TRAVELING MYSTERIES

Even to Merry, who had never before visited her friends on Peoria Street
just off Maxwell Street, the shop of Weston was something of a shock. It
was nothing more than a hollow shell of a building with a great heap of
second-hand goods of all sorts piled in one corner. Not a shelf, counter
or table adorned this bleak interior. The plaster was cracked, the walls
threatening to fall.

“I sell all in the street,” he explained in answer to their looks of
astonishment. With a wave of his hand he indicated rough board counters
where a miscellaneous assortment of human beings were pawing over a
stock in trade as varied as themselves.

Now and again one would hold up an article in one hand, a coin in the
other, and a bargain was speedily made.

“I don’t see how he lives,” Petite Jeanne whispered.

“He’s been doing this for twenty years, and he’s not bankrupt yet,”
Merry whispered back.

They were led next to the shop of Kay King. This boasted of some little
magnificence. There were shelves and tables and one glass showcase.
Since his principal stock was composed of second-hand books, the wall
was lined with them.

“A curious place for a book store, this Maxwell Street,” Dan Baker
mused.

“I don’t do so badly,” Kay King smiled. “The poor wish to read. And here
for a nickel, a dime, a quarter, I sell them a lamp to their feet, a
light to their pathway.”

“Truly a missionary enterprise in a city wilderness,” the gentle old man
murmured.

As for Petite Jeanne, her eyes had roamed up and down the dusty rows of
books and had come to rest at last upon a badly hung pair of portieres
at the back of the room.

“That,” she told herself, “is where he sleeps when the day is done, a
dark and dingy hole.

“And yet,” she mused, “who can help admiring him? Here in his dingy
little world he is master of his own destiny. While others who sell
books march down each morning to punch a clock and remain bowing and
scraping, saying ‘Yes mam’ this and ‘Yes mam’ that to females who think
themselves superior beings, he moves happily among his own books selling
when and as he chooses.”

Her reflections were broken off by a word from Kay King himself.

“There’s a story in every one.” He nodded toward the row of trunks and
bags they had come to inspect.

“Little does one dream as he packs his trunk for a journey that he may
never see that trunk again. Sad as it may seem, this is often the case.

“So, all unconscious of curious prying eyes, we tuck the very stories of
our lives away in our trunks and watch them go speeding away in a motor
van.”

“How?” Petite Jeanne asked.

“How? Look at this. Here is one I purchased some time ago.” He swung a
large, strongly built wardrobe trunk about, threw it open and produced a
bundle of letters. “This,” he explained, “is a young man. These letters
are from his mother. And these,” he produced another packet, “are from
other women. Still others are from his pals. They tell his story. And
what a story! Bright, well educated, from a good family. But oh, such a
rotter! He betrays his employer, his sweetheart, his pals. He deludes
his trusting mother. And, how he lies to her!

“It is all written here.” He patted the letters.

“I had a letter from him yesterday,” he continued. “He wants the trunk;
says it is a treasure and an heirloom; wants the contents, too; says
sentiment makes him treasure these things. Sentiment!” He fairly
stormed. “He knows but one emotion! He loves; ah yes, he loves himself
supremely! He has not a redeeming trait.

“He wants this trunk because he is afraid. Afraid of me!” His laugh was
bitter. “Me! I never hurt a flea. I only wish I could; that I were hard
and ruthless as some men are, stamping their way through, trampling over
others to fortune!

“But he shall pay,” he went on more calmly after a moment. “I mean to
charge him twenty dollars.

“Then,” he smiled, “I shall return this one to its owners free.” He
placed a hand on a sturdy little army locker. “This one belongs to a
little family. How many trunks do! Father, mother and the little ones,
all their clothes in one trunk! And then lost!

“There should be a society for the return of lost baggage to poor
people.

“There are many like these. People come to a strange city for work.
There is no work. They leave their trunks in the depot. Storage piles
up. They cannot pay.

“But this must bore you!”

“No, no! Please go on.”

“There is not much more to tell. See!” He lifted the lid of the trunk.
“Everything is spotlessly clean. A man’s shirts, a woman’s house
dresses, little frocks and rompers for two tiny girls. Poor folks they
are, like you and me. He was a soldier, too. There is a sharp-shooter’s
medal on a pin cushion. There’s a child’s birth certificate, a doll with
its nose kissed white, and a small Bible. They lost all that.

“And I—I shall send it back.”

“They will pay you,” said Petite Jeanne.

“They will not pay. They cannot. Some are always poor. These are like
that.

“But this one—” His lips curled in sudden scorn. “This big boy who goes
strutting through the world, he shall pay, and I shall pass it on to
these who need and perhaps deserve it.

“But I am keeping you here!” he cried. “Here are the trunks we have
saved for your own eyes. You will see that Weston has spoken truthfully.
They are filled for the most part with junk. But now and then there is a
story, a real story of some romantic life. See, this one opens easily. I
have found a key for it.”

“Wait!” On Jeanne’s face was a look almost of distress. “You have told
me so much. It seems so cruel that we should pry into their lives.
It—it’s like coming upon people in the dark. I—I’m afraid. I—”

“Oh, come!” he laughed. “It’s not half as bad as that. Probably we won’t
come upon anything of interest at all. Indeed that’s almost sure to be
the case, and I am inclined to repent inviting you here.” So saying, he
lifted the lid of the first of the row of trunks, and the show began.

Weston’s prophesy that the trunks contained “only junk” proved to be
true. As trunk after trunk was opened, their search for hidden treasure
continued to be unrewarded. Always there was the suggestion of pinching
poverty, carelessness and neglect. These trunks were lost to their
owners because they had not the ready money to pay the charges. One need
not say that such as these have few valuable treasures to pack in a
trunk.

The air of the small shop grew heavy with the odor of soiled clothing,
cheap, highly scented soap and spilled talcum powder. The ladies had
given up the search and were wandering about, looking at books, when the
searching party came at last upon the three large pigskin bags from the
British Isles.

“There is something to intrigue you!” exclaimed Angelo. “And see! They
are all tightly locked.”

Kay King’s eyes shone. He had bid in these bags at a rather high figure.
He was hoping that his judgment regarding their contents had been
correct.

“Let me try these.” He rattled a huge bunch of keys. Not one of them
would open the bags. “Oh well,” he smiled, “one may pick his own locks.”
With skill born of ripe experience he opened the locks with a bit of
twisted wire.

“Now!” He breathed deeply. “Now!”

They all crowded around. A wide-mouthed bag flew open, revealing its
contents. At once an exclamation was on every lip. Not one of them all
but knew on the instant that Kay had made an exceedingly good buy. The
bag was packed to the very top with the choicest of wearing apparel.
Indeed, not one of them all had worn such rich garments. A man’s outfit
included shirts of finest silk and softest woolens, suits of broadcloth
and shoes of rarest quality.

The second bag, though varying somewhat in its contents, matched the
first in quality.

It was the third bag that set them gasping. For in this one the owner
had packed with tender care the articles dearest to his heart. An ivory
toilet set mounted with gold, a costly present from some dear friend; a
brace of gold-mounted pistols; fountain pens; paper knives, elaborately
carved; an astonishing collection of rare articles. And at one side,
carefully wrapped in a swathing of silk, were three oval frames of
beaten gold. Petite Jeanne’s fingers trembled as she unwrapped them and
revealed, one after another, the portraits of a beautiful lady, a
handsome boy and a marvelous girl, all dimples and golden hair.

“Oh!” She breathed deeply and the breath was half a sob.

More was to come. Having taken up an unframed picture, she studied it
for a space of seconds. Then, as her trembling fingers let the picture
fall, her slender form stiffened and her face went white as she said in
words that seemed to choke her:

“You can’t sell these things. You truly can’t.”

“Why can’t I?” Kay challenged. He had not looked into her white face.

“Because—” She put out a hand to steady herself. “Because they belong to
a friend of mine. That is he,” she said, holding up the picture, “and
that,” pointing to a signature at the bottom, “is his name.

“He—he came over on the boat with me. He—he was very, very kind to me.
Helped me over the hard places.

“To sell out these would be a sacrilege.

“Sell them to me!” she pleaded, laying a hand on Kay’s arm. “I’ll pay
you twice what you gave for them. Please, please do!” She was all but in
tears.

She could not know the bargain she appeared anxious to drive. Only
Weston and Kay King knew. They knew that in all their pinched and
poverty-stricken lives they had never before made such a find; that the
bags and their contents were worth not twice but ten times what Kay had
paid for them.

And only Angelo, who had accidentally caught sight of her bankbook, knew
that for the sake of a friend she had known only on a short voyage, she
was willing to spend her all.

“Wha—what will you do with them?” Kay moistened dry lips.

“I—some way I’ll find him and give them to him. And if—if he’s dead I’ll
find her.” She pointed to the beautiful lady in the gold frame. “I—I’ll
find her and them.” She nodded toward the other portraits.

Kay was not one who measured out charity in a glass and served it with a
spoon. “Then,” he said huskily, “you may have them for exactly what I
paid—fifteen dollars.”

Without another word, he snapped the bags shut one by one.

A long silence followed. Merry stood this as long as she could; then,
seizing a long strand of narrow golden ribbon that had fallen from the
trunk, she dashed round and round the group, encircling them all in this
fragile band. Then, with a deft twitch, she thrust herself within the
band.

“This,” she cried, “is our Circle of Gold.”

“And such a circle as it is!” Dan Baker’s voice wavered. “You could
break it with a touch, yet it is stronger than bands of steel, for such
a band is but the emblem of a bond of human hearts that must not be
broken.”

It was a subdued but curiously happy Petite Jeanne who rode back to the
studio that night on a rattling street car. She felt as though she had
been at church and had joined in the holiest of communions.

“And this is Sunday, too,” she whispered to Florence.

“Yes,” Florence agreed, not a little surprised at her words, not
divining their meaning. “This is Sunday.”

Later in the day, when the shadows had fallen across the rooftops and
night had come, Dan Baker sat dozing by Angelo’s fireplace. Jeanne sat
at the opposite side, but she was not sleeping. She was deep in thought.
The others had gone for a stroll on the boulevard.

Jeanne was trying to recall a name, not the name of the man who had once
owned the three bags resting there in the shadows. She knew that. It was
Preston Wamsley. But the name of the hotel where he had stopped in New
York; this escaped her.

She could picture the place in her mind. She had taken a room there for
a night. It was not one of those towering affairs of brick and stone
where traveling men uphold the prestige of their firms by paying ten
dollars a night for a bed. A humble, kindly old hostelry, it stood
mellow with age. Within were many pictures of great men who had stopped
there in days gone by.

“There were Presidents and Earls and Dukes,” she told herself. “Yes, and
Princes.

“Prince!” she whispered excitedly. “Prince—Prince George! That was the
name! I’ll address a letter to him there to-morrow.”

“No.” She changed her mind a moment later. “To-morrow may never come.
Better do it now!”

She helped herself to paper and envelope and penned a simple note to her
great friend, saying she had his traveling bags which had, no doubt,
been lost; and where should she send them?

“That may reach him,” she told herself, as she hurried down to post it.
“Here’s hoping!”

She had cast her bread upon the waters, half of all the bread she had in
the world. And the cruel Fates had decreed that she should shortly have
still less. For all that, her steps were light, her heart gay, as she
clambered back up the long flight of stairs.

As she returned to her place by the fire, it seemed to her that the old
trouper, Dan Baker, half hidden there in the darkness, was part of a
dim, half dream life that at this moment might be passing forever. Her
mind went slipping, gliding back over the days that lay in the shadows
that were yesterdays.

She thought of the dark-faced gypsy who had followed her on that first
morning when she was on her way to dance the sun up from the lake. It
was true that she had recognized him. He was a French gypsy. This much
she knew. That was all. She had seen him beside some camp fire in the
land of her birth.

“And I am sure it was he who peered through the skylight on the first
night I danced the dance to the God of Fire,” she told herself.
Involuntarily her eyes strayed to that skylight. There was no shadow
there now.

“Could it have been that man who stole the God of Fire and sent it to
America?” she asked herself. “Did he follow, only to find that it had
been lost? And if so, what will he do to retrieve it?”

Knowing all too well the answer to this last question, she shuddered. A
strange people, the gypsies care little for laws other than their own.
If this man felt that he could formulate a claim to the gypsy God of
Fire, he would stop at nothing to retake it.

“But he shall not have it!” she clenched her small hands tight.

From the gypsies she had absorbed a spirit of determination that was
unshakable.

She thought of the flutter of wings in the theatre. “Some bird,” she
reassured herself. “But what sort of bird? And who let him in?” Her mind
was far from at rest on this point.

Nor did the thoughts that came to her as she recalled the “battle of
Maxwell Street” bring her comfort. “Angelo was right,” she told herself.
“It should not have happened. In times like these one cannot have too
many friends; but one enemy is just one too many.”

Warming thoughts filled with great comfort came to her only when she
recalled again the three traveling bags. “Ah! There is joy,” she
breathed. “To serve another. And he was so big and kind. Perhaps he will
come for the bags. It may be that I shall see him again.”

With this comforting thought she curled up in her chair. And there, half
an hour later the others, on returning, found her, fast asleep.

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