Under The Lilacs

Louisa May Alcott

Chapter 16 - Detective Thornton


A few days later, Miss Celia was able to go about with her arm in a sling, pale still, and rather stiff, but so much better than any one expected, that all agreed Mr. Paine was right in pronouncing Dr. Mills "a master hand with broken bones." Two devoted little maids waited on her, two eager pages stood ready to run her errands, and friendly neighbors sent in delicacies enough to keep these four young persons busily employed in disposing of them.

Every afternoon the great bamboo lounging chair was brought out and the interesting invalid conducted to it by stout Randa, who was head nurse, and followed by a train of shawl, cushion, foot-stool and book bearers, who buzzed about like swarming bees round a new queen. When all were settled, the little maids sewed and the pages read aloud, with much conversation by the way; for one of the rules was, that all should listen attentively, and if any one did not understand what was read, he or she should ask to have it explained on the spot. Whoever could answer was invited to do so, and at the end of the reading Miss Celia could ask any she liked, or add any explanations which seemed necessary. In this way much pleasure and profit was extracted from the tales Ben and Thorny read, and much unexpected knowledge as well as ignorance displayed, not to mention piles of neatly hemmed towels for which Bab and Betty were paid like regular sewing-women.

So vacation was not all play, and the girls found their picnics, berry parties, and "goin' a visitin'," all the more agreeable for the quiet hour spent with Miss Celia. Thorny had improved wonderfully, and was getting to be quite energetic, especially since his sister's accident; for while she was laid up he was the head of the house, and much enjoyed his promotion. But Ben did not seem to flourish as he had done at first. The loss of Sancho preyed upon him sadly, and the longing to go and find his dog grew into such a strong temptation that he could hardly resist it. He said little about it; but now, and then a word escaped him which might have enlightened any one who chanced to be watching him. No one was, just then, so he brooded over this fancy, day by day, in silence and solitude, for there was no riding and driving now. Thorny was busy with his sister trying to show her that he remembered how good she had been to him when he was ill, and the little girls had their own affairs.

Miss Celia was the first to observe the change, having nothing to do but lie on the sofa and amuse herself by seeing others work or play. Ben was bright enough at the readings, because theyn he forgot his troubles; but when they were over and his various duties done, he went to his own room or sought consolation with Lita, being sober and quiet, and quite unlike the merr monkey all knew and liked so well.

"Thorny, what is the matter with Ben?" asked Miss Celia, one day, when she and her brother were alone in the "green parlor," as they called the lilac-tree walk.

"Fretting about Sanch, I suppose. I declare I wish that dog had never been born! Losing him has just spoilt Ben. Not a bit of fun left in him, and he won't have any thing I offer to cheer him up."

Thorny spoke impatiently, and knit his brows over the pressed flowers he was neatly gumming into his herbal.

"I wonder if he has any thing on his mind? He acts as if he was hiding a trouble he didn't dare to tell. Have you talked with him about it?" asked Miss Celia, looking as if she was hiding a trouble she did not like to tell.

"Oh, yes, I poke him up now and then, but he gets peppery, so I let him alone. May be he is longing for his old circus again. Shouldn't blame him much if he was; it isn't very lively here, and he's used to excitement, you know."

"I hope it isn't that. Do you think he would slip away without telling us, and go back to the old life again? "Don't believe he would. Ben isn't a bit of a sneak; that's why I like him."

"Have you ever found him sly or untrue in any way?" asked Miss Celia, lowering her voice.

"No; he's as fair and square a fellow as I ever saw. Little bit low, now and then, but he doesn't mean it, and wants to be a gentleman, only he never lived with one before, and it's all new to him. I'll get him polished up after a while."

"Oh, Thorny, there are three peacocks on the place, and you are the finest!" laughed Miss Celia, as her brother spoke in his most condescending way with a lift of the eyebrows very droll to see.

"And two donkeys, and Ben's the biggest, not to know when he is well off and happy!" retorted the "gentleman," slapping a dried specimen on the page as if he were pounding discontented Ben.

"Come here and let me tell you something which worries me. I would not breathe it to another soul, but I feel rather helpless, and I dare say you can manage the matter better than I."

Looking much mystified, Thorny went and sat on the stool at his sister's feet, while she whispered confidentially in his ear: "I've lost some money out of my drawer, and I'm so afraid Ben took it."

"But it's always locked up and you keep the keys of the drawer and the little room?"

"It is gone, nevertheless, and I've had my keys safe all the time."

"But why think it is he any more than Randa, or Katy, or me?"

"Because I trust you three as I do myself. I've known the girls for years, and you have no object in taking it since all I have is yours, dear."

"And all mine is yours, of course. But, Celia, how could he do it? He can't pick locks, I know, for we fussed over my desk together, and had to break it after all."

"I never really thought it possible till to-day when you were playing ball and it went in at the upper window, and Ben climbed up the porch after it; you remember you said, 'If it had gone in at the garret gable you couldn't have done that so well; ' and he answered, 'Yes, I could, there isn't a spout I can't shin up, or a bit of this roof I haven't been over.'"

"So he did; but there is no spout near the little room window."

"There is a tree, and such an agile boy as Ben could swing in and out easily. Now, Thorny, I hate to think this of him, but it has happened twice, and for his own sake I must stop it. If he is planning to run away, money is a good thing to have. And he may feel that it is his own; for you know he asked me to put his wages in the bank, and I did. He may not like to come to me for that, because he can give no good reason for wanting it. I'm so troubled I really don't know what to do."

She looked troubled, and Thorny put his arms about her as if to keep all worries but his own away from her.

"Don't you fret, Cely, dear; you leave it to me. I'll fix him - ungrateful little scamp!"

"That is not the way to begin. I am afraid you will make him angry and hurt his feelings, and then we can do nothing."

"Bother his feelings! I shall just say, calmly and coolly: 'Now, look here, Ben, hand over the money you took out of my sister's drawer, and we'll let you off easy,' or something like that."

"It wouldn't do, Thorny; his temper would be up in a minute, and away he would go before we could find out whether he was guilty or not. I wish I knew how to manage."

Let me think," and Thorny leaned his chin on the arm of the chair, staring hard at the knocker as if he expected the lion's mouth to open with words of counsel then and there.

"By Jove, I do believe Ben took it!" he broke out suddenly; "for when I went to his room this morning to see why he didn't come and do my boots, he shut the drawer in his bureau as quick as a flash, and looked red and queer, for I didn't knock, and sort of startled him."

"He wouldn't be likely to put stolen money there. Ben is too wise for that."

"He wouldn't keep it there, but he might be looking at it and pitch it in when I called. He's hardly spoken to me since, and when I asked him what his flag was at half-mast for, he wouldn't answer. Besides, you know in the reading this afternoon he didn't listen, and when you asked what he was thinking about, he colored up and muttered something about Sanch. I tell you, Celia, it looks bad - very bad," and Thorny shook his head with a wise air.

"It does, and yet we may be all wrong. Let us wait a little and give the poor boy a chance to clear himself before we speak. I'd rather lose my money than suspect him falsely."

"How much was it?"

"Eleven dollars; a one went first, and I supposed I'd miscalculated somewhere when I took some out; but when I missed a ten, I felt that I ought not to let it pass."

"Look here, sister, you just put the case into my hands and let me work it up. I won't say any thing to Ben till you give the word; but I'll watch him, and now that my eyes are open, it won't be easy to deceive me."

Thorny was evidently pleased with the new play of detective, and intended to distinguish himself in that line; but when Miss Celia asked how he meant to begin, he could only respond with a blank expression: "Don't know! You give me the keys and leave a bill or two in the drawer, and may be I can find him out somehow."

So the keys were given, and the little dressing-room where the old secretary stood was closely watched for a day or two. Ben cheered up a trifle which looked as if he knew an eye was upon him, but otherwise he went on as usual, and Miss Celia feeling a little guilty at even harboring a suspicion of him, was kind and patient with his moods. Thorny was very funny in the unnecessary mystery and fuss he made; his affectation of careless indifference to Ben's movements and his clumsy attempts to watch every one of them; his dodgings up and down stairs, ostentatious clanking of keys, and the elaborate traps he set to catch his thief, such as throwing his ball in at the dressing-room window and sending Ben up the tree to get it, which he did, thereby proving beyond a doubt that he alone could have taken the money, Thorny thought. Another deep discovery was, that the old drawer was so shrunken that the lock could be pressed down by slipping a knife-blade between the hasp and socket.

"Now it is as clear as day, and you'd better let me speak," he said, full of pride as well as regret at this triumphant success of his first attempt as a detective.

"Not yet, and you need do nothing more. I'm afraid it was a mistake of mine to let you do this; and if it has spoiled your friendship with Ben, I shall be very sorry; for I do not think he is guilty," answered Miss Celia.

"Why not?" and Thorny looked annoyed.

"I've watched also, and he doesn't act like a deceitful boy. To-day I asked him if he wanted any money, or should I put what I owe him with the rest, and he looked me straight in the face with such honest, grateful eyes, I could not doubt him when he said 'Keep it, please, I don't need any thing here, you are all so good to me.'"

"Now, Celia, don't you be soft-hearted. He's a sly little dog, and knows my eye is on him. When I asked him what he saw in the dressing-room, after he brought out the ball, and looked sharply at him, he laughed, and said 'Only a mouse,' as saucy as you please."

"Do set the trap there, I heard the mouse nibbling last night, and it kept me awake. We must have a cat or we shall be overrun."

"Well, shall I give Ben a good blowing up, or will you?" asked Thorny, scorning such poor prey as mice, and bound to prove that he was in the right.

"I'll let you know what I have decided in the morning. Be kind to Ben, meantime, or I shall feel as if I had done you harm by letting you watch him."

So it was left for that day, and by the next, Miss Celia had made up her mind to speak to Ben. She was just going down to breakfast when the sound of loud voices made her pause and listen. It came from Ben's room, where the two boys seemed to be disputing about something.

"I hope Thorny has kept his promise," she thought, and hurried through the back entry, fearing a general explosion.

Ben's chamber was at the end, and she could see and hear what was going on before she was near enough to interfere. Ben stood against his closet door looking as fierce and red as a turkey-cock; Thorny sternly confronted him, saying in an excited tone, and with a threatening gesture: "You are hiding something in there, and you can't deny it."

"I don't."

"Better not; I insist on seeing it."

"Well, you won't."

"What have you been stealing now?"

"Didn't steal it, - used to be mine, - I only took it when I wanted it."

"I know what that means. You'd better give it back or I'll make you."

"Stop!" cried a third voice, as Thorny put out his arm to clutch Ben, who looked ready to defend himself to the last gasp, "Boys, I will settle this affair. Is there anything hidden in the closet, Ben?" and Miss Celia came between the belligerent parties with her one hand up to part them.

Thorny fell back at once, looking half ashamed of his heat, and Ben briefly answered, with a gulp as if shame or anger made it hard to speak steadily:

"Yes 'm, there is."

"Does it belong to you?"

"Yes 'm, it does."

"Where did you get it?"

"Up to Squire's."

"That's a lie!" muttered Thorny to himself.

Ben's eye flashed, and his fist doubled up in spite of him, but he restrained himself out of respect for Miss Celia, who looked puzzled, as she asked another question, not quite wure how to proceed with the investigation: "Is it money, Ben?"

"No 'm, it isn't."

"Then what can it be?"

"Meow!" answered a fourth voice from the closet; and as Ben flung open the door a gray kitten walked out, purring with satisfaction at her release.

Miss Celia fell into a chair and laughed till her eyes were full; Thorny looked foolish, and Ben folded his arms, curled up his nose, and regarded his accuser with calm defiance, while pussy sat down to wash her face as if her morning toilette had been interrupted by her sudden abduction.

"That's all very well, but it doesn't mend matters much, so you needn't laugh, Celia," began Thorny, recovering himself, and stubbornly bent on sifting the case to the bottom, now he had begun.

"Well, it would, if you'd let a feller alone. She said she wanted a cat, so I went and got the one they gave me when I was at the Squire's. I went early and took her without asking, and I had a right to," explained Ben, much aggrieved by having his surprise spoiled.

"It was very kind of you, and I'm glad to have this nice kitty. We will shut her up in my room to catch the mice that plague me," said Miss Celia, picking up the little cat, and wondering how she would get her two angry boys safely down stairs.

"The dressing-room, she means; you know the way, and you don't need keys to get in," added Thorny, with such sarcastic emphasis that Ben felt some insult was intended, and promptly resented it.

"You won't get me to climb any more trees after your balls, and my cat won't catch any of your mice, so you needn't ask me."

"Cats don't catch thieves, and they are what I'm after!"

"What do you mean by that?" fiercely demanded Ben.

"Celia has lost some money out of her drawer, and you won't let me see what's in yours; So I thought, perhaps, you'd got it!" blurted out Thorny, finding it hard to say the words, angry as he was, for the face opposite did not look like a guilty one.

For a minute, Ben did not seem to understand him, plainly as he spoke; then he turned an angry scarlet, and, with a reproachful glance at his mistress, opened the little drawer so that both could see all that it contained.

"They ain't any thing; but I'm fond of 'em they are all I've got - I was afraid he'd laugh at me that time, so I wouldn't let him look - it was father's birthday, and I felt bad about him and Sanch - " Ben's indignant voice got more and more indistinct as he stumbled on, and broke down over the last words. He did not cry, however. but threw back his little treasures as if half their sacredness was gone; and, making a strong effort at self-control, faced around, asking of Miss Celia, with a grieved look,

"Did you think I'd steal anything of yours?"

"I tried not to, Ben, but what could I do? It was gone, and you the only stranger about the place."

"Wasn't there any one to think bad of but me? he said, so sorrowfully that Miss Celia made up her mind on the spot that he was as innocent of the theft as the kitten now biting her buttons, no other refreshment being offered.

"Nobody, for I know my girls well. Yet, eleven dollars are gone, and I cannot imagine where or how for both drawer and door are always locked, because my papers and valuables are in that room."

"What a lot! But how could I get it if it was locked up?" and Ben looked as if that question was unanswerable.

"Folks that can climb in at windows for a ball, can go the same way for money, and get it easy enough when they've only to pry open an old lock!"

Thorny's look and tone seemed to make plain to Ben all that they had been suspecting, and, being innocent, he was too perplexed and unhappy to defend himself. His eye went from one to the other, and, seeing doubt in both faces, his boyish heart sunk within him; for he could prove nothing, and his first impulse was to go away at once.

"I can't say any thing, only that I didn't take the money. You won't believe it, so I'd better go back where I come from. They weren't so kind, but they trusted me, and knew I wouldn't steal a cent. You may keep my money, and the kitty, too; I don't want 'em," and, snatching up his hat, Ben would gone straight away, if Thorny had not barred his passage.

"Come, now, don't be mad. Let's talk it over, and if I 'm wrong I'll take it all back and ask your pardon," he said, in a friendly tone, rather scared at the consequences of his first attempt, though as sure as ever that he was right.

"It would break my heart to have you go in that way, Ben. Stay at least till your innocence is proved, then no one can doubt what you say now."

"Don't see how it can be proved," answered Ben, appeased by her evident desire to trust him.

"We'll try as well as we know how, and the first thing we will do is to give that old secretary a good rummage from top to bottom. I've done it once, but it is just possible that the bills may have slipped out of sight. Come, now, I can't rest till I've done all I can to comfort you and convince Thorny." Miss Celia rose as she spoke, and led the way to the dressing-room, which had no outlet except through her chamber. Still holding his hat, Ben followed with a troubled face, and Thorny brought up the rear, doggedly determined to keep his eye on "the little scamp" till the matter was satisfactorily cleared up. Miss Celia had made her proposal more to soothe the feelings of one boy and to employ the superfluous energies of the other, than in the expectation of throwing any light upon the mystery; for she was sadly puzzled by Ben's manner, and much regretted that she had let her brother meddle in the matter.

"There," she said, unlocking the door with the key Thorny reluctantly gave up to her, "this is the room and that is the drawer on the right. The lower ones have seldom been opened since we came, and hold only some of papa's old books. Those upper ones you may turn out and investigate as much as you - Bless me! here 's something in your trap," Thorny and Miss Celia gave a little skip as she nearly trod on a long, gray tall, which hung out of the bole now filled by a plump mouse.

But her brother was intent on more serious things, and merely pushed the trap aside as he pulled out the drawer with an excited gesture, which sent it and all its contents clattering to the floor.

"Confound the old thing! It always stuck so I had to give a jerk. Now, there it is, topsy-turvy," and Thorny looked Much disgusted at his own awkwardness.

"No harm done; I left nothing of value in it. Look back there, Ben, and see if there is room for a paper to get worked over the top of the drawer. I felt quite a crack, but I don't believe it is possible for things to slip out; the place was never full enough to overflow in any way."

Miss Celia spoke to Ben, who was kneeling down to pick up the scattered papers, among which were two marked dollar bills, - Thorny's bait for the thief. Ben looked into the dusty recess, and then put in his hand, saying carelessly, -

"There's nothing but a bit of red stuff."

"My old pen-wiper - Why, what's the matter?" asked Miss Celia, as Ben dropped the handful Of what looked like rubbish.

"Something warm and wiggly inside of it," answered Ben, stooping to examine the contents of the little scarlet bundle. "Baby mice! Ain't they funny? Look just like mites of young pigs. We'll have to kill 'em if you've caught their mamma," he said, forgetting his own trials in boyish curiosity about his "find."

Miss Celia stooped also, and gently poked the red cradle with her finger; for the tiny mice were nestling deeper into the fluff with small squeals of alarm. Suddenly she cried out: "Boys, boys, I've found the thief! Look here; pull out these bits and see if they won't make up my lost bills."

Down went the motherless babies as four ruthless hands pulled apart their cosey nest, and there, among the nibbled fragments, appeared enough finely printed, greenish paper, to piece out parts of two bank bills. A large cypher and part of a figure one were visible, and that accounted for the ten; but though there were other bits, no figures could be found, and they were willing to take the other bill on trust.

"Now, then, am I a thief and a liar?" demanded Ben, pointing proudly to the tell-tale letters spread forth on the table, over which all three had been eagerly bending.

"No; I beg your pardon, and I'm very sorry that we didn't look more carefully before we spoke, then we all should have been spared this pain."

"All right, old fellow, forgive and forget. I'll never think hard of you again, - on my honor I won't."

As they spoke, Miss Celia and her brother held out their hands frankly and heartily. Ben shook both, but with a difference; for he pressed the soft one gratefully, remembering that its owner had always been good to him; but the brown paw he gripped with a vengeful squeeze that made Thorny pull it away in a hurry, exclaiming, good-naturedly, in spite of both physical and mental discomfort, -

"Come, Ben, don't you bear malice; for you've got the laugh on your side, and we feel pretty small. I do, any way; for, after my fidgets, all I've caught is a mouse!"

"And her family. I'm so relieved I'm almost sorry the poor little mother is dead - she and her babies were so happy in the old pen-wiper," said Miss Celia, hastening to speak merrily, for Ben still looked indignant, and she was much grieved at what had happened.

"A pretty expensive house," began Thorny, looking about for the interesting orphans, who had been left on the floor while their paper-hangings were examined.

No further anxiety need be felt for them, however; Kitty had come upon the scene, and as judge, jury, and prisoner, turned to find the little witnesses, they beheld the last pink mite going down Pussy's throat in one mouthful.

"I call that summary justice, - the whole family executed on the spot! Give Kit the mouse also, and let us go to breakfast. I feel as if I had found my appetite, now this worry is off my mind," said Miss Celia, laughing so infectiously that Ben had to join in spite of himself, as she took his arm and led him away with a look which mutely asked his pardon over again.

"Rather lively for a funeral procession," said Thorny, following with the trap in his hand and Puss at his heels, adding, to comfort his pride as a detective:

"Well, I said I'd catch the thief, and I have, though it is rather a small one!"