For a month Haverly had buzzed with whispered conjectures. It knew nothing, and yet somehow it knew everything. Doctor David was ill at the seashore, and Dick was not with him. Harrison Miller, who was never known to depart farther from his comfortable hearth than the railway station in one direction and the Sayre house in the other, had made a trip East and was now in the far West. Doctor Reynolds, who might or might not know something, had joined the country club and sent for his golf bag.
And Elizabeth Wheeler was going around with a drawn white face and a determined smile that faded the moment one looked away.
The village was hurt and suspicious. It resented its lack of knowledge, and turned cynical where, had it been taken into confidence, it would have been solicitous. It believed that Elizabeth had been jilted, for it knew, via Annie and the Oglethorpe's laundress, that no letters came from Dick. And against Dick its indignation was directed, in a hot flame of mainly feminine anger.
But it sensed a mystery, too, and if it hated a jilt it loved a mystery.
Nina had taken to going about with her small pointed chin held high, and angrily she demanded that Elizabeth do the same.
“You know what they are saying, and yet you go about looking crushed.”
“I can't act, Nina. I do go about.”
And Nina had a softened moment.
“Don't think about him,” she said. “He isn't sick, or he would have had some one wire or write, and he isn't dead, or they'd have found his papers and let us know.”
“Then he's in some sort of trouble. I want to go out there. I want to go out there!”
That, indeed, had been her constant cry for the last two weeks. She would have done it probably, packed her bag and slipped away, but she had no money of her own, and even Leslie, to whom she appealed, had refused her when he knew her purpose.
“We're following him up, little sister,” he said. “Harrison Miller has gone out, and there's enough talk as it is.”
She thought, lying in her bed at night, that they were all too afraid of what people might say. It seemed so unimportant to her. And she could not understand the conspiracy of silence. Other men went away and were not heard from, and the police were notified and the papers told. It seemed to her, too, that every one, her father and Nina and Leslie and even Harrison Miller, knew more than she did.
There had been that long conference behind closed doors, when Harrison Miller came back from seeing David, and before he went west. Leslie had been there, and even Doctor Reynolds, but they had shut her out. And her father had not been the same since.
He seemed, sometimes, to be burning with a sort of inner anger. Not at her, however. He was very gentle with her.
And here was a curious thing. She had always felt that she knew when Dick was thinking of her. All at once, and without any warning, there would come a glow of happiness and warmth, and a sort of surrounding and encircling sense of protection. Rather like what she had felt as a little girl when she had run home through the terrors of twilight, and closed the house door behind her. She was in the warm and lighted house, safe and cared for.
That was completely gone. It was as though the warm and lighted house of her love had turned her out and locked the door, and she was alone outside, cold and frightened.
She avoided the village, and from a sense of delicacy it left her alone. The small gaieties of the summer were on, dinners, dances and picnics, but her mourning made her absence inconspicuous. She could not, however, avoid Mrs. Sayre. She tried to, at first, but that lady's insistence and her own apathy made it easier to accept than to refuse. Then, after a time, she found the house rather a refuge. She seldom saw Wallie, and she found her hostess tactful, kindly and uninquisitive.
“Take the scissors and a basket, child, and cut your mother some roses,” she would say. Or they would loot the green houses and, going in the car to the cemetery, make of Jim's grave a thing of beauty and remembrance.
Now and then, of course, she saw Wallie, but he never reverted to the day she had told him of her engagement. Mother and son, she began to feel that only with them could she be herself. For the village, her chin high as Nina had said. At home, assumed cheerfulness. Only at the house on the hill could she drop her pose.
She waited with a sort of desperate courage for word from Harrison Miller. What she wanted that word to be she did not know. There were, of course, times when she had to face the possibility that Dick had deliberately cut himself off from her. After all, there had never been any real reason why he should care for her. She was not clever and not beautiful. Perhaps he had been disappointed in her, and this was the thing they were concealing. Perhaps he had gone back to Wyoming and had there found some one more worthy of him, some one who understood when he talked about the things he did in his laboratory, and did not just sit and listen with loving, rather bewildered eyes.
Then, one night at dinner, a telegram was brought in, and she knew it was the expected word. She felt her mother's eyes on her, and she sat very still with her hands clenched in her lap. But her father did not read it at the table; he got up and went out, and some time later he came to the door. The telegram was not in sight.
“That was from Harrison Miller,” he said. “He has traced Dick to a hotel at Norada, but he had left the hotel, and he hasn't got in touch with him yet.”
He went away then, and they heard the house door close.
Then, some days later, she learned that Harrison Miller was coming home, and that David was being brought back. She saw that telegram from Mr. Miller, and read into it failure and discouragement, and something more ominous than either.
“Reach home Tuesday night. Nothing definite. Think safe.”
“Think safe?” she asked, breathlessly. “Then he has been in danger? What are you keeping from me?” And when no one spoke: “Oh, don't you see how cruel it is? You are all trying to protect me, and you are killing me instead.”
“Not danger,” her father said, slowly. “So far as we know, he is well. Is all right.” And seeing her face: “It is nothing that affects his feeling for you, dear. He is thinking of you and loving you, wherever he is. Only, we don't know where he is.”
But when he came back on Tuesday, after seeing Harrison Miller, he was discouraged and sick at heart. He went directly upstairs to his wife, and shut the bedroom door.
“Not a trace,” he said, in reply to the question in her eyes. “The situation is as he outlined it in the letter. He elaborated, of course. The fact is, and David will have to see it, that that statement of his doesn't help at all, unless he can prove there is a Clifton Hines. And even then it's all supposition. There's a strong sentiment out there that Dick either killed himself or met with an accident and died in the mountains. The horse wandered into town last week. I'll have to tell her.”
Over this possibility they faced each other, a tragic middle-aged pair, helpless as is the way of middle-age before the attacks of life on their young.
“It will kill her, Walter.”
“She's young,” he said sturdily. “She'll get over it.”
But he did not think so, and she knew it.
“There is a rather queer element in it,” he observed, after a time. “Another man, named Bassett, disappeared the same night. His stuff is at the hotel, but no papers to identify him. He had looked after Dick that day when he was sick, and he simply vanished. He didn't take the train. He was under suspicion for being with Dick, and the station was being watched.” But she was not interested in Bassett. The name meant nothing to her. She harked back to the question that had been in both their minds since they had read, in stupefied amazement, David's statement.
“In a way, Walter, it would be better, if he...”
“My little girl, and—Judson Clark!”
But he fought that sturdily. They had ten years of knowledge and respect to build on. The past was past. All he prayed for was Dick's return, an end to this long waiting. There would be no reservations in his welcome, if only—
Some time later he went downstairs, to where Elizabeth sat waiting in the library. He went like a man to his execution, and his resolution nearly gave way when he saw her, small in her big chair and pathetically patient. He told her the story as guardedly as he could. He began with Dick's story to him, about his forgotten youth, and went on carefully to Dick's own feeling that he must clear up that past before he married. She followed him carefully, bewildered a little and very tense.
“But why didn't he tell me?”
“He saw it as a sort of weakness. He meant to when he came back.”
He fought Dick's fight for him valiantly, stressing certain points that were to prepare her for others to come. He plunged, indeed, rather recklessly into the psychology of the situation, and only got out of the unconscious mind with an effort. But behind it all was his overwhelming desire to save her pain.
“You must remember,” he said, “that Dick's life before this happened, and since, are two different things. Whatever he did then should not count against him now.”
“Of course not,” she said. “Then he—had done something?”
“Yes. Something that brought him into conflict with the authorities.”
She did not shrink from that, and he was encouraged to go on.
“He was young then, remember. Only twenty-one or so. And there was a quarrel with another man. The other man was shot.”
“You mean Dick shot him?”
“Yes. You understand, don't you,” he added anxiously, “that he doesn't remember doing it?”
In spite of his anxiety he was forced to marvel at the sublime faith with which she made her comment, through lips that had gone white.
“Then it was either an accident, or he deserved shooting,” she said. But she inquired, he thought with difficulty, “Did he die?”
He could not lie to her. “Yes,” he said.
She closed her eyes, but a moment later she was fighting her valiant fight again for Dick.
“But they let him go,” she protested. “Men do shoot in the West, don't they? There must have been a reason for it. You know Dick as well as I do. He couldn't do a wrong thing.”
He let that pass. “Nothing was done about it at the time,” he said. “And Dick came here and lived his useful life among us. He wouldn't have known the man's name if he heard it. But do you see, sweetheart, where this is taking us? He went back, and they tried to get him, for a thing he didn't remember doing.”
“Father!” she said, and went very white. “Is that where he is? In prison?”
He tried to steady his voice.
“No, dear. He escaped into the mountains. But you can understand his silence. You can understand, too, that he may feel he cannot come back to us, with this thing hanging over him. What we have to do now is to find him, and to tell him that it makes no difference. That he has his place in the world waiting for him, and that we are waiting too.”
When it was all over, her questions and his sometimes stumbling replies, he saw that out of it all the one thing that mattered vitally to her was that Dick was only a fugitive, and not dead. But she said, just before they went, arm in arm, up the stairs:
“It is queer in one way, father. It isn't like him to run away.”
He told Margaret, later, and she listened carefully.
“Then you didn't tell her about the woman in the case?”
“Certainly not. Why should I?”
Mrs. Wheeler looked at him, with the eternal surprise of woman at the lack of masculine understanding.
“Because, whether you think it or not, she will resent and hate that as she hates nothing else. Murder will be nothing, to that. And she will have to know it some time.”
He pondered her flat statement unhappily, standing by the window and looking out into the shaded street, and a man who had been standing, cigar in mouth, on a pavement across withdrew into the shadow of a tree box.
“It's all a puzzle to me,” he said, at last. “God alone knows how it will turn out. Harrison Miller seems to think this Bassett, whoever he is, could tell us something. I don't know.”
He drew the shade and wound his watch. “I don't know,” he repeated.
Outside, on the street, the man with the cigar struck a match and looked at his watch. Then he walked briskly toward the railway station. A half hour later he walked into the offices of the Times-Republican and to the night editor's desk.
“Hello, Bassett,” said that gentleman. “We thought you were dead. Well, how about the sister in California? It was the Clark story, wasn't it?”
“Yes,” said Bassett, noncommittally.
“And it blew up on you! Well, there were others who were fooled, too. You had a holiday, anyhow.”
“Yes, I had a holiday,” said Bassett, and going over to his own desk began to sort his vast accumulation of mail. Sometime later he found the night editor at his elbow.
“Did you get anything on the Clark business at all?” he asked. “Williams thinks there's a page in it for Sunday, anyhow. You've been on the ground, and there's a human interest element in it. The last man who talked to Clark; the ranch to-day. That sort of thing.”
Bassett went on doggedly sorting his mail.
“You take it from me,” he said, “the story's dead, and so is Clark. The Donaldson woman was crazy. That's all.”