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The Black Bag Part 19

Indeed he seemed more concerned as to what Kirkwood, an older man, would be thinking, to see him so endeared and fondled, than moved by any other emotion. Kirkwood could see his shamefaced, sidelong glances; and despised him properly for them.

But without attending to his response, Mrs. Hallam rattled on in the uneven accents of excitement. "I waited until I couldn't wait any longer, Freddie dear. I had to know--had to come. Eccles came home about nine and said that you had told him to wait outside, that some one had followed you in here, and that a bobby had told him to move on. I didn't know what--"

"What's o'clock now?" her son interrupted.

"It's about three, I think ... Have you hurt yourself, dear? Oh, why _didn't_ you come home? You must've known I was dying of anxiety!"

"Oh, I say! Can't you see I'm hurt? 'Had a nasty fall and must've been asleep ever since."

"My precious one! How--?"

"Can't say, hardly ... I say, don't paw a chap so, Mamma ... I brought Eccles along and told him to wait because--well, because I didn't feel so much like shuttin' myself up in this beastly old tomb. So I left the door ajar, and told him not to let anybody come in. Then I came up-stairs. There must've been somebody already in the house; I know I _thought_ there was.

It made me feel creepy, rather. At any rate, I heard voices down below, and the door banged, and somebody began hammerin' like fun on the knocker."

The boy paused, rolling an embarrassed eye up at the stranger.

"Yes, yes, dear!" Mrs. Hallam urged him on.

"Why, I--I made up my mind to cut my stick--let whoever it was pass me on the stairs, you know. But he followed me and struck me, and then I jumped at him, and we both fell down the whole flight. And that's all. Besides, my head's achin' like everything."

"But this man--?"

Mrs. Hallam looked up at Kirkwood, who bowed silently, struggling to hide both his amusement and perplexity. More than ever, now, the case presented a front inscrutable to his wits; try as he might, he failed to fit an explanation to any incident in which he had figured, while this last development--that his antagonist of the dark stairway had been Mrs.

Hallam's son!--seemed the most astounding of all, baffling elucidation completely.

He had abandoned all thought of flight and escape. It was too late; in the brisk idiom of his mother-tongue, he was "caught with the goods on." "May as well face the music," he counseled himself, in resignation. From what he had seen and surmised of Mrs. Hallam, he shrewdly suspected that the tune would prove an exceedingly lively one; she seemed a woman of imagination, originality, and an able-bodied temper.

"_You_, Mr. Kirkwood!"

Again he bowed, grinning awry.

She rose suddenly. "You will be good enough to explain your presence here,"

she informed him with dangerous serenity.

"To be frank with you--"

"I advise that course, Mr. Kirkwood."

"Thanks, awf'ly.... I came here, half an hour ago, looking for a lost purse full--well, not _quite_ full of sovereigns. It was my purse, by the way."

Suspicion glinted like foxfire in the cold green eyes beneath her puckered brows. "I do not understand," she said slowly and in level tones.

"I didn't expect you to," returned Kirkwood; "no more do I.... But, anyway, it must be clear to you that I've done my best for this gentleman here." He paused with an interrogative lift of his eyebrows.

"'This gentleman' is my son, Frederick Hallam.... But you will explain--"

"Pardon me, Mrs. Hallam; I shall explain nothing, at present. Permit me to point out that your position here--like mine--is, to say the least, anomalous." The random stroke told, as he could tell by the instant contraction of her eyes of a cat. "It would be best to defer explanations till a more convenient time--don't you think? Then, if you like, we can chant confidences in an antiphonal chorus. Just now your--er--son is not enjoying himself apparently, and ... the attention of the police had best not be called to this house too often in one night."

His levity seemed to displease and perturb the woman; she turned from him with an impatient movement of her shoulders.

"Freddie, dear, do you feel able to walk?"

"Eh? Oh, I dare say--I don't know. Wonder would your friend--ah--Mr.

Kirkwood, lend me an arm?"

"Charmed," Kirkwood declared suavely. "If you'll take the candle, Mrs.

Hallam--"

He helped the boy to his feet and, while the latter hung upon him and complained querulously, stood waiting for the woman to lead the way with the light; something which, however, she seemed in no haste to do. The pause at length puzzled Kirkwood, and he turned, to find Mrs. Hallam holding the candlestick and regarding him steadily, with much the same expression of furtive mistrust as that with which she had favored him on her own door-stoop.

[Illustration: He helped the boy to his feet, and stood waiting.]

"One moment," she interposed in confusion; "I won't keep you waiting...;"

and, passing with an averted face, ran quickly up-stairs to the second floor, taking the light with her. Its glow faded from the walls above and Kirkwood surmised that she had entered the front bedchamber. For some moments he could hear her moving about; once, something scraped and bumped on the floor, as if a heavy bit of furniture had been moved; again there was a resounding thud that defied speculation; and this was presently followed by a dull clang of metal.

His fugitive speculations afforded him little enlightenment; and, meantime, young Hallam, leaning partly against the wall and quite heavily on Kirkwood's arm, filled his ears with puerile oaths and lamentations; so that, but for the excuse of his really severe shaking-up, Kirkwood had been strongly tempted to take the youngster by the shoulders and kick him heartily, for the health of his soul.

But eventually--it was not really long--there came the quick rush of Mrs.

Hallam's feet along the upper hall, and the woman reappeared, one hand holding her skirts clear of her pretty feet as she descended in a rush that caused the candle's flame to flicker perilously.

Half-way down, "Mr. Kirkwood!" she called tempestuously.

"Didn't you find it?" he countered blandly.

She stopped jerkily at the bottom, and, after a moment of confusion. "Find what, sir?" she asked.

"What you sought, Mrs. Hallam."

Smiling, he bore unflinching the prolonged inspection of her eyes, at once somber with doubt of him and flashing with indignation because of his impudence.

"You knew I wouldn't find it, then!... Didn't you?"

"I may have suspected you wouldn't."

Now he was sure that she had been searching for the gladstone bag. That, evidently, was the bone of contention. Calendar had sent his daughter for it, Mrs. Hallam her son; Dorothy had been successful ... But, on the other hand, Calendar and Mrs. Hallam were unquestionably allies. Why, then--?

"Where is it, Mr. Kirkwood?"

"Madam, have you the right to know?"

Through another lengthening pause, while they faced each other, he marked again the curious contraction of her under lip.

"I have the right," she declared steadily. "Where is it?"

"How can I be sure?"

"Then you don't know--!"

"Indeed," he interrupted, "I would be glad to feel that I ought to tell you what I know."

Chapter end

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