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The Mystery of the Sycamore
CHAPTER I. THE LETTER THAT SAID COME
CHAPTER II. NORTH DOOR AND SOUTH DOOR
CHAPTER III. ONE LAST ARGUMENT
CHAPTER IV. THE BIG SYCAMORE TREE
CHAPTER V. THE BUGLE SOUNDED TAPS
CHAPTER VI. THE OTHER HEIR
CHAPTER VII. INQUIRIES
CHAPTER VIII. CONFESSION
CHAPTER IX. COUNTER-CONFESSIONS
CHAPTER X. THE PHANTOM BUGLER
CHAPTER XI. FLEMING STONE
CHAPTER XII. THE GARAGE FIRE
CHAPTER XIII. SARA WHEELER
CHAPTER XIV. RACHEL’S STORY
CHAPTER XV. THE AWFUL TRUTH
CHAPTER XVI. MAIDA’S DECISION
CHAPTER XVII. MAIDA AND HER FATHER
CHAPTER XVIII. A FINAL CONFESSION
As the character of a woman may be accurately deduced from her handkerchief, so a man’s mental status is evident from the way he opens his mail.
Curtis Keefe, engaged in this daily performance, slit the envelopes neatly and laid the letters down in three piles. These divisions represented matters known to be of no great interest; matters known to be important; and, third, letters with contents as yet unknown and therefore of problematical value.
The first two piles were, as usual, dispatched quickly, and the real attention of the secretary centred with pleasant anticipation on the third lot.
“Gee whiz, Genevieve!”
As no further pearls of wisdom fell from the lips of the engrossed reader of letters, the stenographer gave him a round-eyed glance and then continued her work.
Curtis Keefe was, of course, called Curt by his intimates, and while it may be the obvious nickname was brought about by his short and concise manner of speech, it is more probable that the abbreviation was largely responsible for his habit of curtness.
Anyway, Keefe had long cultivated a crisp, abrupt style of conversation. That is, until he fell in with Samuel Appleby. That worthy ex-governor, while in the act of engaging Keefe to be his confidential secretary, observed: “They call you Curt, do they? Well, see to it that it is short for courtesy.”
This was only one of several equally sound bits of advice from the same source, and as Keefe had an eye single to the glory of self-advancement, he kept all these things and pondered them in his heart.
The result was that ten years of association with Lawyer Appleby had greatly improved the young man’s manner, and though still brief of speech, his curtness had lost its unpleasantly sharp edge and his courtesy had developed into a dignified urbanity, so that though still Curt Keefe, it was in name only.
“What’s the pretty letter all about, Curtie?” asked the observant stenographer, who had noticed his third reading of the short missive.
“You’ll probably answer it soon, and then you’ll know,” was the reply, as Keefe restored the sheet to its envelope and took up the next letter.
Genevieve Lane produced her vanity-case, and became absorbed in its possibilities.
“I wish I didn’t have to work,” she sighed; “I wish I was an opera singer.”
“‘Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition,’ murmured Keefe, his eyes still scanning letters; ‘by that sin fell the angels,’ and it’s true you are angelic, Viva, so down you’ll go, if you fall for ambition.”
“How you talk! Ambition is a good thing.”
“Only when tempered by common sense and perspicacity—neither of which you possess to a marked degree.”
“Pooh! You’re ambitious yourself, Curt.”
“With the before-mentioned qualifications. Look here, Viva, here’s a line for you to remember. I ran across it in a book. ‘If you do only what is absolutely correct and say only what is absolutely correct—you can do anything you like.’ How’s that?”
“I don’t see any sense in it at all.”
“No? I told you you lacked common sense. Most women do.”
“Huh!” and Genevieve tossed her pretty head, patted her curly ear-muffs, and proceeded with her work.
Samuel Appleby’s beautiful home graced the town of Stockfield, in the western end of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Former Governor Appleby was still a political power and a man of unquestioned force and importance.
It was fifteen years or more since he had held office, and now, a great desire possessed him that his son should follow in his ways, and that his beloved state should know another governor of the Appleby name.
And young Sam was worthy of the people’s choice. Himself a man of forty, motherless from childhood, and brought up sensibly and well by his father, he listened gravely to the paternal plans for the campaign.
But there were other candidates, and not without some strong and definite influences could the end be attained.
Wherefore, Mr. Appleby was quite as much interested as his secretary in the letter which was in the morning’s mail.
“Any word from Sycamore Ridge?” he asked, as he came into the big, cheerful office and nodded a kindly good-morning to his two assistants.
“Yes, and a good word,” returned Keefe, smiling. “It says: ‘Come.’” The secretary’s attitude toward his employer, though deferential and respectful, was marked by a touch of good-fellowship—a not unnatural outgrowth of a long term of confidential relations between them. Keefe had made himself invaluable to Samuel Appleby and both men knew it. So, as one had no desire to presume on the fact and the other no wish to ignore it, serenity reigned in the well-ordered and well-appointed offices of the ex-governor.
Even the light-haired, light-hearted and light-headed Genevieve couldn’t disturb the even tenor of the routine. If she could have, she would have been fired.
Though not a handsome man, not even to be called distinguished looking, Samuel Appleby gave an impression of power. His strong, lean face betokened obdurate determination and implacable will.
Its deep-graven lines were the result of meeting many obstacles and surmounting most of them. And at sixty-two, the hale and hearty frame and the alert, efficient manner made the man seem years younger.
“You know the conditions on which Wheeler lives in that house?” Appleby asked, as he looked over the top of the letter at Keefe.
“Well, it’s this way. But, no—I’ll not give you the story now. We’re going down there—to-day.”
“The whole tribe?” asked Keefe, briefly.
“Yes; all three of us. Be ready, Miss Lane, please, at three-thirty.”
“Yes, sir,” said Genevieve, reaching for her vanity-box.
“And now, Keefe, as to young Sam,” Appleby went on, running his fingers through his thick, iron-gray mane. “If he can put it over, or if I can put it over for him, it will be only with the help of Dan Wheeler.”
“Is Wheeler willing to help?”
“Probably not. He must be made willing. I can do it—I think—unless he turns stubborn. I know Wheeler—if he turns stubborn—well, Balaam’s historic quadruped had nothing on him!”
“Does Mr. Wheeler know Sam?”
“No; and it wouldn’t matter either way if he did. It’s the platform Wheeler stands on. If I can keep him in ignorance of that one plank——”
“I know it—confound it! He opposed my election on that one point—he’ll oppose Sam’s for the same reason, I know.”
“Where do I come in?”
“In a general way, I want your help. Wheeler’s wife and daughter are attractive, and you might manage to interest them and maybe sway their sympathies toward Sam——”
“But they’ll stand by Mr. Wheeler?”
“Probably—yes. However, use your head, and do all you can with it.”
“And where do I come in?” asked Genevieve, who had been an interested listener.
“You don’t come in at all, Miss. You mostly stay out. You’re to keep in the background. I have to take you, for we’re only staying one night at Sycamore Ridge, and then going on to Boston, and I’ll need you there.”
“Yes, sir,” and the blue eyes turned from him and looked absorbedly into a tiny mirror, as Genevieve contemplated her pleasant pink-and-whiteness.
Her vanity and its accompanying box were matters of indifference to Mr. Appleby and to Keefe, for the girl’s efficiency and skill outweighed them and her diligence and loyalty scored one hundred per cent.
Appleby’s fetish was efficiency. He had found it and recognized it in his secretary and stenographer and he was willing to recompense it duly, even generously. Wherefore the law business of Samuel Appleby, though carried on for the benefit of a small number of clients, was of vast importance and productive of lucrative returns.
At present, the importance was overshadowed by the immediate interest of a campaign, which, if successful would land the second Appleby in the gubernatorial chair. This plan, as yet not a boom, was taking shape with the neatness and dispatch that characterized the Appleby work.
Young Sam was content to have the matter principally in his father’s hands, and things had reached a pitch where, to the senior mind, the coöperation of Daniel Wheeler was imperatively necessary.
And, therefore, to Wheeler’s house they must betake themselves.
“What do you know about the Wheeler business, kid?” Keefe inquired, after Mr. Appleby had left them.
Genevieve leaned back in her chair, her dimpled chin moving up and down with a pretty rhythm as she enjoyed her chewing-gum, and gazed at the ceiling beams.
Appleby’s offices were in his own house, and the one given over to these two was an attractive room, fine with mahogany and plate glass, but also provided with all the paraphernalia of the most up-to-date of office furniture. There were good pictures and draperies, and a wood fire added to the cheer and mitigated the chill of the early fall weather.
Sidling from her seat, Miss Lane moved over to a chair near the fire.
“I’ll take those letters when you’re ready,” she said. “Why, I don’t know a single thing about any Wheeler. Do you?”
“Not definitely. He’s a man who had an awful fight with Mr. Appleby, long ago. I’ve heard allusions to him now and then, but I know no details.”
“I, either. But, it seems we’re to go there. Only for a night, and then, on to Boston! Won’t I be glad to go!”
“We’ll only be there a few days. I’m more interested in this Wheeler performance. I don’t understand it. Who’s Wheeler, anyhow?”
“Dunno. If Sammy turns up this morning, he may enlighten us.”
Sammy did turn up, and not long after the conversation young Appleby strolled into the office.
Though still looked upon as a boy by his father, the man was of huge proportions and of an important, slightly overbearing attitude.
Somewhat like his parent in appearance, young Sam, as he was always called, had more grace and ease, if less effect of power. He smiled genially and impartially; he seemed cordial and friendly to all the world, and he was a general favorite. Yet so far he had achieved no great thing, had no claim to any especial record in public or private life.
At forty, unmarried and unattached, his was a case of an able mentality and a firm, reliable character, with no opportunity offered to prove its worth. A little more initiative and he would have made opportunities for himself; but a nature that took the line of least resistance, a philosophy that believed in a calm acceptance of things as they came, left Samuel Appleby, junior, pretty much where he was when he began. If no man could say aught against him, equally surely no man could say anything very definite for him. Yet many agreed that he was a man whose powers would develop with acquired responsibilities, and already he had a following.
“Hello, little one,” he greeted Genevieve, carelessly, as he sat down near Keefe. “I say, old chap, you’re going down to the Wheelers’ to-day, I hear.”
“Yes; this afternoon,” and the secretary looked up inquiringly.
“Well, I’ll tell you what. You know the governor’s going there to get Wheeler’s aid in my election boom, and I can tell you a way to help things along, if you agree. See?”
“Not yet, but go ahead.”
“Well, it’s this way. Dan Wheeler’s daughter is devoted to her father. Not only filial respect and all that, but she just fairly idolizes the old man. Now, he recips, of course, and what she says goes. So—I’m asking you squarely—won’t you put in a good word to Maida, that’s the girl—and if you do it with your inimitable dexterity and grace, she’ll fall for it.”
“You mean for me to praise you up to Miss Wheeler and ask her father to give you the benefit of his influence?”
“How clearly you do put things! That’s exactly what I mean. It’s no harm, you know—merely the most innocent sort of electioneering——”
“Rather!” laughed Keefe. “If all electioneering were as innocent as that, the word would carry no unpleasant meaning.”
“Then you’ll do it?”
“Of course I will—if I get opportunity.”
“Oh, you’ll have that. It’s a big, rambling country house—a delightful one, too—and there’s tea in the hall, and tennis on the lawn, and moonlight on the verandas——”
“Hold up, Sam,” Keefe warned him, “is the girl pretty?”
“Haven’t seen her for years, but probably, yes. But that’s nothing to you. You’re working for me, you see.” Appleby’s glance was direct, and Keefe understood.
“Of course; I was only joking. I’ll carry out your commission, if, as I said, I get the chance. Tell me something of Mr. Wheeler.”
“Oh, he’s a good old chap. Pathetic, rather. You see, he bumped up against dad once, and got the worst of it.”
Sam Appleby hesitated a moment and then said: “I see you don’t know the story. But it’s no secret, and you may as well be told. You listen, too, Miss Lane, but there’s no call to tattle.”
“I’ll go home if you say so,” Genevieve piped up, a little crisply.
“No, sit still. Why, it was while dad was governor—about fifteen years ago, I suppose. And Daniel Wheeler forged a paper—that is, he said he didn’t, but twelve other good and true peers of his said he did. Anyway, he was convicted and sentenced, but father was a good friend of his, and being governor, he pardoned Wheeler. But the pardon was on condition—oh, I say—hasn’t dad ever told you, Keefe?”
“Then, maybe I’d better leave it for him to tell. If he wants you to know he’ll tell you, and if not, I mustn’t.”
“Oh, goodness!” cried Genevieve. “What a way to do! Get us all excited over a thrilling tale, and then chop it off short!”
“Go on with it,” said Keefe; but Appleby said, “No; I won’t tell you the condition of the pardon. But the two men haven’t been friends since, and won’t be, unless the condition is removed. Of course, dad can’t do it, but the present governor can make the pardon complete, and would do so in a minute, if dad asked him to. So, though he hasn’t said so, the assumption is, that father expects to trade a full pardon of Friend Wheeler for his help in my campaign.”
“And a good plan,” Keefe nodded his satisfaction.
“But,” Sam went on, “the trouble is that the very same points and principles that made Wheeler oppose my father’s election will make him oppose mine. The party is the same, the platform is the same, and I can’t hope that the man Wheeler is not the same stubborn, adamant, unbreakable old hickory knot he was the other time.”
“And so, you want me to soften him by persuading his daughter to line up on our side?”
“Just that, Keefe. And you can do it, I am sure.”
“I’ll try, of course; but I doubt if even a favorite daughter could influence the man you describe.”
“Let me help,” broke in the irrepressible Genevieve. “I can do lots with a girl. I can do more than Curt could. I’ll chum up with her and——”
“Now, Miss Lane, you keep out of this. I don’t believe in mixing women and politics.”
“But Miss Wheeler’s a woman.”
“And I don’t want her troubled with politics. Keefe here can persuade her to coax her father just through her affections—I don’t want her enlightened as to any of the political details. And I can’t think your influence would work half as well as that of a man. Moreover, Keefe has discernment, and if it isn’t a good plan, after all, he’ll know enough to discard it—while you’d blunder ahead blindly, and queer the whole game!”
“Oh, well,” and bridling with offended pride, Genevieve sought refuge in her little mirror.
“Now, don’t get huffy,” and Sam smiled at her; “you’ll probably find that Miss Wheeler’s complexion is finer than yours, anyway, and then you’ll hate her and won’t want to speak to her at all.”
Miss Lane flashed an indignant glance and then proceeded to go on with her work.
“Hasn’t Wheeler tried for a pardon all this time?” Keefe asked.
“Indeed he has,” Sam returned, “many times. But you see, though successive governors were willing to grant it, father always managed to prevent it. Dad can pull lots of wires, as you know, and since he doesn’t want Wheeler fully pardoned, why, he doesn’t get fully pardoned.”
“And he lives under the stigma.”
“Lots of people don’t know about the thing at all. He lives—well—he lives in Connecticut—and—oh, of course, there is a certain stigma.”
“And your father will bring about his full pardon if he promises——”
“Let up, Keefe; I’ve said I can’t tell you that part—you’ll get your instructions in good time. And, look here, I don’t mean for you to make love to the girl. In fact, I’m told she has a suitor. But you’re just to give her a little song and dance about my suitability for the election, and then adroitly persuade her to use her powers of persuasion with her stubborn father. For he will be stubborn—I know it! And there’s the mother of the girl . . . tackle Mrs. Wheeler. Make her see that my father was justified in the course he took—and besides, he was more or less accountable to others—and use as an argument that years have dulled the old feud and that bygones ought to be bygones and all that.
“Try to make her see that a full pardon now will be as much, and in a way more, to Wheeler’s credit, than if it had been given him at first——”
“I can’t see that,” and Keefe looked quizzical
“Neither can I,” Sam confessed, frankly, “but you can make a woman swallow anything.”
“Depends on what sort of woman Mrs. Wheeler is,” Keefe mused.
“I know it. I haven’t seen her for years, and as I remember, she’s pretty keen, but I’m banking on you to put over some of your clever work. Not three men in Boston have your ingenuity, Keefe, when it comes to sizing up a situation and knowing just how to handle it. Now, don’t tell father all I’ve said, for he doesn’t especially hold with such small measures. He’s all for the one big slam game, and he may be right. But I’m right, too, and you just go ahead.”
“All right,” Keefe agreed. “I see what you mean, and I’ll do all I can that doesn’t in any way interfere with your father’s directions to me. There’s a possibility of turning the trick through the women folks, and if I can do it, you may count on me.”
“Good! And as for you, Miss Lane, you keep in the background, and make as little mischief as you can.”
“I’m not a mischief-maker,” said the girl, pouting playfully, for she was not at all afraid of Sam Appleby.
“Your blue eyes and pink cheeks make mischief wherever you go,” he returned; “but don’t try them on old Dan Wheeler. He’s a morose old chap——”
“I should think he would be!” defended Genevieve; “living all these years under a ban which may, after all, be undeserved! I’ve heard that he was entirely innocent of the forgery!”
“Have you, indeed?” Appleby’s tone was unpleasantly sarcastic. “Other people have also heard that—from the Wheeler family! Those better informed believe the man guilty, and believe, too, that my father was too lenient when he granted even a conditional pardon.”
“But just think—if he was innocent—how awful his life has been all these years! You bet he’ll accept the full pardon and give all his effort and influence and any possible help in return.”
“Hear the child orate!” exclaimed Sam, gazing at the enthusiastic little face, as Genevieve voiced her views.
“I think he’ll be ready to make the bargain, too,” declared Keefe. “Your father has a strong argument. I fancy Wheeler’s jump at the chance.”
“Maybe—maybe so. But you don’t know how opposed he is to our principles. And he’s a man of immovable convictions. In fact, he and dad are two mighty strong forces. One or the other must win out—but I’ve no idea which it will be.”
“How exciting!” Genevieve’s eyes danced. “I’m so glad I’m to go. It’s a pretty place, you say?”
“Wonderful. A great sweep of rolling country, a big, long, rambling sort of house, and a splendid hospitality. You’ll enjoy the experience, but remember, I told you to be good.”
“I will remember,” and Genevieve pretended to took cherubic.
For Samuel Appleby to pay a visit to Daniel Wheeler was of itself an astounding occurrence. The two men had not seen each other since the day, fifteen years ago, when Governor Appleby had pardoned the convicted Wheeler, with a condition, which, though harsh, had been strictly adhered to.
They had never been friends at heart, for they were diametrically opposed in their political views, and were not of similar tastes or pursuits. But they had been thrown much together, and when the time came for Wheeler to be tried for forgery, Appleby lent no assistance to the case. However, through certain influences brought to bear, in connection with the fact that Mrs. Wheeler was related to the Applebys, the governor pardoned the condemned man, with a conditional pardon.
Separated ever since, a few letters had passed between the two men, but they resulted in no change of conditions.
As the big car ran southward through the Berkshire Hills, Appleby’s thoughts were all on the coming meeting, and the scenery of autumn foliage that provoked wild exclamations of delight from Genevieve and assenting enthusiasm from Keefe left the other unmoved.
An appreciative nod and grunt were all he vouchsafed to the girl’s gushing praises, and when at last they neared their destination he called her attention to a tall old sycamore tree standing alone on a ridge not far away.
“That’s the tree that gives the Wheeler place its name,” he informed. “Sycamore Ridge is one of the most beautiful places in Connecticut.”
“Oh, are we in Connecticut?” asked Miss Lane. “I didn’t know we had crossed the border. What a great old tree! Surely one of the historic trees of New England, isn’t it?”
“Historic to the Wheelers,” was the grim reply, and then Mr. Appleby again relapsed into silence and spoke no further word until they reached the Wheeler home.
A finely curved sweep of driveway brought them to the house, and the car stopped at the south entrance.
The door did not swing open in welcome, and Mr. Appleby ordered his chauffeur to ring the bell.
This brought a servant in response, and the visiting trio entered the house.
It was long and low, with many rooms on either side of the wide hall that went straight through from south to north. The first room to the right was a large living-room, and into this the guests were shown and were met by a grave-looking man, who neither smiled nor offered a hand as his calm gaze rested on Samuel Appleby.
Indeed, the two men stared at one another, in undisguised curiosity. Each seemed to search the other’s face for information as to his attitude and intent.
“Well, Dan,” Appleby said, after the silent scrutiny, “you’ve changed some, but you’re the same good-looking chap you always were.”
Wheeler gave a start and pulled himself together.
“Thank you. I suppose I should return the compliment.”
“But you can’t conscientiously do it, eh?” Appleby laughed. “Never mind. Personal vanity is not my besetting sin. This is my secretary, Mr. Keefe, and my assistant, Miss Lane.”
“Ah, yes, yes. How are you? How do you do? My wife and daughter will look after the young lady. Maida!”
As if awaiting the call, a girl came quickly in from the hall followed by an older woman. Introductions followed, and if there was an air of constraint on the part of the host the ladies of the family showed none. Sunny-faced Maida Wheeler, with her laughing brown eyes and gold brown hair, greeted the visitors with charming cordiality, and her mother was equally kind and courteous.
Genevieve Lane’s wise and appraising eyes missed no point of appearance or behavior.
“Perfect darlings, both of them!” she commented to herself. “Whatever ails the old guy, it hasn’t bitten them. Or else—wait a minute——” Genevieve was very observant—“perhaps they’re putting on a little. Is their welcome a bit extra, to help things along?”
Yet only a most meticulous critic could discern anything more than true hospitality in the attitude of Mrs. Wheeler or Maida. The latter took Genevieve to the room prepared for her and chatted away in girlish fashion.
“The place is so wonderful!” Genevieve exclaimed, carefully avoiding personal talk. “Don’t you just adore it?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve loved Sycamore Ridge for nearly fifteen years.”
“Have you lived here so long?” Genevieve was alert for information. It was fifteen years ago that the pardon had been granted.
But as Maida merely assented and then changed the subject, Miss Lane was far too canny to ask further questions.
With a promptness not entirely due to chance, the stenographer came downstairs dressed for dinner some several minutes before the appointed hour. Assuming her right as a guest, she wandered about the rooms.
The south door, by which they had entered, was evidently the main entrance, but the opposite, or north door, gave on to an even more beautiful view, and she stepped out on the wide veranda and gazed admiringly about. The low ridge nearby formed the western horizon, and the giant sycamore, its straight branches outlined against the fading sunset, was impressive and a little weird. She strolled on, and turned the corner the better to see the ridge. The veranda ran all round the house, and as she went on along the western side, she suddenly became aware of a silent figure leaning against a pillar at the southwest corner.
“It is so quiet it frightens me,” she said to Daniel Wheeler, as she neared him.
“Do you feel that way, too?” he asked, looking at her a little absently. “It is the lull before the storm.”
“Oh, that sunset doesn’t mean rain,” Genevieve exclaimed, smiling, “unless your Connecticut blue laws interpret weather signs differently from our Massachusetts prophets. We are in Connecticut, aren’t we?”
“Yes,” and Wheeler sighed unaccountably. “Yes, Miss Lane, we are. That sycamore is the finest tree in the state.”
“I can well believe it. I never saw such a grandfather of a tree! It’s all full of little balls.”
“Yes, buttonballs, they are called. But note its wonderful symmetry, its majestic appearance——”
“And strength! It looks as if it would stand, there forever!”
“Do you think so?” and the unmistakable note of disappointment in the man’s tone caused Genevieve to look up in astonishment. “Well, perhaps it will,” he added quickly.
“Oh, no, of course it won’t really! No tree stands forever. But it will be here long after you and I are gone.”
“Are you an authority on trees?” Wheeler spoke without a smile.
“Hardly that; but I was brought up in the country, and I know something of them. Your daughter loves the country, too.”
“Oh, yes—we all do.”
The tone was courteous, but the whole air of the man was so melancholy, his cheerfulness so palpably assumed, that Genevieve felt sorry for him, as well as inordinately curious to know what was the matter.
But her sympathy was the stronger impulse, and with a desire to entertain him, she said, “Come for a few steps in the garden, Mr. Wheeler, won’t you? Come and show me that quaint little summer-house near the front door. It is the front door, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell.”
“Yes, the north door is the front door,” Wheeler said slowly, as if repeating a lesson. “The summer-house you mention is near the front door. But we won’t visit that now. Come this other way, and I’ll show you a Japanese tea-house, much more attractive.”
But Genevieve Lane was sometimes under the spell of the Imp of the Perverse.
“No, no,” she begged, smilingly, “let the Japanese contraption wait; please go to the little summer-house now. See, how it fairly twinkles in the last gleams of the setting sun! What is the flower that rambles all over it? Oh, do let’s go there now! Come, please!”
With no reason for her foolish insistence save a whim, Genevieve was amazed to see the look of fury that came over her host’s face.
“Appleby put you up to that!” he cried, in a voice of intense anger. “He told you to ask me to go to that place!”
“Why, Mr. Wheeler,” cried the girl, almost frightened, “Mr. Appleby did nothing of the sort! Why should he! I’m not asking anything wrong, am I? Why is it so dreadful to want to see an arbor instead of a tea-house? You must be crazy!”
When Miss Lane was excited, she was quite apt to lose her head, and speak in thoughtless fashion.
But Mr. Wheeler didn’t seem to notice her informality of speech. He only stared at her as if he couldn’t quite make her out, and then he suddenly seemed to lose interest in her or her wishes, and with a deep sigh, he turned away, and fell into the same brooding posture as when she had first approached him.
“Come to dinner, people,” called Maida’s pretty voice, as, with outstretched hands she came toward them. “Why, dads, what are you looking miserable about? What have you done to him, Miss Lane?”
“Maida, child, don’t speak like that! Miss Lane has been most kindly talking to me, of—of the beauties of Sycamore Ridge.”
“All right, then, and forgive me, Miss Lane. But you see, the sun rises and sets for me in one Daniel Wheeler, Esquire, and any shadow on his face makes me apprehensive of its cause.”
Only for an instant did Genevieve Lane’s sense of justice rise in revolt, then her common sense showed her the better way, and she smiled pleasantly and returned:
“I don’t blame you, Miss Wheeler. If I had a father, I should feel just the same way, I know. But don’t do any gory-lock-shaking my way. I assure you I didn’t really scold him. I only kicked because he wouldn’t humor my whim for visiting the summer-house with the blossoms trailing over it! Was that naughty of me?”
But though Genevieve listened for the answer, none came.
“Come on in to dinner, daddy, dear,” Maida repeated. “Come, Miss Lane, they’re waiting for us.”
Dinner was a delightful occasion.
Daniel Wheeler, at the head of his own table, was a charming host, and his melancholy entirely disappeared as the talk ran along on subjects grave or gay, but of no personal import.
Appleby, too, was entertaining, and the two men, with Mrs. Wheeler, carried on most of the conversation, the younger members of the party being by what seemed common consent left out of it.
Genevieve looked about the dining-room, with a pleased interest. She dearly loved beautiful appointments and was really imagining herself mistress of just such a house, and visioning herself at the head of such a table. The long room stretched from north to south, parallel with the hall, though not adjoining. The table was not in the centre, but toward the southern end, and Mr. Wheeler, at the end near the windows, had Keefe and Miss Lane on either side of him.
Appleby, as guest of honor, sat at Mrs. Wheeler’s right, and the whole effect was that of a formal dinner party, rather than a group of which two were merely office employés.
“It is one of the few remaining warm evenings,” said Mrs. Wheeler, as she rose from the table, “we will have our coffee on the veranda. Soon it will be too cool for that.”
“Which veranda?” asked Genevieve of Maida, as they went through the hall. “The north one, I hope.”
“Your hopes must be dashed,” laughed the other, “for it will be the south one. Come along.”
The two girls, followed by Keefe, took possession of a group of chairs near Mrs. Wheeler, while the two older men sat apart, and soon became engrossed in their own discussions.
Nor was it long before Samuel Appleby and his host withdrew to a room which opened on to that same south veranda, and which was, in fact, Mr. Wheeler’s den.
“Well, Sam,” Keefe heard the other say, as he drew down the blind, “we may as well have it out now. What are you here for?”
Outwardly placid, but almost consumed with curiosity, Curt Keefe changed his seat for one nearer the window of the den. He hoped to hear the discussion going on inside, but was doomed to disappointment, for though the murmuring of the voices was audible, the words were not distinct, and Keefe gathered only enough information to be sure that there was a heated argument in progress and that neither party to it was inclined to give in a single point.
Of course, he decided, the subject was the coming election campaign, but the details of desired bargaining he could not gather.
Moreover, often, just as he almost heard sentences of interest, the chatter of the girls or some remark of Mrs. Wheeler’s would drown the voices of the men in the room.
One time, indeed, he heard clearly: “When the Sycamore on the ridge goes into Massachusetts——” but this was sheer nonsense, and he concluded he must have misunderstood.
Later, they all forgathered in the living-room and there was music and general conversation.
Genevieve Lane proved herself decidedly entertaining, and though Samuel Appleby looked a little amusedly at his stenographer, he smiled kindly at her as he noticed that she in no way overstepped the bounds of correct demeanor.
Genevieve was thinking of what Keefe had said to her: “If you do only what is absolutely correct and say what is only absolutely correct, you can do whatever you like.”
She had called it nonsense at the time, but she was beginning to see the truth of it. She was careful that her every word and act should be correct, and she was most decidedly doing as she liked. She made good with Mrs. Wheeler and Maida with no trouble at all; but she felt, vaguely, that Mr. Wheeler didn’t like her. This she set about to remedy.
Going to his side, as he chanced to sit for a moment alone, she smiled ingratiatingly and said:
“I wonder if you can imagine, sir, what it means to me to see the inside of a house like this?”
“Bless my soul, what do you mean?” asked Wheeler, puzzled at the girl’s manner.
“It’s like a glimpse of Fairyland,” she went on. “You see, I’m terribly ambitious—oh, fearfully so! And all my ambitions lead to just this sort of a home. Do you suppose I’ll ever achieve it, Mr. Wheeler?”
Now the girl had truly wonderful magnetic charm, and even staid old Dan Wheeler was not insensible to the note of longing in her voice, the simple, honest admission of her hopes.
“Of course you will, little one,” he returned, kindly. “I’ve heard that whatever one wants, one gets, provided the wish is strong enough.” He spoke directly to her, but his gaze wandered as if his thoughts were far away.
“Do you really believe that?” Genevieve’s big blue eyes begged an affirmation.
“I didn’t say I believed it—I said I have heard it.” He smiled sadly. “Not quite the same—so far as I’m concerned; but quite as assuring to you. Of course, my belief wouldn’t endorse the possibility.”
“It would for me,” declared Genevieve. “I’ve lots of confidence in other people’s opinions——”
“Anybody whom I respect and believe in.”
“Appleby, for instance?”
“Oh, yes, indeed! I’d trust Mr. Appleby’s opinions on any subject. Let’s go over there and tell him so.”
Samuel Appleby was sitting at the other end, the north end of the long room. “No,” said Wheeler, “I’m too comfortable here to move—ask him to come here.”