Chapter XXII. Tragedy
 

There, pressed so close to the pane of the window that the nose was flattened grotesquely, eyes wildly staring, hair disheveled, was a face that even in that tense moment the girls recognized-- the face of Professor Dempsey!

It took the boys perhaps a second to fling out of the room, jump down the steps of the porch and circle the house to the window.

And yet, in that second, the man was gone, leaving no more trace than if the earth had opened and swallowed him up. For almost an hour the boys searched the woods about the lodge, refusing to allow the girls to accompany them, saying truly that they would hamper them more than they could help.

"You see, I was right after all," Amy stated for at least the tenth time. "From the moment the idea came to me, I felt almost sure that poor crazy Professor Dempsey was this thing that was frightening us."

"But did you ever see such an awful face in all your life?" said Mollie, shuddering at the recollection.

"And the look in his eyes as he stared at Roy," Grace added in a hushed voice. "I shouldn't wonder if-- if we hadn't been there, he might have murdered him."

"Oh, Gracie, don't!" Amy clapped her hands to her ears. "We are frightened enough without having you say things like that."

"Suppose," said Mollie, in a sepulchral voice, "he should come back before the boys do?"

"That's just what I was thinking," said a quiet voice behind them, and they jumped and cried out in alarm. The next moment they saw it was Mrs. Irving and felt ashamed of themselves.

"I think you had all better come into the house till the boys come back," their chaperon continued. "I shall feel safer when we are behind locked doors."

The girls shivered, but Mollie protested.

"Suppose anything should happen to the boys?" she asked, but here Mrs. Irving chose to exercise her authority.

"We will talk about that when we are inside the house," she said very firmly, and Mollie had nothing else to do but obey.

The girls did breathe a little more freely when the door was locked, but they found themselves wishing even more ardently that the boys would come back.

The window against which the horribly distorted face had been pressed seemed to hold a peculiar fascination for the Outdoor Girls and they found themselves unable to turn their eyes away from it.

"Oh, I wish the boys would come back," moaned Amy, after a few moments more had passed in strained silence. "If anything should happen to them I'm sure I would die."

"Nonsense, Amy," snapped Mollie. "What could one little mad old man do to three big husky soldier boys?"

The words had hardly been spoken when the sound of voices could be heard coming toward the house, and a moment later the boys themselves stamped up on the porch.

"Not a sign of him," said Will in response to the girls' eager questions. "I don't see how he could have disappeared so completely in such a short time."

"We all took different directions, too," said Roy, taking a seat on the couch again and staring fascinatedly at the window. "If all the rest of you hadn't seen it too, I should certainly think I had been mistaken."

"You weren't mistaken," Mollie assured him grimly. "I can vouch for that."

"Didn't one of you girls call out something about Professor Dempsey?" asked Frank, abruptly.

"Yes," said Betty, going over to him, and putting an excited hand on his shoulder. "That's the thing that startled us so, Frank. We are sure it was Professor Dempsey's face. But, still, it was so wild and distorted that we really wouldn't feel like contradicting any one who told us it wasn't he," she added slowly. "Do you understand what I mean?"

Frank nodded, and Will broke in excitedly:

"But the poor old codger's looks would naturally be changed," he argued, "after he had spent all this time wandering around the woods-- out of his mind at that. I am inclined to think that the girls are right and that it is really Professor Dempsey."

"If only I could have gotten my hands on him!" mourned Roy. "We wouldn't have been in any further doubt."

"There is really no doubt, boys. We just want-- oh, I don't know what we want!" exclaimed Mollie, who was excited and unstrung and nervous.

Soon after that they all went to bed, having first decided to make a more thorough search of the woods in the morning and take the postponed trip to the head of the falls.

They slept fitfully and were glad when at last they woke to find the sun shining in their windows. For once Amy and Grace did not have to be coaxed or wheedled or forced to get out of bed, but dressed quickly and were ready almost as soon as Mollie and Betty.

"You know I rather hated to leave the boys in that room last night," Betty confided to Grace, stopping before the mirror for one final little pat of her hair. "I was afraid that-- he-- might come back----"

"Oh, Betty, what a horrid idea," said Grace. "Come on, let's see if everything is all right."

But they found that their fears had been wasted. The boys were in the kitchen hilariously helping Mrs. Irving get the breakfast to the accompaniment of continual good-natured scolding from that flushed and perspiring lady. It was Amy's day to get the breakfast, but, as usual, she was late in getting down.

"You make a good deal more trouble than you mend," Mrs. Irving was saying as the girls came to the door, then added relievedly as she caught sight of them: "For goodness' sake, get these young ruffians out of the kitchen, my dears, or we'll not have any breakfast until noon."

So amid much fun and nonsense the boys were shooed forth into the bright sunshine of the out-of-doors, and all the girls fell to to help their chaperon, not wanting to put the extra work the boys made entirely on Amy's shoulders.

Breakfast was good, but they ate hurriedly, anxious to get at the business of the day. They wanted more than they had wanted anything in a very long time to find Professor Dempsey and tell him the joyful news that his sons were alive.

"I'm horribly afraid of him at night," Mollie confided, as they started out at last, "but in the daytime I am only sorry for him."

"Do you think we shall find him, Will?" asked Amy, with a helpless little look into Will's self-reliant young face. "I do want to so much."

Will looked down at her with an expression that said to any one who would read it: "I would give you anything in the world you asked for, if I only could."

But all he really said was: "That remains to be seen. He proved himself a rather slippery customer last night, and the chase we put up may only serve to put him on his guard. Crazy people are tricky, you know."

"Goodness," said Grace, looking fearfully over her shoulder. "There is nothing in the world I am so afraid of as a crazy person."

"That's why she has always been so afraid of me, I suppose," grinned Mollie.

"Afraid of you," said Grace, her eyebrows raised in mock surprise. "Little shrimp-- who are you?"

There followed a characteristic scene that somewhat lifted the oppression they had all been feeling, and it was not till they had nearly reached the river at the head of the falls that they became serious again.

"It was right about here," said Betty soberly, "that we saw him the night that he started to jump into the river-- or I suppose it was the same one," she added.

"Let us hope so," said Mollie fervently. "I wouldn't like to think that there were two lunatics wandering round these woods. One is quite enough."

As they came closer to the river they became more and more conscious that they were not alone, that some one, hidden in the bushes, was craftily watching them.

So strong did this feeling finally become that once the boys separated, thrashing the bushes in all directions. They did not find anything, and finally continued along the path, a little ashamed of what they thought was an attack of nerves.

"Phew, this is getting a little hot for me," said Frank, running his hand through his shock of fair hair. "I don't mind fighting anything in the open--" He left the sentence unfinished, for at that moment they broke through the bushes at the river's edge upon a sight that struck them speechless.

Not twenty yards down the bank stood a ragged scarecrow of a man, so unkempt, so wild, so abandoned in its crouching attitude as to appear hardly human.

Before they had time to utter a word or move a muscle, the man threw up his arms in a gesture indescribably terrible, and with a hoarse shout disappeared in the swirling waters.

It all happened so quickly that for the space of a dazed second they wondered if they had really seen it at all. Then they recovered their powers of motion and rushed to the spot where the man had disappeared.

Though they leaned far out over the water they could see no sign of anything human, and with a creeping feeling of horror they began to speak of what had probably already happened.

"It's certain death down there," Roy muttered, as though to himself, gazing into the rushing river. "The poor old fellow! He has got his, I guess."

"Look here, fellows, here are some clothes," Will called out suddenly, and the boys rushed over to where he stood, a tattered old hat and an equally ragged coat in his hands. "Maybe there will be something in the jacket to tell us where the poor fellow has been staying and what he has been up to."

They searched through the coat and finally pulled out a wallet.

"Now if it only has some writing in it," said Mollie breathlessly.

There was a card, and the card bore the words which they expected, yet dreaded, Arnold Dempsey, Ph. D. But there was nothing else, and suddenly tears dimmed their eyes and they had to turn away.

"It will be mighty hard on Jimmy and Arnold," muttered Roy, gazing somberly at the fast-flowing river. "To have their dad go that way! They'll take it mighty hard-- those boys."