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   Chapter 3 FERNS AND MYSTERY

Billie Bradley on Lighthouse Island; Or, The Mystery of the Wreck By Janet D. Wheeler Characters: 8744

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Th-there's nothing to put against the door," stammered Billie nervously. "I might put out the light though." She started for the candle, but Laura put out a hand and stopped her.

"No," she said. "I'd rather see what's after us, anyway. I hate the dark."

The noise that Vi had heard was a slow measured step that sounded to the girls' overwrought nerves more like the stealthy creeping of an animal than the tread of a man. But whoever or whatever it was, it was coming steadily toward the hut-that much was certain.

The girls drew close together for protection and watched the little door wide-eyed.

"It sounds like a bear," whispered Vi hysterically.

"Silly," Laura hissed back at her. "Don't you know that bears don't grow in this part of the country?"

"But if it was a man," Vi argued, "he wouldn't be walking so slowly-not in this kind of weather."

"Hush," commanded Billie. "He's almost here."

"If it's the Codfish-" Vi was saying desperately, when the little door opened and she clapped her hand to her mouth, choking back the words.

Some one was coming through the door, some one who had to bend so much that for a startled moment the girls were not at all sure but what it was an animal, after all, and not a man that they had to reckon with.

Then the visitor stood up and they saw with real relief that it was a man after all. As a matter of fact, after the first startled minute it was the newcomer who seemed frightened and the girls who tried to make him feel at home.

At first sight of the girls the man staggered backward and came up with a thump against the wall of the hut. From there he regarded them with eyes that fairly bulged from his head.

"Hullo!" he muttered, "who are you?"

The girls stared for a moment, then Laura giggled. Who could be frightened when a person wanted to know who they were?

He was a queer looking man. He was tall, over six feet, and so thin that the skin seemed to be drawn over the bones. His shoulders slumped and his arms hung loosely, whether from weariness or discouragement or laziness, the girls found it impossible to tell.

But it was his eyes that they noticed even in that moment of excitement. They were big, much too big for his thin face, and so dark that they seemed deep-sunken. And the expression was something that the girls remembered long afterward. It was brooding, haunted, mysterious, with a little touch of wildness that frightened the girls. Yet his mouth was kind, very kind, and looking at it, the girls ceased to be afraid.

"Who are you?" the man repeated, and this time Billie found her voice.

"We-we got lost," she said hesitatingly, speaking more to the kind mouth of the man than to the strange, wild eyes. "It began to rain--"

"And we found this little place," Laura caught her up eagerly, "and came inside to keep from drowning to death."

"We hope you don't mind," Vi finished, with her pleading smile which sometimes won more than all Billie's and Laura's courage.

"Mind," the man repeated vaguely, passing a hand across his eyes as if to wake himself up. "Why should I mind? It isn't very often I have company."

The girls thought he spoke bitterly but the next minute he smiled at them.

"I'm sorry I can't ask you to sit down," he said, so embarrassed that Billie took pity on him.

"We don't want to sit down," she said, smiling at him. "We're too nervous. Do you suppose the rain will ever stop?"

The man shook out his clothing and sent a shower of spray all about him. He was soaking, drenching wet, and suddenly, looking at him, Billie had a dreadful thought.

Suppose the man was not quite right in his mind? She had a horror of crazy people. But what sane man would build himself a cabin in the woods like this in the first place, and then go roaming around in the rain without any protection?

A memory of the slow, measured steps they had heard approaching the cabin made her shudder, and instinctively she drew back a little and snuggled her hand into Laura's.

If he was not crazy he was probably a criminal of some sort, and neither thought made Billie feel very comfortable. Three girls alone in the woods with a crazy man or a criminal, with the darkness coming on--

Something of what she was thinking occurred to Laura and Vi also, and they were beginning to look rather pale and scared.

As for

the man-he hardly seemed to know what to do next. He took off his dripping coat, threw it in a heap in one corner and turned back uncertainly to the girls.

"No, I don't think it will stop raining for some time," he said, seeming to realize that Billie had asked a question which he had not answered. "And it is getting pretty dark outside. You say you are lost?"

"Yes," said Billie, wishing she had not told the man that part of their troubles; but then, what else could she do? "We were sent into the woods to find rare ferns--"

"Ferns!" broke in the man, his deep eyes lighting up with sudden interest. "Ah, I could show you where the rarest and most beautiful ferns in the country grow."

"You could!" they cried, growing interested in their turn and coming closer to him.

"Are you-a-naturalist?" asked Vi a little uncertainly, for she knew just enough about naturalists to be sure she was not one.

"I guess you might call me that," said the man. "I've had plenty of time to become one."

Again the girls had that strange feeling of mystery surrounding the man. He walked over to the other end of the room and before the girls' amazed eyes took out what they had thought to be part of the table.

It was a very cleverly hidden receptacle, and as the girls looked down into it they saw that it was half filled with curious little fern baskets.

"I make them," the man explained, as they looked up at him, puzzled. "And then I sell them in the town-sometimes."

His mouth tightened bitterly, and he hastily returned the baskets to their hiding place. Then he turned and faced them abruptly.

"Where do you come from?" he asked almost sharply.

"We come from Three Towers Hall," answered Billie.

"Three Towers!" The man looked very much interested. "Are you-er-teachers there or pupils?"

"Teachers! Hardly," and Billie had to smile. "We are not old enough for that. We are pupils."

"Do you like the place?'"

"Very much."

Again there was a pause, and it must be admitted that, for a reason they could not explain, the girls felt far from comfortable. Oh, if only they were back at the boarding school again!

"I don't know a great deal about the school," said the man slowly. "I suppose there are lots of girls there."

"Over a hundred," said Laura, thinking she should say something.

"And quite a few teachers, too?"

"Oh, yes."

Then the man asked quite a lot of other questions and the girls answered him as best they could. The man continued to look at them so queerly that Billie was convinced that there was something wrong with him. But what was it? Oh, if only the storm would let up, so they could start back to the school!

But even when the rain stopped, how could they get back? They were lost, and at night the way would be even harder to find than in the daytime.

No, they were completely in this man's power. If he put them on the right path to Three Towers all well and good. If not--But she refused to think of that.

"I'm sure it isn't raining hard any more," Laura broke in on her thoughts. "Don't you think we could go now?"

"Even if it hasn't stopped raining we don't mind," added Vi eagerly. "We're wet now, and we won't mind being a little bit wetter."

For an answer the man opened the door and crawled out into the open. In a moment he was back with what seemed to the girls the best news they had ever heard.

"The rain is over," he said, "but the foliage is still dripping. If you really don't mind getting wet--"

"Oh, we don't!" they cried, and were starting from the door when Vi suddenly remembered something.

"The ferns!" she cried. "Where are they?"

The girls searched frantically about, knowing that their botany teacher would reprimand them if they did not bring back the ferns, and finally found them on the floor where somebody had brushed them in the excitement.

Then they crept out through the door, their strange acquaintance lingering behind to put out the light, and found themselves in the cool darkness of the forest.

"Do you suppose he will really take us back?" Vi whispered, close to Billie's ear.

"He'd better!" said Billie, clenching her hands fiercely against her side. "If he doesn't I'll-I'll-murder him!"

"Goodness, don't talk of murder," cried Laura hysterically. "It's an awful word to use in the dark, and everything!"

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