“Good!” Mr. Brown ejaculated. “What a chump I am! I have been conscious of that smell all this time and had not associated it with the houseboat.”
Mr. Brown put his nose down to his prisoner’s hands. Then he inhaled the scent of his coat. Tom Curtis followed suit. The odor was unmistakable. The lad was well smeared with oil. The circumstantial evidence was strong against the captured boy when Mr. Brown related the discovery of the overturned can and the spread of the kerosene on the houseboat deck.
“I am awfully sorry to have made this scene, Mrs. Curtis,” apologized the young artist, “but I knew no other way for us to settle the matter at once. This young man has done too much mischief to our friends to be allowed to go free again. But you need not think further of the experience, I’ll take the lad and give him up to the police to-night. Your son and I will be able to identify him. It will not be necessary to draw you girls into the business. We can manage without you.”
Mrs. Curtis looked exceedingly uncomfortable. She had been bitterly angry at the way the lad had served Tom and Madge, and at that time she would have given a great deal to have had him properly punished. Since then he had added one evil deed to the other. But the boy, who was being led away to prison, seemed so young, not much older than Tom. He was wild and reckless in his appearance, yet he had the aspect of having been born of gentle people.
The youth had not spoken since the discovery of the oil on his hands and clothes. Now, as he was being led from the sitting room, he turned on his cross-questioners and shook with swift laughter. He threw back his head, so that his long, dark hair uncovered his ears. His eyes gleamed.
Madge, who was staring hard at the boy from her position on the far side of the room, gave an unexpected movement of surprise. She waited for the young prisoner to speak.
“You needn’t trouble your girls to appear against me,” he said savagely, “but you will have to introduce their chaperon in court, and a pretty thing it will be for a sister to appear as a witness against her own brother!”
A frozen silence fell on the group of listeners. Phil shook her head emphatically. “You are not our Miss Jenny Ann’s brother,” she retorted decidedly. “It would be perfectly impossible for her to have a wicked brother like you.”
Theodore Brown’s face flushed and paled. He would have liked to drag the lad out of the room without waiting another instant. Yet he feared to make the scene even worse. He did not have the slightest faith in the lad’s statement; he was only fiercely angry at the boy’s impudence and wondered if the fellow even knew the name of the chaperon of the “Merry Maid.”
Lillian and Eleanor were flushed with indignation. Tom Curtis was equally so. But Mrs. Curtis happened to catch a glimpse of Madge’s face. Her expression was a puzzle. She ran forward and touched Mr. Brown on the sleeve. “Wait a minute, Mr. Brown,” she pleaded. “Don’t take the boy to jail yet. What he says may be true. Don’t you think we ought to ask him some questions first?”