Chapter XXII. At the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank.
 

The President of the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank looked up from the papers on his desk as his secretary entered from the adjoining room and stood before him.

"Well, George?"

The secretary smiled as he spoke: "Mr. Ward, there is an old lady out here who insists that you will see her. The boys passed her on to me, because,--well, she is not the kind of woman that can be refused. She has no card, but her name is Wakefield. She--"

The dignified President of the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank electrified his secretary by springing from his chair like a schoolboy from his seat at the tap of the teacher's dismissing bell. "Auntie Sue! I should say she couldn't be refused! Where is she?" And before the secretary could collect his startled thoughts to answer, Homer T. Ward was out of the room.

When the smiling secretary, the stenographers, and other attending employees had witnessed a meeting between their dignified chief and the lovely old lady, which strengthened their conviction that the great financier was genuinely human, President Ward and Auntie Sue disappeared into the private office.

"George," said Mr. Ward, as he closed the door of that sacred inner sanctuary of the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, "remember I am not in to any one;--from the Secretary of the Treasury to the Sheriff, I am not in."

"I understand, sir," returned the still smiling George. And from that moment until Homer T. Ward should open the door, nothing short of a regiment could have interrupted the interview between Auntie Sue and her old pupil.

Placing the dear old lady tenderly in a deep, leather-upholstered chair, Mr. Ward stood before her as though trying to convince himself that she was real; while his teacher of those long-ago, boyhood days gazed smilingly up at him.

"What in the name of all that is unexpected are you doing here, Auntie Sue?" he demanded; "and why is not Betty Jo with you? Isn't the girl ever coming home? There is nothing the matter with her, is there? Of course not, or you would have wired me."

It was not at all like the bank president to ask so many questions all at once.

Auntie Sue looked around the private office curiously, then smilingly back to the face of the financier.

"Do you know, Homer," she said with her chuckling little laugh, "I--I--am almost afraid of you in here. Everything is so grand and rich-looking; and there were so many men out there who tried to tell me you would not see me. I--I am glad I didn't know it would be like this, or I fear I never could have found the courage to come."

Homer T. Ward laughed, and then--rather full-waisted as he was--went down on one knee at the arm of her chair so as to bring his face level with her eyes.

"Look at me, Auntie Sue," he said; "look straight through me, just as you used to do years and years ago, and tell me what you see."

And the dear old lady, with one thin soft hand on his heavy shoulder, answered, as she looked: "Why, I see a rather naughty boy, whom I ought to spank for throwing spitballs at the old schoolroom ceiling," she retorted. "And I am not a bit afraid to do it either. So sit right over there, sir, and listen to me."

They laughed together then; and if Auntie Sue wiped her eyes as the schoolboy obediently took his seat in the big chair at the banker's desk, Homer T. Ward's eyes were not without a suspicious moisture.

"Tell me about Betty Jo first," the man insisted. "You know, Auntie Sue, the girl grows dearer to me every year."

"Betty Jo is that kind of a girl, Homer," Auntie Sue answered.

"I suppose it is because she is all I have to love," he said, "but, you know, ever since Sister Grace died and left the fatherless little kid to me, it seems like all my plans have centered around her; and now that she has finished her school; has travelled abroad, and gone through with that business-college course, I am beginning to feel like we should sort of settle down together. I am glad for her to be with you this summer, though, for the finishing touches; and when she comes home to stay, you are coming with her."

Auntie Sue shook her head, smiling: "Now, Homer, you know that is settled: I will never leave my little log house by the river until I have watched the last sunset. You know, my dear boy, that I would be miserable in the city."

It was an old point often argued by them, and the man dismissed it, now, with a brief: "We'll see about that when the time comes. But, why didn't you bring Betty Jo with you?"

"Because," Auntie Sue answered, "I came away hurriedly, on a very important trip, for only a day, and it is necessary for her to stay and keep house while I am gone. The child must learn to cook, Homer, even if she is to inherit all your money."

"I know," answered the banker;--"the same as you make me work when I visit you. But your coming to me sounds rather serious, Auntie Sue. What is your trouble?"

The dear old lady laughed, nervously; for, to tell the truth, she did not quite know how she was going to manage to present Brian Kent's case to Homer T. Ward without presenting more than she was at this time ready to reveal.

"Why, you see, Homer," she began, "it is not really my trouble as much as it is yours, and it is not yours as much as it is--"

"Betty Jo's?" he asked quickly, when she hesitated.

"No! no!" she cried. "The child doesn't even know why I am here. Just try to forget her for a few minutes, Homer."

"All right," he said; "but you had me worried for a minute."

Auntie Sue might have answered that she was somewhat worried herself; but, instead, she plunged with desperate courage: "I came to see you about Brian Kent, Homer."

It is not enough to say that the President of the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank was astonished. "Brian Kent?" he said at last. "Why, Auntie Sue, I wrote you nearly a year ago that Brian Kent was dead."

"Yes, I know; but he was not--that is, he is not. But the Brian Kent your detectives were hunting was--I mean--is."

Homer T. Ward looked at his old teacher as though he feared she had suddenly lost her mind.

"It is like this, Homer," Auntie Sue explained: "A few days after your detective, Mr. Ross, called on me, this stranger appeared in the neighborhood. No one dreamed that he was Brian Kent, because, you see, he was not a bit like the description."

"Full beard, I suppose?" commented the banker, grimly.

"Yes: and every other way," continued Auntie Sue. "And he has been working so hard all winter; and everybody in the country respects and loves him so; and he is one of the best and truest men I ever knew; and he is planning and working to pay back every cent he took; and I cannot--I will not--let you send him to prison now."

The lovely old eyes were fixed on the banker's face with sweet anxiety.

Homer T. Ward was puzzled. Strange human problems are often presented to men in his position; but, certainly, this was the strangest;--his old teacher pleading for his absconding clerk who was supposed to be dead.

At last he said, with gentle kindness: "But, why did you come to tell me about him, Auntie Sue? He is safe enough if no one knows who he is."

"That is it!" she cried. "Some one found out about him, and is coming here to tell you, for the reward."

The banker whistled softly. "And you--you--grabbed a train, and beat 'em to it!" he exclaimed. "Well, if that doesn't--"

Auntie Sue clasped her thin hands to her breast, and her sweet voice trembled with anxious fear: "You won't send that poor boy to prison, now, will you, Homer? It--it--would kill me if such a terrible thing were to happen now. Won't you let him go free, so that he can do his work,--won't you, Homer? I--I--" The strain of her anxiety was almost too much for the dear old gentlewoman's physical strength, and as her voice failed, the tears streamed down the soft cheeks unheeded.

In an instant the bank president was again on his knees beside her chair.

"Don't, Auntie Sue: don't, dear! Why, you know I would do anything in the world you asked, even if I wanted to send the fellow up; but I don't. I wouldn't touch him for the world. It is a thousand times better to let him go if he is proving himself an honest man. Please, dear, don't feel so. Why, I will be glad to let him off. I'll help him, Auntie Sue. I--I--am as glad as you are that we didn't get him. Please don't feel so about it. There, there,--it is all right, now."

So he comforted and reassured her until she was able to smile through her tears. "I knew I could depend on you, Homer."

A few minutes later, she said: "And what about that man who is coming to claim the reward, Homer?"

"Never you mind him!" cried the banker; "I'll fix that. But, tell me, Auntie Sue, where is young Kent now?"

"He is working in the neighborhood," she returned.

He looked at her shrewdly. "You have seen a lot of him, have you?"

"I have seen him occasionally," she answered. Homer T. Ward nodded his head, as if well pleased with himself. "You don't need to tell me any more. I understand, now, exactly. It is very clear what has reformed Brian Kent; you have been up to your old tricks. It is a wonder you haven't taken him into your house to live with you,--to save him from associating with bad people."

He laughed, and when Auntie Sue only smiled, as though humoring him in his little joke, he added: "By the way, has Betty Jo seen this latest patient of yours? What does she think of his chances for complete recovery?"

"Yes," Auntie Sue returned, calmly; "Betty Jo has seen him. But, really, Homer, I have never asked her what she thought of him."

"Do you know, Auntie Sue," said the banker, reflectively, "I never did believe that Brian Kent was a criminal at heart."

"I know he is not," she returned stoutly. "But, tell me, Homer, how did it ever happen?"

"Well, you see," he answered, "young Kent had a wife who couldn't somehow seem to fit into his life. Ross never went into the details with me, fully, because that, of course, had no real bearing on the fact that he stole the money from the bank. But it seems that the youngster was rather ambitious,--studied a lot outside of business hours and that sort of thing. I know he made his own way through business college before he came to us. The wife didn't receive the attention she thought she should have, I suppose. Perhaps she was right at that. Anyway, she wanted a good time;--wanted him to take her out more, instead of spending his spare time digging away at his books. And so it went the usual way,--she found other company. Rather a gay set, I fancy; at least it led to her needing more money than he was earning, and so he helped out his salary, thinking to pay it back before he was caught, I suppose. Then the crash came,--some other man, you know,--and Brian skipped, which, of course, put us next to his stealing. I don't know what has become of the woman. The last Ross knew of her she was living in St. Louis, and running with a pretty wild bunch,--glad to get rid of Brian, I expect. She couldn't have really cared so very much for him.

"Do you know, Auntie Sue, I have seen so many cases like this one. I have been glad, many times, that I never married. And then, again, sometimes, I have seen homes that have made me sorry I never took the chance. I am glad you saved the boy, Auntie Sue: I am mighty glad."

"You have made me very happy, Homer," Auntie Sue returned. "But are you sure you can fix it about that reward? The man who is coming to claim it will make trouble, won't he, if he is not paid, somehow?"

"Yes, I expect he would," returned the president, thoughtfully. "And my directors might have something to say. And there are the Burns people and the Bankers' Association and all. Hum-m-m!"

Homer T. Ward considered the matter a few moments, then he laughed. "I'll tell you what we will do, Auntie Sue; we will let Brian Kent pay the reward himself. That would be fair, wouldn't it?"

Auntie Sue was sure that Brian would agree that it was a fair enough arrangement; but she did not see how it was to be managed.

Then her old pupil explained that he would pay the reward-money to the man who was coming to claim it, and thus satisfy him, and that the bank would hold the amount as a part of the debt which Brian was expected to pay.

Auntie Sue never knew that President Ward himself paid to the bank the full amount of the money stolen by Brian Kent in addition to the reward-money which he personally paid to Jap Taylor, in order to quiet him, and thus saved Brian from the publicity that surely would have followed any other course.

It should also be said here that Judy's father never again appeared in the Ozarks; at least, not in the Elbow Rock neighborhood. It might be that Jap Taylor was shrewd enough to know that his reputation would not permit him to show any considerable sum of money, where he was known, without starting an investigation; and for men of his type investigations are never to be desired.

Or it is not unlikely that the combination of money and the city proved the undoing of the moonshiner, and that he came to his legitimate and logical end among the dives and haunts of his kind, to which he would surely gravitate.