Chapter VI. Moonlight and Mystery
 

The moon made a rippling path of silver upon the water, a soft wind whispered drowsily through the trees, and far off in the depths of the woodland, an owl hooted plaintively. Ordinarily, the romantic paddle back to the island would have been filled with delight for the Outdoor Girls and their four boy friends, but tonight the profuse beauty all about them passed unnoticed.

Betty, sitting beside Allen in the bottom of the canoe, while Frank and Grace paddled, was very pale and silent. However, the others talked enough to make up for her silence.

"What do you suppose is in the letter?" said Mollie, for perhaps the hundredth time.

"How do you suppose we know?" responded Will, exasperated. "We can't very well read it until we get home; and then perhaps there won't be anything important in it. Gee, if we'd only gotten that fellow!"

"Well, it's of no use to cry over spilled milk," said Frank philosophically. "We were mighty lucky to get the letter. Allen's the only one that ought to kick--he got the rough end of the deal."

"Yes," said Betty fiercely; "and we ought to get that man for shooting him. The coward!"

Allen laughed softly, and put a hand over Betty's little clenched one.

"I don't suppose he meant to shoot me, especially," he said. "It was my fault for getting in the way of the bullet."

"Yes, that's a mighty bad habit to get into," remarked Roy dryly, "especially in these times, when we're more than likely to get a chance to exercise it."

"Ooh!" squealed Amy, giving a sudden splash with her paddle, that sent a geyser of spray all about her, causing several loud protests. "I wish you'd stop talking about such things. I'd like to stop shivering for about five minutes."

The girls giggled hysterically and felt more natural.

"Goodness," sighed Grace, after five minutes of silence, during which each had been busy with his or her own thoughts. "This paddle never seemed so long to me before."

"Thanks," said Frank. "May I ask whether you are referring to the company?"

"I wasn't even thinking of the company," retorted Grace ungraciously.

"Gee, we must be impressive," murmured Roy. "She doesn't even know we're around."

"Stop paddling, Frank," suggested Mollie maliciously, "and see how soon she'd know you weren't around."

Obediently Frank drew his paddle from the water, and Grace, who had only been making a pretense of doing her share, looked around indignantly.

"Well, you can't expect me to do it all," she said, and with a sigh of utter resignation, Frank resumed his work.

"Say, fellows," he said, "isn't that just like a girl?"

"What's that?" cried Amy suddenly, making them jump nervously.

"What?" queried Grace in a voice scarcely above a whisper, while the rest looked for an explanation from Amy to the shadowy woodland and back again.

"It--it was a noise," explained Amy, incoherently, "like a man moving, and I was sure--I--saw a--couple of eyes watching us--"

"For heaven's sake!" cried Allen, raising himself suddenly in the canoe, "put on more steam, you fellows! We've got to get the girls out of this. What do you say, Mrs. Irving?" turning to their chaperon, who had been a silent spectator until the moment.

"By all means," she said decisively. "We can face these mysteries better by daylight, and we've had enough excitement for one night."

So they all paddled hard while the girls' eyes remained fixed in half-fearful, half-hopeful expectation upon the shadowy shore. For these girls were outdoor girls, and adventure was the breath of life to them.

However, nothing else happened to disturb the calm of a perfect summer night, and a few minutes later they landed at the pier, and hastily fastened the canoes.

"Now for a light and the contents of that letter," cried Will, his eyes gleaming with anticipation. "We'll soon find out whether Mr. Adolph Hensler was a regular, honest-to-goodness spy, or just an impostor. How about it, Allen?" he went on, as the latter stumbled over a stone, and Will hooked an arm through his. "Feeling pretty much all in, are you?"

"A little unsteady on my pins, as our friend Captain Kidd would say," Allen replied, though his lips were set with the effort to walk steadily. "It's funny what a little scratch will do to a fellow."

"It wasn't such a little scratch, old man," said Will soberly. "If it had hit you more directly, you'd have been in for a pretty long siege. As it is, I'm afraid you'll have to lie low for a week or so. Here we are. Now, just a couple of steps, old fellow--"

Allen was, in truth, weaker than he thought, for each step seemed mountains high, and Frank had to grasp his other arm, before they finally made the floor of the porch, and succeeded in getting him across the threshold.

"Never mind," whispered Mollie, slipping a comforting arm about Betty's shoulders as they followed slowly. "He isn't hurt seriously, dear, and by to-morrow he'll be feeling all right again."

"I know," said Betty, a little catch in her breath. "It isn't so bad now, but I was just thinking what it would be like, if he were wounded on the battlefield, with no one to look after him--and--and--"

"Oh, Betty, we just mustn't think of things like that!" said Mollie, her voice quivering. "No matter how we feel, we've just got to keep on smiling for the boys' sake."

"I know," said Betty, straightening up with a pathetic little attempt at a smile. "We'll all have to say like the little boy that fell down and hurt himself, 'I'm not cryin'; I'm laughin'.' Yes, we're coming." This last was interpolated by way of encouragement to Frank, who had been sent back to look for them.

They found Allen propped up in a huge armchair before a fire, which had been hastily laid in the grate, looking rather pale and wan, but tremendously interested in the proceedings, nevertheless.

"Betty," he said pleadingly, stretching out a hand to her.

Without a word she went over to him, taking it in both her own.

"I don't want you to go out of my sight," he whispered, while the others thoughtfully looked the other way. "My shoulder doesn't ache when you're around," he added whimsically, knowing how clearly Betty saw through him; "but when you go away, the ache in it is--fiendish!"

"I won't go away," Betty promised, touching the bandaged shoulder gently.

"Never?" he queried eagerly, twisting around so he could see her face. "Is that a promise, Betty?"

"While your shoulder hurts," she added quickly, while the color, which did not come from the fire, flooded her face. "I--I hate to be cross with you when you're not feeling well," she added, trying to be severe, "but if you don't stop--looking at me--Allen . . . See, they're waiting to read the letter!"

"Does that mean I have to stop looking at you?" queried Allen, with a smile. "Oh, well, I'll not complain, if you'll only keep on holding my hand, Betty. I'd have a chronic bullet wound all the rest of my life--"

"Well, when the invalid and hero of the occasion is ready," Will broke in, his patience at an end, "we should be pleased to read a document, which probably will seem dull and uninteresting to him beside what he has to say--"

"Oh, Will, please don't talk so much," cried Grace. "If you don't hurry I'll be so sleepy it wouldn't bother me if Adolph Hensler turned out to be the Kaiser himself."

"Yes, speed up, old man," Roy added. "Expectation may be better than realization, but I don't believe it."

"Well," said Will, opening the letter which had not been sealed, with exasperating deliberation, "we shall see--what we shall see."

He leaned forward, regarding the paper closely in the yellow lamplight, while the others crowded eagerly about him.

"Well--what-do-you-know-about-that!" he said slowly, pushing the paper from him disgustedly. "All in code--and a code that will need an ex-pert to figure it out. Gee, that's a mean trick, that is!"

Frank picked up the paper and pored over it for a moment, while the rest watched him anxiously.

"Yes, that's a stiff one," he said at last. "I guess there's no use in our wasting time over it."

"It proves one thing anyway," put in Allen, from his corner. "The paper is important, and our friend to-night is undoubtedly what we thought he was."

"Much good that does us," said Will, morosely folding the paper and stuffing it carefully into his pocket. "Of course, it's better than nothing, and we'll get it into official hands just as soon as we can; but we certainly ought to have caught that rascal."

"Say!" exclaimed Roy suddenly, his eyes gleaming with the light of adventure, "maybe it isn't too late yet. Unless Adolph, the spy, had a boat or swam to the nearest island, which is more than a mile away, he's still on this island somewhere. We've got our good old trusties over in the big tent, and there's a bare chance we might be able to round him up."

"No, you don't!" said Grace decidedly, while all the girls looked startled. "You're going to use your guns to keep that man away from here. Do you suppose we're going to lie awake all night listening for shots?"

"Oh, all right," said Roy, "I'm properly squelched."

"Let's go to bed," yawned Grace, "I'm dying by inches. And, oh, Mollie, dear, don't forget to bring the candy box!"

Half an hour later the lights in the little cottage were out and the boys, all except Allen, who had been made as comfortable as possible in the house, were taking turns at standing guard outside.

Despite the quiet beauty and peace of the night, the girls found it almost impossible to sleep. They tossed and dozed, and waked and dozed again until, toward daylight, they fell into a restless, uneasy sleep.