Chapter II. The Hole in the Attic Floor.
 

Ned sprang to his feet in an instant and beckoned Jack to one side. The others gathered around, but Ned motioned them back.

"Let us find out exactly what Jack means before any remarks are made," he said.

"Well," Jack began, almost in a whisper, "the servant who came to the door said--"

"Wait a moment!" Ned requested. "Let us get this at first hand. Is the servant you refer to still out in the corridor? Look and see."

Jack opened the door an inch and looked out.

"Yes," he reported, facing Ned, with the door still ajar, "he is still there."

"Then ask him to come in here," Ned suggested, "and you, boys," he added, turning to the wondering faces at the other side of the apartment, "you get as close as you wish while this man is talking, but don't interrupt. It may be that we shall have to do something right soon. I reckon our hunt for the prince starts right here, in the Black Bear Patrol clubroom, in the heart of little old New York."

The servant Jack had beckoned to now entered the room and stood with his back to the door, looking from one boyish face to another. He was a heavily built, muscular fellow, evidently an Irishman, judging from his face and manner.

"Will you kindly come over here and sit down?" Ned asked.

The servant complied and the others gathered around him.

"Now," Jack began, "tell Ned what you just told me--about the man in the attic, and about the hole in the ceiling."

Every eye in the room was instantly turned toward the lofty ceiling, but nothing out of the ordinary was to be seen there.

"The hole he refers to," Jack, smiling, explained, "is not in sight. It is under the ornamental brass piece that circles the rod from which the chandelier hangs. It was made to listen at, and not to see through, I take it!"

"That makes a good starter," Ned smiled, "so go on."

"Half an hour ago," the servant began, "I was called to this floor by one of the maids, Mary Murphy it was, and she was that scared she looked like a bag of flour! She pointed to the staircase leading to the attic and asked me to go up there.

"So I says to her: 'Why do you want me to go up there? If there's a haunt there, or a burglar, or a man after one of the girls, why should I risk the precious neck of me, when it's the only one I've got, with no prospect of ever getting another in case this one was damaged beyond repair?' So she says to me, she says--"

"Never mind what she said," Ned interrupted, fearful of a long, involved dialogue between the two servants. "Tell me what you did."

"I went up the staircase, three steps at a jump, an' bumped the head of me on the edge of the door at the top of it. You can see the dent in my coco now!"

"And what did you find there?" asked Ned.

"There was a rug on the floor and a hole in the floor, and a twinkle of light shining into the attic from this room. Some one had been listening there!"

"You saw no one?"

"Never a soul! I'm that sorry I can't express it!"

"When were you in that attic before--the last time before to-night?"

"Late yesterday afternoon it was."

"Was there a rug in the middle of the floor at that time?" Ned went on.

"No more than there is a bold lion in the middle of this floor, sir."

"Well, what did you do after you got up there to-night?"

"I hunted around for the man who had been lying there listening to the talk in this room, but I didn't find him, sir."

"Did you ascertain where all the servants were at the time the listening must have been going on?" asked Jack, after a short pause.

"All but one," was the reply.

"And that one? Where is he now? That is, tell, if you know where he is?"

"I don't know, sir. He has left the house, I reckon--bag and baggage."

"Who was it?" demanded Jack, moving toward the door.

"Chang Chu, the Chink, may the Evil One get into his bed!"

"And then you came here and notified Jack?" asked Ned. "As soon as you learned that Chang Chu was not in the house?"

"Indeed I did--within a minute and a half."

"Where is this girl, Mary Murphy?" asked Ned, turning to Jack. "We must get hold of her right away. I want to hear her story of what she saw in the attic."

Jack went out of the room, but was back in a minute with the girl, a pretty, modest maid of about eighteen. She looked frightened at finding herself the center of interest, but was soon in the midst of her story.

"I went up to the attic to get a piece of cloth for a bandage, Sally having cut her hand with the bread knife. When I got to the door of that room I heard some one inside of it. I listened at the crack there is between the panel and the stile and heard footsteps, slow and soft like. I thought it was one of the maids, and opened the door quick, so as to give her a scare."

The girl paused and wiped her face with a white apron bordered with pink.

"Go on," Ned requested. "Tell us what you saw in the attic."

"It wasn't much, sir," was the agitated answer. "I saw just a flash of dark blue, coming at me like the lightning express, and then I was keeled over--just as if I had been a bag of meal, sir!"

"He bunted into you, did he?" asked Jack. "Who was it?"

"Indeed I don't know, sir," was the reply. "It was dim in the room, there being only the light from the hall as I opened the door. Then he came at me with such a bunt that it took the breath out of me body!"

"And what followed?" asked Ned.

"She wint down f'r the count!" chuckled the servant who had been first questioned.

"I did not!" was the indignant retort. "When I got up the man was still on the stairs leading to this floor, and I picked up the great shears which had tumbled out of me hand and heaved thim at him. I had brought the shears up to cut a bandage, sir."

"Did you hit him?" asked Jack with a smile. "Where are the shears?"

"I never went back after them!" answered the girl. "I'll go this minute."

"Wait," Ned said, "and I'll get them. Now, you say you saw a blue streak coming at you, head-on! Who wears blue clothes around the house?"

"Chang Chu, the Chink, sir."

"You saw him dressed in blue to-day?" asked Ned.

"All in blue he was!" the male servant interrupted, "with his shirt on the outside of his trousers, like the bloody heathen he is."

"And so you looked for him and failed to find him on the premises?" asked Jack.

"He's gone, bag and baggage," answered Terance, the coachman. "Bad luck to him!"

"Still, you don't really know that it was the Chinaman?" asked Ned.

"He was dressed like the Chink," was the reply. "He smelled like a saloon!"

"Does the Chinaman drink?" asked Ned, facing Terance. "Does he get drunk?"

"He does not," was the reply. "He doesn't know the taste of good liquor!"

"That's all," Ned concluded. "Now you two keep on looking for the Chinaman. He may be hiding in the house, or he may be at some of the dens such people frequent. You, Mary, look for him in the house, and you, Terance, see if you can learn where he usually went when he left the house."

"Pell street!" cried Jimmie. "Look in Pell street!"

"Or Doyers!" Jack exclaimed. "Look in the dumps in Doyers street."

The two went away, forgetting all about the shears which Mary had hurled at the mysterious man she had caught in the attic. Asking the boys to remain where they were, Ned went out to the staircase and secured the article. Taking it carefully by the handle, he returned to the room and held up one blade.

Jack looked at the blade casually at first, then cried out that there was blood on it, and that Mary had speared the sneak.

"Yes," Ned explained, "there is blood on it. Mary hit the fellow on the head with this blade. What else do you see on the steel?" he asked with a smile.

Jimmie looked and backed away in disgust. His freckled face was thrust out of the door for an instant, and they heard him calling to Mary, who, being in the kitchen, beyond sound of his voice, did not respond.

"What do you want of Mary?" demanded Jack. "Shall I call her?"

"She said it was the Chink, didn't she?" the boy asked. "Or, she said it was a man dressed like the Chink? Well, it wasn't the Chink."

Ned laughed and looked at the boy admiringly.

"How do you know that?" he asked. "Why are you so sure it was not the Chink?"

Jimmie looked up into Ned's face with a provoking grin.

"You know just as well as I do that it wasn't the Chink," he said. "Just you look on that blade again! Ever see a Chink with light brown hair?"

"Now, what do you think of that?" roared Jack. "Sometimes this boy, Jimmie, seems to me to be possessed of almost human intelligence!"

The lads gathered closer around the shears, one blade of which Ned was still holding out for inspection. There was the blood, and there was the long, blonde hair!

"Hit him on the belfry!" Jimmie grinned. "Knocked off a shingle and brought away a piece of it! Now, why did the Chink run away? That's what I'd like to know!"

"Where did the man get the Chink's dress?" asked Oliver. "That's what you'd better be asking? Why did the Chink let him in and then loan him the dress?"

"I rather think that's why the Chinaman ran away!" laughed Ned. "You boys seem to have reasoned it all out. He might have let the sneak in and then let him have some of his own clothes to wear! And that will make trouble for us!"

"Do you think the fellow heard about the Camera Club trip, and the object of it?" asked Oliver. "If he was scared away half an hour ago he didn't learn much, for we hadn't begun to talk much about it at that time!"

"He may not have heard anything important," Ned replied, "but the fact that he was sent here to listen is significant! Some one in Washington knows that we have been chosen to search the mountains for the prince! Some one knows that we are going out as an innocent- looking Boy Scout Camera Club, but really to find the boy. Now, what will that person do to the Camera Club, after we get out into the mountains?"

"The question in my mind," Jimmie broke in, "is what we shall do to him!"

"I'm sorry the information about our going leaked out," Ned said, gravely. "As boy snapshot friends we might have been able to do things which the Secret Service men could not do. No one would pay much attention to a group of boys roaming over the mountains. But now I'm afraid our investigations will be all in the limelight!"

"Tell you what," Jimmie cut in, "suppose we find the Chink and make him point out the man who was in the house--listening?"