Chapter XXI. Out of the Dark
 

It took the Outdoor Girls a moment or two to digest this rather startling information. And when it did finally seep into their consciousness, their first feeling was one of joy for the poor professor whose sons would be restored to him after all.

But quick on the heels of this thought came another. How could the sons be restored to their father, if the father were nowhere to be found?

"You say the old chap skipped out, decamped?" Will broke in on their meditations. "That sort of complicates matters, doesn't it?"

"Rather," agreed Roy, frowning. "It is going to be rather tough on those fellows, James and Arnold, to come home, expecting to be welcomed by a rejoicing parent, only to find said parent missing."

"Humph, that's the first time I've thought of the boys' side of it," said Betty. "We have been too much occupied right along in being sorry for the poor old professor."

"Well, if you had known the boys, you would have thought of their side of it all right," said Frank seriously, "They are mighty good scouts, both of them, and they think a lot of their old dad, too, I can tell you. Why, many a night"-- his voice took on a reminiscent note and the girls felt once again that they were privileged in having a brief glimpse of the life "over there"-- "when a surprise attack was scheduled for the next morning or we were waiting for some such manoeuvre from the enemy, Arnold would talk to me about his dad-- that was the time when fellows got chummy, you know, and got to know each other's souls-- and once he gave me a note for the old chap and asked me to deliver it if I came through and he didn't. I think I have it about me somewhere." He fumbled about in his pockets while the girls waited silently.

Presently he drew forth a little slip of paper, muddy and worn and dust-stained from being carried about for a long, long time in a khaki pocket.

"He told me," Frank went on, still holding the slip of paper in his hand but making no attempt to open it, "that his mother had died when he and Jimmy were young and that since then his dad had been father and mother both to them and that he had worked himself nearly to death to give them a chance for the college education that he had had. He said that the one thing that had always threatened to floor the old boy was when either he or Jim got mad and threatened to give up school and go to work so as to take some of the load from the old pater's shoulders. So they were glad, actually glad, when the war came along and gave them a chance not only to serve their country and earn some money-- even if it was only a miserable pittance-- so that they could send some home to their dad and feel that they had stopped being a drag upon him. He used to tell me," Frank went on, for the spell of those old thrilling times was strong upon him again, "with tears in his eyes-- and I'll tell you there was no braver man in all the American army than Arnold Dempsey; he was good for two Boches any day-- that it would be the happiest moment of his life when he got back to the old country and announced to his proud and admiring pater that he had come home to turn the tables; that Jimmy and he were going to make the old fellow take a rest and do the work themselves for a change. And he asked me, in case anything did happen to him and Jimmy, to be kind to his dad and try to make up to him as much as I could. I gave him my promise that night." Frank looked about the intent group of faces soberly, "In case the boys had been killed, I would have regarded it as a sacred trust."

Something swelled in the girls' hearts and for a moment they could not speak. Then,

"I guess we all love you for that, Frank," said Betty simply. With a little nod of her head toward the slip of paper he still held, she added: "What about that-- now?"

Frank looked down at the slip of paper for a moment uncomprehendingly, for his thoughts had been far away.

"Oh, the note," he said. "Why, that was only to be given to his father in case anything happened, you know. But now that the boys are coming back to him themselves, I suppose the thing is worthless." He made a motion as though to tear the note up, but Grace stopped him with a quick exclamation.

"Don't!" she cried, adding as they all looked at her in surprise: "Don't you suppose there might be something in it that would give us a clue to the professor's whereabouts now, perhaps? Don't you think it would be wise to look, at least?"

But Frank slowly shook his head.

"Arnold Dempsey's message, written to his dad when he thought he might never see him again, doesn't belong to us," he said decidedly. "The note was given in trust to me, and since I can't deliver it-- or at least, since there is now no reason for delivering it-- the only thing I can honorably do is this." And very slowly and very decidedly he tore the note into little bits and threw the pieces among the wild roses at the side of the porch.

It was the first real glimpse the girls had had of the man who had come back in the old Frank's place, and with all their hearts they admired him.

Even Grace, who had seemed inclined to pout a little, could not but admit that the action was splendid in him.

"And now," said Will, "after all that, the boys will come back to find their dad gone, heaven knows where, dead perhaps----"

"Oh, I wonder if there isn't some way we can follow him and find out at least what has happened to him?" broke in Amy earnestly. "It seems dreadful just to sit back and not even try to help,"

"I don't see what we can do," said Will judicially, just as Mrs. Irving appeared in the doorway. "We will postpone the discussion for the present anyway," he added, in a different tone, rising with alacrity and dusting off his uniform. "Something tells me that lunch is waiting. Come, let us eat!"

So ended all serious discussion for that day, and the girls and boys gave themselves up to the delight of being together again. Only Betty's thoughts seemed to wander at times and she had to be brought back by sundry mischievous and significant remarks from the young folks.

Worn out with fun, the young soldiers slept like tops that night in their improvised beds and rose the next morning professing to feel like "two year olds" and ready for whatever new fun and adventure the day might bring them.

And for the first night since their arrival at Wild Rose Lodge the girls slept soundly without being bothered by the haunting fear of the "Thing"-- at least, so they said.

That day they wandered through the woods together, searching for some sign of their strange visitor, but found not a trace of anything unusual and alarming.

"I'm really beginning to believe that you girls have let your imaginations run away from you," Will remarked, when they sat about the living-room after a satisfying supper, just luxuriating in idleness.

"Or perhaps the gentleman has been frightened away by our coming," Roy suggested in a superior tone that made the girls want to throw something at him. "Perhaps he is afraid of the uniform of the U. S. A."

"He may be afraid of the uniform," sniffed Mollie scathingly. "But he certainly couldn't be afraid of you."

"Now you don't mean that, you know you don't," laughed Roy, drawing her down beside him on the couch and holding her there with an iron grip of his brown fingers. "Say you didn't, like a pretty little girl, and I'll let you go."

"I won't say any such----" Mollie began, then suddenly her gaze stiffened into such a stare of wonder, and even alarm, that it made the girls fairly hold their breath.

"Mollie, what is it?" demanded Roy commandingly.

"Over there!" she shrieked. "At the window, Roy! Do you see it?"