Chapter XVIII. The Clue
 

Jack Kimball sat in his study, with his hands laced in his thick, dark hair. He was thinking - Jack claimed the happy faculty of being able to think of one thing at a time, and to do that thoroughly.

Suddenly he jumped up, and, whistling a tune that only a happy youth knows how to originate, he dashed up the polished stairs, three steps at a time, and finally reached the third floor of his home.

He was met in the hall by a matronly woman with a tray in her hands, and at his approach she stepped back to allow him to enter a room, the door of which was swung open.

"Morning, Miss Brown," he said. "How's the baby?"

"Doing splendidly, thank you," replied the woman, "and she is very anxious to see you. Won't you step in?"

"Sure thing," answered Jack. "That's just what I came up for. I want to chat with her myself."

He stepped lightly into the apartment. It was plainly furnished, with a keen appreciation of what was needed in a sick room, and what should be left out of it. Jack sank into a steamer chair beside the white bed.

"How are things, Wren?" he asked, stroking the delicate hand that was put out to greet him. "Are you almost strong enough to - play football?"

The child smiled, and turned her head away. She had never known any one in all her life like Jack Kimball, so big and strong, and yet so kind. He almost made her feel timid and shy.

"I'm better every minute," she managed to say. "But, of course, I ought to be."

She glanced at her nurse, Miss Brown, who was bringing the morning's beef tea.

"She is really doing splendidly," put in the nurse. "But she is a model patient - never wants what is not good for her."

"Is Clip coming to-day?" asked Wren, hesitating as she said "Clip."

"I hope so," replied Jack, "but you know she is very busy, and may not get here. But if she does not" - noting the child's disappointment - "she will surely come to-morrow. She telephoned so last night."

"Did she say anything about the book?" queried the little one.

"That's exactly what I want to talk about," he replied with nice evasion. "I wonder are you well enough to try to remember about that book. Where did you last have it?"

"Out in my chair, with mother. I asked a little boy along the road to hand me some flowers, the book slipped back of me, and, as mother wheeled me along, I could feel that it was all right. When we got home it was gone."

"And you didn't speak with any other persons than this boy?" Jack continued.

"Oh, there were a lot of people out to see the firemen's parade, and lots of them spoke to me."

"But did any one walk along with you to talk with you?"

"Yes," she said with hesitation, trying to recall that day's momentous happenings; "there were two people. They were strangers. I think they had been in an automobile, for the girl was dressed like a motor girl, and the young man wore a long duster."

Jack stopped and made a mental note of this remark. He had evidently expected this intelligence.

"What did they look like - I mean personally?"

"The girl had red hair - I particularly noticed that," replied the child; "but I have no idea what the man looked like, for he walked back of my chair."

"I'm not tiring her, am I, Miss Brown?" asked Jack, turning to the nurse. "I can wait for the other details."

"Go right on," assented the woman, who was dressed in the garb of a nurse. "I think the talk will do her good; she has been so anxious about it all."

"And these two people talked with you?" pursued Jack.

"Why, yes. The girl sat down on the roadside, and mother stopped my chair. Let me see; I think mother went into the little candy shop and left them with me. They were very pleasant. I am sure they would never touch my book."

"Did you tell them what it was?"

"I did, of course. I always told everybody what my precious book was. I asked them to sign my promise, and they both did so."

"Oh!" exclaimed Jack, whistling his punctuation. "They did sign, did they?"

"Why, I thought you knew that," replied Wren. "But I did not see the book after they signed, so I do not know their names. You see, mother was in a hurry, and they just gave me the book and - Oh, what could have become of my precious book!" she broke off, her voice like a cry from her very heart.

"Well, now there!" soothed Jack. "I knew I should not have distressed you about it. But, you see, I had to know, else I could not find it. Now I feel I shall have it back to you in jig time. Brace up, little girl"; and he tried to impart both courage and hope by his manner. "Don't you know you are sure to get some wonderful blessing for having to stand this loss? That's Cora's pet theory. She almost drives a fellow after trouble declaring he will find joy at his heels."

Wren was sighing. Her book had been to her so much. More, perhaps, than some animal pet is to the average cripple, both companion and distraction.

Miss Brown brought the bottle of alcohol, and bathed the child's temples.

"Do you know, Mr. Kimball," she said, "we have a secret for you. Wren stood up yesterday!"

"Bully for the legs!" cried Jack, with an absolute disregard of the way he was expressing his joy. The remark brought the color bark to Wren's cheeks.

"Yes," breathed Wren; "but they - my feet - are awfully full of pins and needles."

"Save them, save them," went on Jack. "I can never find a pin in this house. Cora fainted one day, and the doctor said it was pins. He had to take out twenty pins to give her back her breath."

"I wish your sister were home," said Wren, looking wistfully out of the low window beside the bed. "She is so like Clip - and Clip can't be here."

"She'll be home soon, all right," replied Jack, who was now standing at the door, "and when she does come we will all know it. Cora Kimball is a brass and a lawn mower, rolled into one piece. You should be glad she is away," he finished, his words actually accusing himself of falsehood.

"Fetch her, and let me see," spoke Wren, trying to appear as cheerful as she, had been when her visitor entered her room.

"Well, I'll fetch something next time," he replied. "If I can't get Cora or Clip I'll get - ice cream."