Chapter VII.
 

We had not proceeded very far up the road when the car turned into a long winding driveway of gravel, bordered on either side by well kept lawns and trim trees. We could see that much through the windows of the car when the rain would cease its furious whirling against the glass for a moment. Soon we came to a stop under a wide sheltering porte- cochere, and the driver got down and opened the door ceremoniously. It was quite dark, but we could see that the house at which we had stopped was an immense mansion, probably the country home of some millionaire.

"I will see that the tanks are filled in good time," said the chauffeur, touching his hand to his cap. He had been driving without gloves, and I noticed that the little finger on both of his hands was turned inward at the second joint. I believe that is what brother Tom calls a baseball finger.

Just then the door of the house opened and a trim looking maid appeared and greeted the chauffeur familiarly as "Heinie". He replied by a wink and a series of movements with his eyebrows which threw the maid into a spasm of amusement. Then he started the limousine, with the Glow-worm still in tow, around the side of the house, presumably toward the garage, although from where we stood we saw no building. The maid held the door open for us and we stepped into an entry paved with marble.

"If we could stay here a few minutes until the rain is over--" began Nyoda. For no reason at all the maid began to giggle violently. I suppose she was still amused over the grimaces of the chauffeur. It takes so little to amuse some people.

"Come this way," she said, and led the way from the entry into a hall and up a flight of stairs. There was a big triple window on the landing and as we passed the rain was dashing against it so violently that we thought the glass must give way. Severe as the storm had been when we were caught in it, it was twice as bad now, and we gave a thankful sigh that we were under shelter, and blessed the gasoline for giving out when it did, for if it hadn't we must have been overtaken on the road and would have missed this chance of getting in the dry. We went up- stairs as quickly as possible so as not to drip on the rich carpet that covered the steps. The maid threw open the door into the most luxurious bedchamber I have ever seen. It was clear that we were in the house of a very wealthy man. Another maid was in the room which we entered and she looked at us five dripping refugees with a stare of curiosity.

"Some friends who were caught in the rain," explained the maid who had acted as our guide. "Come, get them some dry clothes."

The two of them bustled about laying out things for us to put on, and for the first time in my life I was waited on by a maid. The first one, whom the other addressed as Carrie, was inclined to be talkative, and sympathized noisily with our drenched state. She was quite pretty, with rosy cheeks and black hair and black eyes. There was something odd about her appearance at first and upon looking at her closely I discovered this odd appearance came from the fact that her eyes did not seem to be on a level. But she was very deft in her movements and had our wet garments hung up on hangers and spread out before the little grate fire in no time. I felt a passing envy for the woman who was the mistress of this maid and who did not have to worry whether she threw her clothes in a heap on the floor or not, as she would always find them properly taken care of when she wanted them again. Taking care of my clothes is the greatest trial of my life.

The other maid spoke not at all; she seemed newer at her job and obeyed the directions of the first meekly and in silence. Carrie picked up Nyoda's soaked coat and shook it, and as she did so the scarab flew out of the pocket and fell to the floor. She hastily picked it up and held it in her hand for an instant, turning it over and looking at it curiously. I saw her glance sidewise at Agnes, the other maid, who stood with her back to us putting Nyoda's shoes onto trees; then she looked boldly at Nyoda and deliberately winked one eye! Nyoda looked at her with a puzzled frown. Carrie became all meekness and deference in a moment; she laid the scarab down on the table beside Nyoda's purse and went about her duties without raising her eyes.

In a moment she left the room and we sat listening to the rain beating against the panes and wondering when it would stop and how soon our clothes would be dry so we could resume our journey. Agnes went out presently and when she came back she carried a tray full of cups of steaming broth and a plate of sandwiches. We were very thankful for this favor, as we were beginning to feel chilled through. Getting drenched that way when we were so hot was bad enough, but the wind that accompanied the shower was decidedly cool and we were pretty uncomfortable by the time we were picked up.

"To whom are we indebted for this hospitality?" asked Nyoda of Agnes.

"Ma'm?" said Agnes.

"In whose house are we?" asked Nyoda.

"This is the home of Simon McClure," answered Agnes.

"Oh-oh!" we said altogether. The name of Simon McClure was a household word with us. It was his yacht that had sprung a leak and gone down the summer before just as it was on the point of winning the cup race. We had all heard about this millionaire sportsman and his horses, dogs and boats. Well, we were not sorry, after all, that the heat had ended up in a shower. It was worth a drenching to be taken into such a house. I'm afraid our anxiety about Gladys faded a little in the enjoyment of our unique position. The rain had gradually subsided from a cloudburst into a steady downpour and we trembled to think what the road would be like. In our mind's eye we saw ourselves stuck up to the hubs in yellow clay from which it would require the pulling power of a locomotive to release us.

I suppose Carrie must have told her mistress of our presence, for after one of her absences from the room she said that Mrs. McClure had said we were welcome to stay all night if we wished. We looked at each other with rather comical expressions. To our widely varying list of night's lodgings there was about to be added one more, as different from the rest as they had been from each other. One more adventure was to be added to our already long list! But even then we did not guess that this one was to surpass all the others as the glare of a rocket outshines the glimmer of a match!

Carrie returned again presently and after looking at Agnes steadily for a minute, with a peculiar expression in her black eyes she turned to Nyoda and said respectfully that Mrs. McClure was giving a fancy dress ball that night and, as several of the invited guests had been prevented from coming at the last moment, which would spoil the number for a certain march figure she had planned, she wanted to know if we would mind attending the ball in their places. She begged us to excuse her for not coming in to speak to us herself, but she was in the hands of her hair-dresser.

Would we mind attending the ball! Did things ever happen to other people the way they happened to us? And such a ball as the McClures would give would be like a page out of the Arabian Nights to us, who knew nothing of high society.

"But what could we wear?" asked Sahwah, always the first to come to earth and see the practical side of the question.

Carrie flashed her a sparkling look from her black eyes, giggled, and then shifted her gaze to Agnes, whom she watched narrowly. Agnes looked indifferent, both at her and at us. The stony expression on Agnes's face began to puzzle me; I wondered if there was any mystery about her. Carrie finally took her eyes from Agnes's face and allowed them to travel around the room to where our touring suits hung up to dry. "The automobile suits," she suggested respectfully, "and the veils, and the goggles--You could masque as a party of tourists. The clothes are quite dry."

Our spirits revived again, for the thought that we might have to miss this grand opportunity of witnessing a gorgeous spectacle because we had nothing to wear had sent our hearts down into our shoes.

Carrie was summoned away then by a soft purring little buzzer and directed Agnes to help us dress. I must say that we made very nice looking tourists in our tan suits and green veils. Agnes had the suits pressed until there were no wrinkles left in them and arranged our veils with a practised hand. All the while we were dressing we could hear automobiles driving up under the porte-cochere, and guests arriving, and we were in a fever of anticipation. Strains of music floated up from below, together with the subdued hum of many voices. We judged from the direction of the sounds that the ballroom was on the first floor.

It was after ten o'clock when we were finally ready and Carrie appeared in the door for us. She took us down another stairway into a vast hall filled with paintings and statuary, where a man in a dark blue suit and silver braid (I suppose that's what you'd call a footman in livery), stood stiffly as the statues around him. Carrie said something to him in a low tone (I presume she was explaining our presence without cards of invitation, such as he was collecting from the other guests), and he looked at us with an impassive eye and nodded his head. He was a very homely man with an exceedingly red nose with one bright blue vein running across it that gave him somewhat of a singular appearance. I remember thinking that if I were his mistress I should set him to working in the garden where nobody could see him, instead of posting him in the front hall to admit the guests.

After Carrie had turned us over to the Nose with the Vein she went up- stairs again and the man slid back a door on the left side of the hall. We found ourselves in the ballroom and in the midst of a scene as bewildering as it was gorgeous. Of course, our first thought had been to find our hostess and make ourselves known, but there was no way of telling which one Mrs. McClure was. Everybody was masked and frolicking around and there didn't seem to be anyone doing the duty of a hostess whom we could suspect of being Mrs. McClure. Later on we discovered that there was a reception-room off at the other end of the ballroom where Mrs. McClure had been receiving her guests, but at the time we saw nothing but the shifting masses of light and color around us, that resolved themselves into kings and queens and princes and Indians and turbaned Hindoos and pirates and Turks and peasants and fairies. The orchestra was playing the opening bars of a waltz and the dancers were seeking partners. We withdrew into a corner behind a large palm to look on. To our surprise and somewhat to our embarrassment we were asked to dance before the waltz was over. My partner was a Scottish highlander and a good dancer, and he evidently thought I belonged in the set who were the guests at this ball, because he kept pointing out different people and asking if I thought they were this one or that one. I did not speak much, however, and do not think he ever guessed that I was not a friend of Mrs. McClure's, was an outsider at the ball, and was, in fact, the mere tourist I was supposed to represent. I thought, however, I might get one piece of information out of him.

"I don't see Mrs. McClure," I said, looking over the dancing couples. Then it was that the Highlander told me about the reception-room at the other side of the conservatory that opened out of the ballroom, where Mrs. McClure was. I mentally thanked him for this piece of information and purposed to tell Nyoda about it as soon as the dance was over. But when that dance came to a close we were claimed by other partners for the next, and so on, and we did not get out of the ballroom.

The memory of that ball is like some queer oriental dream and even while we were in the midst of it I had to pinch myself to make sure that I was awake and the things around me were real. But the events that followed were real enough for anyone to know that they were not dreaming. There came an intermission in the dancing at last, and we five found ourselves in the glassed-in sun parlor opening from the ballroom while somebody was going for ices for us. As it happened we were the only ones in that little room, for the bigger conservatory next to it was a more popular resting-place. Sitting there waiting we began to talk about the scarab and the queer effect it seemed to have had on the chauffeur.

"Let me look at it again," said I. I was utterly fascinated by the thing.

Nyoda put her hand in the pocket of her coat where she had put the scarab for safe keeping, and drew out, not the odd-looking beetle, but something that flashed in the light like a thousand rain-drops in the sunshine. It was a diamond necklace, with a diamond pendant at the end, the stones arranged in the form of a cross. The thing blazed in Nyoda's hand like liquid fire running down over her fingers, and we fairly blinked as we looked at it. We were too astonished to say a word and simply stared at it as if we were hypnotised.

"Girls," said Nyoda in a horrified tone, "there's something queer going on here and we're mixed up in it. The sooner we get out of this house the better. There's a gang of thieves at work at this ball--there usually are at these big affairs--and unless we want to find ourselves drawn into a net from which we can't escape easily we'll have to run for it."

It was a good thing that the sun parlor was empty and the crush around the table where the ices were being served kept our friends from returning. Nyoda put the necklace into a jardinier containing a monstrous fern and we looked around for a way out. We thought we would slip out to the garage and get the Glow-worm. The sun parlor must have had a door leading to the outside, but it was so full of plants in pots and jardiniers that if there was a door it was covered up. We fled back into the conservatory, where couples were sitting all over, but there was no outside door from there. After that we got into a library filled with people playing cards at tables. We were looking anxiously around for a door into the hall which led to the porte-cochere entrance when we saw the maid Carrie come into the room with a tray full of glasses. When she saw us standing there she came up to us and under the pretense of offering us refreshments she whispered: "You are looking for the way out? Follow me."

We followed her across the room and out the door at the opposite side, which opened into a small reception-room. There stood the footman with the vein in his nose and without a word he led the way through various rooms and hallways to the porte-cochere entrance. We passed out quickly, and to our surprise there stood the Glow-worm under the porte- cochere with the lamps all lighted and the tanks filled. In a moment we were speeding down that driveway again and out into the midnight. The events of the evening were whirling through our heads. As yet we could make neither head nor tail to them. Bit by bit we began to see the significance of things, although, of course, the whole story was not clear to us until a day later, when things came to a head and the resulting explosion cleared up all mysteries.

This much we did understand, however, that someone had stolen a diamond necklace from one of the guests at the ball and expected us to get away with it. Also that the servants must have been in the plot, for how else had our get away been made so easy? And how came the Glow-worm to be standing at the door ready to drive away?

We laughed when we thought of the diamond necklace which they had supposed was safe in our possession, lying in the jardinier in the sun parlor. We fancied the commotion that would take place when the owner discovered its loss, and the equal dismay in the breasts of the conspirators when it was found in the jardinier.

But here we were again, without a place to spend the night, when we had expected to sleep in such luxurious beds. With one accord we decided to drive all night and put as much distance between us and the house as possible. We were constantly afraid that we were being pursued as it was, and strained our ears for the throb of a motor behind us that would tell of the chase. We did not make very fast headway, for the roads were abominable after the storm. In places we went through regular lakes and the water was thrown into the car by the wheels, so that we were drenched a second time, as well as spattered with mud from head to foot. Then we came to a hold-up altogether. In one place a small stream had risen from the flood and carried away the bridge by which we were supposed to cross. The water was too deep to drive through and we had to turn back and find another road. Then our troubles began in earnest.

The main road had been bad enough, but these side roads full of deep wagon ruts and mud holes were ten times worse. It would have been a problem to drive through there by daylight, but after dark it was a nightmare. Our electric head lamps were dim that night for some reason or other and only partly showed up the bad places, and several times I thought we were going to upset. The drizzling rain was still falling and we were soaked and uncomfortable. After a time we gave up trying to find another bridge to cross the stream and get back on the main road and frankly owned that we were lost. Once in a while we saw the dark outline of a farmhouse far back from the road, but we hesitated to wake up the people at that time of night and ask our way.

Margery complained of the feeling of her wet coat and Sahwah suggested that we all sing "How Dry I Am", and see if there was anything in mental suggestion. So we stopped still at the cross-roads and sang hoarsely in the rain and darkness like disconsolate frogs. The starter refused to work when we wanted to go on again and Nyoda had to get out in the mud and crank the engine.

"She stoops to crank her," said Sahwah, but none of us had the ambition to pinch her for making a pun.

We were apparently traveling through the country in a sort of Roman key pattern, up one road and down another without getting any nearer to the town for which we imagined we were headed. Suddenly something white loomed up before us which proved to be the gate of a fence; we were evidently on private property. Sahwah got out to open it but she could not do it alone, so both Nakwisi and I jumped out to help her. The mud was piled up so high under the gate that it was all we could do to swing it back. The Glow-worm passed through slowly and we closed the gate again. Just then a gust of wind sent down a heavy shower of drops from a near-by tree and we ran hastily for the shelter of the car. Nyoda started immediately and we found ourselves in the main road once more. The gust of wind continued and blew our veils into our faces and made us screw our eyes shut. In such fashion did we travel down the king's highway, and if ever my ardor for automobile touring was dampened, it was then. For a long time nobody had a word to say, not even irrepressible Sahwah. Each one of us sat apart wrapped in our own gloomy thoughts. Finally Nakwisi spoke.

"Does the water run down over the tip of your nose if your nose turns up? Sahwah, yours turns up, will you look and see which way the rain- drops are going?"

There was no answer.

"Well, don't answer, if you don't want to," said Nakwisi, rather crossly. We took our veils down from our eyes and looked around to see the cause of this unusual silence on Sahwah's part. Then we got the second big shock of the evening. Sahwah was not in the car! She had vanished utterly, silently, mysteriously, into the rainy darkness!