to what was to be said, reasonably, like father would; and then if he really had to shoot, he would have been in some kind of condition to take aim.

After a long hard fight we got him limber, straightened out, and warm, it didn't rip so when he breathed, then they put him in the parlour on the big davenport. Leon said if the sparkin' bench didn't bring him to, nothing would. Laddie sat beside him and mother kept peeping. She wouldn't let Dr. Fenner go, because she said Mr. Pryor just must come out of it right, and have a few years of peace and happiness.

Mrs. Pryor came back with Laddie and Robert. He carried her in, put her in the big rocking chair again, and he sat beside her, stroking and kissing her, while she held him with both hands. You could see now why his mother couldn't sleep, walked the road, and held her hands over her heart. She was a brave woman, and she had done well to keep alive and going in any shape at all. You see we knew. There had been only the few hours when it seemed possible that one of our boys had taken father's money and was gone. I well remembered what happened to our mother then. And if she had been disgraced before every one, dragged from her home away across a big sea to live among strangers, and not known where her boy was for years, I'm not a bit sure that she'd have done better than Mrs. Pryor. Yes, she would too; come to think it out--she'd have kept on believing the Lord had something to do with it, and that He'd fix it some way; and I know she and father would have held hands no matter what happened or where they went.

I guess the biggest thing the matter with Pryors was that they didn't know how to go about loving each other right; maybe it was because they didn't love God, so they couldn't know exactly what proper love was; because God is love, like father said.

Mrs. Pryor didn't want to see Mr. Pryor--I can't get used to calling them Paget--and she didn't ask anything about him. I guess she was pretty mad at him. She never had liked the Emmet cousin, and she'd had nothing but trouble with him all the time he had been in her family, and then that awful disgrace, that she always thought was all him, but she couldn't prove it, and she had no money.

That's a very bad thing. A woman should always have some money. She works as hard as any one, and usually she has more that worries her, so it's only fair for her to have part of what the work and worry bring. Mother always has money. Why, she has so much, she can help father out when he is pushed with bills, as she did last fall, to start Shelley to music school. It's no way to be forced to live with a man, just to get a home, food, and clothing. I don't believe mother ever would do it in all this world. But then mother has worked all her life, and so if father doesn't do as she wants him to, she'd know exactly how to go about taking care of herself.

After all Mrs. Pryor didn't need to sit back on her dignity and look so abused. He couldn't knock her down, and drag her clear here. Why didn't she say right out, in the beginning, that her son couldn't be a thief, that she knew it, and she'd stay at home and wait for him to come back? She could have put a piece in the paper saying she knew her boy was all right, and for him to come back, so they could go to work and prove it. I bet if she'd had one tenth of the ginger mother has, she'd have stopped the whole fuss in the start. I looked at her almost steadily, trying to figure out just what mother would have done in her place. Maybe I'm mistaken about exactly how she would have set to work, but this I know: she'd have stuck to the Lord; she'd have loved father, so dearly, he just couldn't have wanted her to do things that hurt her until it gave her heart trouble; and she never, never would have given up one of us, and sat holding her heart for months, refusing to see or to speak to any one, while she waited for some one else to do something. Mother never waits. She always thinks a minute, if she's in doubt she asks father; if he can't decide, both of them ask God; and then you ought to see things begin to fly.

The more I watched Mrs. Pryor, the more I began to think she was a lady; and just about when I was sure that was what ailed her, I heard father say: "Perhaps the lady would like a cup of tea." I had a big notion to tell her to come on, and I would show her where the cannister was, but I thought I better not. I wanted to, though. She'd have felt much better if she had got up and worked like the rest of us. With all the excitement, and everything happening at once, you'd have thought mother would be flat on her back, but flat nothing! Everything was picked up and slid back, fast as it was torn down; she found time to flannel her nose and brush her hair, her collar was straight, and the goldstone pin shone in the light, while her starched white apron fluttered as she went through the doors. She said a few words to Candace and Mrs. Freshett, May took out a linen cloth and began to set places for all the grown people, so I knew there'd be strawberry preserves and fried ham, but in all that, would you ever have thought that she'd find a second to make biscuit, and tea cakes herself? Plain as preaching I heard her say to Mrs. Freshett: "I do hope and pray that Mr. Pryor will come out of it right, so we can take him home, and teach him to behave himself; but if he's gone this minute, I intend to have another decent meal for Shelley to offer her young man; and I don't care if I show Mrs. Pryor that we're not hungry over here, if we do lack servants to carry in food on silver platters."

"That I jest would!" said Mrs. Freshett. "Even if he turns up his toes, 'tain't your funeral, thank the Lord! an' looky here, I'd jest as soon set things in a bake pan an' pass 'em for you, myself. I'll do it, if you say the word."

Mother bit her lip, and fought her face to keep it straight, as she said confidential-like: "No, I'm not going to toady to her. I only want her to see that a meal really consists of food after all; I don't mind putting my best foot foremost, but I won't ape her."

"Huccome they to fuss like this, peaceable as Mr. Stanton be, an' what's Shelley's beau to them?"

"I should think you could tell by looking at Pryors," said mother. "He's their mystery, and also their son. Shelley met him in Chicago, he came here to see her, and ran right into them. I'll tell you about it before you go. Now, I must keep these applications hot, for I've set my head on pulling Mr. Pryor out so that he can speak, and have a few decent years of life yet."

"But why did the old devil--ex-cuse me, I mean the old gentleman, want to shoot your man?"

"He didn't! I'll tell you all about it after they're gone."

"I bet you don't get shet of them the night," said Mrs. Freshett.

"All right!" said mother. "Whatever Dr. Fenner thinks. I won't have Mr. Pryor moved until it can't hurt him, if he stays a week. I blame her quite as much as I do him; from what I know. If a woman is going to live with a man, there are times when she's got to put her foot down--flat--most unmercifully flat!"

"Ain't she though!" said Mrs. Freshett; then she and mother just laughed.

There! What did I tell you? I feel as good as if father had patted me on the head and bragged on me a lot. I thought mother wouldn't think that Mr. Pryor was all to blame, and she didn't. I figured that out by myself, too.

Every minute Mr. Pryor grew better. He breathed easier, and mother tilted on her toes and waved her hands, when he moved his feet, threw back his head, lifted his hand to it, and acted like he was almost over it, and still in shape to manage himself. She hurried to tell Mrs. Pryor, and I know mother didn't like it when she never even said she was glad, or went to see for herself.

Laddie and the Princess watched him, while every one else went to supper. Laddie picked up Mrs. Pryor's chair, carried her to the dining-room, and set her in my place beside father. He placed Dr. Fenner next her, and left Robert to sit with Shelley. I don't think Mrs. Pryor quite liked that, but no one asked her.

I watched and listened until everything seemed to be going right there, and then I slipped into the parlour, where Laddie and the Princess were caring for Mr. Pryor. With one hand Laddie held hers, the other grasped Mr. Pryor's wrist. Laddie never took his eyes from that white, drawn face, except to smile at her, and squeeze her hand every little while. At last Mr. Pryor turned over and sighed, pretty soon he opened his eyes, and looked at Laddie, then at the Princess, and it was nothing new to see them, so he smiled and dozed again. After a while he opened them wider, then he saw the piano--that was an eye-opener for any one--and the strange room, so he asked, most as plain as he ever talked, why he was at our house again, and then he began to remember. He struggled to sit up and the colour came into his face. So Laddie let go the Princess, and held him down while he said: "Mr. Pryor, answer me this. Do you want to spend the remainder of your life in an invalid's chair, or would you like to walk abroad and sit a horse again?"

He glared at Laddie, but he heard how things were plainly enough.

Laddie held him, while he explained what a fight we had to unlock his muscles, and start him going again, and how, if we hadn't loved him, and wanted him so, and had left him untouched until the Doctor came, very likely he'd have been paralyzed all the rest of his life, if he hadn't died; and he said he wished he had, and he didn't thank any one for saving him.

"Oh yes you do!" said Laddie, the same as he'd have talked to Leon. "You can't stuff me on that, and you needn't try. Being dead is a cold, clammy proposition, that all of us put off as long as we can. You know you want to see Pamela in her own home.

You know you are interested in how I come out with those horses. You know you want the little people you spoke of, around you. You know the pain and suspense you have borne have almost driven you insane, and it was because you cared so deeply. Now lie still, and keep quiet! All of us are tired and there's no sense in making us go through this again, besides the risk of crippling yourself that you run. Right here in this house are the papers to prove that your nephew took your money, and hid it in your son's clothing, as he already had done a hundred lesser things, before, purposely to estrange you. Hold steady! You must hear this! The sooner you know it, the better you'll feel. You remember, don't you, that before your nephew entered your home, you idolized your son. You thought the things he did were amusing. A boy is a boy, and if he's alive, he's very apt to be lively. Mother could tell you a few pranks that Leon has put us through; but they're only a boy's foolishness, they are not unusual or unforgivable. I've gone over the evidence your son brings, with extreme care, so has father. Both of us are quite familiar with common law. He has every proof you can possibly desire. You can't get around it, even if your heart wasn't worn out with rebellion, and you were not crazy to have the loving sympathy of your family again."

"I don't believe a word of it!"

"You have got to! I tell you it is proof, man! The documents are in this house now."

"He forged them, or stole them, as he took the money!"

Laddie just laughed.

"How you do long, and fight, to be convinced!" he said. "I don't blame you! When anything means this much, of course you must be sure. But you'll know your nephew's signature; also your lawyer's. You'll know letters from old friends who are above question. Sandy McSheel has written you that he was with Robert through all of it, and he gives you his word that everything is all right. You will believe him, won't you?"

Big tears began to squeeze from under Mr. Pryor's lids, until Laddie and the Princess each tried to see how much of him they could hold to keep him together-like.

"Tell me!" he said at last, so they took turns explaining everything plain as day, and soon he listened without being held.

When they had told him everything they could think of, he asked: "Did Robert kill Emmet?"

"I am very happy to be able to tell you that he did not. It would have been painful, and not helped a bad matter a particle. Your nephew had dissipated until he was only a skeleton just breathing his last. It's probable that his fear of death helped your son out, so that he got the evidence he wanted easier than he hoped to in the beginning. I don't mean that he is dead now; but he is passing slowly, and loathsomely. Robert thinks word that he has gone will come any hour. Think how pleasant it will be to have your son! Think how happy your home will be now! Think how you will love to see Sandy, and all your old friends! Think how glad you'll be to go home, and take charge of your estate!"

"Think!" cried Mr. Pryor, pushing Laddie away and sitting up: "Think how I shall enjoy wringing the last drop of blood from that craven's body with these old hands!"

What a sight he did look to be sure! Sick, half-crazy, on the very verge of the grave himself, and wanting to kill a poor man already dying. Aren't some people too curious?

Laddie carefully laid him down, straightened him out and held him again. Mother always said he was "patient as Job," and that day it proved to be a good thing.

"You're determined to keep yourself well supplied with trouble," laughed Laddie. I don't believe any one else would have dared. "Now to an unbiased observer, it would seem that you'd be ready to let well enough alone. You have your son back, you have him fully exonerated, you have much of your property, you are now ready for freedom, life, and love, with the best of us; you have also two weddings on your hands in the near future. Why in the name of sense are you anxious for more?"

"I should have thought that Sandy McSheel, if he's a real friend of mine----"

"Sandy tells you all about it in the letter he has sent. He went with Robert fully intending to do that very thing for you, but the poor creature was too loathsome. The sight of him made Sandy sick. He writes you that when he saw the horrible spectacle, all he could think of was to secure the evidence needed and get away."

Suddenly the Princess arose and knelt beside the davenport. She put her arms around her father's neck and drew his wrinkled, white old face up against her lovely one.

"Daddy! Dear old Daddy!" she cried. "I've had such a hard spot in my heart against you for so long. Oh do let's forget everything, and begin all over again; begin away back where we were before Emmet ever came. Oh Daddy, do let's forget, and begin all over new, like other people!"

He held her tight a minute, then his lips began whispering against her ear. Finally he said: "Take yourselves off, and send Robert here. I want my son. Oh I want my boy!"

It was a long time before Robert came from the parlour; when he did, it was only to get his mother and take her back with him; then it was a still longer time before the door opened; but when it did, it was perfectly sure that they were all friends again. Then Leon went to tell Thomas, and he came with the big carriage.

White and shaking, Mr. Pryor was lifted into it and they went home together, taking Shelley with them to stay that night; so no doubt she was proposed to and got her kiss before she slept.

That fall there were two weddings at our church at the same time.

Sally's had been fine; but it wasn't worth mentioning beside Laddie and the Princess, and Robert and Shelley. You should have seen my mother! She rocked like a kingbird on the top twig of the winesap, which was the tallest tree in our orchard, and for once there wasn't a single fly in her ointment, not one, she said so herself, and so did father. As we watched the big ve-hi- ackle, as Leon called it, creep slowly down the Little Hill, it made me think of that pathetic poem, "The Three Warnings," in McGuffey's Sixth. I guess I gave Mr. Pryor the first, that time he got so angry he hit his horse until it almost ran away. Mother delivered the second when she curry-combed him about the taxes, and Mrs. Freshett finished the job. The last two lines read as if they had been especially written about him:

        "And now old Dodson, turning pale,
         Yields to his fate--so ends my tale."