[Frontispiece: Their houseboat vacation had begun.]
Captain of the Merry Maid
AMY D. V. CHALMERS
Author of Madge Morton's Secret, Madge Morton's Trust, Madge Morton's Victory.
HENRY ALTEMUS COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1914, BY HOWARD E. ALTEMUS
PRINTED IN THE
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
I. MADGE MORTON'S PLAN II. CHOOSING A CHAPERON III. THE SEARCH FOR A HOUSEBOAT IV. THE FAIRY'S WAND V. ALL ABOARD VI. PLEASURE BAY VII. THE UNKNOWN JAILER VIII. AN ANXIOUS NIGHT IX. THE GIRL ON THE ISLAND X. AN EXCITING RACE XI. AT THE MERCY OF THE WAVES XII. A BRAVE FIGHT XIII. LIFE OR DEATH? XIV. MADGE COMES INTO HER OWN AGAIN XV. A CALL FOR HELP XVI. THE ATTEMPTED RESCUE XVII. THE CAPTURE XVIII. ON A STRANGE SHORE XIX. FINDING A WAY TO HELP MOLLIE XX. MADGE'S OPPORTUNITY XXI. MOLLIE'S BRAVE FIGHT XXII. THE EVIL GENIUS XXIII. "MOTHER" XXIV. FAREWELL TO THE "MERRY MAID"
List of Illustrations
Their houseboat vacation had begun . . . Frontispiece.
Madge and Tom went gayly down to the boat.
The girls ran down to the water's edge.
"I wish you to come and live with me, Madge."
Madge Morton, Captain of the Merry Maid
MADGE MORTON'S PLAN
"I never can bear it!" cried Madge Morton excitedly, throwing herself down on her bed in one of the dormitories of Miss Tolliver's Select School for Girls. "It is not half so bad for Eleanor. She, at least, is going to spend her holiday with people she likes. But for Uncle William and Aunt Sue to leave for California just as school closes, and to send me off to a horrid old maid cousin for half my vacation, is just too awful! If I weren't nearly seventeen years old, I'd cry my eyes out."
Madge was alone in her bedroom, which she shared with her cousin, Eleanor Butler. The two girls lived on an old estate in Virginia, but for the two preceding terms they had been attending a college preparatory school at Harborpoint, not far from the city of Baltimore.
Madge had never known her own parents. She had been reared by her Uncle William and Aunt Sue Butler and she dearly loved her old southern home. But just when she and Eleanor were planning a thousand pleasures for their three months' vacation a letter had arrived from Mr. and Mrs. Butler announcing that they were leaving their estate for six weeks, as they were compelled to go west on important business. Eleanor was to be sent to visit a family of cousins near Charlottesville, Virginia, and Madge was to stay with a rich old maiden cousin of her father. Cousin Louisa did not like Madge. She felt a sense of duty toward her, and a sense of duty seldom inspires any real affection in return. So Madge looked back on the visits she had made to this cousin with a feeling of horror. Inspired by her Aunt Sue, Madge had always tried to be on her best behavior while she was the guest of Cousin Louisa. But since propriety was not Madge Morton's strong point she had succeeded only in being perfectly miserable and in offending her wealthy cousin by her unconventional ways.
Madge had a letter from this cousin in her hand while she gave herself up to the luxury of despair. She had not yet read the letter, but she knew exactly what it would say. It would contain a formal invitation from Cousin Louisa, asking Madge to pay her the necessary visit. It would suggest at the same time that Madge mend her ways; and it would doubtless recall the unfortunate occasion when Mistress Madge had set fire to the bedclothes by her wicked habit of reading in bed.
It was the study hour at Miss Tolliver's school, and all of the girls except Madge were hard at work. Eleanor had slipped across the hall to the room of their two chums to consult them about a problem in algebra. Madge at that moment was far too miserable to be approached in regard to a lesson, though at other times she would have done anything for Eleanor.
Finally Madge raised herself to a sitting posture. It struck her as rather absurd to have collapsed so entirely, simply because she was not to spend the first part of her summer as she chose. She knew, too, that it was high time she fell to preparing her lessons.
With a little shiver she opened Cousin Louisa's letter. Suddenly her eyes flashed, the color glowed in her cheeks, and Madge dropped the note to the floor with a glad cry and ran out of the room.
On the door of her chums' room was a sign, printed in large letters, which was usually observed by the school girls. The sign read: "Studying; No Admittance." But to-day Madge paid no attention to it. She flung open the door and rushed in upon her three friends.
"Eleanor, Phyllis, Lillian," she protested, "stop studying this very minute!" She seized Eleanor's paper and pencil and closed Lillian Seldon's ancient history with a bang. Phyllis Alden had just time to grasp her own notebook firmly with both hands before she exclaimed: "Madge Morton, whatever has happened to you? Have you gone entirely crazy?"
Madge laughed. "Almost!" she replied. "But just listen to me, and you will be nearly as crazy as I am."
Madge had dark, auburn hair, which was curly and short, like a boy's. To her deep regret her long braids had been cut off several years before, when she was recovering from an attack of typhoid fever, and now her hair was just long enough to tuck into a small knot on top of her head. But when Madge was excited, which was a frequent occurrence, this knot would break loose, and her curls would fly about, like the hair of one of Raphael's cherubs. Madge had large, blue eyes, with long, dark lashes, and a short, straight nose, with just the tiniest tilt at the end of it. Although she was not vain, she was secretly proud of her row of even, white teeth.
Phyllis Alden was the daughter of a physician with a large family, who lived in Hartford, Connecticut. Phil was not as pretty as her three friends, and no one knew it better than Phyllis. She was small and dark, with irregular features. But she had large, black eyes, and a smile that illuminated her clever face. Put to the vote, Phyllis Alden had been declared to be the most popular girl in Miss Tolliver's school, and Phyllis and Madge were friendly rivals in athletics.
Lillian Seldon was perhaps the prettiest of the four boarding school chums, if one preferred regular features to vivacity and charm. Lillian was of Madge's age, a tall, slender, blonde girl, with two long plaits of sunny, light hair, a fair, delicate skin and blue eyes. She was the daughter of a Philadelphia lawyer and an only child. A number of her school companions thought her cold and proud, but her chums knew that when Lillian really cared for any one she was the most loyal friend in the world. Eleanor, who was the youngest of the four school friends, looked like the little, southern girl that she was. She had light brown hair and hazel eyes, and charming manners which made friends for her wherever she went.
The three girls now waited with their eyes fixed inquiringly on the fourth. They were not very much excited; they knew Madge only too well. She was either in the seventh heaven of bliss, or else in the depths of despair. Yet this time it did look as though Madge had more reason than usual for her excitement. Eleanor wondered how she could have changed so quickly from her recent disconsolate mood.
"What has happened to you, Madge?" Lillian inquired. "Eleanor said you were upset because you are obliged to spend the first of your vacation with your hateful Cousin Louisa."
"Hateful? Did I ever dare to say that my Cousin Louisa was hateful? She is one of the loveliest women in this world! Just think! Cousin Louisa has written to say that she can't have me, or rather won't have me, visit her. She is going to shut up her house, and is going to sail for Europe. I know it is just to escape my odious presence."
"Why, Madge, what will you do?" Eleanor asked. "You've nowhere else to go." You know how you hate those awful children at Charlottesville."
"Wait, Eleanor Butler—wait!" Madge cried dramatically. "You do not know what has happened, nor why I now truly love and adore the same Cousin Louisa whom I once thought I disliked. Just look here." Madge waved a small strip of paper in the air. "Cousin Louisa has sent me a check for two hundred dollars! She says I am to spend the money on my summer vacation in any way I like, provided Aunt Sue and Uncle William approve."
"But you can't go off traveling by yourself," objected Eleanor. "I should think you would hate to spend your summer alone."
"Alone!" Madge answered indignantly. "Who said I meant to spend my vacation alone? I want you three girls to spend the six weeks with me. Only last night Eleanor and I said that we four girls could never be really happy anywhere without one another."
"Generous Madge," smiled Lillian affectionately. "Two hundred dollars seems quite a fortune. Perhaps you ought not to spend it all. Where can we go, and what can we do?"
"Young ladies," a stern voice spoke just outside the door, "kindly remember this is the study hour. You are expected to keep silence."
An unusual stillness fell on the four offenders. Only Madge's blue eyes flashed rebelliously. "It's that tiresome Miss Jones. You might know she would be somewhere about. She is the crossest teacher in this school."
"Sh-sh, Madge," Eleanor lowered her voice, "Miss Jones might hear you. She is ill, I am sure. That is what makes her so cross. Phil and I are both sorry for her."
"Oh, you and Phil are sorry for everybody. That's nothing! Thank goodness, there is the bell! It is the recreation hour. Come, my beloved chums, I simply must think of some way to spend our vacation and I never can think indoors. 'It is the merry month of May,'" caroled Madge. "Come, Phil, let us go down to the water and take Nell and Lillian rowing. It is a dream of an afternoon, all soft and sunshiny, and the river folk are calling us, the frogs, and the water rats——"
"Dear me, Madge," teased Phil, "do hush. We are glad enough to go rowing without an invitation from the frogs. We have two hours before supper time. Shall we ask poor Miss Jones to go with us? She does not have much fun, and you know it is her duty to make us keep the rules. Miss Jones admires you very much, Madge. She said you were clever enough to do anything you liked, if you would only try. But she knows you don't like her."
"Then she knows the truth," returned naughty Madge. "No, Phil, please don't ask Miss Jones to come out with us this afternoon, there's a dear. I told you I wanted to think. And I can think brilliantly only when in the company of my beloved chums."
Phyllis Alden and Madge Morton were good oarsmen. Indeed, they were almost as much at home on the water as they were on land. Each girl wore a tiny silver oar pinned to her dress. Only the week before Madge had won the annual spring rowing contest; for Miss Tolliver made a special point of athletics in her school, and fortunately the school grounds ran down to the bank of a small river.
Phil and Madge rowed out into the middle of the river with long, regular strokes. They were in their own little, green boat, called the "Water Witch." Lillian sat in the stern, trailing her white hands idly in the water. Eleanor sat quietly looking out over the fields.
Suddenly Madge, who always did the most unexpected things in the world, locked her oars across the boat and sat up in her seat with a jerk that rocked the little craft.
"Girls, I have thought it all out!" she exclaimed. "I have the most glorious, the most splendid plan you ever heard of in the world! Just wait until you hear it!"
"Madge," Phil called in horror, "do sit down!" The boat was careening perilously. Before Phil could finish her speech Madge had tumbled over the side of the skiff and disappeared in the water below.
The girls waited for their friend to rise to the surface. They were not frightened, for Madge was an expert swimmer.
"I am surprised at Madge," declared Phil severely. "The idea of plunging into the water in that fashion, not to mention almost capsizing our boat! Why doesn't she come up?"
The second lengthened to a minute. Still Madge's curly head did not appear on the surface of the water. Eleanor's face turned white. Madge had on her rowing costume, a short skirt and a sailor blouse. She could easily swim in such a suit. But perhaps she had been seized with a cramp, or her head might have struck against a rock at the bottom of the river!
Lillian and Phil shared Eleanor's anxiety. "Sit still, girls," said Phyllis. "I must dive and see what has happened to Madge. If you are quiet, I can dive out of the boat without upsetting it."
Phil slipped out of her sweater. But Eleanor caught at her skirts from behind. "Sit down, Phil. Here comes that wretched Madge, swimming toward us from over there. She purposely stayed under water."
The three friends looked in the direction, indicated by Phyllis. They saw Madge moving toward the boat as calmly as though she had been in her bathing suit and had dived off the skiff for pure pleasure. She had been swimming under the water for a little distance and had risen at a spot at which her friends were not looking. As she lifted her head clear of the water a ray of the afternoon sunlight slanted across her face, touching its mischievous curves, until she looked like a naughty water-sprite.
In an instant Madge's hands were alongside the boat, and Phil pulled her into it. "I am so sorry, girls," she explained, shaking the water. out of her hair; "but I had such a wonderful idea that it really knocked me overboard. I was afraid I would throw you all into the river, so I jumped. But don't you want to know my plan? We are going to spend the summer on the water!"
"In the water, you mean, don't you?" laughed Phyllis, as she wrapped her sweater about her friend. "Madge, will any one ever be able to guess what you are going to do next?"
"Just listen, girls," Madge went on with shining eyes. "I have been determined, ever since I got my letter from Cousin Louisa, that we girls should do something original for our summer vacation. And while I was rowing peacefully along, without meaning to create a disturbance, it suddenly came to me that the most perfect way to spend a holiday would be to live out on the water. First I thought we might just take the 'Water Witch' and row along the river all summer, sleeping in hotels and boarding-places at night. But I know we must have a chaperon; and meals and things would make it cost too much. Then it occurred to me that we could get a boat big enough to live in by day and sleep in by night—a canal boat, or something——"
"Madge Morton!" cried Phil, clapping both hands, "you are a goose, but sometimes I think you are a genius as well. You mean you can rent a houseboat with your money and we can truly spend our vacation together out on the water. I never heard of such a splendid plan in my life."
Madge gave a little shiver, half from the cold and half from happiness. She was beginning to feel the chill of her wet clothing.
"Eleanor, Phyllis, Lillian," she said impressively. "I hereby invite you to spend six weeks of your vacation aboard a houseboat. Now, the next thing to be done is to find one."
CHOOSING A CHAPERON
Madge Morton walked into the school library with a grave expression on her usually laughing face. She had two letters in her hand, which she intended putting into the school post-bag, that was always kept in the library. One of the letters she had written to her uncle and aunt, explaining her houseboat scheme in the most sensible and matter-of-fact fashion; for Madge knew that the fate of the four chums depended, first, on what Mr. and Mrs. Butler thought of their niece's idea. If they disapproved, Madge was certain that she could never be happy again, for there was no other possible way of spending Cousin Louisa's gift that would give her any pleasure. Madge's second letter was directed to a boy cousin, who was at college in Baltimore. She explained that she expected to rent a houseboat for the summer, and she asked her cousin to give her the address of places in Baltimore where such a boat could be hired. She wished it to cost the smallest sum of money possible, for Eleanor had suggested that even houseboat girls must eat. Indeed, the water was likely to make them especially hungry. If all the two hundred dollars went for the houseboat, what were they to do for food?
Madge's sole fortune was just ten dollars a month, which she used for her dress allowance. Her uncle and aunt were not rich, but they were paying for her education, and Madge knew she was expected to make her own living as soon as she was old enough. Mr. and Mrs. Butler had hoped she would become a teacher, for they held the old-fashioned southern belief that teaching school was the only avenue open to the woman who was forced by necessity to make her own living.
Madge, however, had decided, a long time before, that she would much rather die than teach. She would do anything but that. Just at present her poverty was very inconvenient. Madge was generous to a fault, and she would have liked nothing better than to finance royally their proposed trip. She vowed mentally to rise to the occasion, even though the way to do it was not yet clear.
Prudent Eleanor had also asked her whom she meant to invite to act as their chaperon. So it was of this chaperon that Madge was thinking while she was in the act of mailing her letters.
Down in Virginia, on a big place next to her uncle's, was a girl whom she had decided would make an ideal chaperon. She was as fond of larks as was Madge herself. She could fish, ride, swim and shoot a rifle when necessary. Moreover, she was so beautiful and aristocratic that Madge always called her the "Lady of Quality." It was true she could not cook nor wash dishes, nor do anything practical, and she was only twenty-two. Still, Madge thought she would be a perfectly delightful chaperon and was sure the girls would love her. Madge's red lips unconsciously formed the letter O, and before she knew what she was doing she was whistling from sheer pleasure.
"Miss Morton," the cold voice that was unpleasantly familiar to the girl's ears came from behind a chair, "do you not know that whistling is against the rules of the school? You are one of the older girls. Miss Tolliver depends on you to set the younger pupils a good example. I fear she is sadly disappointed."
"You mean you are sadly disappointed, Miss Jones," replied Madge angrily. "Miss Tolliver has not said she was disappointed in me. When she is she will probably tell me herself."
Madge knew she should not speak in this rude fashion to her teacher, but she was an impetuous, high-spirited girl who could not bear censure. Besides, she had a special prejudice against Miss Jones. She was particularly homely and there was something awkward and repellant in her manner. Worshipping beauty and graciousness, Madge could not forgive her teacher her lack of both. Besides, Madge did not entirely trust Miss Jones. Still, the girl was sorry she had made her impolite speech, so she stood quietly waiting for her teacher's reproof, with her curly head bent low, her eyes mutinous.
She waited an instant. When she looked up, to her dismay she saw that the eyes of her despised teacher were full of tears.
"I wonder why you dislike me so, Miss Morton?" Miss Jones inquired sadly.
Madge could have given her a dozen reasons for her dislike, but she did not wish to be disagreeable. "I am dreadfully sorry I was so rude to you," she murmured.
"Oh, it does not matter. Nothing matters, I am so unhappy," Miss Jones replied unexpectedly. Just why Miss Jones should have chosen Madge Morton for her confidante at this moment neither ever knew. Miss Jones had a number of friends among the other girls in the school; but she and this clever southern girl had been enemies since Miss Jones had first taken charge of the English History class and had reproved Madge for helping one of the younger girls with her lesson. Miss Jones's confession had slipped out involuntarily. Now she put her head down on the library table and sobbed.
With any other teacher, or with any of the girls, Madge might have cried in sympathy. Somehow, she could not cry with Miss Jones. She felt nothing save embarrassment.
"What is the matter?" she asked slowly.
Miss Jones shook her head. "It's nothing. I am sorry to have given way to my feelings. I have had bad news. My doctor has just written me that if I don't spend the summer out-of-doors, I am in danger of consumption." Miss Jones uttered the dreadful word quite calmly.
Madge gave a low cry of distress. She thought of the number of times she had made fun of her teacher's flat chest and stooping shoulders and of her bad temper. After all, Eleanor had been right. Illness had been the cause of Miss Jones's peculiarities.
"Miss Jones," Madge returned, her sympathies fully enlisted, "you must not feel so troubled. I am sure you will soon be all right. Just think how strong you will grow with your long summer holiday out-of-doors. You must dig in the garden, and ride horseback, and play tennis," advised Madge enthusiastically, remembering her own happy summers at "Forest House," the old Butler home in Virginia.
Miss Jones shook her head wistfully as she rose to leave the room. "I am afraid I can't have the summer in the country. I have only a sister with whom to spend the summer, and she lives in a little flat in the city. She has a large family, and I expect to help her. My parents are dead."
"Then why don't you go into the country to board somewhere?" flashed from Madge's lips unexpectedly. A moment after she was sorry she had asked the question, for a curious, frightened expression crossed her teacher's face.
Miss Jones hesitated. "I have had to use the money I have made by my teaching for—for other purposes," she explained, in the stiff, cold manner that seemed so unattractive to gracious, sunshiny Madge. "I am sorry to have worried you with my troubles," Miss Jones said again. "Please forgive me and forget what I have told you. I shall probably do very well."
Madge went slowly back to her room in a most unhappy frame of mind. She knew a way in which Miss Jones would be able to spend her summer out-of-doors, and perhaps grow well and strong again. She could be invited to chaperon the houseboat party. She knew her friends would immediately agree to the idea. They liked Miss Jones far better than she did. Even if they had not liked her, sympathy would have inspired them to extend the invitation. It was she alone who would hesitate. Of course, she never expected to be as good as her friends. So Madge argued with herself. It was too dreadful to give up the idea of asking her adored "Lady of Quality" to act as their guardian angel. Madge decided she simply could not make the sacrifice. Then, too, she did not even know whether her uncle and aunt would consent to the houseboat party. It would be time enough afterward to deliver her last invitation.
For two days, which seemed intolerably long to impatient Madge Morton, the four friends waited to hear their fate from Mr. and Mrs. Butler.
On the third morning a letter addressed to Madge in Mrs. Butler's handwriting was handed to her while she and her chums were at breakfast. In her great excitement her hands trembled so that she could hardly finish her breakfast. "Here, Eleanor," Madge finally faltered, as the four girls left the dining room to go upstairs, "you take the letter and read it to us, please do. Positively I haven't the courage to look at it. I feel almost sure that Aunt Sue will say we can't go on our houseboat trip."
Lillian put her hand affectionately on Madge's arm, while Phil stood next to Eleanor.
"My dear Madge," the letter began, "I think your houseboat plan for the summer a most extraordinary one. I never heard of young girls attempting such a holiday before. I can not imagine how you happened to unearth such a peculiar idea."
Madge gave a gasp of despair. She felt that the tone of her Aunt Sue's letter spelled refusal. But Eleanor read on: "Like a good many of your unusual ideas, this houseboat scheme seems, after all, to be rather an interesting one. Your uncle and I have talked over your letter and Eleanor's. We do not wish you and Eleanor to be separated, and we do wish you both to have the happiest holiday possible, as we are quite sure you have earned it. So, if you can find a suitable chaperon, we are willing to give our consent to your undertaking. We had intended to pay twenty-five dollars a month board for Eleanor with her cousins at Charlottesville, so we shall be glad to contribute that sum toward the provisioning of the house-boat."
There was a dead silence in the room when Eleanor at last finished reading the letter. For half a minute the four chums were too happy to speak. Then there was a united sigh of relief.
"Oh, I shall never be able to survive it! It is too much joy for one day!" cried the irrepressible Madge, dancing around in a circle and dragging Lillian Seldon, whose arm was linked in hers, with her.
Lillian and Phyllis had received their parents' consent, by letter, the day before and had already agreed that their respective monthly allowances should be placed in the general fund.
"Be still, Madge," begged Eleanor. "You are so noisy that you drive all thought from our heads. The first thing for us to consider is where we shall find a chaperon."
"No; the first thing to do is to find the house-boat. O Ship of our Dreams! tell us, dear Ship, where we can find you?" cried Phyllis Alden longingly. She was looking past her friends with half-closed eyes. Already she was, in the land of her imagination, in a beautiful white boat, floating beside an evergreen shore. The little craft was furnished all in white, with dainty muslin curtains hung at the tiny cabin windows. Flowers encircled the decks and trailed over the sides into the clear water. And on the deck of the little boat, lying or sitting at their ease, she could see herself and her friends.
"Wake up, Phil! Come back to earth, please," teased Madge, giving her usually sensible friend a sudden pinch. "I am going downstairs now to ask Miss Tolliver if we can go into Baltimore day after to-morrow. We must find our houseboat at once. School is so nearly over Miss Tolliver will be sure to let us go."
"But the chaperon, Madge," reminded Eleanor. "We haven't decided on one, you know."
"I have thought of a chaperon, if you girls are willing to have her," said Madge almost hesitatingly.
"Well," cried the other three voices in chorus, "who is it? Tell us sometime to-day!"
"Miss Jones!" declared Madge, a note of defiance in her voice. "I'm going to invite her now before I have time to change my mind. I'll explain later." Springing from her chair, she ran from the room, leaving her three friends to stare at each other in silent amazement.
THE SEARCH FOR A HOUSEBOAT
"Eleanor Butler, do hurry!" urged Madge two days later. "If we miss the train, I feel I shall never forgive you." The two girls were preparing for their trip to Baltimore.
"Let me alone, Madge," Eleanor returned. "If you will stay out of the room for ten minutes, I promise to be ready. You've talked so much in the last half hour that I haven't known what I was doing and I don't know now. You had better make another call upon Miss Jones. She is even more enthusiastic about your old houseboat scheme than you are." Eleanor laughed as Madge disappeared in the direction of Miss Jones's room.
"You must wish with all your heart that we shall find the houseboat to-day, Miss Jones," declared Madge in her impulsive fashion. "You see, everything depends on our not having to waste any time. The sooner we find our boat, the sooner we can begin our delightful vacation."
Miss Jones smiled. She was beginning to understand the impetuous Madge better than she had ever dreamed of knowing her, and she was very grateful for her invitation. Miss Jones was fairly well aware of how much it had cost her pupil to ask her. "Yes, I shall be thinking of you girls every minute," she declared. "Let me see. This is the twenty-fifth of May. School will close in another week. You girls wish to spend a week at home with your parents and relatives; but just as early in June as possible we are to go aboard our houseboat. That is our plan, isn't it, Madge?"
Madge nodded. Then, as she heard Phil and Lillian calling her, she waved a hasty farewell and darted from the room.
Madge had received a letter from the boy cousin who was at school in Baltimore. He had given her several addresses in Baltimore where there was just a bare chance that she might find a ready-to-use houseboat. He assured her, however, that houseboats were usually made to order, and that she might find some difficulty in securing what she wished, and must, therefore, not become easily discouraged.
Just before noon the four young women arrived in Baltimore on their quest for a house-boat. Lillian and Eleanor demanded their luncheon at once, but Phil and Madge protested against eating luncheon so early. "You can't be hungry already," argued Madge. "As for me, I shall never be able to eat until we find our boat."
For two hours the girls tramped about the boat yards in search of their treasure. They saw canoes and motor boats of every size and kind, and models of private yachts, but not a trace of a houseboat could they find. The representatives of the various boat companies whom they interviewed suggested the building of a houseboat at a cost of anywhere from six hundred to a thousand dollars.
Lillian and Eleanor were the first to complain of being tired. Then Phil, who was usually the sweetest-tempered of the four girls, began to show signs of irritability. Madge, however, undaunted and determined, would not think of giving up the search.
"Just one more place, girls," she begged; "then we can rest and have our luncheon somewhere. This is a very large ship-building yard we are going to. I am sure we can find our boat there."
Half an hour later the four chums turned wearily away from another fruitless quest. They were now in a part of Baltimore which none of them had ever seen before. A few blocks farther down the street they could see the line of the water and the masts of several sailing vessels that were lying near the shore.
"I tell you, Madge Morton," declared Phyllis Alden firmly, "whether or not we ever find a houseboat, there is one thing certain: I positively must have something to eat. I am half starved. What good would finding the boat do me if I were to die of hunger before I have even seen it?"
"Please don't be cross, Phil," soothed Madge. "I am sure we are all as hungry as you are. I am awfully sorry. We ought to have eaten luncheon before we came here. There isn't a restaurant in sight."
"I am sure I saw the sign of a funny little restaurant as we came by the corner," broke in Lillian. "It did look queer, but I suppose it would not be any harm for us to go in there."
"We don't care if it does look queer," declared Phyllis stoutly.
Turning, the girls retraced their steps to the corner.
Outside the swinging door of the small restaurant they hesitated. "I don't think we ought to go in there," argued Eleanor, "it is such a dreadfully rough-looking place."
It was indeed a very common eating house, where the men who worked on the wharves, the fishermen and sailors, were in the habit of getting their meals. The one dirty window showed half a dozen live crabs crawling about inside among the pieces of sea-weed. A row of old pies formed the background.
A moment later they had marched bravely up to the door. Dainty Eleanor shuddered as they crossed the threshold, and even Phil and Madge hesitated as a man's coarse laugh greeted them once they were fairly inside the restaurant room.
"Come on, children," said Madge, with a pretence of bravery she was far from feeling. "We are going into this restaurant to get something to eat. Don't look as if you thought you were going to be eaten. It is rather horrid, but perhaps they will let us have some bread and milk."
The quartette seated themselves at the first table they saw vacant. Just across from it were a number of men with rough, hard faces. They were evidently sailors from the nearby boats. The girls kept their eyes on the table, and Madge gave their order for tea and sandwiches in a low tone to the German boy who came forward to wait on them.
When the boy had departed with their order a silence settled upon the little group of girls. In each girl's mind was the thought that it had been unwise to enter the restaurant. By this time they had come to a realization of the fact that they were the only women in the room.
"We ought never to have come here," whispered Lillian, clutching Madge's arm.
"Nonsense," returned Madge bravely, "we have as much right here as any of these men."
"But I'd rather not stay," persisted Lillian.
"Didn't you say you were hungry?" asked Madge pointedly.
"Ye-es," hesitated Lillian, "but I just can't stay here."
"Nor I," chimed in Eleanor.
Madge looked appealingly at Phyllis, who shook her brown head deprecatingly. "I don't believe we ought to stay here, Madge."
"You, too, Phil!" exclaimed Madge impatiently. "All right, Misses 'Fraid Cats,' we'll go. Here comes our luncheon, too."
The girls glanced quickly at the rosy-faced lad who came up at that moment with their order on a tray.
"I'm so hungry," sighed Phil. "Perhaps we'd better——"
"So glad you've changed your mind," commented Madge rather satirically. "But what about you, Lillian and Eleanor?"
"Let's stay this once, but next time we'll be more careful where we lunch," smiled Eleanor.
"I take back all I said about 'Fraid Cats,'" laughed Madge. "We'll hurry through our luncheon and leave here the moment we finish. After all, as long as we are to become seasoned mariners we shall have to learn to accustom ourselves to the vicissitudes of a sailor's life."
"But we can't be 'seasoned mariners' until we find our houseboat," reminded Lillian. "It doesn't look as though we'd find it to-day, either."
"We must," was Madge's emphatic response. "Here we have been worrying like mad about this restaurant not being a proper place in which to eat our luncheon, while the really important question of where we are to find our boat hasn't troubled us. We must go out of here saying, 'We shall find it, we shall find it,' and then I believe we can't help but run across it." Madge's blue eyes were alight with purpose and enthusiasm.
"Good for you, Madge," laughed Phil. "Come on, girls. Let us finish our tea and renew our search."
It was half-past three in the afternoon when they left the little restaurant. The four girls were to spend the night in Baltimore with a friend of Miss Tolliver's, who kept a boarding-place. As they were in the habit of staying with Miss Rice when they came into Baltimore to do their shopping, Miss Tolliver had, for once, after many instructions, permitted the girls to go into town without a chaperon.
"Miss Rice said we did not have to be at her house until half-past five o'clock," Phil volunteered, "so what shall we do?"
"There is a little park down there near the water," Lillian pointed ahead. "Suppose we sit down there for a few minutes until we decide where to go next?"
It was a balmy, sunshiny May day. While the girls rested on the park benches they could see, far off, a line of ships sailing up the bay and also the larger freight steamers. They were near one of the quiet canals that formed an inlet from the great Chesapeake Bay. Lining the banks of the canal were numbers of coal barges and canal boats.
On the deck of a canal boat a girl came out with a bundle of clothes in her arms. She was singing in a high, sweet voice as she hung them on a line strung across the deck of the boat.
The girls watched her silently as she flitted back and forth, and she sang on, unconscious of her audience. She was singing a boat song which the men chant as they row home at the close of day. The pathos in the woman's voice was so exquisite, its notes so true, that Madge's blue eyes filled with tears. None of the four friends stirred until the song was over, and the girl in her faded calico dress and bare feet had disappeared into the cabin of the boat.
"We call those boats shanty boats down in Virginia," Eleanor said; "I suppose because the little cabin on the deck of the canal boat looks so like a shanty."
"People live on those shanty boats," announced Madge.
"Yes, we have noticed it, my dear girl," Phil responded dryly. But there was a question in her eyes as she looked at Madge.
"Shanty boats do not look exactly like house-boats," went on Madge speculatively.
"I should say not," returned Phil. "There is considerable difference."
"But they might be made to look more like them. Don't you believe so?"
"They are awfully dirty," was dainty Lillian's sole comment.
"Soap and water, child, is a sure cure for dirt," replied Madge, still in a brown study. Then she sprang to tier feet and almost ran out of the little park, nearly to the edge of the canal. Her friends followed her. There was no doubt that Madge had an idea.
"Girls!" exclaimed Madge fervently, pointing toward one of the shanty boats, "first look there; then shut your eyes. With your eyes open you see only an ugly canal boat; with them closed, can't you see our houseboat?"
"Not very well," replied Lillian without enthusiasm.
"Well, I can," asserted Madge with emphasis.
Then her quick eyes wandered toward a man who was coming slowly up the path along the canal.
"Please," she asked breathlessly, stepping directly in front of him, "do you know whether any of the people along here would be willing to rent me a canal boat?"
The man stared in amazement at this strange request. "Can't say as I knows of any one," he answered, "but I kin find out fer ye. It may be some of the water folks goes inland for the summer. If they does, they'd like as not rent you their boat."
"Then I will come down here to-morrow at nine o'clock to find out," arranged Madge. "Please be sure to be here."
"What did I tell you!" exulted Madge as they left the little park a few minutes later and made their way to the street car. "I am going to draw a plan to-night to show how easy it will be to turn one of these old canal boats into our beautiful 'Ship of Dreams.' By this time next week we'll know something about the 'vicissitudes' of a sailor's life or my name is not Madge Morton."
THE FAIRY'S WAND
"You are a direct gift of Providence, Jack Bolling," declared Madge the next morning, shaking hands with her cousin, in the parlor of Miss Rice's boarding house. "How did you happen to turn up here?"
"Well, I unexpectedly had a day off from college," explained Jack. "So I just telephoned to Miss Tolliver to ask whether I might come to see you, like the well-behaved cousin I am. She replied that you were in town and that I might come to see you. So here I am! What luck have you had?"
"None at all at the old places you recommended," Madge returned scornfully and in a most ungrateful fashion.
"Oh, I knew a girl couldn't find the right sort of boat without a fellow to help her," Jack teased, knowing Madge's aversion to the idea that a girl couldn't do anything she liked, unless with the help of a boy.
"Just you come along with us, Jack, and we will show you what we have found," invited Madge. "I think the girls are ready. We are. Here come Eleanor and Lillian. Miss Lillian Seldon, I wish to present my cousin, Mr. Jack Bolling. Where is Phil?"
While Lillian, looking unusually lovely in her gown of pale lavender organdie, with a cream-colored hat covered with violets, was shaking hands with Jack, Phyllis Alden came down the hall with a slight frown on her face.
Hadn't she and Madge vowed within themselves and to each other never to ask a man's help in anything they planned to do? And here was Madge introducing her cousin into their plan the very first chance she had. But in this Phil was mistaken.
Madge had made no explanations to Jack, and her cousin asked her no questions as the party started on their walk. When they came to the line of canal boats that the girls had seen the afternoon before a halt was made.
"There is our houseboat!" cried Madge, waving her hand toward the half dozen disreputable looking canal boats huddled close together.
"Where?" asked Jack in amazement.
"Oh, I don't know just exactly where," returned Madge with twinkling eyes. "Everyone look here, please." She took two large squares of white paper out of her bag. "You see, it is this way, Jack: We found that to rent a houseboat takes such a lot of money that we decided yesterday, to try to turn one of these old canal boats into a houseboat, and I have drawn the plans of what I think ought to be done."
Madge, who had a decided talent for drawing, had sat up late into the night to make her two sketches. One pictured the shanty boat as it was, dingy and dirty, with a broken-down cabin of two rooms at the stern. In the second drawing Madge's fairy wand, which was her gift of imagination, had quite transformed the ugly boat. The deck of the canal boat was about forty feet long, with a twelve-foot beam. To the two rooms, which the ordinary shanty boat contains, she had added another two, forming an oblong cabin, with four windows on each side and a flat roof. The flat roof formed the second deck of the prospective houseboat. It had a small railing around it, and a pair of steps that led up from the outside to the upper deck. Madge had decorated her fairy ship with garlands of flowers that hung far over the sides of the deck.
Jack Bolling looked at the drawing a long time without saying a word.
"Don't you think it can be done, Jack?" inquired Madge eagerly. "You see, this old boat could be cleaned and painted, and any good carpenter could put up the extra rooms."
"Right you are, Madge," Jack answered at last, making a low bow. "Hats off to the ladies, as usual. Who is that queer-looking customer coming this way?"
"He is the man who is to see about our canal boat," answered Phil, as though they were already in possession.
Madge had gone forward. "Have you found the boat for us?" she inquired. "I simply can't wait to find out."
The man grinned. "There is one towed alongside of mine that you might be able to git. I had a hard time finding it."
"That is all right," declared Jack, stepping forward, "you will be paid for your work. Will you please take us out to look at the boat?"
"Got to cross my shanty to git to it," the man replied, leading the way across a rickety gang-plank.
There were three or four dirty children playing on the deck of his boat and a thin, yellow dog. At the open door of the shanty kitchen stood the figure of a girl. She had on the faded calico dress of the day before; she was barefooted and her hair was ragged and unkempt. But as Jack Bolling and the four girls glanced idly at her a start of surprise ran through each one of these. Jack stopped for an instant, and instinctively took off his hat. Phil Alden whispered in Madge's ear, "I never saw any one so beautiful in my life," and Madge mutely agreed.
The girl was smiling a wistful, far-away smile that was very touching. Her hair was the color of copper that has been burnished by the sun, and her eyes were the deep blue of the midsummer sky. The wind and sun had tanned the girl's cheeks, but her skin was still fine and delicate. There was a strange, vacant expression in her eyes and a pathetic droop to her whole figure.
"Git you back in there, Moll," the owner of the shanty boat called out roughly. The girl started and quivered, as though she expected a blow. Jack's face turned hot with anger. But what could he do? The man was talking to his own daughter.
"Why did you speak to the poor girl like that?" asked Madge sharply.
"She ain't all right in the top story," the man answered. "She is kind of foolish. I have to keep a close watch on her."
Madge turned pitying eyes on the demented girl, then as they stepped aboard the other canal boat, for the time she forgot the lovely apparition she had just seen.
"How much will the owner rent this boat for?" Madge asked at last, trying hard to conceal her enthusiasm. The boat was dirty and needed renovating, but it was well built of good, strong timbers.
"My friend is willing to sell this here boat for a hundred dollars," said the fisherman, Mike Muldoon, hesitating as he mentioned the sum.
It was all Madge could do to keep from clapping her hands for joy. One hundred dollars for the boat—that left another hundred for painting and remodeling and for other necessary expenses.
Just as Madge was about to close with the man's offer a look from Jack Bolling interrupted her.
"The boat is not worth a hundred dollars," he declared decisively. "The young lady will give you fifty dollars for it, and not a cent more."
The man laughed contemptuously. "I can't do it," he said. "That boat is cheap at a hundred dollars."
"At fifty, you mean," retorted Jack stubbornly.
The girls stood back quietly and allowed Jack to drive the bargain, which he did with so much spirit that the coveted boat was at last made over to him at his price, fifty dollars.
For the rest of the day the four girls spent their time interviewing carpenters and painters. At last they found a man who promised to deliver the boat, rebuilt according to Madge's idea, at a little town several miles farther down the bay. The man owned a motor boat. He was to take the houseboat to a landing, where the girls could load it with the necessary supplies, and then to tow them farther down the bay, until they found the ideal place for their summer holiday.
"I declare, Madge, dear, I was never so tired, nor so happy in my life," declared Eleanor Butler late that afternoon, as the quartette were on their way back to their school at Harborpoint. "I can see our houseboat, now, as plainly as anything. At first, Lillian and I couldn't quite believe in your idea."
Madge had heard Eleanor's comments but vaguely. She was doing a sum in mental arithmetic. "Fifty dollars for the old shanty boat, seventy-five for remodeling it, fifteen to the man for towing." Here she became confused. But she still knew there was quite a large sum of money left for buying the little furniture they needed and their store of provisions.
Phyllis Alden, too, had been busy calculating. "I think we can do it, Madge," she said, leaning over from the back seat to speak to her friend.
"Of course we can. We shall have whole lots of money," announced Madge triumphantly.
Phil shook her head. "I am afraid we won't. There is one thing we must buy that will be expensive."
Lillian straightened up. She had been leaning against the back of the seat, utterly worn out. The three girls gazed at Phil in consternation. What was this new item of expense that threatened to eat up their little capital?
"Don't keep us in suspense, Phil," laughed Eleanor. "What have we forgotten to buy?"
"A kitchen stove!" cried Phil dramatically. "And I know they must be awfully expensive."
"What a goose you are, Phil," said Lillian in a practical tone. "We don't want a kitchen stove. It would take up too much room. We need an oil stove or something like that."
"Then I appoint you as a special committee to look into the stove question, Lillian," laughed Madge.
"I accept the appointment," bowed Lillian, "and I won't waste our capital on kitchen ranges of elephantine proportions, either."
During the next five days the four friends found plenty to occupy their time. Then Miss Tolliver's school closed, and Phil Alden hurried home to her family in Hartford, Connecticut; Lillian returned to her home in Philadelphia, while Madge and Eleanor departed to spend a week with Mr. and Mrs. Butler in their old home in Virginia. Miss Jones, however, remained at the school. She made one hurried trip into Baltimore, and on another occasion had a visitor, but the rest of the time she sewed industriously; for on June the eighth a new experience was to be hers—she was to begin her duties as chaperon to four adventurous girls aboard their longed-for "Ship of Dreams."
Blue waves lapped idly against the sides of a little, white palace that had risen out of the waves of the bay overnight. One side lay close along a quiet shore. Overhead the leaves of a willow tree stirred in the wind, and the birds twittered in its branches. The rosy flush was just fading out of the sky. Dawn had come only a short time before, and the wind, the waves and the birds were the only things stirring so early in the morning. There was not a sound or a movement aboard the odd vessel that was moored to the shore.
Along the shore sped the slender figure of a girl. It was a part of the morning. Her blue frock was the color of the sky and her auburn hair had been touched by the sun, and on her radiant face lay the glory of youth.
Of course, it was Madge! She did not stop when she first spied her houseboat between the branches of the willow tree. She gave a little gasp, and ran on faster than ever. A moment later she came alongside her boat, which was only about three feet from the shore. Madge had not practised running and jumping in the gymnasium at school and on the old farm in Virginia for nothing. She gave one flying leap and landed on the deck of her houseboat. Then she stood perfectly still, a little song of gratitude welling from the depth of her happy heart.
"Perhaps it was not fair in me to have run away from Eleanor," she mused. "But then Nellie is such a sleepy-head, she never would have wished to get up so early. And I did want to see the boat alone, just for a moment. I am not going to look into the cabin, though. I am going to wait for the other girls——"
A stone went whizzing by Madge's ear at this moment, causing her soliloquy to come to an abrupt end.
She glanced toward the shore. A small boy stood grinning at her, with his hands tucked into a pair of trousers so much too long for him they had to be turned up from the ankles to the knees.
"Hello," he remarked cheerfully, eyeing Madge owlishly.
"Hello yourself," returned Madge. "Do you usually begin the day by throwing stones at peaceful strangers?"
"Yes'm," the small boy responded calmly. "Where'd you and that come from?"
"I came from my home in Virginia, and if by 'that' you mean my boat, it is a 'Ship of Dreams' and was towed up here from Baltimore yesterday afternoon. What do you think of it?"
"She isn't a dream, she's a peach," was the prompt retort.
"I'm glad you like her," smiled Madge in a winning fashion that caused the lad to smile in return. "Why are you up so early in the morning?"
"Driving home the cows," was the laconic answer.
"I don't see any cows," teased Madge. "Wait a minute. I have something for you to do. Would you like to earn a quarter? If you would, then come back here about nine o'clock. We are going to load our boat with some furniture and provisions, and we would like to have you help us."
"All right, I'll be here," promised the boy, and ran off into the bushes with a derisive grin which Madge did not see.
A few moments later Madge went back to Eleanor to have breakfast at the little boarding house where she and her cousin had spent the night. Miss Jones, Lillian and Phil had not yet arrived, but they were expected by the early train that came from Baltimore. The little village from which they intended to go aboard their houseboat was only about half an hour's ride from the city, and was situated on one of the quiet inlets of the bay.
Fifteen minutes before the train was due Eleanor and Madge were impatiently waiting at the station. The newcomers were so surrounded by bags, suit cases and mysterious packages that it took all the men about the depot to land them safely on the platform. Madge gave the order to the expressman to bring all their luggage to the houseboat landing near the willow tree. Then the party started out to find the boat, without losing a minute by the way.
Madge slipped her arm through that of Miss Jones and walked beside her dutifully, though she secretly longed to be with her chums. Lillian, Phil and Eleanor joined hands and ran ahead, without being in the least degree affected by the idea that they were no longer children. Madge, however, was the only one who knew the way. She hurried Miss Jones along until that young woman was almost out of breath. When they were within a short distance of the place where she had found her boat waiting for her in the early morning, she could bear it no longer. With a murmured excuse she broke away from Miss Jones and started on a run toward the willow tree. Her three chums were close behind her. The branches of the willow tree seemed more impenetrable in the bright sunlight. It was not so easy to see through them. Madge ran straight past the tree, then uttered a shrill cry. She stopped short, her cheeks turning first red, then white.
"What is it?" cried Phil, springing to her friend's side.
Madge pointed dumbly toward the water.
"Tell us!" said Eleanor, running up to Madge and lightly grasping her arm.
"Our houseboat is gone!" gasped Madge. "It was right there, tied to that very post along the shore early this morning! The man who brought it down from Baltimore left a note for me describing the landing place. He said he had to go back to Baltimore, but that he would come here this afternoon to tow us. Now the boat has gone! O, girls, what shall we do?"
The girls stared at the water in silence. Disappointment rendered them speechless for the moment. "Let us look up and down the shore," suggested Phil comfortingly. "I suppose it is just barely possible that the rope broke away from the stake, and the boat has floated off somewhere."
The four girls ran up and down the bank, straining their eyes in anxious glances out over the wide stretch of water. There was no houseboat in sight. It had vanished as completely as though it had really been a "Ship of Dreams."
"Perhaps you have made a mistake in the place, Madge," was the chaperon's first remark as she joined the excited party.
Madge compressed her red lips. Miss Jones was so provoking. She was utterly without tact. But now that she was to be one of the party it would be wrong to say a single impolite thing to their chaperon the whole six weeks of their holiday, no matter how provoking or tactless she might he. Madge sighed impatiently, then turned to the teacher.
"No, I am not mistaken, Miss Jones. I can't be. You see, I came to this very spot this morning and went aboard our boat. Then I have the man's description of the landing place. I think we had better go back to the village and see if we can get some men who know the shore along here to come to help us look out for our boat. There is no use in having our furniture brought here if we haven't any houseboat," finished Madge, her voice trembling.
"Come along, then; I will go back with you," volunteered Phil. "Miss Jones, you sit under the tree. Lillian, you and Nellie keep a sharp look-out. If any one comes along in a boat, ask him about ours."
"Do you think our boat has gone forever, Phil?" asked Madge dejectedly as the two companions walked wearily back over the road they had traveled so gayly a short time before.
"I don't know," replied Phil. "I should say it depended entirely upon who had taken the trouble to spirit it away."
While the two girls stood gazing moodily out over the bay a hard, green apple landed with a thump on top of Madge's uncovered head. Madge and Phil looked up simultaneously. There in a gnarled old apple tree directly above them appeared the grinning face of the small boy whose acquaintance Madge had made earlier in the morning.
"Lost your boat, ain't you?" he asked cheerfully.
Madge nodded and walked on. She was not anxious to renew conversation with the mischievous youngster.
Phil, however, was seized with an inspiration. "Have you been about this place very long?" she inquired casually.
"Yep," the boy returned.
"Then, perhaps, you know what has become of our boat," suggested Phil.
"Yep," answered the voice from the tree, "I know all about it."
"Then tell us this minute what has become of it!" ordered Madge. "I knew the moment I saw you that you were the very imp of mischief. Tell us where our boat is at once."
"I won't tell," the urchin spoke firmly.
"You shall," declared Madge, her eyes flashing.
"I'd like to see you make me tell," dared the boy. "A girl can't climb a tree." The grin on his impish face widened.
"I'll show you that a girl can climb a tree, young man," exclaimed Madge hotly, making her way toward the tree. "I have climbed a good many more trees than you have ever climbed in your life."
"Listen to me, Madge," admonished Phil, laughing at her friend, "you can't have a fight with a small boy in the top of a tree or shake him out of it. Don't allow him to tease you. Let's go on into the village and get a policeman. Then, if the boy really knows anything about the disappearance of our houseboat, the policeman will make him tell us." Phil tried to make her voice sound as threatening as possible when she mentioned the word "policeman."
"I won't be here when you git back," was the imp's cheerful response.
Madge and Phil paid no further heed to him. They went on toward the town. A few yards farther on they heard the patter of bare feet. "Can't you wait a minute?" a voice pleaded. "I was only teasing you. If you promise you won't give me away, I'll tell you what became of your old boat. My pa took it."
"Your pa?" cried Madge in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"When I told Pa I'd seen a new-fangled kind of a boat hitched to our post, where we most generally ties up our own boat, he said you hadn't no right to be there. So he just hitched up our mule and he come down here and untied your boat and dragged it up shore. I run after him until I got too tired. Then I come back here to tell you," ended the boy.
"Where is your father?" Phil asked quietly. Madge's eyes were flashing dangerously, her temper was rising.
"He's cutting hay," the boy returned. "I'll show you the field and then I'll run."
Lillian and Eleanor had now joined the two girls to find out what was delaying them. Miss Jones still waited, disconsolate, under the willow tree. The four girls started out behind the one small boy, who answered to the name of Bill Jenkins, Jr. It was evident that Bill Jenkins, Sr., was the name of the boat-thief.
"What shall we say and do when we find the man?" asked Eleanor anxiously. "I suppose we had no right to tie our boat up at his landing place without asking permission."
Madge shook her head angrily. "Right or no right, I shall certainly tell him my opinion of him," she said tensely.
"You must not make the man angry, Madge," argued gentle Eleanor, who knew Madge's fiery, temper and stood in awe of it. "Perhaps, when he sees we are girls, he will be sorry he took our boat away and will bring it back for us."
"Let us go and see him at once," was Madge's sole response.
After all, it was Eleanor's gentleness that won the day! She told the farmer, whom they found in the hay field, the whole story of the houseboat, and how they hoped to spend their holiday aboard it.
"I declare, I'm real sorry I moved your houseboat," he apologized. "If I'd 'a' known the pretty toy boat belonged to a parcel of young girls like you, I'd never have laid hands on it. You kin stay along my shore all summer if you like. But no one asked my permission to tie the boat to my post. And soon as I seen it, I just thought the boat belonged to some rich society folks who thought they owned the airth. I hid the boat up the bay a piece. But don't you fret. I'll go git it and tote it back in no time."
"I am so sorry," explained Madge prettily, ashamed of her bad temper and how near she had come to displaying it. "I thought, of course, the engineer who towed our boat out here from Baltimore had asked your permission before he made a landing. I suppose he was in such a hurry to get back to the city that he neglected it."
While the girls and their chaperon waited for the return of their houseboat they ate an early luncheon out of the hampers that Phil and Lillian had brought from their homes to provision the travelers for the day.
The houseboat finally did appear, much as the girls had pictured her. She was painted white, with a line of green showing just above the water. The four rooms in the cabin, which was set well toward the stern, opened into each other, and each room had a small door and window facing on the deck. The two bedrooms had six berths set along the walls. One room was intended for the kitchen and the fourth, which was the largest, was to serve as the dining room, sitting room, work and play room for the houseboat party on rainy days, when it was impossible for them to be out on deck.
While the men were unloading the barrels and boxes on the boat the girls ran in and out the doors of their cabin rooms like the figures in a pantomime, bumping into each other and stumbling over things. Miss Jones at last sent Eleanor and Lillian to the kitchen to drive nails along the wall and to hang up their limited display of kitchen utensils, while Phil and Madge helped with the unpacking. There was one steamer chair, bought in honor of the chaperon, and a great many sofa cushions, borrowed from their rooms at school, to be used as deck furniture. A barrel of apples, a barrel of potatoes and two Virginia hams were donations from the farm in Virginia. Mrs. Seldon, Lillian's mother, had also sent a store of pickles and preserves.
Phil, too, had brought a big box from home, while Madge's own purchases for the houseboat included a small table, five chairs, besides the necessary china and some of the bedding. The rest of the outfit the girls managed to secure from their own homes.
Miss Jones, Phil and Madge were industriously turning the berths into beds when a sharp scream from Lillian, who was working in the kitchen, filled them with terror. Miss Jones arrived first at the kitchen door, with her heart in her mouth. Had some horrible disaster overtaken them, just as they were about to start on their adventures? There stood the two girls, Lillian and Eleanor, their faces, instead of showing fright, apparently shining with delight. The men who had been setting up the little stove, which they had bought for a trifling sum after all, had disappeared. The girls were now in full possession of their domain.
"What is it, children? What has happened?" implored Miss Jones, with a white, scared face. Lillian pointed ahead of her, but only the kitchen stove was to be seen. Madge and Phil, who had followed close behind their chaperon, were equally mystified.
But hark! What was the noise they heard all at once? A gentle crackling, a roar, a burst of flame, and a puff of smoke up through the long stove pipe! The pipe went through a hole cut in the side of the wall. "A fire, a fire!" exclaimed Lillian joyously, wondering why the others looked so startled.
There was really a fire burning in the stove of the houseboat kitchen! And as a fire is a first sign to the pioneer that he is at last at home, so the little company felt themselves to be the original girl pioneers in houseboat adventures, and felt the same thrill of peace and pleasure.
Madge seized the shining new tea-kettle and filled it with water from the big bucket that rested on a shelf just outside the kitchen door.
"Madge, put the kettle on, Madge, put the kettle on, We'll all take tea,"
She sang in a sweet, high, rapturous voice.
Toot, toot, toot! a motor boat whistle sounded out on the water. The four girls rushed on deck to call a greeting to the engineer who was to tow their houseboat down the bay, until it found an anchorage in a cove in the bay near a stream of clear water.
Four weary but happy girls sat out on deck on cushions as the engineer made fast to their boat preparatory to starting. The chaperon was installed in the solitary grandeur of their one steamer chair.
There was a heavy tug at the great rope that bound the houseboat to the little motor tug. The motor boat moved out into the bay, and with almost no perceptible motion and no noise, except the gentle ripple of the water purling against the sides of the craft, the houseboat followed it. The longed-for vacation on the water had begun.
Just before twilight the boat reached a spot that seemed especially created for the travelers. For two hours they had been silently drinking in the beauty of the sun-lit bay and the green earth. They were not in the main body of the great Chesapeake Bay, but in one of the long arms of the bay that reaches into the Maryland coast.
"Look ahead of you, girls, to the left," called Phyllis Alden, as they glided slowly along.
Miss Jones and the three girls looked. There, in a curve of the land, was a low bank, with great clusters of purple iris growing along it, among the slender, long, green stems of the "cat-tails." An elm tree stood close to the edge of the water, spreading its branches out over the miniature sea. It was so strong, so big and enduring that it gave the home-seeking girls a sense of protection. The elm's branches could shelter them from the sun by day, and at night their boat could be tied to its trunk. Farther up the bank the girls could see a comfortable old, gray, shingled farmhouse. The farm meant water, fresh eggs, milk and butter.
Madge looked inquiringly at their chaperon, who nodded with an expression of entire satisfaction. Next, Madge glanced about the semi-circle of eager faces. "Shall we cast our anchor in Pleasure Bay?" she asked, and thus the pleasant little inland sea was named.
Madge signaled to the motor boat ahead, and the engineer stopped. He had several passengers on board his motor boat, but the men had been inside the saloon most of the time, and no one on board the houseboat had noticed them.
Before the houseboat anchored Madge and Phil ran up the hill to ask at the farmhouse for the privilege of making a landing. They had learned a lesson they were not likely to forget.
Too tired to begin work, the girls ate their supper out of the luncheon baskets, then sat about on deck, singing and talking until the stars came out and twinkled down on their little houseboat with a million friendly eyes; then, urged by their chaperon and their own heavy eyes, they crept into their berths.
It was still night when Madge awakened with a start. She thought she heard some one talking. "To whit! to whoo!" It was only the call of a friendly owl. Yet the night seemed curiously lonely. It was strange to be asleep on the water instead of on the land! There was another weird sound, then something stirred outside on the deck of the boat. From her cabin window Madge could see the line of the shore. It was quiet and empty.
This time she heard the sound of a voice. Another voice answered it. Could it be possible that the second voice sounded like that of Miss Jones! What could have happened? Without pausing to put on her shoes Madge slipped into the next room. Eleanor lay breathing quietly in the upper berth and Miss Jones seemed to be asleep in the lower one. But the cover was drawn up almost to where her ears should be and Madge could not see her face.
She crept over to the chaperon's berth. It was necessary to waken Miss Jones and tell her of the mysterious sounds. She slipped her hand along the pillow in the dark. There was no response. She groped deeper under the covers. Still no movement or sound. Miss Jones was not in her berth. She was out on deck, talking to some one. Madge returned to her room. She did not intend to call the other girls until she knew what was the trouble. Phyllis was always brave and so were Lillian and Eleanor, but in this instance they could do nothing.
The girl stole softly to the cabin window and peeped out. She could just catch the outline of two figures that were standing well up toward the bow of the boat. One was a woman's figure, with a shawl thrown over her head, but Madge was sure that she recognized the chaperon. Hurrying back to her berth she slipped on her steamer coat and slippers. She was trying every moment to fight down the distrust and dislike she had felt toward Miss Jones ever since their first acquaintance. She was trying to tell herself that she had invited their teacher to act as their chaperon from other motives, as well as from sympathy. But the finger of suspicion seemed to point plainly toward the teacher.
Madge walked quietly, and without any fear or hesitation, out on the deck of the houseboat, straight toward the two shrouded figures in the bow. Neither of them heard her coming, but she heard Miss Jones's distressed plea: "Won't you go away, and never come here again. I tell you, I can not do it. I simply can't——"
"Miss Jones," Madge's voice, clear and cold, sounded almost in her chaperon's ear.
The young woman turned so white that Madge could see her pallor in the moonlight.
The figure with her was shrouded in a long, black coat which was pulled up about its face. At the first sound of Madge's voice it made for the extreme end of the boat. With a quick turn, Madge ran after the escaping form. As it poised itself for a leap toward the shore, Madge caught at the cloak and dragged it away from the face, and for a brief instant she saw the face of a boy a little older perhaps than she was. It was a wild and elfish face, while a pair of ears, ending almost in points, stuck up through the masses of thick, curly hair that covered his head. But before she could get a distinct impression of his face the young man was gone, racing up the low embankment with great leaps, like a hunted deer.
Madge turned to their chaperon, waiting for the latter to offer some explanation. Miss Jones said nothing, but regarded Madge with distressed eyes.
"Who was your visitor? I did not know that any one knew we were anchored here. We did not know, ourselves, that we were to land here until we spied the place. Was that boy a stranger to you? Why didn't you call one of us if he frightened you?" Madge's tone was distinctly unfriendly.
Miss Jones only shook her head. Big tears were rolling down her cheeks. She was trembling so that Madge, much against her will, took her by the arm and assisted her across the deck.
"I can tell you nothing, Madge," was the teacher's husky reply. "I am perfectly aware that you have a right to know. Still, I simply can't tell you. But I can go away, if you like, and I will, as soon as you can get some one else to chaperon you. Only I must ask you not to tell the other girls what has happened to-night, or why I must leave you. You see, dear," Miss Jones ended wistfully, "the other girls are fond of me. You never have been. I can not bear to lose their faith and trust."
There was a significant silence after this remark.
"Did you really see who it was with me?" Miss Jones questioned anxiously. "Would you know the face if you saw it again?"
"I don't know," was Madge's stiff reply, "but I believe I should."
"Won't you promise me that you will not tell the other girls?" Miss Jones whispered, as they crossed the deck and came to the door of their little cabin. "I am not asking you to do anything wrong, only asking you to trust me and believe that I do not think I am doing a wrong by not taking you into my confidence."
"Very well, I will keep your secret," returned Madge slowly. "I do not wish you to leave us, Miss Jones. I wish you to stay and take care of us, just as you planned to do."
"You are only saying that, dear, because you know I have no other place to go for my holiday, and you are afraid my health will suffer. You must not think of my health. I can not stay with you just for my own sake."
"Then stay for ours," said Madge shortly, and without further words she went into the cabin and climbed into her berth.
Sleep was far from weighing down her eyelids. She lay awake for some time, wondering why clouds and distrust should so often spring up among human beings when everything seemed arranged for their perfect happiness.
She generously made up her mind, however, never to trouble their chaperon with questions about her mysterious visitor, but she determined to discover for herself who that boy was, and whether he had come aboard the boat to rob them.
THEIR UNKNOWN JAILER
"Madge Morton, what do you mean sleeping until seven o'clock, the first morning we are on our houseboat?" cried Phil, poking her head in the cabin door. "I would have awakened you before now, only Miss Jones would not let me. Lillian and Eleanor have been waiting for you in their bathing suits for a long while. Do let's have a salt water plunge before breakfast."
Springing from her berth, Madge made a dash for her bathing suit, which she had laid out the night before.
The girls were over the side of the boat in a hurry, swimming about in the water with gleeful shouts. The odor of frying bacon, which was presently wafted to their nostrils from the door of the houseboat kitchen, was something the bathers were too hungry to resist, and with one accord, they swam toward their boat.
It had been arranged that Miss Jones was to get the breakfast, Lillian and Eleanor the luncheon, and Phil and Madge, who were the most ambitious of the cooks, though not the most proficient, were to cook the dinner.
Madge noticed that Miss Jones looked whiter than usual, but the other girls saw no difference in their chaperon as they clambered up over the side of the boat to get ready for breakfast.
"Girls," Miss Jones remarked, as she put down a big plate of corn muffins before her hungry charges, "Phil accused me once of being mysterious and never talking about myself. Well, I am going to make a confession about myself at once."
Madge raised her eyes in surprise. After all, was Miss Jones going to tell of last night's adventure? But the chaperon was not looking at her. She was smiling at Phil, Lillian and Eleanor.
"Well, out with it, Miss Jones," laughed Phil. "What is the confession?"
"It is a foolish one, perhaps. I hate the name of 'Jones.' I have despised it all my life. There, that is my confession. Won't you girls please call me something else while we are having our holiday together? I know Madge can find a name for me." She looked rather timidly at Madge.
The girl blushed, though she felt vastly relieved at Miss Jones's confession. "What do you wish us to call you? I saw your initials in some of your books, 'J. A. Jones,' so we might call you Jenny Ann Jones, because, when Nellie and I were children, we used to play an old nursery game: 'We're going to see Miss Jenny Ann Jones, Miss Jenny Ann Jones, and how is she to-day?'" Madge's explanation ended with a song.
Miss Jones laughed. "My name is worse than Jenny Ann, it is Jemima Ann."
"It isn't pretty," agreed Phyllis, with a shake of the head. "Girls, what shall we call our chaperon? And we have never named our houseboat, either. We have a day's work ahead of us. We must think of names for both of them."
"Wouldn't 'Miss Ann' do?" Eleanor asked.
"I think Ann is such a pretty name."
"I would rather you had a more individual name for me. I have often been called Ann."
"You might be the 'Queen of our Ship of Dreams,'" laughed Lillian.
"That sounds altogether too high and mighty," objected Phyllis. "We ought to have something nice and chummy."
"We might call you 'Gem,' because it is short for Jemima, and in honor of these corn muffins, which we call 'gems' in our part of the world," added Phil. "We'll think of a name yet. Come on, girls, we must get to work; there is so much to be done. Lillian, you and I must go up to the farmhouse to get some supplies this morning. Suppose we take a long walk this afternoon and explore the woods back of us?"
"We will think of the prettiest name we can for you and another for our houseboat," declared Lillian as the four girls rose from the table to go about their various tasks; "then we shall make our report to-night."
It was nearly four o'clock in the afternoon when the four churns started on their walk. Miss Jones did not go with them. She was tired and wished to sit out on the deck of the boat in the sunshine.
"Be back before dark, children," she called out gayly as the girls climbed up the little embankment. "Remember, you don't know your way in this country, as you do at old Harborpoint. I shall be uneasy about you if you aren't back on time."
There were several scattered farmhouses at the top of the hill that sloped down to the cove of the bay, but back of the farmlands lay a long stretch of forest. The ground was covered with a carpet of wild flowers and a few late violets.
Once the chums were fairly in the heart of the woods they did not meet another traveler. They seemed to have the forest to themselves. They had no thought of danger in the quiet woods, and Madge and Eleanor, who had been brought up in the country, were careful to watch the paths they followed.
They had been in the woods for an hour or more when Lillian, who was stooping over a clump of big, purple violets, thought she heard a peculiar sound resembling light footsteps, Whether there was a human being or an animal near them she could not tell. The footsteps would run rapidly and then stop abruptly.
"Phil," called Lillian, "I thought I heard something. Did you? Listen once more. There, did you hear that?"
Phil listened. "Not a sound, Airy Fairy Lillian. It must have been your fancy."
But Lillian was not convinced. Several times she believed she heard the noise again. However, she did not mention it.
As the girls came out of the woods to a little clearing Phil, who was in the lead, ran forward. "Madge, Eleanor," she called, "come here, quick! I am sure this must be a regular, old-time log cabin."
Before them the girls saw an old cabin that looked as though it had been empty for a quarter of a century. It was strongly built of logs, and the chinks between the logs were filled with mud that had hardened like plaster. There were no windows in the cabin, except in the eaves. The heavy door was half open, but it had an old-fashioned wooden latch on the outside.
"The old cabin looks rather creepy, doesn't it, Madge?" asked Eleanor. "It is built more securely than our cabins farther down south, too. This place seems more like a prison."
"It looks interesting. Let's go in to see it." Phil suggested.
The cabin stood in front of a stream of clear water. Close around it grew a number of dark old cedar trees.
Phil and Madge shoved open the heavy door. Inside, the one large room looked gray and dark, as the only light came from the two small windows so far overhead.
"I would rather not go in, Madge," protested Eleanor, hesitating on the threshold after Lillian had followed the other two girls inside.
"Don't be a baby, Eleanor," scolded Madge. "There is nothing to hurt you."
Once inside the old house, Eleanor was as much interested as her chums. There was no furniture in the place, but a few faded pictures were tacked up on the walls, and the corners of the room were thick with mysterious and inviting shadows.
As they clustered in a group under an old magazine picture of a darkey with a fiddle in his hand there was an unexpected sound just outside the door, and the big room grew suddenly darker.
The four girls turned simultaneously.
The heavy door through which they had entered the cabin, and which was the only entrance, had been shut fast. At the same instant there was the sound of a heavy, sliding bolt, then the rush of flying feet.
For the moment no one of the girls realized the seriousness of what had happened.
"Some one must have locked us in for a joke," declared Phil stoutly.
Madge ran to the door and shook it with all her strength. It was built of heavy logs, and, though the girls could see the daylight through the cracks between the timbers, the door showed no sign of opening.
"Don't work so hard, Madge," remonstrated Phil. "Whoever shut us in will come back in a moment to unfasten the bolt."
The girls waited a long time. No one returned.
"Perhaps the person who closed the door did not know there was any one in the cabin," suggested Eleanor faintly.
"But we were all talking, Nellie. No one but a deaf person could have failed to hear us," Lillian insisted.
Eleanor realized the truth of the words.
"Don't be frightened, Nellie," begged Madge remorsefully. "Let's all push against the door at the same time. I am sure we shall be able to break the bolt. One, two, three! Now—all together!"
The four girls shoved with all their might, until their arms ached and their faces perspired from the exertion. Still the old door resisted them. Perhaps Eleanor was right and the log house had been built as a prison.
"I think we had better call for help," was Phil's practical suggestion. "If we all scream together, we ought to make considerable noise. I am afraid Miss Jones may become worried about us before any one comes to let us out."
The girls called and called, until their voices were hoarse, but no one answered them. Each girl remembered that she had not met a single person in her journey through the woods.
Then the prisoners made a trip around the big room, poking and peering about to see if there were any other possible method of escape.
"If I could only get up to one of those windows, I could easily break the bars and try to jump out of it," speculated Madge aloud. "But, alas, I am not a monkey! I can't climb straight up the side of a wall."
"You shall not try it, either," retorted Eleanor determinedly. "You would break your neck if you tried to jump from one of those high windows. Thank goodness, you can't climb up to them!"
"You were the wise one, Nell, and we wouldn't listen to you." Madge eyed Eleanor mournfully. She had an overwhelming desire to burst into tears.
"Don't take it so to heart, Madge," comforted her cousin. "Some one is sure to come this way finally, if we only call long enough."
But the afternoon shadows lengthened and no one came. Gradually the twilight fell, enveloping the big, bare room in hazy darkness. The prisoners huddled together with white and weary faces. They thought of their cosy houseboat with the little lamps lit in the dining room, and the big lantern hanging in the bow, and of Miss Jones, who by this time was no doubt anxiously waiting and watching for their return.
It was perhaps eight o'clock, although to the girls it seemed midnight, when Lillian whispered:
"Girls, I hear some one coming this way. Phil was right; it was a joke, after all. Whoever locked the door has come back to unlock it."
The girls smiled hopefully. After all, their experience did not amount to anything. They would be back inside the houseboat in another hour.
The footsteps now sounded plainly just outside the cabin door.
"Won't you please unbar the door for us?" called Phil and Madge in chorus. "Some one has locked us inside."
An elfish laugh answered them. Or was it the wind? Perhaps they had heard no one after all. They strained their ears but heard no further sound. Then the last bit of twilight vanished and night came down in reality.
AN ANXIOUS NIGHT
Huddled together in the darkness, Phil and Madge endeavored to relieve the strain of the situation by talking, but the very sound of their voices dismayed them and they became silent. Finally Eleanor, who had been leaning against Madge's shoulder, laid her head in her cousin's lap and went to sleep. A little later Lillian, after receiving Madge's assurance that she and Phil intended to keep watch, went to sleep also.
"Madge," Phil's voice trembled a little, "what do you suppose poor Miss Jones will think? She won't have the least idea in which direction to look for us. Goodness knows how long we may have to stay here. We may never get out." Her voice sank to a whisper.
"Why, Phil," Madge feigned a hopefulness which she did not feel, "I am surprised at you. You haven't given up hope. It is just the darkness and being hungry that makes things appear so dreadful. I have been thinking about our plight, and when daylight comes I am going to try to climb up the wall to the window. The mud has broken away between some of the logs, so that I can get my foot in the opening. We shall have to dig it away in other places too."
"But what can we dig with, Madge? We haven't a knife."
"With our fingers and hairpins, if we must, Phil. Sh-sh, Nellie is waking. I want her to sleep on till daylight."
Toward morning, however, the two girls' eyes closed wearily. In spite of their resolve to keep awake, the gray dawn creeping in at the windows found them fast asleep. It was Phil who first opened her eyes. She touched Madge, who sat up with a start, then springing to her feet exclaimed, "I'm so glad it's morning. Now for my great circus stunt."
"You can't possibly climb up there without hurting yourself, Madge. You will surely fall," expostulated Eleanor. "Please, please don't try it."
"Please don't discourage me, Nellie. It is the only way I know to get out of this dreadful place. Phil, if you will try to brace me, I can climb up and dig in the mud farther up."
Eleanor was feeling down in her pocket. Suddenly she gave a little cry of surprise. "O, girls! I have something that may help. Here is a little pair of scissors. You can dig with them, Madge."
The girls hailed the scissors with exclamations of joy. They were very small embroidery scissors, but they were better than nothing.
Lillian, who was bent on a foraging expedition around the room, came back a moment later with a few big, rusty nails and an old brick she had picked up out of the tumbled down fireplace. "If you can hammer these nails in the wall, Madge, you will have something to hold on to as you climb."
For two hours Madge alternately dug and climbed. In each hole that she made between the big logs she would set her foot, then hammer a nail above her head and dig a new opening. At last she actually did climb up the side of the wall, but her hands were scratched and bleeding, and her hair and face were covered with mud. She had taken off her dress skirt, too, as she could climb better in her petticoat.
The three girls below held their breath when she came to the final stretch, and let go the last rickety nail to fling herself on to the window sill.
"Eureka, girls!" she called down cheerfully, when she got her breath. She was holding tightly to the window frame with both hands and endeavoring to make her voice sound gay, though she was nearly worn out with the fatigue of her dangerous climb. "Now I shall surely find a way out for us. Please don't be frightened, Nellie, darling, if I have to jump. It is not so bad." She gave a little inward shudder as she looked through the tiny window frame. She could easily wrench the broken bars away. That was not the trouble. But the window was so small and the sill so narrow that Madge realized she could not get into the proper position for a forward spring. However, she had made up her mind; she might break her leg, or her arm, but she would open that barred door if she died in doing it.
With determined hands she wrenched at one of the window bars. It gave way. She seized hold of another, clinging to the sill with her other hand, her feet in their insecure resting places.
"It's all right, chilluns," she smiled, as she swung herself up to the window, "I'm going to jump."
Eleanor had closed her eyes. Phil and Lillian watched their friend, sick with apprehension.
Madge gave one look down at the ground, at least fourteen feet below her. Then she uttered a quick, sharp cry, and dropped back to her resting place, her feet, almost by instinct, finding the open spaces in the wall.
"Come down, Madge," called Phil sharply. "I was afraid you'd find the distance too great. Don't try it again."
"No, no, it is not that," replied Madge, gazing through the window. "I don't believe I shall have to jump. I am sure some one is near."
Sniffing the ground, near the side of the cabin, she had spied a dog with a soft brown nose, a shaggy, red brown body and a tail standing out tense and straight. It was a brown setter, and Madge knew he was probably hunting for woodchucks. Surely the presence of the dog meant a master somewhere near.
Her tired, eager eyes strained through the thick foliage of the woods they had traversed so happily only the afternoon before.
Yes, there was a man's figure! He was coming nearer. A young man in a hunting jacket, with a gun swung over his shoulder, was tramping along, with his eyes on the ground.
A pleading voice apparently came from the sky: "Please unbar the door of this old cabin. We are locked inside."
The young man stopped short. He took off his cap and ran his hand through his thick, light hair. He was too old to believe in fairies or elves. But he heard the voice again even more distinctly. "Oh, don't go away! Do open the log cabin door."
The young man looked up. There was a little, white face as wan and pale as the early daylight, with an aureole of dark red curls around it, staring at him through the broken window frame of the old log cabin that he had seen deserted a dozen times in his hunting trips through these woods.
"If there is some one really calling to me, please wave your hand three times from that window, so I will know you are not a spook," called the young man, "otherwise I may be afraid to open the door."
"I can't wave. I shall fall if I let go the window sill," answered Madge, trying to keep from bursting into tears. "Please don't wait any longer. We have been locked in all night."
The stranger drew back the heavy wooden bolt. He started when he saw three white-faced girls staring at him. But the face he had seen at the window was not among them. Clinging to the old window frame, her slender feet stuck in the cracks between the logs, was the witch who had summoned him to their rescue.
"Won't you please come help me down, Phil?" asked a plaintive voice.
"Just let go the window frame and drop," ordered the stranger quietly. "Don't be afraid. It is the only possible way."
Without hesitating Madge did as directed. "Thank you," she said coolly, when she got her breath. Then she staggered a little, and Phyllis and the young man who had come to their rescue caught her.
"We have been locked in so long," explained Phil. "No, we have not the least idea who could have played such a trick on us. We arrived in this neighborhood only yesterday afternoon."
Phil gave a short history of the houseboat, introducing her three friends and herself to him. "We must return to our chaperon at once," she added. "The poor woman will be dreadfully worried. Do you girls feel strong enough to walk? You see"—this time Phil turned to their rescuer—"it is not only that we have been shut up here for nearly fourteen hours, we are so hungry! We have had nothing to eat since yesterday at luncheon."
"Your poor, starving girls!" exclaimed their liberator, reproachfully. "At last I am convinced you are not fairies. And for once I am glad that my mother is always certain that I am on the point of starving."
He reached back into his pocket and brought out a package and a flask. "Here is some good, strong coffee. I am sorry it is cold, but it is better than nothing." He turned to Madge, who looked exhausted.
She shook her head, though she gazed at the flask wistfully. "I won't drink first. I don't need it as much as the other girls."
Eleanor took the bottle from his hands and held it to Madge's lips. The exhausted girl took a long drink. Then the others followed suit, while the young man watched them, smiling with satisfaction. He was tall and strong, and not particularly handsome, but he had fine brown eyes, a firm chin and thick, curly, light hair. After the girls had finished the coffee he broke open his package of sandwiches and found exactly four inside.
"Please take them," he urged, handing the open package to Lillian.
"We mustn't take them from you," protested Lillian. "We thank you for the coffee. That will do nicely until we get back to our boat."
The stranger laughed. "See here," he protested, "not an hour ago, when I left the hotel, where my mother and I are spending the summer, I ate three eggs, much bacon, four Maryland biscuit and drank two cups of coffee. Fragile creature that I am, I believe I can exist on that amount of refreshment for another hour or so. But whenever I go out on a few hours' hunting trip, my mother insists that the steward at the hotel put me up a luncheon. She is forever imagining that I am likely to get lost and starve, a modern 'Babe in the Woods,' you know. By the way, I haven't introduced myself. My name is Curtis, Thomas Stevenson Curtis, if you please, but I am more used to plain, everyday Tom."
The girls acknowledged the introduction, then by common consent they began walking away from the cabin.
A short distance was traversed in silence, then Madge said abruptly, "Who do you suppose locked us in, Mr. Curtis?"
"I don't know," answered Tom Curtis darkly, clenching his fist. "But wouldn't I like to find out! Have you an enemy about here?"
Madge shook her head. "No; as I said, we came to the neighborhood only yesterday. We have met only the farmer and his wife, who allowed us to land."
"I'll make it my business to find out who served you such a dastardly trick, Miss Morton," Tom returned. "I expect to be in this neighborhood all summer. My mother isn't very well, and we like this quiet place. Our home is in New York. I was a freshman last year at Columbia."
Only the day before Tom Curtis had informed his mother that he found the neighborhood too slow, and that if she didn't object he would be glad to move on. But a great deal can happen in a short time to make a young man of twenty change his mind.
"Thank you," replied Madge sedately. "I'll be on the lookout for the wretch, too. Now we must hurry back to our chaperon, Miss Jones. I won't ask you to come with us this morning, but we shall be very glad to have you come aboard our boat to-morrow. We haven't named her yet, but she is so white and clean and new looking that you can't possibly mistake her. She is lying on an arm of the bay just south of these woods."
"I'll surely avail myself of the invitation," smiled Tom Curtis as they paused for a moment at the edge of the woods. Below them the blue waters of the bay gleamed in the sunshine. And yes, there was their beloved "Ship of Dreams."
"Oh, you can see her from here!" exclaimed Madge, her eyes dancing with the pride of possession. "See, Mr. Curtis, it is our very own 'Ship of Dreams' until we give her a real name."