The Case and The Girl
Randall Parrish

Part 1 out of 4

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West, still attired in khaki uniform, but wearing the red chevron of
honourable discharge on his left sleeve, sat in the Club writing room,
his feet comfortably elevated, endeavouring to extract some entertainment
from the evening paper. The news was not particularly interesting,
however, and finally, obsessed with the feeling that it would soon be
time for him to seriously contemplate the procuring of suitable
employment, the young man turned the sheet about rather idly, and ran his
eyes down the columns devoted to classified advertising.

Half way down the first column, under the head of "miscellaneous," he
paused and read a paragraph with some interest; then read it over again,
emitting a soft whistle between his teeth.

"Well, by Jove!" he said to himself slowly, "That doesn't sound so bad
either; out of the ordinary, at least. Say, Thompson," and he turned to
a tall young fellow busily writing at the adjoining desk, and shoved the
paper under his eyes, pointing at the paragraph which had attracted
attention, with one finger, "What do you make out of that, old man?"

The other, rather sober-faced, and slow of speech, read the advertisement
word by word, with no change of expression.

"Rot," he said solemnly. "Either a joke, or some scheme on. Why?
interested in it?"

"In a measure, yes. Sounds rather business-like to me. I've got a good
mind to answer, and take a chance."

"You're a fool if you do, Matt," decisively, and turning back to his
writing. "That is some game being pulled off, and the first thing you
know, you'll be in bad. Likely as not it means blackmail. Besides there
is no address."

"That's one thing I like about it," retorted the other. "They are in
earnest, and taking no chances of having their purpose guessed at. There
is a way to reach them, if the one answering is sufficiently in earnest.
By Jove, I don't see how any one can get in bad, merely by finding out
what it all means."

"Well, do as you please; you would anyhow. Only you have my advice."

West read the item again. He had been eighteen months in France, and his
discharge from the army had left him bored and dissatisfied with the dull
routine of civil life. He dreaded to get back into the harness of a
prosaic existence; even his profession as a civil engineer had someway
lost its charm. He had tasted the joy of adventure, the thrill of danger,
and it was still alluring. This advertisement promised a mystery which
strangely attracted his imagination.

_"Wanted: Young man of education and daring for service involving some
personal peril. Good pay, and unusual reward if successful. May have to
leave city. Purpose disclosed only in personal interview."_

As Thompson had pointed out, this was not signed, nor any address given.

West crossed over to an unoccupied desk, and wrote a reply, changing the
wording several times, and finally making a clean copy. Thompson glanced
across at him, but said nothing. The answer read:

_"To Advertiser: Am 26; late captain of Engineers; University graduate
adventurous disposition. Would be glad to consider your proposition.
Address, Box 57, University Club."_

He placed this in an envelope, called a Club messenger, and, handing the
boy a sum of money, sent him over to the newspaper office.

Two days elapsed before an answer appeared in his box; a small envelope,
addressed in a lady's handwriting apparently, and mailed from one of the
sub-postoffices. West tore it open rather eagerly, and read the contents
with surprise. The words within had been written by the same hand which
appeared upon the envelope, but the language used gave him no clue to the
purpose of the writer. The brief note read:

"Box 57 University Club.

"Your answer to advertisement makes a good impression, and I am willing
to put you to the further test of a personal meeting. If you are in
earnest in this matter, and quite prepared to assume the necessary risk,
you will be at the north-west corner of Spaulding Park at 5:30 to-morrow
afternoon. Do not come in uniform, but it will be well to bring evening
clothes in a bag. Be sure of yourself, and be prompt.

"Very truly yours,

"The Advertiser."

West read this over, again and again, smoking furiously, and endeavouring
to weigh each word. He saw Thompson in the other room, but decided not to
submit the epistle to his criticism. The letter sounded honest and
sincere; the writer evidently had a purpose in view, and was selecting
an agent with great care and secrecy. No hint as to what that object was
would be revealed blindly--he must be tried in every way first;
thoroughly tested as to both character and courage. Undoubtedly steps had
already been taken to do this. The delay in reply would have afforded
opportunity for some investigation, as his address would give the
necessary clue to his identity. The request for evening clothes, however,
rather reassured him; evidently his first plunge into this mystery was
not to occur in any stratum of low society; no vast amount of personal
danger could be involved in such preliminaries. The truth was, the note
only increased his former interest in the case, and his determination to
probe more deeply into its mystery. So the advertiser was a woman! This
fact also stimulated his imagination, and rendered him the more eager. By
Jove! he would see the thing through!

His decision was reached, yet West, although still young and adventurous,
had received the rigorous training of the soldier, and learned lessons of
discretion. He would go, but would make every effort to protect himself
against any possible treachery. He had a room at the Club, and wrote a
letter or two before proceeding to dress, arranging for their personal
delivery in case he failed to return at a designated time; carefully
examined his service revolver, and deposited it in the pocket of the
business suit he decided to wear. Satisfied with these arrangements, he
dressed rapidly, and then packed his bag, bearing it in his hand as he
departed in ample time for the point of rendezvous. A cab took him to the
place designated, and he found himself alone in a rather desolate spot,
with which he was in no way familiar. No doubt he had passed there again
and again, as a boulevard extended along one side of the small park, yet
his memory retained no clear recollection of the place. There were a few
small stores opposite, while the park itself was well kept, and populated
almost entirely by nursemaids, judging from the number of baby carriages
trailing along the walks. Back of the curb were a few benches, but West
chose to remain outside, depositing his bag in plain view of any one
passing, and then walked back and forth somewhat nervously. He was there
several minutes ahead of time, and compared his watch by a clock in a
church tower a block away. He had no knowledge of how he was to be
approached, or identified, but his being requested to bring a bag
containing evening clothes, somehow suggested riding, rather than
walking, and consequently his eyes followed more or less intently the
constant stream of automobiles.

He grew restless, and more doubtful as the moments slipped past. Surely
he could not have mistaken the place of appointment or the hour? He
glanced at the scene to again reassure himself. No, that was impossible;
the park name was plainly decipherable beside the entrance, and his watch
coincided exactly with the clock in the tower. He stood beside his bag,
staring up and down the boulevard, permitting his eyes to occasionally
wander to the scene within the enclosure. Nothing rewarded his scrutiny.
Then suddenly, without slightest warning, a black limousine whirled in
alongside the curb, and came to a stop immediately in front of where he
waited. The chauffeur, dressed in plain dark livery, stepped out, and
threw open the rear door, without asking so much as a question. Except
that the fellow stood there, looking directly toward him, his fingers on
the latch, expectantly, West would not have known that he was wanted. Yet
it was all so obvious he could not question. Silently he picked up his
bag, and stepped forward. He saw no one within, but firm in the belief
that the chauffeur must have his orders, he entered blindly, the door
closing instantly behind him. The curtains were drawn, the interior
gloomy and indistinct, and the driver had resumed his seat, and started
the motor, before West realized that he was not alone. In one corner of
the wide back seat, drawn back from any possible observation from
without, sat a woman.

At first glance he could only barely distinguish the outlines of her
figure, dimly discernable against the dark background of the upholstery,
but, as his eyes accustomed themselves to the faint light, her features
also became dimly visible--enough so, at least, to convince him that she
was young. Neither spoke for some moments, while the automobile gathered
speed, and West had an uncomfortable feeling that the lady was watching
him with great intentness. Slightly embarrassed, and uncertain as to his
best course of action, the young man remained silent, his eyes on the
burly back of the chauffeur, revealed through the front glass. He could
only quietly await her explanation of this strange situation. The delay
was not a long one. She laughed, nervously perhaps, yet with a sense of
humour at the awkward position.

"Quite melodramatic, is it not, Captain West?" she asked, in a decidedly
pleasant voice. "I trust it appeals thoroughly to that disposition for
adventure of which you wrote. I assure you I have arranged the details
to the best of my ability."

"Nothing more could be desired, I am sure," he confessed, surprised at
her tone, and glancing toward her. "I certainly am left completely in the
dark, unable even to clearly distinguish my mysterious companion in

"And there really is no longer any occasion for such concealment." She
lifted the heavy curtain beside her, permitting the grey light to rest
upon her face. "I preferred not to be seen at the park for obvious
reasons; but here, alone with you, such precaution is quite
unnecessary. We are to be either friends, or enemies, so frankness is
the best course."

He saw the face of a young woman of twenty-four, or five, with dark eyes
and hair, her cheeks flushed with health and excitement, her lips
smiling. It was a face of unusual attractiveness, not regular, perhaps,
in any of its features, yet filled with character, and glowing with life.
It was to him a totally unfamiliar countenance, but one which as
instantly awakened his interest. He liked the girl, and believed in her.

"I can only thank you," he said, rather lamely. "Although I do not
understand now how we could ever become enemies. Surely, that is not
a threat?"

"Oh, no, it is far too true. You have yet to learn what I require. Yet
that was very nicely said. I take it to mean your first impression of me
is not unfavourable?"

"Very far from it. I am already deeply interested in my task. If I lacked
an incentive before, you have furnished it. I am only too glad I was the
fortunate volunteer."

She laughed again softly, her eyes still on his face.

"Really, I had not anticipated such a sincere compliment. No doubt you
learned these delightful speeches in France," she answered, a very faint
tinge of sarcasm in the words. "However, this is a very serious matter,
Captain West, and really has nothing to do with my personal appearance. I
am, of course, being a woman, glad that I please you, but we must
consider this particular affair from an entirely different standpoint. I
am seeking neither flirtation nor compliment; merely a trustworthy agent.
First of all, it is necessary that you comprehend this."

He bowed, impressed by her manner, and somewhat ashamed of his

"I accept the reproof," he said quietly, "and will endeavour henceforth
not to offend in any way. I am entirely at your service."

"There is no offence; I merely thought it best there should be no
misunderstanding. Now, I am sure, we can proceed intelligently. Indeed, I
am going to frankly confess, I also like your appearance. This mutual
liking ought to be half the battle. We have quite a ride before us yet;
you may question me if you wish."



West gazed out through the window, wondering where they were. In his
interest in his companion, he had until this moment, taken no note of
things without, nor did his eyes rest now upon any familiar scene. They
were swiftly, and noiselessly, passing blocks of respectable residences,
none of these particularly distinguished. Her sudden invitation rather
startled him.

"You mean I am to question you freely."

"Assuredly; while I am to remain quite as free in my answers. That is
perfectly fair, is it not?"

"At least, it sounds so. Where am I being transported then? And why the

His questions evidently amused, for her eyes sparkled.

"Naturally that query comes first; and especially the dress-suit. You
have the prejudices of your sex, I see, and without regret. I shall
endeavour to reply catagorically, yet with reservations. We are going to
a country home, where we dine, in company with a few guests."

"I see; I am first of all to be projected into society. Are any of these
guests known to me?"

"God forbid; and I may even venture to predict that you will never care
to know any of them again. You are to be present as my guest, and will so
be welcomed."

"I feel the honour; but would it not be well under these circumstances
for me to know more clearly whose guest I am? Suppose, for instance, I
had to refer to our long friendship, it would be extremely awkward not to
even be able to mention your name."

"My name! Why, of course, you do not know what it is. Well, really I am
not altogether certain that I do either. We will therefore compromise on
the one I am known by; which will be safer. Allow me, Captain West, to
present to you Miss Natalie Coolidge."

She held out frankly a neatly gloved hand, which he as instantly took,
and retained in his own, the girl making no immediate effort to
withdraw it.

"This is very kind of you, Miss Coolidge," he acknowledged, adapting
himself to her present mood. "But it seems there is no necessity for me
to present myself. Apparently my identity is already known."

"Otherwise you would not be among those present," she admitted frankly.
"You must surely realize that I needed, at least, to have some
information relative to a man in whom I expected to confide. Telling
secrets--especially family secrets--to strangers is not my specialty."

"Then, I judge you have not accepted me blindly?"

"No, I have not," earnestly, and now releasing her hand. "I do not think
we ever really know any one except through personal intercourse; but I do
know who you are, and something of what your life thus far has been. It
was two days after I received your answer before I replied to it. This
time was devoted exclusively to making me somewhat better acquainted with
my correspondent."

"But how could you? I signed no name."

She smiled, again quite at her ease.

"The box number at the Club was amply sufficient. I have friends there;
once possessed of your name and army rank, the department records at
Washington furnished all further information. A Senator kindly attended
to that end, and was also able to supply a little additional gossip
through one of his Southern colleagues. So you perceive, Captain, I am
not altogether reckless. Are you interested in learning what I know?"

"I am; both from records and gossip. Will you tell me?"

"Willingly," and she checked the points off on her gloved fingers. "You
are Matthew West, the only son of Judge Robert Peel West, of Atlanta,
Georgia. Your mother, who was of the well-known Bullock family, died when
you were about fifteen, and her widowed sister has since been the
house-keeper. You are a graduate of the university of Virginia, being
fourth in your class in Scholarship. Your engineering course was
completed in Massachusetts, and you later became connected with the Wyant
Contracting Company, of Chicago. You were here, however, only a very
brief time, making but few acquaintances, when the War broke out. You
immediately entered the first officers' training school at Fort Sheridan,
graduating with the rank of First Lieutenant, and were assigned to a
regiment of Engineers, among the earliest to sail for France. While there
you were wounded twice, and cited once for special gallantry in the
rescue of a seriously injured private. Your last wound caused your return
to the United States on a special mission, and also won you the rank of
Captain. Since then you have been honourably discharged, but have made
no effort to resume professional work. You are twenty-six, and unmarried.
Is there anything else you care to know?"

"I think not; really your agency has been most efficient. Could you tell
me also if I have ever been in love?"

"In love! Really I made no inquiries, as that did not interest me in the
least. I am prepared to be confessed to, however, if you feel it

"I may have to confess later. Just now it might be better to let matters
remain as they are. And so this review satisfied you that I was really
the man you sought?"

"No, it did not wholly satisfy, but it looked promising. You were
evidently courageous, and a gentleman. These qualities were essential;
whether in other respects you measured up to my purpose, could only be
ascertained through a personal interview. There was no other way."

"And now?" he persisted.

"Still encouraging. I must admit, although the test is not yet complete.
However, we are now approaching the end of our journey. Before we turn in
I am going to ask a favour of you--call me Natalie."

"Natalie; that will be easy."

"And also forgive me if I fail in always addressing you formally as
Captain West. I presume your friends say Matt, do they not?"

"Some have that habit."

"Then I claim also the privilege."

She bewildered him, left him in wonderment as to what she would do next,
but there was scarcely time in which to answer before the speeding
limousine turned abruptly into a private drive-way, curving gracefully to
the front of a rather imposing stone mansion, set well back from the
road. West caught a glimpse of a green lawn, a maze of stables at the
rear, and a tennis-court with several busily engaged players. Then they
were at the side entrance, and a servant, in the same unobtrusive livery
as the chauffeur, was quietly opening the door. He turned and helped his
companion to emerge.

"Take the gentleman's bag to the Blue Room, Sexton," she said calmly,
"and then lay out his evening clothes."

"Yes, miss."

"I will be in the hall when you come down, Captain, but there is
no hurry."

West followed the servant up the softly carpeted stairs, finding the
apartment assigned him not only extremely comfortable, but even elegant
in its furnishing. He stood at the window looking down on the tennis
court, while Sexton opened the bag, and spread out the required
garments on the bed. Evidently he was in a home of wealth and
refinement. The grounds outspread before his eyes were spacious and
attractive; in the distance he even perceived an artificial lake with
paths winding enticingly along its shore, and through strips of
woodland. Who could this strange girl be? this Natalie Coolidge? And
what could she possible desire of him? These questions remained
unanswered, yet continually tantalized. He could not even grasp her
personality. In spite of her apparent friendliness, her irresistible
smile, her lack of conventionality, there remained a certain reserve
about the young woman he felt quite unable to penetrate. Whatever game
she was playing she kept the cards securely in her own hands. He was
not yet admitted to her confidence. He stood there immersed in these
thoughts still, when Sexton spoke.

"Shall I assist you, sir?"

"No; it will not be necessary. You have laid out everything?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well; that will do, at present. What is the hour for dinner?"

"Seven o'clock, sir."

"I have ample time then. That will be all." The man retired noiselessly,
closing the door after him, and West began slowly to dress, rather amused
at the care he took, that all details should be as correct as possible.
Unquestionably the girl interested him oddly. She was original, a new
type, and he made no effort to drive her from his imagination. He had not
been long back from the war zone, his acquaintance in the city was
extremely limited, and consequently this girl, thus suddenly brought into
his life, had made a far greater impression than she might otherwise. Yet
under any conditions, she would have proven noticeable, and attractive.
He endeavoured to analyse what constituted this peculiar attractiveness,
but without arriving at any definite conclusion. She was young, of
course, and undeniably pretty, with eyes really remarkable, and a smile
not to be easily forgotten. She possessed a sense of humour, and had left
upon him a strong impression of frank sincerity. Yet in these qualities
she did not differ so greatly from others he had known. Perhaps mystery
had much to do with her power of enticement--a continual wonderment as to
what she might do next. Then she was so self-poised, so confident of
herself, so naturally informed. All these things had their charm, and,
coupled with her undoubted beauty, left his brain in a whirl.

He was satisfactorily dressed at last, although obliged to switch on the
lights before this was accomplished. The reflection of himself in the
pier glass quite met his deliberate approval, and he glanced inquiringly
at his watch, rather eager to delve deeper into this adventure. It was a
few moments of seven, and she would undoubtedly be waiting for him in the
hall below. He descended the broad stairs, conscious of a thrill of
expectancy; nor was he doomed to disappointment.

Miss Coolidge met him in the dimly lighted vacancy of the hall, with
smiling eyes of welcome. They were mocking, puzzling eyes, the depths of
which he could not fathom--they perplexed, and invited at the same
instant. She was in evening dress, a creamy satin, revealing white
shoulders, and rounded, beautifully mounded arms, visible beneath folds
of filmy lace. If he had dreamed the girl attractive before in the
plainness of street costume, he now beheld her in a new vision of
loveliness. His heart throbbed at the sight, every nerve tingling to the
intimate tones of her voice. And she met him in a more delightful mood of
informality than had found expression even during their afternoon ride.
She was apparently in the highest spirits, eager to overstep all

"Again you please me," she said, surveying him critically. "Really this
is too much, the wonderful way in which you meet every test."

"You mean in clothes?"

"In everything, so far. Clothes--yes; do they not reveal the very soul of
a man? I hardly think I could ever have forgiven if you had come down not
looking the part you are to play."

"Nor could I have forgiven myself, if I am to enjoy the pleasure of
taking you in to dinner."

"That privilege is yours even without the asking. But," quizzically, and
glancing up frankly into his eyes, "You may not care when the time comes.
For the great test arrives first. So, buck up, Captain, for you are going
to have the shock of your life. Whatever you do, even if you feel that
you are about to faint, don't, for my sake, let your face show it."

"But," he protested, "give me some warning, some opportunity to prepare
for such an emergency."

"No," she laughed gaily, "there is no time; it is ordained to fall upon
you like a thunder-bolt. They are all in there waiting for us now. You
will offer me your arm."

He accompanied her, amused, yet bewildered, through the wide archway into
the more brilliantly lighted drawing-room. It was a magnificent
apartment, containing a half dozen people. The one nearest the entrance
was a man of middle age, exceedingly pompous and dignified, who
immediately arose to his feet, expectantly. Miss Coolidge cordially
extended her hand in greeting.

"So glad to learn you could be out, Judge," she said, the least
perceptible hesitancy in her voice. "Permit me to present Judge Cable, of
the Supreme Court; Captain West, my fiance."



For an instant West was absolutely helpless to assert himself. The calm
assurance of the girl's voice in this unexpected introduction left his
brain paralysed with bewilderment. Yet his features did not betray his
condition, nor did he entirely lose control over himself. His fingers met
the outstretched hand of the Judge, and he seemed to gaze calmly into the
latter's searching eyes. Fortunately he was not compelled to speak, as
Cable voiced his own surprise fluently.

"Well, well," he exclaimed. "This is certainly startling, Natalie. I am,
indeed, bereft of words, yet I congratulate you, sir. Captain--Captain
West, I think was the name? You are then in the service, sir?"

"Discharged from the Engineers."

"Ah, exactly. I can hardly adjust myself. Friends, come forward. I have
to make an announcement extraordinary. It seems this sly minx has
arranged a surprise for all of us. Perchance this was the purpose of our
little dinner party?"

"Oh, no, Judge," protested Miss Coolidge, her cheeks flushed, yet
otherwise perfectly cool and self-possessed. West ventured to glance
aside into her face, surprised at the quietness of her voice. "Really,
this was unexpected, even to myself. I was not so much as aware that
Captain West was in the city until a very short time ago. I am sure he
will bear me out in this statement."

"I could not do otherwise, and be truthful," West felt compelled to
admit. "The announcement was quite unexpected."

"But what is this all about?" asked a female voice eagerly. "Remember we
have not heard, Judge Cable."

"It is my pleasure then," he said gallantly, bowing, and at once
instituting himself as master of ceremonies, "to introduce to you, Miss
Natalie's fiance, Captain West--Mrs. Lonsdale, Professor Scott, Miss
Margaret Willis, Colonel LeFranc, Mrs. Wilber Somers. Possibly there may
be no necessity of my presenting the next gentleman--Mr. Percival

"Oh, but there is," the last mentioned interposed, a tall rather portly
man, with grey hair and moustache, "I must confess this is as much a
surprise to me as to any one present. However," he grasped West's hand
with apparent cordiality, "I hasten to add my congratulations, and to
wish Natalie all the happiness possible."

The group slowly broke up, the members still discussing the undoubted
surprise of this announcement, Miss Coolidge talking animatedly with Mrs.
Lonsdale, and seemingly having forgotten West's presence in the room. He
was utterly unable to even catch her eye, and finally found himself
confronting Colonel LeFranc and Percival Coolidge, the latter instantly
engaging him in conversation, evidently seeking more definite

"This engagement with my niece," he said uneasily, "must have been rather
sudden? Even your name is quite unfamiliar to me."

"It was, indeed," admitted West, who had now completely recovered
his nerve, and even begun to enjoy the situation. "Since my return
from abroad."

"You were with the army in France?"

"In an Engineer Regiment. I have been in America only two weeks."

"Ah, indeed. And this is your home?"

Realizing that the elder Coolidge was diligently searching for
information, West decided the best method would be a full confession.

"Oh, no," he said candidly, "I am from the South--Atlanta, Georgia. My
father is a District Judge, Robert Peel West, quite widely known, and my
mother belonged to the Bullock family. I am a graduate of the University
of Virginia, and also of the Massachusetts Polytechnic. Before the war I
was connected for a short time, with a well-known firm of Engineers in
this city, but, since my return, I have not resumed professional work.
Having been wounded in France, I have felt entitled to a little rest
after my return."

"Quite interesting, I am sure," Coolidge turned to the Colonel. "You are
Southern also, I believe?"

"Very much so," was the quick response. "And I chance to know the name
of Judge West rather well. I congratulate your niece on her choice of a
life companion. There is no better blood in Georgia. I would be very
pleased to hear more of your father, Captain West. I have not met him
for several years."

West, by this time, thoroughly impressed with the spirit of the occasion,
passed the ensuing evening rather pleasantly, although obliged to be
always on his guard against any incautious remark, and keenly interested
in all that was occurring about him. He found the company rather pleasant
and entertaining, although not quite able to gauge the real feelings of
Mr. Percival Coolidge, who he imagined was not altogether satisfied with
the state of affairs just revealed. The gentleman was outwardly cordial
enough, yet his manner continued distinctively reserved, and somewhat
cold. West, however, attributed this largely to the nature of the man,
and finally dismissed the thought from his mind altogether. The person
who continued to puzzle him most was Natalie Coolidge, nor was he able to
approach her in any way so as to obtain a whispered private word of
guidance. The girl unquestionably avoided him, easily able to accomplish
this by devoting her entire attention to the other guests.

She appeared in excellent humour, and there was laughter, and brilliant
conversation wherever she paused, but not once could he encounter her
glance, or find her for a moment alone. Nor dare he ask questions of
those he conversed with, so as to gain any fresh insight into this
mystery. He ventured upon thin ice once or twice most carefully, but the
information obtained was infinitesimal, although it bore to some extent
on the problem confronting him. The Colonel innocently lifted the veil
slightly, permitting him to learn that this was a week-end party, and
that Miss Coolidge was the mistress of the place, her parents having been
dead for two years. Percival Coolidge, her father's brother, and a
manufacturer in the city, was her guardian, and the affairs of the estate
were not yet entirely liquidated. West drew the impression that Colonel
LeFranc possessed a rather low opinion of the uncle, although he was
careful to choose his words. Beyond this he apparently knew nothing of
the family history, which he felt at liberty to communicate. As West had
a delicacy in asking questions, the subject was pursued no further.

He was assigned to escort Miss Willis, a tall willowy blonde, and quite
talkative, in to dinner, but her conversation ran largely to the
theatrical offerings in town, and he found it impossible to change her
trend of thought into other channels. The hostess sat nearly opposite,
where she could easily overhear the young lady, whose voice was decidedly
penetrating, so West made no serious attempt to be otherwise than
complacent. Once the smiling Natalie appealed to him, familiarly
calling him "Matt" across the table, and he responded with equal
intimacy, yet her eyes avoided his, and it was plainly evident to his
self-consciousness, that her remark was merely part of the play. More
and more her actions mystified and perplexed; he could not discover the
key to her hidden motive, or guess at her purpose in this masquerade.
Nothing remained but for him to go quietly forward, playing the part
assigned. He had pledged himself blindly to her, and could only wait for
the future to reveal the object of it all. Sometime he would succeed in
getting the girl alone once more, and then he would compel a full

But this was not destined to take place that evening. She coolly and
deliberately defeated every effort he made to get her alone, and yet this
was accomplished in a manner so as not to attract the attention of
others. Even Percival Coolidge, who, West felt, was watching them both
shrewdly, never suspected the quiet game of hide and seek being played
under his very eyes. Nevertheless, it was this growing suspicion of the
man which prevented West from indulging in more rigorous methods. As the
evening progressed he became almost convinced that her principal object
was to deceive this gentleman; that she really cared nothing for what the
others might think, or say. And she did her part to perfection, being
with West often, although never alone, speaking to him intimately, and
requesting of him little acts of service most natural under the
circumstances. He played opposite her in a fourhanded game of bridge; he
turned the leaves of her music when she sang, and her arm rested within
his as they all stood on the porch watching the moon rise. It was all a
masterpiece of acting, so exceedingly well done, as to finally convince
the young man that she was greatly in earnest as to its success. She
desired Percival Coolidge to have no lingering doubt of her engagement.
And, finding all opportunity of explanation denied him, he yielded to the
inevitable, and, for the evening at least, silently accepted his fate.

Nor did circumstances favour him when the company finally broke up, and
retired for the night. He had thought this moment might be propitious,
but she calmly outgeneraled him again, suddenly bidding the men remain
and smoke as long as they pleased, and, disappearing herself up the
stairway with Miss Willis, without so much as a glance backward,
indicative of any lingering interest. West, convinced that her retirement
was final, and early wearying of the rather drowsy conversation about
him, soon sought his own room. It was eleven o'clock of a bright,
moonlight night, and, feeling in no degree sleepy, West seated himself
at the window to finish his cigar. He heard the others pass along the
hall on their way to the rooms assigned them, and finally all became
quiet, even the servants apparently having retired. Outside was likewise
noiseless, the moon revealing the scene almost as clearly as though it
was day, yet leaving weird shadows to confuse the eye. Occasionally a
belated motor car passed along the road, invisible because of the trees.
Again and again his mind reviewed the strange events of the evening,
unable to arrive at any definite conclusion. The harder he sought to
delve into the mystery, the more obscure it became. The young woman
herself thoroughly baffled him. If this was merely a test, it was
certainly a most unusual one, and he hoped he had met the requirements to
her entire satisfaction. He already frankly acknowledged to himself, at
least, that she had become of personal interest to him. He fell a
peculiar desire to be of service; but this desire was now permeated with
a firm determination to know the whole truth. He would no longer remain
ignorant of her object, for what purpose he was being used. She must
trust him, and tell him frankly, if he was to continue to play a part. He
would know whether this was tragedy or comedy, first of all.

He had, indeed, reached some conclusions already. These might not be
correct, yet they were already implanted in his mind. The guests of the
night were mere puppets, having no real connection with the game being
played, utterly ignorant of what was going on behind the scenes. The only
one present having any real part was Percival Coolidge, and West had
taken an instinctive dislike to this man. Moreover, he had some reason to
believe this feeling was warmly reciprocated; that the latter already
suspected and watched him. Only one explanation flashed into his mind to
account for Miss Coolidge's unexpected announcement of an engagement
between them--this would excuse any future intimacy; would enable them to
meet alone freely without arousing comment. She had deliberately chosen
this course to disarm suspicion, and had failed to warn him in advance
that she might test his nerve and discretion. This appealed to him as the
most reasonable explanation of the situation. But beyond this vague
guess, it was impossible to delve. He possessed no facts, no knowledge;
he could only keep faith in her, and wait the time of explanation.

Tired by the uselessness of such thinking West finally sought the bed,
and must have slept, although scarcely aware that he had closed his eyes.

Some slight noise aroused him. The door leading into the hall, which he
had failed to lock, stood partially ajar, and his eyes caught the vague
glimpse of a figure gliding swiftly through the opening. With one bound
he was upon his feet, springing recklessly forward. The hall was dark,
but for a patch of moonlight at the further end. Against this he caught
an instant, flitting glimpse of the intruder. It was a woman, yet even
as his eyes told him this, she seemed to vanish into thin air--the hall
was empty.



Vague and indistinct as was that fleeting vision in the moonlight, West
felt no doubt as to the identity of his visitor--the woman was Natalie
Coolidge. His one glimpse of her vanishing figure assured him of this
fact, and he drew back instantly, unwilling to follow. Where she had gone
he neither knew, nor cared. She had come to his room secretly, supposing
him asleep, and this surprising knowledge dominated his mind. What could
such an act mean? This was certainly a home of respectability, of wealth.
The guests being entertained were evidence of that; yet this secret
entrance into his private apartment at such an hour suggested theft, or
even some more desperate crime. There was mystery here, at least, a
mystery beyond his power of discernment. However, this recognition rather
hardened him to his task, than otherwise. He had been forced into the
strange environment, and now meant to penetrate its every secret.

This time he locked the outer door carefully, and lay down on the bed,
wondering if there would be any further developments. As he attempted to
think, he was listening eagerly for the slightest sound of movement in
the hall. There were none; the transom stood partially open, but no noise
reached his ears from the outside; clearly enough the night prowler,
assured that he was still awake, had decided to make no further effort.
Doubtless she believed her escape had been unseen, or, at least, that she
had remained unrecognized in the gloom, and would now resort to some
entirely different method for achieving her end, whatever it could be. He
could only wait, and watch for the next move. Perhaps the morning would
bring full explanation. With this conception in his mind, his head sought
the pillow, and he lapsed into unconsciousness.

The long training of army service caused West to awaken early, while the
house was yet quiet, but with the dawn already red in the East. He
crossed to the window, and looked out. It was a beautiful morning, the
green lawn yet sparkling with dew; the estate was evidently a fine one,
quite extensive and carefully attended to. To the right of the tennis
court was a well arranged flower garden, criss-crossed by white paths, an
ornate summer-house in its centre, completely concealed by vines. Beyond
this, conspicuous against the green back-ground, West caught the flutter
of a white skirt, realizing instantly that, early as the hour was,
Natalie Coolidge was already up and about. He wondered if her presence
might not be an invitation for him? Perhaps she had deliberately chosen
this early hour, before the others awoke, to explain her strange conduct
of the previous evening? At least, here was an opportunity to see and
talk with her alone.

He dressed swiftly, and slipped noiselessly down-stairs, unlocking the
front door, and emerging into the fresh air, without encountering any
stray members of the household. Not even a servant was visible. He passed
beyond the vine draped arbour before she realized his approach, and
straightened up, a freshly cut rose in one gloved hand, the pruning
shears in the other, welcoming him with a little laugh, her eyes full of
demure mischief.

"I rather suspected army discipline had not entirely worn off," she said
pleasantly, "and that you might still prove to be an early riser."

"And does this expectation account for your presence?"

"Not wholly; it has become a habit with me. I am always the first one
out in the morning, and it will be an hour yet before breakfast is
served. However, I promised to be very frank with you, did I not? Then I
will begin now; this morning I really hoped I might see you for a moment
before the others were stirring--we have so much to talk about."

"It certainly seems so to me," he responded honestly, yet not greatly
encouraged by the amusement in her eyes. "The night has been full of

"During which you bore yourself exceedingly well. I have always read of
the initiative of the American soldier, Captain, and in this case, you
met my every expectation."

"Then I have passed the test?"

She hesitated, her eyes seeking his, and then falling before his gaze.

"Yes," she acknowledged slowly, "I can scarcely say anything else now;
the--the affair has progressed so far already there is nothing to do but
go on with it."

"Yet I remain wholly in the dark," he protested.. "Surely you cannot
expect real service when given so blindly?"

"No, I do not. I mean to trust you fully. It is the only way; but do you
still truly wish to serve?"

"I am enlisted in the cause without reserve," he insisted warmly. "While
I learned but little last evening, that little was enough to convince me
there is something strange under the surface. Your calling me to your
assistance is no joke--you actually need me."

"I need some one on whose judgment and courage I can rely," she
answered earnestly, "and I believe now that you are the one. It is
rather an odd situation, Captain West, but the circumstances surely
justify my action. Perhaps I shall have time to partly explain now. Let
us slip into the concealment of this summer-house; no one can approach
without being seen."

It was dark and cool under the shadow of the vines, but, for a moment
after they were seated, neither spoke. West waited expectantly for his
companion to break the silence, and she seemingly found it difficult to
begin her story. The flush deepened on her cheeks, and her lips parted.

"It really seems so ridiculous," she explained at last desperately.
"Almost like a dream of fancy, and I hardly know how to put the situation
into words. If I were ten years younger I would almost be convinced
myself that it was all imaginary, yet everything I tell you is true. I
wonder if you will believe me?"

"Do not question that. I realize fully your earnestness."

"Yet I am going to test your credulity, just the same. But it would be
very foolish to venture as far as I have already, and then fail to go on.
So I'll tell you just what I know, and--and then leave it there. That
will be the best way. Those people you met last evening have nothing to
do with the story--none of them, at least, unless it may possibly be
Percival Coolidge. I am rather afraid of him; I always have been. I
believe he knows what all this trouble means, but I do not dare go
and talk with him about it. That is really what is the matter, I
suppose--there is no one I can talk to; they would only laugh at me. If
you do, I shall never forgive you."

"I am not at all so inclined. Tell me the story from the very beginning."

"Yes, I will. My father was Steven Coolidge, and was very wealthy. He did
not marry until late in life, and, I have reason to believe it was a
great disappointment to his brother Percival that a child was born.
Perhaps I ought not to make such a statement, but much has occurred to
impress me with his dislike--"

"He is your guardian?"

"Yes; you learned that last night?"

"From the Colonel; he seemed to enjoy talking, and naturally, I was
curious. Has Percival Coolidge wealth of his own?"

"Only what my father left him, which was a considerable sum, and a
limited interest in the business. He was very much dissatisfied with his
share. Originally he was one of the two trustees in charge of the estate,
but the other died, leaving him entirely in control. Before I was born he
had confidently expected to inherit everything."

"The estate then is not settled?"

"Not until I am twenty-five; within a few days now."

"And your mother?"

"She died at my birth."

West leaned forward eagerly. "It is the estate then that troubles you?"
he asked swiftly. "You imagine it has wasted?"

"No, not at all. They tell me it has increased in value. My father's
lawyer assures me as to this. Percival Coolidge is a good business man,
but something strange is going on behind the scenes. I cannot talk with
the lawyer about it; I can scarcely be sure myself. I--I am simply up
against a mystery I am unable to solve. Everywhere I turn I run into a
blank wall."

"But I do not understand."

"How could you expect to, when it is so utterly obscure to me? I seem to
be fighting against a ghost."

"A ghost!"

"Yes; now don't laugh at me! Do you suppose I would ever have done
anything as reckless as advertising for help if I had not been actually
desperate? Can you imagine a respectable girl performing so ridiculous an
act, as putting her whole trust in a stranger, inviting him to her home,
introducing him as her promised husband to her relatives and friends?
Why, it almost proves me crazed, and, in a measure, I think I must be.
But it is because I have exhausted all ordinary methods. I do not seem to
be opposing anything of flesh and blood; I am fighting against shadows. I
cannot even explain my predicament to another."

"You must try," he insisted firmly, affected by her evident distress. "I
must be told everything if I am to be of any value. A half way confidence
can accomplish nothing."

"But it sounds so foolish; I am being haunted! I know that, yet that is
all I do know."

"Haunted, in what way?"

"I do not even know that; but by a woman, I think--a woman who must
strangely resemble me. She pretends to be me--to my friends, to my
servants, at my bank. I never see the creature, but I hear of her from
others. She has actually drawn checks in my name, imitating my signature,
and having them cashed by clerks who know me well. She has given orders
to my servants, and they protest that I gave them. She meets and talks
with my friends in places where I never go. I am sure she has actually
been in this house, and ridden in my car undiscovered. I am constantly
reported as being seen at restaurants and hotels where I have not been,
and with parties I do not know. This has been going on for a month now. I
am unable to prove her an imposter, even to identify her. I have
endeavoured to discuss the situation with a few people, but they only
laugh at the strange idea. No one will listen to me seriously. My lawyer
actually believes I am demented."

"And you conceived the thought that perhaps a total stranger might prove
more sympathetic?"

"Yes," she admitted. "If he was young and adventurous; provided I
interested him at all. It would seem to offer me a chance; and then, if
unknown to the party impersonating me, such a one might learn the truth
unsuspected. Do you believe me, Captain?"

"I have no reason to doubt what you say. What you describe is not
impossible, and there surely must be an adequate explanation for it. I
mean to do my very best to uncover the mystery. You have these
fraudulent checks?"

"Yes; one was returned to me only yesterday."

"I shall want them, together with one you drew yourself. Also the names
of the servants who have apparently been approached by this person, and
the circumstances."


"You do not mind if I ask you one or two rather direct personal

"Assuredly not."

"What caused you to announce our engagement?"

She laughed, but from sudden embarrassment.

"It was silly, wasn't it! Really I do not exactly know; a sudden impulse,
and the words were spoken. It occurred to me that our intimacy could be
accounted for in no other way."

"So I supposed. Well, there is no harm done, but now, you understand, we
must play out the game."

"Play it out?"

"Surely; act natural, permit no suspicion to be aroused. Even if I should
feel impelled by duty, to kiss you, it is my privilege."

"Why--why, you cannot mean that!"

"Oh, but I do. This is no threat that I shall insist on carrying the
matter to such an extreme, yet I must insist on the right if it becomes
necessary. You would scarcely dare refuse, would you?"

"No," she confessed, her eyes suddenly meeting his, "I--I suppose not;
but--but is it necessary to discuss that now?"

"Perhaps not, only I must know. You will play the game?"

Her eyes fell, the breath pulsing between her lips.

"I am not afraid," she said rather proudly. "Yes, I will play the game."

"Good! I knew you would. And now for the second question; why did you
come to my room last night?"

She stared at him incredulously, the flush fading from her cheeks.

"Your room! I come to your room! Assuredly no; what can you mean?"

"Then it must be that I have already encountered the ghost," he declared
smilingly. "For the very counterpart of you certainly visited me. I had a
clear view of her in the moon-light, but she vanished down the hall. I
would have sworn she was you."

"A woman?"

"Absolutely a woman; flesh and blood, no doubt as to that."

"When was this?"

"After midnight."

"It was not I, Captain West; please believe that--but hush; there comes
Percival Coolidge!"



The newcomer stood at the edge of the front steps, and paused long enough
to light a cigarette before descending. His features were as clear cut as
though done in marble, and about as expressive. To all outward
appearances, the man was cold, emotionless, selfish egotism written on
every feature. For the first time, in the glare of the bright morning
light, West took stock of the fellow, and realized his true nature.
Instinctively he felt that here was the particular antagonist he was to
be pitted against. Whatever might be the truth as to a strange woman,
this man must be the controlling factor in any conspiracy. His companion
must have sensed the same fact, for she swiftly drew back beneath the
shadow of the vines.

"You meet him," she whispered, "alone. I would rather he did not find us

"But can you escape unseen?"

"Yes, under cover of the hedge. But be very careful what you say."

She had vanished before he could interpose, slipping away so noiselessly,
he was scarcely aware of her swift action. His eyes followed the more
deliberate movements of the man, who slowly descended the broad steps,
pausing when once on the gravelled walk to glance curiously back at the
house. West thought his interest centred on the open window of the room
he had occupied, but this was merely a conjecture, for the delay was but
for a moment; shortly after Coolidge strolled on directly toward the
summer-house, the blue smoke of the cigarette marking his progress. West
stepped carelessly forth from the concealment of the vines, watchful for
any change of expression on the face of the other. There was none, not
even a look of surprise, or a tightening of the lip.

"Ah! Captain," he said easily, tossing his stub aside, and drawing forth
his case for another. "Glorious air this morning; the advantage of early
rising; you indulge, I presume?"

"An army habit, I mean to do away with later. Thanks. I suppose breakfast
is not ready?"

"Hardly yet," glancing about inquiringly. "My niece is usually out here
at this hour, which accounts for my venturing forth. She is not here?"

"Not now, although there are evidences that she has been," indicating
the gloves and pruning shears visible beside the walk. "We must have
arrived too late."

"So it seems. You came with the same purpose, no doubt?"

"If you mean the hope of encountering Natalie, your guess is correct. She
would not give me a word last night, and has even overturned my plans
this morning. Does she play hide and seek with you also?"

"Does she! One never knows what she will do. But this last escapade is
the strangest of all."

"You refer to our engagement?"

"Assuredly; I had no warning, no conception of such a thing."

"Do you mean, sir, that she had never consulted you? never even mentioned
me to you before?"

"Exactly. You are aware of who I am, I presume? the position I hold
relative to her property?"

"Certainly; you are her uncle and guardian. Under the terms of the will
you remain in full control until she is twenty-five, now almost at hand,
except for an annual income payable to her monthly. Is not that the

"You have apparently made very careful inquiry," he commented with a
perceptible sneer. "No doubt this was a matter of deep interest to you."

"Of some interest, I confess," acknowledged West, controlling his temper.
"Although my information has not come from inquiry. Miss Natalie was kind
enough to talk to me about her affairs, presupposing my interest in them.
However, I assure you, I have no personal ambition along this line."

"Indeed; not fortune-hunting then?"

"Far from it," good humouredly, but keenly aware that he was touching
Coolidge. "My family is far from poverty stricken, and I have a very good
profession. It is quite right you should know this."

"What profession, may I ask?"

"Civil Engineer."

"But not established, I imagine?"

"I had very good connections before the war. Since returning from France,
I have made no effort to renew these, or seek others. I, of course,
expect to do so later, and shall be in no way dependent upon Miss
Coolidge's fortune."

"Although quite willing to share it, I presume?"

"I think you have insinuated that often enough," returned West, at last
fully aroused by the insolent words and manner of the other. "Perhaps it
may be well for us to have a plain understanding without further delay,
Mr. Percival Coolidge. My engagement to Miss Natalie may be sudden and
unexpected--perhaps not altogether pleasant from your standpoint--yet it
hardly warrants you in thus attributing to me mercenary motives. As a
matter of fact, I was not aware until last evening that she was an
heiress to considerable property. I knew nothing of her relationships. I
will say, however, that now I feel perfectly justified in showing an
interest in her affairs. As I understand matters, you are her guardian
under the special provisions of your brother's will?"

"You are perfectly right, sir, and I should have been consulted previous
to this engagement." Coolidge said with dignity. "Even now it is subject
to my approval."

"I think not. Your guardianship was merely a special provision of the
will, with reference to the estate. So I understand, at least. At
twenty-one, she became mistress of her own personal affairs, and no
longer needed to consult you."

"I controlled her income."

"Only the surplus; a certain sum was to be paid her each month until she
was twenty-five; then the entire estate came into her possession. Beyond
this you exercised no legal authority."

"You seem well posted."

"The lady herself informed me as to these facts."

"Since yesterday?"

"Yes, since yesterday."

"Where, may I ask?"

"In the summer-house here, a few moments ago."

Coolidge gave utterance to an oath, which burst from his lips before it
could be wholly restrained.

"Damn you! just what is your game?" he exclaimed roughly, forgetting his
pose. "Are you trying to get your nose into my affairs?"

"Most certainly not," returned West coolly, yet facing the other with a
steady eye. "I can have no possible interest in your affairs. But I may
be led to investigate those of Miss Coolidge, if she should so request.
It seems she possesses no one to represent her at present--not even the
family lawyer."

"What do you imply by that remark?"

"That she has gone to you, and to the attorney, who represents the
estate, relative to some very strange occurrences of late, only to be
laughed at. No effort has been made to relieve her anxiety."

"You mean that fool story about some one else pretending to be her?"

"It cannot altogether be a fool story when this mysterious party passes
forged checks at the bank."

"There was only one; that means nothing; the girl isn't using good sense.
So this is the stuff she is filling you up with? And you propose
investigating her wild imaginings, hey? By Gad, you are going to have an
interesting time."

"I hope so; at least I am hoping to discover some truth."

"Good. I wish you well," and his tone was one of decided relief. "Your
adventures ought to prove quite amusing."

Coolidge laughed heartily, the whole affair apparently taking on a new
aspect, now that he felt he comprehended the real purpose of the other.

"Oh, by the way, West, you must pardon me if I send Sexton into your room
for a valise I left there. You see I occupied that suite until you came."

"Oh, indeed," surprised, "I noticed no other grip there."

"It is in the closet. That has always been my room whenever I visit
here. I do not know why Natalie decided to change me this time--naturally
wished to reserve the best for you, I presume."

"Very kind of her, I am sure. There is Sexton now."

"Which means breakfast is served. Shall we go in?"

The two men walked slowly up the gravelled path, leading to the side
door. West's thoughts were busy with this new discovery. Had he
inadvertently stumbled upon a clue? So he had occupied the room usually
reserved for Percival Coolidge. Perhaps here was the explanation of the
coming of his strange visitor. If so, then it was already clearly evident
that whatever the plot might be, this fellow had a hand in it. West
glanced aside at the face of his unconscious companion, deciding quickly
to venture a chance shot.

"Were you expecting a caller last night?" he asked calmly.

Coolidge wheeled about, startled out of his self-control.

"A caller! Of course not. What put that in your head?"

"Because I had one, in that room you say you always occupied. The
visitor vanished as soon as I was seen, and the thought occurred to me
just now that you might have been the one sought."

"Perfectly absurd, West. You must have had a night-mare. What did she
look like?"

"Oh, I only had a glimpse in the moon-light; resembled a ghost more than
anything else."

"And just about what it was," with a laugh of relief. "Some dream you
better forget about. Come along; they are waiting on us."

They passed up the steps together; and into the pleasant breakfast room,
where the remainder of the company were already gathered. Coolidge was
again perfectly at his ease, genially greeting the guests, and had
apparently already dismissed the incident from his mind. Evidently even
West did not consider it of any serious importance; he had clearly enough
not recognized the intruder, and either decided the whole affair a freak
of imagination, or else, at the worst, some midnight escapade of a
servant. But West's mind had in reality settled on a point which Coolidge
overlooked. He had gained the very information desired. He had carefully
refrained from even suggesting the sex of his mysterious visitor.
Percival Coolidge knew, without being told, that the caller was a woman.
Then he also knew who that woman was.



The morning meal proved delightfully informal, Natalie gracefully
presiding, and apparently in the highest spirits. West found his place
reserved on her right with Miss Willis next, and, between the two, was
kept extremely busy. The Colonel sat directly across the table, with
Percival Coolidge just beyond the hostess. No intimation of anything
wrong burdened those present, the single servant silently performing his
duties to the constant laughing chatter of those about the table. Even
Coolidge, somewhat distant at first, yielded finally to the prevailing
humour, and joined freely in the conversation. This turned at last to the
plans for the day, revealing a variety of desires, which Natalie arranged
to gratify. The Colonel and two of the ladies expressed an inclination to
attend church, the limousine being offered them for the purpose. Others
decided on a match with the racquets, while Coolidge, rather to the
surprise of the lady, suggested that Natalie accompany him into the city
on a special errand of mercy. At first, amid the ceaseless clatter of
tongues, West was unable to grasp the nature of his plea, or her reply,
but finally overheard enough to arouse his personal interest, especially
when his own name was mentioned in the discussion.

"I was not aware you ever concerned yourself in such matters," she said
soberly. "Is this a particular case?"

"Decidedly so; the man before he died, was in my employ, but I did not
learn until late yesterday of the condition in which his family was left.
I understand something must be done for them at once. You are always
interested in such cases, so I supposed you would accompany me gladly. It
is extremely disagreeable duty for me."

"It must be attended to today?"

"The case is very urgent I am told."

"But how can I leave my guests--especially Captain West?"

West leaned forward.

"Do not hesitate on my account. I can easily amuse myself; or, if there
is room, and it is not disagreeable to Mr. Coolidge, I might enjoy being
of the party."

"Why, of course," she coincided eagerly. "Why couldn't he come along?
There will be plenty of room if I operate the car. It is a case of
destitution of which Uncle Percival has just learned--a widow and three
children actually suffering. Surely it can do no harm for Captain West to
accompany us?"

Coolidge exhibited no enthusiasm over the proposition; indeed West felt
his response almost discourteous, yet this very suspicion aroused his
own desire to make one of the party. The fellow evidently disliked him
instinctively, and would exert every influence possible to discredit
him in the eyes of Natalie. The suggestion even came that this sudden
call to charity might prove only an effort on Coolidge's part to get
the girl alone where she could be plainly talked to. The man was not
pleased with this new proposal, that was evident enough; but the niece
unquestionably desired him to accept the invitation. Not only her lips,
but equally her eyes, pressed the matter, and West experienced no
hesitancy in saying yes.

"Why, of course I will go," he returned heartily, "and I will be ready
whenever you are."

"About half an hour then."

He retired to the room upstairs, partly for the purpose of exchanging
his coat, but also half tempted to make a hasty examination of the
valise which Coolidge had thoughtlessly left overnight in the closet.
The conception had already taken strong hold on his mind that his
visitor of the evening before had been the mysterious impersonator of
Natalie Coolidge; and that she had come there with some deliberate
purpose--no-doubt a secret conference with Percival. If her resemblance
to the mistress of the house was as remarkable as he had been led to
believe, her entrance to the place would be comparatively easy of
accomplishment, and the danger of discovery correspondingly small. It
never occurred to him to question Natalie's story. To be sure there were
details he found it difficult to fully accept as true, but the girl
certainly believed all she had told him. She denied earnestly having
been the one invading his room, and he believed her implicitly; yet the
person who had visited him was so closely her image as to make it still
seem almost an impossibility that she could be a separate individual.
Nothing less than Natalie's own word would have brought conviction. And
this person had supposed she was visiting the apartment occupied by
Percival Coolidge. This was the only satisfactory explanation of her
presence there; whether she came that night for the first time, or as a
supplement to other similar visits, it was unquestionably Coolidge
whom she sought.

For what purpose? To West's mind only one object appeared probable. The
man was too far advanced in life--certainly much above sixty from his
appearance--to be involved in a love affair with so young and attractive
a woman. Moreover in such a case she would scarcely seek him out here in
this private home, where he was merely a transient guest; he would never
venture to use a place like this as a rendezvous. That was unthinkable.
Some other purpose, demanding immediate attention, must furnish the
reason for her venturing to enter this house at such an hour, and coming
directly to the room where she supposed Coolidge to be sleeping. To
West's mind there could be but one answer. The two were mutually involved
in a conspiracy of some nature, undoubtedly connected with the
approaching settlement of the Coolidge estate. This girl, so strangely
resembling Natalie, had in some way been discovered by the scheming
guardian, who was now using her for his own selfish ends. The plot had
been carefully perfected, and the time must now be near for execution.
This girl had been selected, and trained to act a part--the part of
Natalie Coolidge. Her ability to deceive had been tested in various
ways. Now the moment approached when they were ready to play out the real
game. Yet the nature of that game was in no way apparent. He could only
keep quiet, and wait for some further development, even appear
indifferent, while he secretly watched every suspicious movement of
Percival Coolidge.

It was not at all probable the satchel contained any incriminating
evidence, yet the temptation was strong to obtain, if possible, a hasty
glance at the contents. But for this he was already too late, scarcely
reaching the room indeed, before Sexton appeared, announcing his mission.
West, perched on the arm of a chair, smoking, and watched the man bring
forth the valise, and start toward the door.

"Coolidge tells me he usually occupied this room," he ventured curiously,
"How did it happen I was put in here?"

Sexton paused, and faced about respectfully.

"It was upon orders from Miss Natalie, sir. But she did not mention the
change in time to remove the bag. The truth is, I forgot, sir, that it
was here."

"Oh, I see; this is not the grip he usually travels with then?"

"No, sir; this was sent down in advance, sir. Mr. Percival Coolidge is
here quite frequently."

"Naturally. As I understand he has no home of his own?"

"No, sir; he was never married, sir. In the city he stops at one of
the big hotels. Of late he quite frequently spends the end of the week
out here, sir. Of course he is deeply interested in the prosperity of
the estate."

"As the guardian of Miss Natalie, you mean?"

"Just so, sir."

"How long have you been here, Sexton?"

"Sixteen years, sir."

"You knew Miss Natalie's father then, and must enjoy the place to
remain so long?"

"It has been very pleasant, sir, until the last month or so,"
regretfully, yet evidently glad of the opportunity to talk, lingering
with one hand on the knob of the door. "Since then things haven't been
just the same."

"In what way?"

"Well, I don't exactly know, sir. Miss Natalie seems to change her mind,
an' we never can please her. That's the trouble mostly. Last night I
waited up until you all went to bed, an' then locked the house, the way
she told me to. But that didn't suit her at all, for she stopped me on
the stairs, an' made me go back an' leave the side door unlocked--just
said she'd attend to that herself."

"Miss Natalie told you? You are sure, Sexton?"

"Oh, it was her, sir; there was a light burning in the hall, an' she was
all dressed up as though she was goin' out. 'Taint the first time,
either. I ain't got no right to say anything, but it puzzles me what she
wants to go out for at that time o' night. And I thought maybe I ought to
speak to Mr. Percival Coolidge about it."

"No. I wouldn't, Sexton," said West quietly. "It would likely enough only
get you into trouble. Probably she cannot sleep well, and so walks in the
garden. Anyway this is none of our business, my man. Where are Miss
Natalie's apartments?"

"In the other wing, sir; the first door beyond the head of the stairs."

"And the door you were asked to leave open?"

"At the farther end of the hall."

As West made no further effort to continue the conversation, but began to
carelessly roll a cigarette, Sexton slipped silently through the opening,
the valise in his hand, and closed the door behind him. West touched a
match to the cigarette, scarcely aware of the action.

This attempt to dig information out of a servant was not a pleasant
experience, yet he felt that in this case it was fully justified. To be
sure he had gained little, yet that little helped to clear away the fog,
and sustain the girl's theory that she was being impersonated by another
even to her own servants. If West had retained any lingering doubt as to
what had occurred the previous night, this doubt had entirely vanished in
the face of Sexton's testimony. His visitor, and the one who had ordered
the servant to leave the side door unlocked, had been the same--not
Natalie Coolidge, but strangely resembling her. Whoever she was, she knew
the house well, and possessed some means of entrance. Whatever else her
purpose might be, one object was clearly connected with the presence
there of Percival. She had sought his room, fleeing immediately on
discovering it to be occupied by another. Very well! this meant that he
already had two distinct lines of investigation opened to him--the woman,
and the man. The first was like pursuing a shadow, but Coolidge was real
enough. He determined to keep in touch with the fellow, confident that he
would thus be eventually led to a discovery of his companion. Beyond all
question, they were involved in the same scheme of conspiracy. West had
deliberately arrived at this conclusion, rather pleased at his success,
when a gentle knock sounded at the door.

"What is it?"

"Sexton, sir. Miss Natalie has the car at the door, and is waiting for

"All right. I will be down immediately."



The guests had either retired to their rooms, or were wandering about
the spacious grounds; at least none were in evidence when West emerged
on to the side terrace, where Miss Natalie and Percival Coolidge
waited. The car was an electric runabout, the single broad seat ample
for the three, and West found himself next to the girl who took charge.
Few words were exchanged until they turned into the main high-way,
headed toward the city. Even then conversation scarcely touched on the
special object of their trip. Indeed, Coolidge seemed inclined to avoid
the subject entirely, turning the conversation into other channels
whenever the matter was broached. This was so persistently done as to
arouse West's notice, but Natalie appeared indifferent, interested only
in her guidance of the car. It was not a long ride, the point sought
being a short submerged street in the southwestern section of the
city. To West this district was entirely unknown, even the street names
being unfamiliar, but he learned through the conversation of the others
that they were in the neighbourhood of some of the Coolidge factories,
many of the surrounding houses being the homes of employees. Percival
called his attention to a few of these, more substantial than the
others, as evidence of the wages paid in their establishments, and also
expatiated to some extent upon the benevolent oversight shown their
workmen. The girl, however, remained quiet, her attention concentrated
upon the street.

Indeed it needed to be if they were to escape accident, for the streets
traversed were, on this Sunday morning, evidently filled from curb to
curb with children engaged in all manner of games, with their elders
massed on the steps in front of the houses, watching them apathetically.
The runabout felt its way cautiously forward through the jostling throng
of screaming youngsters, and finally turned into Arch Street, only two
blocks in length, with low, two storied, wooden cottages on either side.
Percival, plainly nervous at the surroundings, indicated the place
sought in the middle of the first block, and Natalie ran the car up
against the curb.

"Is this the place?" she asked doubtfully, eyeing the rather
disreputable cottage, which seemed deserted. "I have never been
here before. What a mass of kids! Do they always play like that in
the street?"

Coolidge unfastened the door, and stepped out.

"Yes, it's all right," he answered sharply. "You might wait here, West;
we'll only be gone a few minutes. Come along, Natalie,"

The girl hesitated, evidently not altogether satisfied.

"Is it necessary that I go in?" she asked.

"That was why I asked you to come," impatiently. "Because you understand
these matters, and, being a woman, can judge better what steps should be
taken. Come; it will only require a few moments--West won't mind."

"Certainly not," the younger man said heartily, "I shall be very
comfortable; don't bother about me."

He had a distinct impression that Coolidge did not desire his company any
further, yet this suspicion aroused no resentment. This was a matter with
which he was in no way concerned, and the only interest he felt was
strictly impersonal. His eyes followed the two as they advanced up the
board walk to the front door of the cottage, and he felt a measure of
surprise at seeing Coolidge calmly open the door without knocking. Both
disappeared amidst the darkness within, and he dismissed the whole affair
from his mind almost instantly. Sinking comfortably back in the seat, his
gaze centred on the maze of children playing in the street. Their antics
amused him for some time, but, at last, he began wondering at the delay
of those within, and his mind drifted to the peculiar conditions with
which he was confronted. Over and over again he reviewed the facts told
him, and compared these with his own observations. That something was
wrong was beyond doubt; he could no longer question this, but no
satisfactory clue to the mystery had yet presented itself. If some
conspiracy was on foot against Natalie, what could be its object? and who
were directly involved? There was apparently no way to settle this,
except to wait patiently for some move on the part of the others. Any
attempt at guessing would only lead him astray. Seemingly, Percival
Coolidge was the only person who could be directly interested should
misfortune occur to his niece; he was the guardian of her inheritance,
and responsible for what remained of her father's estate. Undoubtedly he
also was the next heir at law. His interest in the matter was therefore
easily figured out. Yet there was nothing to prove that the fellow was a
villain at heart, or had any reason to attempt desperate methods. The
mere fact that some other woman amused herself in pretending to be
Natalie proved nothing criminally wrong. It might be a mere lark, with no
vicious object in view. Indeed, but for the deep interest West already
felt in the girl herself, he would have dismissed this angle of the
problem entirely from consideration. It seemed far too melodramatic and
improbable to be taken seriously, although, from mere curiosity, he
purposed to round up this masquerader, and satisfy himself as to why she
was thus publicly impersonating the girl. Yet this appeared a matter of
minor importance, his real task being to learn the condition of the
Steven Coolidge estate, and whether or not, Percival had administered it
justly. Once satisfied upon that point, he would know better what further
steps to take. His whole mind had unconsciously centred upon a distrust
of the man. He believed him to be a sneaking scoundrel, at present
engaged in seeking some means for gaining possession of the trust funds
left in his care. And yet, West had to confess to himself that this
belief was largely founded upon prejudice--confidence in Natalie, and a
personal dislike of the man himself. He possessed no proof of the
fellow's perfidy, nor had he even determined in his own mind the means to
be employed for learning the truth. He had nothing to build upon but the
statement of the girl, which was extremely vague in detail, and largely
mere suspicion. The more thoroughly he analyzed the situation the more
complicated it became, and the less confident he felt regarding an early
solution. If Coolidge was engaged in some criminal scheme the man was
certainly shrewd enough to carefully cover his trail. It was no sudden
temptation to which he had yielded, but a deeply laid plan, formed,
perhaps, as long ago as his brother's death, and now just coming to a
head. Even the books of the estate might have been so carefully
manipulated as to leave no clue. Besides West possessed no authority by
which to examine the books, or even question the bankers in whose hands
the funds were supposed to be. The only immediate hope of striking a
trail apparently lay in his discovery of the strange woman who was
impersonating Natalie Coolidge, and learning her object in carrying on
such a masquerade. Of course, even that might lead nowhere in particular,
as she might be merely amusing herself, and have no connection with
Percival whatever; yet such an investigation offered a chance not to be

His glance took in the surroundings, but with no conception that they
would have any direct bearing upon the mystery he was endeavouring to
solve. It was a block of irregular houses, a tenement on the corner, a
dirty looking brick, the other houses of wood, mostly two stories in
height, rather disreputable in appearance, but the one before which the
machine waited, was a frame cottage, well back from the street, and
rather respectable in appearance, although it must have been some years
since last painted. Its original white was dingy, and the tightly
closed blinds gave an appearance of desertion. The door was shut. The
chimney indicated no sign of smoke, the front yard gave every evidence
of long neglect.

An urchin, chasing a ball, plunged recklessly beneath the auto, emerging
with the sphere in his grimy fist. West stopped him with a question.

"Who lives in there?"

"I do' know."

"You don't know? Live 'round here, don't you?"

"Sure; but these folks just come in. They ain't got no kids. G'wn; what
yer asking me fer? Here ye are, Micky!"

"Wait a minute. Here's a dime for you. You say these people just
moved in?"



"Couple days maybe. Shucks, mister, I do' know. Hooligans moved out 'bout
a week ago, an' then, a while after that, these guys moved in. I ain't
seen nobody round, but a sorter middlin' ol' woman. Maybe Micky knows who
they be--he lives in that next house. Hey, Micky; here's a guy wants to
ask you som'thin'!"

But Micky refused to be interested, beyond a derisive wiggling of his
fingers at his nose, and West, having abstracted all the information
possible, made no further effort. The knowledge thus obtained as to the
present occupants of the cottage did not exactly coincide with the story
Coolidge had told. He had spoken of a widow with three children in
destitute circumstances following the father's death. The boy asserted
there were no children in the family. And they had just moved in, within
a very few days, during which time the neighbourhood had only glimpsed a
"middling old" woman. It was strange at least, adding distinctly to the
puzzle of the whole affair. West grew nervous, wondering why the two
should remain so long within, out of sight and hearing. If this was
merely a charitable visit, it surely did not need require such a length
of time. He had been waiting now for three-quarters of an hour. He opened
the door of the car, and stepped out upon the curb, almost tempted to
investigate the cause of delay. As he stood there undecided, the two
emerged from the cottage, and descended the steps together. Through the
opened door he caught no glimpse of any one within, yet some unseen hand
closed it quickly behind them.



They came down the narrow board walk together, Percival carefully holding
the lady's arm to prevent her tripping over the loosened planks, but
neither exchanging a word. The man was smiling, the fingers of one hand
toying with the curl of his moustache, but Natalie appeared somewhat
sobered by her visit, and West noticed that she had tied a light veil
over her face, which slightly shadowed her features. It was only as they
reached the curb that she spoke, her voice rather low and listless.

"Would you mind driving the car back?" she asked Coolidge. "Really I feel
quite unnerved."

"No wonder," he returned sympathetically, "I have never witnessed a
sadder case; the conditions were even worse than I imagined. I should
never have brought you with me, my dear."

"Oh, I am not sorry I came; but it has been a lesson to me. I do not
think before I ever realized what such poverty meant."

The words trembled from her lips, and were spoken slowly as though
chosen with care. "The sad plight of the children particularly
appealed to me."

"There are children then?" West questioned, as Coolidge assisted her
into the car. The latter cast a swift glance of inquiry into the younger
man's face.

"Children!" he exclaimed, "Of course; we spoke of them on the way down."

"I know; that was what made me wonder when one of the lads playing out
here in the street said there were no kids in the cottage."

"Oh, I see," a bit sarcastically. "So you have been amusing yourself
questioning the neighbours, have you?"

"To a very small extent," West confessed, keeping his temper. "One of the
players chased a stray ball under the automobile, and I asked him a
question or two. The cottage appeared so deserted, and you were absent
for such a length of time, I became somewhat curious."

"And what did he tell you?"

"Only that the occupants had moved in within a few days, and that he had
seen no kids about; no one in fact but a middling old woman."

"Did he mention any names?"

"No; I didn't ask. It was nothing to me."

"I should say it was not. So the kid told you there were no children,
did he? Well, you heard what Natalie said just now--which are you going
to believe?"

"The lady, of course," smilingly. "Surely this is no matter to
quarrel over."

"No, Captain West," she broke in, leaning forward in the seat, and
speaking again in the peculiar strained voice. "The boy was merely
mistaken. He had not seen the children because they were kept closely in
the house. They were turned out of their former home, and have absolutely
nothing; no furniture even; only straw to sleep on. It was most pitiful."

"Do not think of it any longer, Natalie," Coolidge insisted rather
gruffly. "They are all right now. I shall telephone for a doctor as soon
as we get back, and attend to the rent the first thing tomorrow."

"I know, Uncle, but I cannot forget so easily. Do you know anything about
poverty, Captain West?"

"Nothing very direct. Of course, in a way I have occasionally come in
contact with suffering of that nature. I have been hungry enough in
the army, but usually I have experienced little need. I regret," he
added apologetically, "that what I said was taken as criticism. I had
no such meaning."

"Criticism!" Coolidge turned the car around as he spoke. "Be as free with
that as you please; what I object to is your intruding at every
opportunity. It looks as though you were trying to find out something--is
that your game?"

"Not at all. I naturally spoke to the kid, and the only topic which
occurred to me at the moment concerned the people you were visiting. I
see no occasion for any misunderstanding."

"And there is none," she asserted cordially, her eyes meeting his own
frankly. "So let's drop the subject, and enjoy our ride. I am not going
to have the whole day spoiled because of these people. They are all right
now. What is that big building over there?"

Coolidge emitted some answer, but devoted his attention to running the
car, his jaw set. It was clear enough that West's explanation was not
altogether satisfactory, and his dislike for the younger man had in no
way lessened. The young woman, however, easily regained her vivacity, and
devoted herself to making the ride homeward as pleasant as possible. West
found her unusually entertaining, with a deep sense of humor he had not
before suspected, and an occasional lapse into slang which rather
surprised him. He had previously entertained the thought that she was
rather conventional and not particularly easy to approach, but this
conception vanished quickly in a free flow of conversation, to which
Coolidge apparently paid small attention. Indeed, there were moments when
her extreme frankness of speech rather surprised West, even her voice
striking strangely upon his ears, but the happy laugh, and swift glance
of the eyes reassured him. No doubt she was playing a part for the
benefit of Percival Coolidge in which he must co-operate. Later all would
be explained, and made clear. This belief encouraged him to keep up his
end of the conversation, ignoring Coolidge entirely, and devoting his
attention exclusively to her.

The returning ride seemed very brief, and, almost before West realized
it, the car whirled in through the Coolidge gate, and came to a stop at
the door. Coolidge by this time had recovered from his spell of
ill-nature, or else chose to so appear, and the party separated
pleasantly. Natalie disappeared somewhere within, while the two men
strolled out to the tennis court where the guests were enjoying a
spirited game. All met again at lunch, and then separated, some to motor
over to the lake, the others amusing themselves as they saw fit. Both
Coolidge and Natalie vanished, while West, finding himself alone, chose a
book from the library, and, solaced by a cigar, sought a shady nook on
the porch.

The book, however, was but a mark for his thoughts, which continually
revolved about the strange surroundings in which he found himself. He was
apparently making no progress, was no nearer a solution of the mystery
confronting him. Thus far, at least, no direct clue had presented itself.
Numerous things had occurred to strengthen suspicion, and to increase
interest in the quest. But beyond this--nothing. He liked the girl and
was completely enlisted in her service. He disliked Percival, and was
convinced the fellow was planning evil. Several incidents had already
strengthened this belief; yet there was nothing positive upon which to
build; no path of adventure for him to follow. To speculate was easy
enough, but real facts eluded him.

Yet, in spite of this feeling of failure, West's reflections centred more
upon the young woman than upon the particular problem which he had to
solve. The ride back from the city had revealed a phase of her character
he had never observed before--she had shown herself vivacious, light of
speech, a bit slangy and audacious. He was not altogether sure that this
new revealment quite pleased him, and yet it possessed a certain charm.
He had before learned to think of her as rather quiet and reserved, and
now must change his whole conception. It was difficult to adjust his mind
at once to the different standard. He found himself wondering why she had
afforded him glimpses of her nature so strangely unlike. What could have
occurred within the cottage to thus make so suddenly manifest this new
side to her character? The change in her only served to increase the
mystery, and, he confessed, his admiration also. Her very freedom
evidenced to his mind that he was really accepted, had been taken into a
new intimacy; no longer to be held and treated as an interloper, a
stranger employed for a purpose. She had deliberately cast aside the
conventional, and become natural in his presence--free to speak and act
as the spirit moved. This was a victory, and he chose to interpret it as
proof that she already really liked and trusted him. Actuated by this
feeling, she no longer deemed it necessary to dissemble in his presence.
It was a long step in advance.

He had arrived at this very pleasant conclusion, when Sexton appeared in
the door, evidently looking for some one. The man espied him there in
the shadow of the vines, and came forward.

"Miss Coolidge requests your presence, sir, for a few moments," he
said gravely.

"Why, certainly; did she say where, Sexton?"

"In the library, sir; she is waiting there now."

West hesitated an instant. There was a question he was eager to ask, but
immediately thought better of it. Interviewing servants was not in his
line, and there were other ways of learning the truth.

"Very well," he said quietly. "I will join her at once. Thank you,
Sexton," and disappeared into the cool, darkened hall.



The shades had been drawn closely to exclude the sun, and, for a moment
after he first crossed the threshold of the library, West was unable to
distinguish any occupant. He heard Sexton silently close the door behind
him, but it was not until she moved slightly that he was able to
perceive her presence directly across from where he stood. Her voice
broke the silence.

"You will find a seat next to the window, Captain," she said quietly. "It
was very good of you to come."

"The pleasure was mine," he replied. "Only I am blinded coming in here
from the bright sunshine without."

"I have had a touch of headache--nervous, no doubt, from the visit this
morning--and so ordered Sexton to draw the shades. Your eyes will soon
accustom themselves to the lack of light. I see you quite well."

"Oh, I am all right now," and he sank into the vacant chair, facing her,
expectantly. "You wished to speak with me, the servant said."

"Yes," she leaned back against the couch on which she rested, with face
now clearly revealed, one hand nervously twirling a fan. "Although it is
not easy for me to transform into words exactly what I mean. This is a
very strange situation in which we find ourselves, Captain West."

"I have felt so," he admitted, surprised at this beginning. "Yet I must
confess, I am now becoming quite reconciled."

She sat up suddenly, with eyes searching his face.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Perhaps I ought not to say," he answered boldly. "Yet circumstances
seemingly justify frankness between us. I mean that I feel far more
deeply interested in the final outcome of this affair today than I did
yesterday--it means more to me."

"Indeed! Why?"

"Largely, I imagine, because I am privileged to know you much better.
That naturally makes a difference."

"Does it indeed? You imply then an increased interest in myself as an
individual brings with it a greater desire to serve me?"

"Assuredly, yes."

"Then you render my task doubly hard," she said soberly, yet with a
certain hardness in the tone. "I had not suspected any personal side
whatever. You were a total stranger to me, Captain West, and I employed
you in this matter merely in a business way, as--as--a detective. Surely
you understood this clearly?"

"In a measure that is quite true," feeling the sharp sting of her words.
"Yet the comparison is hardly fair, is it? I am not a detective in the
sense with which you employ the term. No question of pay even has been
discussed between us. The appeal to my services was from an entirely
different stand-point. More, you even investigated rather carefully my
social and financial standing before taking me into your confidence, or
admitting me to your home. Is this not true?"

"Undoubtedly. I had reason to wish assurance in these matters. I had to
present you to my friends."

"Yet this very knowledge of my social position placed me on a totally
different plane from that of a detective picked up at some agency. You
knew I was not serving you for pay."

"Did I?"

"I should hope you did," his voice hardening slightly.

"But for what other end did you volunteer your services?"

"Perhaps that is not so easily explained. It was a spirit of adventure
which first led me to answer your advertisement, I presume. At least, I
can give it no other name. Then, when we met, you appealed to me
personally; I felt a desire to further our acquaintance and--well, your
story aroused my interest."

"Is that all?"

"It might have been had not you chosen methods of procedure which led me
to other thoughts."


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