“Excuse me, ma’am, but
surely you do not believe that,” Fred managed
to say in another minute; and his voice may have trembled
a little with emotion; though his manner was as frank
and fearless as ever, as he looked straight into the
snappy black eyes of the angry old lady.
“Three more of the gems are
gone, and they were here this morning, because I took
them out in my hand, and counted them,” she declared,
furiously; yet beginning to feel uncomfortable under
his steady look.
“But why should you even think
that I took them, Miss Muster?” he demanded.
“Because you are
the only person besides myself who has been in this
room the entire day. Mammy has been sick in bed
since nine o’clock; and Jake Stall did not put
a foot inside the house to my personal knowledge,”
but although she said this as if to signify that her
mind was made up, Fred could detect a little hesitation.
She already began to realize the absurdity
of the accusation.
“Stop and think, ma’am,
and I’m sure your own sense will tell you that
you are wronging me when you say that,” the boy
argued, with the same positive air of conviction that
had made his father declare he would make a good lawyer,
if ever he felt inclined to study for the bar.
“In what way, boy?” Miss Muster faltered.
“Because in the first place
you called me into your house of your own accord,
when I was passing. I wouldn’t have come,
only that you said you were in some sort of trouble,
and needed help. Then, think again, Miss Muster you
opened this door which had been shut all the time;
you hurried into this room, and over to that stand.
You know, ma’am, I was never within six feet
of that little bowl. Right now I am half way
between the table and the door. My arms would
have to be pretty long to reach over there, wouldn’t
they now, Miss Muster?”
She saw his point. And indeed,
even before he clinched the fact in this ingenious
way the old lady was ready to admit that she had been
unwisely hasty in making that passionate accusation.
“I beg your pardon, Fred,”
she hastened to say, holding out her hand, which he
did not hesitate to take. “I was entirely
wrong, and acted from a foolish impulse when I found
that, in spite of all my precautions, more of my opals
had mysteriously disappeared. You could not have
taken them had you wanted to; and I do not believe
you would touch them if you had a dozen chances.”
That was saying a good deal for Miss
Muster; and Fred, who knew considerable about her
sharp tongue, felt that he could hardly have been
paid a higher compliment.
“Thank you, ma’am,”
he said, smiling in a satisfied way. “If
you please, then, we’ll consider the thing closed.
But that doesn’t explain where the opals have
gone to; does it?”
“Indeed, it does not,”
she replied. “I have been deeply stirred
by this mystery; but Fred, believe me, it was not
the value of the jewels one quarter so much as the
shock given to my faith in human nature. I believed
that the boy had been tempted beyond his power of resistance.
Perhaps he wanted a certain sum of money for some purpose,
and conceived the wicked idea that he could sell the
stones, and get it that way. Oh! I would
have gladly given him five, yes ten times their value,
if only he had not given way to temptation.”
“But Miss Muster,” said
Fred, quick to take advantage of his splendid opportunity;
“you were just as sure, right now, that I was
the thief; and yet how easy it was for me to prove
my innocence. Wouldn’t you be glad if I
could do the same for my chum, Brist I mean
“Indeed, I would, Fred,”
she replied, warmly. “Do that, and there
will be a whole shelf of boys’ books come to
your house, and an old woman’s blessing in the
bargain. But I’m afraid you’ll find
it a harder task than clearing your own skirts.”
“But give me the chance, won’t
you, please, ma’am?” Fred insisted.
“Do you want to speak now about
it, Fred?” she asked, eagerly enough.
“Why, yes, if you don’t
object, ma’am,” he replied. “You
know there’s an old saying that ’it’s
best to strike while the iron is hot’.”
“And you think that I’m
pretty warm just now; is that it?” she asked,
smiling a little in a way that made her thin face look
almost friendly to the boy’s imagination.
“Well, while we were on the
subject I thought I’d like to call your attention
to just one thing,” Fred continued, persistently.
“And after you’ve heard what I want to
say, I think you’ll agree with me that Bris er,
Andy, couldn’t well have been guilty of taking
these last opals. Why, he surely hasn’t
been in your house this whole day, has he, Miss Muster?”
“N no, not that I
know of, for a fact, Fred,” she said, slowly.
“You keep the doors locked,
don’t you, ma’am, so Bristles, or any one
else for that matter, couldn’t have come in this
morning, after you counted those things?”
“Yes, the doors are always locked.
I am very particular about that. When the grocer’s
boy or the one from the butcher, come for orders,
they wait in the kitchen while Mammy comes to me here,
and we talk over what we need.”
“Did that happen this morning,
ma’am? Were both those boys inside here
to-day?” Fred asked.
The old lady looked sharply at him when he said this.
“Ah! now I see in what direction
your suspicions lie, Fred,” she remarked, her
face lighting up. “And if you can prove
to my satisfaction that one of those boys took my
opals, and they are returned to me, I will say nothing,
do nothing, to prosecute the guilty one. Perhaps
I was foolish to leave the door of opportunity open;
the temptation within their reach. In that case
the fault was partly mine.”
“But I haven’t accused
anybody, ma’am; only I wondered whether one of
those tradesmen’s boys could have done it,”
Fred went on. “I’m going to look
them up right away, and if I can recover the opals,
and make the thief confess before you, then that will
end the affair, will it?”
“So far as he is concerned,
it will,” the old lady answered; “but I
shall never forgive myself for suspecting my niece’s
son of such a thing. Fred, do you suppose he
would come to see me if you took him a message?”
“Who, Andrew?” exclaimed
the delighted Fred. “Why, I’m as sure
of it as that I draw breath. He’d almost
fly here, he’d be that glad you believed him
innocent. Do you want me to tell him, ma’am?”
“Wait, let it go for a little
while. When I send you word, you may tell him
all that has occurred here to-day, and how a silly
old woman had her eyes opened to the truth by a clever
boy. Meanwhile, please do not say a word to any
one, will you, Fred?”
He was a little disappointed, because
it would have given him so much pleasure to carry
the joyful news to Bristles; but then, a little more
delay could not hurt. And besides, it would give
him a chance to look around, find out just what the
habits of both the grocer’s and the butcher’s
boy were, and possibly make the guilty one confess,
on promise of immunity from punishment.
“I’ll promise to do just
whatever you say, ma’am, though I hope for the
sake of poor Bristles you won’t keep me waiting
long,” he answered.
“Fred, shake hands with me again,”
said the old maid, surveying him with kindling eyes.
“I take back a lot of the mean things I’ve
been thinking about boys these few days. There
is something worth while in some of them.
My better nature told me so right along. They’re
not all bad. I reckon now, you’d sooner
do most anything than to break the fond heart of that
fine little mother of yours; wouldn’t you, Fred?”
“Oh! I haven’t always
been above suspicion, ma’am,” Fred hastened
to say, in confusion. “I’m no better
than the average fellow, and I’m afraid I haven’t
always been just the boy I ought to be, either.
I suppose I’ve made her feel bad a lot of times.
But as to doing anything real wicked like stealing
things the worst I ever did was to get in
some neighbor’s orchard at night, when we had
plenty of good apples at home.”
Miss Muster laughed at that frank
admission, as though she thought it quite an original
plea for the boy in general.
“Oh! I understand all boys
have failings like that,” she said; “and
sensible people wouldn’t have them grow up like
little saints. But Fred, I’m sure you’ll
never either as a boy, nor yet as a young man, do
anything that would grieve your mother’s heart.
I’m ashamed of what I wrote my niece, and when
I can muster up enough courage I’m going right
over to her house, and explain. It makes me feel
that it’s worth while living, now that, through
you, I’ve found that Andrew is innocent.”
The way she said that last word told
Fred that she was near the breaking-down point, and
he thought he had better leave. He went away
from that place with a heart that was considerably
lighter than when he first started to pass the fence
behind which the property of Miss Muster lay.
He had had a wonderful experience, and from that time
on must feel differently toward the old maid, whom
the boys of Riverport always looked upon as hateful.
She had shown him that, under the surface, she was
a lovable woman after all, and possessed of a woman’s
heart, somewhat starved it is true, but still there.