Chapter VIII. The Shadow of Mystery
 

When supper was over, the stranger lighted a cigar and stretched himself out upon the cot.

"This is certainly comfort," he remarked, as he watched Jasper clear away the dishes. "It is fortunate that we have found such hospitality. You do not have many such visitors, I suppose. It must be rather lonely for you here."

"Not as a rule, though I have been much favoured lately," Jasper replied with a laugh, and he told how his cabin had been taken possession of the previous night.

"Well, that was cool, I should say," and the stranger smiled. "Walked right in, did they?"

"But I didn't mind, for they were such a queer couple; a feeble old man, and a bright, smart girl of about sixteen. It was nice for me to have them here on such a stormy night. I would have been very lonely, otherwise."

"Where are they now?"

"They left this morning. It is a sad story. But as they are strangers to you, it would hardly interest you."

"Indeed it would," was the emphatic reply. "I am somewhat new to this country, and would like to find out all I can about the life of the people, especially in the country districts."

When Jasper had finished washing the dishes, he sat down upon a chair by the side of the cot, and lighted the cigar his visitor had given him. He then related the story of old David and Betty, taking care to say as little as possible about his own part in the affair.

"And so the old man is at the girl's home now, is he?" the stranger asked.

"Yes, for a time."

"But what will become of him?"

"I do not know for certain. I shall try to assist him all I can. But he will not go back to Jim Goban's if I can help it. It is the height of cruelty for such a refined man to live at a place like that. I do not know what the people of this parish were thinking about to allow him to be put there."

"Has he any relatives?"

"It seems not. He has been a puzzle to every one since the day he came here. He has been the laughing-stock of all the people because of a peculiar notion of his."

"And what is that?"

"He is in love with Break Neck Falls over there, and talks to it as if it were a human being. He believes that the time will come when people will obtain power and light from the falls, and the entire country will be greatly benefited."

"So that is why he is called crazy, eh?"

"Yes."

"Is there really a good reason for his idea? Is there a large waterfall?"

"Yes. I have been there several times, and consider it a good place for a plant. The old man has curious drawings of his entire plans, which I shall show you as he left them with me this morning. He must have forgotten them in his excitement, as I understand he guards them very carefully. People laugh at Crazy David for the jealous way he protects his treasure."

"Did you say his name is David?" the stranger asked.

"Yes. David Findley, so I believe. But he is only known as 'Crazy David' in this parish."

As Jasper uttered these words, the man lying on the cot rose suddenly to a sitting position, and looked keenly into the face of the young man before him as if he would read his innermost thoughts. With an apparent effort he checked himself, and with a slight laugh resumed his former position.

"I got worked up over the hard luck of that old man," he remarked. "It is a downright shame that he should be called crazy, and misunderstood. But, then, that has always been the way. Men who have done most for their fellow men have been looked upon with suspicion, and termed fools or madmen. May I see his drawings?"

For some time the stranger studied the rude lines old David had made upon the paper. Not the slightest mark escaped his notice, and he plied Jasper with numerous questions most of which the latter was unable to answer.

"I am fond of studying human nature," the visitor at length volunteered, as if to explain his remarkable interest in the old man, "and I must say that this is one of the most interesting cases I have ever come across. Here we have an old, poverty-stricken man, somewhat weak-minded, who has the vision and the enthusiasm of youth, combined with a child's simplicity. And he really believes that people of capital will carry out his ideas, does he?"

"Yes, he is sure of it."

"And he has no doubts as to the final outcome?"

"No."

"This scheme gives him considerable pleasure, I suppose."

"Yes, it is his very life. It cheers him and buoys him up, and makes him treat all discomforts as of the present, which will vanish when once he comes into his own."

"So he expects to get very rich, does he?"

"Oh, yes. He talks about what he will do when he has money. It certainly would be a great pity to take such a hope from him. I believe it would kill him at once."

For a long time they talked, and it was late when they went to bed, the stranger with the chauffeur in the adjoining room, and Jasper upon the cot. The latter found it hard to get to sleep, as many thoughts kept surging through his mind. He wondered why his visitor should take such a keen interest in the welfare of old David. He recalled, too, his sudden start when David's name was mentioned, and the excuse which had been given did not altogether satisfy him.

Jasper was awake early next morning, and had the frugal breakfast ready by the time his two visitors came from their room. As soon as breakfast was over, the chauffeur left to look after the car. The stranger then pushed back his chair, lighted a cigar, and handed one to Jasper.

"Please do not trouble about the dishes now," he began in a tone which somewhat surprised the young man.

"I have been thinking over what you told me last night, and am greatly impressed by the sad condition of that old man. You have no work in view, so I understand?"

"You are right," Jasper replied.

"Well, then," the other continued, "I wish to make a definite proposition to you on several conditions. I wish to employ you for one month, and will give you one hundred and fifty dollars, if that will be satisfactory."

It was Jasper's turn now to start, and look with astonishment at the man before him. Was he in earnest? he asked himself, or was he merely joking?

"Ah, I see you are astonished," and the stranger smiled, "but I assure you that I mean what I say, and to prove it, I shall pay you in advance."

"But what are the conditions?" Jasper stammered.

"They are three," the stranger replied after a slight pause. "First, that you are to take special care of that old man. How you are to do it I shall explain later. In the next place you are to ask no questions as to why I am doing this. And last of all, you are not to say who is doing this, neither to the old man nor, in fact, to any one."

For a few seconds Jasper looked at the stranger in a quizzical manner. He was wondering whether the man was really in his right mind.

"Isn't that a strange proposition to put to one you know so little about?" he asked.

"In most cases it might be," was the quiet reply. "But I have good reasons for what I am doing, and do not think that there will be any mistake. Are you willing to enter my employment for a month?"

"Now, that all depends. I need the money, God knows, but I must understand more about what is expected of me in connection with the care of the old man."

"I can easily settle that. You are first of all to get a good place for him to live, and, if possible, secure some dependable person to be his companion who will take a special interest in his welfare. You are to keep a detailed account of all expenses, and send the bill to me at the end of the month. This address will find me," and he drew forth a card and handed it to the young man.

There was nothing on the card to reveal to Jasper the identity of the man who was taking such a remarkable interest in old David. It simply told that the stranger's name was Robert Westcote, of 22 Princess Street, Woldun.

"I think everything is satisfactory now," and Jasper lifted his eyes to the stranger's face. "I am not likely to ask any questions, and as to telling people who you are, there will be no trouble about that. In fact, I am not intimate enough with any one here to wish to tell, even if I desired to do so."

"That is good," Mr. Westcote replied. "I could not have chosen a better person for my purpose."

"When do you want me to begin my work?" Jasper asked,

"At once, that is, if you can see your way to do so. But first of all, I should like to visit this old man. I am somewhat curious about him now that he is under my protection. How far is he from here?"

"About five miles, I should judge, though I have never been there myself. He is at Mrs. Bean's, and she lives on a back road."

"Very well, then, we shall go just as soon as the car is ready, and I should like for you to go with me."

It took the chauffeur some time to find out what was the matter with the car, and when the damage was repaired, the three started down the road at a fast rate. This was something new to Jasper, and he leaned back in the comfortable seat and gave himself up to the enjoyment of the moment. He need not worry any more for the present about his living, as he had a cheque for one hundred and fifty dollars safely stowed away in his pocket. As to the mystery connected with it all, he did not feel inclined to bother his head. In fact, he was becoming greatly interested, and was now quite anxious to see what the final outcome would be, and why this stranger had taken such an unusual interest in an old pauper.

It did not take them long to reach Mrs. Bean's house, where they drew up before the gate. It was a small, humble abode, but everything about the place was scrupulously neat and clean. Flowers bloomed in front of the house, while several large trees stood a short distance away. Under one of these they saw old David sitting in a rocking-chair with Betty by his side. She had been reading to him but had laid down her book to look at the car, which was an unusual thing in that settlement. Seeing Jasper, she sprang quickly to her feet with a cry of delight, and hurried toward the road. Her face was aglow with excitement, and Mr. Westcote thought that he had never beheld a more perfect picture of radiant health and beauty.

"This is the young woman I was speaking to you about," Jasper remarked, as he stepped from the car.

"I am delighted to meet you," and Mr. Westcote held out his hand. "I have heard about you, and have been quite anxious to see you. How are you making out with your new charge?"

"Great," and a smile wreathed the girl's face. "He is so happy here, and likes for me to read to him. But he is so funny at times, and interrupts me to ask questions."

"What about?" Mr. Westcote enquired.

"Oh, about Break Neck Falls. He wants to know if I can hear the water speaking, and, of course, I always do," she added with a slight laugh. "He wanted me to go there this morning, but as mother and the boys are away I could not leave, so I am trying to satisfy him by reading."

"Would your mother be willing to keep him for a time, do you think?" Jasper asked, "that is, if she were paid enough?"

"I'm afraid not," and the girl's eyes roamed in a thoughtful manner toward where David was sitting. "You see, our house is too small, and there is hardly room enough as it is. And besides, we are too far away from the Falls. Mr. David needs to be quite near so that he can visit the place whenever he takes the notion, which is quite often. That is the only thing which will make him happy."

"Quite right," Mr. Westcote assented. "He should live as near as possible. But may we see your charge?" he asked.

"Certainly," and Betty at once led the way across the field to the big shady tree.

Old David, seeing them coming, rose to meet them. He stood very erect and dignified as Jasper took his hand, and then introduced Mr. Westcote. He was visibly embarrassed that he did not have chairs for all, and offered his own to the stranger.

"Please keep your seat," Mr. Westcote told him. "I prefer to sit on the ground. What a delightful place you have here, sir," and he looked around upon the scenery.

"It is very beautiful," David assented, "and I can hear the Falls so plainly, especially at night."

An amused twinkle shone in Betty's eyes as she turned them upon Jasper's face. She knew very well that it was impossible to hear the sound of the falling waters, and that it was purely imagination on his part.

The stranger, however, did not smile. In fact, there was an expression of sadness upon his face as he watched David. He said very little, being content to let the others do the talking. But he observed the old man very carefully without apparently doing so. What his thoughts were he kept to himself, and when he arose to go, he took David's hand in almost a reverent manner, and looked searchingly into his eyes as if trying to find something there which he missed. He hardly spoke a word on the way back but seemed lost in deep thought. As Jasper alighted from the car in front of his cabin, Mr. Westcote laid his right hand upon his shoulder.

"Take good care of that old man," he said. "Let nothing interfere with your watchfulness until you hear from me again. Get the best place you can for him, no matter what it costs."

That was all, but the expression upon the stranger's face, and the impressive manner in which he uttered these words gave Jasper cause for deep thought during the remainder of the morning.