THE DRAGON'S SECRET
THE DRAGON'S SECRET
By AUGUSTA HUIELL SEAMAN
Author of "The Slipper Point Mystery," "The Girl Next Door," "Three Sides of Paradise Green," "The Sapphire Signet," "The Crimson Patch," etc., etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY C. M. RELYEA
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO.
Copyright, 1920, 1921, by The Century Co.
PRINTED IN U. S. A.
CHAPTER PAGE I The Night of the Storm 3 II Found on the Beach 15 III The Mysterious Casket 29 IV In the Sand 40 V An Exploring Party 54 VI Leslie Makes Some Deductions 69 VII A New Development 77 VIII The Clue of the Green Bead 89 IX Aunt Sally Adds to the Mystification 100 X At Dawn 112 XI An Unexpected Visitor 123 XII The Curious Behavior of Ted 135 XIII A Trap is Set 148 XIV The Man with the Limp 162 XV Out of the Hurricane 176 XVI Rags to the Rescue 189 XVII Eileen Explains 196 XVIII The Dragon Gives Up the Secret 219 XIX The Biggest Surprise of All 239
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Leslie hurried Phyllis out with what seemed unnecessary haste Frontispiece
Phyllis flashed the torch about in a general survey 62
Eileen whirled the wheel around, applied the brake, and the car almost came to a stop 137
In the glare of the electric torch the girls recognized him 193
THE DRAGON'S SECRET
THE DRAGON'S SECRET
THE NIGHT OF THE STORM
It had been a magnificent afternoon, so wonderful that Leslie hated to break the spell. Reluctantly she unrolled herself from the Indian blanket, from which she emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon, draped it over her arm, picked up the book she had not once opened, and turned for a last, lingering look at the ocean. A lavender haze lay lightly along the horizon. Nearer inshore the blue of sea and sky was intense. A line of breakers raced shoreward, their white manes streaming back in the wind. Best of all, Leslie loved the flawless green of their curve at the instant before they crashed on the beach.
"Oh, but the ocean's wonderful in October!" she murmured aloud. "I never had any idea how wonderful. I never saw it in this month before. Come, Rags!"
A black-and-white English sheep-dog, his name corresponding closely to his appearance, came racing up the beach at her call.
"Did you find it hard to tear yourself away from the hermit-crabs, Ragsie?" she laughed. "You must have gobbled down more than a hundred. It's high time you left off!"
She started to race along the deserted beach, the dog leaping ahead of her and yapping ecstatically. Twice she stopped to pick up some driftwood.
"We'll need it to get supper, Rags," she informed the dog. "Our stock is getting low."
He cocked one ear at her intelligently.
They came presently to a couple of summer bungalows set side by side about two hundred feet from the ocean edge. They were long and low, each with a wide veranda stretching across the front. There were no other houses near, the next bungalow beyond being about half a mile away.
With a sigh of relief, Leslie deposited the driftwood in one corner of the veranda of the nearest bungalow. Then she dropped into one of the willow rockers to rest, the dog panting at her feet. Presently the screen door opened and a lady stepped out.
"Oh! are you here, Leslie? I thought I heard a sound, and then it was so quiet that I came out to see what it meant. Every little noise seems to startle me this afternoon."
"I'm so sorry, Aunt Marcia! I should have called to you," said Leslie, starting up contritely to help her aunt to a seat. "I hope you had a good nap and feel rested, but sometimes I think it would do you more good if you'd come out with me and sit by the ocean than try to lie down in your room. It was simply glorious to-day."
Miss Marcia Crane shook her head. "I know what is best for me, Leslie dear. You don't always understand. But I believe this place is doing me a great deal of good. I confess, I thought Dr. Crawford insane when he suggested it, and I came here with the greatest reluctance. For a nervous invalid like myself to go and hide away in such a forsaken spot as this is in October, just you and I, seemed to me the wildest piece of folly. But I must say it appears to be working out all right, and I am certainly feeling better already."
"But why shouldn't it have been all right?" argued Leslie. "I was always sure it would be. The doctor said this beach was noted for its wonderfully restful effect, especially after the summer crowds had left it, and that it was far better than a sanatorium. And as for your being alone with me—why I'm sixteen and a quite competent housekeeper, as Mother says. And you don't need a trained nurse, so I can do most everything for you."
"But your school—" objected Miss Crane. "It was lovely of your mother to allow you to come with me, for I don't know another person who would have been so congenial or helpful. But I worry constantly over the time you are losing from high school."
"Well, don't you worry another bit!" laughed Leslie. "I told you that my chum Elsie is sending me down all our notes, and I study an hour or two every morning, and I'll probably go right on with my classes when I go back. Besides, it's the greatest lark in the world for me to be here at the ocean at this unusual time of the year. I never in all my life had an experience like it."
"And then, I didn't think at first that it could possibly be safe!" went on her aunt. "We seem quite unprotected here—we're miles from a railroad station, and not another inhabited house around. What would happen if—"
Again Leslie laughed. "We've a telephone in the bungalow and can call up the village doctor or the constable, in case of need. The doctor said there weren't any tramps or unwelcome characters about, and I've certainly never seen any in the two weeks we've been here. And, last but not least, there's always Rags!—You know how extremely unpleasant he'd make it for any one who tried to harm us. No, Aunt Marcia, you haven't a ghost of an excuse for not feeling perfectly safe. But now I'm going in to start supper. You stay here and enjoy the view."
But her aunt shivered and rose when Leslie did. "No, I prefer to sit by the open fire. I started it a while ago. And I'm glad you brought some more wood. It was getting low."
As they went in together, the girl glanced up at the faded and weather-beaten sign over the door. "Isn't it the most appropriate name for this place!—'Rest Haven.' It is surely a haven of rest to us. But I think I like the name of that closed cottage next door even better."
"What is it?" asked her aunt, idly. "I've never even had the curiosity to look."
"Then you must come and see for yourself!" laughed Leslie, turning her aunt about and gently forcing her across the veranda. They ploughed their way across a twenty-foot stretch of sand and stepped on the veranda of the cottage next door. It was a bungalow somewhat similar to their own, but plainly closed up for the winter. The windows had their board shutters adjusted, the door was padlocked, and a small heap of sand had drifted in on the veranda.
Leslie pointed to the sign-board over the door. "There it is,—'Curlew's Nest.' There's something about the name that fascinates me. Don't you feel so too, Aunt Marcia? I can imagine all sorts of curious and wonderful things about a closed-up house called 'Curlew's Nest'! It just fairly bristles with possibilities!"
"What a romantic child you are, Leslie!" smiled her aunt. "When you are as old as I am, you'll find you won't be thinking of interesting possibilities in a perfectly ordinary shut-up summer bungalow. It's a pretty enough name, of course, but I must confess it doesn't suggest a single thing to me except that I'm cold and want to get back to the fire. Come along, dearie!"
Leslie sighed and turned back, without another word, to lead her aunt to their own abode. One phase of their stay she had been very, very careful to conceal from Miss Marcia. She loved this aunt devotedly, all the more perhaps because she was ill and weak and nervous and very dependent on her niece's care; but down in the depths of her soul, Leslie had to confess to herself that she was lonely, horribly lonely for the companionship of her parents and sisters and school chums. The loneliness did not always bother her, but it came over her at times like an overwhelming wave, usually when Miss Marcia failed to respond to some whim or project or bubbling enthusiasm. Between them gaped the abyss of forty years difference in age, and more than a score of times Leslie had yearned for some one of her own years to share the joy she felt in her unusual surroundings.
As they stepped on their own veranda, Leslie glanced out to sea with a start of surprise. "Why, look how it's clouding up!" she exclaimed. "It was as clear as a bell a few minutes ago, and now the blue sky is disappearing rapidly."
"I knew to-day was a weather-breeder," averred Miss Marcia. "I felt in my bones that a storm was coming. We'll probably get it to-night. I do hope the roof won't leak. We haven't had a real bad storm since we came, and I dread the experience."
At eight o'clock that evening it became apparent that they were in for a wild night. The wind had whipped around to the northeast and was blowing a gale. There was a persistent crash of breakers on the beach. To open a door or window was to admit a small cyclone of wind and sand and rain. Miss Marcia sat for a while over the open fire, bemoaning the fact that the roof did leak in spots, though fortunately not over the beds. She was depressed and nervous, and finally declared she would go to bed.
But Leslie, far from being nervous, was wildly excited and exhilarated by the conflict of the elements. When her aunt had finally retired, she hurried on a big mackinaw and cap and slipped out to the veranda to enjoy it better. Rags, whimpering, followed her. There was not much to see, for the night was pitch black, but she enjoyed the feel of the wind and rain in her face and the little occasional dashes of sand. Wet through at last, but happy, she crept noiselessly indoors and went to her own room on the opposite side of the big living-room from her aunt's.
"I'm glad Aunt Marcia is on the other side," she thought. "It's quieter there on the south and west. I get the full force of things here. It would only worry her, but I like it. How lonesome Curlew's Nest seems on a wild night like this!" She switched off her electric light, raised her shade, and looked over at the empty bungalow. Rags, who always slept in her room, jumped up on the window-seat beside her. The mingled sand and rain on the window prevented her from seeing anything clearly, so she slipped the sash quietly open, and, heedless for a moment of the drenching inrush, stood gazing out.
Only the wall of the house twenty feet away was visible, with two or three windows, all tightly shuttered—a deserted and lonely sight. She was just about to close her window when a curious thing happened. The dog beside her uttered a rumbling, half-suppressed growl and moved restlessly.
"What is it, Rags?" she whispered. "Do you see or hear anything? I'm sure there's no one around." The dog grumbled again, half audibly, and the hair along his spine lifted a little.
"Hush, Rags! For gracious sake don't let Aunt Marcia hear you, whatever happens! It would upset her terribly," breathed Leslie, distractedly. The dog obediently lay quiet, but he continued to tremble with some obscure excitement, and Leslie remained stock still, gazing at the empty house.
At length, neither seeing nor hearing anything unusual, she was about to close the window and turn away, when something caused her to lean out, regardless of the rain, and stare fixedly at a window in the opposite wall. Was she mistaken? Did her eyes deceive her? Was it possibly some freak of the darkness or the storm? It had been only for an instant, and it did not happen again. But in that instant she was almost certain that she had seen a faint streak of light from a crack at the side of one of the heavily shuttered windows!
FOUND ON THE BEACH
The next morning dawned windy and wet. A heavy northeast gale had whipped the sea into gray, mountainous waves. A fine drizzle beat in one's face through the slightest opening of door or window. Leslie loved the soft, salt tang of the air, and in spite of her aunt's rather horrified protests, prepared for a long excursion out of doors.
"Don't worry about me, Auntie dear!" she laughed gaily. "One can't possibly catch cold in this mild, beautiful air; and if I get wet, I can always get dry again before any damage is done. Besides, we need some more wood for the fires very, very badly and they say you can simply find heaps of it on the beach after a storm like this. I want some nice fat logs for our open fire, and I see at least a half dozen right down in front of this house. And last but not least, Rags needs some exercise!"
She found a wealth of driftwood at the water's edge that surpassed her wildest dreams. Again and again she filled her basket and hauled it up to the bungalow, and three times she carried up a large, water-soaked log balanced on her shoulder. But when the supply at last appeared ample, she returned to the beach on another quest. Rather to her surprise, she found that the stormy ocean had cast up many things beside driftwood—articles that in size and variety suggested that there must have been a wreck in the night.
Yet she knew that there had been no wreck, else the coast-guard station, less than a mile away, would have been very busy, and she herself must surely have heard some of the disturbance. No, there had been no wreck, yet all about her lay the wave-sodden flotsam and jetsam of many past disasters. A broken mast stump was imbedded upright in the sand at one spot. In another, a ladder-like pair of stairs, suggesting a ship's companionway, lay half out of the water. Sundry casks and barrels dotted the beach, some empty, some still untouched. Rusty tins of canned goods, oil, and paint, often intact, intermingled with the debris. Bottles, either empty or full of every conceivable liquid, added to the list; and sprinkled through and around all the rest were broken dishes, shoe-brushes, combs, and other household and personal articles in surprising quantities.
Leslie roamed about among this varied collection, the salt spray in her face, the surging breakers sometimes unexpectedly curling around her rubber boots. There was a new and wonderful fascination to her in examining this ancient wreckage, speculating on the contents of unopened tins, and searching ever farther and farther along the shore for possible treasure-trove of even greater interest or value.
"Why shouldn't I find a chest of jewels or a barrel full of golden coins or a pocket-book crammed with bills, Rags?" she demanded whimsically of the jubilant dog. "I'm sure something of that kind must go down with every ship, as well as all the rest of this stuff, and why shouldn't we be lucky enough to find it?"
But Rags was busy investigating the contents of some doubtful-looking tin, and had neither time nor inclination to respond, his own particular quests being quite in another line and far more interesting to him!
So Leslie continued on her own way, absorbed in her own investigations and thoughts. The affair of the previous night was still occupying a large place in her mind. Nothing further had occurred, though she had watched at her window for nearly an hour. Even Rags at length ceased to exhibit signs of uneasiness, and she had gone to bed at last, feeling that she must have been mistaken in imagining anything unusual.
The first thing she had done this morning after leaving the house was to walk around Curlew's Nest, examining it carefully for any sign of occupation. It was closed and shuttered, as tight as a drum, and she could discern no slightest sign of a human being having been near it for days. But still she could not rid her mind of the impression that there had been something last night out of the ordinary, or Rags would not have behaved as he did. He was not the kind of dog that unnecessarily excited himself about nothing. It was a little bit strange.
"Oh, dear! I beg your pardon! I'm awfully sorry!" exclaimed Leslie, reeling backward from the shock of collision with some one she had unseeingly bumped into as she plowed her way along, her head bent to the wind, her eyes only on the beach at her feet. The person with whom she had collided also recovered a lost balance and turned to looked at her.
Leslie beheld a figure slightly taller than herself, clothed in yellow "slickers" and long rubber boots, a "sou'wester" pulled closely over plump, rosy cheeks and big, inquiring blue eyes. For a moment she could not for the life of her tell whether the figure was man or woman, boy or girl. Then a sudden gust of wind tore the sou'wester aside and a long brown curl escaped and whipped into the blue eyes. It was a girl—very little older than Leslie herself.
"Don't mention it!" laughed the girl. "I didn't know there was another soul on the beach beside Father and Ted and myself."
And then, for the first time, Leslie noticed two other figures standing just beyond, each clad similarly to the girl, and each with fishing-rod in hand and a long line running out into the boiling surf. The girl too held a rod in her hand.
"You just spoiled the loveliest bite I've had this morning," the girl laughed again, "but I'll forgive you if you'll tell me who you are and how you come to be out here in this bad weather. It's quite unusual to see any one on the beach at this season."
"I'm Leslie Crane, and I'm staying at Rest Haven with my aunt, Miss Crane, who is not well and is trying to recuperate here, according to the doctor's orders," responded Leslie, feeling somewhat like an information bureau as she said it.
"Oh, so you're staying here, are you? How jolly! I've never met any one staying here at this season before. I'm Phyllis Kelvin and this is my father and my brother Ted. Father—Miss Leslie Crane! Ted—"
She made the introductions at the top of her voice as the wind and roar of the ocean almost drowned it, and each of the two figures responded politely, keeping one eye all the while on his line.
"We always come down here for three weeks in October, Father and Ted and I, for the fishing," Phyllis went on to explain. "Father adores fishing and always takes his vacation late down here, so that he can have the fishing in peace and at its best. And Ted and I come to keep him company and keep house for him, incidentally. That's our bungalow right back there,—'Fisherman's Luck.'"
"Oh, I'm so glad you're going to be here!" sighed Leslie, happily. "I've been horribly lonesome! Aunt Marcia does not go out very often and sleeps a great deal, and I absolutely long to talk to some one at times. I don't know anything much about fishing, but I hope you'll let me be with you some, if I promise not to talk too much and spoil things!"
"You're not a bit happier to find some one than I am!" echoed Phyllis. "I love fishing, too, but I'm not so crazy about it as they are, and I've often longed for some girl chum down here. We're going to be the best of friends, I know, and I'll call on you and your aunt this very afternoon, if you'll come up to our bungalow now with me and help carry this basket of driftwood. Daddy and Ted won't move from the beach for the rest of the morning, but I'd like to stop and talk with you. I get tired sooner than they do."
Leslie agreed joyfully, and together they tugged a heavy basket of wood up to the one other bungalow on the beach beside the one Leslie and her aunt were stopping at—and Curlew's Nest. She found Fisherman's Luck a delightful abode, full of the pleasant, intimate touches that could only be imparted by owners who inhabited it themselves most of the time. A roaring fire blazed invitingly in the big open fireplace in the living-room.
"Come, take off your things and stay awhile!" urged Phyllis, and Leslie removed her mackinaw and cap. The two girls sank down in big easy chairs before the fire and laughingly agreeing to drop formality, proceeded as "Phyllis" and "Leslie," to exchange confidences in true girl fashion.
"I mustn't stay long," remarked Leslie. "Aunt Marcia will be missing me and I must go back to see about lunch. But what a delightful bungalow you have! Are you here much of the time?"
"We're here a good deal in the off seasons—April to June, and September through November. Father, Ted, and I,—but we don't care for it so much in the summer season when the beach is more crowded with vacation folks and that big hotel farther up the beach is full. We have some cousins who usually take the bungalow for July and August."
"I never was at the ocean in October before," sighed Leslie, comfortably, "and it's perfectly heavenly! We have that dear little bungalow, Rest Haven, but the one right next to it is not occupied."
"No," said Phyllis, "and it's queer, too. I never knew either of them to be occupied at this season before. They are both owned by the Danforths, and they usually shut them both up on September 30 and refuse to open them till the beginning of the next season. How did you come to get one of them, may I ask?"
"Oh, I think Aunt Marcia's doctor managed it. He happened to know the Danforths personally, and got them to break their rule, as a great favor to him. We appreciate it very much. But do you know," and here Leslie unconsciously sank her voice, "I saw such a queer thing about that other bungalow late yesterday evening!" And she recounted to her new friend a history of the previous night's experience.
"Oh, how perfectly gorgeous!" sighed Phyllis, thrilled beyond description by the narrative. "Do you suppose it's haunted? I've heard of haunted houses, but never of a haunted bungalow! Now don't laugh at me,—that's what Ted and Father do when I speak of such things," for Leslie could not repress a giggle at this suggestion.
"Phyllis, you know there are no such things as haunted houses—really!" she remonstrated.
"Well, I'm not so sure of it, and anyway, I've always longed to come across one! And what other explanation can there be for this thing, anyway? But do me one favor, won't you, Leslie? Let's keep this thing to ourselves and do a little investigating on our own account. If I tell Father and Ted and let them know what I think, they'll simply hoot at me and go and spoil it all by breaking the place open and tramping around it themselves and scaring away any possible ghost there might be. Let's just see if we can make anything out of it ourselves, will you?"
"Why of course I will," agreed Leslie heartily. "I wouldn't dare to let Aunt Marcia know there was anything queer about the place. She'd be scared to death and it would upset all the doctor's plans for her. I don't believe in the ghost theory, but I do think there may have been something mysterious about it, and it will be no end of a lark to track it down if we can. But I must be going now."
"I'm coming with you!" announced the impetuous Phyllis. "I want to go up there right away and do a little looking about myself. I simply can't wait."
So they set off together, trudging through the sand at the edge of the ocean, where the walking was easiest. All the way, Leslie was wondering what had become of Rags. It was not often that he deserted her even for five minutes, but she had not seen him since her encounter with Phyllis. It was not till their arrival at Curlew's Nest that she discovered his whereabouts.
Directly in front of this bungalow's veranda, and about fifty feet away from it, lay the remains of a huge old tree-trunk, half buried in the sand. Almost under this trunk, only his rear quarters visible, was the form of Rags, digging frantically at a great hole in the wet sand. So deep now was the hole that the dog was more than half buried.
"There's Rags! He's after another hermit-crab!" cried Leslie. "I was wondering where he could be." They both raced up to him and reached him just as he had apparently attained the end of his quest and backed out of the hole.
"Why, what has he got?" exclaimed Phyllis. "That's no hermit-crab!"
And in truth it was not. For out of the hole the dog was dragging a small burlap sack which plainly contained some heavy article in its folds!
THE MYSTERIOUS CASKET
Both girls dashed forward to snatch the dog's treasure-trove from him. But Rags had apparently made up his mind that, after his arduous labors, he was going to have the privilege of examining his find himself. At any rate, he would not be easily robbed. Seizing the burlap bag in his mouth, he raced to the water's edge and stood there, guarding his treasure with mock fierceness. Phyllis, being a stranger, he would not even allow to approach him, but growled ominously if she came within ten feet of his vicinity. And when Rags growled, it behooved the stranger to have a care! Leslie he pretended to welcome, but no sooner had she approached near enough to lay her hand on the bag than he seized it triumphantly and raced up the beach.
"Oh, do grab him, somehow!" cried Phyllis, in despair. "He'll drop the thing in the water and the next breaker will wash it away, and we'll never know what it was!"
Leslie herself was no less anxious to filch his treasure, but Rags had by now acquired a decidedly frolicsome spirit, and the chase he led them was long and weary. Three times he dropped the bag directly in the path of a breaker, and once it was actually washed out, and the girls groaned in chorus as they saw it flung into the boiling surf. But another wave washed it ashore, only to land it again in the custody of Rags before Leslie could seize it.
Finally, however, he wearied of the sport, and sensing the sad fact that his prize was in no wise edible, he dropped it suddenly to pursue an unsuspecting hermit-crab. The girls fell joyfully upon the long-sought treasure and bore it to the veranda of Curlew's Nest for further examination.
"What under the sun can it be?" marveled the curious Phyllis. "Something heavy, and all sewed up in a coarse bag like that! It's as good as a ghost story. Let's get at it right away."
They sat down on the wet steps while Leslie unrolled the bag,—not much larger than a big salt-bag,—and tried to tear an opening at the top. But her slender fingers were not equal to the task, so Phyllis undertook it.
"Let me try!" she urged. "I play the piano a great deal and my fingers are very strong."
And sure enough, it did not take her more than a moment to make an opening and thrust her hand into it. What she found there she drew out and laid in Leslie's lap, while the two girls gasped simultaneously at the singular object they had discovered.
To begin with, it was encrusted with sand and corroded by the contact of salt air and seawater. But when they had brushed off the sand and polished it as well as they could with the burlap bag, it stood forth in something of its original appearance—a small box or casket of some heavy metal, either bronze or copper, completely covered with elaborate carving. It was about six inches long, three wide, and two in height. It stood on four legs, and, upon examination, the carving proved to be the body of a winged serpent of some kind, completely encircling the box, the head projecting over the front edge where the lock or fastening of the cover would be. The legs of the receptacle were the creature's claws. The carving was remarkably fine and delicate in workmanship.
"My gracious!" breathed Phyllis. "Did you ever see anything so strange! What can it be?"
"And isn't it beautiful!" added Leslie. "What can that queer creature be that's carved on it? Looks to me like the pictures of dragons that we used to have in fairy-story books."
"That's just what it is! You've hit it! I couldn't think what it was at first—it's so wound around the box!" cried Phyllis. "But this thing is certainly a box of some kind, and there must be some opening to it and probably something in it. Let's try now to get it open."
But that was easier said than done. Try as they would, they could find no way of opening the casket. The dragon's head came down over the lock or clasp, and there was no vestige of keyhole or catch or spring. And so intricate was the carving, that there was not even any crack or crevice where the lid fitted down over the body of the box into which they could insert Phyllis's penknife blade to pry it open by force. The casket and its contents was a baffling mystery, and the wicked looking little dragon seemed to guard the secret with positive glee, so malicious was its expression!
Phyllis at last threw down her knife in disgust and rattled the box impatiently. "Something bumps around in there!" she declared. "I can hear it distinctly, but I don't believe we'll ever be able to get at it. I never saw such a queer affair! Let's try to break it with an ax. Have you one?"
"Oh, don't do that!" cried Leslie, horrified. "It would surely spoil this beautiful box and might even injure what's in it. There must be some other way of getting it open if only we take our time and go at it carefully."
They both sat for several moments regarding their find with resentful curiosity. Suddenly Leslie's thoughts took a new tack, "How in the world did it ever come there—buried in the sand like that?"
"Thrown up on the beach by the waves, of course," declared Phyllis, positively; "no doubt from some wreck, and buried in the sand after a while, just naturally, as lots of things are."
The explanation was a very probable one. "But it's rather far from the water's edge," objected Leslie.
"Oh, no, indeed! Why in winter the surf often comes up right under the bungalows!" remarked Phyllis, in quite an offhanded way.
"Mercy! Don't ever tell Aunt Marcia that, or she'd go straight home!" exclaimed Leslie. "But isn't it queer that it just happened to be right in front of Curlew's Nest! Everything queer seems to happen right around that place."
"That's so! I'd almost forgotten the other thing. But what I can't understand is how your dog happened to dig the thing up."
"Oh, that's simple! He's always chasing hermit-crabs—it's a great sport of his. And I suppose it just happened that one dug itself down in the sand right here, and he dug after it and then came across this."
Phyllis had a sudden brilliant idea. "Let's go and examine the hole! Perhaps there's something else in it."
They both raced over to the stump and Leslie thrust her hand into the hole. "There's nothing else in there," she averred, "but perhaps it might be worth while to dig around here and see if there might be some other article buried near it. I'll get a shovel."
She disappeared behind her own bungalow for a moment and returned with a shovel. They dug furiously for ten minutes and turned up the sand all about the original hole. Nothing of the slightest interest came to light, however, and they presently abandoned the attempt and filled in the hole again.
"This is all there was—that's plain," declared Phyllis, "and all we can think is that it was cast up from some wreck and got buried here."
But Leslie had been thinking. "Has it occurred to you, Phyllis, that it might have something to do with Curlew's Nest and the queer thing that happened here? I wonder how long it has been lying in that hole?"
They examined the find again. "I can tell you one thing," said Phyllis, "if it had been in that sand a long time, I think it would look rather different. To begin with, the burlap bag is in very good condition, whole and strong. It wouldn't take very long in there for it to become ragged and go to pieces. And besides that, the box would look different. You know that metal like this gets badly corroded and tarnished in a very little while when it's exposed even to this salt air, not to speak of the water too. I know, because we have some copper trays at the bungalow and they're always a sight! I have to keep polishing and polishing them to make them look nice. Now this box is very little tarnished since we rubbed it up. It makes me sure it hasn't been buried long."
"Well, has there been a wreck, then, very lately?" demanded Leslie.
"Not since last July—and that was only a fishing schooner. No chance in the world that such as this would be aboard of her!"
"Then, as far as I can see, this box must have been buried here—deliberately—and very recently, too!" declared Leslie, solemnly. "Can you think of any other explanation?"
"Leslie, could it have been done last night?" demanded Phyllis, in an awed whisper.
"Oh—I never thought of that. Perhaps it was. Perhaps that was the meaning of the light and all. Phyllis, there's some queer mystery here! I wonder if we ought to tell folks about it?"
"Oh don't!" implored Phyllis. "Not for a while, at least. It would be so wonderful to have this as a secret of our own and see what we can make of it. Just suppose we could work it out for ourselves!"
"Well—it would be a lark, and I only hope it's all right. But I'm going to ask you one favor, Phyllis. Please take the little box and keep it at your house, for I don't want Aunt Marcia to be worried about the matter, and she might come across it if I kept it here. And I must be going in now, or she'll be worried." And she thrust the box into Phyllis's hand.
"Indeed, I'll keep it gladly and hide it safely, too. This is one secret I won't have Ted meddling in!" declared Phyllis. "Let's call the box 'The Dragon's Secret.' He seems to be guarding very successfully! I'll come back this afternoon and call, and we can talk this over some more. Good-by!"
And she turned away toward the direction of her own bungalow, with "The Dragon's Secret" carefully concealed beneath her rainproof coat.
IN THE SAND
The northeaster lasted three days. Then it blew itself out, the wind shifted to the northwest, and there was beautiful sparkling weather for the rest of the week.
During this time, the two new friends came to know each other very well indeed. It was not only their little shared mystery that united them—they found they had congenial tastes and interests in very many directions, although they were so different in temperament. Leslie was slight and dark in appearance, rather timid in disposition, and inclined to be shy and hesitant in manner. Phyllis was quite the opposite—large and plump and rosy, courageous and independent, jolly, and often headlong and thoughtless in action. Her mother had died when she was very little, and she had grown up mainly in the care of nurses and servants, from whom she had imbibed some very queer notions, as Leslie was not long in discovering. One of these was her firm belief in ghosts and haunted houses, which not even the robust and wholesome contempt of her father and older brother Ted had succeeded in changing.
But Phyllis had a special gift which drew the two girls together with a strong attraction: she was a devoted lover of music and so accomplished a pianist as to be almost a genius—for one of her age. The whole family seemed to be musical. Her father played the 'cello and Ted the violin, but Phyllis's work at the piano far surpassed theirs. And Leslie, too, loved music devotedly, though she neither sang nor played any instrument. It was a revelation to her when, on the next rainy afternoon, she accompanied Phyllis to the living-room of Fisherman's Luck and listened to a recital such as she had never expected to hear outside of a concert-hall.
"Oh, Phyllis, it's wonderful—simply wonderful!" she sighed blissfully when the last liquid ripples of a Chopin waltz had died away. "I don't see how you ever learned to play like that! But what in the world are you going to do now?" For Phyllis had jumped up with an impatient exclamation, laid back the cover of the grand piano, and was hunting frantically in the music cabinet for something.
"Why, I'm going to tune the old thing!" she declared. "This salt air is enough to wreck any piano, and this one is so old that it's below pitch most of the time. But of course it wouldn't do to have a very good one here. That's why Dad sent this one down. I just had to learn to tune it, in self-defense, or we could never have used it. So here goes!—" And, to Leslie's breathless amazement, she proceeded to tune the instrument with the most professional air in the world.
"Phyllis, you're amazing!" murmured Leslie, at length. "But, tell me—what do you intend to do with this wonderful gift you have? Surely you'll make it your career—or something like that!"
"Well, of course I want to," confided her friend. "To be candid—I'm crazy to. It's about the only thing I think of. But Father won't hear of it. He says he will let me have all the advantages he can, for an amateur, but that's all he's willing or can afford to do. Of course, I'm only seventeen and I've got to finish high school, at least. But I'm wild to go afterward to some one of the great European teachers and study for a year or two, and then see what happens. That, however, would cost at least two or three thousand dollars, and Father says he simply can't afford it. So there you are. It's awful to have an ambition and no way of encouraging it! But I'm always hoping that something will turn up." And Phyllis returned to her tuning.
"Two or three thousand dollars would be a pretty handy sum to have!" laughed Leslie. "I've been rather on the lookout for some such amount myself, but for a somewhat different reason."
"Oh, I'll warrant you have an ambition, too! Now tell me about it!" cried Phyllis, pouncing on her and ignoring the piano.
"Yes, it is an ambition," acknowledged Leslie, "but it isn't a bit like you. I hardly think you could call it an ambition—just a wish. You see, it's this way. We're rather a big family at home, four of us children, and I'm the oldest; and Father's rather delicate and has never been able to hold a good position long because he's out so much with illness. We get along fairly well—all but little Ralph. He's my special pet, four year old, but he's lame—had some hip trouble ever since he was a baby. He could be cured, the doctors say, by a very expensive operation and some special care. But we haven't the money for it—just yet. We're always hoping something will turn up, too, and my plan is to hurry through high school and training-school and then teach, and save every spare penny for Ralph. But it seems an awfully long time to wait, and all the while that little tot isn't getting any better."
There were tears in her eyes as she reached this point, and the impetuous Phyllis hugged her. "You darling thing! I think you're too unselfish for words! It makes me feel ashamed of my own selfish, foolish little wish. Wouldn't it be gorgeous if we could find four or five thousand dollars lying around on the beach? Wouldn't it just—" She stopped abruptly.
"What's the matter?" inquired Leslie. "Anything wrong?"
"No—something just occurred to me. What if that wretched little dragon of ours was guarding just such a fortune? It might be jewels or bank-notes or—or something equally valuable! I'm going to get it right away and make another try at opening it. It makes me furious, every time I think of it, to be so—so balked about getting at anything!"
"But, Phyllis," objected Leslie, "even if there were any such thing, I don't believe we'd have a right to keep it. It must belong to somebody, and we ought to make an effort to find out who. Don't you think so?"
"Oh, yes, if it's any real person—I suppose so," admitted Phyllis. "But what if—" She stopped significantly.
"Now don't tell me it was hidden there by ghosts!" And Leslie's infectious laugh pealed out.
"Oh, hush! or Ted will hear. He can't be far away," implored Phyllis, guiltily. "Of course, I don't say what or whom it was hidden by, but there's something mighty queer to me about an empty bungalow being inhabited by living folks—"
"What about burglars?" interrupted Leslie, quickly.
"Never was such a thing around these parts, in any one's experience!" Phyllis hastened to assure her, much to her secret relief.
"Then perhaps it's the people who own the cottage," offered Leslie.
"No chance. They've all gone off to spend the winter in California—every one. Ted had a letter from Leroy Danforth, who is a great chum of his, last week."
"Well, I know there is some other explanation besides a—a ghostly one!" declared Leslie, nothing daunted. "But anyway, we might have another look at the dragon."
Phyllis went and got it out from its hiding-place in her trunk, and they spent a fruitless half-hour wrestling with its secret fastening. They broke their finger-nails trying to pry it open, they pressed and poked every inch of it in an endeavor to find a possible secret spring; they rattled and shook it, rewarded in this case by the dull thud of something shifting about. It was this last sound only that kept up their courage. Finally they gave it up.
"I believe we could break it open with an ax, perhaps; but you don't seem to approve of that, so how we're ever going to find out, I'm sure I can't imagine!" declared Phyllis, discouraged.
"Do you know, I think this metal is so strong it would resist even an ax," Leslie soothed her, "and we'd only damage the box without accomplishing anything. There must be some other way. Why not show it to Ted and your father? Perhaps they could do what we can't."
"I will not share this secret with Ted!" declared Phyllis, obstinately. "He's nearly nineteen and he thinks he's the most important thing in creation, and he's perfectly insufferable in some ways, now. To have his advice asked in this thing would set him up worse than ever. I won't do it!"
Leslie had to smile inwardly at this outburst. To her, Ted had seemed just a jolly, agreeable, and rather companionable boy, with a very friendly, likable attitude. But she realized that she had not had Phyllis's sisterly experience, so she said nothing more. They put the dragon back in his hiding-place and sadly admitted themselves more baffled than ever.
On the evening of the third day after this, however, a strange thing happened.
To the surprise of Leslie, Miss Marcia had been induced to walk along the beach, after supper, and stop in at Fisherman's Luck to hear a concert—an impromptu one—given by Phyllis and her father and brother. Leslie had learned that the Kelvin family amused itself in this fashion every night when the fishing was not particularly good.
"I'd love to hear them play, shouldn't you, Aunt Marcia? Phyllis is a wonder, just by herself, and they must make a delightful trio!" She said this without any hope that her aunt would express much interest; but to her astonishment, Miss Marcia replied:
"Well, suppose we walk down there after tea. I'm feeling so much better that I don't believe it would hurt me, and I'm just hungry to hear some music myself!"
Leslie joyfully imparted the news to Phyllis, and they planned an elaborate program. It was an evening that they long remembered, so absorbed were they in the music that they all loved. And it was not till the end of an ensemble rendering of a Bach concerto, that some one remarked, "Why, it's raining!"
No one had noticed it until then. Miss Marcia was quite aghast, for she seldom ventured out in the rain and she had brought no adequate wraps. But Leslie settled that question speedily. "I'll take Rags and run up the beach to our bungalow and bring them to you, if Phyllis will lend me her slickers," she declared. "No, you mustn't come with me, Ted. I'll be perfectly safe with Rags, and while I'm gone, you can all be giving that Beethoven sonata that you promised Aunt Marcia. I won't be fifteen minutes."
They finally let her go and settled down to the music once more. She was much more than fifteen minutes in returning, but no one noticed it, so deeply immersed were they in the rendering of the sonata. At last, however, she was back, breathless and dripping and with a curious light in her eye that no one noticed but Phyllis.
"What is it?" Phyllis managed to whisper, when the others were talking and putting on wraps.
"Just this," replied Leslie, breathlessly and jerkily. "While I was in the house—I happened—to look out of my window—as I often do,—no light in my room—and I saw—that light again next door! Rags saw it too—at least he growled in that queer way. I waited and watched a long time—I wanted to go out nearer the place—but didn't dare. Then it disappeared and I didn't see it—any more. Then I came on here."
Phyllis listened to the whispered, jerky sentences in a thrilled silence. Then she replied: "I'm coming up first thing to-morrow morning—early! But watch out the rest of the night—if you can!"
Phyllis was as good as her word—better, in fact, for she was actually knocking at the door of Rest Haven before Leslie was out of bed, much to Miss Marcia's astonishment.
"Did you see anything else?" was her first whispered greeting.
But Leslie shook her head. "There wasn't another thing happened. I watched nearly all night—till I fell asleep at the window, in fact!"
"Well, something happened at some time or other!" replied Phyllis, provocatively.
"How do you know?" demanded Leslie, in a twitter.
"I've seen the sign of it. Come outside and I'll show you!"
They made some excuse to Miss Marcia for immediately vacating the house, and hurried outdoors. Phyllis led the way to a certain side door of Curlew's Nest, on the opposite side from Rest Haven, where a sheltering projection of roof extended out for two or three feet over the ground. The hard rain of the night before had beaten out the sand all about the wooden foot-path to an unbroken smoothness. But just under the protecting roof, Phyllis pointed to something at their feet.
"There it is!" she muttered. And Leslie, staring down, beheld the impression of a single footprint—a footprint very different from either of their own—in the sand!
AN EXPLORING PARTY
"Well!" was Leslie's first remark, "that proves one thing beyond a doubt."
"What?" demanded Phyllis.
"That it wasn't a ghost around here. I never yet heard of a ghost who made a footprint!"
The deduction somewhat staggered Phyllis in her pet belief. "I suppose that's true," she had to admit. "I never did, either. But now the question is, who did it and what did he want?"
But Leslie had been carefully examining the footprint. "You say, what did 'he' want. Have you noticed that this footprint doesn't look very much like a man's?"
Phyllis stooped over it. "You're right! It's a woman's or a girl's. Here's the deep imprint of the little French heel, and the narrow, pointed toe. Must have a mighty small foot!" She measured her own beside it. "Still, even mine would look much smaller in pumps or slippers instead of these comfortable sneakers. Might be either a small woman or a girl like ourselves."
"But why is there only one, I wonder?" mused Leslie.
"I think the answer to that is simple. She walked on this narrow board-walk up from the back road, probably because it was easier, or, even perhaps, so as not to make any footprints. And just at the doorstep she may have stumbled, or stepped off by mistake in the darkness. Perhaps she didn't even realize it."
Again Leslie had bent over the footprint. "She was coming in when she made it. Do you notice that it points toward the door?"
Phyllis stared at her. "What a perfectly dandy detective you'd make!" she exclaimed. "You simply take in everything!"
"You're just as good and even better!" laughed Leslie, secretly pleased, however.
"Hurrah for us!" cried Phyllis. "We're just a pair of natural Sherlock Holmeses! Now, here's what I propose. There's something mighty queer going on here, I believe. And I'm willing to give up my ghost theory, because it does seem silly. But I want to investigate the thing pretty thoroughly, and the only way to do it is to get into that bungalow and see what has been going on inside."
"But Phyllis!" cried the shocked Leslie. "You wouldn't break into some one else's bungalow, would you? And besides, how could you?"
"Pooh!" declared Phyllis, in scorn. "As if I didn't know this bungalow as well as our own, and the Danforths almost as well as my own family, too, for that matter. I've been in here a thousand times. The Danforths would be only too grateful to me for keeping an eye on their place for them. They'd do the same for us. And as for getting in—why, I've always known a private way of getting in when everything's locked up. The Danforths themselves showed me. We'll get in this afternoon. This morning I promised Ted and Father I'd fish with them awhile; but this afternoon I'm free."
"Where are you two girls?" they heard Miss Crane calling from next door, and they started guiltily, not realizing how long they had been away.
"I must be more careful, or Aunt Marcia will begin to suspect something and question me," whispered Leslie. "It would never do in the world to have her realize there was anything queer going on so close to us. She'd pack up for home in a minute, her nerves are still so uncertain. Coming, Aunt Marcia!"
"That's so!" agreed Phyllis. "Between keeping it from your aunt and from Ted and Father, we're going to have some tight squeezes, I foresee! Well, I'll be back after luncheon and we'll do a bit of investigating. Good-by!"
It was between half past one and two, that afternoon, when Phyllis again appeared at Rest Haven—a very auspicious time, for Miss Marcia was in her room taking her usual long nap and Ted and his father had gone a mile or more down the beach to an inlet to try the fishing there. The two girls had the whole vicinity to themselves.
"What shall we do with Rags?" questioned Phyllis. "I hardly think we ought to take him in. Can't you chain him up?"
"Oh, I wouldn't dare! He'd howl himself sick and wake Aunt Marcia. You see, he's never chained. But I can turn him loose on the beach and let him chase hermit-crabs, and when he's well occupied, we can slip away."
They strolled down to the water's edge with the dog, who was speedily absorbed in the one occupation he found of never-failing interest. Then they slipped back to the bungalow without his even noticing that they had gone.
It was only when they stood by the side door of Curlew's Nest that Leslie noticed something bulky concealed under Phyllis's sweater.
"What in the world have you got there?" she demanded.
Phyllis produced a large-sized electric torch. "How do you suppose we are going to see anything in that dark place without something like this? We certainly mustn't open any windows."
Leslie confessed she hadn't thought of it, and then watched with amazement while Phyllis skilfully inserted the blade of a knife in the crack of the door, wiggled it about a moment, and triumphantly lifted the hook inside from its ring and swung open the door.
"Hurry in!" she whispered. "We must close this quickly before any one can notice."
They shut the door in haste, and Phyllis flashed on her light. Then she replaced the hook in its ring. "Now we're safe! You see, this is a little side-closet like a pantry, where the ice-box is kept. They had the door made so that the ice need not be carried in through the kitchen."
"But that's a very poor catch for the door—just that little hook!" cried Leslie. "I should think they'd have something more secure than that."
"I suppose it is," agreed Phyllis, "and they've often said so themselves. And yet it's just one of those things that never gets changed. Anyhow, nobody ever locks anything down here, only fastens things up when the season is over. There's really nothing valuable enough here to lock up or to be attractive to thieves. And so it has just gone on, and I suppose that hook will remain there forever! But come along! Let's get down to business. This way to the living-room!" and she led the way along a passage and into the big main room of the bungalow.
It was very much on the style of that of Rest Haven, furnished with attractive willow furniture, and with a large brick open fireplace at one side. As Phyllis flashed the torch about in a general survey, Leslie noticed that the cottage was obviously dismantled for the winter. The furniture stood huddled against the walls; there were no dainty draperies at the shuttered windows, and the rugs were rolled up, tied, and heaped in one corner.
"Nothing seems out of the way here," said Phyllis. "It's just as the Danforths usually leave it. Now let's look into the bedrooms."
They journeyed through the four bedrooms with no different result. Each wore the same undisturbed air of being shorn of its summer drapery, with beds starkly stripped of all but their mattresses, and these covered with heavy paper. Then on into the kitchen, which seemed, of all the rooms, to wear more nearly its normal aspect. But even there everything, apparently, appeared as it should.
It was in the kitchen that Phyllis stopped short and faced Leslie. "Well, doesn't it beat everything!" she exclaimed. "After all we've seen and heard,—yes, and found,—there's not a thing here that looks as if a living soul had been in it since Mrs. Danforth closed it up. Now what do you make of it?"
"Perhaps we haven't looked closely enough. Let's go over it again," was all Leslie could offer. "And isn't it possible that a person might come in here for some reason and not disturb anything?"
"Yes, of course it's possible, but is it likely?" countered Phyllis. "But as you say, we'd better go over the place again and more carefully. If we don't find something, I shall certainly go back to believing in my 'ghost.' And I guess you'll admit I have foundation for it now!"
"I tell you what!" suggested Leslie. "Suppose we each take a turn with the flash-light and go over every room twice, first you, then myself. I noticed that, when you held the light, I had to follow behind and look over your shoulder or get in your way, and I really couldn't see very well. Now, I'll sit in this chair while you go over the place, and then you give the torch to me. How does that strike you?"
"Good idea! You're full of 'em, Leslie. I ought to have thought of it before." And while Leslie sat down rather gingerly in one of the willow rockers against the wall, Phyllis systematically examined the room again, diving into all the nooks and corners, and at last came back to hand the torch to her friend.
"No luck! It's as clean as a whistle of any clues, as far as I can see. You take your turn."
When Leslie had completed her search, they proceeded to treat the other rooms in similar fashion, and so had come to the last bedroom when they were startled by a sound from outside the house.
"What in the world is that?" cried Phyllis, in a panic. "It's the most uncanny sound I ever heard!" They listened again and caught the intonation of a long moan, ending in a rising note like a wail. It was truly a little hair-raising in the closed, forsaken spot.
Suddenly Leslie giggled. "Oh, it's only Rags! He's missed me at last, traced me here, and is probably sitting by that side door now, protesting against having been deserted!"
Phyllis was both relieved at the explanation and annoyed at the interruption. "Let's go and stop him right away, or he'll have all the neighborhood here!"
They hurried to the little side door in the pantry and snapped off their light. Rags, from the outside, sniffing at the threshold, sensed their approach and yapped joyously.
"But how are you going to lock that door after you?" whispered Leslie, in sudden terror. "It isn't possible!"
"Trust me!" smiled the capable Phyllis. "Do you suppose I'd have unfastened it if I couldn't fasten it up again? I just keep the hook in a certain position with my knife, as I close the door, and then gently drop it into the ring through the crack. I've done it a dozen times. Leroy Danforth taught us how."
Leslie breathed a sigh of relief, and Phyllis cautiously opened the door.
Then both girls started back in genuine dismay!
Sitting cross-legged in the sand, directly in front of the door and holding back the delighted Rags by his collar, was—of all people most unwelcome to Phyllis—her grinning brother Ted!
The consternation of the guilty pair was almost ludicrous, at least Ted found it so. Then Phyllis recovered her self-possession and demanded:
"What are you doing here, I'd like to know?"
"Please, ma'am, that's a question I prefer to ask of you—and with a great deal more reason!" returned Ted. "Of all the nervy things I ever saw, it's you prowling around the Danforths' closed bungalow and sneaking out like a thief when you thought no one was around!" Leslie felt herself turn red and uncomfortable at the accusation, but Phyllis seemed in no wise daunted.
"I guess if I want to show the place to Leslie, there isn't any particular harm in it. She's been asking me what it looked like in there and how it differed from their house. You know perfectly well, the Danforths wouldn't care a brass farthing!" This statement happened to be entirely true, for Leslie had questioned her only the day before as to the interior arrangements and expressed some curiosity to see it. She breathed a sigh of relief at the ease with which Phyllis seemed to be explaining a rather peculiar situation.
Ted, however, seemed only half convinced. "If that's so, it's mighty queer that you looked so guilty and caught-in-the-act-y when you came out and saw me! And for goodness sake, how long have you been in there, anyway? This Rags dog came running up the beach to us at least an hour ago. And I thought, of course, you girls were somewhere about. But when you didn't appear after a while, I began to get worried, and Rags and I started off to find you. He led me straight here (good old chap!) and we've been sitting waiting at least fifteen minutes. Then he began to howl and gave the game away. Now please explain all this!"
"I'll explain nothing further," replied Phyllis, loftily, "and I'll trouble you to tend to your own affairs in the future!" With which crushing rejoinder she marched away, dragging the unhappy Leslie after her.
"All right! Just you wait! I'll dig out your little secret!" he called after them.
"And he will, too!" muttered Phyllis. "That is, if we don't use the greatest caution. Isn't it unfortunate that that wretched dog led him right here! However, I've settled him for the present, and now let's think about other things."
But it was not so easy for Leslie to forget the unpleasantness of the recent encounter and the implication that she had been caught trespassing. But Phyllis settled down to steady talk about their investigations and she presently forgot the impression.
"It's mighty strange that in all our careful search we didn't find a single thing that would indicate a recent visitor," mused Phyllis.
"Didn't you see anything—any least little thing?" questioned Leslie.
Phyllis stared at her in some surprise. "Why, you know I didn't! What makes you ask?"
"Because I did!" Leslie quietly returned.
LESLIE MAKES SOME DEDUCTIONS
"Well, of all things!" ejaculated the astonished Phyllis. "And you never said a word! What was it?"
"I didn't say anything," explained Leslie, "because there was hardly a chance. It was just before we came out. And—"
"But what was it? Never mind how it happened!" cried Phyllis impatiently.
"Well, this is part of it. In that southwest bedroom (the one facing our house), I saw a tiny string of beads lying under the bureau, just by the front leg of it. The string was just a thread about three inches long, with some little green beads on it. A few of the beads had come off it and rolled farther away. I picked one of them up, and here it is." She held out a little bead to Phyllis.
"But what on earth is there to this?" exclaimed Phyllis, staring at it disappointedly. "I don't see what an insignificant little object like this proves. It was probably left by the Danforths, anyway."
"No, I don't think it was," returned Leslie, quietly, "because the Danforths seem to have cleaned the place very thoroughly. The rest of the floor was spick and span as could be. I think the string of beads was part of a fringe, such as they wear so much nowadays to trim nice dresses. It probably caught in the leg of that bureau and was pulled off without its owner realizing it. Now did any of the Danforths, as far as you know, have any bead-trimmed dresses that they wore down here?"
Phyllis shook her head. "I begin to see what you're driving at, Leslie. No, there's only Mrs. Danforth to wear dresses—the rest of the family consists of her husband and the boys. I'm perfectly certain I never saw her in a beaded dress. And even if she had one, I'm sure she wouldn't think of wearing it down here, not even to travel home in. People don't bring elaborate clothes to this place, and she's never been known to. I believe you're right. If the beads had been there when the place was cleaned, they would have disappeared. They must have come there since. The mysterious 'she' of the footprint must have left them! But what else was there?"
"Then I noticed another thing that was curious and very puzzling. I confess, I can't make much out of it, and yet it may mean a great deal. It was out by the fireplace in the living-room. Did you happen to notice that one of the bricks in the floor of it looked as if an attempt had been made to pry it loose, or something? The cement all along one side had been loosened and then packed down into place again. And 'way in the corner, I picked up this!" She held up the blade of a penknife, broken off halfway.
"No, I hadn't noticed it at all!" exclaimed Phyllis, ruefully. "The truth is, Leslie, I went into that place expecting to see it all torn up or upheaved or something of the kind—something very definite, anyway. And when I didn't find anything of the sort, I was awfully disappointed and hardly stopped to notice any of these small things. But I believe what you've found may be very important, and I think you're awfully clever to have noticed them, too. Why, it actually sounds like a regular detective story! And now that you've found these things, what do you make out of them? Have you any ideas?"
Leslie wrinkled her brows for an interval in silent thought. At last she said, "Yes, I have a good many ideas, but I haven't had time to get them into any order yet. They're all sort of—chaotic!"
"Oh, never mind!" cried the ever-impatient Phyllis. "Tell me them, anyway. I don't care how chaotic they are!"
"Well, to begin with,—has this occurred to you?—whoever comes here selects only a stormy, rainy night for a visit. Now why, unless they think it the best kind of time to escape observation. They just calculate on few people going out or even looking out of their houses on that kind of a night. Isn't that so?"
"It certainly seems to be," agreed Phyllis, "but what do you prove by that?"
"I don't prove anything, but I've drawn a conclusion from it that I'll tell you later. Then, there's the matter of this little bead. I know you rather scorned it when I first showed it to you, but do you realize one thing? We may be able to identify the owner by means of it."
Phyllis stared at her incredulously, but Leslie continued: "Yes, I really think so, and I'll tell you why. This isn't an ordinary bead. In the first place, it's a rather peculiar shade of green—one you don't ordinarily see. Then, though it's so small, it's cut in a different way, too, sort of melon-shaped, only with about six sides. Do you see?"
On closer examination, Phyllis did see. And she had to acknowledge that Leslie was right.
"Then there's the broken penknife and the brick with one side pried out," went on Leslie. "It's pretty plain that the person was trying to pry up that brick with the penknife and found it hard work because the mortar or cement is solid. Then the blade of the knife broke and the attempt was probably given up. Now why did they want to pry up that brick?"
"I know!—I know!" cried Phyllis, triumphantly. "They wanted to bury 'The Dragon's Secret' under it!"
"Maybe they did and maybe they didn't," replied Leslie, more cautiously. "They certainly tried to pry up the brick, but perhaps it was to look for something under it, rather than to hide anything. However, I rather think it was to hide it. And because they didn't succeed, they went out and buried it in the sand, instead. How about that?"
Phyllis sprang up and hugged her impetuously. "You have a brain like a regulation sleuth-hound's!" she laughed. "What else?"
"Well, this is what I can't understand. Suppose this person (we're sure now it must be a woman) came down here that first stormy night with 'The Dragon's Secret,' and tried to hide it somewhere, and finally buried it in the sand outside. The question is, what did she come for the second time?"
"To get it again?" suggested Phyllis.
"I'm almost absolutely certain not, because, if so, all she would have had to do was to go outside and dig. (Of course, she wouldn't have found it because we had it!) But she never went outside at all. I know that positively. I passed right by the place where Rags dug the hole, on my way up from your bungalow, and it was quite untouched, just as we left it after we filled it up again that day. And when we came back again, I looked a second time, and still it was the same. And I watched half the night and would certainly have seen if any one had gone there. No, I'm sure it wasn't for that. But what was it for?"
"Give it up," advised Phyllis, "at least for the present. Anything else?"
"No, except the conclusion I drew about the person's coming on a stormy night. Do you realize this?—there's quite a big chance that they—or rather, she!—will come again on the next stormy night—perhaps!"
"Well, if that's the case," exclaimed Phyllis, "I've drawn a little conclusion of my own. The next stormy night I'm going to spend at your bungalow—and we're going to keep awake all night!"
A NEW DEVELOPMENT
But the weather remained quite clear for several nights after this. And meantime other things happened that gave a new twist to the girls' conjectures.
Two mornings after the events of the last chapter, Phyllis appeared at Rest Haven with a mysterious wrapped parcel in her hand. Answering Leslie's curious glance, she whispered:
"I want you to take this thing and keep it here and hide it. It's 'The Dragon's Secret.' I don't feel safe a minute with it around our place since Ted's performance the other day. You know, he boasted he'd find out our secret, and he will certainly make every effort to, or I don't know him. Whether he'll succeed or not depends upon how clever we are in spoiling his plans. If he found this, though, we might as well not try to keep the rest from him. I discovered him snooping around my room rather suspiciously yesterday. This was locked up in my trunk, and he said he was only hunting for fudge! But anyhow, you'd better keep it now, if you can think of some safe place to hide it."
"I'm sure I don't know where to put it!" sighed Leslie, rather worried by the responsibility. "Aunt Marcia and I shared one big trunk because it didn't seem worth while to bring two, when one needs so few things here. So of course I couldn't put it in there, and the lock of my suitcase is broken. There isn't a bureau-drawer with a key in the whole bungalow—so what am I going to do?"
For a time, Phyllis was equally puzzled. Then suddenly she had a bright idea. "I'll tell you! That top shelf in your pantry where the refrigerator is! You said you'd put quite a few kitchen things that you didn't use there, and it's dark and unhandy and neither your aunt nor any one else would think of disturbing it. Wouldn't that be the best place, really?"
"I guess you're right," admitted Leslie, considerably relieved. "Wait till Aunt Marcia has gone to sit on the front veranda, and we can put it there."
The Dragon's Secret had probably known some strange resting-places in its time, but doubtless none stranger than the one in which it now found itself—a dark, rather dusty top shelf in a pantry, hobnobbing with a few worn-out pots and pans and discarded kitchen-ware! But the girls tucked it far into a corner, and, wrapped in its burlap bag, it was as successfully concealed as it would have been in a strong-box.
"And now, there's something I've been wanting to ask you," said Leslie, as the two girls strolled down to the beach. "Do you happen to know anything about the people who hired Curlew's Nest the latter part of this summer?"
"Oh, yes!" answered Phyllis, "though I didn't happen to see them myself. Mrs. Danforth told me that in July the Remsons had it, as they always do. But in August and September she rented it to an elderly gentleman,—I can't think of his name, just this minute,—who stayed there all by himself, with only his man or valet to do all the work. He wasn't very well,—was recovering from some kind of a fever, I think,—and wanted to be alone in some quiet place. You know, Mrs. Danforth herself spent all summer in your bungalow, and she said she saw very little of the man in Curlew's Nest, though they were such near neighbors. He sat on his porch or in the house a great deal, or took long walks by himself on the beach. He used to pass the time of day with her, and make some other formal remarks, but that was about all. She was really rather curious about him, he seemed so anxious not to mix with other people or be talked to. But he left about the middle of September, and she closed up that bungalow for the winter. That's about all I know."
"It's too bad you can't think of his name!" exclaimed Leslie.
"Why?" demanded Phyllis, suddenly curious. "You surely don't think that has anything to do with this affair, do you?"
But Leslie countered that question by asking another: "Has it ever occurred to you as strange, Phyllis, that whoever got into that bungalow lately, knew the little secret about the side door and worked it so cleverly?"
Phyllis's eyes grew wide and she seized Leslie's arm in so muscular a grip that Leslie winced. "No, it didn't, you little pocket-edition Sherlock Holmes! But I see what you're driving at. To know about that side door, one must have been pretty well acquainted with that bungalow—lived in it for a while! Aha! No wonder you're curious about the last occupant. We'll have to count that old gentleman in on this!"
"Yes, but here's the mystery," reminded Leslie. "You said he lived here alone except for his man-servant. Remember, please, that the footprint we saw—was a woman's!"
Phyllis tore at her hair in mock despair. "Worse and more of it!" she groaned. "But the deeper it gets, the more determined I grow to get to the bottom of it!"
They strolled on a while in silence. Suddenly Phyllis asked, "Where's Rags this morning?"
"He doesn't seem to feel very well to-day. Something seems to have disagreed with him—perhaps too many hermit-crabs! Anyway, he's lying around on the veranda and seems to want to stay near Aunt Marcia and sleep. She said she'd keep him there."
"Best news I've heard in an age!" exclaimed Phyllis, delightedly. "That dog is a most faithful article, Leslie, but he's a decided nuisance sometimes! And now, I have a gorgeous idea that I've been wanting to try for two days. Father and Ted have gone off for the day up the inlet, and Rags is out of commission. Here's our chance. Do you realize that there's one bedroom in Curlew's Nest we didn't have a chance to explore the other day? Let's go and do it right now. I'll run down to our house for the electric torch and meet you at the side door. There's not a soul around to interfere with us!"
"Oh, no, Phyllis! I really don't think we ought—" objected Leslie, recalling all too vividly the unpleasantness of their former experience. But Phyllis was off and far away while she was still expostulating, and in the end, Leslie found herself awaiting her companion in the vicinity of the side door of Curlew's Nest.
They entered the dark bungalow with beating hearts, more aware this time than ever that mystery lurked in the depth of it. Straight to the unexplored bedroom they proceeded, for, as Leslie reminded them, they had no time to waste; Rags might have an untimely recovery and come seeking them as before! Ted also might be prompted by his evil genius to descend on them; or even Aunt Marcia might be minded to hunt them up.
The bedroom in question, as Phyllis now recalled, was the southwest one, and the one Mrs. Danforth said that the last tenant had chosen for his own. "Therefore it ought to be more than ordinarily interesting," went on Phyllis. "I remember now that Mrs. Danforth said he had asked permission to leave there, as a little contribution to the bungalow, a few books that he had finished with and did not wish to carry away. She left them right where they were on a shelf in his room, instead of putting them in the bookcase in the living-room. I'm sort of remembering these things she told me, piecemeal, because Mrs. Danforth is a great talker and is always giving you a lot of details about things you're not particularly interested in, and you try to listen politely, but often find it an awful bore. Then you try to forget it all as soon as possible!"
They found the bedroom in question somewhat more spacious and better furnished than the others. But though they examined every nook and cranny with care, they discovered nothing thrilling, or even enlightening, within its walls till they came to the shelf of books. These, with the exception of two books of recent fiction, were all of travel and politics in foreign countries.
"My, but he must have been interested in India and China and Tibet and those countries!" exclaimed Leslie, reading the titles. "I wonder why?"
She took one of them down and turned the pages idly. As she did so, something fluttered out and fell to the floor. "Oh!" she cried, picking it up and examining it. "Phyllis, this may prove very valuable! Do you see what it is?" It was an envelop of thin, foreign-looking paper—an empty envelop, forgotten and useless, unless perhaps it had been employed as a bookmark. But on it was a name—the name no doubt of the recipient of the letter it had once contained, and also a foreign address.
"Do you see what it says?" went on Leslie, excitedly. "'Honorable Arthur Ramsay, Hotel des Wagons-Lits, Peking'. Why, Phyllis, that's his name (which you couldn't remember!) and he was evidently at some time in Peking!"
But Phyllis was puckering her brows in an effort of memory. "There's some mistake here, I guess," she remarked at length, "for now I recall that Mrs. Danforth said his name was Mr. Horatio Gaines!"
Leslie dropped the envelop back in the book, the picture of disappointment. "It doesn't seem likely he'd have someone else's envelops in his books," she remarked. "And I think Honorable Arthur Ramsay of Peking sounds far more thrilling than plain 'Horatio Gaines'! Let's look through the rest of the books and see if we can discover anything else."
They examined them all, but found nothing more of interest and Leslie suggested uneasily that they had better go.
"But there's one thing I must see first,—" decided Phyllis; "the beads and broken penknife you found. I've been wild to look at them for myself. Come along! We'll have time for that."
They made their way cautiously into the next bedroom, bent down, and turned the torch toward the floor under the bureau where Leslie had made the discovery. Then both girls simultaneously gasped. There was not a sign of the beads anywhere to be seen!
"Phyllis!" breathed Leslie, in frightened wonder. "It's gone—the whole string! What can be the meaning of it?"
"Come!" cried Phyllis, dragging Leslie after her. "Let's go and see if the broken penknife blade is there yet. If that's gone, too, something new has happened here!"
They hurried to the living-room and bent over the fireplace. The half-loosened brick was there as Leslie had described it, but of the broken penknife blade in the corner, there was not a vestige to be seen!
THE CLUE OF THE GREEN BEAD
With shaking knees and blank dismay on their faces, they crept out of Curlew's Nest and fastened the door. Then they hurried down to the water's edge and sat on a rise of sand to talk it over.
"What can it all mean, Phyllis?" quavered Leslie.
"It means that some one has been in there again since day before yesterday," declared her companion, "though it's been bright moonlight for the past two nights, and how they got in without being seen, I can't quite understand! You said you kept some sort of watch, didn't you?"
"I certainly did. I haven't gone to bed till late, and every once in a while during the night, I've waked up and looked over there. It doesn't seem possible they would dare to come with the moonlight bright as day, all night long. Of course, that side door is on the opposite side from us, and the only way I could tell would be by seeing a light through the cracks of the shutter. Perhaps if they hadn't had a very bright light, I wouldn't know."
"But what did they come for?" questioned Phyllis.
"Why, that's simple. They came back to get the beads and the knife-blade. Probably it was the 'mysterious she,' and she came to get those things because she realized they'd been left there and might be discovered by some one else. What else could it be?"
"Of course you must be right," agreed Phyllis. "But it's the queerest thing I ever heard of! Anyway, there's one thing the lady doesn't know—that we have still one of the beads! I wonder how she'd feel if she did realize it?"
"Do you ever wonder what that mysterious lady is like?" asked Leslie. "I often try to picture her—from the very, very little we know about her. I think she is tall and dark and slender, and very, very stylishly dressed. She has rather sad brown eyes and is quite foreign-looking and would be very interesting to know."
"Well, I don't imagine her that way at all," replied Phyllis. "To me it seems as if she must be large and imposing, with light hair and blue eyes and very quick, vivacious manners. I agree that she is no doubt dressed in a very up-to-date style, and is probably about thirty-five or forty years old. I don't know whether I'd like to know her or not, but I would like to know what she's after in that bungalow!"
So they continued to conjecture and imagine till Phyllis finally exclaimed: "Why, there are Father and Ted back already! Fishing must have been poor this morning. Thank goodness we got out of that place when we did! But that reminds me, I ought to go to the village and order some supplies. The grocer doesn't come here again for two days. Don't you want to walk down with me? It's a gorgeous morning for a 'hike'!"
"I believe I will," agreed Leslie, "that is, if Aunt Marcia can get along without me. I haven't had a good walk in so long that I fairly ache for one. I'll go and see if Aunt Marcia would like me to get her anything, and I'll meet you in five minutes."
It was indeed a glorious morning for a walk. The crisp October air was as clear as crystal and the salt meadows back of the dunes were still gay with goldenrod and the deeper autumn colorings. The creek that wound through them was a ribbon of intense blue, and a thousand marsh-birds twittered and darted and swooped over its surface. But the two girls were, for once, almost blind to the beauty of it all, so absorbed were they in the never-failing topic of their mystery. And the village was reached almost before they realized they were in its vicinity.
Phyllis did her shopping first, in the general grocery store. Then Leslie suggested that they visit the little fancy-goods store and look up some wool for Miss Marcia's knitting. It was a very tiny little store, kept by a tiny, rather sleepy old lady, who took a long time to find the articles her customers required. It seemed as if she would never, never locate the box with the right shade of wool in it!
While they were waiting, not altogether patiently, a handsome automobile drew up in front of the store. Its only occupant was a young girl scarcely older than Leslie and Phyllis, and by the ease with which she handled the car, it was plain to be seen that she was an accomplished driver. In another moment she had entered the store and was standing beside the two girls, waiting to be served.
She was short and slender in build, with a pink-and-white complexion, of marvelous clearness, and fluffy, red-brown hair. Under the heavy coat which she had unbuttoned on entering the store could be seen a stylish suit of English tweeds, very tailor-made and up-to-date, and a smart tam crowned her red-brown hair.
After the pleasant manner of the villagers and accustomed summer people, Phyllis bade her "Good morning!" But, to the astonishment of both girls, instead of replying in an equally pleasant manner, she stared at them both up and down for a moment, then turned away with only an ungracious nod. The indignant pair left her severely alone after that, except for a furtive glance or two when she was looking the other way. But when they had at last ascertained that old Mrs. Selby had, after all, no wool of the shade required, Leslie hurried Phyllis out with what seemed almost unnecessary haste.
"The little wretch!" sputtered Phyllis, once safely outside. "Did you ever see worse manners? But she's—"
"Never mind about her manners!" whispered Leslie, excitedly. "Did you notice anything else?"
"Noticed that she was very smart looking and quite pretty—that is, I thought so at first. But after she acted that way, she seemed positively hateful!"
"No, no! I don't mean that. Did you notice anything about her dress—her clothes?"
"Oh, do tell me what you mean!" cried Phyllis. "How you do love to mystify a person!"
"Well," whispered Leslie, her eyes still on the door of the little store, "when she threw open her coat I just happened to glance at her dress, and noticed that it had a girdle of some dark green, crepe-y material, and the two ends had fringes of beads—and the beads were just like the ones in Curlew's Nest!"
Phyllis simply stared at her, open-mouthed and incredulous. "It can't be!" she muttered at length. "Even if the beads were like the ones you found—there are probably more persons than one who have some like them."
"Yes, that's true," admitted Leslie, "but the color—and queer shape—everything!—At least, it's something worth investigating. It's the first real clue we've had."
At that moment, the girl in question came out of the store, sprang into the car, whirled the wheel about, and was off down the street in a cloud of dust. They stood gazing after her.
"It doesn't seem possible!" exclaimed Phyllis. "It just can't be! And yet—tell you what! I'm just wondering whether she's staying anywhere around here or is just a casual stranger passing through the town. Let's go in and ask old Mrs. Selby if she knows anything about her. If she's staying here, Mrs. Selby will positively know it. I'll make the excuse of having forgotten to buy something. Come along!"
She hustled Leslie back into the little shop and soon had little Mrs. Selby hunting for a size and variety of shell hair-pin of which she had no need whatever, as she possessed already a plentiful supply at home. But it was the only thing she could think of at the moment. When they were being wrapped, she asked quite casually:
"Was that young girl who just went out a stranger here, Mrs. Selby, or is she stopping in the village? Seems to me I don't recall her face."
"Oh, she ain't exactly a stranger," replied Mrs. Selby with alacrity, quite waking up at the prospect of retailing a bit of gossip; "But she ain't been around here so long—only a couple of weeks or so. She comes in here once in a while, but she ain't very friendly like—never passes the time o' day nor nothing,—just asks for what she wants and goes out. I never did quite take to manners like that. Nobody else here acts so—not even the summer folks. I can't think how she was brung up! They do say as she ain't an American,—that she's English or something,—but I don't know for sure. Anyhow, she don't mix with no one—just runs around in that ottymobile all the time."
"Where's she stopping?" went on Phyllis. "The hotel is closed. I thought all the summer people but ourselves had gone."
"Oh, she's boarding up to Aunt Sally Blake's. I dunno how she come to go there, but there she is. I wonder how Aunt Sally gets along with her?"
"Have you heard what her name is?" pursued Phyllis, as she received her parcel.
"They do say her name is Ramsay—Miss Ramsay. Good morning, young ladies, and thank you. Come in again soon."
When they were out on the street, Leslie clutched Phyllis spasmodically and her eyes were almost popping out of her head.
"Is there the least doubt in your mind now, Phyllis Kelvin?" she demanded. "Her name is Ramsay—the very same name that was on the envelop in the book!"
And Phyllis was obliged to acknowledge herself convinced.
AUNT SALLY ADDS TO THE MYSTIFICATION
THE two girls walked home in a state bordering on stupefaction. Every little while Phyllis would stop to ejaculate: "Who would have thought it! The horrid little snob! I really can't believe yet that it is she, Leslie—our 'mysterious she!' I'm sure there must be some mistake."
"Well, of course, it may not be so," Leslie admitted, "but you must see how many things point to it. The beads are identical. I stood so near her that I had a fine chance to see them closely. Her name is the same as the one on the envelop in the book—"
"Yes, but that isn't the name of the man who hired the bungalow," objected Phyllis.
"That's quite true, but even so, you can't tell what connection there may be with the other name. It isn't exactly a common one, and that makes it all the more likely that we may be right. And then, there's the fact of her being so near here—right in the village. I have always imagined that whoever it was had to come from quite a distance, and I've always wondered how she managed it, so late at night."
"But Leslie, why on earth should she come to that bungalow in the dead of night, in a storm, and hide that 'Dragon's Secret'? What mysterious affair can she be mixed up with, anyway?"
Leslie, however, had no solution to offer to this poser, but she did have a sudden idea that made her stop short in the road and gasp:
"Do you realize, Phyllis Kelvin, that we are doing a very questionable—yes, a wrong thing in keeping the 'Dragon's Secret,' when it evidently belongs to this girl?"
"How do you know it belongs to this girl?" countered Phyllis. "You only guess that it may, when all's said and done. You didn't see her hide it there—you didn't even see her at the bungalow. We may be way off the track, for all you know, and we'd be a pretty pair of geese to go and meekly hand it to her, shouldn't we! And do you know, even if I was simply positive it was hers, I just wouldn't give it to her, anyway, for a while. I'd let her stew and fret for it for a good long spell—after such hatefulness!"
Phyllis's manner was so vindictive that Leslie had to smile in spite of herself.
"But oh, see here!" Phyllis went on. "I have an idea—a glorious idea! It may help to clear up a lot of things. I know Aunt Sally Blake very well, and we'll go and see her—this very afternoon! Perhaps she can give us more light on the subject."
"But wouldn't that seem too plainly like tracking down this—Miss Ramsay?" objected Leslie, "especially as she doesn't appear to care for our acquaintance!"
"Not a bit!" declared Phyllis, positively. "You don't realize how well I know Aunt Sally. Why, she's a regular village institution—everybody knows her and thinks the world of her. She's a plump, jolly, delightful old lady who lives in a delightful old house full of dear, old-fashioned furniture. She keeps a lot of chickens and often sells them and the fresh eggs, and she does a little sewing, and sometimes takes a boarder or two, and goes out nursing occasionally—and oh, I don't know what all! But I know that we couldn't get along at all around here without Aunt Sally. We'll go down to her house this afternoon and call (I really haven't been to see her since I came down this time), and I'll ask her if she has a nice roasting chicken that I can have. That'll be a perfectly good excuse. And if our polite young lady isn't around, I'll try and get her to talk. Aunt Sally loves to talk, but she isn't a gossip like old Mrs. Selby, and we'll have to go at it a little more carefully."
They solaced themselves with this thought, and awaited with more than a little impatience the visit that afternoon. Surely Aunt Sally, if any one, would be able to solve some of their mysteries!
By afternoon, the weather had turned warm, almost sultry, and they found Aunt Sally sitting on her front porch, rocking gently and humming to herself over her sewing. She was delighted to see Phyllis again and to make the acquaintance of Leslie, whom Phyllis introduced as her neighbor and very dear friend. When they had chatted about topics of common interest for a while, Phyllis introduced the subject of the chicken.
"Bless your heart, dear!" cried Aunt Sally. "I'm so sorry, but I haven't a roasting chicken just now in the whole yard—nothing but fowls. But I can give you a couple of nice young broilers—and I've plenty of fresh eggs."
Phyllis straightway arranged to have two broilers ready for her when she called for them next day, and skilfully changed the subject.
"Oh, Aunt Sally! do show Leslie those begonias you've been raising all summer. I do think they are the most beautiful things! You certainly are very successful at making things grow!"
Highly flattered, Aunt Sally rose to lead the girls indoors to the sunny room where she kept her plants. While they were admiring them, she asked them to sit down and rest a while and talk—an invitation they accepted with great alacrity. At length, after a detailed account of the health and affairs of her entire family, Phyllis craftily led the conversation back to Aunt Sally herself.
"And are you alone now, Aunt Sally, or is your sister still with you? I heard she was going back to Ohio."
"Yes, she's gone and I'm alone," sighed Aunt Sally; "at least,—I'm not quite alone. I have a boarder at present."
"Oh, have you!" exclaimed Phyllis, guilefully, as if it were all news to her. "Why, that's very nice. I hope the boarder will stay a long while. It will be some company for you."
"Well, I dunno how long she'll stay, and she ain't much company for me, I must confess!" admitted Aunt Sally, with a somewhat worried air. "The truth is, I can't exactly make her out."
This was precisely the line that Phyllis wished her to take, yet even now caution must be observed or Aunt Sally might shy away from it.
"Oh, it's a lady then!" remarked the artful Phyllis.
"Well, no, it ain't exactly a lady—it's a young girl 'bout the age of you two, I should guess."
"Still, I don't see why she shouldn't be company for you, even so," argued Phyllis, quite as if she were still completely in the dark as to this new boarder.
"The reason she ain't much company," went on Aunt Sally, "is because—well, I don't know as I ought to say it, but I guess she thinks she's too sort of—high-toned to 'sociate with the person who keeps her boarding-house!" Aunt Sally laughed, an amused, throaty little chuckle at this, and then the worried frown came back.
"Why, she must be rather horrid, I think," commented Phyllis, with more heartfelt reason than Aunt Sally could guess!
"No, I don't think she means to be horrid—she's just been brought up that way, I guess. I wish she could be more friendly. I sort of feel a responsibility about her. You see, she's here all alone. She was staying at the hotel with her grandfather, and he suddenly took awful sick and had to be taken to the hospital up at Branchville. She stayed on at the hotel so's to be near him (she runs up there every day in her car), and then the hotel had to close down for the season. The manager come to me and asked me if I could take her in, 'cause he was kind of sorry for her, her grandfather bein' so ill, an' she couldn't seem to find no other place. So I did, but she worries me a lot, somehow. I don't like to see a young girl like that with no one to look after her, and she running around loose in that auto all the time. Why, she even took it out one rainy night last week at ten o'clock. Said she was worried about her grandfather, but I didn't approve of her running all the way up there to Branchville in the rain."
Here Phyllis glanced significantly at Leslie and interjected a question. "Did she and her grandfather have one of the bungalows on the beach this summer, do you know, Aunt Sally?"
"Why, not that I know of. She said she'd been visiting some friends somewhere in Maine, and then come on here to join her grandfather just a few days before he was taken sick. I don't think it likely she ever stayed in one of the bungalows. She didn't seem to know anything about this region at first. And I'd likely have heard of it if she had. But, laws! I got biscuits in the oven and I'm clean forgetting them!" And with a whisk of skirts, Aunt Sally vanished for a moment into the kitchen.