Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch
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Arthur ordered the specialties of the house. “These friends, Castro, are from the far East, and I’ve told them of your famous cuisine. Don’t disappoint them.”
“May I join you?” asked Rudolph Hahn. “I wish I’d brought Nell over to-day; she’d have been delighted with this meeting. But we didn’t know you were coming. That confounded telephone doesn’t reach you at all.”
“I’m going over to the office to see about that telephone,” said Arthur. “I believe I’ll do the errand while Castro is preparing his compounds. I’m always uneasy when the telephone is out of order.”
“You ought to be,” said Rudolph, “with that blessed baby in the house. It might save you thirty precious minutes in getting a doctor.”
“Does your line work?” asked Louise.
“Yes; it seems to get all connections but yours. So I imagine something is wrong with your phone, or near the house.”
“I’ll have them send a repair man out at once,” said Arthur, and departed for the telephone office, accompanied by his fellow rancher.
While they were gone Louise told them something of young Hahn’s history. He had eloped, at seventeen years of age, with his father’s stenographer, a charming girl of eighteen who belonged to one of the best families in Washington. Old Hahn was at first furious and threatened to disinherit the boy, but when he found the young bride’s family still more furious and preparing to annul the marriage on the grounds of the groom’s youth, the great financier’s mood changed and he whisked the pair off to California and bought for them a half-million-dollar ranch, where they had lived for six years a life of unalloyed bliss. Having no children of their own, the Hahns were devoted to little Jane and it was Rudolph who had given the baby the sobriquet of “Toodlums.” At almost any time, night or day, the Hahn automobile was liable to arrive at El Cajon for a sight of the baby.
“Rudolph – we call him ‘Dolph,’ you know – has not a particle of business instinct,” said Louise, “so he will never be able to take his father’s place in the financial world. And he runs his ranch so extravagantly that it costs the pater a small fortune every year. Yet they are agreeable neighbors, artless and unconventional as children, and surely the great Hahn fortune won’t suffer much through their inroads.”
When Arthur returned he brought with him still another neighboring ranchman, an enormous individual fully six feet tall and broad in proportion, who fairly filled the doorway as he entered. This man was about thirty years of age, stern of feature and with shaggy brows that overhung a pair of peaceful blue eyes which ought to have been set in the face of some child. This gave him a whimsical look that almost invariably evoked a smile when anyone observed him for the first time. He walked with a vigorous, aggressive stride and handled his big body with consummate grace and ease. His bow, when Arthur introduced him, was that of an old world cavalier.
“Here is another of our good friends for you to know.He’s our neighbor at the north and is considered the most enterprising orange grower in all California,” announced Weldon, with a chuckle that indicated he had said something funny.
“Lemon,” said the man, speaking in such a shrill, high-pitched tenor voice that the sound was positively startling, coming from so massive a chest.
“I meant lemon,” Arthur hastened to say. “Permit me to introduce Mr. Bulwer Runyon, formerly of New York but now the pride of the Pacific coast, where his superb oranges – ”
“Lemons,” piped the high, childish voice.
“Whose lemons are the sourest and – and – juiciest ever grown.”
“What there are of them,” added the man in a wailing tenor.
“We are highly honored to meet Mr. Bulwer Runyon,” said the major, noticing that the girls were for once really embarrassed how to greet this new acquaintance.
“Out here,” remarked Dolph Hahn, with a grin, “we drop the handle to his name and call him ‘Bul Run’ for short. Sounds sort of patriotic, you know, and it’s not inappropriate.”
“You wrong me,” said the big rancher, squeaking the words cheerfully but at the same time frowning in a way that might well have terrified a pirate. “I’m not a bull and I don’t run. It’s enough exertion to walk. Therefore I ride. My new car is equipped with one of those remarkable – ”
“Pardon me; we will not discuss your new car, if you please,” said Arthur. “We wish to talk of agreeable things. The marvelous Castro is concocting some of his mysterious dishes and we wish you to assist us in judging their merits.”
“I shall be glad to, for I’m pitifully hungry,” said the tenor voice. “I had breakfast at seven, you know – like a working man – and the ride over here in my new six-cylinder machine, which has a wonderful – ”
“Never mind the machine, please. Forget it, and try to be sociable,” begged Dolph.
“How is the baby, Mrs. Weldon?”
“Well and hearty, Bulwer,” replied Louise. “Why haven’t you been to see little Jane lately?”
“I heard you had company,” said Mr. Runyon; “and the last time I came I stayed three days and forgot all about my ranch. I’ve made a will, Mrs. Weldon.”
“A will! You’re not going to die, I hope?”
“I join you in that hope, most fervently, for I’d hate to leave the new machine and its – ”
“Go on, Bulwer.”
“But life is fleeting, and no one knows just when it’ll get to the end of its fleet. Therefore, as I love the baby better than any other object on earth – animate or inanimate – except – ”
“Never mind your new car.”
“Therefore, Mrs. Weldon, I’ve made Jane my heiress.”
“Oh, Bul! Aren’t you dreadfully in debt?”
“Is the place worth the mortgage?” inquired Arthur.
“Just about, although the money sharks don’t think so. But all property out here is rapidly increasing in value,” declared Runyon, earnestly, “so, if I can manage to hold on a while longer, Toodlums will inherit a – a – several fine lemon trees, at least.”
Uncle John was delighted with the big fellow with the small voice. Even the major clapped Bul Run on the shoulder and said the sentiment did him credit, however big the mortgage might be.
By the time Castro brought in his first surprise – a delicious soup – a jovial and friendly party was gathered around the oilcloth board. Even the paper napkins could not dampen the joy of the occasion, or detract from the exquisite flavor of the broth.
The boyish Dolph bewailed anon the absence of his “Nell,” who loved Castro’s cookery above everything else, while every endeavor of Mr. Runyon to explain the self-starter on his new car was so adroitly headed off by his fellow ranchers that the poor fellow was in despair. The “lunch” turned out to be a seven course dinner and each course introduced such an enticing and unusual dish that every member of the party became an audacious gormandizer. None of the girls – except Louise – had ever tasted such concoctions before, or might even guess what many of them were composed of; but all agreed with Patsy when she energetically asserted that “Castro out-cheffed both Rector and Sherry.”
“If only he would have tablecloths and napkins, and decent rugs upon the floor,” added dainty Louise.
“Oh, that would ruin the charm of the place,” protested Uncle John. “Don’t suggest such a horror to Castro, Louise; at least until after we have returned to New York.”
“I’ll take you riding in my car,” piped Runyon to Beth, who sat beside him. “I don’t have to crank it, you know; I just – ”
“Have you sold your orange crop yet?” asked Arthur.
“Lemons, sir!” said the other reproachfully. And the laugh that followed again prevented his explaining the self-starter.
The porch was shady and cool when they emerged from the feast room and Arthur Weldon, as host, proposed they sit on the benches with their coffee and cigars and have a social chat. But both Runyon and Hahn protested this delay. They suggested, instead, that all ride back to El Cajon and play with the baby, and so earnest were they in this desire that the proud young father and mother had not the grace to refuse.
Both men had their cars at the village garage and an hour later the procession started. Beth riding beside “Bul Run” and Patsy accompanying the jolly “Dolph.”
“We must stop and pick up Nell,” said the latter, “for she’d be mad as hops if I went to see Toodlums without her.”
“I don’t wonder,” replied Patsy. “Isn’t my niece a dear baby?”
“Never was one born like her. She’s the only woman I ever knew who refuses to talk.”
“She crows, though.”
“To signify she agrees with everyone on every question; and her angelic smile is so genuine and constant that it gets to your heart in spite of all resistance.”
“And she’s so soft and mushy, as it were,” continued Patsy enthusiastically; “but I suppose she’ll outgrow that, in time.”
Mrs. Helen Hahn, when the three automobiles drew up before her young husband’s handsome residence, promptly agreed to join Rudolph in a visit to the baby. She proved to be a retiring and rather shy young woman, but she was very beautiful and her personality was most attractive. Both Patsy and Beth were delighted to find that Louise had so charming a neighbor, of nearly her own age.
Rudolph would not permit the party to proceed further until all had partaken of a refreshing glass of lemonade, and as this entailed more or less delay the sun was getting low as they traversed the five miles to El Cajon, traveling slowly that they might enjoy the exquisite tintings of the sky. Runyon, who was a bachelor, lived a few miles the other side of Arthur’s ranch. All three ranches had at one time been part of the Spanish grant to the Cristovals, and while Arthur now possessed the old mansion, the greatest number of acres had been acquired by Rudolph Hahn, who had preferred to build for himself and his bride a more modern residence.
CHAPTER VII – GONE!
The Weldons and their guests were greeted at their door by a maid, for there were no men among the house servants, and as Louise ushered the party into the living room she said to the girl:
“Ask Miss Travers to bring the baby here.”
The maid departed and was gone so long that Louise started out to see why her order was not obeyed. She met the woman coming back with a puzzled face.
“Mees Traver not here, se?ora,” she said.
“Then tell Inez to fetch the baby.”
“Inez not here, se?ora,” returned the woman.
“Indeed! Then where is baby?”
“Mees Jane not here, se?ora.”
Louise rushed to the nursery, followed by Arthur, whose quick ears had overheard the statement. The young mother bent over the crib, the covers of which were thrown back as if the infant had been quickly caught up – perhaps from a sound sleep.
“Good gracious!” cried Louise, despairingly; “she’s gone – my baby’s gone!”
“Gone?” echoed Arthur, in a distracted tone. “What does it mean, Louise? Where can she be?”
A gentle hand was laid on his shoulder and Uncle John, who had followed them to the room, said soothingly:
“Don’t get excited, my boy; there’s nothing to worry about. Your two nurses have probably taken little Jane out for a ride.”
“At this time of night?” exclaimed Louise. “Impossible!”
“It is merely twilight; they may have been delayed,” replied Mr. Merrick.
“But the air grows chill at this hour, and – ”
“And there is the baby-cab!” added Arthur, pointing to a corner.
Louise and her husband looked into one another’s eyes and their faces grew rigid and white. Uncle John, noting their terror, spoke again.
“This is absurd,” said he. “Two competent nurses, both devoted to little Jane, would not allow the baby to come to harm, I assure you.”
“Where is she, then?” demanded Arthur.
“Hello; what’s up?” called Patsy Doyle, entering the room with Beth to see what was keeping them from their guests.
“Baby’s gone!” wailed Louise, falling into a chair promptly to indulge in a flood of tears.
“Gone? Nonsense,” said Beth, gazing into the empty cradle. Then she put down her hand and felt of the bedding. It had no warmth. Evidently the child had been removed long ago.
“Before we give way to hysterics,” advised Uncle John, striving to appear calm, “let us investigate this matter sensibly. Babies don’t disappear mysteriously, in these days, I assure you.”
“Question the servants,” suggested Patsy.
“That’s the idea,” squeaked a high tenor voice, and there in the dim light stood big Bulwer Runyon, and with him little Rudolph and his wife Helen, all exhibiting astonished and disturbed countenances.
“I – I can’t see any reason for worry, Louise, dear,” remarked Mrs. Hahn, in a voice that trembled with agitation. “Not a soul on earth would harm that precious Jane.”
Arthur turned to the maid.
“Send all the servants here,” he commanded. “Every one of them, mind you!”
Presently they congregated in the roomy nursery, which had now been brilliantly lighted. There were five women – some old and some young, but all Mexicans – and a little withered Chinaman named Sing Fing, whose age was uncertain and whose yellow face seemed incapable of expression.
Uncle John, assisted at times by Rudolph and Arthur, did the questioning. Marcia had seen Miss Travers leave the house, alone, at about two o’clock, as if for a walk. She did not notice which way the nurse went nor whether she returned. Perhaps she wore a cloak; Marcia could not tell. The day was warm; doubtless Miss Travers had no wraps at all. A hat? Oh, no. She would have noticed a hat.
The only one who recollected seeing Inez was Eulalia, a chambermaid. She had observed Inez sitting in the court, in a despondent attitude, at about half past two. Yes; it might have been a little earlier; it was hard to remember. None of the house servants paid much attention to the nurses. They had their own duties to perform.
But the baby had not been seen at all; not since Inez had brought her in from her ride at noon. Then it was Miss Travers who had taken the child from the cab and with her disappeared into the nursery.
This report did not prove reassuring. Sing Fing announced that Miss Travers had prepared the baby’s liquid food in the kitchen at half past twelve, but that neither she nor Inez had joined the other servants at luncheon. This last was not an unusual occurrence, it seemed, but taken in connection with the other circumstances it impressed the questioners as suspicious.
“Perhaps they are all at the Mexican quarters,” exclaimed Patsy, with sudden inspiration.
Arthur and Rudolph immediately volunteered to investigate the quarters and started off on a run.
“It’s all right, you know,” consolingly panted Dolph, on the way. “The baby and her nurses can’t be lost, strayed or stolen, so don’t worry.”
“Common sense urges me to agree with you,” returned Arthur, “but there’s certainly something mysterious about the disappearance.”
“It won’t be mysterious when we discover the reason, you know.”
The men were all at work in the olive groves, but some of the women were in the huts and old Bella listened to Arthur’s frantic questions with blank amazement, as did the others who hastily congregated.
“Thees morn,” said Bella, “Inez bring Mees Jane here for little time – not long time. Then she takes her ’way again.”
“While Inez here,” said another woman, “I see that other – the American nurse – behind hedge, yonder, watching us.”
“How you know that?” demanded Bella sharply, as she turned to the speaker.
“I know because she is stranger,” was the calm reply. “Inez see her, too, an’ that ees why Inez hurry away.”
“Which way did she go?” asked Arthur, and they all pointed to the path that led to the house.
“It doesn’t matter,” suggested Dolph. “We know that both the nurses were in the house afterward. The main point is that the baby is not here.”
As they started to return they came face to face with old Miguel. The shadow was deep beneath the trees but there was no mistaking the Mexican’s snow-white hair.
“Have you seen baby?” demanded Weldon eagerly.
Miguel stared at them. He came nearer, putting his face close to his master’s, and stared harder.
“Mees Jane? You ask for Mees Jane?”
“Yes. Tell me, quick, do you know where she is?”
“Mees Jane mus’ be at house,” said Miguel, passing a hand over his eyes as if bewildered.
“She is not,” said Rudolph. “She is gone, and both her nurses are gone.”
“Inez gone?” repeated the old man, stupidly. “Ah; then she have carried away Mees Jane! I was ’fraid of that.”
“Carried her away! Why should she do that?” asked Arthur impatiently.
“She jealous of New York girl – Mees Travers. Inez say she kill Mees Travers; but I tell her no. I say better not. But Inez hate thees girl for taking Mees Jane away from her. Inez love baby, Meest Weld; too much to be safe nurse.”
While Arthur tried to comprehend this strange information Rudolph said to Miguel:
“Then you haven’t seen the baby? You don’t know where she is?”
The old Mexican gave him a keen look.
“No, Meest Hahn.”
“You don’t know where Inez has gone?”
“No, Meest Hahn.”
“Nor the other nurse – the American girl?”
“No, Meest Hahn.”
They hurried back to the house, leaving the old Mexican standing motionless beside the path.
CHAPTER VIII – VERY MYSTERIOUS
Arthur found Louise developing hysteria, while Beth, Patsy and Helen Hahn were working over her and striving to comfort her. Uncle John, the major and big Runyon stood gazing helplessly at the dolorous scene.
“Well? Well?” cried Mr. Merrick, as Weldon and young Hahn entered. “Any news?”
Arthur shook his head and went to his wife, bending over to kiss her forehead.
“Be brave, dear!” he whispered.
It needed but this tender admonition to send the young mother into new paroxysms.
“See here; we’re wasting time,” protested Runyon, his voice reaching high C in his excitement. “Something must be done!”
“Of course,” cried Patsy, turning from Louise. “We’re a lot of ninnies. Let us think what is best to do and map out a logical program.”
The others looked at her appealingly, glad to have some one assume command but feeling themselves personally unequal to the task of thinking logically.
“First,” said the girl, firmly, “let us face the facts. Baby Jane has mysteriously disappeared, and with her the two nurses.”
“Not necessarily with her,” objected Rudolph. “Let us say the two nurses have also disappeared. Now, the question is, why?”
A shriek from Louise emphasised the query.
“Don’t let’s bother with the ‘why?’” retorted Patsy. “We don’t care why. The vital question is ‘where?’ All we want, just now, is to find baby and get her back home again to her loving friends. She can’t have been gone more than four hours – or five, at the most. Therefore she isn’t so far away that an automobile can’t overtake her.”
“But she can’t walk, you know,” squeaked Runyon. “Baby didn’t go alone; some one took her.”
“True enough,” observed Uncle John. “You’re wrong, Patsy. We must try to decide who took baby, and why. Then we might undertake the search with a chance of success.”
“Whoever took baby went on foot,” persisted Miss Doyle. “The only four automobiles in the neighborhood are now standing in our driveway and in the garage. This is a country of great distances, and no matter in what direction the baby has been taken an auto is sure to overhaul her, if we don’t waste valuable time in getting started.”
“That’s right!” cried Arthur, turning from Louise. “The theory agrees with old Miguel’s suspicion about Inez, and – ”
“What suspicion?” cried half a dozen.
“Never mind that,” said Rudolph, with a hasty glance toward Louise; “let’s be off, and talk afterward.”
“We men must decide on our routes and all take the road at once,” proposed Rudolph.
“It’s pitch dark,” said Runyon.
“Would you like to wait until morning?” demanded Rudolph, sarcastically.
“No; I want to rescue that baby,” said the big fellow.
“Then take the north road, as far as Tungar’s ranch. Stop at every house to inquire. When you get to Tungar’s, come back by the McMillan road. That’s a sixty mile jaunt, and it will cover the north and northwest. Take Mr. Merrick with you. Now, then, off you go!”
Runyon nodded and left the room, followed gladly by Uncle John, who longed to be doing something that would count. The others soon heard the roar of the motor car as it started away on its quest.
Then it was arranged for Arthur to drive back to Escondido to make inquiries and to watch the departure of the evening train, the only one to pass the station since baby had been missing. He was to carry Major Doyle with him and return by another route. Hahn promised to cover with his own car the only other two roads that remained to be searched, and he figured that they would all return to the house within two or three hours, when – if still there was no news – they might plan a further pursuit of the fugitive baby.
Helen Hahn had promised not to leave Louise until baby was found, and before starting Arthur assisted his wife to her room, where he left her weeping dismally one moment and screaming for little Jane the next.
Sing Fing had sent a maid to announce dinner, but no one paid any attention to the summons.
After the three automobiles had departed, Patsy and Beth remained in the nursery and left Helen and a maid with Louise. Once alone, Miss Doyle said to her cousin:
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