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   Chapter 1 THE EMPTY HOUSE

The Camp Fire Girls Solve a Mystery; Or, The Christmas Adventure at Carver House By Hildegard G. Frey Characters: 16053

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Katherine Adams stepped from the train at Oakwood, glanced expectantly up and down the station platform, hesitated a moment, and then, picking out a conspicuous spot under a glaring arc light, deposited her suitcase on the ground with a thump, mounted guard beside it and patiently waited for Nyoda to find her in the surging crowd.

It was two days before Christmas, and travel was heavy. It seemed as though the entire population of Oakland was either coming home, departing, or rushing madly up and down before the panting train in search of friends and relatives. Katherine was engulfed in a tidal wave of rapturous greetings that rolled over her from every side, as a coachful of soldiers, home for Christmas, were met and surrounded by the waiting lines of townspeople.

Katherine stood still, absorbed in watching the various reunions taking place around her, while the tidal wave gradually subsided, receding in the direction of Main Street. The principal stream had already flowed past her and the crowd was rapidly thinning out when Katherine woke to the realization that she was still unclaimed. There was no sign of Nyoda. The expectant smile faded from Katherine's face and in its place there came a look of puzzled wonder. What had happened? Why wasn't Nyoda there to meet her? Was there some mistake? Wasn't this Oakwood? Had she gotten off at the wrong station, she thought in sudden panic. No, there was the sign beside the door of the green boarded station; its gilded letters gleamed down reassuringly at her. Katherine stood on one foot and pondered. Was this the day she was supposed to come? What day was it, anyway? The thick pad calendar beside the ticket seller's window inside the station proclaimed it to be the twenty-third. All right so far; she hadn't mixed up the date, then. She had written Nyoda that she would come on the twenty-third, on the five-forty-five train. The train had been on time. Where was Nyoda?

Katherine was assailed by a sudden doubt. Had she mailed that letter? Yes, she was certain of that. She had run out to the mail box at ten o'clock at night especially to mail it. What had gone wrong? Why wasn't there someone to meet her?

She looked around at the walls as if expecting them to answer, and her roving eye caught sight of the lettering on a glass door opposite. The telephone! Goose! Why hadn't she thought of that before? Of course there was some mistake responsible for Nyoda's not meeting her, but in a moment that would be all straightened out.

She sprang across to the booth and picked up the directory hanging beside the telephone. Then a queer, bewildered look came into her eyes and she stood still with the book hanging uncertainly from her fingers. She had forgotten Nyoda's name! She twisted her brows into a pucker and made a frantic effort to recall it. No use; it was a fruitless endeavor. Where that name used to be in her mind there was now a blank space, empty and echoless as the original void. It was too ridiculous! Katherine gave a little stamp of vexation. It was not the first time a name had popped out of her mind at a critical moment. And sometimes-O horror! it didn't come back again for days. Was there ever anything so utterly absurd as the plight in which she now found herself? She knew Nyoda's name as well as her own. M. M. It certainly began with an M.

After nearly an hour's exasperated wracking of her brains she gave it up in disgust and stalked out of the station. Not for worlds would she have confided to anyone her plight.

"People will think you're an escaped lunatic," she told herself in terrified wrath. "They might put you in an asylum, and it would serve you right if they did. You aren't fit to be out without a guardian. After this you'll have to have your destination written out on a label tied to your ankle, like a trunk."

She had one recollection to guide her. The house Nyoda lived in stood on top of a hill. The name of Carver House and the address on Oak Street had faded along with Nyoda's name. "I'll walk until I come to a house on the top of a hill," she decided, "and find it that way. There can't be many houses on hills in this town, it seems to be all in a valley. Come along, Katherine, what you haven't got in your head you'll have to have in your heels."

No one, seeing the tall, clever looking girl stepping briskly out of the station and turning up Main Street with a businesslike tread, would have guessed that she was a stranger in a strange town and hadn't any idea where she was going. There was such an air of confidence and capability about Katherine that people would have been more likely to ask her to help them out of their difficulties than to suspect that she needed help herself.

Certainly, Nyoda's house wouldn't be hard to find. Oakwood lay in a valley, curled up among its sheltering hills like a kitten in a heap of leaves. To be on a hill Nyoda must be on the outskirts of the town. She inquired of a passing youngster what part of Oakwood was on a hill and got the information that Main Street ran up hill at the end.

She set out blithely in the direction he pointed, enjoying the walk through the crisp, icy air. A light fall of snow, white as swan's down, covered the ground and the roofs, and sparkled in the light of the street lamps in myriads of tiny twinkles. Not many people were abroad, for it was the supper hour in Oakland. A Christmas stillness hovered over the peaceful little town, as though it lay hushed and breathless in anticipation of the coming of the Holy Babe. Low in the eastern sky burned the brilliant evening star, bright as that other Star in the East which guided the shepherds on that far-off Christmas night. Katherine felt the spell of it and gradually her hasty steps became slower and at times she stood still and looked upon the quiet scene with a feeling of awe and reverence. "Why, it might be Bethlehem!" she said to herself. "It's so still and white, and there's the star in the east, too!" Almost unconsciously she began to repeat under her breath:

"O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie,

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by."

"Only it isn't quite true about the deep and dreamless sleep," she qualified, her literal-mindedness getting the upper hand of her poetic feeling, "because they're all inside eating supper." The thought of supper made Katherine suddenly realize that she was ravenously hungry. She had had nothing to eat since an early lunch on the train. "I hope I get there before supper's over," she thought, and quickened her pace again. Not that she wouldn't get something anyhow, she reflected, but somehow the idea of coming in just as supper was ready, and sitting down to a table covered with steaming dishes seized her fancy and warmed her through with a pleasant glow of expectation.

"Nearly there!" she said to herself cheerfully. "Here's where Main Street starts to go uphill." The houses had gradually become farther and farther apart as she went on, until now she was walking along between wide, open spaces, gleaming white in the starlight, with only an occasional low cottage to break the landscape. The walk was steeply uphill now, and looking back Katherine saw Oakwood curled in its sheltering valley, and again she thought of a sleek, well fed kitten lying warm and comfortable and drowsy, at peace with all the world.

"There aren't any poor people here, I guess," she thought to herself. "All the houses look so prosperous. There probably aren't any hungry children crying for bread. I'm the only hungry person in this whole town, I believe. My, but I am hungry! I could eat a whole house right now, and a barn for dessert! Thank goodness, there's the top of the hill in sight, and that must be Nyoda's house." A great dark bulk towered before her at the top of the steep incline, its irregular outlines standing sharply defined against the luminous sky. Katherine charged up the remainder of the hill at top speed, sl

ipping and falling in the icy path several times in her eagerness, but finally landing intact, though flushed and panting, upon its slippery summit, and stood still to behold this wonderful house that Nyoda lived in, whose charms had been the theme of many an enthusiastic letter from the Winnebagos during the previous summer. It loomed large and silent before her, its frost covered window panes shining whitely in the starlight with a faint, ghostly glimmer. No gleam of light came from any of the doors or windows. The house was still and dark as a tomb. Katherine stood wide-eyed with disappointment and perplexity. Nyoda was not at home.

She clutched at a straw. Nyoda had gone to meet her and missed her; that was it. But at the same time she felt a doubt rising in her mind which rapidly grew into a certainty. This was not Nyoda's house before which she stood on this lonely hilltop. It was some other house and it was absolutely empty. Not only was it untenanted, but it had the look of a house that has stood so for years. Even the soft, sparkling mantle of snow that lay upon it could not hide the sagging porch, the broken steps, the broken-down fence, the general air of decay which surrounded the place.

Katherine emitted a cluck of chagrin. She was puffing like an engine from her dash up the hill, she was tired out, she was ravenously hungry, she was unutterably cross at herself. She scowled at the dark house with its spectral, frosty windows, and made another frantic effort to recall Nyoda's name, only to be confronted with that baffling blank where the name once had been.

With a growing feeling of helplessness she stood on one foot in the snow in the pose which she always assumed when thinking deeply, and considered what she should do next. Should she keep on walking and climbing all the hills until she finally came to the right one; should she go all the way back to the station and sit there until the name came back to her, or should she walk boldly up to one of the hospitable looking doors she had passed, confide her plight and ask to be taken in for the night? Katherine was trying to decide between the first two, leaving the third as the extreme alternative in case she neither found the right hill nor succeeded in remembering Nyoda's name before bedtime, when suddenly something occurred which sent a chill of ice into her blood and left her standing petrified in her one-legged pose, like a frozen stork. From the dark and empty house before her came the sound of a song, ringing clear and distinct through the frosty air. It was the voice of a woman, or a girl. Beginning softly, the tone swelled out in volume till it seemed to Katherine's ears to fill the whole house and to come pouring out of all the doors and windows. Then it subsided until it came very faintly, like the merest ghost of a song. Katherine felt the hair rising on her head; she gave an odd little dry gasp. Wild terror assailed her and she would have fled, but fear chained her limbs and she could not move hand or foot. She stood riveted to the spot, staring fascinated at the dark, untenanted house, which stared back at her with frost veiled, inscrutable eyes; and all the while from somewhere in its mysterious depths came the voice, now louder, now fainter, but always distinctly heard.

A sudden thought struck Katherine. Was she already a victim of starvation, and was this the delirium which starving people went into? They generally heard beautiful voices singing. No, that wasn't possible-she couldn't be starving yet. She was tremendously hungry, but there was still a fairly safe margin between her and the last stages. Somehow the thought of hunger, and the idea of food, commonplace, familiar victuals which it connoted, dissipated the supernatural atmosphere of the place, and Katherine shook off her terror. The blood stopped pounding in her ears; her heart began to beat naturally again; her limbs lost their paralysis.

"Goose!" she said to herself scornfully. "Flying into a panic at the sound of a voice singing and thinking it's ghosts! I'm ashamed of you, Katherine Adams! Where's your 'spicuity? Vacant houses don't sing by themselves. When empty houses start singing they aren't empty. Besides, no ghost could sing like that. A voice like that means lungs, and ghosts don't have lungs. Anybody that's got breath to sing can probably talk and tell me where the next hill is. I'm going up and ask her."

She passed through an opening in the tumble-down fence, in which there was no longer any gate, and went up the uneven, irregular brick walk and up the broken steps, treading carefully upon each one and half expecting them to go down under her weight. They creaked and trembled, but they held her and she went on over the sagging porch to the door, which lay in deep shadow at the one side. She felt about for a bell or knocker, and then she discovered that the door stood open. She could hear the voice plainly, singing somewhere in the house. Failing to find a doorbell she rapped loudly with her knuckles on the door casing. To her nervous ears the sound seemed to echo inside the house like thunder, but there was no pause in the singing, no sound of footsteps coming to the door.

She rapped again. Still no sign from within. A sportive north wind, racing up the hill, paused at the top to whirl about in a mad frolic, and Katherine shivered from head to foot. She felt chilled through, and fairly ached to get inside a house; anywhere to be in out of the cold. She rapped a third time. Still the voice sang on as before, paying no heed to the knock. Katherine grew desperate. Her teeth were chattering in her head and her feet were going numb.

"Of course she can't hear me knock when she's singing," thought Katherine. "The sound of her own voice fills her ears. I'm going in and find her. I'll apologize for walking in on her so unceremoniously, but it's the only thing to do. I've got to get in out of the cold pretty soon."

Acting upon her resolution she stepped through the open door into the hall inside and tried to fix the direction from which the voice was coming. She looked in vain for a glimmer of light under a door to guide her to the mysterious dweller in this strange establishment. The house was apparently as dark on the inside as it looked from without. Katherine opened her handbag and fumbled for her electric flash. In a moment a tiny circle of light was boring valiantly into the gloom. By its gleam Katherine saw that she stood in a long hall. Upon her left was a succession of doors, all closed; upon her right a staircase curved upward into the blackness above. Idly she turned her flashlight on the staircase and noticed that the post was of beautifully carved mahogany. The polish was gone, but it must have been handsome once, must have been-Katherine gave a great start and nearly dropped her flashlight. Her eyes, traveling up the mahogany stair rail, encountered those of a man who was leaning over the banister half way up. His face, in the light of her flash, was white as a sheet, and he seemed to be staring not so much at her as at the door behind her, through which she at that moment discovered the voice to be proceeding.

Katherine recovered from her surprise and remembered her manners. This man must live here. She must explain quickly, or he would take her for a burglar, coming in that way and looking around with a flashlight. Katherine suddenly felt apprehensive. Suppose he wouldn't believe her story? It was one thing to go into a house in search of a voice that wouldn't come to the door; it was another thing to find a man inside.

She cleared her throat and wet her lips. "Excuse me for coming in like this-" she began. She got no farther with her apologies. At the sound of her voice the man gave a startled jump, backed away from the banister, ran down the stairs two steps at a time and disappeared through the front door, leaving Katherine standing in the empty hall, open-mouthed with astonishment.

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