So here we were stranded, at about two o'clock in the morning, in a field nobody knew where, by a road whose direction we could not even guess, with a thick mantle of fog rolling around us as dense as the smoke had been a few hours before. Could it have been only a few hours before that we came near burning to death? And now we were in nearly as much danger of freezing to death. Fire and dampness all in one night! It certainly was a varied experience.
And the cold was no joke. It pierced the very marrow of our bones. We were not dressed for any such weather as that. We had had two blankets in the car but there was only one left when we recovered it from the Frog. Sahwah suggested that we join hands around the Glow-worm and sing "When the mists have rolled away".
"You'll have to get out and walk around, if you don't want to catch cold," said Nyoda. We walked up and down for a while, each with a hand on the other's shoulder so as not to get separated and lost in the fog. This walk soon turned into a snake dance and then a war dance around the Glow-worm. It must have been a weird sight if anyone had seen us, ghostly figures flitting about in the illumined fog around the car. I suppose they would have taken us for dancing nymphs or will-o'-the- wisps, or some other creatures which inhabit the swamps.
We really became hilarious as we danced, although it was a serious business of keeping warm, and on the whole I would not have missed that night for anything. I adore unusual experiences and I'm sure not many people have been stalled in a fog when on an automobile trip and have had to spend the night dancing to keep warm. Margery didn't see the funny side of it, and you really couldn't blame her, poor thing, for it was all her fault that we were in this mess and she had been so badly frightened earlier in the night and then so shaken up when the Glow- worm ran into the limousine.
She didn't want to dance to keep warm and sat shivering in the car with the one blanket around her, except when Nyoda made her get out and exercise.
Morning came at last and when the sun rose the fog lifted. We found ourselves in the middle of a field some distance from the road, near the stream into which we had plunged the night before. We must have been off the road for some time before we noticed it. The place where we had run off was where the road turned and we had kept on straight ahead instead of turning. We got out of the field and followed the road. It was not a regular automobile road and was not sign-posted. We did not know whether we had gone north or south from Wellsville the night before. The fog had us completely turned around. By the position of the sun, the road extended toward the south. How far we had come we could not tell. We thought of going back to Wellsville and striking the main road again, but then Nyoda decided that by finding a road which ran toward the west we could strike the other trunk line route that went up to South Bend by way of Rochester and Plymouth. We did not want to make Wellsville again if we could possibly help it, for fear we would run into Margery's uncle.
That ride to Rochester was more like a bad dream than anything else. As I have said, we were not on the main automobile road, and we soon got into such ruts and mud holes as I have never seen. In places the road was strewn with stones and we were nearly shaken to pieces going over them. It was not long before we came to a sound asleep little townlet, but we didn't have the heart to wake it up and ask it its name, so we went on to the next. It was then about six in the morning and a few people were stirring in the main street. We found by inquiry that we were in the town of Byron and that by turning to the west beyond the schoolhouse we would strike a road which eventually led to Rochester. "Eventually" was the right word. It certainly was not "directly". It twisted and turned and ended up in fields; it wound back and forth upon itself like a serpent; it dissolved in places into a lake of mud. We didn't go very fast because we were afraid the wobbly wheel would wobble off. Hungry as we were we decided to wait until we reached Rochester before getting breakfast, so we could put the car into the repair shop the first thing and save time. We staved off the keenest pangs of hunger by plundering an apple tree that dangled its ripe fruit invitingly over the road, and I haven't tasted anything so delicious before or since as those Wohelo apples, as we named them.
The poor Glow-worm minus the one fender looked like a glow-worm with one wing off and the wobbling wheel gave it a tipsy appearance. Nyoda frowned as she drove; I know she hated the spectacle we made.
"Needles and pins, needles and pins, When a girl drives an auto her trouble begins,"
"Aren't we nearly there?" sighed Nakwisi, as she came back to the seat after rising to the occasion of a bump.
"Long est via ad Tipperarium", replied Sahwah, and then bit her tongue as we struck a hole in the road.
The morning was beautiful after the foggy night and our spirits soared as we traveled along in the sunshine, singing "Along the Road that Leads the Way". But it was not long before there was a fly in the ointment. Turning around one of the innumerable curves in the road we saw the red roadster proceeding leisurely ahead of us.
As far as we could make out there was only one person in the car and that was the driver, and if he had left the scene of the burning hotel with a girl in a tan suit she was no longer with him. I think Nyoda would have turned aside into some by-road if there had been such a thing in sight, but there wasn't. The Frog turned around in the seat and saw us coming. That action seemed to rouse Nyoda to fury. Two red spots burned in her cheeks and her eyes snapped.
"I'm going to overtake him," she said with a sudden resolution, "and ask him pointblank why he is always following us."
At that she put on speed and went forward as fast as the wobbling wheel would allow. But no sooner had she done this than a surprising thing happened. The Frog looked around again, saw us gaining on him, and then the red roadster shot forward with many times the speed of ours and disappeared around a bend in the road.
"He's running away from us!" exclaimed Sahwah.
"He may be afraid we are going to make it unpleasant for him for stealing the Glow-worm," said Nyoda. "But," she added, "I can't understand why he has ventured near us at all since that episode. You would expect him to put as much space as possible between himself and us."
"He probably didn't know we were following him," said Sahwah, shrewdly.
But the whole conduct of the Frog since the beginning was such a puzzle that we could make neither head nor tail out of it, so we gave it up and turned our attention to the scenery. Behind us a motorcycle was chugging along with a noise all out of proportion to the size of the vehicle, and we amused ourselves by wondering what would happen if it should try to pass us on the narrow road, with a sharp drop into a small lake on one side and a swamp on the other. But the rider evidently had more caution than we generally credit to motorcyclists and made no attempt to pass us, so we were not treated to the spectacle of a man and a motorcycle turning a somersault into the lake or sprawling in the marsh.
We certainly were ready for our long delayed breakfast when we finally got to Rochester, after giving the Glow-worm into the hands of the doctor once more. The poor Glow-worm! She never had such a strenuous trip before or after. The man on the motorcycle came into the repair shop while we were there to have something done to his engine, and he listened with interest while we were telling the repair man how we had run into the limousine in the fog. He looked at Margery curiously and I wonder if he noticed that her suit did not fit her by several inches. But Nyoda says men are not very observant about such things.
He was a good-looking, light-haired young man, and he stared at us with a frank interest that could not be called impertinent. I believe there is a sort of freemasonry between motor tourists, especially when they are having motor troubles, that makes it seem perfectly all right to talk to strangers. When the young man asked where we were from and where we were going we answered politely that we were on our way to Chicago by way of Plymouth and LaPorte. (We had decided not to go to South Bend at all, as it was out of the way of the route we were now traveling.) Nyoda added that we hoped to make Chicago before night. Here Sahwah advised her to rap on wood. We had planned to make it before nightfall once before. When we told about the fire the young man agreed that we certainly had had adventures a-plenty. He ended up by telling us a good restaurant where we could get breakfast (he evidently had been in town before) and we hastened to find it, leaving him explaining to the repairman what was the matter with his motorcycle.
While we were eating breakfast we saw him pass on the opposite side of the street and enter a building which bore the sign of the telegraph company. I couldn't help wishing that we knew his name and would meet him again on the trip, he seemed such a pleasant chap. I am always on the lookout for romantic possibilities in everything.
The Glow-worm was to be ready to appear in polite society sometime in the afternoon and we had nothing to do but kill time until then. There were no picture shows open in the morning so the only thing left for us to do was to go for a walk through the town. It was terribly hot, nearly ninety in the shade, and what it was out in the sun we could only surmise. Margery wanted to keep her veil down because she was afraid of meeting people, and Sahwah thought it would appear strange if only she were veiled and suggested that we all keep ours down, but they nearly stifled us. So we compromised on wearing the tinted driving goggles, which really were a relief from the glare of the sun, even if they did look affected on the street, as Nakwisi said. I'm afraid we didn't have our usual blithe spirit of Joyous Venture, as we walked up and down the streets of the town, looking, as Sahwah said, "for something to look at". The frequency with which the Glow-worm was being laid up for repairs was beginning to get on our nerves. Sahwah remarked that if we had set out to walk to Chicago we would have been there long ago, and that the rate at which we were progressing reminded her of that gymnasium exercise known as "running in place", where you use up enough energy to cross the county and are just as tired as if you had gone that far, while in reality you haven't gotten away from the spot.
Nakwisi stood up on a little rise of ground and focused her spy-glass in the direction of Chicago and said she had better try to get a look at the Forbidden City from there because she might never get any nearer.
Nyoda had torn her green veil on her hatpin and the wind had whipped the loose ends out until they looked ragged and she was frankly cross.
"When lovely woman stoops to folly, And learns too late that veils do fray—"
chanted Sahwah, trying to be funny, but no one even laughed at her. We were too much exhausted from the heat and too busy wiping the perspiration out of our eyes.
As a town of that size must necessarily come to an end soon, we found ourselves after a while, beyond its limits and on a country road. We saw a great tree spreading out its shady branches at no great distance and made for it. With various sighs and puffs of satisfaction we sank down in the grass and made ourselves comfortable. Of all the sights we had seen so far on our trip the sight of that tree gave us the most pleasure. We had not sat there very long when a young man passed us in the road. He was the light-haired young man we had seen in the repair shop. He lifted his hat as he passed but he did not say anything. He was on foot, from which we judged that he also had some time to kill while his motorcycle was being fixed.
We did not sit long under that tree after all. First, Sahwah discovered that she was sitting next to a convention hall of gigantic red ants and a number of the delegates had gone on sight-seeing excursions up her sleeves and into her low shoes, which naturally caused some commotion. Then a spider let himself down on a web directly in front of Margery's face and threw her into hysterics. And then the mosquitoes descended, the way the Latin book says the Roman soldiers did, "as many thousands as ever came down from old Mycaenae", and after that there was no peace. We slapped them away with leaves for a time but there were too many for us, so in sheer self-defense, we got up and began to walk back to town. The only thing we had to be thankful for so far was that the Frog had apparently vanished from the scene.
We went back to the little restaurant where we had eaten our breakfast and ordered dinner. We had our choice between boiled fish and fried steak and we all took steak except Margery, who wanted fish. The heat had taken away our appetites, all but Margery's, and she ate heartily. Dinner over, we went out into the heat once more. We went up to see if the picture show was open yet, for the thought of a comfortable seat away from the sun and with an electric fan near, was becoming more alluring every minute. It was open and we passed in with sighs of joy. Somewhere along the middle of the performance, Sahwah, who was sitting next to me, gave me a nudge and pointed to the other side of the house. There sat the Frog, as big as life.
"I should think he'd smother in those goggles," whispered Sahwah.
At the same time Nakwisi, who was on the other side of me, also nudged me and told me to look around a few minutes later so it wouldn't look as if she had called my attention. After a short interval I looked. There sat the motorcyclist directly behind us. How I did wish we could tell him about the Frog and how he was always following us around, why, we could not guess.
Before the picture was finished Nyoda thought it was time to go and get the Glow-worm, which should be finished by that time. But when we got out into the sun again Margery began to feel dizzy and sick. We were perplexed what to do. This little country town was not like the big city where there are rest rooms in every big store. We finally decided to get a room at the hotel, which was near-by. But here as everywhere, that miserable Jinx had raised an obstacle against us. There was a rural church conference going on in town that week and, of course, the hotel was filled to overflowing. Delegates with white and gold badges were standing around everywhere and there was not a room to be had.
Margery sat down in the parlor awhile and then said she felt somewhat better, but she still looked so white that Nyoda refused to set out with her in the car. As in S——, the clerk gave us the name of a woman near-by who would let us have a room if we wanted it, and after a while we went up there. We wanted Margery to lie down on a bed for a while. But no sooner were we there than she was taken with terrible pains. Thoroughly alarmed, Nyoda went across the street where a doctor's sign swung on a post before a house and brought him over. Margery was very ill by this time and the doctor said she had symptoms of ptomaine poisoning. He asked what she had eaten for dinner. At the mention of fish he nodded his head gravely. Eating fish with the thermometer at ninety-five degrees is a somewhat hazardous proceeding, he remarked. How glad we all were then that we had taken the steak, even if it was tough! The doctor gave Margery some medicine and said we needn't worry because she wouldn't get any worse, and left us with a few more remarks about eating fish in a restaurant in hot weather.
Margery was more distressed about having delayed our start than she was over her own discomfort, so we had to make light of it, even though we were dismayed ourselves. Now the Glow-worm was ready and we were not! I couldn't help feeling that it had been no ordinary fish from the near- by lake that Margery had eaten, but one of the fateful fishes of the zodiac itself, especially prepared for the occasion. For it soon became evident that we could not leave town that night. Margery was feeling better, but was still too weak for automobile traveling.
Nyoda knit her brows for some time. "I'll have to wire Chicago," she said, thoughtfully. Gladys and the others must be there by this time.
I walked over to the telegraph office with her and stood beside her while she wrote the message: "Held in Rochester to-night on account sickness. Address Forty-three Main Street." She directed it to Gladys at the Carrie Wentworth Inn, the new Women's Hotel where we were to stay in Chicago. She read it out loud to me, counting over the words. As we turned away from the window-desk someone turned and went out just ahead of us. It was the motorcyclist.
Margery was sleeping when we returned, and we sat down beside the bed and read the paper we had bought at the corner stand. Nyoda gave a smothered exclamation as she read and pointed to an article which said that both Margery Anderson's father and uncle were scouring the country for her, and the uncle was accusing the father of having spirited her away. The paper said that private detectives were trying to trace her. Then it was that we remembered the mysterious reappearance of the Frog. We hadn't much doubt that he was a detective. But if he were a detective, why had he attempted to steal the Glow-worm? The only reason could have been the one which Sahwah suggested, namely, that he wanted to cut us off from following him. He had probably carried away the wrong girl in the excitement of the fire and did not discover his mistake until later and then had let her go. This accounted for the fact that there was no girl in the red roadster when it loomed up ahead of us in the road that morning.
But why had he run away from us when we tried to overtake him? That was a baffling question, and the only way we could explain it was that he was afraid we would accuse him of theft. That he had not gone very far away from us was shown by the way he had appeared in the picture theatre that afternoon. But if he was a detective, why did he not boldly march up to Margery and attempt to take her away from us?
Between the heat and the puzzle we were reduced to a frazzle. We carefully hid the paper so Margery wouldn't see it when she woke up and went down to supper. The house was on a corner and it seemed to me, as I sat at the table that I saw the Frog walking down the side street. But it was growing dark and I was not sure, so I said nothing about it. Margery was very weak when she woke up and still unable to eat anything, and I believe she had a touch of sunstroke along with her ptomaine poisoning. She was clearly not a strong girl. The room seemed stuffy and close and we fanned her to make her feel cooler. But we were still thankful that we were not in the hotel, with its crowd of delegates and its band continually playing.
Sahwah was telling that joke about the man thinking the car was empty, when all the while there was a miss in the motor and a "dutchman" in the back seat, when there came a rap on the door and the lady of the house came in. A minute later we were all looking at each other in bewildered astonishment. She had asked us to leave the house.
"But we've engaged the rooms for the night," said Nyoda.
That made no difference. We could have our money back. She had changed her mind about letting the rooms.
"You certainly can't think of turning this sick girl out of the house!" exclaimed Nyoda, incredulously.
Mrs. Moffat's face did not change in the least. She looked from one to the other of us with a steely glitter in her eye, which was a great change from the professional hospitality of her manner when she had let the rooms. "People aren't always as sick as they make folks believe," she said, sourly.
"You certainly don't doubt that this girl is sick!" said Nyoda, in desperation.
"I'm not saying I doubt anything," replied Mrs. Moffat. "I said I didn't want you to have the rooms to-night and I meant it."
"Will you please come outside and explain yourself," said Nyoda, "where it won't excite this sick girl?"
They went down-stairs to the lower hall, where Nyoda argued and pleaded to be told the meaning of Mrs. Moffat's strange attitude toward us, but she got no satisfaction. Mrs. Moffat would say nothing more than that she had a reputation to keep up. When Nyoda defied her to put Margery out Mrs. Moffat said grandiloquently that her son was on the police force (I suppose she meant he was the police force) and we would see what she could do.
Nyoda, at her wit's end, was trying to think of what to say next when there was a rap on the door and a small boy arrived with a note, which he would not give into Mrs. Moffat's hand. He just held it up so she could see what was on the outside. It was addressed to "The black- haired automobile lady". This, of course, was Nyoda and the boy was perfectly satisfied to give her the note once he had looked at her. Wonderingly she unfolded it. It contained only one line: "Go 22 Spring Street." It was signed "A fellow tourist." Nyoda turned to ask the boy who had given him the note, but he had disappeared.
22 Spring Street. Spring Street was one block down Main Street. Nyoda called me to go with her and we went to 22 Spring Street. A perfectly dear old lady came to the door and, when we asked if she could keep us all night, she said she would be delighted to. She asked such few questions that I have a suspicion that she knew all about us already from the motorcyclist, for we had no doubt that it was he who had sent Nyoda the note. How he knew Mrs. Moffat was trying to put us out was beyond us, unless he had been passing the open front door and overheard her conversation, which had not been in low tones by any means. As the new place was so near we got Margery over without any trouble and shook the dust of Mrs. Moffat's house from our feet disdainfully, if still completely in the dark as to why it should be so.
What had caused the change in her manner toward us? She had been perfectly cordial at the supper table and asked how we liked the beds. Something had evidently occurred while we sat upstairs, but what it was we could not guess. Then, like a flash, I remembered having seen the Frog sauntering past the house while we were eating supper. Had he gone to Mrs. Moffat with some story about us which had caused her to put us out? It sounded like a moving picture plot, and yet we all realized the possibility of it. We were simply dazed with the events of the day and evening by the time we reached the new rooms and had put Margery to bed.
"What a record we are setting this week!" said Sahwah. "First night we wandered into a Congressman's house by mistake and were put out; second night we got burned out of a hotel and finished by getting lost in the fog; third night we are put out of a lodging house for some mysterious reason. There aren't enough more things that can happen to us to last the week out." Which showed all that Sahwah knew about it.
When we had simmered down to something near normal again we realized that we would need the trunk which was carried on the Glow-worm. Nyoda drove the Glow-worm over and we carried the trunk up-stairs while she ran the car back to the garage. It was heavier than we expected and we were pretty well winded when we set it down on the floor of our room.
"Won't I be glad to see my dressing-gown again," said Sahwah, sucking her thumb, which had gotten under the trunk when it was set down. "This dress shrank when it got drenched in the fog last night and the collar's too tight."
"Slippers are what appeal to me," I sighed, wishing Nyoda would hurry back with the key. My shoes had been soaked in mud which had dried and left them stiff, and walking around all day on the scorching sidewalks had about parboiled my feet. Nyoda returned just then and opened the trunk without delay, while we crowded around to seize upon our wished- for belongings as soon as possible.
But when the cover was tilted back we fell over in as much surprise as if a jack-in-the-box had sprung out at us. Instead of Sahwah's red dressing-gown on top as we had expected there were rows and rows of bottles. We stared stupidly, not knowing whether to believe our eyes or not.
"You've got the wrong trunk!" we cried to Nyoda.
Nyoda went post-haste back to the garage. When she came back she wore a puzzled look. "The garage man declares that was the trunk that came with the Glow-worm," she said, in a dazed voice. "He says it was never removed from the rack, as all the work was on the front wheel and front fender."
Sahwah took one of the bottles from the trunk and held it up. It contained some fluid guaranteed to make the hair stay in curl in the dampest weather. There was a bright yellow label halfway around it that bore the classic slogan, "One touch of Curline makes the whole world kink." Sahwah began to giggle hysterically. At any other time we would all have laughed heartily over that ridiculous trademark, but just now we were too much concerned with the loss of our things to feel like laughing.
"No wonder the trunk was so heavy," said Sahwah, rubbing her arms at the remembrance of that climb up the stairs.
We searched our memories for the events of the previous day and tried to remember just where the trunk had been all the while. Then we remembered the scene of the fire and the fact that the Glow-worm might have been unguarded for some time in the garage. The trunk had been taken off the rack the day before when the repairs were made, because they had some work to do on the tail lamp bracket, and I heard the man say the trunk was in the way. This trunk with the bottles was the same on the outside as ours with the exception of Gladys's initials, and it might have been put onto the rack of the Glow-worm by mistake when the repairs were finished.
Nyoda lost no time in getting the proprietor of the garage at Wellsville on the long distance phone. When she returned this time she was entirely cheerful again. "He says there's another trunk just like it in the garage," she said. "He didn't know whom it belonged to. I told him to send it to us by express and it will be here in the morning. We will send this one back to him, for the rightful owner will be coming back after it."
"Whatever would anyone want with a trunkful of this stuff?" asked Sahwah, curiously.
"Probably a traveling salesman," suggested Nyoda. She took the bottle from Sahwah's hand and put it back into its place in the trunk. "One touch of Curline makes the whole world kink," she mused. "Well, 'one touch of Curline' has put a 'kink' in our retiring arrangements, all right."
She locked up the trunk with our key, which fitted the lock perfectly, remarking as she did so that locks weren't quite as useful as they might be, since other people's keys fitted them. The rest of the night passed peacefully, and we were so tired out from having had scarcely any sleep the previous night that we sank to slumber as soon as we touched the pillows.
In the morning we took the stranger's trunk to the express office and called for ours. We hailed that six-sided thing of boards and leather as though it had been a long lost friend and cheered it lustily when it was set down in our room. We could easily see where the garage man had made the mistake in giving us the salesman's trunk, for the two were identical. We opened ours up to see if our belongings were still intact. It took us a few minutes to realize the import of what we found. There, apparently, was our trunk, but the things in it were not ours. They belonged to the other girls. There was Gladys's pink silk crepe kimono; and Hinpoha's blue one; there were Gladys's Turkish slippers with the turned up toes; there were Hinpoha's stockings, plainly marked with her name.
We stared at each other with something like fear in our eyes. The thing was so uncanny. Gladys's trunk had not been in the garage when we arrived; it must have come after we left; and yet, the Striped Beetle had gone on to Chicago ahead of us!
The thing was monstrous; incredible. Had the fairies been playing tricks on us? We stood gazing with fascinated eyes at the open trunk which stood in our midst like a silent portent.
For the second time Nyoda got the garage man at Wellsville on the long distance phone. This conference only deepened the puzzle. He declared solemnly that no car even remotely resembling the Striped Beetle had been in his establishment and no party of girls such as we described. He was as much in the dark as we were about the trunk. Had we been carrying Gladys's trunk ever since we left home? we asked ourselves. No, for we had opened ours several times on the road. We gave it up when the puzzle threatened to addle our brains, and prepared to start away on our journey. Margery felt well again and ready to travel. We were standing in the street around the Glow-worm, and through gaps between houses we could see Mrs. Moffat's house down on Main Street. We saw a boy in the uniform of a telegraph messenger come along Main Street and stop at her house.
"Maybe the Frog's sending her some more mysterious messages," said Sahwah, idly.
But in a moment the boy ran down the steps again and retraced his steps up Main Street. As he passed the street where we were he looked down, and then he came toward us. "Which one is Miss Elizabeth Kent?" he asked.
Nyoda stepped forward and he handed her the telegraph envelope. Nyoda tore it open and a look of blank astonishment came over her face as she read.
"What is it?" we all chorused.
"Read it," she said.
This is what we read: "Where on earth are you? Wait Rochester for us. Coming to-day noon. Gladys."
It was sent from Indianapolis!
We looked at each other dazedly. Gladys in Indianapolis? What was she doing there? Indianapolis was far out of our way, miles to the south. With the main roads marked as they were it was impossible for her to have gotten lost. Then on the heels of this question came another one; if Gladys had gotten side-tracked and had fallen behind us on the road, who had passed ahead of us along the northern route to Chicago whom we had been blindly following? How had Gladys in Indianapolis received the telegram we had sent to Chicago, giving our address in Rochester? If Gladys had not come along the northern route, how came her trunk to be in Wellsville? It was a Chinese puzzle no matter which way you looked at it, and as Sahwah remarked, not being Chinamen we had no cue. But we sighed with relief at the thought that Gladys and the rest would be with us at noon and the mystery would all come to an end. Till noon then, we would possess our souls in patience.
To kill time we decided to look around at some of the stores. To the city bred the small town store is as much of a curiosity as the big city store is to the country bred. Most people think that the department store is a product of the big city, but I think it is a development of the general store of the country town. We found a place where they sold everything from handkerchiefs to plows, and wandered about happily, looking at farm implements whose use we did not even guess, and wonderful displays of crockery and printed calico. We seemed to create quite a sensation when we came in although there were other people in the store. The proprietor came forward hurriedly and asked us what we wanted. A strange look came into his face when we said we just came in to look around. He and his wife and the two or three clerks in the place all looked at each other, but they said no more. But as we moved up one aisle and down another he was always right at our elbow, and he never seemed to take his eyes from us. I picked up a pile of handkerchiefs to look them over, thinking I might buy some, as mine were in the lost trunk nobody knew where, but they were all cotton and I despise cotton handkerchiefs. As I put them down again and passed on I saw the proprietor pick them up and although he turned his back to us I could see that he was counting them.
We became conscious of a chill in the air. It seemed that everybody in the place was watching us with suspicious eyes. With one accord we moved toward the door and stepped out into the street, where we faced each other questioningly. What was this baffling thing that we were running up against of late? The people around here seemed to know something about us which we did not know ourselves. Last night our landlady for no satisfactory reason had put us out of her house, and here were the store people plainly suspicious of us. Was Margery the cause of it? She had not come with us this morning, as she thought it would be wiser to stay in her room. But even if they knew about Margery we would hardly have expected them to act this way. Why did they make no attempt to take her away from us?
Everywhere we turned we came against a wall of mystery. Was the Frog at the bottom of it? But why did he always loiter in the background and never openly molest us? There was something more terrifying about this silent, skulking foe than there would have been about an armed highwayman. So far to-day he had not appeared, but we did not doubt that he was lurking in the shadows somewhere. As we stood there we saw the motorcyclist walking down from the upper end of the street in our direction.
"Let's wait until he comes up and thank him for telling us about the other rooms," suggested Sahwah.
So we stood still and waited. But no sooner had he seen us standing there on the sidewalk than he paused suddenly, turned abruptly and went up a side street.
"Even he is avoiding us!" said Sahwah. "What on earth can be the reason?"
We wished with all our hearts for noon, when Gladys would come and we could get out of this wretched town. But there were still two hours until then. We decided to go into another store and see if they would treat us the same way. They did, only perhaps a little more so. The proprietor followed us around like a shadow and heaved an audible sigh of relief when we went out. Utterly disgusted, we went back to Margery. The time passed heavily until noon and then we went out on Main Street to watch for the arrival of the Striped Beetle. The events and accidents we were ready to pour out to the coming girls were enough to fill a volume, and we were sure that nothing they would have to tell would match our story of the fire and the night in the fog.
The telegram had said they would come at noon and we were to wait for them. Noon came and went; one o'clock; two o'clock; and like the Blue Alsatian Mountains, we were still watching and waiting. There was no sign of the Striped Beetle. The sun beat down mercilessly on the glaring earth and we grew faint and dizzy straining our eyes up the road. It was several degrees hotter than the day before. We ate our dinner in squads, one squad eating while the other did sentinel duty. We beguiled the time by singing "Wait for the Wagon", "Waiting at the Church ", and every other song we knew on the subject. People looked at us curiously as we sat in a row on a low stone wall. One man asked us if we were waiting for the circus parade, because if we were we had our dates mixed; the circus was not due until the next day. The afternoon advanced; carful after carful of tourists came down the dusty road, but none of them the ones we so eagerly awaited. Margery had refused to sit there where everyone could see her, and stayed in her room, and we took turns sitting with her.
"Are you sure we didn't dream that telegram?" asked Sahwah wearily, at half past three.
Nyoda shook her head. "It's real, all right," she answered. "I have it here in my coat pocket."
"Let me see it again," said Sahwah, "and see at what time it was sent."
Nyoda put her hand into her pocket. When she brought it out again she held to the light, not the yellow telegraph form, but a queer, bluish beetle-like thing. She stared at it with amazed eyes and we were all too much astonished to speak.
"What is it?" asked Sahwah, finding her voice first.
"It's a scarab." answered Nyoda, "the ancient Egyptian figure of a beetle. There are several in the museum at home."
We passed it from hand to hand with growing wonder and admiration. But how came it into Nyoda's coat pocket? Was this also a part of the witchcraft that had sent Gladys's trunk to us so mysteriously?
"Curiouser and Curiouser," said Sahwah.
"Are you sure you didn't pick it up somewhere without knowing it?" I asked. "People sometimes do those things absent-mindedly, you know. I came home from down-town once with a gold-handled umbrella and I hadn't the slightest notion of where I got it. And the next day there was a notice in the paper, 'Will the young lady who took the gold-handled umbrella from the wash-room of Levy & Strauss's yesterday afternoon please return same to the office? She was recognized and followed.' And I couldn't remember being in the wash-room of Levy & Strauss's at all!"
Nyoda racked her brain. "It's impossible," she said. "I haven't been anywhere since noon but up to that restaurant and Sahwah and I sat alone at a table. There wasn't anything belonging to anyone else near us."
"You didn't get it this morning when we were looking through the stores?" I asked.
"No," said Nyoda, "I didn't. It wasn't there when I started up to dinner. Besides," she added, "that scarab never came from a store in this town. Things like that are handled by dealers in curios in large cities, and by private collectors." Her brow was puckered into a bewildered frown.
"However it got there," she said, "it doesn't belong there and I have no right to keep it. I'm going to turn it over to the police, and if anybody reports the loss to them they will find it intact."
As we stood there looking at the curious scarab in Nyoda's hands a motorcycle putt-putted past in a cloud of dust and we recognized our light-haired friend apparently leaving town.
"We'll never get a chance to thank him for that address!" I said, half regretfully. Little did we think that the only decent thing fate did for us on that trip was to withhold that chance!
Nyoda and I went in search of the police station, leaving Sahwah and Nakwisi sitting and watching for the Striped Beetle. It was only Sahwah who was doing any watching out, however, for Nakwisi was looking through her spy-glass at the clouds. After some inquiry we found the police station. When Nyoda told her story about finding the scarab in her pocket, the policeman in charge looked at her with a peculiar expression and a wise grin. But when she wanted to leave it there he waved her away.
"Wouldn't have it around here for a farm," he declared. "Lady left a necklace here once: said she found it in the road. The next night the police station burned down and the necklace disappeared. We just got this new station and it nearly broke the town and we can't have any more accidents. You take it on to the next town and tell 'em you didn't find it till you got there, see?" Half angry and half amused at this dauntless representative of the law we went back to the girls, with the mysterious scarab still in the pocket of Nyoda's coat. If only we had followed Sahwah's joking advice and stuck it on an ornamental shrub near us to startle passers-by and left it there!
"Something must have happened to the Striped Beetle," said Nyoda in a worried way, when we had exhausted our patience with waiting. "I don't know but what it would be a good idea to set out in the direction of Indianapolis and try to find them. We will surely come upon a trace of them somewhere."
"What strikes me queer," said Sahwah, "is, if Gladys knows our address and wired that she would be here at noon, why she didn't wire again when she found she couldn't get here. She might know we would begin to tear our hair when she didn't appear."
Nyoda began to look uneasy. "That's what makes me think something has happened to her," she said. "Somehow I always have visions of the Striped Beetle lying smashed up somewhere and our girls being carried to a hospital. I can't get it out of my mind. Something has happened to Gladys which has kept her from wiring and it is our duty to find out what it is."
"Maybe she did wire and they didn't deliver it to us," suggested Sahwah. Nyoda and I promptly went up to the telegraph office and inquired if any later message had come for us. Nothing had, we were told.
Nyoda made up her mind at once. She consulted the road map she had bought after the marked one had gone with Gladys and looked at the route to Indianapolis. "If any message comes to this office for us, kindly forward it to the office at Kokomo," she directed. "We will stop there and inquire."
We got into the Glow-worm without delay, picked up Margery from the house, piled the other girls into the car and shook the dust of Rochester (it was nearly a foot thick) from our tires. I looked around every little while from my seat in the tonneau to see if the Frog was following us, but there was no sign of him. In fact, I may as well tell you now, that we had seen the last of him until we saw him in such an amazing attitude two days later.
Driving gave us a little relief from the heat, for the motion of the car created a little breeze, although there was none of any other kind stirring. I think if we had sat out in that hot street any longer I should have been overcome. It was bad enough in the car, for the dust rose up in choking whirls until we could taste it. I have never known such a hot day before or since, although I have seen the thermometer higher; but that day the air seemed to be minus its breathing qualities and we gasped like fish out of water. We kept a close watch on Margery for signs of collapse, but she seemed to be bearing up pretty well; I suppose it was because she had not been sitting out on Main Street for four hours.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we had a thunder shower to-night," said Nyoda, scanning a bank of apoplectic-looking clouds that were lying low over the distant horizon.
"I hope so," I replied. "Anything to break this heat. The air over the street looks like the heat waves over the radiator." I could not help wishing fervently that Gladys had chosen a cool breezy day to get lost on.
We stopped at so many places and asked if they had seen a brown car with black stripes carrying four girls in tan suits that our voices became husky on those words. Sahwah suggested that we print our inquiry on a pennant and fasten it across the front of the car. But nowhere was there a sign or a trace of the car for which we were seeking. People had seen brown cars, but no girls in them, and they had seen tan coats in black or red cars, but nowhere was the tan and brown in combination.
Looking for a needle in a haystack has several advantages over looking for an automobile on a hundred mile stretch of road. For one thing, there is only one haystack, so you are pretty sure of finding your needle there if you look long enough; whereas there were several roads to Indianapolis; and for another thing, your needle is stationary and not traveling through the haystack, so you are reasonably sure when you have ascertained that it is not in a certain part of the haystack that it will not be there at a later time; whereas the Striped Beetle might be moving from place to place, in which case we were going to have a lively time catching up with it.
Especially did we inquire if there had been any accidents. Once we had a scare; we were told that a brown car had been struck by a suburban car that morning and several girls seriously injured. The injured ones had been taken to a hospital in Indianapolis, but the automobile was in a repair shop in the village of D——. We hastened to D—— and elbowed our way through the crowd in front of the repair shop to see the wreck of the car and sighed with relief when we saw it was not the Striped Beetle. One door was still intact and that bore the monogram DPS in large block letters.
If Fate has anything to do with the color of paint, or rather, if the color of paint has anything to do with Fate, brown must be an unlucky shade to paint a car. The number of brown cars which had come to grief along that road was unbelievable. In another place one had turned turtle on a bridge and thrown its passengers into the river beneath, but those passengers were all men, we were told, and we did not stop to investigate further. One woman told a story of having seen four girls walking along the road almost frantic because their car had been stolen while they got out to look at something in a field, and we thought these might possibly be our girls. Hinpoha is crazy about calves and if she saw a calf in a field she would not only go over and pet it herself, but drag all the others along too. When asked to describe their dresses the woman said vaguely that they had had on some light kind of coats or suits, she couldn't remember which, and she wasn't sure about the veils. They might have been green for all she knew, but she always had been color blind and hated to make a definite statement because she had been fooled on more than one occasion. Where the girls were now she did not know; she thought they were walking to the nearest town to notify the police.
While there was nothing definite about this information it was just enough to tantalize us, and we wondered if the Striped Beetle really had been stolen and the girls were wandering about in distress. We strained our imaginations trying to picture what had happened to Gladys that she did not appear in Rochester, and conjured up all sorts of circumstances to account for it. But I doubt if an imagination as rich as the mine of Ophir could have guessed at the truth, so I don't see how we can be blamed for missing it entirely.
The clouds that had been reclining along the horizon all afternoon began to mount and deepen in color, and the occasional mutterings of thunder became more frequent. From being oppressive the air became stifling and we were all on the verge of collapse. The fatigue of getting out of the car so often to follow up things that looked like clues was beginning to tell on us. And the suspense was worse than anything else. Up to now, when we thought that Gladys was on the road ahead of us and we would catch up with her in Chicago, we had cheerfully put up with all the mishaps which had befallen us, for none of them turned out seriously and we were entirely light-hearted. But now we were really worried about Gladys. Her not appearing after she had wired us that she was coming began to take on a sinister meaning. It is much easier to live through mishaps yourself than imagine them happening to someone else.
Taken altogether, that afternoon's trip is one on which I like to put the soft pedal when harking back in memory. And happy for us then that we did not know what it was going to end in. The sky behind us had turned inky black and it became evident that the storm which was coming would be no ordinary one. A wind sprang up that increased in velocity with a peculiar moaning sound. A strange light was in the air that made the white farm houses and barns gleam sharply against the dark sky. Nyoda looked with some anxiety at the lowering clouds.
"I think it would be a wise plan to make the next town before that storm breaks loose," she observed, thoughtfully. "You know the storm curtains don't fasten tightly on the one side, and if we're caught we're going to be drenched."
The next town was Kokomo, about ten miles away, where we were to stop at the telegraph office and see if there was a message from Gladys. Then began a race the like of which I have never seen before. It was the speed of man matched against the speed of the storm gods. Behind us the storm was breaking; we could see the grey wall of the rain in the distance; the wind was rising to a tornado and the thunder claps seemed to split the earth open. And there we were, scudding along before it, like a tiny craft fleeing from a tidal wave. The Glow-worm bore us onward like a gallant steed, and I compared our headlong flight with the King of Denmark's ride when his Rose of the Isles lay dying.
"Think of something cheerful," said Sahwah, crossly; "Gladys isn't lying at the point of death."
After all, the comparison didn't hold good, for the King's steed reached his destination and the Glow-worm didn't. We had been so taken up with our search for Gladys that we had neglected to supply the life blood to our iron steed, namely, gasoline, and we came to a dead stop in the road four or five miles from town. Our exclamations of disgust were still hovering in the air when the storm struck us. As Sahwah has always described it, "And then the water came down at Lodore." I could devote several pages to the fury of that rainfall, but what is the use of taking up the reader's time when her own imagination will supply the details? Just imagine the worst storm you were ever caught in, or ever saw anyone else caught in, and multiply it by two or three times and you have our situation.
With a shriek of delight the wind seized the loose end of the storm curtain and tore the whole curtain from the car with one neat pull. When we last saw that storm curtain it was traveling eastward at the rate of sixty miles an hour. In one minute we were all as wet as if we had fallen off the dock at home. We abandoned the car and ran for the shelter of a big tree near-by. We were no sooner under its spreading branches when, with a sound like the crack of doom, lightning struck it and it went crashing to earth in the opposite direction from us. We didn't stop to reflect what would have happened to us if it had fallen in our direction, but made for the open road where there was nothing but the sky to fall on us, which it was doing as hard as it could.
We were just wondering how long it would take the inside of the Glow- worm to dry out, and whether rain made spots on the leather when a closed limousine came along the road. The driver, in rubber coat and cap, stopped his car and asked if he could be of assistance. Nyoda, suddenly conscious that the color was running out of her dripping veil all over her face, put her hand in her pocket to find her handkerchief and wipe her face. Along with the handkerchief out fell the curious scarab which we had forgotten in the search for Gladys. The man eyed it intently as Nyoda put it back into her pocket. A change seemed to have come over him. Before he was merely an automobile driver offering help to a stranded motorist, but now he acted like a minion in the presence of a queen. He touched his hat with the greatest respect, got down from his seat in a hurry and opened the door of the limousine.
"Get in quickly," he said, and we did, glad of the glass enclosed shelter from the downpour. With deft motions he fastened the Glow-worm behind the limousine with a tow line and then sent his car rolling down the road at a rapid pace.
We had not proceeded very far up the road when the car turned into a long winding driveway of gravel, bordered on either side by well kept lawns and trim trees. We could see that much through the windows of the car when the rain would cease its furious whirling against the glass for a moment. Soon we came to a stop under a wide sheltering porte- cochere, and the driver got down and opened the door ceremoniously. It was quite dark, but we could see that the house at which we had stopped was an immense mansion, probably the country home of some millionaire.
"I will see that the tanks are filled in good time," said the chauffeur, touching his hand to his cap. He had been driving without gloves, and I noticed that the little finger on both of his hands was turned inward at the second joint. I believe that is what brother Tom calls a baseball finger.
Just then the door of the house opened and a trim looking maid appeared and greeted the chauffeur familiarly as "Heinie". He replied by a wink and a series of movements with his eyebrows which threw the maid into a spasm of amusement. Then he started the limousine, with the Glow-worm still in tow, around the side of the house, presumably toward the garage, although from where we stood we saw no building. The maid held the door open for us and we stepped into an entry paved with marble.
"If we could stay here a few minutes until the rain is over—" began Nyoda. For no reason at all the maid began to giggle violently. I suppose she was still amused over the grimaces of the chauffeur. It takes so little to amuse some people.
"Come this way," she said, and led the way from the entry into a hall and up a flight of stairs. There was a big triple window on the landing and as we passed the rain was dashing against it so violently that we thought the glass must give way. Severe as the storm had been when we were caught in it, it was twice as bad now, and we gave a thankful sigh that we were under shelter, and blessed the gasoline for giving out when it did, for if it hadn't we must have been overtaken on the road and would have missed this chance of getting in the dry. We went up- stairs as quickly as possible so as not to drip on the rich carpet that covered the steps. The maid threw open the door into the most luxurious bedchamber I have ever seen. It was clear that we were in the house of a very wealthy man. Another maid was in the room which we entered and she looked at us five dripping refugees with a stare of curiosity.
"Some friends who were caught in the rain," explained the maid who had acted as our guide. "Come, get them some dry clothes."
The two of them bustled about laying out things for us to put on, and for the first time in my life I was waited on by a maid. The first one, whom the other addressed as Carrie, was inclined to be talkative, and sympathized noisily with our drenched state. She was quite pretty, with rosy cheeks and black hair and black eyes. There was something odd about her appearance at first and upon looking at her closely I discovered this odd appearance came from the fact that her eyes did not seem to be on a level. But she was very deft in her movements and had our wet garments hung up on hangers and spread out before the little grate fire in no time. I felt a passing envy for the woman who was the mistress of this maid and who did not have to worry whether she threw her clothes in a heap on the floor or not, as she would always find them properly taken care of when she wanted them again. Taking care of my clothes is the greatest trial of my life.
The other maid spoke not at all; she seemed newer at her job and obeyed the directions of the first meekly and in silence. Carrie picked up Nyoda's soaked coat and shook it, and as she did so the scarab flew out of the pocket and fell to the floor. She hastily picked it up and held it in her hand for an instant, turning it over and looking at it curiously. I saw her glance sidewise at Agnes, the other maid, who stood with her back to us putting Nyoda's shoes onto trees; then she looked boldly at Nyoda and deliberately winked one eye! Nyoda looked at her with a puzzled frown. Carrie became all meekness and deference in a moment; she laid the scarab down on the table beside Nyoda's purse and went about her duties without raising her eyes.
In a moment she left the room and we sat listening to the rain beating against the panes and wondering when it would stop and how soon our clothes would be dry so we could resume our journey. Agnes went out presently and when she came back she carried a tray full of cups of steaming broth and a plate of sandwiches. We were very thankful for this favor, as we were beginning to feel chilled through. Getting drenched that way when we were so hot was bad enough, but the wind that accompanied the shower was decidedly cool and we were pretty uncomfortable by the time we were picked up.
"To whom are we indebted for this hospitality?" asked Nyoda of Agnes.
"Ma'm?" said Agnes.
"In whose house are we?" asked Nyoda.
"This is the home of Simon McClure," answered Agnes.
"Oh-oh!" we said altogether. The name of Simon McClure was a household word with us. It was his yacht that had sprung a leak and gone down the summer before just as it was on the point of winning the cup race. We had all heard about this millionaire sportsman and his horses, dogs and boats. Well, we were not sorry, after all, that the heat had ended up in a shower. It was worth a drenching to be taken into such a house. I'm afraid our anxiety about Gladys faded a little in the enjoyment of our unique position. The rain had gradually subsided from a cloudburst into a steady downpour and we trembled to think what the road would be like. In our mind's eye we saw ourselves stuck up to the hubs in yellow clay from which it would require the pulling power of a locomotive to release us.
I suppose Carrie must have told her mistress of our presence, for after one of her absences from the room she said that Mrs. McClure had said we were welcome to stay all night if we wished. We looked at each other with rather comical expressions. To our widely varying list of night's lodgings there was about to be added one more, as different from the rest as they had been from each other. One more adventure was to be added to our already long list! But even then we did not guess that this one was to surpass all the others as the glare of a rocket outshines the glimmer of a match!
Carrie returned again presently and after looking at Agnes steadily for a minute, with a peculiar expression in her black eyes she turned to Nyoda and said respectfully that Mrs. McClure was giving a fancy dress ball that night and, as several of the invited guests had been prevented from coming at the last moment, which would spoil the number for a certain march figure she had planned, she wanted to know if we would mind attending the ball in their places. She begged us to excuse her for not coming in to speak to us herself, but she was in the hands of her hair-dresser.
Would we mind attending the ball! Did things ever happen to other people the way they happened to us? And such a ball as the McClures would give would be like a page out of the Arabian Nights to us, who knew nothing of high society.
"But what could we wear?" asked Sahwah, always the first to come to earth and see the practical side of the question.
Carrie flashed her a sparkling look from her black eyes, giggled, and then shifted her gaze to Agnes, whom she watched narrowly. Agnes looked indifferent, both at her and at us. The stony expression on Agnes's face began to puzzle me; I wondered if there was any mystery about her. Carrie finally took her eyes from Agnes's face and allowed them to travel around the room to where our touring suits hung up to dry. "The automobile suits," she suggested respectfully, "and the veils, and the goggles—You could masque as a party of tourists. The clothes are quite dry."
Our spirits revived again, for the thought that we might have to miss this grand opportunity of witnessing a gorgeous spectacle because we had nothing to wear had sent our hearts down into our shoes.
Carrie was summoned away then by a soft purring little buzzer and directed Agnes to help us dress. I must say that we made very nice looking tourists in our tan suits and green veils. Agnes had the suits pressed until there were no wrinkles left in them and arranged our veils with a practised hand. All the while we were dressing we could hear automobiles driving up under the porte-cochere, and guests arriving, and we were in a fever of anticipation. Strains of music floated up from below, together with the subdued hum of many voices. We judged from the direction of the sounds that the ballroom was on the first floor.
It was after ten o'clock when we were finally ready and Carrie appeared in the door for us. She took us down another stairway into a vast hall filled with paintings and statuary, where a man in a dark blue suit and silver braid (I suppose that's what you'd call a footman in livery), stood stiffly as the statues around him. Carrie said something to him in a low tone (I presume she was explaining our presence without cards of invitation, such as he was collecting from the other guests), and he looked at us with an impassive eye and nodded his head. He was a very homely man with an exceedingly red nose with one bright blue vein running across it that gave him somewhat of a singular appearance. I remember thinking that if I were his mistress I should set him to working in the garden where nobody could see him, instead of posting him in the front hall to admit the guests.
After Carrie had turned us over to the Nose with the Vein she went up- stairs again and the man slid back a door on the left side of the hall. We found ourselves in the ballroom and in the midst of a scene as bewildering as it was gorgeous. Of course, our first thought had been to find our hostess and make ourselves known, but there was no way of telling which one Mrs. McClure was. Everybody was masked and frolicking around and there didn't seem to be anyone doing the duty of a hostess whom we could suspect of being Mrs. McClure. Later on we discovered that there was a reception-room off at the other end of the ballroom where Mrs. McClure had been receiving her guests, but at the time we saw nothing but the shifting masses of light and color around us, that resolved themselves into kings and queens and princes and Indians and turbaned Hindoos and pirates and Turks and peasants and fairies. The orchestra was playing the opening bars of a waltz and the dancers were seeking partners. We withdrew into a corner behind a large palm to look on. To our surprise and somewhat to our embarrassment we were asked to dance before the waltz was over. My partner was a Scottish highlander and a good dancer, and he evidently thought I belonged in the set who were the guests at this ball, because he kept pointing out different people and asking if I thought they were this one or that one. I did not speak much, however, and do not think he ever guessed that I was not a friend of Mrs. McClure's, was an outsider at the ball, and was, in fact, the mere tourist I was supposed to represent. I thought, however, I might get one piece of information out of him.
"I don't see Mrs. McClure," I said, looking over the dancing couples. Then it was that the Highlander told me about the reception-room at the other side of the conservatory that opened out of the ballroom, where Mrs. McClure was. I mentally thanked him for this piece of information and purposed to tell Nyoda about it as soon as the dance was over. But when that dance came to a close we were claimed by other partners for the next, and so on, and we did not get out of the ballroom.
The memory of that ball is like some queer oriental dream and even while we were in the midst of it I had to pinch myself to make sure that I was awake and the things around me were real. But the events that followed were real enough for anyone to know that they were not dreaming. There came an intermission in the dancing at last, and we five found ourselves in the glassed-in sun parlor opening from the ballroom while somebody was going for ices for us. As it happened we were the only ones in that little room, for the bigger conservatory next to it was a more popular resting-place. Sitting there waiting we began to talk about the scarab and the queer effect it seemed to have had on the chauffeur.
"Let me look at it again," said I. I was utterly fascinated by the thing.
Nyoda put her hand in the pocket of her coat where she had put the scarab for safe keeping, and drew out, not the odd-looking beetle, but something that flashed in the light like a thousand rain-drops in the sunshine. It was a diamond necklace, with a diamond pendant at the end, the stones arranged in the form of a cross. The thing blazed in Nyoda's hand like liquid fire running down over her fingers, and we fairly blinked as we looked at it. We were too astonished to say a word and simply stared at it as if we were hypnotised.
"Girls," said Nyoda in a horrified tone, "there's something queer going on here and we're mixed up in it. The sooner we get out of this house the better. There's a gang of thieves at work at this ball—there usually are at these big affairs—and unless we want to find ourselves drawn into a net from which we can't escape easily we'll have to run for it."
It was a good thing that the sun parlor was empty and the crush around the table where the ices were being served kept our friends from returning. Nyoda put the necklace into a jardinier containing a monstrous fern and we looked around for a way out. We thought we would slip out to the garage and get the Glow-worm. The sun parlor must have had a door leading to the outside, but it was so full of plants in pots and jardiniers that if there was a door it was covered up. We fled back into the conservatory, where couples were sitting all over, but there was no outside door from there. After that we got into a library filled with people playing cards at tables. We were looking anxiously around for a door into the hall which led to the porte-cochere entrance when we saw the maid Carrie come into the room with a tray full of glasses. When she saw us standing there she came up to us and under the pretense of offering us refreshments she whispered: "You are looking for the way out? Follow me."
We followed her across the room and out the door at the opposite side, which opened into a small reception-room. There stood the footman with the vein in his nose and without a word he led the way through various rooms and hallways to the porte-cochere entrance. We passed out quickly, and to our surprise there stood the Glow-worm under the porte- cochere with the lamps all lighted and the tanks filled. In a moment we were speeding down that driveway again and out into the midnight. The events of the evening were whirling through our heads. As yet we could make neither head nor tail to them. Bit by bit we began to see the significance of things, although, of course, the whole story was not clear to us until a day later, when things came to a head and the resulting explosion cleared up all mysteries.
This much we did understand, however, that someone had stolen a diamond necklace from one of the guests at the ball and expected us to get away with it. Also that the servants must have been in the plot, for how else had our get away been made so easy? And how came the Glow-worm to be standing at the door ready to drive away?
We laughed when we thought of the diamond necklace which they had supposed was safe in our possession, lying in the jardinier in the sun parlor. We fancied the commotion that would take place when the owner discovered its loss, and the equal dismay in the breasts of the conspirators when it was found in the jardinier.
But here we were again, without a place to spend the night, when we had expected to sleep in such luxurious beds. With one accord we decided to drive all night and put as much distance between us and the house as possible. We were constantly afraid that we were being pursued as it was, and strained our ears for the throb of a motor behind us that would tell of the chase. We did not make very fast headway, for the roads were abominable after the storm. In places we went through regular lakes and the water was thrown into the car by the wheels, so that we were drenched a second time, as well as spattered with mud from head to foot. Then we came to a hold-up altogether. In one place a small stream had risen from the flood and carried away the bridge by which we were supposed to cross. The water was too deep to drive through and we had to turn back and find another road. Then our troubles began in earnest.
The main road had been bad enough, but these side roads full of deep wagon ruts and mud holes were ten times worse. It would have been a problem to drive through there by daylight, but after dark it was a nightmare. Our electric head lamps were dim that night for some reason or other and only partly showed up the bad places, and several times I thought we were going to upset. The drizzling rain was still falling and we were soaked and uncomfortable. After a time we gave up trying to find another bridge to cross the stream and get back on the main road and frankly owned that we were lost. Once in a while we saw the dark outline of a farmhouse far back from the road, but we hesitated to wake up the people at that time of night and ask our way.
Margery complained of the feeling of her wet coat and Sahwah suggested that we all sing "How Dry I Am", and see if there was anything in mental suggestion. So we stopped still at the cross-roads and sang hoarsely in the rain and darkness like disconsolate frogs. The starter refused to work when we wanted to go on again and Nyoda had to get out in the mud and crank the engine.
"She stoops to crank her," said Sahwah, but none of us had the ambition to pinch her for making a pun.
We were apparently traveling through the country in a sort of Roman key pattern, up one road and down another without getting any nearer to the town for which we imagined we were headed. Suddenly something white loomed up before us which proved to be the gate of a fence; we were evidently on private property. Sahwah got out to open it but she could not do it alone, so both Nakwisi and I jumped out to help her. The mud was piled up so high under the gate that it was all we could do to swing it back. The Glow-worm passed through slowly and we closed the gate again. Just then a gust of wind sent down a heavy shower of drops from a near-by tree and we ran hastily for the shelter of the car. Nyoda started immediately and we found ourselves in the main road once more. The gust of wind continued and blew our veils into our faces and made us screw our eyes shut. In such fashion did we travel down the king's highway, and if ever my ardor for automobile touring was dampened, it was then. For a long time nobody had a word to say, not even irrepressible Sahwah. Each one of us sat apart wrapped in our own gloomy thoughts. Finally Nakwisi spoke.
"Does the water run down over the tip of your nose if your nose turns up? Sahwah, yours turns up, will you look and see which way the rain- drops are going?"
There was no answer.
"Well, don't answer, if you don't want to," said Nakwisi, rather crossly. We took our veils down from our eyes and looked around to see the cause of this unusual silence on Sahwah's part. Then we got the second big shock of the evening. Sahwah was not in the car! She had vanished utterly, silently, mysteriously, into the rainy darkness!
If I were an experienced writer of fiction I would know how to weave all the various odds and ends of my story into the telling so as to keep the action moving forward all the time, with all parts nicely balanced. But as it is, I am afraid that I have been trying to tell it all at once and am getting it rather one-sided. So far I have told only what happened to us girls in the Glow-worm, and I fear that the reader will have forgotten by this time that there were eight girls who started out on the trip instead of four. So now I am going to carry you back to a point almost at the beginning of the story; the point where we almost struck the old woman and where the Striped Beetle vanished from sight. As I said before, I am going to tell the story just as if I had been along and seen everything, without stopping to quote Gladys or Hinpoha or Medmangi or Chapa.
You will remember that we were proceeding westward through Toledo at the time and the Striped Beetle was in the lead. Hinpoha sat in the front seat with Gladys, holding Mr. Bob in her lap. The street was crowded with vehicles and Gladys was driving carefully. A wagon loaded almost to the sky with barrels threatened to fall over on them and they had a narrow squeeze to get through between it and the curb. Some small boys on the sidewalk shouted at the driver of the wagon and he shouted back; a street car trying to make headway on a track from which a sand wagon refused to move itself raised an ear-splitting racket with its alarm bell; the noise was so deafening that the girls put their hands over their ears and did not take them down again until Gladys had turned a corner into a quieter street. They had turned another corner before they discovered that the Glow-worm was not right behind them. Gladys merely stopped the car and waited for us to come up.
"They're probably caught in that line of wagons and trucks on T—— Street," said Gladys, when we did not come immediately. "I hope their engine didn't stall on that corner."
The minutes passed and we did not appear.
"Run down to the corner and see what is keeping them," said Gladys to Chapa and Medmangi. The two girls got out and retraced their steps. But nowhere did they see the Glow-worm. Puzzled, they returned to Gladys and she promptly turned the Striped Beetle around and drove back through the streets the way she had come. The Glow-worm had apparently vanished off the face of the earth. Inquiry at frequent points brought out the fact that the Glow-worm had knocked down an old woman (that is the way such things are exaggerated) and had gone on again. Their asking which way it had gone started an argument which ended in a fist fight, for the two small boys they asked each maintained stoutly that it had gone in a different direction. Then the mother of the boys ran out from a grocery store to see what the racket was about and seizing them by the back of their necks she shook them apart, boxing their ears. When the cause of the argument was made known to her she settled it in an emphatic manner by pointing with a fat forefinger down the street.
"They went that way," she declared. "Four girls in tan suits and green veils just like yours."
They took her word for it and started in pursuit of the Glow-worm, expecting to come upon it at every turn, their wonder growing momentarily. They could not understand why Nyoda had ceased to follow them and was taking a route which was not marked in the route book. They inquired at numerous places and found that we had passed just ahead of them.
"I don't blame Nyoda for going this way," said Gladys, "it's lots quieter than the other way; sort of back streets. She probably turned off when the jam occurred on T—— Street and thought we saw her and followed. It seems a little strange that she didn't wait for us to come up, though."
Mr. Bob, our long-eared mascot, had a most angelic disposition, but nevertheless, he knew when he was outraged, and when a yellow cur of no special breed and no breeding at all snarled impudently at him from the curb he jumped through Hinpoha's restraining arms with the intention of chewing up the insolent one. The yellow dog saw him coming and, turning tail, he fled yelping up a side street. Hinpoha shouted commands in vain; Mr. Bob had set out to put his teeth into that yellow dog and he would not be turned aside from his purpose. Gladys stopped the car and Hinpoha ran after Mr. Bob. The yellow cur knew his neighborhood and turned into an alley just as Mr. Bob nearly had him. Mr. Bob, with Hinpoha hard after him, also turned into the alley. The back door of an empty store offered the fugitive a safe refuge and he darted inside. So did Mr. Bob, growling ferociously, and so did Hinpoha, panting for breath and holding her hand to her side. From the back room of the store the dogs passed to the front and Mr. Bob caught the yellow dog in a tight corner behind a counter. For all he had run in such a cowardly fashion the yellow dog was a good fighter and the battle which occurred when the two clinched frightened Hinpoha out of her wits. She seized an old broom which was standing against the wall and ran behind the counter to beat them apart. In the darkness behind the counter she almost fell over something on the floor, and the broom clattered out of her hand. In her astonishment she forgot the fighting dogs. The thing she had fallen over and which she had, at first, thought was a sack of something, stirred and huddled up against the wall and Hinpoha heard the sharp intaking of a breath. Then she made out the form of a girl; a girl in a blue suit sitting on the floor with her hands over her face.
"Did—did the dogs frighten you?" asked Hinpoha. The girl dropped her hands and looked up quickly. Just then the yellow dog broke away from Mr. Bob and retreated through the back door. Mr. Bob, who had evidently derived honorable satisfaction from the encounter, came over to Hinpoha and subsided at her feet. With a look of wonder Hinpoha turned to the girl crouching on the floor. She had moved into the light from a window and Hinpoha could see that fear was written all over her face. It was a girl about eighteen years old with a round cherubic countenance, framed in fluffy light hair, wide open guileless blue eyes, with an expression as innocent as a baby's. Just now the eyes were swimming in tears.
"You are in trouble?" asked Hinpoha, with ready sympathy.
The girl reached out her hand and took hold of Hinpoha's jacket as a child holds on to its mother, in spite of the fact that she was evidently older than Hinpoha. Hinpoha caught her hand and held it tightly.
"Tell me about it," she said, gently.
The girl gulped down a big sob and wiped her eyes. "I'm—I'm hiding," she said, in a shaky voice.
"Hiding from what?" asked Hinpoha.
"From—from the man I work for," said the girl. "He said I stole something and I didn't, and he says he can have me arrested," she said with fresh sobs.
"But how can anyone have you arrested if you didn't steal anything?" asked Hinpoha.
"I don't know," answered the girl, "but I'm afraid he will." She cried for a moment and then collected herself and went on. "My name is Pearl Baxter," she said. "I used to live on a farm down state with my mother and then she died and I came here to the city and went to work in an office. I was the only girl in the office and I knew the combination of the safe. A few days ago Mr. Sawyer, that's one of the men I work for, asked me to get certain papers out of the safe, and when I went there I couldn't find them. He made an awful fuss and said I had taken them. They were bonds, if you know what they are. He said he would have me arrested. I believe his son took them because he knew they were there. When the other partner of the firm found they were gone he insisted on having the office searched and the bonds were found in my desk drawer. They would not believe me when I said I did not put them there. That was yesterday and I ran away and hid here all night and I'm afraid to go out for fear they will get me."
She broke down again and wept into her handkerchief. Tender-hearted Hinpoha was ready to weep in sympathy. "You poor thing!" she exclaimed. "Have you no friends who would help you?" she asked.
The girl shook her head. "I don't know anybody up here," she said. "I've only been working here three months."
For Hinpoha there was always one court of last resort. That was Nyoda.
"You come along with me," she said. "I know somebody who can tell you what to do."
She led the girl out to the Striped Beetle and told her story to the other girls. They all agreed that the only thing to do was to take her to Nyoda as quickly as possible. She sat in the tonneau of the car between Chapa and Medmangi with her veil tied down over her face, through which she peered nervously to the right and left as the car moved on through the streets. Gladys's brow was drawn up into a frown of perplexity as corner after corner was turned and they still did not come upon the Glow-worm. Boys playing in the street told them that it had gone past over fifteen minutes before. Hinpoha anxiously wished for a sight of the familiar car so that Pearl could be turned over to Nyoda very soon.
"It's like a game of Hare and Hounds," said Chapa from the back seat "Nyoda is the hare and we are the hounds. She's probably doing it on purpose to see how well we can trail her to the city limits. You know how fond she is of putting us to unexpected tests."
"I'll make it," said Gladys, determinedly.
Several times she consulted her route book and then she laughed. "The joke is on Nyoda after all," she said. "This way leads to the southern route and not the northern, and they'll have the pleasure of crossing the city again. Won't we have the laugh on them, though, when we meet them at the city limits?"
But the Glow-worm was not waiting for them at the city limits and they were much surprised to learn that it had traveled on over the road to the west. "The southern route?" asked Gladys, wonderingly, "I can't imagine what Nyoda is doing. I'm sure she understood we were to take the northern. It's all right, of course, because there is no great difference in the routes, they each lead to Ft. Wayne, but I can't imagine why she changed without telling us."
"Maybe she couldn't stop the car," said Hinpoha, beginning to giggle. "It's happened before. The fellow next door to us bought a motorcycle and got it started and couldn't stop it again and he whizzed up and down the city until the gas gave out, and there were eleven policemen chasing him before he got through."
The picture of the Glow-worm traveling across country with the bit between its teeth, carrying its passengers willy-nilly over the wrong road, was so funny that they all laughed aloud, in spite of the improbability of it.
"Maybe she'll make us trail her all the way to Ft. Wayne," said Gladys, musingly. "It's really our fault for losing her; we should have kept a better lookout. But it's a cold day when the Striped Beetle can't catch up with the Glow-worm." And Gladys put on full speed ahead.
Hinpoha was not worrying much about us and our disappearance; her thoughts were taken up with Pearl and her night in the empty storeroom. Hinpoha always takes other people's troubles so to heart.
At Napoleon they stopped for gasoline and learned that the Glow-worm had passed some time before and had also stopped for gasoline.
For the most part Pearl sat silent, turning her head every little while to watch the road behind them. She was that pink-and-white-doll-baby- helpless-in-emergency type of girl who ought never be allowed away from home without a guardian. After they had been traveling awhile she leaned back against the seat and looked so white and faint that the girls became alarmed.
"Do you feel ill?" asked Medmangi, feeling her pulse with a practised hand. Medmangi is going to be a doctor and is in her element when she has a patient to attend to. Pearl opened her big blue eyes languidly.
"I just got light-headed," she said, in a weak voice. "I think maybe it's because I'm—I'm hungry."
"Why didn't we think of it before?" asked Hinpoha, filled with self- reproach. "We might have known you hadn't had anything to eat since yesterday if you stayed in that storeroom all night. We'll stop in this village and get you something."
"I'd rather you wouldn't," said Pearl, in a somewhat embarrassed manner. "I really don't want anything to eat."
"Not want anything to eat!" echoed Hinpoha. "Why don't you want to eat if you're hungry?"
"You see," answered Pearl, still more embarrassed, "when I, when I ran away, I didn't stop to take my purse and I haven't any money to pay—"
"That's nonsense," said Gladys, firmly. "You have got to let us help you. It isn't any more than you would do for someone in the same position."
They stopped and got her something to eat and the others drank pop to keep her company. In spite of her being as hungry as she must have been Pearl did not eat very much; her trouble had evidently taken away her appetite. The girls exerted themselves to cheer her and assured her that everything would come out all right as soon as they found Nyoda and got her advice.
Somebody must have been moving a crockery store in the neighborhood and dropped it in the middle of the road, for, as they were passing through the outskirts of the little village where they had stopped they ran into a regular field of broken china. Gladys stopped short when she saw it, but it was too late, they were already in the midst of it. Both the front tires breathed their last. I think it should be made a criminal offense to leave things like that in the road. But then maybe the man carrying the china was knocked down by an automobile in the first place, and left the pieces in order to get revenge on some member of the auto driving fraternity. Ever since then I have been wondering how many of our calamities are brought down upon us by our best friends.
Gladys backed out of the mess and set about repairing the damage. The Striped Beetle carried two extra tires done up in a nice shiny cover all ready for emergency, but for some reason or other Gladys couldn't get the old tires off. It seems the demountable rims refused to demount, or whatever it is they are expected to do when you take a tire off.
Don't expect me to get the details straight or I shall throw up the job of reporter right here. I never could see through the workings of a motor car. I am like the Indian who had the automobile explained to him until he knew every part like a brother and then, when asked if he understood it, he replied that he understood all but one thing and that was what made it go without horses. So if the reader, who knows a car from A to Z, will kindly forbear to smile when I muddle things up, I will be her debtor forever.
Gladys saw that she would have to have help in getting those tires off and began scanning the horizon for a man. There are times when a man is a most useful member of society. There was not a man on the horizon at that time, though, and the only promising thing was a house set far back from the road in a grove of trees, and with a vegetable garden running down to the road. They had already left the village behind and habitations were scarce. Gladys went up to the house and returned in a short while with a man, who wrestled with the tires awhile and then proposed driving the car into the yard in the shade of the trees, as the sun was scorching hot in the road. Gladys accepted the invitation with alacrity.
While the Striped Beetle was holding up its poor cut front shoes for the man to take off the girls strolled over to the pump for a drink. A tired-looking woman, holding a fretful baby in her arms, came to the door and asked the girls to come up on the porch and sit down until the exchange of tires was made. Medmangi promptly offered to hold the baby while the woman finished her work. With a sigh of relief the woman handed her the baby.
"Such a time I've had with him to-day," she said, mopping her forehead. "He's cried steady since morning. He acts sick and he's got a fever."
Medmangi took the fretful child and endeavored to soothe him while his mother went about her work. Hinpoha, who is crazy about babies, insisted on holding him half the time, but neither of them could make him stop crying. A three year old girl, red-faced and heavy-eyed, as if she had recently awakened from sleep, peered shyly through the screen door and Chapa coaxed her to come out and sit in her lap. The mother came to the door every few minutes to tell us how thankful she was for the relief.
The relief promised to be one of considerable length, for the Striped Beetle steadfastly refused to put on its new tires. At last, the man proposed going after another man who lived down the road to help him. Gladys joined us on the porch while he was gone and helped amuse the babies. Still the little fellow cried. Medmangi explored for pins with a skilled hand but there was nothing sticking into him. Neither did he appear to be teething.
"There's something the matter with this baby," she said to the mother, when next she came to the door. "Hadn't you better have a doctor?"
The woman came out on the porch and looked down at the child in a worried way. "I sent my husband to town for the doctor this morning," she said, "but he had gone out into the country on a call and would not be back until late to-night. The next nearest doctor is in B——; that's eight miles away and we have no horse. So we'll have to wait until Dr. Lane gets back from the country."
"Wouldn't you like to have me drive over and get the doctor from B—— as soon as the tires are on?" asked Gladys. Gladys is always the one to offer the helping hand.
"Would you?" asked the woman, eagerly.
"I would be very glad to," said Gladys.
The man came back with his friend and between the two of them they managed to get the Striped Beetle shod anew. Gladys drove off to B——, leaving Chapa and Medmangi and Pearl and Hinpoha on the porch with the babies and taking Mrs. Martin with her. She had seen Mrs. Martin give a wistful glance toward the big car and surmised rightly that she had few chances to go automobile riding. They were back in less than an hour saying that the doctor would be right along, and he appeared presently in a dusty roadster with another man beside him, probably a friend.
I suppose everybody has been taught from childhood that virtue is its own reward and one good turn deserves another. But once in awhile they discover that the reward of virtue is just as apt to be trouble as not, and that one good turn can unscrew the lid of a whole canful of calamities. Thus it was that Gladys's generous offer to fetch the doctor from B—— ended up in disaster for all five of us. For the doctor examined the fretful baby and the heavy-eyed little girl and announced that they both had scarlet fever.
Scarlet fever! The girls looked at each other in dismay. Not one of them had had it. And they had all handled both the babies; Medmangi had hung over the little boy most of the time.
"If we have ourselves disinfected," said Medmangi, as they moved hastily toward the car, "there won't be much danger of our getting it. Scarlet fever isn't really contagious in the first stages."
"Stay right where you are," said the doctor, in a tone of authority. "No one must leave this house. You are all under quarantine."
"But we can't stay here," said Gladys. "We're touring and only stopped here."
"That makes no difference," said the doctor. He was a very young doctor and had recently been appointed health officer in his district. There was a serious epidemic of scarlet fever in that part of the state which it was almost impossible to check because people would not keep to themselves when they had it in the house. Young Dr. Caxton had made up his mind that the next case that was reported would be as rigidly quarantined as they were in the big cities. And automobile tourists would be the very ones to spread the infection abroad through the countryside. He was determined to hold them there at all costs.
They argued and pleaded in vain; he was obdurate. He had brought a friend with him in the car and he proceeded to station him as guard over the house to see that no one left it. Oh yes, he would see to it that they got all necessary supplies; they would suffer no hardship, but, on no account, would a member of that household set a foot off the grounds. He ordered the babies put to bed and the curtains taken down in that room and the rugs taken out. Mrs. Martin obeyed his orders in a flutter of distress. She was frightened because her children had the scarlet fever and worried half to death at the predicament her passing guests were in. She had been so grateful to Gladys for taking her along in the automobile to B——.
But her distress over it was nothing compared to theirs. To be held up in the midst of a tour and quarantined with a scarlet fever case! Whatever was to become of them? If Nyoda were only there!
"Now you'll have to telegraph your father," said Chapa.
Gladys's face was drawn with distress. "Mother would be frightened to death if she knew about it," she said. "I don't believe I'll tell her yet. I'll wait until I hear from Nyoda."
"How will we get word to Nyoda?" asked Hinpoha.
"Ft. Wayne," answered Gladys. "We were to stay there to-night and she must be there by this time."
"You'll send a wire for us?" she asked the doctor beseechingly.
"Certainly," he answered, amiably. "Any service—"
But Gladys cut him short. He was plainly enjoying the situation. The doctor departed with his horrid shiny little case and the message in his pocket and left the guard to watch the house. The first thing he did was to take something out of the Striped Beetle—I don't know what—so Gladys couldn't start it and make a dash for liberty. Gladys was ready to cry with rage at this high handed act, but that was all the good it did her.
"Well, there's one thing about it," said Hinpoha, who was far more philosophical than the rest, "if we have to stay prisoners here we might as well get busy and help Mrs. Martin. It's no fun to have five people quartered on you when there are two sick children in the house." Medmangi was already in the sick room giving medicine and drinks of water in an accomplished manner. It seems that the Winnebagos have a specialist in every line.
The others went down to the kitchen and finished paring the peaches which Mrs. Martin had been trying to can.
Later in the evening the guard slipped an envelope through the screen door. It was a telegram. It was signed by the telegraph company and read: "Yours date addressed Elizabeth Kent Potter Hotel Ft. Wayne undelivered. Party not registered."
The girls were entirely at sea at not reaching Nyoda at Ft. Wayne. They had counted so confidently upon her advice to help them out of the difficulty in which they found themselves. Being lost from her was the worst calamity they could conceive of. They were very much puzzled and a little hurt that she should have run away and left them as she did. It was so unlike Nyoda. On all other expeditions she had kept them under her eye every minute, like the careful Guardian she was. None of them slept much that night for worrying over the strange predicament they were in. Besides that they had to sleep three in a bed. Gladys made up her mind to wire her father in the morning when the doctor came.
When they looked out of the door in the morning the guard of the day before was gone and a new one had taken his place. Evidently Dr. Caxton was going to do the job thoroughly. Towards noon a buggy drove into the yard and a white-haired man got out and came up on the porch. He carried a shabby medicine case.
"Why, Dr. Lane!" exclaimed Mrs. Martin cordially, when she saw him.
"You left a call for me yesterday when I was out in the country," said Dr. Lane, in a pleasant voice. "I did not get in until early this morning. What's the trouble?"