RUTH FIELDING DOWN EAST
The Hermit of Beach Plum Point
ALICE B. EMERSON
Author of "Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill," "Ruth Fielding at Sunrise Farm," "Ruth Fielding Homeward Bound," Etc.
New York Cupples & Leon Company Publishers
Books for Girls BY ALICE B. EMERSON RUTH FIELDING SERIES 12mo. Cloth. Illustrated.
RUTH FIELDING OF THE RED MILL RUTH FIELDING AT BRIARWOOD HALL RUTH FIELDING AT SNOW CAMP RUTH FIELDING AT LIGHTHOUSE POINT RUTH FIELDING AT SILVER RANCH RUTH FIELDING ON CLIFF ISLAND RUTH FIELDING AT SUNRISE FARM RUTH FIELDING AND THE GYPSIES RUTH FIELDING IN MOVING PICTURES RUTH FIELDING DOWN IN DIXIE RUTH FIELDING AT COLLEGE RUTH FIELDING IN THE SADDLE RUTH FIELDING IN THE RED CROSS RUTH FIELDING AT THE WAR FRONT RUTH FIELDING HOMEWARD BOUND RUTH FIELDING DOWN EAST
CUPPLES & LEON CO., PUBLISHERS, NEW YORK.
Copyright, 1920, by Cupples & Leon Company
Ruth Fielding Down East
Printed in U. S. A.
CHAPTER PAGE I. THE WIND STORM 1 II. THE MYSTERY OF IT 7 III. THE DERELICT 14 IV. THE CRYING NEED 22 V. OFF AT LAST 29 VI. "THE NEVERGETOVERS" 35 VII. MOVIE STUNTS 43 VIII. THE AUCTION BLOCK 52 IX. A DISMAYING DISCOVERY 67 X. A WILD AFTERNOON 77 XI. MR. PETERBY PAUL—AND "WHOSIS" 86 XII. ALONGSHORE 95 XIII. THE HERMIT 104 XIV. A QUOTATION 113 XV. AN AMAZING SITUATION 122 XVI. RUTH SOLVES ONE PROBLEM 129 XVII. JOHN, THE HERMIT'S, CONTRIBUTION 136 XVIII. UNCERTAINTIES 144 XIX. COUNTERCLAIMS 152 XX. THE GRILL 159 XXI. A HERMIT FOR REVENUE ONLY 171 XXII. AN ARRIVAL 180 XXIII. TROUBLE—PLENTY 186 XXIV. ABOUT "PLAIN MARY" 193 XXV. LIFTING THE CURTAIN 199
RUTH FIELDING DOWN EAST
THE WIND STORM
Across the now placidly flowing Lumano where it widened into almost the proportions of a lake just below the picturesque Red Mill, a bank of tempestuous clouds was shouldering into view above the sky line of the rugged and wooded hills. These slate-colored clouds, edged with pallid light, foredoomed the continuance of the peaceful summer afternoon.
Not a breath of air stirred on the near side of the river. The huge old elms shading the Red Mill and the farmhouse connected with it belonging to Mr. Jabez Potter, the miller, were like painted trees, so still were they. The brooding heat of midday, however, had presaged the coming storm, and it had been prepared for at mill and farmhouse. The tempest was due soon.
The backyard of the farmhouse—a beautiful lawn of short grass—sloped down to the river. On the bank and over the stream itself was set a summer-house of fair proportions, covered with vines—a cool and shady retreat on the very hottest day of midsummer.
A big robin redbreast had been calling his raucous weather warning from the top of one of the trees near the house; but, with her back to the river and the coming storm, the girl in the pavilion gave little heed to this good-intentioned weather prophet.
She did raise her eyes, however, at the querulous whistle of a striped creeper that was wriggling through the intertwined branches of the trumpet-vine in search of insects. Ruth Fielding was always interested in those busy, helpful little songsters.
"You cute little thing!" she murmured, at last catching sight of the flashing bird between the stems of the old vine. "I wish I could put you into my scenario."
On the table at which she was sitting was a packet of typewritten sheets which she had been annotating, and two fat note books. She laid down her gold-mounted fountain pen as she uttered these words, and then sighed and pushed her chair back from the table.
Then she stood up suddenly. A sound had startled her. She looked all about the summer-house—a sharp, suspicious glance. Then she tiptoed to the door and peered out.
The creeper fluttered away. The robin continued to shout his warning. Had it really been a rustling in the vines she had heard? Was there somebody lurking about the summer-house?
She stepped out and looked on both sides. It was then she saw how threatening the aspect of the clouds on the other side of the river were. The sight drove from her thoughts for the moment the strange sound she had heard. She did not take pains to look beneath the summer-house on the water side.
Instead, another sound assailed her ears. This time one that she could not mistake for anything but just what it was—the musical horn of Tom Cameron's automobile. Ruth turned swiftly to look up the road. A dark maroon car, long and low-hung like a racer, was coming along the road, leaving a funnel of dust behind it. There were two people in the car.
The girl beside the driver—black-haired and petite—fluttered her handkerchief in greeting when she saw Ruth standing by the summer-house. At once the latter ran across the yard, over the gentle rise, and down to the front gate of the Potter farmhouse. She ran splendidly with a free stride of untrammeled limbs, but she held one shoulder rather stiffly.
The car was at the gate, and Tom brought it to a prompt stop. Helen, his twin sister, was out of it instantly and almost leaped into the bigger girl's arms.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" sobbed Helen. "You are alive after all that horrible experience coming home from Europe."
"And you are alive and safe, dear Helen," responded Ruth Fielding, quite as deeply moved.
It was the first time they had met since separating in Paris a month before. And in these times of war, with peace still an uncertainty, there were many perils to fear between the port of Brest and that of New York.
Tom, in uniform and with a ribbon and medal on his breast, grinned teasingly at the two girls.
"Come, come! Break away! Only twenty seconds allowed in a clinch. Don't Helen look fine, Ruth? How's the shoulder?"
"Just a bit stiff yet," replied the girl of the Red Mill, kissing her chum again.
At this moment the first sudden swoop of the tempest arrived. The tall elms writhed as though taken with St. Vitus's dance. The hens began to screech and run to cover. Thunder muttered in the distance.
"Oh, dear me!" gasped Ruth, paling unwontedly, for she was not by nature a nervous girl. "Come right into the house, Helen. You could not get to Cheslow or back home before this storm breaks. Put your car under the shed, Tom."
She dragged her friend into the yard and up the warped flag stones to the side door of the cottage. A little old woman who had been sitting on the porch in a low rocking chair arose with difficulty, leaning on a cane.
"Oh, my back, and oh, my bones!" murmured Aunt Alvirah Boggs, who was not long out of a sick bed herself and would never again be as "spry" as she once had been. "Do come in, dearies. It is a wind storm."
Ruth stopped to help the little old woman. She continued pale, but her thought for Aunt Alvirah's comfort caused her to put aside her own fear. The trio entered the house and closed the door.
In a moment there was a sharp patter against the house. The rain had begun in big drops. The rear door was opened, and Tom, laughing and shaking the water from his cap, dashed into the living room. He wore the insignia of a captain under his dust-coat and the distinguishing marks of a very famous division of the A. E. F.
"It's a buster!" he declared. "There's a paper sailing like a kite over the roof of the old mill——"
Ruth sprang up with a shriek. She ran to the back door by which Tom had just entered and tore it open.
"Oh, do shut the door, deary!" begged Aunt Alvirah. "That wind is 'nough to lift the roof."
"What is the matter, Ruth?" demanded Helen.
But Tom ran out after her. He saw the girl leap from the porch and run madly down the path toward the summer-house. Back on the wind came a broken word or two of explanation:
"My papers! My scenario! The best thing I ever did, Tom!"
He had almost caught up to her when she reached the little pavilion. The wind from across the river was tearing through the summer-house at a sixty-mile-an-hour speed.
"Oh! It's gone!" Ruth cried, and had Tom not caught her she would have dropped to the ground.
There was not a scrap of paper left upon the table, nor anywhere in the place. Even the two fat notebooks had disappeared, and, too, the gold-mounted pen the girl of the Red Mill had been using. All, all seemed to have been swept out of the summer-house.
THE MYSTERY OF IT
For half a minute Tom Cameron did not know just what to do for Ruth. Then the water spilled out of the angry clouds overhead and bade fair to drench them.
He half carried Ruth into the summer-house and let her rest upon a bench, sitting beside her with his arm tenderly supporting her shoulders. Ruth had begun to sob tempestuously.
Ruth Fielding weeping! She might have cried many times in the past, but almost always in secret. Tom, who knew her so well, had seen her in dangerous and fear-compelling situations, and she had not wept.
"What is it?" he demanded. "What have you lost?"
"My scenario! All my work gone!"
"The new story? My goodness, Ruth, it couldn't have blown away!"
"But it has!" she wailed. "Not a scrap of it left. My notebooks—my pen! Why!" and she suddenly controlled her sobs, for she was, after all, an eminently practical girl. "Could that fountain pen have been carried away by the windstorm, too?"
"There goes a barrel through the air," shouted Tom. "That's heavier than a fountain pen. Say, this is some wind!"
The sound of the dashing rain now almost drowned their voices. It sprayed them through the porous shelter of the vines and latticework so that they could not sit on the bench.
Ruth huddled upon the table with Tom Cameron standing between her and the drifting mist of the storm. She looked across the rain-drenched yard to the low-roofed house. She had first seen it with a home-hungry heart when a little girl and an orphan.
How many, many strange experiences she had had since that time, which seemed so long ago! Nor had she then dreamed, as "Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill," as the first volume of this series is called, that she would lead the eventful life she had since that hour.
Under the niggard care of miserly old Jabez Potter, the miller, her great uncle, tempered by the loving kindness of Aunt Alvirah Boggs, the miller's housekeeper, Ruth's prospects had been poor indeed. But Providence moves in mysterious ways. Seemingly unexpected chances had broadened Ruth's outlook on life and given her advantages that few girls in her sphere secure.
First she was enabled to go to a famous boarding school, Briarwood Hall, with her dearest chum, Helen Cameron. There she began to make friends and widen her experience by travel. With Helen, Tom, and other young friends, Ruth had adventures, as the titles of the series of books run, at Snow Camp, at Lighthouse Point, at Silver Ranch, on Cliff Island, at Sunrise Farm, with the Gypsies, in Moving Pictures, and Down in Dixie.
With the eleventh volume of the series Ruth and her chums, Helen Cameron and Jennie Stone, begin their life at Ardmore College. As freshmen their experiences are related in "Ruth Fielding at College; Or, The Missing Examination Papers." This volume is followed by "Ruth Fielding in the Saddle; Or, College Girls in the Land of Gold," wherein Ruth's first big scenario is produced by the Alectrion Film Corporation.
As was the fact with so many of our college boys and girls, the World War interfered most abruptly and terribly with Ruth's peaceful current of life. America went into the war and Ruth into Red Cross work almost simultaneously.
In "Ruth Fielding in the Red Cross; Or, Doing Her Bit for Uncle Sam," the Girl of the Red Mill gained a very practical experience in the work of the great peace organization which does so much to smooth the ravages of war. Then, in "Ruth Fielding at the War Front; Or, The Hunt for the Lost Soldier," the Red Cross worker was thrown into the very heart of the tremendous struggle, and in northern France achieved a name for courage that her college mates greatly envied.
Wounded and nerve-racked because of her experiences, Ruth was sent home, only to meet, as related in the fifteenth volume of the series, "Ruth Fielding Homeward Bound; Or, A Red Cross Worker's Ocean Perils," an experience which seemed at first to be disastrous. In the end, however, the girl reached the Red Mill in a physical and mental state which made any undue excitement almost a tragedy for her.
The mysterious disappearance of the moving picture scenario, which had been on her heart and mind for months and which she had finally brought, she believed, to a successful termination, actually shocked Ruth Fielding. She could not control herself for the moment.
Against Tom Cameron's uniformed shoulder she sobbed frankly. His arm stole around her.
"Don't take on so, Ruthie," he urged. "Of course we'll find it all. Wait till this rain stops——"
"It never blew away, Tom," she said.
"Why, of course it did!"
"No. The sheets of typewritten manuscript were fastened together with a big brass clip. Had they been lose and the wind taken them, we should have seen at least some of them flying about. And the notebooks!"
"And the pen?" murmured Tom, seeing the catastrophe now as she did. "Why, Ruthie! Could somebody have taken them all?"
"But who?" demanded the young fellow. "You have no enemies."
"Not here, I hope," she sighed. "I left them all behind."
He chuckled, although he was by no means unappreciative of the seriousness of her loss. "Surely that German aviator who dropped the bomb on you hasn't followed you here."
"Don't talk foolishly, Tom!" exclaimed the girl, getting back some of her usual good sense. "Of course, I have no enemy. But a thief is every honest person's enemy."
"Granted. But where is the thief around the Red Mill?"
"I do not know."
"Can it be possible that your uncle or Ben saw the things here and rescued them just before the storm burst?"
"We will ask," she said, with a sigh. "But I can imagine no reason for either Uncle Jabez or Ben to come down here to the shore of the river. Oh, Tom! it is letting up."
"Good! I'll look around first of all. If there has been a skulker near——"
"Now, don't be rash," she cried.
"We're not behind the German lines now, Fraulein Mina von Brenner," and he laughed as he went out of the summer-house.
He did not smile when he was searching under the house and beating the brush clumps near by. He realized that this loss was a very serious matter for Ruth.
She was now independent of Uncle Jabez, but her income was partly derived from her moving picture royalties. During her war activities she had been unable to do much work, and Tom knew that Ruth had spent of her own means a great deal in the Red Cross work.
Ruth had refused to tell her friends the first thing about this new story for the screen. She believed it to be the very best thing she had ever originated, and she said she wished to surprise them all.
He even knew that all her notes and "before-the-finish" writing was in the notebooks that had now gone with the completed manuscript. It looked more than mysterious. It was suspicious.
Tom looked all around the summer-house. Of course, after this hard downpour it was impossible to mark any footsteps. Nor, indeed, did the raider need to leave such a trail in getting to and departing from the little vine-covered pavilion. The sward was heavy all about it save on the river side.
The young man found not a trace. Nor did he see a piece of paper anywhere. He was confident that Ruth's papers and notebooks and pen had been removed by some human agency. And it could not have been a friend who had done this thing.
"Didn't you find anything, Tom?" Ruth Fielding asked, as Helen's twin re-entered the summer-house.
His long automobile coat glistened with wet and his face was wind-blown. Tom Cameron's face, too, looked much older than it had—well, say a year before. He, like Ruth herself, had been through much in the war zone calculated to make him more sedate and serious than a college undergraduate is supposed to be.
"I did not see even a piece of paper blowing about," he told her.
"But before we came down from the house you said you saw a paper blow over the roof like a kite."
"That was an outspread newspaper. It was not a sheet of your manuscript."
"Then it all must have been stolen!" she cried.
"At least, human agency must have removed the things you left on this table," he said.
"Now, now, Ruth! It's tough, I know——"
But she recovered a measure of her composure almost immediately. Unnerved as she had first been by the disaster, she realized that to give way to her trouble would not do the least bit of good.
"An ordinary thief," Tom suggested after a moment, "would not consider your notes and the play of much value."
"I suppose not," she replied.
"If they are stolen it must be by somebody who understands—or thinks he does—the value of the work. Somebody who thinks he can sell a moving picture scenario."
"A gold mounted fountain pen would attract any petty thief," he went on to say. "But surely the itching fingers of such a person would not be tempted by that scenario."
"Then, which breed of thief stole my scenario, Tom?" she demanded. "You are no detective. Your deductions suggest two thieves."
"Humph! So they do. Maybe they run in pairs. But I can't really imagine two light-fingered people around the Red Mill at once. Seen any tramps lately?"
"We seldom see the usual tramp around here," said Ruth, shaking her head. "We are too far off the railroad line. And the Cheslow constables keep them moving if they land there."
"Could anybody have done it for a joke?" asked Tom suddenly.
"If they have," Ruth said, wiping her eyes, "it is the least like a joke of anything that ever happened to me. Why, Tom! I couldn't lay out that scenario again, and think of all the details, and get it just so, in a year!"
"I mean it! And even my notes are gone. Oh, dear! I'd never have the heart to write that scenario again. I don't know that I shall ever write another, anyway. I'm discouraged," sobbed the girl suddenly.
"Oh, Ruth! don't give way like this," he urged, with rather a boyish fear of a girl's tears.
"I've given way already," she choked. "I just feel that I'll never be able to put that scenario into shape again. And I'd written Mr. Hammond so enthusiastically about it."
"Oh! Then he knows all about it!" said Tom. "That is more than any of us do. You wouldn't tell us a thing."
"And I didn't tell him. He doesn't know the subject, or the title, or anything about it. I tell you, Tom, I had such a good idea——"
"And you've got the idea yet, haven't you? Cheer up! Of course you can do it over."
"Suppose," demanded Ruth quickly, "this thief that has got my manuscript should offer it to some producer? Why! if I tried to rewrite it and bring it out, I might be accused of plagiarizing my own work."
"I wouldn't dare," said Ruth, shaking her head. "As long as I do not know what has become of the scenario and my notes, I will not dare use the idea at all. It is dreadful!"
The rain was now falling less torrentially. The tempest was passing. Soon there was even a rift in the clouds in the northwest where a patch of blue sky shone through "big enough to make a Scotchman a pair of breeches," as Aunt Alvirah would say.
"We'd better go up to the house," sighed Ruth.
"I'll go right around to the neighbors and see if anybody has noticed a stranger in the vicinity," Tom suggested.
"There's Ben! Do you suppose he has seen anybody?"
A lanky young man, his clothing gray with flour dust, came from the back door of the mill and hastened under the dripping trees to reach the porch of the farmhouse. He stood there, smiling broadly at them, as Ruth and Tom hurriedly crossed the yard.
"Good day, Mr. Tom," said Ben, the miller's helper. Then he saw Ruth's troubled countenance. "Wha—what's the matter, Ruthie?"
"Ben, I've lost something."
"Bless us an' save us, no!"
"Yes, I have. Something very valuable. It's been stolen."
"You don't mean it!"
"But I do! Some manuscript out of the summer-house yonder."
"And her gold-mounted fountain pen," added Tom. "That would tempt somebody."
Ben could express his simple wonderment in a variety of phrases. But he seemed unable to go beyond these explosive expressions.
"Ben, wake up!" exclaimed Ruth. "Have you any idea who would have taken it?"
"That gold pen, Ruthie? Why—why—— A thief!"
"Old man," said Tom with suppressed disgust, "you're a wonder. How did you guess it?"
"Hush, Tom," Ruth said. Then: "Now, Ben, just think. Who has been around here to-day? Any stranger, I mean."
"Why—I dunno," said the mill hand, puckering his brows.
"Think!" she commanded again.
"Why—why——old Jep Parloe drove up for a grinding."
"He's not a stranger."
"Oh, yes he is, Ruthie. Me nor Mr. Potter ain't seen him before for nigh three months. Your uncle up and said to him, 'Why, you're a stranger, Mr. Parloe.'"
"I mean," said Ruth, with patience, "anybody whom you have never seen before—or anybody whom you might suspect would steal."
"Well," drawled Ben stubbornly, "your uncle, Ruthie, says old Jep ain't any too honest."
"I know all about that," Ruth said. "But Parloe did not leave his team and go down to the summer-house, did he?"
"Did you see anybody go down that way?"
"Don't believe I did—savin' you yourself, Ruthie."
"I left a manuscript and my pen on the table there. I ran out to meet Tom and Helen when they came."
"I seen you," said Ben.
"Then it was just about that time that somebody sneaked into that summer-house and stole those things."
"I didn't see anybody snuck in there," declared Ben, with more confidence than good English.
"Say!" ejaculated Tom, impatiently, "haven't you seen any tramp, or straggler, or Gypsy—or anybody like that?"
"Hi gorry!" suddenly said Ben, "I do remember. There was a man along here this morning—a preacher, or something like that. Had a black frock coat on and wore his hair long and sort o' wavy. He was shabby enough to be a tramp, that's a fact. But he was a real knowledgeable feller—he was that. Stood at the mill door and recited po'try for us."
"Poetry!" exclaimed Tom.
"To you and Uncle Jabez?" asked Ruth.
"Uh-huh. All about 'to be or not to be a bean—that is the question.' And something about his having suffered from the slung shots and bow arrers of outrageous fortune—whatever that might be. I guess he got it all out of the Scriptures. Your uncle said he was bugs; but I reckoned he was a preacher."
"Jimminy!" muttered Tom. "A derelict actor, I bet. Sounds like a Shakespearean ham."
"Goodness!" said Ruth. "Between the two of you boys I get a very strange idea of this person."
"Where did he go, Ben?" Tom asked.
"I didn't watch him. He only hung around a little while. I think he axed your uncle for some money, or mebbe something to eat. You see, he didn't know Mr. Potter."
"Not if he struck him for a hand-out," muttered the slangy Tom.
"Oh, Ben! don't you know whether he went toward Cheslow—or where?" cried Ruth.
"Does it look probable to you," Tom asked, "that a derelict actor—— Oh, Jimminy! Of course! He would be just the person to see the value of that play script at a glance!"
"Have you no idea where he went, Ben?" Tom again demanded of the puzzled mill hand.
"No, Mister Tom. I didn't watch him."
"I'll get out the car at once and hunt all about for him," Tom said quickly. "You go in to Helen and Aunt Alvirah, Ruth. You'll be sick if you let this get the best of you. I'll find that miserable thief of a ham actor—if he's to be found." He added this last under his breath as he ran for the shed where he had sheltered his automobile.
THE CRYING NEED
Tom Cameron chased about the neighborhood for more than two hours in his fast car hunting the trail of the man who he had decided must be a wandering theatrical performer. Of course, this was a "long shot," Tom said; but the trampish individual of whom Ben had told was much more likely to be an actor than a preacher.
Tom, however, was able to find no trace of the fellow until he got to the outskirts of Cheslow, the nearest town. Here he found a man who had seen a long-haired fellow in a shabby frock coat and black hat riding toward the railroad station beside one of the farmers who lived beyond the Red Mill. This was following the tempest which had burst over the neighborhood at mid-afternoon.
Trailing this information farther, Tom learned that the shabby man had been seen about the railroad yards. Mr. Curtis, the railroad station master, had observed him. But suddenly the tramp had disappeared. Whether he had hopped Number 10, bound north, or Number 43, bound south, both of which trains had pulled out of Cheslow within the hour, nobody could be sure.
Tom returned to the Red Mill at dusk, forced to report utter failure.
"If that bum actor stole your play, Ruth, he's got clear way with it," Tom said bluntly. "I'm awfully sorry——"
"Does that help?" demanded his sister snappishly, as though it were somewhat Tom's fault. "You go home, Tom. I'm going to stay with Ruthie to-night," and she followed her chum into the bedroom to which she had fled at Tom's announcement of failure.
"Jimminy!" murmured Tom to the old miller who was still at the supper table. "And we aren't even sure that that fellow did steal the scenario."
"Humph!" rejoined Uncle Jabez. "You'll find, if you live to be old enough, young feller, that women folks is kittle cattle. No knowing how they'll take anything. That pen cost five dollars, I allow; but them papers only had writing on 'em, and it does seem to me that what you have writ once you ought to be able to write again. That's the woman of it. She don't say a thing about that pen, Ruthie don't."
However, Tom Cameron saw farther into the mystery than Uncle Jabez appeared to. And after a day or two, with Ruth still "moping about like a moulting hen," as the miller expressed it, the young officer felt that he must do something to change the atmosphere of the Red Mill farmhouse.
"Our morale has gone stale, girls," he declared to his sister and Ruth. "Worrying never did any good yet."
"That's a true word, Sonny," said Aunt Alvirah, from her chair. "'Care killed the cat.' my old mother always said, and she had ten children to bring up and a drunken husband who was a trial. He warn't my father. He was her second, an' she took him, I guess, 'cause he was ornamental. He was a sign painter when he worked. But he mostly advertised King Alcohol by painting his nose red.
"We children sartain sure despised that man. But mother was faithful to her vows, and she made quite a decent member of the community of that man before she left off. And, le's see! We was talkin' about cats, warn't we?"
"You were, Aunty dear," said Ruth, laughing for the first time in several days.
"Hurrah!" said Tom, plunging head-first into his idea. "That's just what I wanted to hear."
"What?" demanded Helen.
"I have wanted to hear Ruth laugh. And we all need to laugh. Why, we are becoming a trio of old fogies!"
"Speak for yourself, Master Tom," pouted his sister.
"I do. And for you. And certainly Ruth is about as cheerful as a funeral mute. What we all need is some fun."
"Oh, Tom, I don't feel at all like 'funning,'" sighed Ruth.
"You be right, Sonny," interjected Aunt Alvirah, who sometimes forgot that Tom, as well as the girls, was grown up. She rose from her chair with her usual, "Oh, my back! and oh, my bones! You young folks should be dancing and frolicking——"
"But the war, Auntie!" murmured Ruth.
"You'll neither make peace nor mar it by worriting. No, no, my pretty! And 'tis a bad thing when young folks grow old before their time."
"You're always saying that, Aunt Alvirah," Ruth complained. "But how can one be jolly if one does not feel jolly?"
"My goodness!" cried Tom, "you were notoriously the jolliest girl in that French hospital. Didn't the poilus call you the jolly American? And listen to Grandmother Grunt now!"
"I suppose it is so," sighed Ruth. "But I must have used up all my fund of cheerfulness for those poor blesses. It does seem as though the font of my jollity had quite dried up."
"I wish Heavy Stone were here," said Helen suddenly. "She'd make us laugh."
"She and her French colonel are spooning down there at Lighthouse Point," scoffed Ruth—and not at all as Ruth Fielding was wont to speak.
"Say!" Tom interjected, "I bet Heavy is funny even when she is in love."
"That's a reputation!" murmured Ruth.
"They are not at Lighthouse Point. The Stones did not go there this summer, I understand," Helen observed.
"I am sorry for Jennie and Colonel Marchand if they are at the Stones' city house at this time of the year," the girl of the Red Mill said.
"Bully!" cried Tom, with sudden animation. "That's just what we will do!"
"What will we do, crazy?" demanded his twin.
"We'll get Jennie Stone and Henri Marchand—he's a good sport, too, as I very well know—and we'll all go for a motor trip. Jimminy Christmas! that will be just the thing, Sis. We'll go all over New England, if you like. We'll go Down East and introduce Colonel Marchand to some of our hard-headed and tight-fisted Yankees that have done their share towards injecting America into the war. We will——"
"Oh!" cried Ruth, breaking in with some small enthusiasm, "let's go to Beach Plum Point."
"Where is that?" asked Helen.
"It is down in Maine. Beyond Portland. And Mr. Hammond and his company are there making my 'Seaside Idyl.'"
"Oh, bully!" cried Helen, repeating one of her brother's favorite phrases, and now quite as excited over the idea as he. "I do so love to act in movies. Is there a part in that 'Idyl' story for me?"
"I cannot promise that," Ruth said. "It would be up to the director. I wasn't taking much interest in this particular picture. I wrote the scenario, you know, before I went to France. I have been giving all my thought to——
"Oh, dear! If we could only find my lost story!"
"Come on!" interrupted Tom. "Let's not talk about that. Will you write to Jennie Stone?"
"I will. At once," his sister declared.
"Do. I'll take it to the post office and send it special delivery. Tell her to wire her answer, and let it be 'yes.' We'll take both cars. Father won't mind."
"Oh, but!" cried Helen. "How about a chaperon?"
"Oh, shucks! I wish you'd marry some nice fellow, Sis, so that we'd always have a chaperon on tap and handy."
She made a little face at him. "I am going to be old-maid aunt to your many children, Tommy-boy. I am sure you will have a full quiver. We will have to look for a chaperon."
"Aunt Kate!" exclaimed Ruth. "Heavy's Aunt Kate. She is just what Helen declares she wants to be—an old-maid aunt."
"And a lovely lady," cried Helen.
"Sure. Ask her. Beg her," agreed Tom. "Tell her it is the crying need. We have positively got to have some fun."
"Well, I suppose we may as well," Ruth sighed, in agreement.
"Yes. We have always pampered the boy," declared Helen, her eyes twinkling. "I know just what I'll wear, Ruthie."
"Oh, we've clothes enough," admitted the girl of the Red Mill rather listlessly.
"Shucks!" said Tom again. "Never mind the fashions. Get that letter written, Sis."
So it was agreed. Helen wrote, the letter was sent. With Jennie Stone's usual impulsiveness she accepted for herself and "mon Henri" and Aunt Kate, promising to be at Cheslow within three days, and all within the limits of a ten-word telegram!
OFF AT LAST
"The ancients," stated Jennie Stone solemnly, "burned incense upon any and all occasions—red letter days, labor days, celebrating Columbus Day and the morning after, I presume. But we moderns burn gasoline. And, phew! I believe I should prefer the stale smoke of incense in the unventilated pyramids of Egypt to this odor of gas. O-o-o-o, Tommy, do let us get started!"
"You've started already—in your usual way," he laughed.
This was at Cheslow Station on the arrival of the afternoon up train that had brought Miss Stone, her Aunt Kate, and the smiling Colonel Henri Marchand to join the automobile touring party which Jennie soon dubbed "the later Pilgrims."
"And that big machine looks much as the Mayflower must have looked steering across Cape Cod Bay on that special occasion we read of in sacred and profane history, hung about with four-poster beds and whatnots. In our neighborhood," the plump girl added, "there is enough decrepit furniture declared to have been brought over on the Mayflower to have made a cargo for the Leviathan."
"Oh, ma chere! you do but stretch the point, eh?" demanded the handsome Henri Marchand, amazed.
"I assure you——"
"Don't, Heavy," advised Helen. "You will only go farther and do worse. In my mind there has always been a suspicion that the Mayflower was sent over here by some shipped knocked-down furniture factory. Miles Standish and Priscilla Mullins and John Alden must have hung on by their eyebrows."
"Their eyebrows—ma foi!" gasped Marchand.
"Say, old man," said Tom, laughing, "if you listen to these crazy college girls you will have a fine idea of our historical monuments, and so forth. Take everything with a grain of salt—do."
"Oui, Monsieur! But I must have a little pepper, too. I am 'strong,' as you Americans say, for plentiful seasoning."
"Isn't he cute?" demanded Jenny Stone. "He takes to American slang like a bird to the air."
"Poetry barred!" declared Helen.
"Say," Tom remarked aside to the colonel, "you've got all the pep necessary, sure enough, in Jennie."
"She is one dear!" sighed the Frenchman.
"And she just said you were a bird. You'll have a regular zoo about you yet. Come on. Let's see if we can get this baggage aboard the good ship. It does look a good deal of an ark, doesn't it?"
Although Ruth and Aunt Kate had not joined in this repartee, the girl of the Red Mill, as well as their lovely chaperon, enjoyed the fun immensely. Ruth had revived in spirits on meeting her friends. Jennie had flown to her arms at the first greeting, and hugged the girl of the Red Mill with due regard to the mending shoulder.
"My dear! My dear!" she had cried. "I dream of you lying all so pale and bloody under that window-sill stone. And what I hear of your and Tom's experiences coming over——"
"But worse has happened to me since I arrived home," Ruth said woefully.
"Yes. I have had an irreparable loss," sighed Ruth. "I'll tell you about it later."
But for the most part the greetings of the two parties was made up as Tom said of "Ohs and Ahs."
"Take it from me," the naughty Tom declared to Marchand, "two girls separated for over-night can find more to tell each other about the next morning than we could think of if we should meet at the Resurrection!"
The two Cameron cars stood in the station yard, and as the other waiting cars, taxicabs and "flivvers" departed, "the sacred odor of gasoline," which Jennie had remarked upon, was soon dissipated.
The big touring car was expertly packed with baggage, and had a big hamper on either running-board as well. There was room remaining, however, for the ladies if they would sit there. But as Tom was to drive the big car he insisted that Ruth sit with him in the front seat for company. As for his racing car, he had turned that over to Marchand. It, too, was well laden; but at the start Jennie squeezed in beside her colonel, and the maroon speeder was at once whisperingly dubbed by the others "the honeymoon car."
"Poor children!" said Aunt Kate in private to the two other girls. "They cannot marry until the war is over. That my brother is firm upon, although he thinks well of Colonel Henri. And who could help liking him? He is a most lovable boy."
"'Boy!'" repeated Ruth. "And he is one of the most famous spies France has produced in this war! And a great actor!"
"But we believe he is not acting when he tells us he loves Jennie," Aunt Kate said.
"Surely not!" cried Helen.
"He is the soul of honor," Ruth declared. "I trust him as I do—well, Tom. I never had a brother."
"I've always shared Tom with you," pouted Helen.
"So you have, dear," admitted Ruth. "But a girl who has had no really-truly brother really has missed something. Perhaps good, perhaps bad. But, at least, if you have brothers you understand men better."
"Listen to the wisdom of the owl!" scoffed Helen. "Why, Tommy is only a girl turned inside out. A girl keeps all her best and softest attributes to the fore, while a boy thinks it is more manly to show a prickly surface—like the burr of a chestnut."
"Listen to them!" exclaimed Aunt Kate, with laughter. "All the wise sayings of the ancient world must be crammed under those pretty caps you wear, along with your hair."
"That is what we get at college," said Helen seriously. "Dear old Ardmore! Ruth! won't you be glad to get back to the grind again?"
"I—don't—know," said her chum slowly. "We have seen so much greater things than college. It's going to be rather tame, isn't it?"
But this conversation was all before they were distributed into their seats and had started. Colonel Marchand was an excellent driver, and he soon understood clearly the mechanism of the smaller car. Tom gave him the directions for the first few miles and they pulled out of the yard with Mr. Curtis, the station master, and his lame daughter, who now acted as telegraph operator, waving the party good-bye.
They would not go by the way of the Red Mill, for that would take them out of the way they had chosen. The inn they had in mind to stop at on this first night was a long four hours' ride.
"Eastward, Ho!" shouted Tom. "This is to be a voyage of discovery, but don't discover any punctures or blow-outs this evening."
Then he glanced at Ruth's rather serious face beside him and muttered to himself:
"And we want to discover principally the smile that Ruth Fielding seems to have permanently lost!"
After crossing the Cheslow Hills and the Lumano by the Long Bridge about twenty miles below the Red Mill, the touring party debouched upon one of the very best State roads. They left much of the dust from which they had first suffered behind them, and Tom could now lead the way with the big car without smothering the occupants of the honeymoon car in the rear.
The highway wound along a pretty ridge for some miles, with farms dotting the landscape and lush meadows or fruit-growing farms dipping to the edge of the distant river.
"Ah," sighed Henri Marchand. "Like la belle France before the war. Such peace and quietude we knew, too. Fortunate you are, my friends, that le Boche has not trampled these fields into bloody mire."
This comment he made when they halted the cars at a certain overlook to view the landscape. But they could not stop often. Their first objective inn was still a long way ahead.
They did not, however, reach the inn, which was a resort well known to motorists. Five miles away Tom noticed that the car was acting strangely.
"What is it, Tom?" demanded Ruth quickly.
"Steering gear, I am afraid. Something is loose."
It did not take him long to make an examination, and in the meantime the second car came alongside.
"It might hold out until we get to the hotel ahead; but I think we had better stop before that time if we can," was Tom's comment. "I do not want the thing to break and send us flying over a stone wall or up a tree."
"But you can fix it, Tom?" questioned Ruth.
"Sure! But it will take half an hour or more."
After that they ran along slowly and presently came in sight of a place called the Drovers' Tavern.
"Not a very inviting place, but I guess it will do," was Ruth's announcement after they had looked the inn over.
The girls and Aunt Kate alighted at the steps while the young men wheeled the cars around to the sheds.
The housekeeper, who immediately announced herself as Susan Timmins, was fussily determined to see that all was as it should be in the ladies' chambers.
"I can't trust this gal I got to do the upstairs work," she declared, saying it through her nose and with emphasis. "Just as sure as kin be, if ye go for to help a poor relation you air always sorry for it."
She led the way up the main flight of stairs as she talked.
"This here gal will give me the nevergitovers, I know! She's my own sister's child that married a good-for-nothing and is jest like her father."
"Bella! You Bella! Turn on the light in these rooms. Is the pitchers filled? And the beds turned down? If I find a speck of dust on this furniture I'll nigh 'bout have the nevergitovers! That gal will drive me to my grave, she will. Bella!"
Bella appeared—a rather good looking child of fourteen or so, slim as a lath and with hungry eyes. She was dark—almost Gypsy-like. She stared at Ruth, Helen and Jennie with all the amazement of the usual yokel. But it was their dress, not themselves, Ruth saw, engaged Bella's interest.
"When you ladies want any help, you call for Bella," announced Miss Susan Timmins. "And if she don't come running, you let me know, and I'll give her her nevergitovers, now I tell ye!"
"No wonder this hotel is called 'Drovers' Tavern,'" said Jennie Stone. "That woman certainly is a driver—a slave driver."
Ruth, meanwhile, was trying to make a friend of Bella.
"What is your name, my dear?" she asked the lathlike girl.
"You heard it," was the ungracious reply.
"Oh! Yes. 'Bella.' But your other name?"
"Arabella Montague Fitzmaurice Pike. My father is Montague Fitzmaurice."
She said it proudly, with a lift of her tousled head and a straightening of her thin shoulders.
"Oh!" fairly gasped Ruth Fielding. "It—it sounds quite impressive, I must say. I guess you think a good deal of your father?"
"Aunt Suse don't," said the girl ungraciously. "My mother's dead. And pa is resting this season. So I hafter stay here with Aunt Suse. I hate it!"
"Your father is—er—what is his business?" Ruth asked.
"He's one of the profession."
"Lands, no! He's a heavy."
"A heavy lead—and a good one. But these moving pictures knock out all the really good people. There are no chances now for him to play Shakespearean roles——"
"Your father is an actor!" cried Ruth.
"Of course. Montague Fitzmaurice. Surely you have heard the name?" said the lathlike girl, tossing her head.
"Why—why——of course!" declared Ruth warmly. It was true. She had heard the name. Bella had just pronounced it!
"Then you know what kind of an actor my pa is," said the proud child. "He did not have a very good season last winter. He rehearsed with four companies and was only out three weeks altogether. And one of the managers did not pay at all."
"That is too bad."
"Yes. It's tough," admitted Bella. "But I liked it."
"You liked it when he was so unsuccessful?" repeated Ruth.
"Pa wasn't unsuccessful. He never is. He can play any part," declared the girl proudly. "But the plays were punk. He says there are no good plays written nowadays. That is why so many companies fail."
"But you said you liked it?"
"In New York," explained Bella. "While he was rehearsing pa could get credit at Mother Grubson's boarding house on West Forty-fourth Street. I helped her around the house. She said I was worth my keep. But Aunt Suse says I don't earn my salt here."
"I am sure you do your best, Bella," Ruth observed.
"No, I don't. Nor you wouldn't if you worked for Aunt Suse. She says I'll give her her nevergitovers—an' I hope I do!" with which final observation she ran to unlace Aunt Kate's shoes.
"Poor little thing," said Ruth to Helen. "She is worse off than an orphan. Her Aunt Susan is worse than Uncle Jabez ever was to me. And she has no Aunt Alvirah to help her to bear it. We ought to do something for her."
"There! You've begun. Every waif and stray on our journey must be aided, I suppose," pouted Helen, half exasperated.
But Tom was glad to see that Ruth had found a new interest. Bella waited on the supper table, was snapped at by Miss Timmins, and driven from pillar to post by that crotchety individual.
"Jimminy Christmas!" remarked Tom, "that Timmins woman must be a reincarnation of one of the ancient Egyptians who was overseer in the brickyard where Moses learned his trade. If they were all like her, no wonder the Israelites went on a strike and marched out of Egypt."
They were all very careful, however, not to let Miss Susan Timmins hear their comments. She had the true dictatorial spirit of the old-fashioned New England school teacher. The guests of Drovers' Tavern were treated by her much as she might have treated a class in the little red schoolhouse up the road had she presided there.
She drove the guests to their chambers by the method of turning off the electric light in the general sitting room at a quarter past ten. Each room was furnished with a bayberry candle, and she announced that the electricity all over the house would be switched off at eleven o'clock.
"That is late enough for any decent body to be up," she announced in her decisive manner. "That's when I go to bed myself. I couldn't do so in peace if I knew folks was burning them electric lights to all hours. 'Tain't safe in a thunder storm.
"Why, when we first got 'em, Jed Parraday from Wachuset come to town to do his buyin' and stayed all night with us. He'd never seed a 'lectric bulb before, and he didn't know how to blow it out. And he couldn't sleep in a room with a light.
"So, what does the tarnal old fool do but unhook the cord so't the bulb could be carried as far as the winder. And he hung it outside, shut the winder down on it, drawed the shade and went to bed in the dark.
"Elnathan Spear, the constable, seen the light a-shining outside the winder in the middle of the night and he thought 'twas burglars. He dreams of burglars, Elnathan does. But he ain't never caught none yet.
"On that occasion, howsomever, he was sure he'd got a whole gang of 'em, and he waked up the whole hotel trying to find out what was going on. I charged Parraday ha'f a dollar for burning extry 'lectricity, and he got so mad he ain't stopped at the hotel since.
"He'd give one the nevergitovers, that man would!" she concluded.
Jennie Stone slept in Ruth's bed that night because, having been parted since they were both in France, they had a great deal to say to each other—thus proving true one of Tom Cameron's statements regarding women.
Jennie was just as sympathetic—and as sleepy—as she could be and she "oh, dear, me'd" and yawned alternately all through the tale of the lost scenario and notebooks, appreciating fully how Ruth felt about it, but unable to smother the expression of her desire for sleep.
"Maybe we ought not to have come on this automobile trip," said Jennie. "If the thief just did it to be mean and is somebody who lives around the Red Mill, perhaps you might have discovered something by mingling with the neighbors."
"Oh! Tom did all that," sighed Ruth. "And without avail. He searched the neighborhood thoroughly, although he is confident that a tramp carried it off. And that seems reasonable. I am almost sure, Heavy, that my scenario will appear under the trademark of some other producing manager than Mr. Hammond."
"Oh! How mean!"
"Well, a thief is almost the meanest person there is in the world, don't you think so? Except a backbiter. And anybody mean enough to steal my scenario must be mean enough to try to make use of it."
"Oh, dear! Ow-oo-ooo! Scuse me, Ruth. Yes, I guess you are right. But can't you stop the production of the picture?"
"How can I do that?"
"I don't——ow-oo!——know. Scuse me, dear."
"Most pictures are made in secret, anyway. The public knows nothing about them until the producer is ready to make their release."
"I—ow-oo!—I see," yawned Jennie.
"Even the picture play magazines do not announce them until the first runs. Then, sometimes, there is a synopsis of the story published. But it will be too late, then. Especially when I have no notes of my work, nor any witnesses. I told no living soul about the scenario—what it was about, or——"
"Why, Heavy!" murmured the scandalized Ruth.
"Sh-sh-sh—whoo!" breathed the plump girl, with complete abandon.
"My goodness!" exclaimed Ruth, tempted to shake her, "if you snore like that when you are married, Henri will have to sleep at the other end of the house."
But this was completely lost on the tired Jennie Stone, who continued to breathe heavily until Ruth herself fell asleep. It seemed as though the latter had only closed her eyes when the sun shining into her face awoke the girl of the Red Mill. The shades of the east window had been left up, and it was sunrise.
Plenty of farm noises outside the Drovers' Tavern, as well as a stir in the kitchen, assured Ruth that there were early risers here. Jennie, rolled in more than her share of the bedclothes, continued to breathe as heavily as she had the night before.
But suddenly Ruth was aware that there was somebody besides herself awake in the room. She sat up abruptly in bed and reached to seize Jennie's plump shoulder. Ruth had to confess she was much excited, if not frightened.
Then, before she touched the still sleeping Jennie Stone, Ruth saw the intruder. The door from the anteroom was ajar. A steaming agateware can of water stood on the floor just inside this door. Before the bureau which boasted a rather large mirror for a country hotel bedroom, pivoted the thin figure of Arabella Montague Fitzmaurice Pike!
From the neatly arranged outer clothing of the two girls supposedly asleep in the big four-poster, Bella had selected a skirt of Ruth's and a shirt-waist of Jennie's, arraying herself in both of these borrowed garments. She was now putting the finishing touch to her costume by setting Ruth's cap on top of her black, fly-away mop of hair.
Turning about and about before the glass, Bella was so much engaged in admiring herself that she forgot the hot water she was supposed to carry to the various rooms. Nor did she see Ruth sitting up in bed looking at her in dawning amusement. Nor did she, as she pirouetted there, hear her Nemesis outside in the hall.
The door suddenly creaked farther open. The grim face of Miss Susan Timmins appeared at the aperture.
"Oh!" gasped Ruth Fielding aloud.
Bella turned to glance in startled surprise at the girl in bed. And at that moment Miss Timmins bore down upon the child like a shrike on a chippy-bird.
"Ow-ouch!" shrieked Bella.
"Oh, don't!" begged Ruth.
"What is it? Goodness! Fire!" cried Jennie Stone, who, when awakened suddenly, always remembered the dormitory fire at Briarwood Hall.
"You little pest! I'll larrup ye good! I'll give ye your nevergitovers!" sputtered the hotel housekeeper.
But the affrighted Bella wriggled away from her aunt's bony grasp. She dodged Miss Timmins about the marble-topped table, retreated behind the hair-cloth sofa, and finally made a headlong dash for the door, while Jennie continued to shriek for the fire department.
Ruth leaped out of bed. In her silk pajamas and slippers, and without any wrap, she hurried to reach, and try to separate, the struggling couple near the door.
Miss Timmins delivered several hearty slaps upon Bella's face and ears. The child shrieked. She got away again and plunged into the can of hot water.
Over this went, flooding the rag-carpet for yards around.
"Fire! Fire!" Jennie continued to shriek.
Helen dashed in from the next room, dressed quite as lightly as Ruth, and just in time to see the can spilled.
"Oh! Water! Water!"
"Drat that young one!" barked Miss Timmins, ignoring the flood and everything else save her niece—even the conventions.
She dashed after Bella. The latter had disappeared into the hall through the anteroom.
"Oh, the poor child!" cried sympathetic Ruth, and followed in the wake of the angry housekeeper.
"Fire! Fire!" moaned Jennie Stone.
"Cat's foot!" snapped Helen Cameron. "It's water—and it is flooding the whole room."
She ran to set the can upright—after the water was all out of it. Without thinking of her costume, Ruth Fielding ran to avert Bella's punishment if she could. She knew the aunt was beside herself with rage, and Ruth feared that the woman would, indeed, give Bella her "nevergetovers."
The corridor of the hotel was long, running from front to rear of the main building. The window at the rear end of it overlooked the roof of the back kitchen. This window was open, and when Ruth reached the corridor Bella was going head-first through the open window, like a circus clown diving through a hoop.
She had discarded Jennie's shirt-waist between the bedroom and the window. But Ruth's skirt still flapped about the child's thin shanks.
Miss Timmins, breathing threatenings and slaughter, raced down the hall in pursuit. Ruth followed, begging for quarter for the terrified child.
But the housekeeper went through the open window after Bella, although in a more conventional manner, paying no heed to Ruth's plea. The frightened girl, however, escaped her aunt's clutch by slipping off the borrowed skirt and descending the trumpet-vine trellis by the kitchen door.
"Do let her go, Miss Timmins!" begged Ruth, as the panting woman, carrying Ruth's skirt, returned to the window where the girl of the Red Mill stood. "She is scared to death. She was doing no harm."
"I'll thank you to mind your own business, Miss," snapped Miss Timmins hotly. "I declare! A girl growed like you running 'round in men's overalls—or, what be them things you got on?"
At this criticism Ruth Fielding fled, taking the skirt and Jennie's shirt-waist with her. But Aunt Kate was aroused now and the four women of the automobile party swiftly slipped into their negligees and appeared in the hall again, to meet Tom and Colonel Marchand who came from their room only partly dressed.
The critical Miss Timmins had darted downstairs, evidently in pursuit of her unfortunate niece. The guests crowded to the back window.
"Where did she go?" demanded Tom, who had heard some explanation of the early morning excitement. "Is she running away?"
"What a child!" gasped Aunt Kate.
"My waist!" moaned Jennie.
"Look at Ruth's skirt!" exclaimed Helen.
"I do not care for the skirt," the girl of the Red Mill declared. "It is Bella."
"Her aunt will about give her those 'nevergetovers' she spoke of," chuckled Tom.
"Ma foi! look you there," exclaimed Colonel Marchand, pointing through the window that overlooked the rear premises of the hotel.
At top speed Miss Timmins was crossing the yard toward the big hay barn. Bella had taken refuge in that structure, and the housekeeper's evident intention was to harry her out. The woman grasped a clothes-stick with which she proposed to castigate her niece.
"The cruel thing!" exclaimed Helen, the waters of her sympathy rising for Bella Pike now.
"There's the poor kid!" said Tom.
Bella appeared at an open door far up in the peak of the haymow. The hay was packed solidly under the roof; but there was an air space left at either end.
"She has put herself into the so-tight corner—no?" suggested the young Frenchman.
"You've said it!" agreed Tom. "Why! it's regular movie stunts. She's come up the ladders to the top of the mow. If auntie follows her, I don't see that the kid can do anything but jump!"
"Tom! Never!" cried Ruth.
"He is fooling," said Jennie.
"Tell me how she can dodge that woman, then," demanded Tom.
"Ah!" murmured Henri Marchand. "She have arrive'."
Miss Timmins appeared at the door behind Bella. The spectators heard the girl's shriek. The housekeeper struck at her with the clothes stick. And then——
"Talk about movie stunts!" shouted Tom Cameron, for the frightened Bella leaped like a cat upon the haymow door and swung outward with nothing more stable than air between her and the ground, more than thirty feet below!
THE AUCTION BLOCK
Helen Cameron and Jennie Stone shrieked in unison when Miss Susan Timmins' niece cast herself out of the haymow upon the plank door and swung as far as the door would go upon its creaking hinges. Ruth seized Tom's wrist in a nervous grip, but did not utter a word. Aunt Kate turned away and covered her eyes with her hands that she might not see the reckless child fall—if she did fall.
"Name of a name!" murmured Henri Marchand. "Au secours! Come, Tom, mon ami—to the rescue!"
He turned and ran lightly along the hall and down the stairs. But Tom went through the window, almost as precipitately as had Bella Pike herself, and so over the roof of the kitchen ell and down the trumpet-vine trellis.
Tom was in the yard and running to the barn before Marchand got out of the kitchen. Several other people, early as the hour was, appeared running toward the rear premises of Drovers' Tavern.
"See that crazy young one!" some woman shrieked. "I know she'll kill herself yet."
"Stop that!" commanded Tom, looking up and shaking a threatening hand at Miss Timmins.
For in her rage the woman was trying to strike her niece with the stick, as Bella clung to the door.
"Mind your own business, young man!" snapped the virago. "And go back and put the rest of your clothes on. You ain't decent."
Tom was scarcely embarrassed by this verbal attack. The case was too serious for that. Miss Timmins struck at the girl again, and only missed the screaming Bella by an inch or so.
Helen and Jennie screamed in unison, and Ruth herself had difficulty in keeping her lips closed. The cruel rage of the hotel housekeeper made her quite unfit to manage such a child as Bella, and Ruth determined to interfere in Bella's behalf at the proper time.
"I wish she would pitch out of that door herself!" cried Helen recklessly.
Tom had run into the barn and was climbing the ladders as rapidly as possible to the highest loft. Scolding and striking at her victim, Miss Susan Timmins continued to act like the mad woman she was. And Bella, made desperate at last by fear, reached for the curling edges of the shingles on the eaves above her head.
"Don't do that, child!" shrieked Jennie Stone.
But Bella scrambled up off the swinging door and pulled herself by her thin arms on to the roof of the barn. There she was completely out of her aunt's reach.
"Oh, the plucky little sprite!" cried Helen, in delight.
"But—but she can't get down again," murmured Aunt Kate. "There is no scuttle in that roof."
"Tom will find a way," declared Ruth Fielding with confidence.
"And my Henri," put in Jennie. "That horrid old creature!"
"She should be punished for this," agreed Ruth. "I wonder where the child's father is."
"Didn't you find out last night?" Helen asked.
"Only that he is 'resting'."
"Some poor, miserable loafer, is he?" demanded Aunt Kate, with acrimony.
"No. It seems that he is an actor," Ruth explained. "He is out of work."
"But he can't think anything of his daughter to see her treated like this," concluded Aunt Kate.
"She is very proud of him. His professional name is Montague Fitzmaurice."
"Some name!" murmured Jennie.
"Their family name is Pike," said Ruth, still seriously. "I do not think the man can know how this aunt treats little Bella. There's Tom!"
The young captain appeared behind the enraged housekeeper at the open door of the loft. One glance told him what Bella had done. He placed a firm hand on Miss Timmins' shoulder.
"If you had made that girl fall you would go to jail," Tom said sternly. "You may go, yet. I will try to put you there. And in any case you shall not have the management of the child any longer. Go back to the house!"
For once the housekeeper was awed. Especially when Henri Marchand, too, appeared in the loft.
"Madame will return to the house. We shall see what can be done for the child. Gare!"
Perhaps the woman was a little frightened at last by what she had done—or what she might have done. At least, she descended the ladders to the ground floor without argument.
The two young men planned swiftly how to rescue the sobbing child. But when Tom first spoke to Bella, proposing to help her down, she looked over the edge of the roof at him and shook her head.
"No! I ain't coming down," she announced emphatically. "Aunt Suse will near about skin me alive."
"She shall not touch you," Tom promised.
"She'll give me my nevergitovers, just as she says. You can't stay here and watch her."
"But we'll find a way to keep her from beating you when we are gone," Tom promised. "Don't you fear her at all."
"I don't care where you put me, Aunt Suse will find me out. She'll send Elnathan Spear after me."
"I don't know who Spear is——"
"He's the constable," sobbed Bella.
"Well, he sha'n't spear you," declared Tom. "Come on, kid. Don't be scared, and we'll get you down all right."
He found the clothes-stick Miss Timmins had abandoned and used it for a brace. With a rope tied to the handle of the plank door and drawn taut, it was held half open. Tom then climbed out upon and straddled the door and raised his arms to receive the girl when she lowered herself over the eaves.
She was light enough—little more than skin and bone, Tom declared—and the latter lowered her without much effort into Henri's arms.
When the three girls and Aunt Kate at the tavern window saw this safely accomplished they hurried back to their rooms to dress.
"Something must be done for that poor child," Ruth Fielding said with decision.
"Are you going to adopt her?" Helen asked.
"And send her to Briarwood?" put in Jennie.
"That might be the very best thing that could happen to her," Ruth rejoined soberly. "She has lived at times in a theatrical boarding house and has likewise traveled with her father when he was with a more or less prosperous company.
"These experiences have made her, after a fashion, grown-up in her ways and words. But in most things she is just as ignorant as she can be. Her future is not the most important thing just now. It is her present."
Helen heard the last word from the other room where she was dressing, and she cried:
"That's it, Ruthie. Give her a present and tell her to run away from her aunt. She's a spiteful old thing!"
"You do not mean that!" exclaimed her chum. "You are only lazy and hate responsibility of any kind. We must do something practical for Bella Pike."
"How easily she says 'we'," Helen scoffed.
"I mean it. I could not sleep to-night if I knew this child was in her aunt's control."
A knock on the door interrupted the discussion. Ruth, who was quite dressed now, responded. A lout of a boy, who evidently worked about the stables, stood grinning at the door.
"Miz Timmins says you folks kin all get out. She won't have you served no breakfast. She don't want none of you here."
"My goodness!" wailed Jennie. "Dispossessed—and without breakfast!"
"Where is the proprietor of this hotel, boy?" Ruth asked.
"You mean Mr. Drovers? He ain't here. Gone to Boston. But that wouldn't make no dif'rence. Suse Timmins is boss."
"Oh, me! Oh, my!" groaned Jennie, to whom the prospect was tragic. Jennie's appetite was never-failing.
The boy slouched away just as Tom and Henri Marchand appeared with Bella between them.
"You poor, dear child!" cried Ruth, running along the hall to meet them.
Bella struggled to escape from the boys. But Tom and Colonel Marchand held her by either hand.
"Easy, young one!" advised Captain Cameron.
"I never meant to do no harm, Miss!" cried Bella. "I—I just wanted to see how I'd look in them clothes. I never do have anything decent to wear."
"Why, my dear, don't mind about that," said Ruth, taking the lathlike girl in her arms. "If you had asked us we would have let you try on the things, I am sure."
"Aunt Suse would near 'bout give me my nevergitovers—and she will yet!"
"No she won't," Ruth reassured her. "Don't be afraid of your aunt any longer."
"That is what I tell her," Tom said warmly.
"Say! You won't put me in no home, will you?" asked Bella, with sudden anxiety.
"A 'home'?" repeated Ruth, puzzled.
"She means a charitable institution, poor dear," said Aunt Kate.
"That's it, Missus," Bella said. "I knew a girl that was out of one of them homes. She worked for Mrs. Grubson. She said all the girls wore brown denim uniforms and had their hair slicked back and wasn't allowed even to whisper at table or after they got to bed at night."
"Nothing like that shall happen to you," Ruth declared.
"Where is your father, Bella?" Tom asked.
"I don't know. Last I saw of him he came through here with a medicine show. I didn't tell Aunt Suse, but I ran away at night and went to Broxton to see him. But he said business was poor. He got paid so much a bottle commission on the sales of Chief Henry Red-dog's Bitters. He didn't think the show would keep going much longer."
"You know, they didn't know he was Montague Fitzmaurice, the great Shakespearean actor. Pa often takes such jobs. He ain't lazy like Aunt Suse says. Why, once he took a job as a ballyhoo at a show on the Bowery in Coney Island. But his voice ain't never been what it was since."
"Do you expect him to return here for you?" Ruth asked, while the other listeners exchanged glances and with difficulty kept their faces straight.
"Oh, yes, Miss. Just as soon as he is in funds. Or he'll send for me. He always does. He knows I hate it here."
"Does he know how your aunt treats you?" Aunt Kate interrupted.
"N—not exactly," stammered Bella. "I haven't told him all. I don't want to bother him. It—it ain't always so bad."
"I tell you it's got to stop!" Tom said, with warmth.
"Of course she shall not remain in this woman's care any longer," Aunt Kate agreed.
"But we must not take Bella away from this locality," Ruth observed. "When her father comes back for her she must be here—somewhere."
"Oh, lady!" exclaimed Bella. "Send me to New York to Mrs. Grubson's. I bet she'd keep me till pa opens somewhere in a good show."
But Ruth shook her head. She had her doubts about the wisdom of the child's being in such a place as Mrs. Grubson's boarding house, no matter how kindly disposed that woman might be.
"Bella should stay near here," Ruth said firmly, "as long as we cannot communicate with Mr. Pike at once."
"Let's write a notice for one of the theatrical papers," suggested Helen eagerly. "You know—'Montague Fitzmaurice please answer.' All the actors do it."
"But pa don't always have the money to buy the papers," said Bella, taking the suggestion quite seriously.
"At least, if Bella is in this neighborhood he will know where to find her," went on Ruth. "Is there nobody you know here, child, whom you would like to stay with till your father returns?"
Bella's face instantly brightened. Her black eyes flashed.
"Oh, I'd like to stay at the minister's," she said.
"At the minister's?" repeated Ruth. "Why, if he would take you that would be fine. Who is he?"
"The Reverend Driggs," said Bella.
"Do you suppose the clergyman would take the child?" murmured Aunt Kate.
"Why do you want to go to live with the minister?" asked Tom with curiosity.
"'Cause he reads the Bible so beautifully," declared Bella. "Why! it sounds just like pa reading a play. The Reverend Driggs is an educated man like pa. But he's got an awful raft of young ones."
"A poor minister," said Aunt Kate briskly. "I am afraid that would not suit."
"If the Driggs family is already a large one," began Ruth doubtfully, when Bella declared:
"Miz Driggs had two pairs of twins, and one ever so many times. There's a raft of 'em."
Helen and Jennie burst out laughing at this statement and the others were amused. But to Ruth Fielding this was a serious matter. The placing of Bella Pike in a pleasant home until her father could be communicated with, or until he appeared on the scene ready and able to care for the child, was even more serious than the matter of going without breakfast, although Jennie Stone said "No!" to this.
"We'd better set up an auction block before the door of the hotel and auction her off to the highest bidder, hadn't we?" suggested Helen, who had been rummaging in her bag. "Here, Bella! If you want a shirt-waist to take the place of that calico blouse you have on, here is one. One of mine. And I guarantee it will fit you better than Heavy's did. She wears an extra size."
"I don't either," flashed the plump girl, as the boys retreated from the room. "I may not be a perfect thirty-six——"
"Is there any doubt of it?" cried Helen, the tease.
"Never mind," Ruth said. "Jennie is going to be thinner."
"And it seems she will begin to diet this very morning," Aunt Kate put in.
"Ow-wow!" moaned Jennie at this reminder that they had been refused breakfast.
Captain Tom, however, had handled too many serious situations in France to be browbeaten by a termagant like Miss Susan Timmins. He went down to the kitchen, ordered a good breakfast for all of his party, and threatened to have recourse to the law if the meal was not well and properly served.
"For you keep a public tavern," he told the sputtering Miss Timmins, "and you cannot refuse to serve travelers who are willing and able to pay. We are on a pleasure trip, and I assure you, Madam, it will be a pleasure to get you into court for any cause."
On coming back to the front of the house he found two of the neighbors just entering. One proved to be the local doctor's wife and the other was a kindly looking farmer.
"I knowed that girl warn't being treated right, right along," said the man. "And I told Mirandy that I was going to put a stop to it."
"It is a disgrace," said the doctor's wife, "that we should have allowed it to go on so long. I will take the child myself——"
"And so'll Mirandy," declared the farmer.
"It is an auction," whispered Helen, overhearing this from the top of the stairs.
The party of guests came down with their bags now, bringing Bella in their midst—and in the new shirt-waist.
"Let her choose which of these kind people she will stay with," Tom advised. "And," he added, in a low voice to Ruth, "we will pay for her support until we can find her father."
"Like fun you will, young feller!" snorted the farmer, overhearing Tom.
"I could not hear of such a thing," said the doctor's wife.
"I'd like to know what you people think you're doing?" demanded Miss Timmins, popping out at them suddenly.
"Now, Suse Timmins, we're a-goin' to do what we neighbors ought to have done long ago. We're goin' to take this gal——"
"You start anything like that—taking that young one away from her lawful guardeen—an' I'll get Elnathan Spear after you in a hurry, now I tell ye. I'll give you your nevergitovers!"
"If Nate Spear comes to my house, I'll ask him to pay me for that corn he bought off'n me as long ago as last fall," chuckled the farmer. "Just because you're own cousin to Nate don't put all the law an' the gospel on your side, Suse Timmins. I'll take good care of this girl."
"And so will I, if Bella wants to live with me," said the doctor's wife.
"Mirandy will be glad to have her."
"And she'd be company for me," rejoined the other neighbor. "I haven't any children."
"Bella must choose for herself," said Ruth kindly.
"I guess I'll go with Mr. Perkins," said the actor's daughter. "Miz Holmes is real nice; but Doctor Holmes gives awful tastin' medicine. I might be sick there and have to take some of it. So I'll go to Miz Perkins. She has a doctor from Maybridge and he gives candy-covered pellets. I ate some once. Besides, Miz Perkins is lame and can't get around so spry, and I can do more for her."
"Now listen to that!" exclaimed the farmer. "Ain't she a noticing child?"
"Well, Mrs. Perkins will be good to her, no doubt," agreed the doctor's wife.
"I'd like to know what you fresh city folks butted into this thing for!" demanded Miss Timmins. "If there's any law in the land——"
"You'll get it!" promised Tom Cameron.
"Go get anything you own that you want to take with you, Bella," Ruth advised the shrinking child.
With another fearful glance at her aunt, Bella ran upstairs.
Miss Timmins might have started after her, but Tom planted himself before that door. The lout of a boy began bringing in the breakfast for the automobile party. Ruth talked privately with the doctor's wife and Mr. Perkins, and forced some money on the woman to be expended for a very necessary outfit of clothing for Bella.
Miss Timmins finally flounced back into the kitchen where they heard her venting her anger and chagrin on the kitchen help. Bella returned bearing an ancient extension bag crammed full of odds and ends. She kissed Ruth and shook hands with the rest of the company before departing with Mr. Perkins.
The doctor's wife promised to write to Ruth as soon as anything was heard of Mr. Pike, and the automobile party turned their attention to ham and eggs, stewed potatoes, and griddle cakes.
"Only," said Jennie, sepulchrally, "I hope the viands are not poisoned. That Miss Timmins would certainly like to give us all our 'nevergetovers'."
A DISMAYING DISCOVERY
"'The Later Pilgrims' are well out of that trouble," announced Helen, when the cars were underway, the honeymoon car ahead and the other members of the party packed into the bigger automobile.
"And I hope," she added, "that Ruth will find no more waifs and strays."
"Don't be knocking Ruthie all the time," said Tom, glancing back over his shoulder. "She's all right."
"And you keep your eyes straight ahead, young man," advised Aunt Kate, "or you will have this heavy car in the ditch."
"Watch out for Henri and Heavy, too," advised Helen. "They do not quite know what they are about and you may run them down. There! See his horizon-blue sleeve steal about her? He's got only one hand left to steer with. Talk about a perfect thirty-six! It's lucky Henri's arm is phenomenally long, or he could never surround that baby!"
"I declare, Helen," laughed Ruth. "I believe you are covetous."
"Well, Henri is an awfully nice fellow—for a Frenchman."
"And you are the damsel who declared you proposed to remain an old maid forever and ever and the year after."
"I can be an old maid and still like the boys, can't I? All the more, in fact. I sha'n't have to be true to just one man, which, I believe, would be tedious."
"You should live in that part of New York called Greenwich Village and wear a Russian blouse and your hair bobbed. Those are the kind of bon mots those people throw off in conversation. Light and airy persiflage, it is called," said Tom from the front seat.
"What do you know about such people, Tommy?" demanded his sister.
"There were some co-eds of that breed I met at Cambridge. They were exponents of the 'new freedom,' whatever that is. Bolshevism, I guess. Freedom from both law and morals."
"Those are not the kind of girls who are helping in France," said Ruth soberly.
"You said it!" agreed Tom. "That sort are so busy riding hobbies over here that they have no interest in what is going on in Europe unless it may be in Russia. Well, thank heaven, there are comparatively few nuts compared with us sane folks."
Such thoughts as these, however, did not occupy their minds for long. Just as Tom had declared, they were out for fun, and the fun could be found almost anywhere by these blithe young folk.
Ruth's face actually changed as they journeyed on. She was both "pink and pretty," Helen declared, before they camped at the wayside for luncheon.
The hampers on the big car were crammed with all the necessities of food and service for several meals. There were, too, twin alcohol lamps, a coffee boiler and a teapot.
Altogether they were making a very satisfactory meal and were having a jolly time at the edge of a piece of wood when a big, black wood-ant dropped down Jennie Stone's back.
At first they did not know what the matter was with her. Her mouth was full, the food in that state of mastication that she could not immediately swallow it.
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" choked the plump girl, trying to get both hands at once down the neck of her shirt-waist.
"What is the matter, Heavy?" gasped Helen.
"Jennie, dear!" murmured Ruth. "Don't!"
"Ma chere!" gasped Henri Marchand. "Is she ill?"
"Jennie, behave yourself!" cried her aunt.
"I saw a toad swallow a hornet once," Tom declared. "She acts just the same way."
"As the hornet?" demanded his sister, beginning to giggle.
"As the toad," answered Tom, gravely.
But Henri had got to his feet and now reached the wriggling girl. "Let me try to help!" he cried.
"If you even begin wiggling that way, Colonel Marchand," declared Helen, "you will be in danger of arrest. There is a law against that dance."
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" burst out Jennie once more, actually in danger of choking.
"What is it?" Ruth demanded, likewise reaching the writhing girl.
"Oh, he bit me!" finally exploded Jennie.
Ruth guessed what must be the trouble then, and she forced Jennie's hands out of the neck of her waist and ran her hand down the plump girl's back. Between them they killed the ant, for Ruth finally recovered a part of the unfortunate creature.
"But just think," consoled Helen, "how much more awful it would have been if you had swallowed him, Heavy, instead of his wriggling down your spinal column."
"Oh, don't! I can feel him wriggling now," sighed Jennie.
"That can be nothing more than his ghost," said Tom soberly, "for Ruth retrieved at least half of the ant's bodily presence."
"You'll give us all the fidgets if you keep on wriggling, Jennie," declared Aunt Kate.
"Well, I don't want to sit on the grass in a woodsy place again while we are on this journey," sighed Jennie. "Ugh! I always did hate creepy things."
"Including spiders, snakes, beetles and babies, I suppose?" laughed Helen. "Come on now. Let us clear up the wreck. Where do we camp to-night, Tommy?"
"No more camping, I pray!" squealed Jennie. "I am no Gypsy."
"The hotel at Hampton is recommended as the real thing. They have a horse show every year at Hampton, you know. It is in the midst of a summer colony of wealthy people. It is the real thing," Tom repeated.
They made a pleasant and long run that afternoon and arrived at the Hampton hotel in good season to dress for dinner. Jennie and her aunt met some people they knew, and naturally Jennie's fiance and her friends were warmly welcomed by the gay little colony.
Men at the pleasure resorts were very scarce that year, and here were two perfectly good dancers. So it was very late when the automobile party got away from the dance at the Casino.
They were late the next morning in starting on the road to Boston. Besides, there was thunder early, and Helen, having heard it rumbling, quoted:
"'Thunder in the morning, Sailors take warning!'"
and rolled over for another nap.
Ruth, however, at last had to get up. She was no "lie-abed" in any case, and in her present nervous state she had to be up and doing.
"But it's going to ra-a-ain!" whined Jennie Stone when Ruth went into her room.
"You're neither sugar nor salt," said Ruth.
"Henri says I'm as sweet as sugar," yawned Jennie.
"He is not responsible for what he says about you," said her aunt briskly. "When I think of what that really nice young man is taking on his shoulders when he marries you——"
"But, Auntie!" cried Jennie, "he's not going to try to carry me pickaback, you know."
"Just the same, it is wrong for us to encourage him to become responsible for you, Jennie," said her aunt. "He really should be warned."
"Oh!" gasped the plump girl. "Let anybody dare try to get between me and my Henri——"
"Nobody can—no fear—when you are sitting with him in the front seat of that roadster of Tom's," said Ruth. "You fill every atom of space, Heavy."
She went to the window and looked out again. Heavy rolled out of bed—a good deal like a barrel, her aunt said tartly.
"What is it doing outside?" yawned the plump girl.
"Well, it's not raining. And it is a long run to Boston. We should be on our way now. The road through the hills is winding. There will be no time to stop for a Gypsy picnic."
"Thank goodness for that!" grumbled Jennie, sitting on the floor, schoolgirl fashion, to draw on her stockings. "I'll eat enough at breakfast hereafter to keep me alive until we reach a hotel, if you folks insist on inviting wood ants and other savage creatures of the forest to our luncheon table."
When the party finally gathered for breakfast in the hotel dining room on this morning, it was disgracefully late. Tom had been over both cars and pronounced them fit. He had ordered the tanks filled with gasoline and had tipped one of the garage men liberally to see that this was properly done.
Afterward Captain Tom declared he would never trust a garage workman again.
"The only way to get a thing done well is to do it yourself—and a tip never bought any special service yet," declared the angry Tom. "It is merely a form of highway robbery."
But this was afterward. The party started off from Hampton in high fettle and with a childlike trust in the honesty of a garage attendant.
There were banks of clouds shrouding the horizon both to the west and north—the two directions from which thunder showers usually rise in this part of New England in which they were traveling. And yet the shower held off.
It was some time past noon before the thunder began to mutter again. The automobile party was then in the hilly country. Heretofore farms had been plentiful, although hamlets were few and far between.
"If it rains," said Ruth cheerfully, "of course we can take refuge in some farmhouse."
"Ho, for adventure among the savage natives!" cried Helen.
"I hope we shall meet nobody quite as savage as Miss Susan Timmins," was Aunt Kate's comment.
They ran into a deep cut between two wooded hills and there was not a house in sight. Indeed, they had not passed a farmstead on the road for the last five miles. Over the top of the wooded crest to the north curled a slate colored storm cloud, its upper edge trembling with livid lightnings. The veriest tyro of a weather prophet could see that a storm was about to break. But nobody had foretold the sudden stopping of the honeymoon car in the lead!
"What is the matter with you?" cried Helen, standing up in the tonneau of the big car, when Tom pulled up suddenly to keep from running the maroon roadster down. "Don't you see it is going to rain? We want to get somewhere."
"I guess we have got somewhere," responded Jennie Stone. "As far as we are concerned, this seems to be our stopping place. The old car won't go."
Tom jumped out and hurried forward to join Henri in an examination of the car's mechanism.
"What happened, Colonel?" he asked the Frenchman, worriedly.
"I have no idea, mon ami," responded Marchand. "This is a puzzle, eh?"
"First of all, let's put up the tops. That rain is already beating the woods on the summit of the hill."
The two young men hurried to do this, first sheltering Jennie and then together dragging the heavy top over the big car, covering the baggage and passengers. Helen and Ruth could fasten the curtains, and soon the women of the party were snug enough. The drivers, however, had to get into rain garments and begin the work of hunting the trouble with the roadster.
The thunder grew louder and louder. Flashes of lightning streaked across the sky overhead. The electric explosions were soon so frequent and furious that the girls cowered together in real terror. Jennie had slipped out of the small car and crowded in with her chums and Aunt Kate.
"I don't care!" she wailed, "Henri and Tom are bound to take that car all to pieces to find what has happened."
But they did not have to go as far as that. In fact, before the rain really began to fall in earnest, Tom made the tragic discovery. There was scarcely a drop of gasoline in the tank of the small machine. Tom hurried back to the big car. He glanced at the dial of the gasoline tank. There was not enough of the fluid to take them a mile! And the emergency tank was turned on!
It was at this point that he stated his opinion of the trustworthiness of garage workmen.
A WILD AFTERNOON
This was a serious situation. Five miles behind the automobile party was the nearest dwelling on this road, and Tom was sure that the nearest gasoline sign was all of five miles further back!
Ahead lay more or less mystery. As the rain began to drum upon the roofs of the two cars, harder and harder and faster and faster, Tom got out the road map and tried to figure out their location. Ridgeton was ahead somewhere—not nearer than six miles, he was sure. And the map showed no gas sign this side of Ridgeton.
Of course there might be some wayside dwelling only a short distance ahead at which enough gasoline could be secured to drive the smaller car to Ridgeton for a proper supply for both machines. But if all the gasoline was drained from the tank of the big car into that of the roadster, the latter would be scarcely able to travel another mile. And without being sure that such a supply of gas could be found within that distance, why separate the two cars?
This was the sensible way Tom put it to Henri; and it was finally decided that Tom should start out on foot with an empty can and hunt for gasoline, while Colonel Marchand remained with the girls and Aunt Kate.
When the two young men ran back through the pouring rain to the big car and announced this decision, they had to shout to make the girls hear. The turmoil of the rain and thunder was terrific.
"I really wish you'd wait, Tom, till the tempest is over," Ruth anxiously said. "Suppose something happened to you on the road?"
"Suppose something happened to us here in the auto?" shrieked Helen.
"But Henri Marchand will be with you," said her brother, preparing to depart. "And if I delay we may not reach Boston to-night."
"Oh!" gasped Jennie. "Do please find some gas, Tom. I'd be scared to death to stay out here in these woods."
"One of the autos may bite her," scoffed Helen, ready to scorn her own fears when her friend was even more fearful. "These cars are the wildest thing in these woods, I warrant."
"Of course you must do what you think is best, Tom," said Ruth, gravely. "I hope you will not have to go far."
"No matter how long I am gone, Ruth, don't be alarmed," he told her. "You know, nothing serious ever happens to me."
"Oh, no!" cried his sister. "Of course not! Only you get carried away on a Zeppelin, or are captured by the Germans and Ruth has to go to your rescue. We know all about how immune you are from trouble, young man."
"Thanks be! there are no Boches here in peaceful New England," exclaimed Jennie, after Tom had started off with the gasoline can. "Oh!"
A sharp clap of thunder seemingly just overhead followed the flash that had made the plump girl shriek. The explosion reverberated between the hills in slowly passing cadence.
Jennie finally removed her fingers from her ears with a groan. Aunt Kate had covered her eyes. With Helen they cowered together in the tonneau. Ruth had been sitting beside Tom in the front seat when the cars were stalled, and now Henri Marchand was her companion.
"I heard something then, Colonel," Ruth said in a low tone, when the salvo of thunder was passed.
"You are fortunate, Mademoiselle," he returned. "Me, I am deafened complete'."
"I heard a cry."
"Not from Captain Cameron?"
"It was not his voice. Listen!" said the girl of the Red Mill, in some excitement.
Despite the driving rain she put her head out beyond the curtain and listened. Her face was sheltered from the beating rain. It would have taken her breath had she faced it. Again the lightning flashed and the thunder crashed on its trail.
Ruth did not draw in her head. She wore her raincoat and a rubber cap, and on her feet heavy shoes. The storm did not frighten her. She might be anxious for Tom's safety, but the ordinary chances of such a disturbance of the elements as this never bothered Ruth Fielding at all.
As the rolling of thunder died away in the distance again, the splashing sound of the rain seemed to grow lighter, too; or Ruth's hearing became attuned to the sounds about her.
There it was again! A human cry! Or was it? It came from up the hillside to the north of the road on which the automobiles were stalled.
Was there somebody up there in the wet woods—some human creature lost in the storm?
For a third time Ruth heard the wailing, long-drawn cry. Henri had his hands full soothing Jennie. Helen and Aunt Kate were clinging together in the depths of the tonneau. Possibly their eyes were covered against the glare of the lightning.
Ruth slipped out under the curtain on the leeward side. The rain swept down the hillside in solid platoons that marched one after another from northwest to southeast. Dashing against the southern hillside, these marching columns dissolved in torrents that Ruth could hear roaring down from the tree-tops and rushing in miniature floods through the forest.
The road was all awash. The cars stood almost hub-deep in a yellow, foaming flood. The roadside ditches were not deep here, and the sudden freshet was badly guttering the highway.
Sheltered at first by the top of the big car, Ruth strained her ears again to catch that cry which had come down the wind from the thickly wooded hillside.
There it was! A high, piercing scream, as though the one who uttered it was in great fear or agony. Nor did the cry seem to be far away.
Ruth went around to the other side of the automobile. The rain was letting up—or seemed to be. She crossed to the higher ground and pushed through the fringe of bushes that bordered the road.
Already her feet and ankles were saturated, for she had waded through water more than a foot in depth. Here on the steep hillside the flowing water followed the beds of small rivulets which carried it away on either side of her.
The thick branches of the trees made an almost impervious umbrella above her head. She could see up the hill through the drifting mist for a long distance. The aisles between the rows of trees seemed filled with a sort of pallid light.
Across the line of her vision and through one of these aisles passed a figure—whether that of an animal or the stooping body of a human being Ruth Fielding could not at first be sure.
She had no fear of there being any savage creature in this wood. At least there could be nothing here that would attack her in broad daylight. In a lull in the echoing thunder she cried aloud:
"Hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo! Where are you?"
She was sure her voice drove some distance up the hillside against the wind. She saw the flitting figure again, and with a desire to make sure of its identity, Ruth started in pursuit.
Had Tom been present the girl of the Red Mill would have called his attention to the mystery and left it to him to decide whether to investigate or not. But Ruth was quite an independent person when she was alone; and under the circumstances, with Henri Marchand so busy comforting Jennie, Ruth did not consider for a moment calling the Frenchman to advise with her.
As for Helen and Aunt Kate, they were quite overcome by their fears. Ruth was not really afraid of thunder and lightning, as many people are. She had long since learned that "thunder does not bite, and the bolt of lightning that hits you, you will never see!"
Heavy as the going was, and interfering with her progress through her wet garments did, Ruth ran up the hill underneath the dripping trees. She saw the flitting, shadowy figure once more. Again she called as loudly as she could shout:
"Wait! Wait! I won't hurt you."
Whoever or whatever it was, the figure did not stay. It flitted on about two hundred yards ahead of the pursuing girl.
At times it disappeared altogether; but Ruth kept on up the hill and her quarry always reappeared. She was quite positive this was the creature that had shrieked, for the mournful cry was not repeated after she caught sight of the figure.
"It is somebody who has been frightened by the storm," she thought. "Or it is a lost child. This is a wild hillside, and one might easily be lost up here."
Then she called again. She thought the strange figure turned and hesitated. Then, of a sudden, it darted into a clump of brush. When Ruth came panting to the spot she could see no trace of the creature, or the path which it had followed.
But directly before Ruth was an opening in the hillside—the mouth of a deep ravine which had not been visible from the road below.
Down this ravine ran a noisy torrent which had cut itself a wider and deeper bed since the cloudburst on the heights. Small trees, brush, and rocks had been uprooted by the force of the stream, but its current was now receding. One might walk along the edge of the brook into this hillside fastness.
Determined to solve the mystery of the strange creature's disappearance, and quite convinced that it was a lost child or woman, Ruth Fielding ventured through the brush clump and passed along the ragged bank of the tumbling brook.
Suddenly, in the muddy ground at her feet, the girl spied a shoe. It was a black oxford of good quality, and it had been, of course, wrenched from the foot of the person she pursued. This girl, or woman, must be running from Ruth in fear.
Ruth picked up the shoe. It was for a small foot, but might belong to either a girl of fourteen or so or to a small woman. She could see the print of the other shoe—yes! and there was the impress of the stockinged foot in the mud.
"Whoever she may be," thought Ruth Fielding, "she is so frightened that she abandoned this shoe. Poor thing! What can be the matter with her?"
Ruth shouted again, and yet again. She went on up the side of the turbulent brook, staring all about for the hiding place of her quarry.
The rain ceased entirely and abruptly. But the whole forest was a-drip. Far up through the trees she saw a sudden lightening of the sky. The clouds were breaking.
But the smoke of the torrential downpour still rose from the saturated earth. When Ruth jarred a bush in passing a perfect deluge fell from the trembling leaves. The girl began to feel that she had come far enough in what appeared to be a wild-goose chase.
Then suddenly, quite amazingly, she was halted. She plunged around a sharp turn in the ravine, trying to step on the dryer places, and found herself confronted by a man standing under the shelter of a wide-armed spruce.
"Oh!" gasped Ruth, starting back.
He was a heavy-set, bewhiskered man with gleaming eyes and rather a grim look. Worst of all, he carried a gun with the lock sheltered under his arm-pit from the rain.
At Ruth's appearance he seemed startled, too, and he advanced the muzzle of the gun and took a stride forward at the same moment.
"Hello!" he growled. "Be you crazy, too? What in all git out be you traipsing through these woods for in the rain?"
MR. PETERBY PAUL AND "WHOSIS"
Ruth Fielding was more than a little startled, for the appearance of this bearded and gruff-spoken man was much against him.
She had become familiar, however, during the past months with all sorts and conditions of men—many of them much more dangerous looking than this stranger.
Her experiences at the battlefront in France had taught her many things. Among them, that very often the roughest men are the most tender with and considerate of women. Ruth knew that the girls and women working in the Red Cross and the "Y" and the Salvation Army might venture among the roughest poilus, Tommies and our own Yanks without fearing insult or injury.
After that first startled "Oh!" Ruth Fielding gave no sign of fearing the bearded man with the gun under his arm. She stood her ground as he approached her.
"How many air there of ye, Sissy?" he wanted to know. "And air ye all loose from some bat factory? That other one's crazy as all git out."
"Oh, did you see her?"
"If ye mean that Whosis that's wanderin' around yellin' like a cat-o'-mountain——"
"Oh, dear! It was she that was screaming so!"
"I should say it was. I tried to cotch her——"
"And that scared her more, I suppose."
"Huh! Be I so scareful to look at?" the stranger demanded. "Or, mebbe you ain't loony, lady?"
"I should hope not," rejoined Ruth, beginning to laugh.
"Then how in tarnation," demanded the bearded man, "do you explain your wanderin' about these woods in this storm?"
"Why," said Ruth, "I was trying to catch that poor creature, too."
"That Whosis?" he exclaimed.
"Whatever and whoever she is. See! Here's one of her shoes."
"Do tell! She's lost it, ain't she? Don't you reckon she's loony?"
"It may be that she is out of her mind. But she couldn't hurt you—a big, strong man like you."
"That's as may be. I misdoubted me she was some kind of a Whosis," said the woodsman. "I seen her a couple of times and heard her holler ev'ry time the lightning was real sharp."
"The poor creature has been frightened half to death by the tempest," said Ruth.
"Mebbe. But where did she come from? And where did you come from, if I may ask? This yere ain't a neighborhood that many city folks finds their way into, let me tell ye."
Ruth told him her name and related the mishap that had happened to the two cars at the bottom of the hill.