Chapter XIV. News From the Front
 

"Does Mrs. Andrew Sheridan live here?" asked the boy, looking from one to the other.

"Here," replied Nyoda, holding out her hand for the envelope.

"Who can be telegraphing at this time of night?" asked Hinpoha, shot through with a sudden fear that something had happened to her aunt and they were telegraphing to Nyoda about it.

Nyoda stepped into the hall, switched on the light and tore open the envelope. Then she gasped suddenly and sat down on the stair steps with a frightened "Oh-h-h!"

"What is it, Nyoda?" asked the girls, crowding around her in alarm.

She held out the telegram and Gladys took it from her hands and held it up where all could see:

MRS. ANDREW SHERIDAN,

Oakwood, Pa.

Your husband on board Antares when she sank in collision off Nova Scotia August first. Now in Good Samaritan Hospital, St. Margaret's, Nova Scotia, probably fatally injured. Come.

The signature was that of some official of the government.

"Oh-h-h!" cried the Winnebagos in horror, staring, fascinated, at the fatal sheet of paper in their hands. Migwan ran to Nyoda and put her arms around her in silent sympathy; the rest stood still, with shocked, frightened faces.

After a moment of stunned surprise Nyoda rallied herself. "Come," she said, in her usual calm, brisk tones, "I have to make haste. I must go on that early morning train. It goes through here about four. Help me pack, girls."

Recalled to themselves by the quietness of Nyoda's manner the Winnebagos set about helping in their usual efficient way. Hinpoha and Gladys sped to the kitchen to make coffee and sandwiches; Sahwah sped downstairs into the laundry to bring up the freshly ironed clothes; Slim and the Captain went up into the attic to bring down the suitcase and make themselves generally useful; Migwan went to Nyoda's room with her to help her make ready for the journey.

Sahwah was coming up the cellar stairs with a basket of clothes in her hand. Just as she passed the side entry door she heard someone fumbling with the knob on the outside. The knob turned and the door began to open softly. "Who's there?" called Sahwah sharply, switching on the light in the entry and throwing wide the door. There stood Veronica, with her violin under her arm and her hat and coat on. She started back when she saw Sahwah and the two stood looking into each other's eyes. "She hasn't been home, she's still got her violin," was the thought that went through Sahwah's mind.

"I thought you went home with a sick headache from the party," she said in astonishment.

"So did the rest of them," replied Veronica imperturbably.

Their eyes met and held for a second, and it seemed to Sahwah that Veronica looked haggard and haunted.

"Is everybody home?" asked Veronica presently.

"Yes," replied Sahwah, "and, O Veronica--" and she told her the news.

"Oh, poor, poor Nyoda!" cried Veronica, and throwing off her hat and coat she thrust them with her violin into the closet under the stairs and then sped upstairs.

"She didn't have a headache at all, she didn't go home, she went somewhere else," throbbed Sahwah's weary brain. "And whatever she's done, she's scared to death about it," it throbbed on. "Why did she come stealing in the back door that way?"

Worried and perplexed, but still loyal to her promise to say nothing to the others about Veronica, Sahwah went on sorting and carrying up the ironed clothes.

Upstairs Migwan was helping Nyoda get dressed for her journey. Nyoda was still in her George Washington suit, which she had concealed under a long cloak on the way home, and Migwan's hands trembled so with excitement she could hardly take out the endless pins that they had put in with so much fun and laughter a few hours before.

"How did Sherry, happen to be on the ocean?" Nyoda asked wonderingly. "He was in France the last time I heard from him. Why would he be coming to America now?"

Migwan could not answer the question, she could only press her beloved Guardian's hand tight in hers by way of sympathy and then fly back at the pins, which all seemed to be allied against them, for they buried their heads out of sight and thrust their points where Migwan's shaking fingers caught and tore themselves upon them. The suit was off at last and Migwan tucked Nyoda into bed for an hour of rest while she pressed her dark blue silk traveling dress and sewed fresh collars and cuffs into her jacket.

In the next room Veronica was swiftly packing the suitcase. The whole house was filled with confusion and haste. The old portraits on the walls looked down in astonishment at this unwonted turning of night into day, at the lights burning all over the house, from attic to basement, and at the girls running up and downstairs, bumping into each other in their haste and getting more flurried all the time. A smell of coffee pervaded the whole place, and this was soon superseded by the odor of burning toast. In the midst of the confusion the telephone rang and everybody thought someone else was answering it, with the result that nobody answered it and it rang a second time, long and insistently. Sahwah rushed up from the basement; Veronica sped swiftly down from upstairs, followed in a moment by Migwan; Hinpoha hastily snatched the coffee pot off the fire and ran in from the kitchen; Gladys hastened from the pantry; the two boys jumped in from the porch, and at the same moment Nyoda called over the banister and asked if someone would answer the telephone.

Sahwah got there first and snatched down the receiver with a trembling hand while the rest stood expectantly around, fearful of what this midnight message might be. And then after all the call was not for the house at all; the operator had made a wrong connection!

Hinpoha flew back to her toast; Sahwah returned to the basement, limping as she went, having struck her shin against the steps in the hurried trip up. Migwan had pricked her finger when the bell rang, it had startled her so, and a great drop of blood fell on the clean collar, so that she had to rip it out and find another one and sew that in. Then she discovered a button missing and hunted endlessly to find another one to match.

Everything was fixed at last and Migwan ran downstairs to see what was to be done there. Everything was being taken care of, and so, turning off the lights which were blazing unnecessarily in the long parlor, she sank down in a chair to rest a moment. Already the party seemed days in the past--could it be that this was still the same night? A shade flapped in the window, irritating her strained nerves, and she rose hastily and pulled it up. Her hand came in contact with something soft and silky. It was the service flag in the window--the flag that stood for Sherry. Reverently she straightened it out and stood stroking it with shaking fingers. The dark blue star stood out dimly in the light that shone through the window from the outside and the thought came into her mind that soon it might be replaced by a gold star. Tears came into her eyes; she forced them resolutely back and hastened upstairs to tell Nyoda that her hour was up and she must get up and begin to dress. Nyoda was already up and dressed when she went into the room; she was standing in front of the mirror combing her hair. Migwan hastened forward to assist her, reproaching herself that she hadn't come up sooner.

The blue dress was soon on and adjusted and Migwan pinned the collar while Veronica adjusted the cuffs.

Nyoda was checking off on her fingers the things she must take. "Handkerchiefs--did you get them in?" Veronica nodded.

"Towels, soap case, hairpins, buttonhook?"

"Everything," replied Veronica.

"Slippers, bathrobe--"

"I forgot the slippers!" exclaimed Veronica, and sped after them.

The hall clock chimed half past three and Nyoda started nervously.

"Plenty of time," said Migwan soothingly. "Come downstairs now and drink your coffee and eat something."

Nyoda went downstairs and drank several cups of coffee and forced herself to eat some of the scorched toast, although she was not in the least hungry.

"You'll stay here in the house until I come back, won't you, girls?" she said between sips of coffee. "Ill leave you in full charge. You'll be careful, won't you?"

"Yes, Nyoda," they all promised. "We'll be good and see that nothing happens. Don't worry."

"I'll send you my address as soon as I get there, so you can write me. Remember about lighting the gas stove in the kitchen, Hinpoha, it puffs. The bed linen is in the closet off the front room upstairs."

"Yes, Nyoda, we'll find everything, don't worry."

The long peal of an auto horn sounded outside.

"There's the car," said Sahwah. "The boys got it out of the garage and around the front of the house."

"What time is it?"

"A quarter to four. We'd better start, you have to buy your ticket first. Here, let me take the suitcase."

"Where are my gloves?"

"Here they are," said Migwan, handing them to her.

They passed quickly down the front walk and into the waiting automobile. A swift ride through the quiet streets in the first pale glimmerings of the dawn, and they were in the little station, the only ones waiting for the train.

The Captain strode over to the blackboard while Nyoda went to buy her ticket. "Train's on time," he announced, coming back to the group.

In another minute they heard the whistle in the distance, and then the long train roared in and came to a panting halt. The Captain seized Nyoda's suitcase and jumped aboard with it. Nyoda followed and stood still on the train steps to say good-bye to the Winnebagos crowding around.

"Be good, girlies," she said, smiling bravely at them.

"Oh, Nyoda, dear Nyoda! We'll think of you every minute. We'll pray for you and Sherry."

The conductor stood on the platform, watch in hand.

"If you need anything, Nyoda, telegraph and we'll send it"

The conductor dropped his right hand in signal to the engineer, and swung aboard, the wheels began to turn, the Captain leaped down from the other end of the car.

"Good-bye, Nyoda!"

A waving of handkerchiefs on the platform, an answering wave from the car window, and Nyoda was gone. No. 46 had puffed in on time, made its usual five-minute stop, and puffed out on time. But what a difference its coming and departure had made to the Winnebagos! It was all over in such quick time that they hardly had time to draw breath.

They stood on the platform and watched the train out of sight and then turned and climbed up the steps to the street, silent for the most part, with only an occasional exclamation of "What will Nyoda do if Sherry dies?"

Then another swift drive through the silent streets, scarcely any lighter than they had been before, and they were back at Carver House, which suddenly seemed empty and dreary with Nyoda gone.

They sat down to the table and ate up the rest of the toast and drank the rest of the coffee; then the boys started back to their tent in the woods, and the Winnebagos, beginning to feel weak and shaky now that the excitement of getting Nyoda ready had passed, went slowly and sadly up the stairs and crept into bed.

Thoroughly worn out with the strenuous evening and the still more strenuous night that followed it, they finally fell asleep, while the sun rose unwelcomed over Carver Hill and the stair clock chimed half past six in vain.