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When Girl Meets Girl by George Barr McCutcheon

 

At a glance one would have said that they were desperadoes—the two of them. The one who stood outside the shadow of the black, low-lying wall was a brawny, sinister-looking woman whose age might have been fifty or it might have been thirty, so deceptive was the countenance she bore. Her companion, a short, heavily built creature, slunk farther back into the protecting shadows and betrayed unmistakable signs of nervousness, not to say fear. At the corner below a shuddering automobile purred its ugly song, the driver sitting far back in the shelter of the top, her eyes fixed steadily upon the two who lurked in the shadow of the wall that surrounded the almost deserted club house. The woman who drove the car manifestly was of a station in life far removed from those who stood watch near the opening in the hedge-topped wall that gave entrance to the grounds of the Faraway Country Club. Muffled and goggled as she was, it was easily to be seen that she was of a more delicate, aristocratic mould than the others, and yet they were all of a single mind. They were engaged in a joint adventure, the character of which could not be mistaken.

The taller of the two women suddenly darted into the shadow, gripping the arm of her companion with a hand of iron.

"Sh! Here he comes. Remember now, Brown: no faltering. He's alone. Don't lose your nerve, woman."

"I'm new at this sort of thing, Quinlan," whispered the other nervously. "I don't like it."

"You're not supposed to like it, but you've got to see it through, just the same. Stand ready, and do what I told you. I'll take care of the rest."

A young man, tall and graceful, came swinging down the shrub-lined walk, whistling a gay little air, far from suspecting the peril that awaited him at the gate below. His cheery farewell shout to friends on the club-house veranda had been answered by joyous voices. It was midnight.

"Better wait awhile, old man," some one had called after him. "It's bound to rain cats and dogs before you get to the trolley."

"A little water won't hurt me," he had shouted back. "So long, fellows."

When he passed through the gate, under the single electric light that showed the way, and turned swiftly into the dark lane, threatening rolls of thunder already smote the air and faint flashes of lightning shot through the black, starless sky. A gust of wind blew a great swirl of dust from the roadway, filling his eyes and half blinding him. As he bent his half-turned body against the growing hurricane, a pair of strong arms seized him from behind; almost simultaneously a thick blanket from which arose the odour of chloroform was thrown over his head and drawn tight. Shrill, sibilant whispers came to his ears as he struggled vainly to free himself from those who held him.

Some one hissed: "Don't hit him, you fool! Don't spoil his face!"

He remembered kicking viciously, and that his foot struck against something hard and resisting. A suppressed screech of pain and rage rewarded the final conscious effort on his part. Very hazily he realised that he was being dragged swiftly over the ground, for miles it seemed to him, then came what appeared to be a fall from a great height, after which his senses left him.

The automobile leaped forward, swerved perilously at the sharp curve below the club gate and rushed off into the very teeth of the storm, guided by the firm, resolute hands of the woman at the wheel.

Once, when they had traversed a mile or more of the now drenched and slippery road, the woman who drove the car in its mad flight— unmistakably the master-mind in this enterprise—called back over her shoulder to the twain who held watch over the captive in the tonneau:

"Is he regaining consciousness? Don't let him go too long."

"He's all right, ma'am," said the taller of the two ruffians, bending her ear to the captive's breast. "Fit as a fiddle."

"Say, we'll get twenty years for this if we're nabbed," growled the burly one called Brown. "Kidnapping is a serious business—"

"Hold your tongue!" cried the woman at the wheel.

"Well, I'm only telling you," grumbled Brown, nervously straightening her black sailor.

"It isn't necessary to tell me," said the driver. Her voice, high and shrill in battle with the storm, was that of a person of breeding and refinement, in marked contrast to the rough, coarse tones of her companions.

Mile after mile the big machine raced along the rain-swept highway, back from the Hudson and into the hills. Not once did the firm hand on the wheel relax, not once did the heart of the leader in this daring plot lose courage. Few are the men who would have undertaken this hazardous trip through the storm, few men with the courage or the recklessness.

At last, the car whirled into a narrow, almost unseen lane, and, going more cautiously over the treacherous ruts and stones, made its way through the forest for the matter of a mile or two, coming to a stop finally in front of a low, rambling house in which lights gleamed from two windows on the ground floor.

The two strong-armed hirelings dragged their still inert prisoner from the car, and, without a word, carried him up the walk to the house, following close upon the heels of their mistress.

A gaunt old woman opened the door to admit the party, then closed it behind them.

Two days passed before Cuthbert Reynolds, one of the most popular and one of the wealthiest young men in New York, was missed from his usual haunts, and then the city rang with the news that he had disappeared as completely as if the earth had opened to swallow him in a hungry, capacious maw.

Heir to a vast estate, unusually clever for one so markedly handsome, beloved by half the marriageable young women in the smartest circles, he was a figure whose every movement was likely to be observed by those who affected his society and who profited by his position. When he failed to appear at his rooms in Madison Avenue,—he had no business occupation and therefore no office down town,—his valet, after waiting for twenty-four hours, called up several of his friends on the telephone to make inquiries. Later on, the police were brought into the case. Then the newspapers took up the mystery, and by nightfall of the third day the whole city was talking about the astounding case.

Those whilom friends who had shouted good-bye to him from the country club veranda were questioned with rigid firmness by the authorities. They could throw no light upon the mystery. The unusual circumstance of his returning to town by trolley instead of by motor was easily explained. His automobile had been tampered with in the club garage and rendered unfit to use. The other men were not going into town that night, but offered him the use of their cars. He preferred the trolley, which made connections with the subway, and they permitted him to go as he elected.

Naturally the police undertook to question his friends of an opposite sex. It was known that many of them were avowedly interested in him and that he had had numerous offers of marriage during the spring months of the year, all of which, so far as could be learned, he had declined to consider. As for possessing evil associates among women, there was no one who could charge him with being aught but a man of the most spotless character. No one, man or woman, had ever spoken ill of him in that respect. The police, to whom nothing is sacred, strove for several days to discover some secret liaison which might have escaped the notice of his devoted friends (and the more devoted one's friends are, the more they love to speculate on his misdemeanours), but without avail. His record was as clear as a blank page. There was not a red spot on it.

Gradually it dawned upon every one that there was something really tragic in his disappearance. Those who at first scoffed at the idea of foul play, choosing to believe that he was merely keeping himself in seclusion in order that he might escape for the while from the notably fatiguing attentions of certain persistent admirers, came at last to regard the situation in the nature of a calamity. Eligible young men took alarm, and were seldom seen in the streets except in pairs or trios, each fearing the same mysterious and as yet unexplained fate of the incomparable Reynolds. Few went about unattended after nightfall. Most of them were rigidly guarded by devoted admirers of an opposite sex. It was no uncommon thing to see a young man in the company of three or four resolute protectors.

In the meantime, Reynolds' relations had the reservoir dredged, the Hudson raked, the Harlem scooped, and all of the sinister byways of the metropolis searched as with a fine-tooth comb. A vast reward was offered for the return of the young man, dead, or alive or maimed. The posters said that $100,000 would be paid to any one giving information which might lead to the apprehension of those who had made way with him. The Young Women's Society for the Prevention of Manslaughter drafted resolutions excoriating the police department, and advocating wholesale rewriting of the law.

The loveliest of Cuthbert's admirers was Linda Blake, and the most unheralded. No one regarded her as a favourite rival, for no one took the slightest notice of her. The daughter of a merchant princess, she was somewhat beyond the pale, according to custom, and while she was an extremely pretty young woman she was still shy and lamentably modest. As third corresponding secretary of the Spinsters' League she was put upon dreadfully by four fifths of the members and seldom had a moment of her own in which to declare herself to be anything more than a drudge in the movement to establish equality among God's images. She had little time for social achievements and but little opportunity to escape from the Spinsters' League by the means looked upon as most efficacious. She loved Cuthbert Reynolds, but she was denied the privilege of declaring her love to him because she seldom got near enough to be seen by the popular bachelor, much less to speak to him except to pass the time of day or to hear him reply that his programme was full or that his mother was feeling better.

She had but three automobiles, whereas her haughty rivals possessed a dozen or more.

And yet it was Linda Blake who took the right and proper way to solve the mystery attending the disappearance of Cuthbert Reynolds, the pet of all the ladies.

Let us now return to Reynolds, whom we left on the threshold of that mysterious house in the hills back of Tarrytown. When he regained his senses—he knew not how long he had been unconscious—found himself in a small, illy furnished bed-chamber. The bed on which he was lying stood over against a window in which there were strong iron bars. For a long time he lay there wondering where he could be and how he came to be in this unfamiliar place. There was a racking pain in his head, a weakness in his limbs that alarmed him. Once, in his callow days, he had been intoxicated. He recalled feeling pretty much the same as he felt now, the day after that ribald supper party at Maxim's. Moreover, he had a vague recollection of iron bars but no such bed as this.

As he lay there racking his brain for a solution to the mystery, a key rasped in the door across the room. He turned his head. A gas jet above the wretched little washstand lighted the room but poorly. The door opened slowly. A tall, ungainly woman entered the room—a creature with a sallow, weather-beaten face and a perpetual leer.

"Where am I?" demanded he.

The woman stared at him for a moment and then turned away. The door closed swiftly behind her, and the key grated in the lock. He floundered from the bed and staggered to the door, grasping the knob in his eager, shaking hand.

"Open up, confound you!" he cried out. The only response was the fast diminishing tread of heavy footsteps on a stairway outside. He tried the window bars. The night was black outside; a cool drizzle blew against his face as he peered into the Stygian darkness. Baffled in his attempt to wrench the bars away, he shouted at the top of his voice, hoping that some passer-by—some good Samaritan—would hear his cry and come to his relief. Some one laughed out there in the night; a low, coarse laugh that chilled him to the bone.

He looked at his watch. The hour was three. With his watch in his hand, he came to realise that robbery had not been the motive of those who held him here. His purse and its contents were in his pocket; his scarf pin and his gold cigarette ease were not missing. Lighting a cigarette, he sat down upon the edge of the bed to ruminate.

Suddenly his ear caught the sound of soft footsteps outside the door. They ceased abruptly. He had the uncanny feeling that some one was peeping through the keyhole. He smiled at the thought of how embarrassing it might have been.

"Get away from there!" he shouted loudly. There came the unmistakable sound of some one catching breath sharply and the creaking of a loose board in the floor. "A woman," he reflected with a smile.

"If this is a joke, I don't appreciate it," he said to himself, looking at himself in the mirror. After adjusting his disarranged necktie and brushing his hair, he sat down in the low rocker to await developments.

He had not long to wait. A resolute tread sounded on the stairway, and a moment afterward the door was thrown open to admit the tall athletic figure of a very handsome young woman. Reynolds leaped to his feet in amazement.

"Miss Crouch!" he cried, clutching the back of the chair. A slow flush of anger mounted to his brow. "Are you responsible for this beastly trick?"

She smiled. "I expected to hear you call it an outrage," she said quietly.

"Well, outrage, if it pleases you. What does it mean?"

She crossed the room and stood directly in front of him, still smiling. He did not flinch, but the light in her eyes was most disquieting.

"It means, my dear Cuthbert, that you are in my power at last. You'll not leave this house alive, unless you go forth as my husband."

He stared at her in utter amazement. "Your husband? My God, woman, have you no pride?"

"Bushels of it," she said.

"But I have refused to marry you at least a half-dozen times. That ought to be ample proof that I don't love you. To be perfectly brutal about it, I despise you."

"Thanks for the confidence, but it will do you no good. I am not the sort of woman to be thwarted, once my mind and heart are fixed on a thing. Whether you like it or not, you shall be my husband before you're a day older."

"Never!" he exclaimed, his eyes flashing.

Before he could make a move to defend himself, she clasped him in her strong, young arms and was raining passionate kisses upon his lips, his brow, his cheek.

Weak from the effects of the chloroform, his struggles were futile. He would have struck her had there been a weapon handy.

"I'll die before I'll marry you, Elinor Crouch," he shouted, freeing himself at last.

"We'll see about that," she said, standing off to survey him the better. "I'll give you until tomorrow night to submit to my demands, peaceably and sensibly. Then, if you are still obdurate, we'll see what starvation will do to—"

"You wouldn't starve me, you wretch," he cried in horror.

"It's a most efficacious way of bringing a man to terms," said Miss Crouch, fixing him with glittering eyes.

"By Jove," said he, shaking his head in despair, "I knew we'd come to this sort of thing if we passed that infernal law giving you women the upper hand of us."

"We only ask for equal rights, my friend," she said. "This is the sort of thing you men used to do and no one made a fuss about it. Now it's our turn to apply the whip."

"I'm blessed if I'll vote for another woman, if I live to be a million," he growled.

"Oh, yes, you will. You'll vote just as your wife tells you to vote, and there's the end to that. But, I can't stand here discussing politics with you. I give you until tomorrow night to think it over. A justice of the peace will be here to perform the ceremony. You know I love you. You know I'll make you a good wife—a devoted, adoring wife. I am fair to look upon. I am rich, I am of good family. Half the men in the town would give their boots to be in yours. You have but to say the word and we set sail this week on my yacht for a honeymoon trip to the ends of the earth. Everything that love and money can procure for you shall be—"

"Stop! I will hear no more. Leave the room! No! Wait! Where am I?"

She laughed softly. "You are where no one will ever think of looking for you. Good night!"

She turned and went swiftly through the door. With an execration on his lips, he sprang after her, only to find himself confronted by two vicious-looking women with pistols in their hands. With a groan, he drew back into the room. The door closed with a bang, the key turned in the lock, and he was alone to reflect upon the horrors of the fate ahead of him.

Elinor Crouch was a beautiful girl, and an alluring one. Even though he hated her, he was forced to admit to himself that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Not once, but a hundred times, had he passed judgment upon her physical charms from a point of view obtained in his club window, but always there had been in his mind the reservation that she was not the sort of woman he would care to marry. Now he was beginning to know her for what she really was: a scheming amazon who would sacrifice anything to appease a pride that had been wounded by his frequent and disdainful refusals to become her husband.

Would she carry out her threat and starve him if he persisted in his determination to defy her? Could she be so cruel, so inhuman as that?

He was considerably relieved after the few hours of sleep that followed his interview with the fair Miss Crouch, to find a bountiful and wholesome breakfast awaiting him. True, it was served by an evil- appearing woman who looked as though she could have slit his throat and relished the job, but he paid little heed to her after the first fruitless attempts to engage her in conversation. She was a sour creature and given to monosyllables, this Quinlan woman.

Reynolds had been brought up to respect the adage concerning "a woman scorned." He knew that women in these days are not to be trifled with. If Elinor Crouch set about to conquer, the chance for mercy at her hands would be slim. There was absolutely no means of escape from his prison. Daylight revealed a most unpleasant prospect. The barred window through which he peered was fifty or sixty feet from the ground, which was covered with jagged boulders. On all sides was the dark, impenetrable forest which marks the hills along the Hudson. After a few minutes' speculation he decided that he was confined in an upper chamber of the pump house connected with the estate. Investigation showed him that the bars in the windows had been placed there but recently.

In considerable agitation he awaited the coming of night, fully determined that if the worst came to the worst he would accept starvation and torture rather than submit to the cruel demands of Elinor Crouch. He would die before he would consent to become her husband.

She came at nine o'clock, accompanied by a fat little woman in black, who was introduced as a justice of the peace.

"Well?" said his captor, with the most enticing smile. "Have you decided, Cuthbert?"

"I have," said he resolutely. "I want to warn you, Elinor, that you shall pay dearly for this outrage. I shall—"

"Then you consent?" she cried, her face aglow.

"No! A thousand times, no! I mean—"

"You are wasting your breath, Cuthbert Reynolds," she interrupted, a steely glitter in her eyes. "Justice Snow, will you proceed at once with the ceremony? I will not—"

Reynolds sprang past her with the agility of a cat and hurled himself through the half-open door, hoping to find the way momentarily clear for a dash to liberty. Even as hope leaped up in his breast it was destroyed.

Two brawny figures fell upon him at the landing and he was borne to earth with a fierceness that stunned him into insensibility.

When he regained consciousness a few moments later, he was lying bound on the bed. The grim figure of the redoubtable Quinlan sat in the rocker over against the door, and there was a scornful leer on her thin lips.

"Bread and water for you, my laddy-buck," said she, with a broad wink. "What a blithering fool you are. The finest lady in the land wants to make you her husband, and you kick up a row about it. You—"

"You go to the devil," said Reynolds savagely.

Quinlan laughed.

For four days and nights, he remained in the small, bare room. Each day brought his persecutor to his side, and on each occasion she went away baffled but hopeful. She pleaded, stormed and threatened, but he held steadfast to his resolve.

"I'll die a thousand times, you fiend, before I'll consent to this ceremony. Go on starving me, as you've set out to do. What will you have gained in the end?"

"At least the consolation of knowing that no other woman shall call you husband," she said vindictively.

He was thin, emaciated and hollow-eyed for lack of proper sustenance. His captors gave him barely enough food and drink to keep body and soul together. Once a day the gaunt Quinlan brought bread and water to his room, and once the beautiful Elinor forgot her cigarettes and a bonbon box on leaving him in a rage. He hid the boxes after emptying them, cunningly realising that if he ever escaped her clutches the articles would serve as incontrovertible evidence against her. But Quinlan and Brown, strong and vigorous, were more than a match for him in his weakened condition. They choked him until he revealed the hiding place of the two gold boxes. Then they beat him cruelly.

"If you tell the boss that we beat you up, young fellow, you'll get your come-uppin's good and plenty," said Quinlan savagely, as he fell back exhausted in the corner. "You keep your mouth closed, if you don't want it closed forever."

"If you have a spark of humanity in your soul, woman, you'll give me food," he cried. "I am dying. Have you no heart, either of you? See here, I'll give each of you enough money to keep you in comfort for the rest of your lives if you'll—"

"None o' that, Mr. Reynolds," snapped Quinlan. "What do you take us for? Men?"

"Gad, I wish you were," he exclaimed. "I'd thrash you within an inch of your lives if you were."

"Well, don't go to offering us money, that's all. We're women, and we don't sell out a friend. Say, ain't you about ready to give in to her? You'd better say the word. She'll make you the happiest man on earth. What's more, you'll get a good square meal the minute you say you'll marry her."

"I wouldn't marry her if she were the last woman in the world," he cried. "Listen to me! Haven't you two women husbands who are dear to you? Haven't you husbands—"

"They're both in the penitentiary, curse 'em," snarled Brown, clenching and unclenching her hands. "I wish I could get my hooks on that man of mine, that's all."

"Lucky dog!" said Reynolds.

"You bet he's a lucky dog. I believe he got sent up deliberately."

"Well, he's only got eight more years to serve, Brown," said Quinlan. "He'll come back to you for food and clothes. Then you can make up for this lost time."

"I'll do it, all right," said Brown, smiting the window sill with her huge fist. Quinlan chuckled.

That night Reynolds made his last stand. When Miss Crouch left him, he was almost ready to submit. Had she but known it, another five minutes of argument would have brought him to terms. Starvation had conquered him.

"If I live till morning," he kept repeating to himself in the solitude of his cell, "I'll give in. I can't stand it any longer. I shall go mad."

He fell back on the bed and lay staring at the ceiling, a beaten wreck. Delirium was at hand.

Sometime during the night he was aroused from a fitful slumber by a sound at his window. The night was very dark. He could see nothing, and yet he knew that some one was there—some one who would help him in his final hour of despair. Struggling weakly from the bed, he dragged himself to the bars. Beaching between them, his hand encountered the topmost rung of a ladder. Some one was ascending from below. He could feel the supports quiver, he could hear the ladder creak beneath the weight of a living, moving body.

A moment later, the dull outlines of a head and shoulders appeared in the black frame—the head of a woman! With a groan of despair he shrank back, thinking that the visitor was one who had come to torment him in some new fashion.

"Cuthbert!" whispered the woman on the outside. "Cuthbert, dear, are you there? Speak!"

He staggered to the window once more. Hope buoyed him up. The voice was not that of one of his inquisitors. It was low, sweet, gentle, yet quivering with anxiety.

"Yes, yes!" he whispered. "Who are you? For God's sake, get me out of this place. I am dying here."

"Thank God, you are alive," came the tense whisper from the woman. "I am not too late."

"Who are you?" He had discovered that her features were rendered unrecognisable by an ugly pair of motor goggles. A thick veil held her panama motor hat in place.

She laughed nervously, even shyly.

"Never mind, Mr. Reynolds," she said. "Enough to say that I am here to release you if it is in the power of woman to do so."

"You call me Mr. Reynolds now," he protested. "A moment ago it was 'Cuthbert dear.' Who are you, oh, my deliverer?"

"Don't ask, please. Not now. You shall know in good time. How long have you been here?"

"Ages, it seems. In truth, but five days. She is starving me to death."

"The fiend! Tell me, are you married to her?"

"No!"

"Then I shall do my best to save you." He reflected. Perhaps it would be leaping from the frying-pan into the fire.

"Just a moment, please. How am I to know that I am bettering my position by accepting liberty at your hands."

"Oho! You fear that I may want to marry you against your will? Is that it? Well, the instant you are free you shall be at liberty to go whither you please and to marry whosoever pleases you. Is that fair enough?"

"Forgive me for doubting you. But how are you to effect a rescue? I am guarded by powerful women who would make short work of you in combat. I can see that you are slight. They are huge, well-armed creatures. Are you—"

"Don't worry about me," she whispered eagerly. "I can take care of myself. And now, be patient. I must leave you. The only way to release you seems to be through the house itself. I have no saw or file, but wait! There is a saw and file in the tool box on my machine. How stupid of me! I'll be back in a jiffy. Don't lose heart."

She went rapidly down the ladder. He bethought himself when too late and lighted the gas. His watch showed him that it was two o'clock.

Vastly excited and strangely revived, he awaited her return, praying that she might not be intercepted by the minions of Elinor Crouch. An hour passed. He was about to give up in despair, confident that she had been summarily dealt with by the eagle-eyed Quinlan, when stealthy sounds came to his ears from the landing outside his door.

A key was gently inserted in the lock. He prepared to defend himself by grasping the small rocker in his weak, trembling hands.

The door opened a few inches, then swung wide. Instead of Elinor Crouch or her hirelings on the threshold stood the lithe, graceful figure of a girl in a grey motoring suit. She sprang into the room. The goggles were no longer in evidence, but the green veil hid her features quite completely.

"Quick! Follow me! I have accounted for the tall woman who stood guard on the stairway. We must get away before the others discover her body."

"Good God! Have you killed her?"

"I hope not. Just a little tap on the head with this wrench, that's all. She'll come out of it all right. Hurry! I've got a couple of friends watching outside. They'll give the alarm if we fail to appear at once."

"Men? Thank heaven!"

"No! Women! What good are men at a time like this? Merciful—are you going to faint?"

He sank to the floor with a groan, and the chair clattered against the wall with a noise that must have been heard throughout the house.

When he opened his eyes again, his head was pillowed on her knees and she was wildly whispering words of love and encouragement to him.

"My darling, speak to me. I am here to save you! Open your eyes. Look at me! Don't—Oh, thank Heaven! You are alive!"

He looked up into the now uncovered face and an expression of utter bewilderment grew in his eyes.

"Linda Blake!" he murmured. "Can it be possible?" His fingers tightened on her arm and a glad light leaped into his eyes.

She pulled down her veil in confusion.

"Don't look at me," she whispered. "I hope you didn't hear what I said to you."

"I heard every word, love of my life. I—Listen! What's that?" He sat bolt upright.

"Some one's coming!" she cried, springing to her feet and placing herself between him and the door. He saw a glistening revolver in her small, white hand.

"It's Elinor Crouch," he whispered. "Heavens, how I have come to hate those footsteps of hers."

Elinor Crouch, her face pale with anger and apprehension, dashed into the room an instant later. She was attired in a loose wrapper, secured at the waist by a handsome Oriental girdle. Her black hair hung in two long plaits down her back. It was apparent that she had made no effort to perfect a toilet before rushing up-stairs in response to the noise.

Her dark eyes scarcely took in the slight figure of Linda Blake. They were for the man on the floor, and for him alone.

"Thank Heaven, you are here!" she cried, in a voice thrilling with relief. "I was afraid you might have—"

"Stand back, Miss Crouch," interrupted Linda firmly. "Don't you dare to touch him."

"Who—who are you?" gasped Elinor, for the first time granting the girl a look of surprise, but not of fear. "Why, on my life, it's that Blake girl. Soho! This is your work, is it? May I inquire, Miss Blake, what you are doing in my house at this time of night?"

"I am not here to parley with you, Miss Crouch. Stand aside, please. If you attempt to stop us, I shall shoot you like a dog."

"Oh, you think you can take him away from me, do you? Well, we shall soon make short shrift of you, my excellent heroine. Brown! Quinlan! Here, at once!" She called angrily down the stairs.

Linda smiled. "I think you'll find that my friends have taken care of Brown and Quinlan."

As if to prove the declaration, a ringing voice came up the stairway from far below.

"Are you all right, Linda?" It was a woman's voice and it was full of triumph.

"We've fixed these two muckers down here. Shall we come up?"

"Stay where you are, girls. I can manage nicely by myself, thank you," called Linda. Then she turned to the infuriated Elinor, who had shrunk back against the wall, panting with rage and disappointment. "You'd better come with us peaceably, my woman," she said coldly, still keeping the revolver levelled at the person of her rival. "Don't make any trouble for us. If you show fight we'll be obliged to—Here!"

Elinor Crouch suddenly threw herself forward. The movement was so unexpected that she was upon Linda before the girl could fire. Twice the revolver was discharged in a vain attempt to end the struggle at its beginning, and both bullets came so near to hitting Reynolds that he hastily rolled under the bed, from which position he watched the contest in some security but with a great deal of interest.

The combatants swayed back and forth across the narrow room, locked in a tight embrace. The Crouch woman was the larger and stronger, but her adversary was lithe and sinewy and as cool as a veteran in the line of battle. She succeeded in tripping the heavier woman, resorting to a new trick in wrestling that had just come into practice among athletic women, and they went to the floor with a crash, Reynolds' rescuer on top.

He crawled forth to assist her, keeping his eye on the pistol all the while. Weak as he was, he succeeded in sitting upon Miss Crouch's head while Linda attempted to secure her arms with the thick veil she had torn from her hat. He suffered excruciating pain when the furious Elinor bit him severely, but called out words of encouragement to the brave girl who fought so valiantly for him.

Just as Elinor Crouch relaxed with a groan of despair, two eager young women dashed into the room. In a jiffy, the late mistress of the situation was bound securely, hand and foot, and Linda Blake stood triumphant and lovely over her foe.

"We'll turn you over to the police," she said, smiling down upon the ghastly face of Elinor Crouch.

"For God's sake, spare me," groaned the unhappy captive. "It was all for love, Cuthbert. I—"

But Cuthbert Reynolds had already passed from the room, leaning feebly on the arm of his deliverer.

"How did you trace me here, dear?" he asked as they slowly descended the stairs.

"I found out that she was having her mail forwarded to the village over yonder, and I knew that she owned this place in the woods. I only had to put two and two together, Cuthbert. You—you don't mind if I call you Cuthbert, do you?"

He pressed her arm closer to his side. "You are a darling, Linda. I'll marry you tomorrow if you say the word."

She kissed him rapturously.

"It's too good to be true," she sighed.

 
 
 

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