Chapter XVII. In Charge.
 

"No one here? What do you mean?"

"Betty Nelson, what a strange thing to say!"

"Of course there must be some one here. They're only upstairs, maybe, shutting the windows there."

Thus spoke Mollie, Grace and Amy in turn. Betty listened patiently, and then suggested:

"Just hearken for a minute, and see if you think anyone is upstairs shutting windows."

Then all listened intently. There was not a sound save that caused by the storm, which seemed to increase in fury instead of diminishing.

"There is no one here," went on Betty positively. "We are all alone in this house."

"But where can the people be?" asked Grace. "They must be people living here," and she looked around at the well-kept, if somewhat old-fashioned, parlor.

"Of course the house is lived in--and the people must have left it only recently," said Betty. "That's evident."

"Why did they go off and leave it?" asked Mollie.

"That's the mystery of it," admitted Betty. "It's like the mystery of the five hundred dollar bill. We've got to solve it."

"Perhaps--" began Amy in a gentle voice.

"Well?" asked Betty encouragingly.

"Maybe the lady was upstairs shutting the windows when she saw the storm coming, and she fell, or fainted or something like that."

"That's so!" exclaimed Mollie.

"We'll look," decided Betty.

"Betty!" chorused Grace and Amy.

"Why not?" the Little Captain challenged. "We've got to get at the bottom of this."

"But suppose we should find her--find some one up there in a--faint," and Amy motioned toward the upper rooms.

"All the more reason for helping them," said practical Betty. "They may need help. Come on!"

The girls left their things in the hall, and, rather timidly, it must be confessed, ascended the stairs. But they need not have been afraid of seeing some startling sight. The upper chambers were as deserted as the rooms below. In short, a careful examination throughout the house failed to disclose a living creature, save a big Maltese cat which purred and rubbed in friendly fashion against the girls.

"The house is deserted!" declared Betty again. "We are in sole and undisputed possession, girls. We're in charge!"

"For how long?" asked Amy.

"Until this storm is over, anyhow. We can't go out in that downpour," and Betty glanced toward the window against which the rain was dashing furiously. "We must close down the sashes here, too!" she exclaimed, for one or two were open, and the water was beating in.

"What can have happened?" murmured Mollie. "Isn't it strange?"

"I've no doubt it can be explained simply," said Betty. "The woman who lives here may have gone to a neighbor's house and failed to notice the time. Then she may be storm-bound, as we are."

"No woman would remain at a neighbor's house, and leave her own alone, with a lot of windows up, the front door open and a beating rain coming down," said Grace, positively. "Not such a neat housekeeper as the woman here seems to be; she'd come home if she was drenched," and she glanced around the well-ordered rooms.

"You've got to think up a different reason than that, Betty Nelson."

"Besides, what of the men folks?--there are men living here--at least one, for there's a hat on the front rack," put in Amy. "Where are the men, or the man?"

"They'll be along at supper time," declared Betty.

"Besides, maybe that hat is just kept there to scare tramps," said Grace. "I've often heard of a lone woman borrowing a man's hat--when she didn't have--didn't want, or couldn't get a man."

"That's so," admitted Betty. "But, speaking of supper reminds me--what are we going to do about ours?"

"It is getting nearly time," murmured Mollie. "But we simply can't tramp through that rain to your sister's house, Grace."

"No, we'll have to wait. Oh, dear! Isn't this a queer predicament to be in, and not a chocolate left?" she wailed, as she looked in the box. "Empty!" she cried quite tragically.

The rain still descended. It was not, for the moment, pouring as hard as at first, but there was a steadiness and persistency to it that did not encourage one in the belief that it would soon stop. The big drops dashed against the windows intermittently, as the wind rose and fell.

Around one angle of the house the gale howled quite fiercely, and in the parlor, where there was an open fireplace, it came down in gusts, sighing mournfully out into the room, with its old horsehair furniture, the pictures of evidently dead-and-gone relatives, in heavy gold frames, while in other frames were fearfully and wonderfully made wreaths of flowers--wax in some cases, and cloth in the remainder, being the medium in which nature was rather mocked than simulated.

The girls stood at the windows, staring drearily out. They could just see a house down the road on the other side. In the other direction no residences were visible--just an expanse of rain-swept fields. And there seemed to be no passers-by--no teams on the winding country road.

"Oh, but this is lonesome," said Amy, with a sigh.

"Girls, what are we to do?" demanded Mollie.

"We simply must go on to my sister's," declared Grace. "What will she think, if we don't come?"

As if in answer, the storm burst into another spasm of fury, the rain coming down in "sheets, blankets and pillow cases," as Mollie grimly put it.

"We can never go--in this downpour," declared Betty. "It would be sheer madness--foolishness, at any rate. We would be drenched in an instant, and perhaps take cold."

"If there was only some way to let your sister know," spoke Mollie. "I wonder if there's a telephone?"

It needed but a little survey to disclose that there was none.

"If we could only see someone--send for a covered carriage, or send some word--" began Amy.

"Oh, well, for the matter of my sister worrying, that doesn't amount to much," interrupted Grace. "When I wrote I told her it was not exactly certain just what day we would arrive, as I thought we might spend more time in some places than in others. That part is all right. What's worrying me is that we can't get to any place to spend the night--we can't have any supper--we--"

"Girls!" cried Betty, with sudden resolve, "there is only one thing to do!"

"What's that?" the others chorused.

"Stay here. We'll get supper here--there must be food in the house. If the people come back we'll ask them to keep us over night--there's room enough."

"And if they don't come?" asked Amy, shivering a little.

"Then we'll stay anyhow!" cried the Little Captain. "We are in charge and we can't desert now."