MoboReader > Literature > The Camp Fire Girls Solve a Mystery; Or, The Christmas Adventure at Carver House


The Camp Fire Girls Solve a Mystery; Or, The Christmas Adventure at Carver House By Hildegard G. Frey Characters: 30291

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The curious spell of the "Fata Morgana" descended upon Katherine again as she emerged from the concert hall and made her way through a poorly lighted side street toward the main avenue where the street cars passed. The long, waving shadows seemed to clutch at her ankles as she walked; strange noises sounded in her ears; the trees that bordered the curb left their places and began to move toward her with a grotesque, circling motion, while the distant glare of light toward which she was traveling began to recede until it was a mere twinkling speck, miles away in the distance. Again her strength forsook her, and with violently trembling hands she grasped an iron fence railing and clung desperately to keep herself from falling. The touch of the cold metal sent a little shock tingling through her; she braced herself and looked steadily at the spectres crowding about her. The trees had gone back into their places; the shadows no longer seemed to be crouching ready to spring at her.

"Silly!" exclaimed Katherine, though her teeth still chattered.

She let go of the fence and started on; immediately the trees resumed their fantastic circling, and again her knees threatened to double under her. Then she realized that it was not the "Fata Morgana" that held her in thrall, but the extra lobster croquette. The disastrous fate which Mrs. Lehar had predicted would overtake Veronica had befallen her instead-she was in the throes of acute indigestion! O, if only she had not eaten that second croquette! Lobster never agreed with her; she should have known better than to eat it, especially after she had just eaten shrimp salad. Why hadn't she had the sense to refuse that second one? (Katherine was still unaware that she had eaten, not two, but three of the deadly things, a circumstance which had undoubtedly saved Veronica from a like fate.)

She clung dizzily to the fence for a few moments, and then, feeling somewhat relieved by the cold wind blowing strongly against her face, struck out once more for the carline. A few steps convinced her that she could not make it; the world was whirling around her, and her limbs refused to obey her will. A little farther up the street, where the fence ended, the arched entrance-way into a church offered a resting-place and shelter against the high wind and beating rain. Stumbling up the steps, she sank down on the stone floor, and, pressing her cold hand against her throbbing temples, leaned weakly against the wall of her little sanctuary.

Weariness overcame her and she sank gradually into a doze, from which she wakened with a start at the sound of a steeple clock chiming. Boom! Boom! Boom! The clanging tones echoed through the narrow street. Katherine sat up hastily and stared around her in bewilderment for a moment; then recollected herself and rose cautiously to her feet. To her infinite relief she found that her knees no longer had any inclination to knock together; the feeling of illness had passed. Taking a deep breath, and setting her hat straight on her head, she walked steadily down the steps and out upon the street once more. The clock which had wakened her so rudely was in the steeple just above her and Katherine gave a gasp of dismay when she saw the time. A quarter to eleven! She should be down at the station now, taking the ten-forty-five train back to Oakwood. What had happened? Could she possibly have fallen asleep in that cozy little entrance way? Why had she not heard the clock strike the half hour? How worried Nyoda would be when she did not come in on that ten-forty-five train! she thought in sudden panic. She must hasten down to the station immediately and telephone Nyoda that she had missed that train, but would come on the next.

Was there another train to-night? she wondered, in fresh panic. Ten-forty-five sounded like the last local. She stopped under a street light for the purpose of consulting her time-table, and then she made a discovery which drove the matter of time-tables out of her head entirely, and brought the weakness back to her knees in full force, namely, the discovery that she no longer carried her handbag. Her heart almost stopped beating, for in that handbag was Nyoda's watch-the little jewelled watch Sherry had given her for an engagement present. Aside from its intrinsic value, which was considerable, Nyoda cherished that watch above all her other possessions.

She must have left the bag in the entrance-way where she had stopped to rest, Katherine decided, and, forgetting all about the weakness of a half hour ago, she ran swiftly across the street and up the steps of the church. She felt over every inch of the floor in the darkness, but the bag was not there.

Had she brought it with her out of the auditorium? Yes, because she had dropped it in the lobby, and in stooping to pick it up had felt the first touch of that dizzyness which had overpowered her so soon afterward. She must have lost it in the street. She retraced her steps back to the concert hall, now dark and deserted, carefully searching all the way. Her search, however, was unavailing; and with a sinking feeling she realized that either someone had picked it up, or else she had been deliberately robbed while she slept; in either event, the bag was gone, and with it Nyoda's watch.

It seemed to her that she could never go home and tell Nyoda that it was lost; she wished the earth would open up and swallow her where she stood, thus releasing her, at one stroke, from her distressful position. She bitterly reproached herself for having stayed in town that evening,-if she had gone home on the five-fifteen train this wouldn't have happened. Nyoda had given her precious watch into her keeping, trusting her to bring it back safely, and she had betrayed that trust; had proved herself unreliable. Nyoda would never trust her with anything valuable again; would never send her on another errand. True, it was not exactly her fault that she had lost the bag; but if she had not been foolish enough to eat all those lobster croquettes after eating shrimp salad she would not have had any dizzy spell to distract her attention from her responsibility.

For fully five minutes she stood still and called herself every hard name she could think of, and ended up by making an emphatic resolution in regard to the future attitude toward lobster croquettes. In the meantime, she decided, she had better notify the police about the watch. A block ahead of her the green and blue lights of a drug store shone blurred but unmistakable through the misty atmosphere, and she splashed her way toward it, only to find on arriving that the place was closed. She walked several more blocks, searching either for an open drug store where she could telephone, or a corner policeman, and finding neither. A street clock pointed to eleven, and from somewhere in the darkness behind her came the subdued tone of the steeple chime.

The rain had stopped now, and it was growing colder; the puddles on the sidewalk began to be filmed over with ice. The wind took on a cutting edge and came sallying forth in great gusts, shrieking along the telephone wires and setting the electric arc lights overhead swaying wildly back and forth, until the rapidly shifting lights and shadows below gave the street the look of a tossing lake. Now billowing out like a sail, now wrapping itself determinedly around her ankles, Katherine's long coat began to make walking a difficult proceeding. Then, without warning, the arc lights suddenly went out, plunging the world into utter blackness. With that, Katherine abandoned her intention of searching for a telephone and decided to get down to her train as fast as she could. With every other step she went crashing through a thin coating of ice into a puddle, for in the darkness it was impossible to see where she was going, and once she tripped over an uneven edge of flagging and went sprawling on her hands and knees. Thereafter, she felt her way, like a blind person, with the point of her umbrella.

It was gradually borne in upon Katherine, as she floundered on through the puddles, that she was not retracing her steps toward the carline, but was proceeding in a new and entirely unknown direction. The store fronts which loomed indistinctly through the darkness were not the same ones she had passed before; surely those others had not been so shabby and disreputable looking. But so intense was the blackness of the night that she could not be sure about anything; she might be on the right track after all. Undoubtedly the next turn would bring her back to the lighted drug store, and from that point she could easily locate herself. No green and blue lights appeared when she turned the next corner, however; as far as she could see, there was only gloom in the distance. Katherine tried street after street with no better success; they all led endlessly on into darkness. She met no one from whom she dared ask the way; for there was only an occasional passer-by, and he usually looked tipsy. It was evidently a factory district Katherine had wandered into, for all around her were great dark buildings with high chimneys, long, dim warehouses, box cars standing on sidings, silent, gloomy freight sheds; there seemed to be no end of them anywhere; in all directions they stretched out, like Banquo's descendents, apparently to the crack of doom. The nightmare of the "Fata Morgana" had come true, and she was lost in the wilderness of a strange city.

For a long time Katherine had not heard the rumble of a street car, and this phenomenon finally became so noticeable that she realized what must have happened-the traction power had been cut off as well as the lighting current. With that realization her last hope of getting down to the station went glimmering-unless she could get a taxicab. But where was one to find a taxicab in this district? A faint light gleaming in the window of a small shop that crouched between two tall factories lured Katherine on with the hope that here was a telephone, or at least someone about who could tell her the way. She hastened toward it, but her heart turned to water within her when she saw that the lettering on the window pane was Chinese. More than anything else in the whole universe, Katherine feared a Chinaman; she was so afraid of the little yellow men that even in broad daylight she could never go by a Chinese laundry without holding her breath and shuddering. Even the picture of a Chinaman gave her the creeps. When she discovered that she was in a Chinese neighborhood after eleven o'clock at night, with the street lamps all out, a hoarse cry of terror broke involuntarily from her lips, and she began to run blindly, she knew not where, penetrating deeper and deeper into that jungle of factories which flanks the railroad on both sides for miles.

Out of breath finally, she came to a stop, and for a few moments stood gasping, with a hand to her side. Not far ahead of her a light from a building shone across the darkness of the street, and loud sounds of revelry coming from the direction of the light told her that the place was a saloon. She stood still for another moment, trying to get up courage to pass it; decided at last that with Chinamen in the other direction it was the lesser of two evils, and walked on, praying fervently that none of the revellers inside would come out at the moment she was going by. She had hardly gone a few steps when a figure appeared on the lighted sidewalk in front of the place with a suddenness which left no doubt of his having come from within. In the bright glare Katherine recognized the long light coat and visor cap of the man who had stood beside her that evening in the flower shop where she had purchased Veronica's violets, and who had looked with such a covetous eye upon the roll of bills she had taken from her inside coat pocket. The bills were still there, and it seemed to her now that they made a very telltale bulge over her right breast. The man was coming toward her; in a few minutes he would see and recognize her, and then--

Katherine darted into an alleyway which opened near her, and on through a half-open gate in a low, solid wooden fence, and crouching there behind the fence in the darkness, she waited until the footsteps had gone past,-creak, creak, creakety-creak, with a rhythmic squeaking of shoes. Not until the sound had died away completely did she venture forth from her hiding place, and then she stood perfectly still and looked cautiously about her in every direction before she made a move to proceed. With the knowledge that the danger had passed, her feeling of panic began to leave her, and her native coolness began to assert itself. She took a careful stock of her situation and tried to think up a way to escape from her predicament. That she was hopelessly lost in this wilderness of streets whose names meant nothing to her, even if she had been able to see the sign boards, she realized full well; instinct warned her not to betray her situation to anyone she might meet in this neighborhood-providing she met any one, for the wind seemed to have blown all pedestrians off the streets; and the lateness of the hour made it extremely unprobable that she would find a telephone. She stood on one leg in the storklike attitude which always indicated deep thought with her, and pondered all the phases of her dilemma with the calm deliberation which invariably came to her in moments of great stress. "The only time Katherine is composed," Sahwah had said once, "is when she is in a pickle." And if Katherine was now in the biggest pickle she had ever experienced, by the same token her brain had never worked so coolly and logically before.

"When lost in the woods," she said to herself, going over in her mind her knowledge of woodcraft, "the first thing to do is to climb a tree and get your bearings. That's all right for the woods, but there aren't any trees here to climb. I might climb a telegraph pole," she thought whimsically, as her eye fell upon one nearby, "and see if I can locate myself. No, that wouldn't do, either, for the whole city is dark, and I couldn't see anything if I did get up. So much for rule number one.

"Now for rule number two. 'Establish your directions by observing and reading the signs of nature. Moss always grows on the north side of trees.' Hm. Trees again, and telegraph poles won't do as substitutes this time. Moss doesn't grow on the north side of telegraph poles. There isn't any difference between the north side of a telegraph pole and any other--"

Katherine's train of thought was suddenly interrupted by her glance resting on the pole in question. One side of it, she could see in the light from the saloon, was glazed with ice where the driving rain had frozen in the chill wind. That wind was now coming from every direction-north, south, east and west-at once, and it was therefore impossible to judge from the whirling gusts which was north; but earlier in the evening, when the rain was falling, the wind had blown steadily from the north. Accordingly, t

he strip of ice on those poles carried the very same message as the moss on the trees in the woods. Katherine exclaimed aloud in delight at her discovery. In a twinkling she had her bearings.

"North, south, east, west," she said triumphantly, pointing in the four respective directions. "Not a bad piece of scouting, that. What's the difference, whether it's moss or ice?-it's the same principle. Talk about your pole stars!

"I believe I know approximately where I am," she continued, her brain keeping up its logical working. "We turned south from B-- Avenue to go to the Music Hall, I remember hearing Veronica say so; therefore, not yet having come to B-- Avenue in my wanderings, I must still be on the south side of it, and by going due north will come to it eventually. The way is as plain as the nose on your face; just follow the ice on the telegraph poles. I can feel it in places where it's too dark to see. All aboard for B-- Avenue!"

Katherine set off as fast as she could go through the darkness, whistling in her relief, and confidently keeping her feet pointed toward the north. As if acting upon the principle that the gods help them who help themselves, the street lights came on again just at that moment, showing up the corners and crossings, and making progress very much easier. She had gone some half dozen blocks, and was once more passing the long row of gloomy, windowless warehouses which she remembered having seen before, when it became apparent to her alert senses that she was being followed. For the last two or three blocks she had heard the sound of a footfall behind her, turning the same corners she had turned, taking the same short-cut she had taken through a factory yard, and gradually drawing nearer. "Creak, creak, creakety-creak!" Through the still night air it sounded with startling distinctness; the same squeaking footfall that had passed her ten minutes before, when she had crouched, with wildly beating heart, behind the fence in the dark alley. Filled with prophetic apprehension, she turned and looked around, and in the light of a street lamp several hundred yards behind her saw the figure that had loomed so large in her fears all evening. It required no second glance to recognize the long, light overcoat and the visor cap drawn low over the eyes. For an instant, Katherine's feeling of alarm held her rooted to the spot, even while she noticed that the man had increased his speed and the distance between them was rapidly lessening; then the power of locomotion came back with a rush and she began to run. Her worst fears were confirmed when she heard the man behind her start to run also.

Katherine doubled her speed and fled like a deer, slipping wildly over the icy sidewalk and expecting every minute to fall down, but by some miracle of good luck managing to retain her balance. Yet, run as she might, she realized that her pursuer was gaining; the footsteps pounding along behind her sounded nearer and nearer every minute. Her long coat, winding about her knees, caused her to slacken speed; her breath began to give out; she developed an agonizing pain in her side. She knew that the race was lost; in a moment more she would be overtaken. She had just summoned breath for a last final spurt when she heard a crash behind her and the sound of a body falling on the sidewalk; she dashed on without slackening speed. The next minute she slipped on a sheet of ice in the middle of a crossing and fell headlong to the ground, just as a taxicab, coming out of the side street, turned the corner. Katherine heard a hoarse shout and the jamming of an emergency brake, then, before she had time to draw breath, the car was on top of her. A blinding light flashed for a moment in her eyes; her ears were filled with a deafening roar; then all of a sudden light and sound both ceased to be.

Hearing came back first with returning consciousness. The roaring noise no longer sounded in her ears, and from somewhere, a long distance off, came the sound of a voice speaking.

"Can't you lift the car? She's pinned underneath the wheels. No, you can't back up; you'll run over her head. Don't you see it's right behind that left wheel? Got a jack in your tool box? All right. Here-- Now--"

Gradually the weight that was pinning her to the ground was lifted, and she opened her eyes to find herself beside, and no longer under, the quivering monster with the hot breath. Three figures were moving about her in the light of the head-lamps, and now one of them knelt beside her and laid a hand on her head.

"She isn't killed," said a voice which sounded strangely familiar in Katherine's ears, a voice which somehow carried her back to Carver House and the library fire.

Carver House. Nyoda. Nyoda would be worried to death because she did not come home. Poor Nyoda, how sorry she would be about the watch!

Unconsciously Katherine groaned aloud.

"She must be pretty badly hurt," continued the voice beside her ear. "Help me lift her now and we'll get her into the car. A hand under her shoulders-so. I'll take her head. Easy now."

Katherine felt herself being lifted from the ground and carried past the glare of the headlamps. Suddenly there came an explosive exclamation from one of the rescuers-the one who had done the talking-and the hand that supported her head trembled violently.

"Good God! It's Katherine."

Katherine opened her eyes fully and looked up into the dumfounded face of Sherry.

"Fo' de lan' sakes!" came an echoing exclamation from beside Sherry, and the black face of Hercules shone out in the light.

"Hello Sherry," said Katherine, in a voice which sounded strange in her own ears.

"Katherine!" cried Sherry in terrified accents, "are you badly hurt?"

"I d-o-n-'t k-n-o-w," replied Katherine thickly, through a mouthful of fur from the collar of her coat.

"I guess not," she resumed, after Sherry had laid her on the back seat of the car. "Nothing cracks when I wiggle it. My nose is skinned," she supplemented a minute later, "and there's a comb sticking straight into my head. I guess that's all."

"Oh," breathed Sherry in immeasurable relief. "It's a miracle you weren't killed. I thought sure you were. It looked as though both front wheels had gone over you."

"One went over my hat and the other over the tail of my coat," replied Katherine cheerfully. "They just missed me by a hair's breadth."

"Are you sure your head isn't hurt?" Sherry continued anxiously. "You were unconscious when we lifted the car off of you, you know."

Katherine solemnly felt her head all over. "There is a bump there-no; that's my bump of generosity; it belongs there. Anyway, it doesn't hurt when I press it, so it must be all right," she assured him. "I must have fainted, I guess, when the car came on top of me. It came so suddenly, and it made such a terrible noise. You can't think how awful it was."

"It must have been." A shudder went quivering through Sherry's frame at the thought of it. "I can't get it out of my mind. I thought those wheels went right over you. It's nothing short of a miracle that they went on each side of you instead of over you," he said, repeating the sentiment he had just uttered a moment before. "It all happened so quickly the driver didn't have a chance to turn aside. There was no one in sight one minute, and the next minute we were right on top of you. That driver out there's so scared he can't stand up on his legs yet."

"How did you happen to be in that taxicab?" Katherine inquired curiously.

"We're on our way home," replied Sherry. "We missed the Pennsylvania out of New York and had to take the Nickel Plate, which meant we had to change from one station to the other here in Philadelphia. We were going across in a taxi."

"So you were too late to catch Dr. Phillips?" said Katherine soberly.

"Yes," replied Sherry gloomily. "The boat had gone yesterday."

"How did Hercules stand the disappointment?" asked Katherine, with quick sympathy.

"He's pretty badly cut up about it," replied Sherry. "He had quite a bad spell with his heart on the train. He says he's had a 'token' that he'll never see Marse Tad, as he calls him, again. I'm afraid he won't, myself. Even I've got a gloomy hunch that fate has the cards stacked against us this time. From Hercules' account, I don't think Dr. Phillips will live to reach South America."

"How unutterably tragic that would be!" sighed Katherine, beginning to feel a load of world-sorrow pressing on her heart. What a dismal business life was, to be sure!

Sherry interrupted her doleful reverie. "But tell me, Katherine, what, in the name of all that's fantastic, were you doing here in this neighborhood at this time of night?"

Katherine explained briefly, and in her overwrought state, burst into tears at the mention of the watch.

"And you say there was a footpad actually following you?" asked Sherry in consternation. "You were running away from this man when you fell under the car? Where is he now?"

Katherine shook her head. "I don't know. He slipped and fell just before I did, and I don't know what became of him after that."

Sherry gave a long whistle, and, thrusting his head out of the taxi, gave a look around.

"There's a man coming up the street now," he said. "He's limping badly. Is that the man? He's probably trying to slip away quietly in the excitement."

Katherine raised her head and glanced out. "That's the man," she exclaimed. "He's the same one that followed me. Why, he's coming over here toward us!" she said, in a tone of surprise. "How queer! Is he going to hold us all up, I wonder?"

The man in the light overcoat, limping painfully, crossed the curb and approached the car standing, temporarily disabled, in the middle of the street. Sherry thrust out a belligerent face, at the same time looking, out of the tail of his eye, for his driver and Hercules. Both were out of sight, kneeling on the ground at the other side of the raised engine hood.

The stranger limped up and hesitated before Sherry. Katherine, looking over Sherry's shoulder, noticing with a start of surprise that the man had snow white hair. Although the long, light coat and the visor cap were the same as those she had seen on the man in the flower shop, this was an entirely different man. His blue eyes were mild and pensive; his whole bearing was gentle and retiring, and, standing there with the electric light behind him making a halo of his white hair, he looked like some little, old, melancholy saint.

"The young lady that you just picked up," said the stranger in a voice mellow with old-fashioned courtesy, raising his cap politely. "I have been following her for some time, trying unsuccessfully to catch up with her. I saw her drop this bag on the street, some two hours ago, and since then have been attempting to restore it to her, but have not been able to reach her. As soon as I saw her drop the bag I picked it up and hurried after her, but she suddenly disappeared like a conjurer's trick. I walked around for some time, looking for her, when all of a sudden the street lights went out, and in the darkness I mistook my way and wandered down into the factory district, where it was not long before I was hopelessly lost. The only place that showed any signs of life was a saloon down on a corner, and, although I have my opinion of those places, sir, I went in and asked the proprietor the way out of the neighborhood. It was not long afterward that I saw this same young lady who had dropped the handbag not far ahead of me in the street, having evidently wandered down there in the darkness just as I had done. I hurried after her, but she became frightened and began to run. I ran, too, thinking to overtake her and explain the reason for my pursuit, but just when I was nearly up to her I slipped and fell on the sidewalk. I must have lain there stunned for several minutes, for when things had become clear again I saw this car standing here and you gentlemen carrying the young lady into it. She is not badly hurt, I trust? Here is the bag I spoke of."

He spied Katherine looking over Sherry's shoulder at that moment, and held out the handbag, again lifting his cap as he did so.

At sight of the precious bag Katherine gave a shriek of joy, and seizing it with trembling fingers, looked inside to see if Nyoda's watch was still there. She almost sobbed with relief when her fingers closed upon the little velvet case, from which a faint ticking came to reassure her.

"Then you aren't the man I saw in the flower shop at all!" exclaimed Katherine, covered with confusion. "When I saw your light coat and that cap I was sure it was the same."

The two men laughed heartily.

"Isn't that just like a woman, though?" said Sherry. "They think that every man walking on the streets at night is a burglar, as a matter of course. It never occurs to them that an honest man could possibly have any business on the street after dark."

"I'm awfully sorry," said Katherine sheepishly, "but I really was frightened to death when you began to run after me. You say you have been following me ever since I dropped the bag? Where did I drop it?"

"Along by that iron fence on -th Street," answered the old man.

"That's where I was taken with the dizzy spell," said Katherine. "I must have dropped it without knowing it when I caught ahold of the fence to steady myself."

"But where did you go right after that?" asked the old man curiously. "You disappeared as suddenly as if the earth had swallowed you. I put up my umbrella for a few minutes to shield my face from the rain and when I looked out from behind it you were nowhere in sight."

"That was where I went into the dark doorway of a church, and sat down to wait for the dizzy spell to wear off," replied Katherine. "I must have fallen asleep, for the first thing I knew a clock was striking a quarter to eleven. When I discovered the bag was gone I ran around like mad looking for it, and the first thing I knew I was lost, and the lights were out, and there I was down in those awful factory yards. I saw you coming out of that saloon and thought you were the man who had watched me take out some bills out of an inner pocket earlier this evening, and hid behind a fence until you had gone by."

"But fate evidently intended that our paths should cross again," resumed the old man, with the faint flicker of a smile on his pensive countenance, "for it was not long before you were just ahead of me again. The lights came on then, and I saw you plainly."

"And I saw you, and started to run," finished Katherine, joining in Sherry's burst of laughter.

Just then Hercules straightened up from the ground and came around the front of the car.

"Kin we have yo' pocket flasher, Mist' Sherry?" he asked.

Then his glance fell upon the stranger standing beside the car. His eyes started from their sockets; his jaw dropped, and for a moment he stood as if petrified. Then he gave a great gasp, and with a piercing cry of "Marse Tad!" he sank upon his knees at the old man's feet.

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