Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectivesñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
When she had passed out, he returned to his old position, and once more glanced down at the piece of paper which all the while he had retained in his hand. It was the note flung at Millie’s feet by the fleeing organ-grinder, and it contained these words:
If Alan Warburton will call on Mr. Follingsbee as soon as possible, he will find there a communication from a friend. It is important that he should receive this at once.
No name, no date, no signature, but it explains why Millie escaped without a reprimand.
LESLIE GOES “HOME.”
While Alan and Winnie, protected by their temporary armistice, were hurrying toward the modest abode of Mrs. French, each intent upon solving as soon as possible the riddle of Leslie’s flight, the Francoises were holding high council in the kitchen of their most recent habitation.
In all the lists of professional criminals, there were not two who had been, from their very earliest adventure, more successful in evading the police than Papa and Mamma Francoise.
Papa, although in the face of actual, present danger he was the greater coward of the two, possessed a rare talent for scheming, and laying cunning plans to baffle the too curious. And Mamma’s executive ability was very strong, of its kind. In the face of danger, Mamma’s furious temper and animal courage stood them in good stead. When a new scheme was on foot, Papa took the lead.
As for Franz, he, as we have seen, had not been so successful in evading the representatives of law and order. And he had returned, having escaped from durance vile, bringing with him a strangely developed stock of his Mother’s fierceness and his Father’s cunning.
It was a part of Papa’s policy to be, at all times, provided with a “retreat.” Not content with an abiding-place for the present, the pair had always, somewhere within an easy distance from their present abode, a second haven, fitted with the commonest necessaries of life, but seldom anything more, and always ready to receive them. Hence, in fleeing from the scene of the Siebel affray, they had gone to the attic which stood ready to shelter them, where they had been traced by Vernet, and followed by Franz. And on the night when they had left Van Vernet to a fiery death, they had flown straight to another ready refuge.
This time it was a cottage, old and shabby, but in a respectable quarter on the remotest outskirts of the city. This cottage, like the B – street tenement, stood quite isolated from its neighbors, for it was one of Papa’s fine points to choose ever a solitary location, or else lose himself in a locality where humanity swarmed thickest, and where each was too eager in his own struggle for existence to be anxious or curious about the affairs of his neighbors.
This cottage, then, was shabby enough, but not so shabby as their former dwelling, either within or without. Neither did Papa and Mamma present quite so uncanny an appearance as before.
They were somewhat cleaner, a trifle better clad, and somewhat changed in their general aspect, for here they were presuming themselves to be “poor but honest” working people, like their neighbors.
In this pretence they were ably supported by Franz, when he was sober. And drunkenness not being strictly confined to the wealthier classes, he cast no discredit upon the honesty of his parents by being frequently drunk.
Papa and Mamma were regaling themselves with a late supper, consisting principally of beer and “Dutch bread,” and as usual, when t?te-?-t?te, they were engaged in a lively discussion.
“I don’t like the way that boy goes on,” remarks Mamma, as she cuts for herself a slice of the bread.
Papa sets down his empty beer glass, and tilts back his chair.
“Don’t ye?” he queries carelessly.
“No, I don’t,” retorts Mamma with increasing energy. “He’s getting too reckless, and he swigs too much.”
“That’s a fact,” murmurs Papa, glancing affectionately at the beer pitcher.
“He’d ought ter lay low for a good while yet,” goes on Mamma, “instead of prowling off at all hours of the day and night. Why, he’s gone more’n he’s here.”
Papa Francoise brought his chair back into regular position with a slow movement, and leaning his two elbows upon the table, leered across at Mamma.
“Look here, old un,” he said slowly, “that fellow’s just knocked off eight or ten years in limbo, and don’t you s’pose he prizes his liberty? If he can’t keep clear o’ cops and beaks after his experience, he ain’t no son of mine. Don’t you worry about our Franzy; he’s got more brains than you an’ me put together. I’m blest if I know how he come by such a stock. I’m beginning to take pride in the lad.”
“Well,” rejoins Mamma viciously, “he ain’t much like you; if he was, there wouldn’t be so much to be proud of.”
“That’s a fact,” assented Papa cheerfully. “He ain’t like me; he sort o’ generally resembles both of us. And I’m blest if he ain’t better lookin’ than we two together.”
“Franzy’s changed,” sighs Mamma; “he ain’t the same boy he uste to be. If it wa’n’t fer his drinkin’ and swearin’, I wouldn’t hardly know him.”
“Course not; nor ye didn’t know him till he interduced himself. No more did I. When a feller gets sent up fer fifteen years, and spends ten out of the fifteen tryin’ to contrive a way to get back to his old Pappy and Mammy, it’s apt to change him some. Franzy’s improved, he is. He’s cut some eye-teeth. Ah, what a help he’d be, if I could only git past these snags and back to my old business!”
“Yes,” sighed Mamma, and then suddenly suspended her speech as a lively, and not unmusical, whistle sounded near at hand.
“That’s him,” she said, pushing back her chair and rising. “He seems to be comin’ good-natured.” And she hastened to admit the Prodigal, who, if he had returned in good spirits, had not brought them all on the outside, for as he entered the room with a cheerful smirk and unsteady step, Papa murmured aside:
“Our dear boy’s drunk agin.”
Unmindful of Mamma’s anxious questions concerning his whereabouts, Franzy took the chair she had just vacated, and began a survey of the table.
“Beer!” he said contemptuously. “I wouldn’t drink beer, not – ”
“Not when you have drank too much fire-water already, Franzy,” supplemented Papa, with a grin, at the same time drawing the pitcher nearer to himself. “No, my boy, I wouldn’t if – if I were you.”
Franz utters a half maudlin laugh, and turns to the old woman.
“Is this all yer eatables?” he asks thickly. “Bring us somethin’ else.”
“Yes,” chimes in Papa, “Franzy’s used ter first-class fare, old un; bring him something good.”
Mamma moves about, placing before her Prodigal the best food at hand, and presently the three are gathered about the table again, a very social family group.
But by-and-by Mamma’s quick ear catches a sound outside.
“Some one’s coming,” she says in a sharp whisper. “I wonder – ”
She stops short and goes to a window, followed by Franz, who peers curiously over her shoulder.
“It’s a woman,” he says, a moment later.
“Hush, Franzy,” says Mamma sharply. And then she goes quickly to the door.
It is a woman who enters; a woman draped in black. She throws back her shrouding veil and the pure pale face of Leslie Warburton is revealed.
Franz Francoise utters a sharp ejaculation, and then as Papa’s hand presses upon his arm, he relapses into silence and draws back step by step.
“Ah!” cries Mamma, starting with extended hands to seize upon the new-comer; “ah! it’s our own dear girl!”
But Leslie repulses the proffered embrace, and moves aside.
“Wait,” she says coldly; “wait.” And she looks inquiringly at Franz. “You do not know how and why I come.”
“No matter why you come, dear child,” – it is Papa, speaking in his oiliest accents – “we are glad to see you; very glad.”
Again Leslie’s eyes rest upon Franz, and Mamma says:
“Oh, speak out, my dear. This is our boy, Franz; your brother, my child.”
“Yes,” Papa chimes in blithely, “how beautiful this is; how delightful!”
Leslie favors Franz with a steady look, and turns to Mamma.
“Then I am not your only child,” she says, with a proud curl of the lip.
And Mamma, seeing the look on her face, regrets, for the once, the presence of her beloved Prodigal.
But Franz has quite recovered himself, and moving a trifle nearer the group by the door, he mutters, seemingly for his own benefit, “well, this let’s me out!”
Hearing which, Mamma glances from Franz to Leslie, and spreading out her two bony palms in a sort of “bless-you-my-children” gesture, says theatrically:
“Ah-h, you were too young to remember each other; at least you were too young to remember Franzy. But he don’t forget you; do you, Franzy, my boy? You don’t forget Leschen – little Leschen?”
“Don’t I though?” mutters Franz under his breath, and then he moves forward with an unsteady lurch, saying aloud: “Eh? oh, Leschen: little Leschen. Why in course I – I remember.”
“Ah!” cries Mamma with enthusiasm, “many’s the time you’ve rocked her, when she wasn’t two years old.”
“Franzy was allers good ’bout sech things,” chimes in Papa.
“Umph!” grunts Franz, turning to Papa, “where’s she been?”
“My boy,” replies Papa impressively, “Leschen’s been living like a lady ever since she was adopted away from us. Of course you can’t remember each other much, but ye ort to be civil to yer sister.”
“That’s a fact,” assents Franz, coming quite close to Leslie. “Say, Leschen, don’t ye be afraid o’ me; I kin see that ye don’t like my looks much. Say, can’t ye remember me at all?”
A full moment Leslie scans him from head to foot, with a look of proud disdain. Then turning towards Mamma, she says bitterly:
“I am more fortunate than I hoped to be.”
“Ain’t ye, now?” chimes in Franz cheerfully. “Say, ye look awful peaked.” And he hastens to fetch a chair, his feet almost tripping in the act. “There,” he says, placing it beside her, “sit down, do, an’ tell us the news.”
She sinks wearily upon the proffered seat, and again turns her face toward Mamma.
“Yes,” she says coldly, “let me tell my news, since this is a family gathering. You have deplored my loss so often that I have returned. I have come to live with you.”
The consternation that sits upon two of three faces turned toward her, is indeed ludicrous, and Franz Francoise utters an audible chuckle. Then the elders find their tongues.
“Ah,” groans Papa, “she’s jokin’ at the poor old folks.”
“Ah,” sighs Mamma, “there’s no such luck for poor people.”
“Reassure yourselves,” says Leslie calmly. “I have given you all my money; my husband is dead; my little step-daughter has been stolen, or worse, and I have been accused of the crime.”
She pauses to note the effect of her words, but strangely enough, Franz Francoise is the only one who gives the least sign of surprise.
“I am disinherited,” continues Leslie, “cast out from my home, friendless and penniless. You have claimed me as your child, and I have come to you.”
Still she is closely studying the faces of the elder Francoises, and she does not note the intent eyes that are, in turn, studying her own countenance: the eyes of Franz Francoise.
The two old plotters look at each other, and then turn away. Rage, chagrin, baffled expectation, speak in the looks they interchange. Franz is the first to relapse into indifference and stolidity.
“But, my girl,” Papa begins, excitedly, “this can’t be! You are a widow – ah, yes, poor child, we know that. But, my dear, a widow has rights. The law, my child, the law – ”
“You mistake,” says Leslie coldly, “the law will do nothing for me.”
“But it must,” argues Papa. “They can’t keep you out o’ your rights. The law – ”
Leslie rises and turns to face him, cutting short his speech by a gesture.
“There is a higher law than that made by man,” she says sternly; “the law that God has implanted in heart and conscience. That law bids me renounce all claims to my husband’s wealth. Understand this: I am penniless. There is but one thing that could induce me to claim and use what the law will give me.”
“And what is that?” asks Papa, in a wheedling tone, while Mamma catches her breath to listen.
“That,” says Leslie slowly, “is the restoration of little Daisy Warburton.”
AN AFFECTIONATE FAMILY
A sudden silence has fallen upon the group, and as Leslie’s clear, sad eyes rest upon first one face and then the other, Papa begins to fidget nervously.
“Oh, yes,” he sighs, “we heard about that.”
And then Mamma comes nearer, saying in a cat-like, purring tone: “The poor little dear! And you can’t find her?”
As she speaks, Franz Francoise shifts his position carelessly, placing himself where he can note the expressions of the two old faces.
But Leslie’s enforced calmness is fast deserting her.
“Woman!” she cries passionately, “drop your mask of hypocrisy! Let us understand each other. I believe that you were in my house on the night of that wretched masquerade. I have reasons for so believing. Ah, I recall many words that have fallen from your lips, now that it is too late; words that condemn you. You believed that with Daisy removed, I would become my husband’s sole heiress; and you knew that at best his life would be short. The more the money in my possession, the more you could extort from me. But I can thwart you here, and I will. You never reckoned upon my throwing away my claim to wealth, for you were never human; you never loved anything but money, or you would have pity on that poor little child. Give me back little Daisy, and every dollar I can claim shall become yours!”
Oh, the greed, the avarice, that shines from Mamma’s eyes! But Papa makes her a sign, and she remains silent, while he says, with his best imitation of gentleness:
“But, my child; but, Leschen, how can we find the little girl?”
Leslie turns upon him a look of contempt, and then a swift spasm of fear crosses her face.
“Oh,” she cries, clasping her hands wildly, “surely, surely you have not killed her!”
And now Mamma has resumed her mask. “My child,” she says, coming close to Leslie, “you’re excited. We don’t know where to find that child. What can we do?”
Back to Leslie’s face comes that look of set calm, and she sinks upon the chair she had lately occupied.
“Do your worst!” she says between tightly clenched teeth. “You know that I do not, that I never shall, believe you. You say you are my mother,” flashing two blazing eyes upon Mamma, “take care of your child, then. Make of me a rag-picker, if you like. Henceforth I am nothing, nobody, save the daughter of the Francoises!”
Again, for a moment, the faces that regard her present a study. And this time it is Franz who is the first to speak, Coming forward somewhat unsteadily, he doffs his ragged old cap, and extends to her a hand not overclean.
“Partner, shake!” he says in tones of marked admiration. “Ye’re clean grit! If ye’re my sister, I’m proud of ye. If ye ain’t, and ye ’pear to think ye ain’t, then it’s my loss, an’,” with a leer at the old pair, “yer gain. Anyhow, I’m yer second in this young-un business. Ye kin stay right here, ef ye want ter, and, by thunder, ef the old uns have got yer little gal, ye shall have her back agin – ye hear me! Ain’t ye goin’ ter shake? I wish yer would. I’m a rough feller, Missy; I’ve allers been a hard case, and I’ve just got over a penitentiary stretch – ye’ll hear o’ that soon enough, ef ye stay here. The old un likes to remind me of it when she ain’t amiable. Never mind that; maybe I ain’t all bad. Anyway, I’m goin’ to stand by ye, and don’t ye feel oneasy.”
Again he extends his hand, and Leslie looks at it, and then up into his face.
“Oh, if I could trust you!” she murmurs. “If you would help me!”
“I kin;” says Franz promptly, “an’ I will!”
Again she hesitates, looking upon the uncouth figure and the unwashed hand. Then she lifts her eyes to his face.
Two eyes are looking into her own, eagerly, intently, full of pitying anxiety.
She rises slowly, looks again into the eager eyes, and extends her hand.
“Gracious!” he exclaims, as he releases it, “how nervous yer are: must be awful tired.”
“Tired, yes. I have walked all the way.”
“An’ say, no jokin’ now, have ye come ter live with us?”
“I have,” she replies firmly; “unless,” turning a contemptuous glance toward Mamma and Papa, “my parents refuse me a shelter.”
It is probable that these overtures from Franz would have been promptly interrupted, had not Papa and Mamma, seeing the necessity of exchanging a few words, improved this opportunity to understand each other, and as they exchanged hasty whispers, any vagueness or hiatus in their speech was fully supplied by meaning glances. And now quite up in her role, Mamma again advances.
“My child,” she begins, in a dolorous voice, “when ye know us better, ye’ll think better of yer poor old folks. As fer Franz here, he’s been drinkin’ a little to-night, but he’s a good-hearted boy; don’t mind him.”
“No,” interrupts Franz, with a maudlin chuckle; “don’t mind me.”
“It’s a poor home yer come to, Leschen,” continues Mamma, “and a poor bed I can give ye. But we want to be good to ye, dear, an’ if ye’re really goin’ to stay with us, we’ll try an’ make ye as comfortable as we can.”
Leslie’s head droops lower and lower; she pays no heed to the old woman’s words.
“Poor child, she is tired out.”
Saying this, Mamma takes the candle from the table, and goes from the room quickly, thus leaving the three in darkness.
In another moment, the voice of Franz breaks out:
“Ain’t there another glim somewhere?”
By the time Mamma returns, a feeble light is sputtering upon the table, and Franz is awkwardly trying to force upon Leslie some refreshments from the choice supply left from their late repast. But she refuses all, and wearily follows Mamma from the room.
“Git yer rest now,” says Franz as she goes; “to-morrow we’ll talk over this young-un business.”
But when the morrow comes, and for many days after, Leslie Warburton is oblivious to all things earthly.
THE PRODIGAL BECOMES OBSTINATE
When the door had closed behind Leslie and the old woman, Franz Francoise dropped his chin upon his breast, and leaning his broad shoulders against the door-frame, stood thinking, or half asleep, it would have been difficult to guess which; while Papa began a slow, cat-like promenade up and down the room, paying no heed to Franz or his occupation, and thinking, beyond a doubt.
After a little, Franz, arousing himself with a yawn, staggered to the nearest chair, and dropped once more into a listless attitude. In another moment, Mamma re?ntered the room.
As she passed him, Franz laid a detaining hand upon her arm, and leering up into her face, whispered thickly:
“I say, old un, ye seem ter be troubled with gals. Don’t ye want me to git rid o’ this one fer ye?”
A moment the old woman pauses, and looks down at her Prodigal in silence. Then she brings her hideous face close to his and whispers:
“My boy, that other un, ef we’d a-kept her, ud a-done us hurt. This un, ef we kin keep her, will make all our fortunes.”
“Honor bright?” drawls Franz, looking up at her sleepily, and suppressing a yawn.
“Honor bright, my boy.”
“Then,” and he rises and stretches out his arms, “we’d better keep her.”
Mamma favors him with a nod and a grin of approval, and then goes over to where Papa has halted and stands eyeing the whisperers.
The household belongings here are, as we have said, somewhat more respectable and extensive than those of the former nests occupied by these birds of passage. There were several chairs; a quantity of crockery and cooking utensils; some decent curtains at the windows; and a couch, somewhat the worse for wear and not remarkable for cleanliness, in this room.
Toward this couch Franz moves with a shuffling gait, and flinging himself heavily down upon it, he settles himself to enjoy a quiet nap, paying no heed to Papa and Mamma, who, standing near together, are watching him furtively. It is some time before Franz becomes lost in dreamland. He fidgets and mumbles for so many minutes that Mamma becomes impatient. But he is quiet at last.
And then the two old plotters, withdrawing themselves to the remotest corner of the room, enter into a conversation or discussion, which, judging from their rapid gesticulations, their facial expression, and the occasional sharp hiss, which is all that could have been heard by the occupant of the couch were he ever so broad awake, must be a question of considerable importance, and one that admits of two opinions.
For more than an hour this warm discussion continues. Then it seems to have reached an amicable adjustment, for they both wear a look of relief, and conversation flags. Presently Mamma turns her face toward the couch.
“I wonder ef he is asleep,” she whispers. “Somehow, that boy bothers me.”
“There’s nothin’ ails him,” replies the old man, in the same guarded whisper, “only what he come honestly by. He’s lookin’ out fer number one, same as we are; an’ he won’t trust all his secrets to nobody’s keepin’, no more’n we won’t. He’s our own boy – only he’s a leetle too sharp fer my likin’. Hows’ever, he’s a lad to be proud of, an’ it won’t do to fall out with him.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî