"What did I tell you!" whispered Leslie. "Went out in the rain one night last week about ten o'clock! I warrant she didn't go to the hospital, or, if she did, it was after she'd visited Curlew's Nest!"
But Aunt Sally was back almost immediately, bearing some hot biscuits and jam which she hospitably invited her guests to try. And while they were partaking of this refreshment she sighed:
"My, how I have been gossiping about that poor girl! I sort of feel conscience-stricken, for I could like her real well if she'd only let me. She's a sort of lovable-looking child! I wish she knew you two girls. I believe it would do her a lot of good to be around with you. There she is now!"—she cried, as a car flashed past the window and up the driveway toward the barn. "Just wait till she comes in and I'll introduce you—"
"No, no!" exclaimed Phyllis, hastily springing up. "Better not, Aunt Sally. If she doesn't care for you, I'm sure she wouldn't for us. Besides, we must go right away. Remember, we're both the cooks in our families, and even as it is, we won't be back very early. It's a long walk. Good-by, and thank you, and I'll send for the broilers to-morrow!" And with Leslie in tow, she hurried away, leaving a somewhat bewildered Aunt Sally gazing after them.
"Well, I guess not! The idea of trying to get acquainted a second time with that difficult young person!" Phyllis exploded, when they were out of ear-shot.
"And yet," mused Leslie as they swung along, "unpleasant as the thought of it is, I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea—to get acquainted?"
"How do you mean—it might be the best thing to get acquainted with her?" demanded Phyllis, indignantly.
"Why, if we could do so in some way that wasn't like forcing ourselves on her, it might lead to a good many things—solving our mystery mainly. And then,—who knows?—she might be pleasant when you come to know her better."
"No chance!" declared Phyllis, and dismissed that subject. "Well, Aunt Sally didn't do much toward clearing up things, did she?" she went on. "I was in hopes she'd be able to give us a good many more ideas. One thing's certain though. That girl evidently came here in the car that rainy night, but—Look here! Something strange has just occurred to me—Aunt Sally didn't say which rainy night, and there have been two in the past ten days. I judge that the girl must have been with her for at least a couple of weeks, for the hotel closed up more than two weeks ago."
"I've been thinking of that, too," replied Leslie. "And, do you know, I'm almost certain Aunt Sally must have meant the last one, because she only said 'rainy' night. If she'd meant that other, wouldn't she have said 'the night of the hard storm,' or something like that? Because it really was unusual, and if this Miss Ramsay had gone out that night, I believe Aunt Sally would have been considerably more shocked and would have said so. What do you make of it?"
"The only thing I can make out of it is that she didn't go out that first night. But if she didn't visit Curlew's Nest that night, then who in the world did?"
This certainly was a poser, and neither of the two girls could find an adequate conjecture that would answer.
"Then, this Horatio Gaines who hired the bungalow must be her grandfather. Of course, the name is different, but he may be the grandfather on her mother's side. But if that is the case, who is the 'Hon. Arthur Ramsay'?" questioned Phyllis.
"Perhaps her father or her other grandfather," ventured Leslie.
"That's possible; but I wish I had found out from Aunt Sally if she knew the name of the grandfather who is ill. That might explain something. I wish I had asked her at the time. I believe I'll go for the broilers myself to-morrow and see if I can find out any more in some way that won't make her suspect," declared Phyllis.
The next morning Phyllis was as good as her word. She went down to the village alone, as Leslie had matters that kept her at home that day. But she came flying back breathless, to impart her news.
"I managed to lead the conversation around—to that grandfather business—again," panted Phyllis, to Leslie, when she had induced her chum to come down to the beach for a moment, "and what do you think she said? That his name was 'Ramsay'! Now what do you make of that? If his name is Ramsay, he can't be the man who hired that bungalow—and we're all on the wrong track!"
"No, it doesn't prove that at all," insisted Leslie. "The one who rented the bungalow, no matter what his name was, certainly had an envelop in his possession addressed to Ramsay. So you see there's a connection somewhere!"
Phyllis had to admit that this was so. "But here's something else stranger than that—what do you think of my having been introduced to and becoming acquainted with our 'exclusive young friend'?"
Leslie certainly opened her eyes in astonishment. "You're surely joking!" she exclaimed.
"No, positive truth! It happened this way: I was just about to leave with my chickens under my arm, when in walks this precious Miss Ramsay, right into the room. I could see she was prepared to turn on that cold stare effect again, but I never so much as noticed her existence. And then Aunt Sally bustled in,—she'd been upstairs a minute,—and blest if she didn't introduce us after all! Said the most complimentary things about yours truly, and how I was staying at my bungalow on the beach; and then she mentioned you, too, and told about you being in the 'Rest Haven' bungalow. It struck me that our young lady sort of pricked up her ears at that (though it may have been only imagination). But she just said 'How-de-do,' rather carelessly—didn't offer to shake hands or anything.
"I muttered something about it being a pleasant day and hoping she was enjoying the place. But she only replied, 'Oh, ya-as, thanks!' with that awfully English accent, and walked out of the room. Well, anyhow, we're formally acquainted now (whether either one of us enjoy it or not!), and that may be a useful thing later, perhaps."
It was still dark the next morning when Leslie awoke from a dreamless sleep—awoke suddenly, with the distinct impression that something unusual was happening. She lay perfectly still for several moments, trying to localize the sensation more definitely. In her room were two windows—a small one facing Curlew's Nest and a large, broad one facing the sea. Leslie always had this window wide open, and her bed was so placed that she could easily look out of it.
She did so now, and noticed the first light streak of dawn along the east, and a brilliant star so close to the horizon that it seemed to be resting on the edge of the tossing ocean. Then her heart leaped and felt as if it almost turned over—for between her and the light, at the window, she descried the shape of a dark head!
Involuntarily Leslie sprang up to a sitting position. Then the tension relaxed and she drew a deep breath of relief. It was only Rags, standing on his hind legs at the window, his great shaggy head silhouetted against the light. In another instant he had uttered his low, rumbling growl of uneasiness.
"What is it, Rags? What do you see?" she called softly to him. He forsook the window for a moment and trotted over to nuzzle his head on her pillow, but almost immediately hurried back to his post at the window.
"There's something worrying him!" she thought. "Now I wonder what it can be. Suppose—suppose it were some one around that other bungalow again! I'd better get up and see."
She rose softly, slipped on a warm dressing-gown and slippers, and peered first out of the side window at Curlew's Nest. But the darkness was still intense on this side, there was no tell-tale light in the chinks of the shutters, and she was forced, after watching for several moments, to conclude that nothing was amiss in this region.
Then she went to the window facing the ocean, pushed Rags aside a trifle, and cuddled down beside him on the window-seat. The dawn was growing every moment brighter. The streak of gray along the horizon had grown to a broad belt of pink, and very faintly the objects on the beach were beginning to be visible. Rags still rumbled his uneasy growl at intervals, and stared intently at something Leslie's eye could not yet discern.
It was only by following the direction of his gaze that she presently realized there was something moving on the beach somewhere in front of Curlew's Nest. Then her heart actually did seem to stop beating for an instant, for in the growing light she at last could distinguish a dark form moving stealthily about by the old log where Rags had dug up the "Dragon's Secret!"
"Oh! who can it be? And what are they doing there?" she whispered distractedly to Rags. The dog's only reply was to growl a little louder, and she promptly silenced him.
"Be a good dog, Rags! Don't make a sound! It will rouse Aunt Marcia, and besides I must see who is there, if possible!" Rags settled down again to a quieter watch with evident reluctance.
With every passing moment, day was approaching nearer, and the scene out over the ocean was one of surprising beauty, had Leslie only been less occupied and had time to observe it. The band of pink had melted into gold, and a thousand rosy little clouds dimpled the sky above. It was now so light that the dark shape on the beach stood out with comparative clearness. It had been bending down and rising up at intervals, and it took little guessing on Leslie's part to conjecture what was happening. Some one was digging in the spot where the "Dragon's Secret" had been hidden!
"What if it is Miss Ramsay?" thought Leslie. "Oh, it must be she! Who else could it be? She's looking for that box, and she can't find it because we've taken it away. Oh, what ought I to do about it? If only Phyllis were here!"
At this moment she realized from the actions of the unknown person that the search was evidently abandoned. The figure stood upright, struck its hands together, and threw away some implement like a board, with which the digging had been done. Then, with a discouraged shrug of the shoulders and a hasty glance back at the two cottages, it turned and walked away down the beach and was shortly out of sight.
And it was then that Leslie sank back on the window seat with a little gasp of sheer astonishment.
The figure was not—could not have been that of Miss Ramsay! It was a man—a tall, burly man; and as he walked away, his gait gave evidence of a decided limp!
AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR
So anxious was Leslie to impart this newest development to Phyllis that morning, that she ate no breakfast at all, a departure which worried Miss Marcia not a little. But Leslie was out of the house and off the moment she had finished washing the dishes.
It was some time before she could locate her companion, as the Kelvins had gone off early on a fishing expedition a short way up the inlet, having persuaded Phyllis to join them, a thing she had done but little of late. After a long walk and much halloo-ing, however, Leslie sighted their boat. And it took considerable time before she could persuade Phyllis to come ashore, as she could not very well impart to her, standing on the bank, that she had news of vital importance concerning their secret.
When Phyllis had at last been lured ashore and the two had walked away out of sight, she told the tale of her curious experience at dawn.
"And now, Phyllis, what do you make of it?" she demanded, wide eyed.
"There's only one thing to make of it," returned Phyllis, gravely, "And that is—there's some one else mixed up in this—some one we haven't known about or counted on at all! I thought Miss Ramsay, all along, was the only one concerned in it. Now we can only guess that that isn't so. But how to make head or tail of the whole thing is beyond me. What kind of a man did you say he was?"
Leslie described him again. "Of course, it was still hardly light and I couldn't see him plainly at all," she ended. "I never even got a glimpse of his face, nor how he was dressed. But he was tall and broad-shouldered, and I think stooped a little and walked with quite a decided limp."
"That last fact ought to help to identify him, if nothing else," mused Phyllis. "But I confess I'm more at sea than ever about the whole thing. I was beginning to think I'd reduced things to some kind of a theory, but this upsets everything. And it annoys me so to think I'm always out of it, being so far away from Curlew's Nest. I do believe I'll have to come and spend my nights with you or I'll never be on the scene of action at the most interesting time!"
"Oh, I do wish you would!" urged Leslie, earnestly. "I'm really beginning to be quite nervous about all this. It's so uncanny, not being able to say a word about it to Aunt Marcia or any one—being all alone there, or as good as alone, when these queer things happen. Don't you suppose we could arrange it somehow that you could come over and stay with me—without having it seem odd or out of the way to the others?"
They both thought hard over the problem for a moment. Suddenly Phyllis cried,—"I have it—I think! I heard Father and Ted planning to-day to be off fishing to-night, and as many nights after as the conditions are good. They just adore that kind of thing and have done very little of it this time. As a rule, I don't mind a bit staying alone at the bungalow if I don't happen to go with them. But I've never before had the excuse of having you here to be with. It will seem perfectly natural for me to say that, as they're to be away, I'll spend the night with you. How's that?"
"Oh, just the thing!" exclaimed Leslie, enthusiastically. "And now let's go back and take a swim. It's fairly mild and the best time of day for it. You left your suit at our house last time, so it's very convenient. You won't have to walk all the way back to your place."
They strolled back to Rest Haven in a leisurely fashion and had just turned the corner of the house and come in sight of the front veranda, when what they saw there almost took them off their feet. On the veranda sat Aunt Marcia, rocking comfortably back and forth, and opposite her, in another rocker sat—could their eyes have deceived them?—who but the redoubtable Miss Ramsay!
She was dressed as they had seen her in the village store, and she was chatting, with an appearance of the greatest affability, with Miss Marcia. The two girls stared at her in ill-concealed amazement—so ill-concealed, in fact, that even Miss Marcia noticed it.
"Miss Ramsay and I have been getting acquainted while we waited for you to come back," she remarked, somewhat bewildered by their speechless consternation. "She says she made your acquaintance at Aunt Sally Blake's in the village, where she is boarding."
"Oh—er, yes!" stuttered Phyllis, remembering her manners. "It's very pleasant to see you here, Miss—Ramsay. I see you are acquainted with Miss Crane. This is Miss Leslie Crane her niece."
Leslie bowed and murmured something inarticulate, but Miss Ramsay was affable to a degree. "I drove over to your cottage first, Miss Kelvin," she chatted on, after her introduction, "with some eggs Aunt Sally promised you. She was going to send them by the butcher boy, but he did not stop this morning, so, as I was going out, I offered to take them. But I found no one at your place, so I came on here, introduced myself to Miss Crane, and we've been having a nice time together."
The astonishment of the girls at this amazing change of front in the difficult Miss Ramsay was beyond all expression. Her intonation was slightly English, her manner charming. They had not dreamed that she could be so attractive. And so fresh and pretty was she that she was a real delight to look upon.
"What delightful little cottages these are!" she went on. "They look so attractive from the outside. I'm sure they must be equally so from the inside. We have nothing quite on this style in England, where I came from."
"Wouldn't you like to go through ours?" asked Miss Marcia, hospitably. "Leslie, take Miss Ramsay through. Perhaps she will be interested to see the interior."
"Oh, I'll be delighted!" exclaimed Miss Ramsay, and rose to accompany Leslie.
It did not take them long to make the round of Rest Haven. Rather to her hostess's astonishment, the girl seemed more enthusiastic over Leslie's room than any of the others and lingered there the longest, though it was by no means the most attractive.
"What a wonderful view you have of the sea!" she said. And then she strolled to the other window and looked out, long and curiously. "That's an interesting little cottage next door," she remarked presently. "Is it—is it just like this one?"
"Why no. It's larger and differently arranged and furnished more elaborately, too, I—I believe," faltered Leslie, hoping she had not appeared to know too much about it.
"I wonder if we could go through it?" went on the visitor. "I—I just love to see what these little seashore places look like. They're so different from ours."
"Oh, I hardly think so!" cried Leslie. "You see it's all locked up for the winter, and Mrs. Danforth, who owns it, has the key."
The girl looked at her intently. "And there's no other way, I suppose, beside the front door?"
"How should I know?" countered Leslie, suddenly on her guard. "If there were would it be right to try it, do you think? Wouldn't it be too much like trespassing?"
"Oh, of course!" laughed Miss Ramsay. "I only meant that it would be fun to look it over, if there were any proper way of doing so. You see, Grandfather and I might be here another summer and I'd just love to rent a little cottage like either one of these two."
She turned away from the window and they sauntered out of the room and back to the veranda.
"And now that you've seen Leslie's bungalow, you must run over and see ours, especially as it was at ours you at first intended to call!" said Phyllis. "Come along, Leslie, and we'll show Miss Ramsay over Fisherman's Luck!"
It struck the girls that Miss Ramsay showed a trifle less enthusiasm about returning to the other cottage. Still, she agreed, with a fair assumption of polite interest, and they tramped back along the beach, chatting agreeably.
But she showed very genuine pleasure in the entirely different appearance of Phyllis's abode, and a large surprise at the presence of a grand piano in so unusual a place. And when Leslie had informed her of Phyllis's talent she eagerly demanded that they be given an immediate concert.
And it was Phyllis's sudden whim to render a very charming and touching program, ending with the Chopin "Berceuse." The music died away in a hushed chord, and Leslie, who had been gazing out at the ocean during its rendering, was astonished when she looked around to see the visitor furtively wiping away a few tears.
"I'm a perfect goose about some kinds of music!" she muttered apologetically, and then, abruptly, "Won't you two girls please call me Eileen? I'm so lonely here and I haven't any friends and—and—I'd like to see you often."
And then the impulsive Phyllis put a comradely arm about her shoulder. "Just come as often as you like. We'll always be delighted to see you. I'm sure we three can have a jolly time together. And be sure to call us by our first names, too."
"Thank you, Phyllis and Leslie," she said simply. "You are more than kind to me. But I must be getting back now. It's most time for me to go to the hospital to see Grandfather. He's so ill, and I'm so worried about him!" Again the tears came into her eyes. "But good-by! I'm coming over to-morrow with the car to take you all out for a spin!" And she was gone, running down the path to where she had parked the car.
When they were alone, the two girls looked at one another.
"It's the most amazing thing I ever heard of—this change in her!" marveled Phyllis. "Have you the slightest idea what has caused it?"
"I think I have," answered Leslie, and she told of the girl's curious conduct when she was being shown through Rest Haven. "I believe she had a purpose in coming here—she may have thought she could find out something from us. And she certainly thought she might get into Curlew's Nest, though I don't believe for a minute the reason she gave was the only one. I think she didn't particularly want to go to see your place, either, but when she got here she liked it."
"Yes, and I like her—strange as you may think it!" declared Phyllis. "I've quite changed my mind about her. Do you know, I think that girl is having a whole lot of trouble, somehow or other—trouble she can't tell us about. What the mystery is and how it is connected with that cottage, I don't see. But I do believe that she likes us, and if we're ever going to solve this mystery at all, it will probably be through her."
"Shall we—do you think we ought to—give her the Dragon's Secret?" faltered Leslie.
"I certainly do not—at least not yet! I'll wait till I know a few things more before I make a move like that!" declared the emphatic Phyllis. "And now come along and let's have our swim."
THE CURIOUS BEHAVIOR OF TED
True to their previous arrangement, Phyllis spent the night with Leslie at Rest Haven. They read together till a very late hour and then sat up even later, in the dark, watching from Leslie's window to see if there were any further developments at Curlew's Nest. But nothing unusual happened.
"Isn't that exactly my luck!" complained Phyllis. "If I weren't here, I suppose there'd be a half a dozen spooky visitors!"
"Oh, no!" laughed Leslie. "Probably nothing will happen again for some time. Remember how very few times it has happened, anyway. But it is provoking—just when we're all ready for it!"
"Do you know," exclaimed Phyllis suddenly, "this is the time when I'd just love to go through that place again! What do you say if we get out of this window and try it?"
"Oh, no, no!" cried Leslie. "You mustn't think of such a thing! Can't you see how awfully dangerous it would be? Just suppose some one should take it into their heads to visit the place again to-night—and find us in there. It would be a terrible position for us!"
"I wouldn't be afraid of Eileen!" stoutly declared Phyllis. "I'd rather enjoy meeting her there. It would give her something to explain!"
"But there's some one else you might meet there who might not be so amusing—the man with the limp!" Leslie reminded her.
Phyllis had to acknowledge that this was so, and the subject was dropped, much to Leslie's relief.
Next afternoon, Eileen came over with her car and invited the girls and Miss Marcia to go for a long ride. They all accepted with alacrity, enjoying the prospect of a change. Eileen insisted that Miss Marcia sit by her while she drove. And as she did this with remarkable ease, she was able to converse pleasantly with her guests most of the time. She took them for a very long drive, and they were all astonished at her familiarity with the roads in that part of the country. She assured them that she had grown to know them well, during the long days lately when she had little else to do than to explore them with the car.
It was dusk when they returned at last to the beach, and, having deposited Phyllis first at her bungalow, Eileen drove the others to theirs. They bade her good night at the foot of the wooden path that led up the slope to their cottage, and she sat and watched them, without starting the car, till they had disappeared indoors. But it so happened that Leslie turned around, opened the door, and came out again almost at once to get an armful of wood for the fire from the bin on the back veranda. And in so doing, it happened also that she witnessed a curious little incident.
Eileen seemed to have had a slight difficulty in starting the car, but it was in motion now, going slowly, and had advanced only about as far as the path leading up to Curlew's Nest. Leslie stood in the darkness of her porch, idly watching its progress, when something that happened caused her heart to leap into her throat. Out from some thick bushes at the edge of the road, there appeared a dark form, which signaled to the car. Eileen whirled the wheel around, applied the brake, and the car almost came to a stop. Almost—but not quite, for the figure leaped into it while it was still going. Then Eileen stepped on the accelerator, the car shot forward, and was almost instantly out of sight.
Leslie got her wood and went indoors in a daze. What could it all mean? What duplicity had Eileen been guilty of now? The thing certainly looked very, very sinister, consider it how you would! And she could breathe no word of it to her aunt, who, as Leslie entered, straightway began on a long eulogy of Eileen, her delightful manners, her thoughtfulness, and her kindness in giving them an afternoon of such enjoyment. It seemed to Leslie, considering what had just happened, that she must certainly scream with nervousness if Miss Marcia did not stop, and she tried vainly several times to steer her to another theme. But Miss Marcia had found a topic that interested her, and she was not to be diverted from it till it was exhausted!
With all her strength, Leslie longed for the time to come when Phyllis should appear, for she had promised to come again for the night. And when the supper was eaten and the dishes had been disposed of, Leslie went outside and paced and paced back and forth on the front veranda, peering vainly into the darkness to watch for her friend. Miss Marcia, indoors with Rags by the blazing fire, called several times to her to come in and share the warmth and comfort, but she felt she could not endure the confinement in the house and the peaceful sitting by the hearth, when her thoughts were so upset. Would Phyllis never appear? What could be keeping her?
It was a small, but very active, indignation meeting that was held when the two girls were at last together. Leslie would not permit Phyllis to go indoors for a time after she arrived, though the night was rather chilly, but kept her on the veranda to explain what had happened.
"The deceitful little thing!" cried Phyllis. "Now I see exactly what she took us all out for this afternoon, even Miss Marcia—to get rid of us all for a good long time while some accomplice of hers did what they pleased in Curlew's Nest, quite undisturbed by any one around!"
"That's exactly what it must have been," agreed Leslie. "But who could that other person have been?"
"The man with the limp?" suggested Phyllis.
"No, I'm very sure it was not he. This person sprang into the car while it was still in motion—was very active, evidently. I'm certain the man with the limp could never have done that!"
"Well, was it a man or a woman? Surely you could tell that!"
"No, actually I couldn't. It was getting so dark, and the figure was so far off, and it all happened so quickly that I couldn't see. But, Phyllis, I'm horribly disappointed in Eileen! I had begun to think she was lovely, and that we had misjudged her badly. And now—this!"
"She's simply using us—that's plain," agreed Phyllis. "She evidently intended to do so from the first, after she found out we were right on the spot here. She deliberately came out to cultivate our acquaintance and make it seem natural for her to be around here. Then she and the one she's working with planned to get us away from here for the whole afternoon and have the field free for anything they pleased. Faugh! It makes me sick to think of being duped like that!"
"But after yesterday—and the way she acted when you played Chopin, and what she said about our friendship, and all that—Was anything genuine at all?"
"Not a thing!" declared Phyllis, positively. "All put on to get a little farther into our good graces. Well, I'll never be caught like that again. We'll continue to seem very friendly to Miss Eileen Ramsay, but we won't be caught twice!"
"By the way, what made you so late to-night?" questioned Leslie, suddenly changing the subject. "I thought you'd never come!"
"Oh, I meant to tell you right away, but all this put it out of my head. When I got home after the ride, I found only Father there. He said Ted had been away most of the afternoon. He'd gone down to the village after some new fishing-tackle and hadn't come back yet. I started in and got supper, and still he didn't appear. Then we began to get worried and 'phoned down to Smithson's in the village where they sell tackle, to see if he could be there. They said he had been, early in the afternoon, but they hadn't seen him since. We called up every other place he could possibly be, but nowhere was he to be found. I was beginning to be quite upset about him—when in he walked!
"He was very quiet and uncommunicative and wouldn't explain why he was so late. And then, presently, he said in a very casual manner that his hand was hurt. And when he showed it to us, I almost screamed, for it was very badly hurt—all torn and lacerated. He had it wrapped in his handkerchief, but we made him undo it, and I bathed it and Father put iodine on, and I fixed him a sling to wear it in. The thing about it was that he didn't seem to want to tell us how it happened. Said he met a friend who invited him to ride in their car and had taken him for a long drive. And on the way home they'd had a little breakdown, and Ted had tried to help fix it and had got his hand caught in the machinery somehow.
"But he was plainly very anxious not to be questioned about it. And Father says that Ted is old enough now to be trusted, and should not be compelled to speak when he doesn't wish to, and so nothing more was said. But it all seemed a little strange to me, for, honestly, I don't know a single soul in this village that Ted knows who owns a car, or any other of our friends who would be likely to be around these parts just now. They're all home at their schools or colleges. When I asked him whose car he was in, he just glared at me and said I always did ask too many impertinent questions! But I can't make much out of it, and I hate any more puzzles to think about."
Leslie, however, could cast no light on this new problem; and she was somewhat more interested, moreover, in their other puzzle. But as she was about to revert to that subject again, Phyllis suddenly interrupted:
"Oh, by the way, soon after I got home, Aunt Sally 'phoned to ask if we were back from the ride yet. And when I said we'd been back some time, she said she was quite worried because Eileen had not yet appeared and it was late and dark. I said perhaps she had stopped somewhere in the village, as she had left us a good while before. Quite a little later, just before Ted got in, Aunt Sally 'phoned again to say that Eileen had just arrived. She'd had some trouble with the car after she left us and had to stop and fix it. I wonder what was the matter there!"
Suddenly Leslie clutched her friend's arm. "Phyllis Kelvin, are we going crazy, or is there some strange connection in all this? Can't you see?—Ted late and mixed up with some breakdown—Eileen late and had trouble with the machinery,—and with my own eyes I saw some one jump into her car!—Could it, could it be possible that person was—Ted?"
Phyllis stared at her as if she thought Leslie certainly had "gone crazy." "There's not the slightest chance in the world!" she declared positively. "Why, only last night, when I was explaining to Ted about Eileen and how we'd become friends, all he said was: 'Well, so you've taken up with some other dame, have you! Might as well not have brought you down here, all the good you are to us, this time. Haven't been fishing with us more than twice since we came! Whoever this Eileen is, don't for goodness sake have her around here!' If he'd known her, he certainly would have shown it in some way. He acted utterly disgusted with me for having made her acquaintance!"
"That may all be true, but it doesn't prove that he is not acquainted with her," stubbornly affirmed Leslie.
And Phyllis was driven to acknowledge the force of the argument!
A TRAP IS SET
They went indoors at last and tried to settle down to reading, but it was very difficult to distract their minds from disturbing thoughts. Miss Marcia retired early, as the ride had tired her, and they were left to their own devices. At length they gave up the attempt to read and sat talking in whispers over the dying fire. When there was nothing left but ashes, Leslie suggested, with a shiver, that they go to bed, and they withdrew to Leslie's room.
Needless to say they did not go to bed at once, but sat long by the side window, staring across at Curlew's Nest. And it was then that Phyllis suddenly had her great idea.
"Now, see here, Leslie Crane, I have an idea and I'm going to do something, and I don't want you to interfere with me. Do you understand?"
"What do you mean?" whispered Leslie, looking alarmed.
"I mean just this. You're going to stay right where you are, with Rags, and keep watch. And I'm going to get out of the window and go over and explore Curlew's Nest by myself!"
"Phyllis, are you crazy?" implored Leslie. "I think that is one of the most dangerous things you could do!"
"Nothing of the sort. It's safer to-night than it would be almost any other time. Because—can't you see?—some one has evidently been here all the afternoon, when the coast was entirely clear, and no doubt they've done all they wish to do there for this day, anyhow! There couldn't be a better time than this very night, for there's not one chance in a hundred that they'll be back again."
"But just suppose the hundredth chance did happen, what would you do?" argued Leslie in despair.
"Do?—I'd shout like everything to you to turn Rags loose and call up the village constable and Father. Or better yet, I'd blow this police whistle which Father always insists on my carrying so that I can call them in to meals when they're down on the beach. If you hear that—just start things going. That's why I'm leaving you and Rags here on guard."
"Oh, I don't like it—I don't like it at all!" moaned Leslie. "It wouldn't be so bad if you only met Eileen there—but you can't tell whom you might encounter. I believe there's something more dangerous and desperate about this affair than either of us have guessed. I don't know why I think so—it's just come to me lately. It's a sort of—presentiment I can't seem to shake off!"
"Nonsense!" declared Phyllis, not to be balked. "If I met any one there, it could only be Eileen, and she's the one I'm crazy to encounter. After the way she has treated us, I'd have a few things to say to that young person for trespassing on Mrs. Danforth's property. Mrs. Danforth has always asked that we keep an eye on these cottages of hers while we're here,—it's an understood thing between us—so I'd be entirely within my rights in going in there to look the place over, especially if I suspected anything queer, and the other person would be quite in the wrong. Don't you see?"
"Oh, yes, I see that, but it doesn't lessen the fact that it may be dangerous!" sighed Leslie, wearily.
Phyllis ignored this. "If the hundredth chance should happen and I encounter Eileen, or if I come across anything very unusual and think you ought to see it, I'll let you know. Only in case of the hundred and first chance of real danger will I blow this whistle. Hold on tight to Rags and don't let him try to follow me. By-by! See you later!" And before Leslie could expostulate further, she had slipped out of the window, her electric torch in her hand, and was out of sight around the corner of the neighboring cottage.
Leslie remained half hanging out of the window, in an agony of suspense. The night was moonless and very dark. Added to that, a heavy sea-mist hung over everything like a blanket, and, out of the gloom, the steady pounding of the surf came to her with ominous insistence. The chill of the foggy air was penetrating, and she wrapped a sweater about her almost without realizing that she had done so. Rags was on the seat beside her, ears alertly cocked.
There was not a sound from the next house, nor could she even see a single gleam of light from the chinks in the shutters. Where could Phyllis be? Surely there had been time enough for her to have entered the place, looked about, and come out again. What could she be doing?
Then her brain began to be filled with horrible pictures of all the possible and impossible things that might have happened. So beyond all bearing did this feature become at length that she came to the sudden conclusion she would endure it no longer. She would get out of the window, herself, and go in search of her friend. If the worst came to worst, Rags could do some one a pretty bit of damage!
She had actually got as far as to put one foot over the low sill, when she quickly pulled it back again. A dark form had slipped around the corner of the other house and was hurrying toward her.
"Leslie! Leslie! Quick!—can you come here with me?"
Leslie almost collapsed, so swift was the reaction of relief at hearing Phyllis's voice, after all her terrible imaginings.
"What is it? What have you found?" she managed to reply.
"I can't explain to you here," whispered Phyllis. "It would take too long. Come along with me and see for yourself. It's perfectly safe. There's not a soul around. I've been in the house. Bring Rags along—it won't hurt. There have been queer doings here to-day—evidently. You can see it all in five minutes. Do come!"
In spite of all her previous fears, the temptation was too much for Leslie. If Phyllis had examined the ground and found it safe, surely there was no need for fear, and her curiosity to see what her friend had seen was now stronger than she could resist. She crept softly out of the window, speaking to Rags in a whisper, and the dog leaped lightly out after her.
They stole around the corner of the next house, three black shadows in the enveloping mist, and not till Phyllis had closed the side door of Curlew's Nest behind them was a word spoken.
"Follow me into the living-room," she ordered, "and if you don't see something there that surprises you, I miss my guess!"
She switched on the electric torch, and Leslie and Rags followed after her in solemn procession. From what she had said, Leslie expected to see the place in a terrible disorder, at the very least, and was considerably surprised, when she came into the room, to observe nothing out of its place. In some bewilderment she looked about, while Phyllis stood by, watching her.
"Why, what's wrong?" she whispered. "Everything seems to be just as it was."
"Look on the center-table!" commanded Phyllis, and she turned the torch full on that article of furniture.
Leslie tiptoed over to examine it. Then she uttered a little half-suppressed cry. On the table was a slip of paper—not a very large slip, and evidently torn from some larger sheet. And on this paper were a few words, type-written. She bent to read them. It ran:
It is advisable that the article stolen from its hiding-place be returned to it as speedily as possible, as otherwise, consequences most serious to all parties concerned will result.
Leslie turned deadly pale as she read it and seized Phyllis spasmodically by the arm.
"Oh, come out of here this moment!" she exclaimed. "I will not stay in this house another instant. I told you it was dangerous!" and she dragged her friend, with the strength of terror to the side door.
Outside, as the chill mist struck her, she breathed a great sigh of relief.
"What a little 'fraid-cat you are!" laughed Phyllis. "What in the world were you frightened about?"
Leslie shivered. "Oh, the whole thing strikes me as too uncanny for words! Some one has been in here and left that warning. They may be around here now, for all you know. Who do you suppose it can be?"
"I've a very good notion who it was, but it's too chilly to explain it standing here. Go over to the house with Rags and I'll be there directly. I want to go back a moment."
"Phyllis, Phyllis, don't go back there again!" implored Leslie, almost beside herself with an alarm she could hardly explain. "What do you want to do?"
"Never mind! Go back! I'll be there in two minutes." And tearing herself from Leslie's grasp, Phyllis ran back into the dark bungalow.
But Leslie would not return to her own house and desert her companion, though she could not bring herself to enter again that fear-inspiring place. So she lingered about outside in a state of unenviable desperation till Phyllis once more emerged from the dark doorway.
"So you couldn't leave me, after all!" Phyllis laughed. "Well, come back to bed now, and I'll tell you all about it."
They were chilled through with the drenching mist by the time they returned, and not till they were enveloped in the warm bed-clothing did Phyllis deign to explain her ideas about the newest development in their mystery.
"You were mightily scared by that little piece of paper, and I confess that I was startled myself, for a minute. But after I'd thought it over, it suddenly dawned on me that there was precious little to be scared about, and I'll tell you why. I'm perfectly convinced that that thing was written and placed there by my brother Ted!"
Leslie sat up in bed with a jerk. "You can't possibly mean it!"
"I certainly do, and here's my reason: You yourself convinced me, earlier this evening, that there was a chance of Ted's being mixed up in this thing somehow. I can't imagine how he got into it—that's a mystery past my explaining. But it looks very much as if he knew this Eileen, and that he was poking around here this afternoon while we were away. Now he suspects that we are mixed up in it, too, for he saw us come out of the bungalow that day. Well, if Eileen has told him about the Dragon's Secret and its disappearance, perhaps he thinks we know what happened to it. At any rate, he's taken the chance, and written this warning for our inspection the next time we happened in. He thinks it will scare us, I suppose! He'll presently find out that we don't scare for a cent! And I have thought of a scheme as good as his!—Do you know what I did when I went back there? I took a pencil and printed on the bottom of that paper just this:
"'The article will be returned to its hiding-place.'
"Now here's what I'm going to do next. In my trunk I have a little jewel-case, very much the size and shape and weight of the Dragon's Secret. It's one of those antimony things you've often seen, covered with a kind of carving that might easily pass for what's on that other one, if it weren't seen. I'm going to-morrow to make a burlap bag, just like the one we found, and sew the jewel-case in it, and it will be a sharp person who can tell the difference between them till the bag is opened. Then we'll bury it in the place where Rags dug up the other, some time to-morrow when the coast is clear. After that we'll wait and see what happens next! Now what do you think of my scheme?"
"It sounds splendid to me," admitted Leslie, then she added uneasily: "But there's something you haven't explained yet. You think Ted wrote that thing, yet it is type-written! How do you explain that?"
"Oh, that's simple enough! We have an old typewriter down here that Father uses occasionally, and Ted frequently practises on it."
"But did you notice the paper?" Leslie insisted. "It was queer, thin, almost foreign-looking stuff. Do you folks use that kind, or happen to have it about?"
"Oh, I don't know. I suppose he got it somewhere. What does it matter, anyway?" answered Phyllis, sleepily. And in two minutes more she was in the land of dreams.
But Leslie, still unconvinced, tossed the night through without closing her eyes.
THE MAN WITH THE LIMP
Two days had passed. To Leslie it was a constant marvel, considering the secret tension under which she lived, that outwardly her life went on in the same peaceful groove. She rose and dressed as usual, prepared the meals, ate and chatted with Aunt Marcia, walked on the beach or down to the village, fished occasionally with Phyllis and the Kelvins, took a dip in the ocean when it was not too chilly, read and slept and idled, as if there were nothing in the world but what was quiet and normal and in the ordinary course of things.
Aunt Marcia suspected nothing. Even Ted, who, she was certain, suspected many things, laughed and chatted with and teased her, and never by so much as a word or look indicated the slightest suspicion of her interest in Curlew's Nest and its affairs. With Phyllis his manner was somewhat different, and during the last two days their relations had seemed occasionally rather strained, but there was no open break, in public at least.
"But at home it's another matter!" Phyllis assured her. "Something's come over him—I can't guess what. He will hardly speak either to Father or myself. He doesn't even want to play his violin when we get together, and usually he adores that. He's moody and silent and just—grouchy, most of the time! And that's unusual for Ted. I'll give him credit for being a pretty amiable fellow, as a rule. I can't make him out!"
"And it surely is queer that we've seen nothing more of Eileen, don't you think so?" questioned Leslie.
"Well, no. Considering that she gained her point and got us away all that afternoon, I don't think it at all queer. She's done with us now. Why should she try to keep on with it? By the way, I called her up at Aunt Sally's last night. She wasn't there, but Aunt Sally said her grandfather has been rather worse for the last two days and she's been at the hospital most of the time—was there then. All of which may or may not be so. As a matter of fact, I guess Aunt Sally knows precious little of her doings when she's away in that car."
Somehow, Leslie could never believe Eileen quite as full of duplicity as Phyllis thought her. While she had to admit that circumstances made the girl's conduct seem almost inexcusable, there always lingered in her mind a stubborn feeling that perhaps there was more back of it all than they know—that Eileen herself might be struggling with entangling problems. And secretly she still felt a liking for the girl. But she knew it was useless to express these doubts to Phyllis, so she wisely kept her own counsel. But there was one thing she did allude to.
"Isn't it strange that Eileen never told us a word about her grandfather, or how sick he was, or what was the matter with him? You would have thought it natural, that day when she took us riding, to say something about it, anyway. I hardly see now how she could have avoided it. And yet she did. You'd never have thought she had such a thing as a sick grandfather on her mind!"
"Leslie, you certainly are a trusting soul!" exclaimed Phyllis, scornfully. "How do you know she has a sick grandfather in any hospital? I strongly doubt it myself!"
"Oh, I can't believe she's not telling the truth about that!" cried Leslie, thoroughly shocked. "Don't you believe anything about her any more?"
"I don't know what I believe or don't believe—about her!" retorted Phyllis. "And what's more, there's only one thing concerning her that I am interested in just now—whether she has discovered the answer to that note left in there and when she—or any one else—is going to make the attempt to unearth their treasure again!"
Phyllis had been as good as her word. On the morning after that night of the fog, she had returned to her bungalow before breakfast, and had reappeared later at Rest Haven with a mysterious bundle. When they had both retired to Leslie's room she revealed its contents, a piece of burlap, an exact duplicate of the one which contained the Dragon's Secret, and an antimony jewel-case. Then they got down the original from its dusty shelf, fashioned a bag, the exact size and shape of the one Rags had unearthed, placed the jewel-case in it, and sewed it up. When all was complete it would have been extremely difficult to tell the original from its duplicate, so nearly alike did they seem.
Late that afternoon, while Ted and his father were far up the inlet, and with the beach entirely deserted, they buried the false treasure-box in the sand by the old log. Phyllis did the deed, while Leslie scouted the beach in every direction, investigated every nook and corner that could possibly conceal any one, and made absolutely certain that they were not observed. And from that time on they had awaited results.
And to their certain knowledge, there had been none. Each day, at some hour when there was least likelihood of any one being near, they had examined the place, only to find the buried bag still in its hiding-place, untouched. At night they had taken turns keeping watch, all the night through; but no stealthy visitor had come to Curlew's Nest, nor had there been any during the day—of that they were absolutely certain. The beach had never seemed so free of visitors before.
And thus matters stood on the second afternoon, and they were beginning to be impatient at inaction and delay. Then Phyllis had an idea.
"I know what's the matter!" she cried. "We're keeping too close a watch. We don't give anybody a chance to come within gunshot of that place, unobserved, so how can we expect that anything is going to happen? If it's Ted, don't you suppose he sees us hanging about here all the time? He'd be a goose to try anything right in front of our eyes. No doubt he's seen one or the other of us at the window all night, too. And if it's Eileen or any one else, it's the same thing. Let's go off somewhere and give them a chance. Not too far though, for we want to be where we can get back with reasonable speed ourselves."
So they went for a stroll along the beach, accompanied by Rags, who was only too delighted at the prospect of an expedition that promised some change. It was a mild, hazy October afternoon. An opalescent mist lay along the horizon and the waves rolled in lazily, too lazily to break with their accustomed crash. Every little while there would be a flight of wild geese, in V-shaped flying line, far overhead, and their honking would float down faintly as they pushed on in their southward course. It was a golden afternoon, and Leslie almost resented the fact that they had any worries or problems on their minds.
"Why, who in the world is that?" exclaimed Phyllis, suddenly, as they rounded a slight curve in the beach and came in sight of a figure standing at the water's edge, a rod and long line in his hand, and a camp-stool and fishing-kit beside him. "There hasn't been a stranger fishing in this region in an age! People generally go down by the big bungalow colony three miles farther along for that. We almost never see any one here. I wonder what it means!"
As they came nearer, they could see more plainly what sort of person he appeared to be. He was tall and stalwart and gray-haired. A slouch hat was pulled down to shade his eyes, but still they could see that his face was alert and kindly and placid, with twinkling gray eyes and a whimsical mouth. He was obviously an adept fisherman, as Phyllis remarked, when they had witnessed the clever way in which he managed a catch. They were very near him by that time, and watching breathlessly. Once his prey almost eluded him, but with a skilful manipulation of his tackle, he presently brought the big fellow, lashing wildly, to land, well out of reach of the water.
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed, winding up his line, "but that fellow gave me a warm ten minutes!"
The girls had by this time reached the spot and were admiring the catch.
"Congratulations!" laughed Phyllis, with the informal interest of the born fisherman. "I couldn't have done it myself, not after he had almost escaped. He must weigh five pounds!"
The stranger looked at them with interest. "So you fish? Well, it's the best sport in the world. This bouncer has been dodging me all the afternoon, and I vowed I'd get him before I left. Almost had him once before, but he got away with the bait. Wouldn't let me alone, though, even after that. I warned him he was flirting with his fate!" And he laughed a big, booming, pleasant laugh.
At this moment Rags, who had been elsewhere occupied, came bounding up, and straightway made a bee-line over to investigate the fish.
"Hi! Stop that!" exclaimed the stranger. "I intend to have that fish for my supper to-night!" and he made a dash for his cherished trophy. But Rags, disconcerted by the sudden movement, was on his guard at once. As the man approached, he sank his teeth into the fish with a growl that was a warning not to be ignored.
"Oh, call him off!" cried the man, anxiously, and Leslie, very much upset, sprang forward to rescue the stranger's dinner. But Rags saw a chance for a lark; and as times had been rather slow and uninteresting for him of late, he determined to make the most of it. Seizing the fish in a firm grip, he galloped madly up the beach, the two girls wildly pursuing.
There ensued a chase very similar to the one he had led them on that eventful day when he had unearthed the Dragon's Secret. Never once did he allow them to lay a finger on his prize, though, panting and disgusted, they pursued him hither and yon, sometimes so close that he was well within their reach, sometimes with him far in advance. Occasionally he would lie down with the fish between his paws, fairly inviting them to come and help themselves. Which they had no sooner attempted, than he was up and away again.
The man wisely took no part in the struggle, but stood looking on, encouraging them with half-rueful, half-laughing remarks. At length Leslie had an inspiration. While Rags was standing at the edge of the water, panting from a long and furious run, the fish reposing at his feet, she seized a small board lying near, called to him beguilingly and hurled the board out into the sea.
Here was a game that was even more fascinating. Rags always adored it. Forsaking the much-sought fish, he leaped into the lazy waves and swam out toward his new prize, while the stranger eagerly seized the fish and concealed it in his basket.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" apologized Leslie. "I know he has spoiled it now. I hope you can forgive us for this dreadful thing."
"Nothing of the sort!" laughed the stranger. "He hasn't harmed it a bit, for it was only the head he had hold of. When it's washed and cooked, that beauty will taste just as good as if it had never had the adventure. My, but that's a fearsome animal of yours! I wouldn't want to tackle him. But those English sheep-dogs are noted for being wonderful protectors and very interesting pets besides."
And just to show that he bore Rags no malice, he picked up the board which the dog had retrieved, and obligingly hurled it into the surf again. Rags ecstatically pursued it once more, dropped it at the man's feet, and begged for another opportunity. But just before it was launched a third time, he spied a hermit-crab scuttling away almost under his nose, forsook his latest diversion, and was off on another hunt.
The man laughed, dropped the wet, sandy board, dusted off his hands by striking them together, picked up his fishing-kit, hung his camp-stool over his arm, bade the girls good afternoon, and strode away.
They gazed after him a moment and were about to turn back toward their own part of the beach, when Leslie suddenly seized Phyllis's arm in a vice-like grip.
"Phyllis, Phyllis, don't think me crazy! Something has just come to me. The way that man threw the board just now and dusted off his hands and then walked away—was just—exactly like—the man with the limp that morning at dawn! The action was identical. I'm positive I'm not mistaken. And he looks just like him, the same height and build and all, as he walked away."
"But, my dear child, he doesn't limp!" cried Phyllis, conclusively. "So you certainly are mistaken!"
"I know he doesn't, but I—don't care. He's the same one. I am absolutely sure of it. Maybe he's all over the limp now."
But though Leslie was so certain, Phyllis remained unconvinced!
OUT OF THE HURRICANE
With the fickleness of October weather (which is often as freakish as that of April), the golden afternoon had turned cloudy and raw before the girls returned home. By nightfall it was raining, and a rising, gusty wind had ruffled the ocean into lumpy, foam-crested waves. At seven o'clock the wind had increased to a heavy gale and was steadily growing stronger. The threatened storm, as usual, filled Miss Marcia with nervous forebodings, and even Leslie experienced some uncomfortable apprehensions during their supper hour.
At eight o'clock, Phyllis arrived, escorted by Ted. "My!" she exclaimed, shaking the raindrops from her clothes as she stood on the porch, "but this is going to be a night! Father says the papers have warnings that we should probably get the tail-end of a West Indian hurricane that was headed this way, and I guess it has come! It's getting worse every minute. Have you seen how the tide is rising? Get on your things and come down to the beach. Ted brought me, because I could hardly stand up against the wind. He's going back presently. Come and see how the water is rising!"
"Oh, hush!" implored Leslie, glancing nervously toward her aunt. "You've no idea how upset Aunt Marcia is already," she whispered. "She'll be distracted if she gets an idea there's any danger."
"Forgive me!" returned Phyllis, contritely. "I really didn't think, for a moment. Father says there probably isn't any real danger. The tide has almost never risen as far as these bungalows, except in winter; and if the worst comes to the worst, we can always get out of them and walk away. But this threatens to be the worst storm of the kind we've had in years. Are you coming down to see the water?"
"If Aunt Marcia doesn't mind. But if she's afraid to be left alone, I won't."
"Oh, Ted will be here, and we'll just run down for a minute or two. It's really a great sight!"
Ted very thoughtfully offered to stay, and the two girls, wrapped to the eyes, pushed through the blinding rain and wind down to where the breakers were pounding their way up the beach, spreading, when they broke, farther and farther inland. So terrific was the impact of the wind, that the girls had to turn their backs to it when they wanted to speak.
"I brought you out here, as much as anything, because I had something to say," shouted Phyllis, her voice scarcely audible to the girl close beside her. "If the tide keeps on like this, it will probably wash away what we've hidden by the old log. And probably others who are concerned with that may be thinking of the same thing. We've got to keep a close watch. I believe things are going to happen to-night!"
"But don't you think we'd better dig it up ourselves, right away?" suggested Leslie. "We can't very well go out to do it later when it may be necessary, and surely you want to save it."
"Certainly not!" declared Phyllis. "I don't care if it is washed away. What I want is the fun of seeing the other parties breaking their necks to rescue it. If it's washed away they'll think the real article has disappeared, and then we'll see what next! Let's take one more look at the surf and then go back."
They peered out for a moment into the awe-inspiring blackness where an angry ocean was eating into the beach. Then, battling back against the wind, they returned to the house. Ted, having ascertained that there was no further service he could render, suggested that he had better go back and help his father stop a leak in the roof of Fisherman's Luck, which had suddenly proved unseaworthy.
"I'm so glad Phyllis will be with us to-night," Miss Marcia told him, "for I'm very little company for Leslie at a time like this. I get so nervous that I have to take a sedative the doctor has given me for emergencies, and that generally puts me pretty soundly to sleep."
They sat about the open fire after Ted had gone, listening to the commotion of the elements outside and talking fitfully. Every few moments Miss Marcia would rise, go to the window, and peer out nervously into the darkness. Once the telephone-bell rang and every one jumped. Leslie hurried to answer it.
"Oh, it's Aunt Sally Blake!" she exclaimed. "She wants to know how we all are and if we happen to have seen anything of Eileen. She was at the hospital all the afternoon, but she hasn't returned. Aunt Sally 'phoned the hospital, but they said Miss Ramsay had left three hours ago. She's terribly worried about her—thinks she may have had an accident in this storm. She thought it just possible Eileen might have come on out here. I said no, but would call her up later and see if she'd had news."
This latest turn of affairs added in no wise to Miss Marcia's peace of mind. "Why don't you take your powder now, Aunt Marcia, and go to bed," Leslie suggested at last. "It's only worrying you to sit up and watch this. There's no danger, and you might as well go peacefully to sleep and forget it. Phyllis and I will stay up quite a while yet, and if there's any reason for it, we will wake you."
Miss Marcia herself thought well of the plan and was soon in bed, and, having taken her sleeping-powder, the good lady was shortly fast and dreamlessly asleep, much to the relief of the girls.
"And now let's go into your room and watch," whispered Phyllis. "I'm just as certain as I can be that something is going to happen to-night!"
They arranged themselves, each at a window, Phyllis at the one toward the sea; Leslie facing Curlew's Nest, and began an exciting vigil. With the electric light switched off, it was so black, both inside and out, that it would have been difficult to distinguish anything, but with the windows shut and encrusted with wind-blown sand, it was utterly impossible. And when they dared to open them even a crack, the rain poured in and drenched them. They could do this only at intervals. Even Rags seemed to share the general uneasiness, and could find no comfortable spot in which to dispose himself, but kept hovering between the two windows continually.
It was Leslie who suddenly spoke in a hushed whisper. She had just opened her window the merest crack and peeped out, then closed it again without sound. "Phyllis, come here a moment. Look out when I open the window. It struck me that I saw something—some dark shape—slip around the corner of the house next door. See if you can see it."
Phyllis applied her eye to the crack when the window was opened. Then she drew her head back with a jerk. "I certainly did see something!" she whispered excitedly. "It slipped back to the other side of the bungalow!" She peered out again. "Good gracious! I see it again—or else it's another one. Doesn't seem quite like the first figure. Can there possibly be two?"
Leslie then, becoming impatient, demanded a turn at the peep-hole, and while she was straining her gaze into the darkness, they were both electrified by a light, timid knock at the door of the front veranda.
"Who can that be?" cried Leslie, wide-eyed and trembling.
"Perhaps it's Ted come back," ventured Phyllis. "At any rate, I suppose we'll have to go and see!"
Rags, alert also, uttered a low growl, and Leslie silenced him anxiously. "If this arouses Aunt Marcia,"—she whispered, "I shall be awfully worried. Be quiet, Rags!"
They tiptoed into the living-room, switched on the light, and advanced to the door. Again the knock came, light but insistent; and without further hesitation, Leslie threw the door open.
A muffled, dripping figure inquired timidly, "Please may I come in? I'm dripping wet and chilled to the bone."
"Why, Eileen!" cried Leslie, "what are you doing here in this terrible storm?"
"I got lost on the way back from the hospital," half sobbed the new-comer, "and I must have motored round and round in the rain and dark. And at last something went wrong with the engine, and I got out and left the car on the road—and I walked and walked—trying to find some place to stay—and at last I found I was right near here—so I came in!" She seemed exhausted and half hysterical and Leslie could not but believe her.
"Well, I'm so glad you're found and here!" she cried. "I must call up Aunt Sally right away and tell her you're all right. She called a while ago and was so anxious about you."
Leslie went to the telephone, while Phyllis helped Eileen to rid herself of her wet clothes and get into something dry. Then they all sat down by the fire in an uneasy silence. Presently Phyllis suggested that Eileen might like something warm to eat and drink, as she had evidently had no dinner. She assented to this eagerly, and the two girls went to the kitchen to provide something for her.
"I tell you," whispered Phyllis, "I just can't believe that hospital and getting-lost stuff! She came out here for some purpose, you mark my word! But why she wants to get in here is beyond me just yet. I'll find out later, though, you see if I don't!"
When they entered the living-room with a dainty tray a few minutes later, they found Eileen standing by one of the windows facing the ocean, trying vainly to peer into the outer blackness. She started guiltily when she saw them and retreated to the fire, murmuring something about "the awful night." But though she had seemed so eager for food, she ate almost nothing.
"Can't you take a little of this hot soup?" urged Leslie. "It will do you so much good. You must be very hungry by now."
"Oh, thanks, so much!" Eileen replied, with a grateful glance. "You are very good to me. I did really think I was hungry, at first, but I'm so nervous I just can't eat!"
She pushed the tray aside and began to roam restlessly about the room. At every decent excuse, such as an extra heavy gust of wind or a flapping of the shutters, she would hurry to the window and try to peer out.
At length Phyllis made an excuse to disappear into Leslie's room and was gone quite a time. Suddenly she put her head out of the door into the living-room and remarked, in a voice full of suppressed excitement: "Leslie, can you come here a moment?"
Leslie excused herself and ran to join Phyllis. "What is it?" she whispered breathlessly.
"Look out of the front window!" returned Phyllis, in a hushed undertone. "There's something queer going on outside—by the old log!"
Leslie opened the window a crack. The howl of the storm and the lash of rain was appalling, and it was two or three minutes before she could accustom her sight to the outer blackness. But when she did manage to distinguish something, she was startled to observe not only one, but two dark figures circling slowly round and round the log, like two animals after the same prey, and watching each other cautiously.
"But that's not all!" muttered Phyllis, behind her. "There's a third figure standing in the shadow right by Curlew's Nest. I saw him out of the side window. What on earth can it all mean?"
So absorbed were they that neither of them noticed the form that slipped into the room behind them and stood peering over their shoulders. But they were suddenly startled beyond words to hear Eileen, close behind them, catch her breath with an indrawn hiss, and mutter involuntarily:
"Oh, Ted!—Be careful!—Look out!—Look out!—"
RAGS TO THE RESCUE
Phyllis whirled about. "What is the matter? Why do you say that?" she demanded in a fierce whisper.
Eileen shrank back, evidently appalled by what she had unconsciously revealed. "I—I—didn't mean anything!" she stammered.
"You certainly did!" Phyllis declared. "You said something about 'Ted.' Who is 'Ted,' and what is going on outside there?"
"Oh, I don't know!—I'm not—sure! I'm dreadfully nervous—that's all."
"Look here!" cried Phyllis, with stern determination, "I believe you know a great deal more than you will acknowledge. You've said something about 'Ted.' Now, I have a brother Ted, and I've reason to think he has been mixed up with some of your affairs. I wish you would kindly explain it all. I think there's some trouble—out there!"
"Oh, I can't—I oughtn't," Eileen moaned; when suddenly Leslie, who had glanced again out of the window, uttered a half-suppressed cry:
"Oh, there is something wrong! They're—they're struggling together—for something!"
Both of the other girls rushed to the window and peered out over her shoulder. There was indeed something decidedly exciting going on. The two figures who had been circling about the old log, watching each other like a couple of wild animals, were now wrestling together in a fierce encounter. How it had come about, the girls did not know, as none of them had been looking out when it began. But it was plainly a struggle for the possession of something that one of them had clutched tightly in his hand. Vaguely they could see it, dangling about, as the contest went on. And each, in her secret heart, knew it to be the burlap bag—and its contents!
"Eileen!" cried Phyllis, turning sharply upon the other girl, "is one of those two—my brother Ted? Answer me—truthfully."
"Yes—oh, yes!" panted Eileen.
"And is he in—danger?" persisted Phyllis.
"Oh—I'm afraid so!"
"Then I'm going out to help him!" declared Phyllis, courageously. "Come, Leslie—and bring Rags!"
Leslie never afterward knew how it happened—that she, a naturally timid person, should have walked out of that house, unhesitatingly and unquestioningly, to do battle with some unknown enemy in the storm and the dark. If she had had any time to think about it, she might have faltered. But Phyllis gave her no time. With Rags at their heels, they snatched up some wraps and all suddenly burst out of the front door onto the veranda, Phyllis having stopped only long enough to take up her electric torch from the living-room table. She switched this on in the darkness, and, guided by its light, they plunged into the storm.
The force of the wind almost took their breath away. And as they plowed along, Leslie was horrified to notice that the tide had crept almost up to the level of the old log and was within sixty feet of the bungalow. "Oh, what shall we do if it comes much higher!" she moaned to herself. But from that moment on, she had little time for such considerations.
Phyllis had plunged ahead with the light, and the two other girls followed her in the shadow. Leslie was somewhat hampered in her advance, as she was holding Rags by his collar and he strongly objected to the restraint. But she dared not let him loose just then.
Suddenly they were plunged in utter darkness. Phyllis's torch had given out! And the two others, reaching her side at that instant, heard her gasp, "Oh, dreadful! Can anything be the matter with this battery?" But after a moment's manipulation the light flashed on again. It was in this instant that they saw the face of Ted, lying on the ground and staring up at them while his assailant held him firmly pinned beneath him in an iron grip.
"Help!" shrieked Ted, above the roar of the wind. "Let Rags loose!"
They needed no other signal. Leslie released her hold on the impatient animal, and with a snarl that was almost unnerving, he darted, straight as an arrow, for Ted's assailant.
The girls never knew the whole history of that encounter. They only realized that Ted finally emerged from a whirling medley of legs and arms, limping but triumphant, and strove to loosen the dog's grip on a man who was begging to be released.
"That'll do, Rags, old boy! You've done the trick! Good old fellow! Now you can let go!" he shouted at the dog, trying to persuade him to loosen his hold. But Rags was obdurate. He could see no point in giving up the struggle at this interesting juncture.
"Call him off!" Ted shouted to the girls, "I can't make him let go!"
"Is it safe?" cried Phyllis, in answer.
"We'll have to take a chance!" he answered. "He's half killing this fellow!"
With beating heart Leslie came into the range of the light, grasped Rags by the collar and pulled at him with all her might. "Come Rags! Let go! It's all right!"
The dog gave way reluctantly. And when he had at length loosed his terrible grip and was safely in Leslie's custody, the man scrambled to his feet, rose, held on to his arm with his other hand, and groaned.
And, despite his disheveled condition and his drenched appearance, in the glare of the electric torch the girls recognized him, with a start of amazement. It was the fisherman of the afternoon—the man with the former limp!
He turned immediately on Ted with an angry, impatient gesture. "Well, the other fellow got it—after all! I don't know what business you had in this concern, but you spoiled the trick for me—and didn't do yourself any good! And if that dog gives me hydrophobia, I'll sue the whole outfit of you! He beat it off in that direction—the other fellow. I saw that much. I can't lose any time, though what I need is a doctor."
And with another angry snort, he disappeared into the darkness and the hurricane.
It was an amazed, bewildered, and sheepish group that faced each other in the light of the electric torch after the departure of the unknown man. Phyllis was the first to recover self-possession.
"Well, we might as well go indoors," she remarked, in her decided way. "There's evidently nothing to be gained by staying out here in the storm!"
The others, still too benumbed in mind to have any initiative of their own, followed her obediently. Only when they were at the door did Leslie arouse to the immediate urgencies.
"Do please be very quiet and not wake Aunt Marcia!" she begged. "I'm afraid the effect on her would be very bad if she were to realize all that has happened here."
They entered the bungalow on tiptoe, removed their drenched wraps, and sank down in the nearest chairs by the dying fire.
"And now," remarked Phyllis, constituting herself spokesman, as she threw on a fresh log and some smaller sticks, "we'd be awfully obliged to you, Ted and Eileen, if you'll kindly explain what this mystery is all about!"
"I don't see why under the sun you had to come butting into it!" muttered Ted, resentfully, nursing some bruises he had sustained in the recent fray.
"Please remember," retorted Phyllis, "that if I hadn't come butting into it—and Leslie and Rags,—you'd probably be very much the worse for wear at this moment!"
"That's so! Forgive me, old girl! You did do a fine piece of work—all of you. I'm just sore because the thing turned out so—badly. But what I really meant was that I can't see how you got mixed up in it at all—from the very beginning, I mean."
"That's precisely what we think about you!" laughed Phyllis. "We've felt all along as if it were our affair and that you were interfering. So I think we'd better have explanations all around!"
"Well, as a matter of fact, it's Eileen's affair, most of all, so I think she'd better do her explaining first," Ted offered as a solution of the tangle.
They all looked toward Eileen, sitting cowered over the fire, and she answered their look with a startled gaze of her own.
"I—I don't know whether I ought!" she faltered, turning to Ted. "Do you think I ought?"
"I guess you'd better!" he declared. "It's got to a point where these folks seem to have some inside information of their own that perhaps might be valuable to you. How they got it, I can't think. At any rate, there'll be no harm done by it, I can vouch for that. So—just fire away!"
Thus adjured, Eileen drew a long breath and said hesitantly:
"I—I really don't know just where to begin. A lot of it is just as much a mystery to me as it is to you. I think you all have heard that I have a grandfather who is very ill, in a hospital over in Branchville. He is the Honorable Arthur Ramsay, of Norwich, England. He has been for many years a traveler and explorer in China and India and Tibet. Early this year he had a severe attack of Indian fever and could not seem to recuperate, so he started for England, coming by way of the Pacific and America. When he got to the Atlantic coast, this last summer, some one recommended that he should try staying a few weeks at this beach; so he took a bungalow and spent part of the summer and autumn here, and thought he was much benefited."
"Do excuse me for interrupting!" exclaimed Phyllis; "but was the bungalow he rented Curlew's Nest?"
"Why, yes," hesitated Eileen, with a startled glance at her "it—it was."
"Then, do you mind telling me how it was that the name was so different?" persisted Phyllis. "Mrs. Danforth understood that she rented it to a Mr. Horatio Gaines."
"Oh, that was because Grandfather didn't want it in his own name, because, you see, he's a rather well-known person in England and even over here, and he needed a complete rest, with no danger of having to be interviewed or called upon or anything like that. So he had his man, Geoffrey Horatio Gaines, hire the place, and transact all the business here in his name. It saved Grandfather a lot of trouble, for Geoffrey simply took charge of everything; and as Grandfather never went among people here, no one was the wiser.
"After he left the cottage, he expected to go to New York and remain there till he sailed for home. And he did go there for a few days, but his health at once grew worse, so he returned to the beach. Of course, the bungalow was closed by that time, so he took rooms at the hotel, farther along. It was there that I joined him. I had come over here with friends of Mother's, earlier in the summer, and had been visiting at their summer camp in the Adirondacks until I should join Grandfather and return to England with him.
"I hadn't been with him more than two or three days when I realized that something had gone awfully wrong, somehow or other. Grandfather was worried and upset about something, and he began to watch his mail and be anxious to avoid meeting any one. He couldn't or wouldn't explain things to me, but had long interviews with his man, Geoffrey, who has been with him for years and years and whom he trusts completely.
"At last, one awfully stormy night, about two weeks ago, Geoffrey disappeared, and has never been seen or heard of since. We can't imagine what has become of him. And the next day Grandfather was so worried about him and the other troubles that a cold he had ran into a severe attack of pneumonia. Of course, it wasn't feasible for him to remain at the hotel, especially as it was soon to close, so he had himself taken to the nearest good hospital, which happened to be this one at Branchville. Since he didn't have Geoffrey to wait on him, he wanted to be where he could have the best attention and nursing, and as I could run his car, which Geoffrey had always done, I could get easily there to see him. Then, as you probably know, the hotel closed for the season, and the manager very kindly found me a place to stay—with Aunt Sally Blake—in the village. She has been very good and kind to me, but I expect I've worried her a lot, not because I didn't care, but because I couldn't help it and I couldn't tell her about—things!
"But, oh! I have been so troubled—so fairly desperate, at times! You cannot even guess the awful burden I've had to bear—and all alone,—at least till I came quite by accident to know your brother Ted. He has helped me so much—but that is another part of the story!
"One night Grandfather's fever was very high and he was delirious. I begged his nurse to let me sit with him awhile, and I heard him constantly muttering about the bungalow, and Geoffrey hiding something there, and it being safe at Curlew's Nest, and a lot more half-incoherent remarks of that kind. Next morning he was a little better and in his right mind again, so I asked him what he had meant by the things he had talked about the night before. And then he said:
"'Eileen, I'll have to trust you with some of the secret, I believe, since you've overheard what you have. Perhaps you may even be able to help, and of course I can trust you to keep your own counsel—absolutely. There's been a very mysterious mix-up here, and it involves far more than you may imagine. In fact, it might even become an affair of international moment—if something is not found, and quickly too. The gist of the matter is this: while I was in China last year, I had some informal correspondence with an official very high in government circles there, concerning his attitude in regard to the province of Shantung. As he was inclined to be very friendly toward me at the time he was just a little expansive and indiscreet (I think those were Grandfather's words) in regard to his Government's plans. Later, I think, he regretted this, and made some half-joking overtures to have his letters returned. But I pretended not to understand him and the matter was dropped. As a matter of fact, I thought them too suggestive and important to my own Government to part with them!'
"It is these letters that are the heart of the whole trouble, Grandfather says. He heard nothing more about them till he came to stay at the hotel here. Then he received a very threatening letter, declaring that if this packet was not returned to the writer, serious consequences would result. It didn't say what consequences, but Grandfather suspected they might even go as far as an attempt on his life. But he was determined not to give up the letters. You see, they concerned a matter that might involve his own country with China, and he felt they should be delivered to his own Government. Beside that, he is just stubborn enough not to be bullied into anything by threats.
"His man Geoffrey tried to persuade him to put the letters in a safe-deposit vault in New York, but Grandfather says he is old-fashioned in some things and doesn't trust even to safe-deposit boxes—says he prefers to keep things he values in his own possession. He had the letters in a queer little bronze box that was given him, years ago, by the late Empress Dowager of China. It had a secret lock that was quite impossible to open unless one knew the trick. He carried this in his pocket, and slept with it under his pillow at night, and felt perfectly safe about it."
Here Eileen paused a moment for breath, and the two other girls glanced at each other guiltily, but they said nothing. Then Eileen went on:
"One night, just after I came, there was an attempt to rob him at the hotel. The attempt failed because Geoffrey happened to be awake and discovered some one prowling about Grandfather's sitting-room. Whoever it was escaped through the window without even his face being seen, and there was no trace of him later. Grandfather made Geoffrey keep the thing quiet and not report it to the hotel, because he didn't want any publicity about the matter. But he decided then that it would be safer to have the thing hidden somewhere for a time—in some place where no one would dream of hunting for it. And it struck him that down at the bungalow where he had spent those quiet weeks, and which he supposed was all shut up and deserted, would be as unlikely a spot as any to be suspected of hiding such a thing. He supposed that the one next door—this one—was closed also, or I do not think he would have considered that hiding-place.
"So the next night, which happened to be one when there was a very hard storm, he sent Geoffrey down to the bungalow with the little box containing the letters. He did not wish him to take the car, as it might be too conspicuous, but had him go on foot. Geoffrey had found out, during the summer, that one could get into that place through a door at the side by working at the hook through the crack with a knife-blade, and he intended to get into the cottage and conceal the box in some out-of-the-way hiding-place there.
"But here is where the mystery begins. Geoffrey set off that night, but has never been seen or heard of since. What has happened to him, we cannot imagine, unless he was caught and taken a prisoner by some one concerned in getting those letters. If he had been killed, we would surely know it. Yet if he were alive, it seems as if we should have heard from him, somehow. He was a most devoted and faithful and trustworthy soul, so we are sure that something must have happened to him—that he is being detained somewhere. Grandfather is quite certain that he is guarding the secret of that box, somehow, and that it would be best to wait till he comes back or sends us some word.
"What Grandfather asked me to do was to run out here in the car some day, and, if there was no one about, to scout around and see if I could discover any clue to the mystery, without attracting attention. He supposed, of course, that the beach was by that time entirely deserted. I came out the very next day, but found to my disgust that the cottage next door was occupied—by you, as I now know! But I felt it would not be wise to be seen about here in the daytime, so, without saying anything to Grandfather (who would be awfully upset if he knew it), I determined to run out about ten o'clock that night and scout around when you people would probably be in bed.
"And here is where Ted comes into it! I got here that night as I had planned, found no one about, and tried the experiment of getting into the side door, as Grandfather had explained, but I found it very difficult; in fact, quite impossible—for me! And while I was fussing with it, I was suddenly startled by a low voice, right behind me, inquiring very politely what I was trying to do! It was Ted, here, who had been out for a stroll, and happening to catch a glimpse of me at this very peculiar occupation, and naturally thinking I was a burglar, had come up unobserved to find out about it!
"You can just imagine what an awful position it was for me! I did not know what to say or what to do. I know that, legally, I had no business there, and if he were inclined to make a fuss about it, he could have me arrested. I literally almost went out of my mind at that moment. But I guess something must have made him feel that I wasn't really a 'lady burglar' or anything of that sort, for he just said, very kindly, 'If you are in trouble, perhaps I can help you!'
"I didn't see how he could possibly help me unless he knew the whole story, and I thought I ought not tell any one that! But unless I did, I was certainly in a very terrible position. So I suddenly made up my mind it would have to be done, for something made me feel he was honorable and trustworthy, and that the secret would be safe with him. What made me feel all the more sure was that he mentioned that he was staying up the beach at his father's bungalow, and had happened to be out for a walk and had seen me there. I know he said it to make me feel easier, and that everything was all right.
"So I told him as much as I could of the story. And when he had heard it, he said: 'I happen to know all about opening that door, because I know the people who own the cottage very well. Perhaps you had better let me try.' I said I'd be only too glad to, and he had the door unfastened in a moment. Then he told me to go in and examine the place all I wished to and he would watch outside. If I needed any help, I could call and he would come in and do what he could for me.
"Well, I went in and examined the whole place with my electric torch, but I could not discover a single thing except that one of the bricks in the fireplace had been partly loosened and a broken knife-blade was in the corner of the chimney-place. It was the only thing I could see to show that possibly Geoffrey had been there. I thought the knife-blade looked like one I had seen him use.
"But as I didn't see a sign of the bronze box, I knew it was useless to stay any longer, so I came out. Ted fastened the door again, went with me to the car, which I had left down the road, and offered to give me any further help he could, at any time. He promised to keep the secret from every one, and said that he would make an even more thorough search over Curlew's Nest, if I wished, because he had much better opportunity to do so. Of course, I agreed to that and went on back to Aunt Sally's.
"Two days later, Ted saw my car going along one of the back roads near the village, signaled to me, and told me that, the day before, he had caught you girls coming out of Curlew's Nest and that you acted rather guilty and refused to explain what you had been in there for. He told me that you might possibly suspect something, and to steer clear of you if we should happen to encounter each other, as it is always likely that people will, in this town. He described what you both looked like, so that I couldn't fail to know you.
"And, sure enough, I met you both that very morning, in Mrs. Selby's little store, and I expect you think I acted in a perfectly abominable manner. I just hated to do it, for I liked the looks of you both, but I felt I must take no chances. Ted also told me that he had been in Curlew's Nest the night before and had gone over the place very carefully once more, but had found nothing except a string of beads that had been torn from the fringe of my girdle that other night, and had been lying on the floor. I remember that the girdle caught when I was looking under one of the bureaus. He also gave me the broken penknife-blade to keep, as he said it was best to leave nothing around there that any one else could discover and use as a clue.
"A day or two later I met you, Phyllis, at Aunt Sally's and she would insist on introducing us, though I could see you were no more anxious to make the acquaintance, after the way I'd acted, than I was. But I encountered Ted again that afternoon, and he said he had hunted me up to tell me he had news and also a plan that he wanted to suggest. He said he had noticed, during the last two or three days, a strange man who seemed to haunt the beach, just a short way off and out of sight of the two bungalows. The man seemed to be a very ardent fisherman,—and an expert one, too,—but Ted had noticed that he kept a very sharp lookout toward the bungalows when he thought no one was around to see. He suspected that perhaps this man had something to do with the mystery.
"The plan he suggested was that I get acquainted with you girls, after all, in some way that seemed the most natural, but without letting you know that I was also acquainted with him. And when I had done so, I had better offer to take you all out for a long drive in the car and keep you away a good while, and give him a chance to see what this man was up to—if anything.
"The getting acquainted was easy, and you all know how I managed that—and also the ride, a day or two later. When I was returning from the ride that night, at dusk, Ted signaled me from the bushes near Curlew's Nest, jumped into the car, and told me what had happened in the afternoon. He had gone off to the village first, then hurried back, slipped up here by way of the creek, and hidden himself in a clump of rushes across the road. Just as he had suspected, he saw his suspicious fisherman sneak up here after a while, scout around the outside of the bungalow, disappear into it for a time, by the side door, come out, apparently empty-handed, stare at the outside again for a long time, and then at your bungalow, and finally disappear. But that was not all.