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   Chapter 6 A STORE IN CHICAGO

Whispers at Dawn; Or, The Eye By Roy J. Snell Characters: 10407

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


A slender mite of a girl, barely past her eighteenth birthday, Grace Krowl was possessed of an indomitable spirit and a will of her own; else she would not have been walking down Maxwell Street in Chicago hundreds of miles from her home, in Kansas.

The look in her eyes as she marched down that street where all manner of junk and rags are mingled with much that, after all, is pleasant and desirable, was one of utter surprise.

"A store," she murmured, more than once, "a store in Chicago. And Maxwell Street. I am sure I can't be wrong. And yet-"

Arrived at the street number written on a slip of paper in her hand, she stood staring at the narrow, two-story building with its blank windows and unpainted walls for a full moment. Then, a spirit of desperation seizing her, she sprang up the low steps, grasped the doorknob, then stepped resolutely inside.

Once inside, she stood quite still. Never in any place had she witnessed such confusion. What place could this be? Her mind was in a whirl. Then, like a flash, her eyes fell upon an object that threw her into action. With a startled cry, she sprang at a group of women.

She snatched a tortoise shell comb from a huge black woman's hand just as she was about to try it in her kinky hair. She dragged a pink kimono from beneath a tall, slim woman's arm and, diving all but headforemost, gathered in a whole armful of garments that an astonished little lady had been hugging tight.

By this time the battle turned. She found herself at the center of a concerted attack. The black woman banged at her with a picture frame, the tall, thin one jabbed her with sharp elbows and the little lady made a grab at her hair.

"Ladies! Ladies!" came in a protesting man's voice. "Why must you fight in my store?"

"Fight? Who wants to fight!" the tall woman screamed. "Here we are peaceful folks looking over the goods in your store, and here comes this one!" She pointed an accusing finger at Grace. "She comes in grabbing and snatching, that's what she does!"

"Store! Goods!" Grace's head was in a whirl. How could they call this a store? It was a place where people robbed strangers,-stole their trunks and rifled them. Surely there could be no mistaking that. Were not the trunks open there before her, a half dozen or more of them? And was not her own modest steamer trunk among them? Had she not caught them going through her trunk? Were not the articles in her arms, the tortoise shell comb, the kimono and those other garments her very own? Goods? Store? What could it all mean? Her head was dizzy.

"A store," she whispered to herself, "my uncle's store in Chicago. He gave me this address. He must be in the business of stealing trunks and selling their contents!" She felt, of a sudden, all hollow inside, and dropping like an empty sack, half sat upon a partially emptied trunk.

"Miss! Why do you do this?" The bearded man who now spoke was almost apologetic in his approach. "Why do you do this in my store? Many years I, Nicholas Fischer, have sold goods here and never before have I seen such as this!"

"Nich-Nicholas Fischer!" The girl's eyes widened. "Then you are Nicholas Fischer. And this is your store? STORE!" she fairly screamed.

She wanted to rise and flee, but she was half stuck in the trunk and her wobbly legs would not lift her out, so she said shakily:

"I did it be-because that's my trunk. I-I am Grace Krowl, your niece who came from Camden Center, Kansas, to help you keep your store. But I won't, I won't stay a moment. I'll never, never, never help a thief!"

"You?" The bearded man's face was a study. Surprise, mortification registered themselves on his face. "Grace Krowl, my niece," he murmured. "Her trunk! It is her trunk! A thief it is she says I am-I, Nicholas Fischer, who never stole a penny! Tell me, what is all this?" He stared from face to face as if expecting an answer. But no answer came.

And then a slow smile overspread his face. "Now I begin to understand," he murmured. "It is all a mistake, a terrible mistake!

"Ladies," he said, turning pleading eyes on the group of customers, "will you please put back into that little trunk everything you have taken out? And if any have paid for a thing, I will repay. It is my niece's trunk. It is one terrible mistake." He began rocking backwards and forwards like one in great pain.

"A thief, she said," he murmured. "But who would not have thought it?" His eyes took in the half-empty trunks all about him, then he murmured again, "Who would not have thought it?"

Four hours later, just after darkness had fallen, this same girl, Grace Krowl, found herself walking the most unusual street in America, Maxwell Street in Chicago. She found it interesting, amusing, sometimes a little startling, and always unspeakably sad, this place where a strange sort of bedlam reigns.

Here, as she passed along, fat Jewish women held up flimsy silk stockings to her view, screaming, "Buy, Miss, buy now! The price goes up! Cheap! Cheap!" Here a man seized her rudely by the shoulder, turned her half around and all but shoved her into a narrow shop, where gaudy dresses were displayed. This made her angry. She wanted to

fight.

"I fight?" She laughed softly to herself. "I, who have always lived in Camden Center! A sort of madness comes over one in such a place as this, I guess." Recalling her fight earlier in the day, her cheeks crimsoned, and she hurried on.

"What a jumble!" she exclaimed aloud as she turned her attention once more to Maxwell Street. "Shoes, scissors, radios, geese, cabbages, rags and more rags, rusty hardware, musical instruments. Where does it all come from, and who will buy it?"

She paused to look at a crate of cute white puppies with pink noses. They, too, were for sale. Then, of a sudden, her face clouded.

"Can I do it?" she muttered. "Can I? I-I must! But other people's things? So often the little treasures they prized! How can I?"

That she might remove her thoughts from a painful subject, she forced her eyes to take in her present surroundings. Then, with a little cry, she sprang forward. "Books! 'Everything in books.'" She read the sign aloud. She disappeared through a dingy door into a room which was brightly lighted. The lights and the face that greeted her changed all. The madly fantastic world was, for the moment, quite shut out. She was at home with many books and with a girl whose face shone, she told herself, "like the sun."

"A book?" this sales girl smiled. "Something entertaining? A novel, perhaps. Oh no, I don't think you'd like 'Portrait of a Man with Red Hair.' It's really rather terrible. One of the chief characters is a mad man who loves torturing people." The girl shuddered.

"But this now-" She took up a well-thumbed volume. "'A Lantern in Her Hand.' It is truly lovely-the story of brave and simple people. I'm afraid we're neither very brave nor very simple these days. Do you feel that we are?"

"She really is able to think clearly," Grace whispered to herself. "I am sure I am going to like her."

"I'll take one, that one," she said putting out her hand for the book. And then, because she was alone in a great city, because she was bursting to confide in someone, she said, "He buys trunks, trunks full of other people's things. He takes the things out and sells them, other people's things. They packed them away with such care, and now-now he takes them out, throws them about and sells them!"

"Who does?" The girl's eyes opened wide.

"My uncle, Nicholas Fischer."

"Oh, Nicholas Fischer." The girl's voice dropped. "But he is the kindest man! Comes here with books. He sells them to Mr. Morrow who owns this store-secondhand books. Perhaps they come from the trunks. And Mr. Morrow says he helps poor people, your uncle does, and he doesn't let anyone know who it is."

"But he buys trunks, other people's trunks, and sells them!" Grace insisted.

"Yes, buys them at auction, I guess. Several people on this street do that. Express auctions, railway auctions, storage house auctions and all that. And you are to help him open them up!" she exclaimed quite suddenly. "You are to explore them? How I envy you!"

"Envy?" Grace stared in unbelief.

"But why not? Think of the things you may find. Diamonds perhaps; stocks and bonds; rare old coins and rarer old books; ancient silver plate. Just think of the things people pack away in their trunks! Letters; diaries; quaint old pictures. It-why it's like a trip around the world!"

"But it-it seems so unfair," Grace wavered.

"You're not the one that's being unfair," the bright-eyed one reasoned. "Those people can't have their things in those trunks. Perhaps they are dead. In some cases they lost their trunks because they were too poor to pay storage or express charges. You can't well help that. So why think about it?"

Grace Krowl was to think about it many times and in the end to do something about it. That something was to draw her into a great deal of trouble. For the moment she left the little secondhand bookshop soothed, comforted, and filled with a desire to call again.

"No doubt you think Maxwell Street a terrible place," the smiling girl said as she walked with her to the door, "and that your uncle's store is the worst on the street. But I could tell you-" A shadow fell across her face. "I could tell you things about grand stores on a very grand street in this city of ours. Per-perhaps I will sometime."

Grace was startled as she looked into her face. It had suddenly become gray and old.

"How strange," she murmured as, dodging a pushcart laden with geese, she hurried away toward Nicholas Fischer's place on Maxwell Street. "How strange. And how-how sort of terrible. And yet-"

The words of a great man came to her. "No situation in life is ever so bad but that it might be worse."

* * * * * * * *

"What," you may be asking by this time, "have the adventures of a girl from Kansas to do with Johnny Thompson and his friends?" The answer is: "A great deal." In the first place, Drew Lane, having discovered this little lady while traveling in a bus, was not the sort to desert her in her plight. In the second place, an invisible finger of light moving across the sky was destined to join the fates of Johnny Thompson and Grace Krowl.

However, for the time, we will return to Johnny and his friends.

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