Chapter X. Who Cut the Wire?
 

The house was packed on this the first night of the Thessalonian play. It was already long past time for the performance to begin. The orchestra finished the overture and waited a few minutes; then began another selection. They played this through, and there was still no indication of the curtain going up. They played a third piece. The house became restless and began to clap for the appearance of the performers. No sign from the stage. Behind the curtain there was pandemonium. When everything was about ready to begin it was discovered that none of the stage lights would work. Neither the foot lights nor the big cluster up over the center of the stage nor any of the side lights could be turned on. A hasty examination of the wiring led to the discovery that the wires which supplied the current had been cut in the room where the switchboard was. The plaster had been broken into in order to reach them. This was the reason that the play was not beginning. The President of the Thessalonians came out in front and explained to the audience that something had gone wrong with the lights, which would cause a delay in the rising of the curtain, but the trouble was being fixed and he begged the indulgence of the house for a few minutes. The orchestra filled in the time by playing lively marches, while the boys behind the scenes worked feverishly to mend the severed wires, and the curtain went up a whole hour after scheduled time.

The first act went off famously. Gladys was a born actress and sustained the difficult role of Marie Latour well. The part where she defies her tyrannical father brought down the house. Sahwah came in for her share of applause too. Seeing her composed manner and hearing her calm voice, no one in the audience could ever have guessed the strenuous experience she had just been through. In the second scene Marie, driven from her home, wanders around in the streets with her child, until, faint from hunger, she sinks to the ground. The scene is laid before the wall of her father's large estate and she falls at his very gates. Gladys made the scene very realistic, and the audience sat tense and sympathetic. "Food, food," moaned Marie Latour, "only a crust to keep the life in me and my child!" She lay weakly in the road, unable to rise. "Food, food," she moaned again. At this moment there suddenly descended, as from the very heavens, a ham sandwich on the end of a string. It dangled within an inch of her nose. Gladys was petrified. The audience sat up in surprise, and a ripple of laughter ran through the house. It was such an unexpected anticlimax. That some one was playing a practical joke Gladys did not for a moment doubt, and she was furious at this ridiculous interruption of her big scene. In the play Marie loses consciousness and is found by a peasant, and it is on this occurrence that the rest of the play hinges. The sudden appearance of the ham sandwich in response to her cry for food was fatal to the pathos of the scene. The rest of the cast, standing in the wings, saw what had happened and were at their wits' end. But Gladys was equal to the occasion.

Moving her head wearily and passing her hand over her eyes she murmured faintly but audibly, "Cruel, cruel mirage to taunt me thus! Vanish, thou image of a fevered brain, thou absurd memory! Come not to mock me!" The actors in the wings, taking their cue from her speech, found the string to which the sandwich was tied and jerked it. The sandwich vanished from the sight of the audience. The scene was saved. The spectators simply passed it over as a more or less clumsy attempt to portray a vision of a disordered brain. The string on the sandwich had been passed over certain rigging above the stage that moved the scenery, and on through a little ventilator that came out on the fourth floor, from which point the manipulator had been able to listen to the speeches on the stage and time the drop of the sandwich. By the time the Thessalonian boys had traced the string to its end the perpetrator of the joke was nowhere to be found. He had fled as soon as the thing had been lowered. The scene ended without further calamity.

In the third scene--the one in the peasant's hut--there is a cat on the stage. The presence of this cat was the signal for further trouble. In one of the tense passages, where Marie Latour is pleading with the son of the peasant to flee for his life before the agents of her father come and capture them both, and the cat lies asleep on the hearth, there was a sudden uproar, and a dog bounded through the entrance of the stage. The cat rushed around in terror and finally ran up the curtain. The lovers parted hastily and tried to capture the dog, but eluding their pursuit he jumped over the footlights into the orchestra, landing with a crash on the keys of the piano, and then out into the audience. Nyoda and three or four of the Winnebagos, sitting together near the front on the first floor of the auditorium, recognized the dog with a good deal of surprise. It was Mr. Bob, Hinpoha's black cocker spaniel. How he had gotten in was a mystery, for Hinpoha herself was not there. Nyoda called to him sharply and he came to her wagging his tail, and allowed himself to be put out with the best nature in the world. But the scene had been spoiled.

During the rest of the evening Nyoda, as well as a number of the other teachers, sat with brows knitted, going over the various things that had happened to interrupt that play. As yet they did not know about the attempt to steal the statue, which Sahwah had accidentally nipped in the bud. But the following week, when the play was all over, and the various occurrences had been made known, there was a day of reckoning at Washington High School. Joe Lanning and Abraham Goldstein were called up before the principal and confronted with Sahwah, who told, to their infinite amazement, every move they had made in carrying off the statue. At first they denied everything as a made-up story gotten up to spite them, but when Sahwah led the way to the barn where she had been confined and triumphantly produced the base of the statue, they saw that further denial was useless and admitted their guilt. They also confessed to being the authors of the sandwich joke and the ones who had brought in the dog. Both were expelled from school.

But the thing which the principal and teachers considered the bigger crime--the cutting of the wires at the back of the stage--was still a mystery. Joe's and Abraham's complicity in the statue affair furnished them with a complete alibi in regard to the other. It was proven, beyond a doubt, that they had not been in the building in the early part of the afternoon nor after they had carried off the statue, until after the wires had been cut. Then who had cut the wires? That was the question that agitated the school. It was too big a piece of vandalism to let slip. The principal, Mr. Jackson, was determined to run down the offender. Joe and Abraham denied all knowledge of the affair and there was no clue. The whole school was up in arms about the matter.

Then things took a rather unexpected turn. In one of the teachers' meetings where the matter was being discussed, one of the teachers, Mr. Wardwell, suddenly got to his feet. He had just recollected something. "I remember," he said, "seeing Dorothy Bradford coming out of the electric room late on the afternoon of the play. She came out twice, once about three o'clock and once about four. Each time she seemed embarrassed about meeting me and turned scarlet." There was a murmur of surprise among the teachers. Nyoda sat up very straight.

The next day Hinpoha was summoned to the office. Unsuspectingly she went. She had been summoned before, always on matters of more or less congenial business. She found Mr. Jackson, Mr. Wardwell and Nyoda together in the private office.

"Miss Bradford," began Mr. Jackson, without preliminary, "Mr. Wardwell tells me he saw you coming out of the electric room on the afternoon of the play. In view of what happened that night, the presence of anybody in that room looks suspicious. Will you kindly state what you did in there?"

Nyoda listened with an untroubled heart, sure of an innocent and convincing reason why Hinpoha had been in that room. Hinpoha, taken completely by surprise, was speechless. To Nyoda's astonishment and dismay, she turned fiery red. Hinpoha always blushed at the slightest provocation. In the stress of the moment she could not think of a single worth-while excuse for having gone into the electric room. Telling the real reason was of course out of the question because she had promised to shield Emily Meeks.

"I left something in there," she stammered, "and went back after it."

"You carried nothing in your hands either time when you came out," said Mr. Wardwell.

Hinpoha was struck dumb. She was a poor hand at deception and was totally unable to "bluff" anything through. "I didn't say I carried anything out," she said in an agitated voice. "I went in after something and it--wasn't there."

"What was it?" asked Mr. Jackson.

"I can't tell you," said Hinpoha.

"How did you happen to leave anything in the electric room?" persisted Mr. Jackson. "What were you doing in there in the first place?"

"I went in to see if I had left something there," said poor Hinpoha, floundering desperately in the attempt to tell a plausible tale and yet not lie deliberately. Then, realizing that she was contradicting herself and getting more involved all the time, she gave it up in despair and sat silent and miserable. Nyoda's expression of amazement and concern was an added torture.

"You admit, then, that you were in the electric room twice on Thursday afternoon, doing something which you cannot explain?" said Mr. Jackson, slowly. Hinpoha nodded, mutely. She never for an instant wavered in her loyalty to Emily.

"There is another thing," continued Mr. Jackson, "that seems to point to the fact that you were in league with those who wished to spoil the play. It was your dog that was let out on the stage in pursuit of the cat."

"I know it was," said Hinpoha, feeling that she was being drawn helplessly into a net from which there was no escape. "But that wasn't my fault. I haven't the slightest idea how he got there. It was pure chance that he was coaxed into the building."

"That may all be," said Mr. Jackson, with frowning wrinkles around the corners of his eyes, "but it looks suspicious."

"You certainly don't think I cut those wires, do you?" said Hinpoha incredulously.

Mr. Jackson looked wise. "You were not at the play yourself, were you?" he asked.

"No," answered Hinpoha.

"Why weren't you?" pursued Mr. Jackson. "Have you anything against the Thessalonian Society?"

"No, not at all," said Hinpoha with a catch in her voice. "I am not going to anything this winter." She looked down at her black dress expressively, not trusting her voice to speak.

"Further," continued Mr. Jackson, "you were seen in the company of Joe Lanning the day before these things happened." Now, Hinpoha had walked home from school with Joe that Wednesday. She had done it merely because she was too courteous to snub him flatly when he had caught up with her on the street. She despised him just as the rest of the class did and avoided him whenever she could, but when brought face to face with him she had not the hardihood to refuse his company. That this innocent act should be misconstrued into meaning that she was mixed up in his doings seemed monstrous. Yet Mr. Jackson apparently believed this to be the truth. Things seemed to be closing around her. To Mr. Jackson her guilt was perfectly clear. She was a friend of Joe Lanning's; she had lent him her dog to work mischief on the stage; she admitted being in the electric room and refused to tell what she had been doing there.

"Well," he said crisply, "somebody cut those wires Thursday Afternoon, and only one person was seen going in and out of the electric room during that time, and that person is yourself. You admit that you were in there doing something which will not bear explanation. It looks pretty suspicious, doesn't it?"

"I didn't do it," Hinpoha declared stoutly.

In her distress she did not dare meet Nyoda's eyes. What was Nyoda thinking of her, anyhow?

"And so," continued Mr. Jackson, not heeding her denial, "until you can give a satisfactory explanation of your presence in the electric room last Thursday I must consider that you had something to do with the cutting of those wires. I have been asked by the Board of Education to look into the matter thoroughly and to punish the culprit with expulsion from school. As all evidence points to you as the guilty person, I shall be obliged, under the circumstances, to expel you."

Hinpoha sat as if turned to stone. The wild beating of her heart almost suffocated her. Expelled from school! But even with that terrible sentence ringing in her ears it never entered her head to betray Emily. If this was to be the price of loyalty, then she would pay the price. There was no other way. She had not been clever enough to explain her presence in the electric room to the satisfaction of Mr. Jackson and yet breathe no word of the real situation, and this was the result. Her head whirled from the sudden calamity which had overwhelmed her; her thoughts were chaos. She hardly heard when Mr. Jackson said curtly, "You may go." As one in a dream she walked out of the office. Nyoda came out with her.

"Of all things," said Mr. Wardwell to Mr. Jackson, when they were left alone, "to think that a girl should have done that thing."

"It seems strange, too," mused Mr. Jackson, "that she should have been able to do it. You would hardly look for a girl to be cutting electric wires, would you? It takes some skill to do that. Where did she learn how to do it?"

"Those Camp Fire Girls," said Mr. Wardwell emphatically, "know everything. I don't know where they learn it, but they do."

Nyoda led Hinpoha into one of the empty club rooms and sat down beside her. "Now, my dear," she said quietly, "will you please tell me the whole story? It is absurd of course to accuse you of cutting those wires, but what were you doing in that room? All you have to do is give a satisfactory explanation and the accusation will be withdrawn." Nyoda's voice was friendly and sympathetic and it was a sore temptation to Hinpoha to tell her the whole thing just as it happened. But she had promised Emily not to tell a living soul, and a promise was a promise with Hinpoha.

"Nyoda," she said steadily, "I was in that electric room twice on Thursday afternoon. I carried something in and I carried it out again. But I can't tell you what it was."

"Not even to save yourself from being expelled?" asked Nyoda curiously.

"Not even to save myself from being expelled," said Hinpoha steadfastly.

And Nyoda, baffled, gave it up. But of one thing she was sure. Whatever silly thing Hinpoha had done that she was ashamed to confess, she had never in the world cut those wires. It was simply impossible for her to have done such a thing. Entirely convinced on this point, Nyoda went back to Mr. Jackson, and told him her belief, begging him not to put his threat of expulsion into execution. But Mr. Jackson was obdurate. There was something under the surface of which Nyoda knew nothing. All the year there had been a certain lawless element in the school which was continually breaking out in open defiance of law and order. Mr. Jackson had been totally unable to cope with the situation. He had been severely criticised for not having succeeded in stamping out this disorder, and was accused of not being able to control his scholars. The events connected with the giving of the play had been widely published--it was impossible to keep them a secret--and Mr. Jackson had been taken to task by those above him in the educational department for not being able to find out who had cut the wires. Smarting under this censure, he had determined to fix the blame at an early date at all costs, and when the opportunity came of fastening a suspicion onto Hinpoha he had seized it eagerly, and intended to publish far and wide that he had found the guilty one. Therefore he met Nyoda's appeal with stony indifference.

"I shall consider her guilty until she has proven her innocence," he maintained obstinately, "and you will find that I am right. That is nothing but a made-up story about going in there for something she had left. You noticed how she contradicted herself half a dozen times in as many minutes. She is the guilty one, all right," and in sore distress Nyoda left him.

The axe fell and Hinpoha was expelled from school. If lightning had fallen on a clear day and cleft the roof open, the pupils could not have been more dumbfounded. Hinpoha was the very last one any one would have suspected of cutting wires. In fact, many were openly incredulous. But Mr. Jackson took care to make all the damaging facts public, and Hinpoha's fair name was dragged in the mud. Emily Meeks was one who stood loyal to Hinpoha. She was ignorant that it was to shield her Hinpoha had refused to tell what she was doing in the electric room, as she had gone home before Hinpoha had retouched the picture, but she refused to believe that her angel, as she always thought of Hinpoha, could be guilty of any wrong doing.

As for Hinpoha herself, life was not worth living. The scene with Aunt Phoebe, when she heard of her disgrace, was too painful to record here. Suffice to say that Hinpoha was regarded as a criminal of the worst type and was never allowed to forget for one instant that she had disgraced the name of Bradford forever. It was awful not to be going to school and getting lessons. Those days at home were nightmares that she remembered to the end of her life with a shudder. The only ray of comfort she had was the fact that Nyoda and the Winnebagos stood by her stanchly. "I can bear it," she said to Nyoda forlornly, "knowing that you believe in me, but if you ever went back on me I couldn't live." Nyoda urged her no more to tell her secret, for she suspected that it concerned some one else whom Hinpoha would not expose, and trusted to time to solve the mystery and remove the stain from Hinpoha's name.

The excitement over, school settled down into its old rut. Joe Lanning's father sent him away to military school and Abraham's father began to use his influence to have him reinstated. Mr. Goldstein put forth such a touching plea about Abraham's having been led astray by Joe Lanning and being no more than a tool in his hands, and Abraham promised so faithfully that he would never deviate from the path of virtue again, now that his evil genius was removed, if they would only let him come back and graduate, that he was given the chance. Nothing new came up about the cutting of the wires except that the end of a knife blade was found on the floor under the place where the hole had been made in the wall. There were no marks of identification on it and nothing was done about it.

One day, Dick Albright, in the Physics room on the third floor of the building, stood by the window and looked across at a friend of his who was standing at the window of the Chemistry room. The two rooms faced each other across an open space in the back of the building, which was designed to let more light into certain rooms. This space was only open at the third and fourth floors. The second floor was roofed over with a skylight at this point. It was after school hours and Dick was alone in the room. So, apparently, was his friend. Dick raised the window and called across the space to the other boy, who raised his window and answered him. From talking back and forth they passed to throwing a ball of twine to each other. Once Dick failed to catch it, and falling short of the window, it rolled down upon the roof of the second story.

Dick promptly climbed out of the window, and sliding down the waterspout, reached the roof and went in pursuit of the ball. One of the windows opening from the third story onto this open space was that in the electric room, and it was under this window that the ball came to a standstill. As Dick stooped to pick it up he found a knife lying beside it. He brought it along with him and climbed back into his room. Then he pulled it out and looked at it. It was an ordinary pocket knife with a horn handle. On one side of the handle there was a plate bearing the name F. Boyd. "Frank Boyd's knife," said Dick to himself. "He must have dropped it out of the window." Idly he opened the blade. It was broken off about half an inch from the point. Dick began to turn things over in his mind. A piece of a knife blade had been found in the electric room. A knife with a broken blade had been found on the roof under the window of the electric room. That knife belonged to Frank Boyd. The inference was very simple. Frank had climbed in the window of the electric room from the roof of the second story and cut the wires, and then climbed out again, and so was not seen coming out of the room into the hall. In climbing out he had dropped the knife without noticing it. He had already left a piece of the blade inside. Frank Boyd was one of the lawless spirits who had caused much of the trouble all through the year. He had also been blackballed at the last election of the Thessalonian Society. It was very easy to believe that he would try to do something to spite the Thessalonians.

Dick hastened down to Mr. Jackson's office with the knife and asked him to fit the broken piece to the shortened blade. It fitted perfectly. Beyond a doubt it was Frank Boyd and not Hinpoha who had cut the wires in the electric room. The next morning Frank was confronted with the evidence of the knife and confessed his guilt. He had been in league with Joe Lanning, and cutting the wires had been his part of the job. He had done it in the early part of the evening while the actors were making up for their parts, getting in and out of the window, just as Dick had figured out. No one had detected him in the act and the lucky incident of Hinpoha's having been seen coming out of the electric room turned all suspicion away from him. Justice in his case was tardy but certain, and Frank Boyd was expelled, and Hinpoha was reinstated. Mr. Jackson, in his elation over having caught the real culprit and effectually breaking up the "Rowdy Ring," was gracious enough to make a public apology to Hinpoha. So the blot was wiped off her scutcheon, and Emily's secret was still intact, for no one ever asked again what Hinpoha had been doing in the electric room on the afternoon of the Thessalonian play.