The Chase of the Golden Plate
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Dollie's blue eyes were opened to the widest and her lips parted a little in astonishment. For a moment she sat thus, staring at the young man, then she sank back into her chair with a little gasp.
"May I inquire," she asked, after she recovered her breath, "the cause of this Ц this levity?"
"Dollie, dear, I am perfectly serious," Dick assured her earnestly. "I am trying to make it plain to you, that's all."
"Why you did not meet me?" Dollie repeated again. "Why you did meet me! And that's Ц that's what's the matter with everything!"
Whatever surprise or other emotion Dick might have felt was admirably repressed.
"I thought perhaps there was some mistake somewhere," he said at last. "Now, Dollie, listen to me. No, wait a minute please! I did not go to the Randolph ball. You did. You eloped from that ball, as you and I had planned, in an automobile, but not with me. You went with some other man Ц the man who really stole the gold plate."
Dollie opened her mouth to exclaim, then shut it suddenly.
"Now just a moment, please," pleaded Dick. "You spoke to some other man under the impression that you were speaking to me. For a reason which does not appear now, he fell in with your plans. Therefore, you ran away with him Ц in the automobile which carried the gold plate. What happened after that I cannot even surmise. I only know that you are the mysterious woman who disappeared with the Burglar."
Dollie gasped and nearly choked with her emotions. A flame of scarlet leaped into her face and the glare of the blue eyes was pitiless.
"Mr. Herbert," she said deliberately at last, "I don't know whether you think I am a fool or only a child. I know that no rational human being can accept that as true. I know I left Seven Oaks with you in the auto; I know you are the man who stole the gold plate; I know how you received the shot in your right shoulder; I know how you afterward fainted from loss of blood. I know how I bound up your wound and Ц and Ц I know a lot of things else!"
The sudden rush of words left her breathless for an instant. Dick listened quietly. He started to say something Ц to expostulate Ц but she got a fresh start and hurried on:
"I recognised you in that silly disguise by the cleft in your chin. I called you Dick and you answered me. I asked if you had received the little casket and you answered yes. I left the ballroom as you directed and climbed into the automobile. I know that horrid ride we had, and how I took the gold plate in the bag and walked Ц walked through the night until I was exhausted. I know it all Ц how I lied and connived, and told silly stories Ц but I did it all to save you from yourself, and now you dare face me with a denial!"
Dollie suddenly burst into tears. Dick now attempted no further denial. There was no anger in his face Ц only a deeply troubled expression. He arose and walked over to the window, where he stood staring out.
"I know it all," Dollie repeated gurglingly Ц "all, except what possible idea you had in stealing the miserable, wretched old plate, anyway!" There was a pause and Dollie peered through teary fingers."How Ц how long," she asked, "have you been a Ц a Ц a Ц kleptomaniac?"
Dick shrugged his sturdy shoulders a little impatiently.
"Did your father ever happen to tell you why he objects to my attentions to you?" he asked.
"No, but I know now." And there was a new burst of tears. "It's because Ц because you are a Ц a Ц you take things."
"You will not believe what I tell you?"
"How can I when I helped you run away with the horrid stuff?"
"If I pledge you my word of honour that I told you the truth?"
"I can't believe it, I can't!" wailed Dollie desolately. "No one could believe it. I never suspected Ц never dreamed Ц of the possibility of such a thing even when you lay wounded out there in the dark woods. If I had, I should certainly have never Ц have never Ц kissed you."
Dick wheeled suddenly.
"Kissed me?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, you horrid thing!" sobbed Dollie. "If there had previously been the slightest doubt in my mind as to your identity, that would have convinced me that it was you, because Ц because Ц just because! And besides, if it wasn't you I kissed, you ought to have told me!"
Dollie leaned forward suddenly on the arm of the chair with her face hidden in her hands. Dick crossed the room softly toward her and laid a hand caressingly about her shoulders. She shook it off angrily.
"How dare you, sir?" she blazed.
"Dollie, don't you love me?" he pleaded.
"No!" was the prompt reply.
"But you did love me Ц once?"
"Why Ц yes, but I Ц I Ц "
"And couldn't you ever love me again?"
"I Ц I don't ever want to again."
"But couldn't you?"
"If you had only told me the truth, instead of making such a silly denial," she blubbered. "I don't know why you took the plate unless Ц unless it is because you Ц you couldn't help it. But you didn't tell me the truth."
Dick stared down at the ruddy head moodily for a moment. Then his manner changed and he dropped on his knees beside her.
"Suppose," he whispered, "suppose I should confess that I did take it?"
Dollie looked up suddenly with a new horror in her face.
"Oh, you did do it then?" she demanded. This was worse than ever!
"Suppose I should confess that I did?"
"Oh, Dick!" she sobbed. And her arms went suddenly around his neck. "You are breaking my heart. Why? Why?"
"Would you be satisfied?" he insisted.
"What could have caused you to do such a thing?"
The love-light glimmered again in her blue eyes; the red lips trembled.
"Suppose it had been just a freak of mine, and I had intended to Ц to return the stuff, as has been done?" he went on.
Dollie stared deeply into the eyes upturned to hers.
"Silly boy," she said. Then she kissed him. "But you must never, never do it again."
"I never will," he promised solemnly.
Five minutes later Dick was leaving the house, when he met Mr. Meredith in the hall.
"I'm going to marry your daughter," he said quite calmly.
Mr. Meredith raved at him as he went down the steps.
Alone in her room, with the key turned in the lock, Miss Dollie Meredith had a perfectly delightful time. She wept and laughed and sobbed and shuddered; she was pensive and doleful and happy and melancholy; she dreamed dreams of the future, past and present; she sang foolish little ecstatic songs Ц just a few words of each Ц and cried again copiously. Her father had sent her to her room with a stern reprimand, and she giggled joyously as she remembered it.
"After all, it wasn't anything," she assured herself. "It was silly for him to Ц to take the stuff, of course, but it's back now, and he told me the truth, and he intended to return it, anyway." In her present mood she would have justified anything. "And he's not a thief or anything. I don't suppose father will ever give his consent, so, after all, we'll have to elope, and that will be Ц perfectly delightful. Papa will go on dreadfully and then he'll be all right."
After a while Dollie snuggled down in the sheets and lay quite still in the dark until sleep overtook her. Silence reigned in the house. It was about two o'clock in the morning when she sat up suddenly in bed with startled eyes. She had heard something Ц or rather in her sleep she had received the impression of hearing something. She listened intently as she peered about.
Finally she did hear something Ц something tap sharply on the window once. Then came silence again. A frightened chill ran all the way down to Dollie's curling pink toes. There was a pause, and then again came the sharp click on the window, whereupon Dollie pattered out of bed in her bare feet and ran to the window, which was open a few inches.
With the greatest caution she peered out. Vaguely skulking in the shadows below she made out the figure of a man. As she looked it seemed to draw up into a knot, then straighten out quickly. Involuntarily she dodged. There came another sharp click at the window. The man below was tossing pebbles against the pane with the obvious purpose of attracting her attention.
"Dick, is that you?" she called cautiously.
"Sh-h-h-h!" came the answer. "Here's a note for you. Open the window so I may throw it in."
"Is it really and truly you?" Dollie insisted.
"Yes," came the hurried, whispered answer. "Quick, someone is coming!"
Dollie threw the sash up and stepped back. A whirling, white object came through and fell noiselessly on the carpet. Dollie seized upon it eagerly and ran to the window again. Below she saw the retreating figure of a man. Other footsteps materialised in a bulky policeman, who strolled by seeking, perhaps, a quiet spot for a nap.
Shivering with excitement, Dollie closed the window and pulled down the shade, after which she lighted the gas. She opened the note eagerly and sat down upon the floor to read it. Now a large part of this note was extraneous verbiage of a superlative emotional nature Ц its vital importance was an outline of a new plan of elopement, to take place on Wednesday in time for them to catch a European-bound steamer at half-past two in the afternoon.
Dollie read and reread the crumpled sheet many times, and when finally its wording had been indelibly fixed in her mind she wasted an unbelievable number of kisses on it. Of course this was sheer extravagance, but Ц girls are wonderful creatures.
"He's the dearest thing in the world!" she declared at last.
She burned the note reluctantly and carefully disposed of the ashes by throwing them out of the window, after which she returned to her bed. On the following morning, Monday, father glared at daughter sternly as she demurely entered the breakfast-room. He was seeking to read that which no man has ever been able to read Ц a woman's face. Dollie smiled upon him charmingly.
After breakfast father and daughter had a little talk in a sunny corner of the library.
"I have planned for us to return to Baltimore on next Thursday," he informed her.
"Oh, isn't that delightful?" beamed Dollie.
"In view of everything and your broken promise to me Ц the promise not to see Herbert again Ц I think it wisest," he continued.
"Perhaps it is," she mused.
"Why did you see him?" he demanded.
"I consented to see him only to bid him good-by," replied Dollie demurely, "and to make perfectly clear to him my position in this matter."
Oh, woman! Perfidious, insincere, loyal, charming woman! All the tangled skeins of life are the work of your dainty fingers. All the sins and sorrows are your doing!
Mr. Meredith rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"You may take it as my wish Ц my order even," he said as he cleared his throat Ц for giving orders to Dollie was a dangerous experiment, "that you must not attempt to communicate in any way with Mr. Herbert again Ц by letter or otherwise."
Mr. Meredith was somewhat surprised at the ease with which he got away with this. Had he been blessed with a little more wisdom in the ways of women he would have been suspicious.
"You really do not love him, anyway," he ventured at last. "It was only a girlish infatuation."
"I told him yesterday just what I thought of him," she replied truthfully enough.
And thus the interview ended.
It was about noon that day when Hutchinson Hatch called on Dick Herbert.
"Well, what did you find out?" he inquired.
"Really, old man," said Dick kindly, "I have decided that there is nothing I can say to you about the matter. It's a private affair, after all."
"Yes, I know that and you know that, but the police don't know it," commented the reporter grimly.
"The police!" Dick smiled.
"Did you see her?" Hatch asked.
"Yes, I saw her Ц and her father, too."
Hatch saw the one door by which he had hoped to solve the riddle closing on him.
"Was Miss Meredith the girl in the automobile?" he asked bluntly.
"Really, I won't answer that."
"Are you the man who stole the gold plate?"
"I won't answer that, either," replied Dick smilingly. "Now, look here, Hatch, you're a good fellow. I like you. It is your business to find out things, but, in this particular affair, I'm going to make it my business to keep you from finding out things. I'll risk the police end of it." He went over and shook hands with the reporter cordially. "Believe me, if I told you the absolute truth Ц all of it Ц you couldn't print it unless Ц unless I was arrested, and I don't intend that that shall happen."
Hatch went away.
That night the Randolph gold plate was stolen for the second time. Thirty-six hours later Detective Mallory arrested Richard Herbert with the stolen plate in his possession. Dick burst out laughing when the detective walked in on him.