When Stoddard did not come to his desk that morning the matter remained for a time unnoticed, except by McPherson, who fretted a bit at so unusual a happening. Truth to tell, the old Scotchman had dreaded having this rich young man for an associate, and had put a rod in pickle for his chastisement. When Stoddard turned out to be a regular worker, punctual, amenable to discipline, he congratulated himself, and praised his assistant, but warily. Now came the first delinquency, and in his heart he cared more that Stoddard should absent himself without notice than for the pile of letters lying untouched.
"Dave," he finally said to the yellow office boy, "I wish you'd 'phone to Mr. Stoddard's place and see when he'll be down."
Dave came back with the information that Mr. Stoddard was not at the house; he had left for an early-morning ride, and not returned to his breakfast.
"He'll just about have stopped up at the Country Club for a snack," MacPherson muttered to himself. "I wonder who or what he found there attractive enough to keep him from his work."
Looking into Gray's office at noon, the closed desk with its pile of mail once more offended MacPherson's eye.
"Mr. Stoddard here?" inquired Hartley Sessions, glancing in at the same moment.
"No, I think not," returned the Scotchman, unwilling to admit that he did not exactly know. "I believe he's up at the club. Perhaps he's got tangled in for a longer game of golf than he reckoned on."
This unintentional and wholly innocent falsehood stopped any inquiry that there might have been. MacPherson had meant to 'phone the club during the day, but he failed to do so, and it was not until evening that he walked up himself to put more cautious inquiries.
"No, sah--no, sah, Mr. Gray ain't been here," the Negro steward told him promptly. "I sure would have remembered, sah," in answer to a startled inquiry from MacPherson. "Dey been havin' a big game on between Mr. Charley Conroy and Mr. Hardwick, and de bofe of 'em spoke of Mr. Gray, and said dey was expectin' him to play."
MacPherson came down the stone steps of the clubhouse, gravely disquieted. Below him the road wound, a dimly conjectured, wavering gray ribbon; on the other side of it the steep slope took off to a gulf of inky shadow, where the great valley lay, hushed under the solemn stars, silent, black, and shimmering with a myriad pulsating electric lights which glowed like swarms of fireflies caught in an invisible net. That was Watauga. The strings of brilliants that led from it were arc lights at switch crossings where the great railway lines rayed out. Near at hand was Cottonville with its vast bulks of lighted mills whose hum came faintly up to him even at this distance. MacPherson stood uncertainly in the middle of the road. Supper and bed were behind him. But he had not the heart to turn back to either. Somewhere down in that abyss of night, there was a clue--or there were many clues--to this strange absence of Gray Stoddard. Perhaps Gray himself was there; and the Scotchman cursed his own dilatoriness in waiting till darkness had covered the earth before setting afoot inquiries.
He found himself hurrying and getting out of breath as he took his way down the ridge and straight to Stoddard's cottage, only to find that the master's horse was not in the stable, and the Negro boy who cared for it had seen nothing of it or its rider since five o'clock that morning.
"I wonder, now, should I give the alarm to Hardwick," MacPherson said to himself. "The lad may have just ridden on to La Fayette, or some little nearby town, and be staying the night. Young fellows sometimes have affairs they'd rather not share with everybody--and then, there's Miss Lydia. If I go up to Hardwick's with the story, she'll be sure to hear it from Hardwick's wife."
"Did Mr. Stoddard ever go away like this before without giving you notice?" he asked with apparent carelessness.
The boy shook his head in vigorous negative.
"Never since I've been working for him," he asserted. "Mr. Stoddard wasn't starting anywhere but for his early ride--at least he wasn't intending to. He hadn't any hat on, and he was in his riding clothes. He didn't carry anything with him. I know in reason he wasn't intending to stay."
This information sent MacPherson hurrying to the Hardwick home. Dinner was over. The master of the house conferred with him a moment in the vestibule, then opened the door into the little sitting room and asked abruptly:
"When was the last time any of you saw Gray Stoddard?"
His sister-in-law screamed faintly, then cowered in her chair and stared at him mutely. But Mrs. Hardwick as yet noted nothing unusual.
"Yesterday evening," she returned placidly. "Don't you remember, Jerome, he was here at the Lyric reception?"
"Oh, I remember well enough," said Hardwick knitting his brows. "I thought some of you might have seen him since then. He's missing."
"Missing!" echoed Lydia Sessions with a note of terror in her tones.
Now Mrs. Hardwick looked startled.
"But, Jerome, I think you're inconsiderate," she began, glancing solicitously at her sister. "Under the circumstances, it seems to me you might have made your announcement more gently--to Lydia, anyhow. Never mind, dearie--there's nothing in it to be frightened at."
"I'm not frightened," whispered Lydia Sessions through white lips that belied her assertion. Hardwick looked impatiently from his sister-in-law to his wife.
"I'm sorry if I startled you, Lydia," he said in a perfunctory tone, "but this is a serious business. MacPherson tells me Stoddard hasn't been at the factory nor at his boarding-house to-day. The last person who saw him, so far as we know, is his stable boy. Black Jim says Stoddard rode out of the gate at five o'clock this morning, bareheaded and in his riding clothes. Have any of you seen him since--that's what I want to know?"
"Since?" repeated Miss Sessions, who seemed unable to get beyond the parrot echoing of her questioner's words. "Why Jerome, what makes you think I've seen him since then? Did he say--did anybody tell you--"
She broke off huskily and sat staring at her interlaced fingers dropped in her lap.
"No--no. Of course not, Lydia," her sister hastened to reassure her, crossing the room and putting a protecting arm about the girl's shoulders. "He shouldn't have spoken as he did, knowing that you and Gray--knowing how affairs stand."
"Well, I only thought since you and Stoddard are such great friends," Hardwick persisted, "he might have mentioned to you some excursion, or made opportunity to talk with you alone, sometime last night--to--to say something. Did he tell you where he was going, Lydia? Are you keeping something from us that we ought to know? Remember this is no child's play. It begins to look as though it might be a question of the man's life."
Lydia Sessions started galvanically. She pushed off her sister's caressing hand with a fierce gesture.
"There's nothing--no such relation as you're hinting at, Elizabeth, between Gray Stoddard and me," she said sharply. Memory of what Gray had (as she supposed) followed her into the library to say to her wrung a sort of groan from the girl. "I suppose Matilda's told you that we had--had some conversation in the library," she managed to say.
Her brother-in-law shook his head.
"We haven't questioned the servants yet," he said briefly. "We haven't questioned anybody nor hunted up any evidence. MacPherson came direct to me from Stoddard's stable boy. Gray did stop and talk to you last night? What did he say?"
"I--why nothing in--I really don't remember," faltered Lydia, with so strange a look that both her sister and Hardwick looked at her in surprise. "That is--oh, nothing of any importance, you know. I--I believe we were talking about socialism, and--and different classes of people.... That sort of thing."
MacPherson, who had pushed unceremoniously into the room behind his employer, nodded his gray head. "That would always be what he was speaking of." He smiled a little as he said it.
"All right," returned Hardwick, struggling into his overcoat at the hat-tree, and seeking his hat and stick, "I'll go right back with you, Mac. This thing somehow has a sinister look to me."
As the two men were leaving the house, Hardwick felt a light, trembling touch on his arm, and turned to face his sister-in-law.
"Why--Jerome, why did you say that last?" Lydia quavered. "What do you think has happened to him? Do you think anybody--that is--? Oh, you looked at me as though you thought I had something to do with it!"
"Come, come, Lyd. Pull yourself together. You're getting hysterical," urged Hardwick kindly. Then he turned to MacPherson. As the two men went companionably down the walk and out into the street, the Scotchman said apologetically:
"Of course, I knew Miss Lydia would be alarmed. I understand about her and Stoddard. It made me hesitate a while before coming up to you folks with the thing."
"Well, by the Lord, you did well not to hesitate too long, Mac!" ejaculated Hardwick. "I shouldn't feel the anxiety I do if we hadn't been having trouble with those mountain people up toward Flat Rock over that girl that died at the hospital." He laughed a little ruefully. "Trying to do things for folks is ticklish business. There wasn't a man in the crowd that interviewed me whom I could convince that our hospital wasn't a factory for the making of stiffs which we sold to the Northern Medical College. Oh, it was gruesome!
"I told them the girl had had every attention, and that she died of pernicious anaemia. They called it 'a big dic word' and asked me point blank if the girl hadn't been killed in the mill. I told them that we couldn't keep the body indefinitely, and they said they 'aimed to come and haul it away as soon as they could get a horse and wagon.' I called their attention to the fact that I couldn't know this unless they wrote and told me so in answer to my letter. But between you and me, Mac, I don't believe there was a man in the crowd who could read or write."
"For God's sake!" exclaimed the Scotchman. "You don't think those people were up to doing a mischief to Stoddard, do you?"
"I don't know what to think," protested Hardwick. "Yes; they are mediaeval--half savage. The fact is, I have no idea what they would or what they wouldn't do."
MacPherson gave a whistle of dismay.
"Gad, it sounds like the manoeuvres of one of our Highland clans three hundred years ago!" he said. "Wouldn't it be the irony of fate that Stoddard--poor fellow!--a friend of the people, a socialist, ready to call every man his brother--should be sacrificed in such a way?"
The words brought them to Stoddard's little home, silent and deserted now. Down the street, the lamps flared gustily. It was after eleven o'clock.
"Where does that boy live that takes care of the horses--black Jim?" Hardwick inquired, after they had rung the bell, thumped on the door, and called, to make sure the master had not returned during MacPherson's absence.
"I don't know--really, I don't know. He might have a room over the stable," MacPherson suggested.
But the stable proved to be a one-story affair, and they were just turning to leave when a stamping sound within arrested their notice.
"Good God!--what's that?" ejaculated MacPherson, whose nerves were quivering.
"It's the horse," answered Hardwick in a relieved tone. "Stoddard's got back--"
"Of course," broke in old MacPherson, quickly, "and gone over to Mrs. Gandish's for some supper. That is why he wasn't in the house."
To make assurance doubly sure, they opened the unlocked stable door, and MacPherson struck a match. The roan turned and whinnied hungrily at sight of them.
"That's funny," said Hardwick, scarcely above his breath. "It looks to me as though that animal hadn't been fed."
In the flare of the match MacPherson had descried the stable lantern hanging on the wall. They lit this and examined the stall. There was no feed in the box, no hay in the manger. The saddle was on Gray Stoddard's horse; the bit in his mouth; he was tied by the reins to his stall ring. The two men looked at each other with lengthening faces.
"Stoddard's too good a horseman to have done that," spoke Hardwick slowly.
"And too kind a man," supplied MacPherson loyally. "He'd have seen to the beast's hunger before he satisfied his own."
As the Scotchman spoke he was picking up the horse's hoofs, and digging at them with a bit of stick.
"They're as clean as if they'd just been washed," he said, as he straightened up. "By Heaven! I have it, Hardwick--that fellow came into town with his hoofs muffled."
The younger man looked also, and assented mutely, then suggested:
"He hasn't come far; there's not a hair turned on him."
The Scotchman shook his head. "I'm not sure of that," he debated. "Likely he's been led, and that slowly. God--this is horrible!"
Mechanically Hardwick got some hay down for the horse, while MacPherson pulled off the saddle and bridle, examining both in the process. Grain was poured into the box, and then water offered.
"He won't drink," murmured the Scotchman. "D'ye see, Hardwick? He won't drink. You can't come into Cottonville without crossing a stream. This fellow's hoofs have been wet within an hour--yes, within the half-hour."
As their eyes encountered, Hardwick caught his breath sharply; both felt that chill of the cuticle, that stirring at the roots of the hair, that marks the passing close to us of some sinister thing--stark murder, or man's naked hatred walking in the dark beside our cheerful, commonplace path. By one consent they turned back from the stable and went together to Mrs. Gandish's. The house was dark.
"Of course, you know I don't expect to find him here," said Hardwick. "I don't suppose they know anything about the matter. But we've got to wake them and ask."
They did so, and set trembling the first wave of that widening ring of horror which finally informed the remotest boundaries of the little village that a man from their midst was mysteriously missing.
The morning found the telegraph in active requisition, flashing up and down all lines by which a man might have left Cottonville or Watauga. The police of the latter place were notified, furnished with information, and set to find out if possible whether anybody in the city had seen Stoddard since he rode away on Friday morning.
The inquiries were fruitless. A young lady visiting in the city had promised him a dance at the Valentine masque to be held at the Country Club-house Friday night. Some clothing put out a few days before to be cleaned and pressed was ready for delivery. His laundry came home. His mail arrived punctually. The postmaster stated that he had no instructions for a change of address; all the little accessories of Gray Stoddard's life offered themselves, mute, impressive witnesses that he had intended to go on with it in Cottonville. But Stoddard himself had dropped as completely out of the knowledge of man as though he had been whisked off the planet.