Abigail Prim always had been a thorn in the flesh of her stepmother—a well-meaning, unimaginative, ambitious, and rather common woman. Coming into the Prim home as house-keeper shortly after the death of Abigail's mother, the second Mrs. Prim had from the first looked upon Abigail principally as an obstacle to be overcome. She had tried to 'do right by her'; but she had never given the child what a child most needs and most craves—love and understanding. Not loving Abigail, the house-keeper could, naturally, not give her love; and as for understanding her one might as reasonably have expected an adding machine to understand higher mathematics.
Jonas Prim loved his daughter. There was nothing, within reason, that money could buy which he would not have given her for the asking; but Jonas Prim's love, as his life, was expressed in dollar signs, while the love which Abigail craved is better expressed by any other means at the command of man.
Being misunderstood and, to all outward appearances of sentiment and affection, unloved had not in any way embittered Abigail's remarkably joyous temperament. made up for it in some measure by getting all the fun and excitement out of life which she could discover therein, or invent through the medium of her own resourceful imagination.
But recently the first real sorrow had been thrust into her young life since the half-forgotten mother had been taken from her. The second Mrs. Prim had decided that it was her 'duty' to see that Abigail, having finished school and college, was properly married. As a matchmaker the second Mrs. Prim was as a Texas steer in a ten cent store. It was nothing to her that Abigail did not wish to marry anyone, or that the man of Mrs. Prim's choice, had he been the sole surviving male in the Universe, would have still been as far from Abigail's choice as though he had been an inhabitant of one of Orion's most distant planets.
As a matter of fact Abigail Prim detested Samuel Benham because he represented to her everything in life which she shrank from—age, avoirdupois, infirmity, baldness, stupidity, and matrimony. He was a prosaic old bachelor who had amassed a fortune by the simple means of inheriting three farms upon which an industrial city subsequently had been built. Necessity rather than foresight had compelled him to hold on to his property; and six weeks of typhoid, arriving and departing, had saved him from selling out at a low figure. The first time he found himself able to be out and attend to business he likewise found himself a wealthy man, and ever since he had been growing wealthier without personal effort.
All of which is to render evident just how impossible a matrimonial proposition was Samuel Benham to a bright, a beautiful, a gay, an imaginative, young, and a witty girl such as Abigail Prim, who cared less for money than for almost any other desirable thing in the world.
Nagged, scolded, reproached, pestered, threatened, Abigail had at last given a seeming assent to her stepmother's ambition; and had forthwith been packed off on a two weeks visit to the sister of the bride-groom elect. After which Mr. Benham was to visit Oakdale as a guest of the Prims, and at a dinner for which cards already had been issued—so sure was Mrs. Jonas Prim of her position of dictator of the Prim menage—the engagement was to be announced.
It was some time after dinner on the night of Abigail's departure that Mrs. Prim, following a habit achieved by years of housekeeping, set forth upon her rounds to see that doors and windows were properly secured for the night. A French window and its screen opening upon the verandah from the library she found open. "The house will be full of mosquitoes!" she ejaculated mentally as she closed them both with a bang and made them fast. "I should just like to know who left them open. Upon my word, I don't know what would become of this place if it wasn't for me. Of all the shiftlessness!" and she turned and flounced upstairs. In Abigail's room she flashed on the center dome light from force of habit, although she knew that the room had been left in proper condition after the girl's departure earlier in the day. The first thing amiss that her eagle eye noted was the candlestick lying on the floor beside the dressing table. As she stooped to pick it up she saw the open drawer from which the small automatic had been removed, and then, suspicions, suddenly aroused, as suddenly became fear; and Mrs. Prim almost dove across the room to the hidden wall safe. A moment's investigation revealed the startling fact that the safe was unlocked and practically empty. It was then that Mrs. Jonas Prim screamed.
Her scream brought Jonas and several servants upon the scene. A careful inspection of the room disclosed the fact that while much of value had been ignored the burglar had taken the easily concealed contents of the wall safe which represented fully ninety percentum of the value of the personal property in Abigail Prim's apartments.
Mrs. Prim scowled suspiciously upon the servants. Who else, indeed, could have possessed the intimate knowledge which the thief had displayed. Mrs. Prim saw it all. The open library window had been but a clever blind to hide the fact that the thief had worked from the inside and was now doubtless in the house at that very moment.
"Jonas," she directed, "call the police at once, and see that no one, absolutely no one, leaves this house until they have been here and made a full investigation."
"Shucks, Pudgy!" exclaimed Mr. Prim. "You don't think the thief is waiting around here for the police, do you?"
"I think that if you get the police here at once, Jonas, we shall find both the thief and the loot under our very roof," she replied, not without asperity.
"You don't mean—" he hesitated. "Why, Pudgy, you don't mean you suspect one of the servants?"
"Who else could have known?" asked Mrs. Prim. The servants present looked uncomfortable and cast sheepish eyes of suspicion at one another.
"It's all tommy rot!" ejaculated Mr. Prim; "but I'll call the police, because I got to report the theft. It's some slick outsider, that's who it is," and he started down stairs toward the telephone. Before he reached it the bell rang, and when he had hung up the receiver after the conversation the theft seemed a trivial matter. In fact he had almost forgotten it, for the message had been from the local telegraph office relaying a wire they had just received from Mr. Samuel Benham.
"I say, Pudgy," he cried, as he took the steps two at a time for the second floor, "here's a wire from Benham saying Gail didn't come on that train and asking when he's to expect her."
"Impossible!" ejaculated Mrs. Prim. "I certainly saw her aboard the train myself. Impossible!"
Jonas Prim was a man of action. Within half an hour he had set in motion such wheels as money and influence may cause to revolve in search of some clew to the whereabouts of the missing Abigail, and at the same time had reported the theft of jewels and money from his home; but in doing this he had learned that other happenings no less remarkable in their way had taken place in Oakdale that very night.
The following morning all Oakdale was thrilled as its fascinated eves devoured the front page of Oakdale's ordinarily dull daily. Never had Oakdale experienced a plethora of home-grown thrills; but it came as near to it that morning, doubtless, as it ever had or ever will. Not since the cashier of The Merchants and Farmers Bank committed suicide three years past had Oakdale been so wrought up, and now that historic and classical event paled into insignificance in the glaring brilliancy of a series of crimes and mysteries of a single night such as not even the most sanguine of Oakdale's thrill lovers could have hoped for.
There was, first, the mysterious disappearance of Abigail Prim, the only daughter of Oakdale's wealthiest citizen; there was the equally mysterious robbery of the Prim home. Either one of these would have been sufficient to have set Oakdale's multitudinous tongues wagging for days; but they were not all. Old John Baggs, the city's best known miser, had suffered a murderous assault in his little cottage upon the outskirts of town, and was even now lying at the point of death in The Samaritan Hospital. That robbery had been the motive was amply indicated by the topsy-turvy condition of the contents of the three rooms which Baggs called home. As the victim still was unconscious no details of the crime were obtainable. Yet even this atrocious deed had been capped by one yet more hideous.
Reginald Paynter had for years been looked upon half askance and yet with a certain secret pride by Oakdale. He was her sole bon vivant in the true sense of the word, whatever that may be. He was always spoken of in the columns of The Oakdale Tribune as 'that well known man-about-town,' or 'one of Oakdale's most prominent clubmen.' Reginald Paynter had been, if not the only, at all events the best dressed man in town. His clothes were made in New York. This in itself had been sufficient to have set him apart from all the other males of Oakdale. He was widely travelled, had an independent fortune, and was far from unhandsome. For years he had been the hope and despair of every Oakdale mother with marriageable daughters. The Oakdale fathers, however, had not been so keen about Reginald. Men usually know more about the morals of men than do women. There were those who, if pressed, would have conceded that Reginald had no morals.
But what place has an obituary in a truthful tale of adventure and mystery! Reginald Paynter was dead. His body had been found beside the road just outside the city limits at mid-night by a party of automobilists returning from a fishing trip. The skull was crushed back of the left ear. The position of the body as well as the marks in the road beside it indicated that the man had been hurled from a rapidly moving automobile. The fact that his pockets had been rifled led to the assumption that he had been killed and robbed before being dumped upon the road.
Now there were those in Oakdale, and they were many, who endeavored to connect in some way these several events of horror, mystery, and crime. In the first place it seemed quite evident that the robbery at the Prim home, the assault upon Old Baggs, and the murder of Paynter had been the work of the same man; but how could such a series of frightful happenings be in any way connected with the disappearance of Abigail Prim? Of course there were many who knew that Abigail and Reginald were old friends; and that the former had, on frequent occasions, ridden abroad in Reginald's French roadster, that he had escorted her to parties and been, at various times, a caller at her home; but no less had been true of a dozen other perfectly respectable young ladies of Oakdale. Possibly it was only Abigail's added misfortune to have disappeared upon the eve of the night of Reginald's murder.
But later in the day when word came from a nearby town that Reginald had been seen in a strange touring car with two unknown men and a girl, the gossips commenced to wag their heads. It was mentioned, casually of course, that this town was a few stations along the very road upon which Abigail had departed the previous afternoon for that destination which she had not reached. It was likewise remarked that Reginald, the two strange men and the GIRL had been first noticed after the time of arrival of the Oakdale train! What more was needed? Absolutely nothing more. The tongues ceased wagging in order that they might turn hand-springs.
Find Abigail Prim, whispered some, and the mystery will be solved. There were others charitable enough to assume that Abigail had been kidnapped by the same men who had murdered Paynter and wrought the other lesser deeds of crime in peaceful Oakdale. The Oakdale Tribune got out an extra that afternoon giving a resume of such evidence as had appeared in the regular edition and hinting at all the numerous possibilities suggested by such matter as had come to hand since. Even fear of old Jonas Prim and his millions had not been enough to entirely squelch the newspaper instinct of the Tribune's editor. Never before had he had such an opportunity and he made the best of it, even repeating the vague surmises which had linked the name of Abigail to the murder of Reginald Paynter.
Jonas Prim was too busy and too worried to pay any attention to the Tribune or its editor. He already had the best operative that the best detective agency in the nearest metropolis could furnish. The man had come to Oakdale, learned all that was to be learned there, and forthwith departed.
This, then, will be about all concerning Oakdale for the present. We must leave her to bury her own dead.