Chapter VI.
 

For the second time Nyoda got the garage man at Wellsville on the long distance phone. This conference only deepened the puzzle. He declared solemnly that no car even remotely resembling the Striped Beetle had been in his establishment and no party of girls such as we described. He was as much in the dark as we were about the trunk. Had we been carrying Gladys's trunk ever since we left home? we asked ourselves. No, for we had opened ours several times on the road. We gave it up when the puzzle threatened to addle our brains, and prepared to start away on our journey. Margery felt well again and ready to travel. We were standing in the street around the Glow-worm, and through gaps between houses we could see Mrs. Moffat's house down on Main Street. We saw a boy in the uniform of a telegraph messenger come along Main Street and stop at her house.

"Maybe the Frog's sending her some more mysterious messages," said Sahwah, idly.

But in a moment the boy ran down the steps again and retraced his steps up Main Street. As he passed the street where we were he looked down, and then he came toward us. "Which one is Miss Elizabeth Kent?" he asked.

Nyoda stepped forward and he handed her the telegraph envelope. Nyoda tore it open and a look of blank astonishment came over her face as she read.

"What is it?" we all chorused.

"Read it," she said.

This is what we read: "Where on earth are you? Wait Rochester for us. Coming to-day noon. Gladys."

It was sent from Indianapolis!

We looked at each other dazedly. Gladys in Indianapolis? What was she doing there? Indianapolis was far out of our way, miles to the south. With the main roads marked as they were it was impossible for her to have gotten lost. Then on the heels of this question came another one; if Gladys had gotten side-tracked and had fallen behind us on the road, who had passed ahead of us along the northern route to Chicago whom we had been blindly following? How had Gladys in Indianapolis received the telegram we had sent to Chicago, giving our address in Rochester? If Gladys had not come along the northern route, how came her trunk to be in Wellsville? It was a Chinese puzzle no matter which way you looked at it, and as Sahwah remarked, not being Chinamen we had no cue. But we sighed with relief at the thought that Gladys and the rest would be with us at noon and the mystery would all come to an end. Till noon then, we would possess our souls in patience.

To kill time we decided to look around at some of the stores. To the city bred the small town store is as much of a curiosity as the big city store is to the country bred. Most people think that the department store is a product of the big city, but I think it is a development of the general store of the country town. We found a place where they sold everything from handkerchiefs to plows, and wandered about happily, looking at farm implements whose use we did not even guess, and wonderful displays of crockery and printed calico. We seemed to create quite a sensation when we came in although there were other people in the store. The proprietor came forward hurriedly and asked us what we wanted. A strange look came into his face when we said we just came in to look around. He and his wife and the two or three clerks in the place all looked at each other, but they said no more. But as we moved up one aisle and down another he was always right at our elbow, and he never seemed to take his eyes from us. I picked up a pile of handkerchiefs to look them over, thinking I might buy some, as mine were in the lost trunk nobody knew where, but they were all cotton and I despise cotton handkerchiefs. As I put them down again and passed on I saw the proprietor pick them up and although he turned his back to us I could see that he was counting them.

We became conscious of a chill in the air. It seemed that everybody in the place was watching us with suspicious eyes. With one accord we moved toward the door and stepped out into the street, where we faced each other questioningly. What was this baffling thing that we were running up against of late? The people around here seemed to know something about us which we did not know ourselves. Last night our landlady for no satisfactory reason had put us out of her house, and here were the store people plainly suspicious of us. Was Margery the cause of it? She had not come with us this morning, as she thought it would be wiser to stay in her room. But even if they knew about Margery we would hardly have expected them to act this way. Why did they make no attempt to take her away from us?

Everywhere we turned we came against a wall of mystery. Was the Frog at the bottom of it? But why did he always loiter in the background and never openly molest us? There was something more terrifying about this silent, skulking foe than there would have been about an armed highwayman. So far to-day he had not appeared, but we did not doubt that he was lurking in the shadows somewhere. As we stood there we saw the motorcyclist walking down from the upper end of the street in our direction.

"Let's wait until he comes up and thank him for telling us about the other rooms," suggested Sahwah.

So we stood still and waited. But no sooner had he seen us standing there on the sidewalk than he paused suddenly, turned abruptly and went up a side street.

"Even he is avoiding us!" said Sahwah. "What on earth can be the reason?"

We wished with all our hearts for noon, when Gladys would come and we could get out of this wretched town. But there were still two hours until then. We decided to go into another store and see if they would treat us the same way. They did, only perhaps a little more so. The proprietor followed us around like a shadow and heaved an audible sigh of relief when we went out. Utterly disgusted, we went back to Margery. The time passed heavily until noon and then we went out on Main Street to watch for the arrival of the Striped Beetle. The events and accidents we were ready to pour out to the coming girls were enough to fill a volume, and we were sure that nothing they would have to tell would match our story of the fire and the night in the fog.

The telegram had said they would come at noon and we were to wait for them. Noon came and went; one o'clock; two o'clock; and like the Blue Alsatian Mountains, we were still watching and waiting. There was no sign of the Striped Beetle. The sun beat down mercilessly on the glaring earth and we grew faint and dizzy straining our eyes up the road. It was several degrees hotter than the day before. We ate our dinner in squads, one squad eating while the other did sentinel duty. We beguiled the time by singing "Wait for the Wagon", "Waiting at the Church ", and every other song we knew on the subject. People looked at us curiously as we sat in a row on a low stone wall. One man asked us if we were waiting for the circus parade, because if we were we had our dates mixed; the circus was not due until the next day. The afternoon advanced; carful after carful of tourists came down the dusty road, but none of them the ones we so eagerly awaited. Margery had refused to sit there where everyone could see her, and stayed in her room, and we took turns sitting with her.

"Are you sure we didn't dream that telegram?" asked Sahwah wearily, at half past three.

Nyoda shook her head. "It's real, all right," she answered. "I have it here in my coat pocket."

"Let me see it again," said Sahwah, "and see at what time it was sent."

Nyoda put her hand into her pocket. When she brought it out again she held to the light, not the yellow telegraph form, but a queer, bluish beetle-like thing. She stared at it with amazed eyes and we were all too much astonished to speak.

"What is it?" asked Sahwah, finding her voice first.

"It's a scarab." answered Nyoda, "the ancient Egyptian figure of a beetle. There are several in the museum at home."

We passed it from hand to hand with growing wonder and admiration. But how came it into Nyoda's coat pocket? Was this also a part of the witchcraft that had sent Gladys's trunk to us so mysteriously?

"Curiouser and Curiouser," said Sahwah.

"Are you sure you didn't pick it up somewhere without knowing it?" I asked. "People sometimes do those things absent-mindedly, you know. I came home from down-town once with a gold-handled umbrella and I hadn't the slightest notion of where I got it. And the next day there was a notice in the paper, 'Will the young lady who took the gold-handled umbrella from the wash-room of Levy & Strauss's yesterday afternoon please return same to the office? She was recognized and followed.' And I couldn't remember being in the wash-room of Levy & Strauss's at all!"

Nyoda racked her brain. "It's impossible," she said. "I haven't been anywhere since noon but up to that restaurant and Sahwah and I sat alone at a table. There wasn't anything belonging to anyone else near us."

"You didn't get it this morning when we were looking through the stores?" I asked.

"No," said Nyoda, "I didn't. It wasn't there when I started up to dinner. Besides," she added, "that scarab never came from a store in this town. Things like that are handled by dealers in curios in large cities, and by private collectors." Her brow was puckered into a bewildered frown.

"However it got there," she said, "it doesn't belong there and I have no right to keep it. I'm going to turn it over to the police, and if anybody reports the loss to them they will find it intact."

As we stood there looking at the curious scarab in Nyoda's hands a motorcycle putt-putted past in a cloud of dust and we recognized our light-haired friend apparently leaving town.

"We'll never get a chance to thank him for that address!" I said, half regretfully. Little did we think that the only decent thing fate did for us on that trip was to withhold that chance!

Nyoda and I went in search of the police station, leaving Sahwah and Nakwisi sitting and watching for the Striped Beetle. It was only Sahwah who was doing any watching out, however, for Nakwisi was looking through her spy-glass at the clouds. After some inquiry we found the police station. When Nyoda told her story about finding the scarab in her pocket, the policeman in charge looked at her with a peculiar expression and a wise grin. But when she wanted to leave it there he waved her away.

"Wouldn't have it around here for a farm," he declared. "Lady left a necklace here once: said she found it in the road. The next night the police station burned down and the necklace disappeared. We just got this new station and it nearly broke the town and we can't have any more accidents. You take it on to the next town and tell 'em you didn't find it till you got there, see?" Half angry and half amused at this dauntless representative of the law we went back to the girls, with the mysterious scarab still in the pocket of Nyoda's coat. If only we had followed Sahwah's joking advice and stuck it on an ornamental shrub near us to startle passers-by and left it there!

"Something must have happened to the Striped Beetle," said Nyoda in a worried way, when we had exhausted our patience with waiting. "I don't know but what it would be a good idea to set out in the direction of Indianapolis and try to find them. We will surely come upon a trace of them somewhere."

"What strikes me queer," said Sahwah, "is, if Gladys knows our address and wired that she would be here at noon, why she didn't wire again when she found she couldn't get here. She might know we would begin to tear our hair when she didn't appear."

Nyoda began to look uneasy. "That's what makes me think something has happened to her," she said. "Somehow I always have visions of the Striped Beetle lying smashed up somewhere and our girls being carried to a hospital. I can't get it out of my mind. Something has happened to Gladys which has kept her from wiring and it is our duty to find out what it is."

"Maybe she did wire and they didn't deliver it to us," suggested Sahwah. Nyoda and I promptly went up to the telegraph office and inquired if any later message had come for us. Nothing had, we were told.

Nyoda made up her mind at once. She consulted the road map she had bought after the marked one had gone with Gladys and looked at the route to Indianapolis. "If any message comes to this office for us, kindly forward it to the office at Kokomo," she directed. "We will stop there and inquire."

We got into the Glow-worm without delay, picked up Margery from the house, piled the other girls into the car and shook the dust of Rochester (it was nearly a foot thick) from our tires. I looked around every little while from my seat in the tonneau to see if the Frog was following us, but there was no sign of him. In fact, I may as well tell you now, that we had seen the last of him until we saw him in such an amazing attitude two days later.

Driving gave us a little relief from the heat, for the motion of the car created a little breeze, although there was none of any other kind stirring. I think if we had sat out in that hot street any longer I should have been overcome. It was bad enough in the car, for the dust rose up in choking whirls until we could taste it. I have never known such a hot day before or since, although I have seen the thermometer higher; but that day the air seemed to be minus its breathing qualities and we gasped like fish out of water. We kept a close watch on Margery for signs of collapse, but she seemed to be bearing up pretty well; I suppose it was because she had not been sitting out on Main Street for four hours.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we had a thunder shower to-night," said Nyoda, scanning a bank of apoplectic-looking clouds that were lying low over the distant horizon.

"I hope so," I replied. "Anything to break this heat. The air over the street looks like the heat waves over the radiator." I could not help wishing fervently that Gladys had chosen a cool breezy day to get lost on.

We stopped at so many places and asked if they had seen a brown car with black stripes carrying four girls in tan suits that our voices became husky on those words. Sahwah suggested that we print our inquiry on a pennant and fasten it across the front of the car. But nowhere was there a sign or a trace of the car for which we were seeking. People had seen brown cars, but no girls in them, and they had seen tan coats in black or red cars, but nowhere was the tan and brown in combination.

Looking for a needle in a haystack has several advantages over looking for an automobile on a hundred mile stretch of road. For one thing, there is only one haystack, so you are pretty sure of finding your needle there if you look long enough; whereas there were several roads to Indianapolis; and for another thing, your needle is stationary and not traveling through the haystack, so you are reasonably sure when you have ascertained that it is not in a certain part of the haystack that it will not be there at a later time; whereas the Striped Beetle might be moving from place to place, in which case we were going to have a lively time catching up with it.

Especially did we inquire if there had been any accidents. Once we had a scare; we were told that a brown car had been struck by a suburban car that morning and several girls seriously injured. The injured ones had been taken to a hospital in Indianapolis, but the automobile was in a repair shop in the village of D----. We hastened to D---- and elbowed our way through the crowd in front of the repair shop to see the wreck of the car and sighed with relief when we saw it was not the Striped Beetle. One door was still intact and that bore the monogram DPS in large block letters.

If Fate has anything to do with the color of paint, or rather, if the color of paint has anything to do with Fate, brown must be an unlucky shade to paint a car. The number of brown cars which had come to grief along that road was unbelievable. In another place one had turned turtle on a bridge and thrown its passengers into the river beneath, but those passengers were all men, we were told, and we did not stop to investigate further. One woman told a story of having seen four girls walking along the road almost frantic because their car had been stolen while they got out to look at something in a field, and we thought these might possibly be our girls. Hinpoha is crazy about calves and if she saw a calf in a field she would not only go over and pet it herself, but drag all the others along too. When asked to describe their dresses the woman said vaguely that they had had on some light kind of coats or suits, she couldn't remember which, and she wasn't sure about the veils. They might have been green for all she knew, but she always had been color blind and hated to make a definite statement because she had been fooled on more than one occasion. Where the girls were now she did not know; she thought they were walking to the nearest town to notify the police.

While there was nothing definite about this information it was just enough to tantalize us, and we wondered if the Striped Beetle really had been stolen and the girls were wandering about in distress. We strained our imaginations trying to picture what had happened to Gladys that she did not appear in Rochester, and conjured up all sorts of circumstances to account for it. But I doubt if an imagination as rich as the mine of Ophir could have guessed at the truth, so I don't see how we can be blamed for missing it entirely.

The clouds that had been reclining along the horizon all afternoon began to mount and deepen in color, and the occasional mutterings of thunder became more frequent. From being oppressive the air became stifling and we were all on the verge of collapse. The fatigue of getting out of the car so often to follow up things that looked like clues was beginning to tell on us. And the suspense was worse than anything else. Up to now, when we thought that Gladys was on the road ahead of us and we would catch up with her in Chicago, we had cheerfully put up with all the mishaps which had befallen us, for none of them turned out seriously and we were entirely light-hearted. But now we were really worried about Gladys. Her not appearing after she had wired us that she was coming began to take on a sinister meaning. It is much easier to live through mishaps yourself than imagine them happening to someone else.

Taken altogether, that afternoon's trip is one on which I like to put the soft pedal when harking back in memory. And happy for us then that we did not know what it was going to end in. The sky behind us had turned inky black and it became evident that the storm which was coming would be no ordinary one. A wind sprang up that increased in velocity with a peculiar moaning sound. A strange light was in the air that made the white farm houses and barns gleam sharply against the dark sky. Nyoda looked with some anxiety at the lowering clouds.

"I think it would be a wise plan to make the next town before that storm breaks loose," she observed, thoughtfully. "You know the storm curtains don't fasten tightly on the one side, and if we're caught we're going to be drenched."

The next town was Kokomo, about ten miles away, where we were to stop at the telegraph office and see if there was a message from Gladys. Then began a race the like of which I have never seen before. It was the speed of man matched against the speed of the storm gods. Behind us the storm was breaking; we could see the grey wall of the rain in the distance; the wind was rising to a tornado and the thunder claps seemed to split the earth open. And there we were, scudding along before it, like a tiny craft fleeing from a tidal wave. The Glow-worm bore us onward like a gallant steed, and I compared our headlong flight with the King of Denmark's ride when his Rose of the Isles lay dying.

"Think of something cheerful," said Sahwah, crossly; "Gladys isn't lying at the point of death."

After all, the comparison didn't hold good, for the King's steed reached his destination and the Glow-worm didn't. We had been so taken up with our search for Gladys that we had neglected to supply the life blood to our iron steed, namely, gasoline, and we came to a dead stop in the road four or five miles from town. Our exclamations of disgust were still hovering in the air when the storm struck us. As Sahwah has always described it, "And then the water came down at Lodore." I could devote several pages to the fury of that rainfall, but what is the use of taking up the reader's time when her own imagination will supply the details? Just imagine the worst storm you were ever caught in, or ever saw anyone else caught in, and multiply it by two or three times and you have our situation.

With a shriek of delight the wind seized the loose end of the storm curtain and tore the whole curtain from the car with one neat pull. When we last saw that storm curtain it was traveling eastward at the rate of sixty miles an hour. In one minute we were all as wet as if we had fallen off the dock at home. We abandoned the car and ran for the shelter of a big tree near-by. We were no sooner under its spreading branches when, with a sound like the crack of doom, lightning struck it and it went crashing to earth in the opposite direction from us. We didn't stop to reflect what would have happened to us if it had fallen in our direction, but made for the open road where there was nothing but the sky to fall on us, which it was doing as hard as it could.

We were just wondering how long it would take the inside of the Glow- worm to dry out, and whether rain made spots on the leather when a closed limousine came along the road. The driver, in rubber coat and cap, stopped his car and asked if he could be of assistance. Nyoda, suddenly conscious that the color was running out of her dripping veil all over her face, put her hand in her pocket to find her handkerchief and wipe her face. Along with the handkerchief out fell the curious scarab which we had forgotten in the search for Gladys. The man eyed it intently as Nyoda put it back into her pocket. A change seemed to have come over him. Before he was merely an automobile driver offering help to a stranded motorist, but now he acted like a minion in the presence of a queen. He touched his hat with the greatest respect, got down from his seat in a hurry and opened the door of the limousine.

"Get in quickly," he said, and we did, glad of the glass enclosed shelter from the downpour. With deft motions he fastened the Glow-worm behind the limousine with a tow line and then sent his car rolling down the road at a rapid pace.