CHAPTER XIV An Unexpected Meeting

“Better watch where you’re going!” the man said gruffly.

“I—I beg your pardon,” Madge stammered, unable to remove her eyes from his face.

For a moment they continued to stare, then the man moved on. Madge looked after him, trying to gather her scattered thoughts.

“I’ve seen him before,” she told herself tensely. “In Miss Swenster’s garden.”

Watching the retreating figure, she was convinced she had not been mistaken in her first hasty conclusion. The man was none other than the mysterious prowler. His build was the same; he had a similar way of walking: everything tallied.

“And that’s not the only place I’ve seen him,” she thought. “Let me think—”

Before her eyes flashed a mental picture of the photograph she had seen hanging in Miss Swenster’s study. She recalled the youthful face, the regular, almost classical features, a head of curly, golden hair.

“He’s changed some with the years,” she told herself, “but I’ll bet a cookie it’s John Swenster. I wonder if Miss Swenster knows he’s in Claymore?”

Such a possibility seemed remote. Madge knew that Miss Swenster was still so distressed by the memory of her adopted son that his presence in the city was almost certain to disturb her usual calm manner. And during the past few days she had seemed no different than usual.

She wondered what had brought the man to Claymore. It was unlikely he had come to attend the auction sale or to see his mother. His secret trips to the garden suggested a deeper, more selfish purpose.

Madge was inclined to hurry back to the mansion to tell Miss Swenster the startling news. A minute’s thought convinced her that such a course would be unwise.

“There’s just one chance in a hundred that I’m mistaken,” she reasoned. “And if I should tell Miss Swenster her son is here when it’s some other person, she might never get over the shock. No, I must be absolutely sure before I say a word to her.”

She looked after the retreating figure. He was far up the street, walking swiftly, but she thought she could overtake him.

“I’ll follow and see where he goes,” she decided.

She soon saw that he was heading toward the business section of Claymore. Rapidly cutting down the distance between them, she then kept just far enough behind to avoid suspicion.

As they reached the downtown section, the stranger walked faster, moving in and out to pass pedestrians hurrying home from work. Madge found it increasingly difficult to keep him in sight.

Then she lost him entirely.

“I don’t see where he went unless he dodged in somewhere,” she thought.

She gazed in through the window of a drug store but could not locate him. The only other possibility was the Grand Hotel. She went in.

The lobby was crowded. Madge looked carefully about, observing no one who resembled the man she sought.

“I’ll see if his name is on the register,” she decided.

Before she could transfer the thought to action, an elevator discharged passengers. Several of the men walked toward the main desk. And one of them was the stranger Madge had followed. He did not glance in her direction but moved directly to where the clerk was standing.

Madge slipped behind a pillar and waited.

“I’m checking out early this evening,” she heard him say tersely. “I left my baggage upstairs but I’ll not be using the room after six. Please charge me accordingly.”

He passed within a few feet of where Madge was standing, and walked out the front entrance.

“At least he’ll not be snooping around the mansion any more,” she told herself with satisfaction. “And judging from the crabby way he acts, he hasn’t been very successful in his mission—whatever it is.”

After the man’s back had vanished through the revolving doors, she moved over to the desk, asking to see the register. She glanced over the first page of names and turned back. At last she came to it: “John Swenster, Chicago.”

“Well, that proves I was right,” Madge commented inwardly. “And now the problem is whether or not to tell Miss Swenster.”

Emerging from the hotel she was astonished to see how dark it had grown. Consulting her watch, she realized it was too late to find Silas Davies at the Ruggles’. Regretfully, she decided that she must let the work on the sundial go for that night.

“It’s supper time now and Miss Swenster and Cara will be wondering what became of me,” she thought uncomfortably. “Aunt Maude will be in my wool too if I don’t scamper home.”

A few minutes later, breathless from hurrying so fast, she let herself in the front gate of the mansion and rushed up the walk. Cara, who had been watching at a window for the past half hour, flung open the door.

“Where have you been all this time?” she demanded. “Didn’t you bring the workman after all?”

“Sorry,” Madge apologized, flashing her a significant look which Cara did not understand. “Other matters came up. Anyway, Mr. Davies was working at the Ruggles’. I imagine we can get him tomorrow.”

Cara was disappointed and disclosed it. She brightened when Miss Swenster suggested that both girls remain for supper. It was not difficult to persuade Madge, for she felt that she should tell Miss Swenster what she had discovered, and she preferred time to lead up to the matter gradually.

The girls telephoned to their homes, receiving permission to remain. They helped Miss Swenster with the supper, setting the table, and taking great pains with the salad which was their own concoction.

It was nearly seven-thirty when they sat down to dine. For some reason, conversation lagged. Miss Swenster appeared unusually constrained though she made a studied attempt at cheerfulness. No one ate very much. It was in the minds of all that this likely would be their last supper together. In a few days the mansion would be sold.

“I wish you weren’t going away, Miss Swenster,” Cara said presently. “It won’t seem right for any other person to live in this lovely house.”

Miss Swenster smiled, but tears shone in her eyes. She brushed them impatiently away.

“What a sentimental old fool I am! Here I’ve not lived in this house for eight years but now that I know I’m to lose it, I feel so desolate. It’s almost as though I’m losing my last friend.”

“You have a great many friends here in Claymore,” Madge assured her, “only they’re timid about coming to see you. I’ve heard folks say so.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Miss Swenster agreed slowly. “There was a time when I didn’t care to see people. I couldn’t bear their sympathy. I drove them away.”

She relapsed into a moody silence which neither of the girls ventured to break. Presently, she looked up and smiled apologetically.

“I shouldn’t impose my troubles on you. I’m sure that at times my actions must have seemed very queer. I feel I owe you an explanation for certain things which likely are not clear.”

“Your past is your own,” Madge said kindly.

“Don’t tell us anything that you dislike to bring up.”

“I feel I must speak of my—my son. It was his picture you saw in the study. I turned it to the wall on the day I closed up the mansion.”

Madge and Cara nodded, not wishing to interrupt. They already had guessed this much.

“I found John in an orphan’s home. He was nine when I adopted him, and the sweetest boy in the world! Oh, I adored him! But even as a boy he was inclined to get into trouble. He’d take things that didn’t belong to him. I couldn’t seem to teach him the difference between right and wrong. Oh, I dislike to admit it, but he was willful and he repaid my kindness with indifference.

“I sent him away to school, thinking he might benefit by a change in environment. Once away from my watchful eye, he went from bad to worse. He fell in with the wrong sort of companions. He spent far more money than I could afford to give him. Several times he forged my name to checks.

“Finally, I told him that if he did not straighten up I should disown him. For a time he seemed to do better. I was encouraged. Then he forged another check—this time using the name of a prominent Claymore man. I’ll not bore you with the details. It was the end. I sent him away and I’ve never seen him to this day.”

“But you’ve forgiven him?” Madge asked softly.

Miss Swenster did not reply at once. Then she said:

“I loved John more than any other person in the world, but it was a wasted love. I realize that should I take him back he would only make me unhappy. If he were to step into this house this very night, I’d tell him to go!”

Madge gazed at her queerly.

“You really mean that?”

“Yes, it may sound hard, but I gave twenty years of my life to John. For the first time I am commencing to see him in his true colors, ungilded by my ideals. I can never hope to forget him entirely, but at least his memory becomes more bearable.”

Madge was sorely troubled. She had fully intended to tell Miss Swenster that her son was in Claymore. Now it seemed a cruel thing to do. By her own admission, the old lady was gradually casting off unhappy memories which had held her enslaved for so many years. She felt herself sufficiently strong to confront her son, yet Madge wondered. Might not it be better to say nothing? By tomorrow John Swenster would be far away with no one the wiser, providing she kept her own counsel.

She was still turning the matter over in her mind when they left the supper table. The girls cleared the table and wiped dishes. Madge dropped a plate which fortunately did not break.

“What ails you tonight?” Cara asked. “Are you worrying about that French quiz we had today?”

Madge laughed.

“No, but it might be better if I would worry a little. I flunked it flat I know.”

“You always say that, but at the end of the month I notice you manage to squeeze through pretty well at the head of the list!”

They finished drying the dishes and stacked them in the cupboard. Madge was putting away the last plate when she suddenly straightened.

“What was that?”

“I didn’t hear anything,” Cara returned.

“I thought I heard something fall to the ground. It sounded like it came from the garden.”

“You’re imagining things,” Cara laughed. “Did you hear anything, Miss Swenster?”

“No, I didn’t. It might have been a ladder that fell. The man who was working on the house yesterday, left one standing against the eaves.”

Madge did not look completely convinced.

“I might just run out and see.”

“Don’t be a goose!” Cara remonstrated. “I think it was your imagination. We’re too far away from the garden to hear any noise from there. It was probably the ladder.”

Madge allowed her chum to drag her into the living room. She went to the window and looked out. It was a black night but had there been a moon she could not have seen the garden for a wing of the house obstructed the view. The wind howled plaintively outside. Miss Swenster thought the room was cold and went to the kitchen for fire-wood.

They built a cheerful little blaze in the fireplace. Madge and Cara sat on the floor, watching the embers. Presently, Miss Swenster brought in marshmallows which they toasted above the coals.

“Look out!” Cara warned. “Yours is burning, Madge.”

Madge flung the charred marshmallow into the fire and abruptly arose. She slipped on her coat.

“Where are you going?” Cara demanded.

“Oh, just out to the garden. I want to satisfy my curiosity. I’ve had an uneasy feeling all evening.”

Cara laughed scoffingly but when she saw her friend was not to be dissuaded, she too arose. Miss Swenster reached for her shawl.

“We may as well all go,” she said. “I feel that fresh air would do me good too.”

They filed out the front way, Madge leading. She was the first to reach the garden. Uttering a cry of surprise and alarm, she ran to the sundial.

It lay upon its side and the pedestal had been split from the dial!

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