“Oh, itis Father Semitt! He will kill usfor spying on him,” Sadie chattered, clutching at Nancy.
“He will have a hard job of it,” Nancy said grimly under her breath. “This way, quick!”
She popped Sadie into the moldering old linen press, crowded in beside her, and pulled the doors as nearly shut as possible.
The stairs creaked again under the weight of someone slowly mounting them. Sadie gripped Nancy’s arm, trembling violently, as a figure appeared at the head of the steps and paused to survey the attic.
“That isn’t Semitt,” Nancy whispered.
“Oh, I’m afraid to look,” Sadie sighed. “I have my eyes shut tight, and there is a spider on my neck.”
‘‘Sh-sh-sh!’’ Nancy warned. ‘‘Don’t move.’’
The man entered the attic and gave a start as he saw the displaced floor board. He crouched down to look into the opening, and evidently lifted the lids of the boxes. Then he straightened upand scanned the entire chamber. As his face was revealed in the dim light Nancy almost gave vent to a startled exclamation.
The man was Raymond Hill, the wealthy banker from Smith’s Ferry, her father’s associate in making Asa’s will.
What was he doing here? Had he betrayed Carson Drew’s trust and confidence? Had the lure of old Asa’s fortune overcome his scruples, too? Nancy was tense as these questions raced through her mind.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hill paced slowly around the attic. Nancy was certain he would eventually pull open the doors of the antique and reveal Sadie and herself.
A plank creaked under Mr. Hill’s feet and he stopped, stooped, and gave a little chuckle. Nancy saw him pry the nails loose and lift the board. He reached down into the opening and pulled out a metal document box, which sprang open on a touch. From it Mr. Hill took a bundle of papers which Nancy recognized at once as being bonds. He looked through them, stuffed the bundle into his pocket, and replaced the loose flooring, after kicking the box out of sight.
Nancy was in agony. Her feet were asleep from standing so still in such a cramped place. She was sure a dozen spiders had made a toboggan slide of her back-bone.
Mr. Hill’s eyes roved about the attic and at last lighted on the old linen press. He began to walk toward it slowly, testing the planks beneath his feet at every step.
Nancy was undecided whether to bravely emerge from the hiding place or gamble with the chance that Mr. Hill would not open it, when a more sinister sight chilled her blood.
Standing at the head of the steps, up which he had crept with practiced caution, was Frank Semitt! His eyes gleamed like a cornered rat’s, and Nancy saw that he was undecided whether to accost Mr. Hill or to retreat.
At that moment Mr. Hill let his eyes sweep the attic once more, and Nancy saw him stiffen as he detected Semitt.
“Ah there, Mr. Semitt,” Mr. Hill said sarcastically. “What are you bringing up here now? Come, let me see what is in that box!”
Semitt mounted the last step and strode toward Mr. Hill. In his arms he carried a square box tightly wrapped in old newspapers.
“I don’t know what you are doing up here, trespassing around,” Semitt snarled. “But if you want to see what I have, here it is!”
To Nancy’s horror he hurled his burden full at Mr. Hill. The banker ducked and a corner of the heavy box caught his shoulder, causing him to lose his balance and almost fall.
That was the advantage Semitt wanted. Although Mr. Hill was twenty years older than the inn-keeper, and a smaller man, Semitt rushed forward with flailing fists. Mr. Hill threw up his arms to protect his face, whereupon Semitt thrust out a foot and tripped the banker, who fell heavily to the floor. In a flash Semitt was on top of him, one hand gripping Mr. Hill’s throat and the other pounding his face and head.
“Oh, the coward!” Nancy exclaimed, and burst out of the wardrobe. She stumbled and almost fell as a feeling like pins and needles shot through her ankles. Conquering her discomfort the girl flew at Semitt and seized his shirt-collar at the back with both hands.
“Hi! Who’s that! What?” Semitt choked. He craned his neck, and when he saw that Nancy was his new opponent he bared his teeth and snarled:
“Let go of me, you little sneak-thief, or I’ll do worse than this to you.”
Nancy’s response was to twist her fingers deeper into the man’s collar and tug the harder. Realizing that he had an unexpected ally, Mr. Hill squirmed free from Semitt’s grasp and drove his fist deep into the inn-keeper’s stomach.
Semitt straightened out with a gasp, his breath knocked out of him. Mr. Hill then arose, his clothing dirty and rumpled, his face rapidly swelling with discolored bruises.
“Why, Nancy! And Sadie, too! How did you get here?” the banker gasped.
“We were here first,” Nancy said. “We heard you coming, and not knowing who it was we hid in the antique over there.”
“To think of that!” Mr. Hill groaned. “Then, did you pull up that loose plank over there?”
“Yes, we were just going to look in the boxes when you frightened us,” Nancy replied.
Mr. Hill shook his head, and what was meant for a smile appeared on his battered features.
“Nancy, I owe you not only thanks but an apology,” he said. “I was afraid your father was giving you a bigger job than you could handle when he put you on watch here, so I came back determined to spend the night prowling about to be on hand in an emergency.
“I saw Semitt coming from this direction and retraced his path to find out what he had been up to, away back here. I found the old house—and you know the rest!”
Semitt, clutching his middle, rose shakily to his feet.
“Shall I call the police, Sadie, and have this man arrested?” he asked painfully.
“Arrest me?” shouted Mr. Hill.
“Arrest Mr. Hill! Why?” Sadie and Nancy gasped in chorus.
“Why, for trying to steal old man Sidney’s valuables, of course,” Semitt replied. “Why else do you think he was poking around here, where Mr. Sidney used to hide his things?”
“Of all the false statements!” the banker bellowed, losing his dignity. “You are the thief! I know all about you.”
“Ha ha! Deny if you can that you took a sheaf of bonds from under the floor and have them in your pocket this minute!” Semitt challenged.
“I don’t deny it at all, and here are the bonds,” Mr. Hill declared, disclosing the securities. “I didn’t steal them. Whoever hid them there stole them.’’
‘‘Tell that to the judge,’’ jeered Semitt. “Old Asa hid them there himself!”
“May I see the bonds?” Nancy asked.
She examined the papers carefully—twelve crisp engraved bonds of five-hundred-dollar denomination each, and each one issued by the Mid-Western Gas & Power Co.
“These are the bonds that arrived in the mail the day before Mr. Sidney died,” she said, returning them to Mr. Hill. “So he did not put them here himself at all. Those issues were in the envelope which you, Mr. Semitt, passed through the window to your wife!”
Semitt looked exactly as if he had received another blow on the chin.
“P-p-prove it!” he spluttered.
“Deny it if you can!” Nancy cried, stamping her foot.
Semitt shook his head in mock dismay.
“Come along, Sadie,” he said. “Both these would-be smart crooks are trying to rob you of your inheritance. Come on back to the house, and I will drive to River Heights at once and ask for a county detective to guard you, and well hunt up a lawyer without smarty daughters.”
“No, I don’t ever want to be with you again,” Sadie cried, throwing her arms around Nancy. “Go away, please, and stay away!’’
“You’ll be sorry you said that some day, myfine lady,” Semitt said with a forced laugh. “When these new friends of yours have stripped you of everything you own except your oldest clothes, then you’ll come around begging Frank and Emma to be good to you again.”
Nancy looked at Semitt from under level brows.
“There is a little matter of an ebony box with brass binding that was put under a woodpile,” she said slowly. “The story that chest can tell might mean that any visits you will have from Sadie will be in the state penitentiary!”
Semitt opened his mouth one or twice, then turned and marched down the dark stairs.
Nancy Takes Charge
“Quick,we must follow closely behind him,” Nancy cried, stooping to pick up the bundle Semitt had hurled at Mr. Hill.
“What are you going to do, call the police?”
“No, but I shall call up my father and report to him,” Nancy said. “I don’t want Semitt to cut any telephone wires or to injure my car.”
Mr. Hill took the bundle from Nancy, and the three trailed Semitt across the meadow to The Twisted Candles.
“Now, if you will keep Mr. and Mrs. Semitt in sight, Mr. Hill,” Nancy said, “I will telephone to Dad and tell him what has happened.”
“Aye, aye, Mademoiselle,” Mr. Hill laughed, executing a snappy salute. He followed Frank Semitt into the kitchen, and Nancy soon heard the excited tones of the inn-keeper and his wife raised in argument with the banker.
She ran to the telephone and called her home. Hannah answered, and to Nancy’s consternation reported that Mr. Drew had left for a neighboring state in connection with the Sidney will case, and would not be back until the next afternoon.
“I’ll have to stick it out, then,” Nancy told herself grimly.
She returned to Sadie’s room and asked that young woman to please summon Mr. Hill. When that rather dishevelled person appeared Nancy explained that her father was beyond reach for the time being.
“I don’t doubt that Semitt has taken other valuables and secreted them around the place,” she said. “I am also afraid that he is now enraged against Sadie and it is dangerous for her to stay here. Will you take her to your home, or to mine, Mr. Hill? I will stay here on guard.”
Raymond Hill whistled.
“Oh, I shouldn’t think of such a thing,” he declared. “I am sure that man Semitt and his wife are capable of going to any extremes for money. I think you and Sadie ought to go home together.”
“I can’t do that,” Nancy said. “I promised my father I would stay here and watch the place. If none of us remains the Semitts might strip the house of all its valuables and clear out.”
“Better that than to suffer physical injury,” Mr. Hill advised.
“No, I shall stay here,” Nancy said firmly.
“I shall remain with you,” Sadie declared.
“That leaves me no choice,” the banker smiled. “I, too, shall remain all night.”
Nancy reflected soberly for a moment.
“Mr. Hill, would you be willing to take the robes from my machine and camp out in the deserted farmhouse for the night to prevent Semitt from taking away any of the valuables he has hidden there?”
“Willing? I jump at the opportunity,” Mr. Hill cried. “I always did say I was cut out to be a detective or a member of the Northwest Mounted Police. Banking is not an exciting profession,” he sighed.
“Sadie and I will stay here and keep as wide awake as we can,” Nancy continued. “We’ll see that Asa Sidney’s room is not unsealed and rifled.”
It was quite dark now, and Nancy coolly summoned Mrs. Semitt and ordered food.
“Mr. Hill is leaving immediately after he has some supper,’ ’she said. “So please let us have something to eat—a cold supper will do—as soon as you can.”
“Very well, Miss,” said the woman stiffly, and left the room. The two girls and Mr. Hill chatted about the excitement of the afternoon in a general way, not caring to be caught in any plans by the eavesdropping Semitts.
Minute after minute passed. A quarter of an hour, then a full half hour.
“It is taking them a dreadfully long time to prepare supper,” Nancy remarked.
“I’ll run down and see how they are getting along,” Sadie said.
“It is dangerous for yon to go alone,” Nancy declared. “I will go with you.”
The kitchen, however, proved to be empty, and there were no signs of supper in progress to be seen. The meaning came to Nancy in a flash.
“The Semitts have run off,” she exclaimed. “Get Mr. Hill quickly. Bring him out to my car at once.”
Nancy flew out of doors to where her roadster was parked. Her worst fears were realized when she saw that both rear tires had been slashed with a sharp knife.
“And I have only one spare tire,” she thought, vexed with herself for permitting the Semitts to outwit her at this point in the game.
Sadie and the banker appeared, and even as Nancy was telling them of the misfortune an idea came to her.
“That tire-cutting was done to prevent pursuit,” she said. “Or else it was done to make us believe pursuit is necessary. I’ll wager that the Semitts are not far off!”
Sadie ran to the corner of the house and immediately came back to report that the Semitt car was gone.
“They took nothing from the house, unless it was secreted somewhere in the kitchen or basement,” Nancy said. “What was in the boxes at the old farm house, Mr. Hill, besides the bonds?”
“A large chest of silverware, sterling, and a box of most beautiful table-linens,” Mr. Hill replied. “I am sure the building is filled with loot.”
“Then that’s where the Semitts would gofirst,’’ Nancy said with conviction. She jumped into her car and took a portable spot-light from the tool compartment.
“Now let’s hurry to the farmhouse,” Nancy said. “We’ll leave the lights on my car burning, and a few in the house, to make it look as if the place was not deserted.”
Nancy’s remarkable sense of direction served her well as she strode off through the uplands and meadows to the old cottage. She was somewhat disappointed to find it in utter darkness.
“They got here ahead of us,” Mr. Hill said. “If they came here at all.”
“Wait a minute,” Nancy said. “If they parked their car somewhere along the road it must have taken them as long, if not longer, to reach here as it took us.”
The three stood in utter silence close to the trunk of a towering sycamore tree, a spot chosen by Nancy because she said the girls’ airy dresses would merge with the light, mottled background of the trees in the darkness.
At last there came to Nancy’s sharp ears a tiny sound that was at variance with the noises of myriads of insects and breezes and small animals. It was a metallic sound, muffled and distant.
Instantly she switched on her powerful flashlight, and the three hundred foot beam cut through the blackness like a silver sword. The tumble-down farmhouse sprang into view, and on the rickety front steps Frank and Emma Semitt were etched sharply in the glare.
“Call to them that the house is guarded and that they must leave at once,” Nancy whispered to Mr. Hill. “Try to make your voice extra deep.”
Raymond Hill chuckled, cleared his throat, and then in a resounding voice shouted the warning Nancy had dictated.
“Who are you, anyhow?” Semitt yelled hack. “I got a right to be here!”
“Stand where you are,” he continued, but Semitt only gave an ugly laugh in response and moved a step higher.
“If we could frighten them,” whispered Nancy, “with a loud noise, such as–”
Nancy picked up a smooth stone. “I wonder–”
Mr. Hill quickly sensed her idea, grabbed the rock and with a straight fling he sent it forward at a swift pace.
There was the crash of splintered glass, and Semitt leaped off the steps into the darkness as the fan-light over the front door shattered into splinters, just as Nancy had hoped. Mrs. Semitt screamed and ran after her husband. Inexorably, Nancy kept the spot-light upon the panic-stricken pair as they charged through the brush and meadow grass toward the road.
“I guess they won’t be back,” Mr. Hill said with a laugh. “But just to be on the safe side I’ll camp out here.”
Nancy left the flashlight with the adventurous banker and returned to the house with Sadie, who was on the verge of hysterics as a result of the fateful day. From a drudging life in a roadside inn she had come into one of wealth and envy and had participated in a manhunt, all in a few hours.
Nancy switched the lights off her car, and then entered the house. She directed Sadie to bolt all the windows, and as extra precaution she piled furniture against the doors.
“No burglar alarms, I suppose?” Nancy observed. “We’ll have to invent some.”
From the sideboard she took long-stemmed goblets and balanced them on the tops of the lower window sashes, so that any attempt to force the windows would send the glasses toppling to the floor with a crash.
“Go on to bed, Sadie. I’ll sleep here on the couch,” Nancy directed. Sadie demurred at being left alone, however, and at last the girls dozed off into uneasy slumber on pillow-piled settees.
Nothing happened to disturb their slumbers, and Nancy awoke, a little stiff and sadly rumpled, as the sun poured in through the windows. She found her way to the kitchen, washed her face and rinsed her parched mouth. Through the window she saw Mr. Hill making his way toward the house.
“Cheerio!” the banker hailed her. “All quiet on the battle front last night. Any excitement?”
“Not a bit,” Nancy replied.
Sadie appeared and ventured the opinion she could make up a breakfast of sorts. While Mr. Hill telephoned to his home and his office Sadie made coffee which had to be drunk black by the banker, while milkless cocoa served for the girls. Scrambled eggs and toasted stale bread completed a filling, if not satisfactory meal.
“I shall have to go to the bank,” Mr. Hill said. “My chauffeur will call for me, and then I am sending him back to mount guard at the farmhouse.”
“We will stay here in the inn, which we will not open to anyone,” Nancy planned. “As soon as my father returns I will have him see that a watchman is placed here, and I will take Sadie to my home.”
“An excellent plan, certainly the best possible under the circumstances,” Mr. Hill declared. “Nancy, you are a regular general. You certainly won a major battle of wits from the Semitts.”
Nancy thanked Mr. Hill with modesty, and then the banker’s car arrived and carried him off. The two girls were left alone to hold the fort. In half an hour’s time the chauffeur was back again with new tires for Nancy’s car, which he deftly mounted and pumped up before taking up his guard duty at the farmhouse.
Toward noon Nancy called her home and learned that her father had just arrived half a minute before. She swiftly outlined the events of the preceding day to him, and he promised that precautions such as Nancy suggested would be promptly taken. And indeed, within the hour, an automobile drove up with Mr. Drew in it, besides two powerfully-built men who walked as stealthily as cats.
“Private detectives,” Mr. Drew said briefly.
He posted the men, one in the house and one at the farmhouse, to relieve the banker’s chauffeur. At midnight they were to be relieved by another sentry.
“Now then, Sadie, pack your things and we’ll speed home to a bracing bath and some real food,” Nancy laughed happily. “Our worries are over for the time being!”
There Nancy made a mistake.
Not until she was at home did Mr. Drew tell her that the Sidney-Boonton families had engaged Walker Cochran, a lawyer whose reputation was almost as great as his own, to fight Sadie’s claim to Asa Sidney’s fortune.
“That’s a contest where I can’t help you, can I?” Nancy asked. “I wish I were old enough to be a lawyer!”
“You have done the work of a dozen men already,” Mr. Drew said earnestly. “And I am sure we shall win the lawsuit. It would help very much if we had some supportable testimony as to why Mr. Sidney favored this orphan girl above his entire family.”
“It is not really his family, Dad,” Nancy said. “Mr. Sidney’s children left no descendants. The Boontons and the Sidneys are just branches of the family.”
“Even so, they would be the heirs at law if he had not made a will,” Mr. Drew replied.
Nancy secretly resolved that she would search for supporting evidence to the will to convince the jury that Sadie had genuinely earned the old man’s gratitude.
“The Semitts, I learn, have joined with the others to break the will,” Mr. Drew went on. “They may give dangerous testimony, if they think it is worth their while, against Sadie.”
“They are just trying to cover their guilty tracks,” Nancy said hotly. “You will certainly be able to batter down their stories.”
“I hope so,” Mr. Drew said.
Thoughtfully, Nancy returned to the guest room to help Sadie unpack.
That pathetically small job had already been accomplished by the new heiress. She had only three dresses, two of them serviceable black frocks to be worn while waiting on tables, and one a cheap flowered organdie, the same one she had worn to the house. Her small stock of undies and stockings did not half fill one bureau drawer, and the only shoes she had were the ones on her feet.
“Let’s go downtown and have a shopping orgy,” Nancy cried. “I have charge accounts, and you can pay me back when you receive your inheritance, Sadie. We’ll buy some frocks and socks and slippers and silk underthings and pajamas.”
“Oh, may I do all that?” Sadie gasped. “It will be the biggest thrill of my life.”
“It’ll be such fun for me,” Nancy laughed. “Let’s go at once.”
Fun? As Nancy led Sadie into the elevator of a big department store, she discovered that Bess and George were the only other occupants!