Chapter XIV. An Automobile and a Driver.
 

Along in the last week of May, Nyoda, on a shopping tour downtown, dropped into a restaurant for a bit of lunch. As she was sitting down to the table, another young woman came and sat down opposite her. The two glanced at each other.

"Why, Elizabeth Kent!" exclaimed the latest arrival.

"Why, Norma Williamson!" exclaimed Nyoda, recognizing an old college friend.

"Not Norma Williamson any more," said the friend, blushing as she drew off her glove and displayed the rings on her fourth finger; "Norma Bates."

"What are you doing to pass the time away?" asked the pretty little matron when she had exhausted her own experiences of the last few years. Nyoda told her about her teaching and the guardianship of the Winnebagos. "Camp Fire Girls?" said Mrs. Bates. "How delightful! I think that is one of the best things that ever happened to girls. If I were not so frightfully busy I would take a group too--I may yet. But I wish you would bring your girls out to visit us. We're living on the Lake Shore for the summer. Camp Fire Girls would certainly know how to have a good time at our place. We have a launch and a sailboat and horses to ride and a tennis court. Can't you come out next Saturday?" Nyoda thought perhaps they could. "I'll tell you what to do," said Mrs. Bates, warming to the scheme. "Come out Friday after school and stay until Sunday night. That will give the girls more chance to do things. We have plenty of room."

"The same hospitable Norma Williamson as of old," said Nyoda, smiling at her. "Don't you remember how we girls used to flock to your room in college, and when it was apparently as fall as it could get you would always make room for one more?"

"I love to have people visit me," said Mrs. Bates simply.

"By the way," said Nyoda, as she rose to depart, "how do you get to Bates Villa?"

"Take the Interurban car," replied Mrs. Bates, "and get off at Stop 42. The Limited leaves the Interurban Station at four o'clock; that would be a good car to come on."

"All right," said Nyoda, extending her hand in farewell; "we'll be there."

The news of the invitation to spend a week-end in the country was received with a shout by the Winnebagos. Their only regret was that Sahwah would be unable to go. "Never mind, Sahwah," comforted Nyoda, "Mrs. Bates wants us to come out again when the water is warm enough to go in bathing and by that time your hip will be all right."

On Friday, after school was out, Nyoda and Gladys left the building together. "You are coming home with me, as we planned, until it is time to take the car?" asked Nyoda.

"I'm afraid I'll have to go home first, after all," said Gladys. "I came away in such a hurry this morning that I forgot my sweater and my tennis shoes and I really must have them. You come home with me."

But on arriving at the Evans house they found nobody home. Gladys rang and waited and rang again, but there was no answer. Gladys frowned with vexation. "I simply must have that sweater and those shoes," she said. "There's no use in waiting until some one comes home; it'll be too late. Mother has gone for the day and father is out of town, and if Katy has been given a day off she won't be at home until evening. We'll have to break into the house, that's all there is to it."

Feeling like burglars, they tried all the windows on the first floor and the basement. Everything was locked tightly. Gladys began to feel desperate. "Do you suppose I had better break the pantry window," she asked, "or possibly one of the cellar ones? I'll pay for it out of my allowance. I think the pantry window would be the best, because the door at the head of the cellar stairs is likely to be locked and we might not be able to get upstairs if we did get into the cellar."

Nyoda was inspecting the upper windows of the house. "There is one open a little," she said; "the one over the side entrance." Gladys abandoned her idea of breaking the pantry window and bent her energies to reaching the open one. With the aid of Nyoda she climbed up the post of the little side porch, swung herself over the edge of the roof and raised the window.

"Stop where you are!" called a commanding voice. Gladys and Nyoda both started guiltily. A man was running across the lawn from the next estate. "Stop or I'll call the police," he said, coming upon the drive.

He looked much disconcerted when Nyoda and Gladys both burst into a ringing peal of laughter. "Oh, it's too funny for anything," said Gladys, wiping her eyes, "to be caught breaking into your own house. You're a good man, whoever you are, for keeping an eye on the house," she said to the puzzled-looking arrester, "but the joke is on you this time. This is my father's house. I'm Gladys Evans. Give him one of my cards out of my purse, Nyoda, so he'll believe it."

"I beg your pardon," said the man, convinced that Gladys had a right to enter the Evans's house by the second-story window if she chose. "I'm the new gardener next door and I didn't know you, and it always looks suspicious to see such goings-on."

"You did perfectly right," said Gladys, as he went back to his work.

Laughing extravagantly over their being taken for housebreakers, Gladys climbed into the window and went downstairs. Opening the front door a crack, she gave a low whistle which she fondly believed to be a burglar-like signal. Nyoda answered with a similar whistle. "Is that you, Diamond Dick?" she asked in a thrilling whisper.

"Who stands without?" asked Gladys.

"It is I, Dark-lantern Pete," hissed Nyoda.

"Give the countersign," commanded Gladys.

"Six buckets of blood!" replied Nyoda in a curdling voice.

Gladys admitted her into the house and they both sat down on the stairs and shrieked with laughter. "Oh, I can hardly wait until we get down to the car, so we can tell the other girls," said Gladys. "Caught in the act! My fair name is ruined. Now for some dinner."

"I'm hungry for a pickle," she said as they foraged in the pantry for something to eat. "Wait a minute until I go down cellar and get some." As she opened the door of the cool cellar she started back in surprise. On the floor lay Katy, the maid, unconscious. An overturned chair beside her and a shattered light globe told how she had tried to screw a new bulb into the fixture in the ceiling and had tipped over with the chair, striking her head on the cement floor. "Nyoda, come down here," called Gladys. Nyoda hastened down. Together they laid the unconscious girl on a pile of carpet and tried to revive her. After a few minutes' work Nyoda went upstairs and called the ambulance to take Katy to the hospital. When she had been examined by a surgeon and pronounced badly stunned but not seriously injured, Gladys and Nyoda breathed a sigh of relief and left her in the care of the hospital.

"We've had enough excitement to-day to last a month," said Gladys, as they hastened tack to the house the second time to get the sweater and shoes. "I'm all tired out."

"So am I," said Nyoda.

"We have just time enough to make that four o'clock car, and none to spare," said Gladys, as they rode toward town in the street-car. As if everything were conspiring against them to-day, a heavy truck, loaded with boxes, got caught in the car-track right in front of them and blocked traffic for ten minutes. Gladys and Nyoda looked tragically at each other at this delay. Nyoda held up her watch significantly. It was ten minutes to four. Just then Gladys spied a man she knew in an automobile, slowly passing the car. She called to him through the open window. "Will you take us in if we get off the car?" she asked. "We're trying to make the four o'clock Limited."

"Certainly," agreed the obliging friend. The transfer of seats was soon made. "How much time have you?" asked the friend as he shoved in the spark.

"Ten minutes," replied Gladys.

"We'll make it," said the friend, dodging between the vehicles that were standing around the disabled truck, helping to pull it from the car-tracks. Getting into a clear road, he opened the throttle and they proceeded like the wind for about six blocks. Then, for no apparent reason, the car slowed down, and with a whining whir of machinery came to a dead stop. "I'm afraid I can't make good my promise to catch that car," said the friend in a vexed tone, after vainly trying to start the car for several minutes. "I'll have to be towed to a garage," Nyoda and Gladys jumped out, hailed a passing street-car and reached the station just five minutes too late. The Limited had already pulled out.

"Five girls with red ties?" repeated the crossing policeman when they made inquiries to find out if the other girls had gone and left them. "They all got on the Limited." There was no doubt about their having gone, then.

"You know, you said if any were late they'd get left," said Gladys. "Whoever was here for the car was to go and not wait. Won't they laugh, though, at you being the late one?"

"There won't be another Limited for two hours," said Nyoda impatiently, "and the local takes twice as long to get there. I'll telephone Mrs. Bates that we missed this car but will come out on the next Limited."

"Missed the car?" said Mrs. Bates, when they had her on the wire. "That's too bad. But you won't have to wait for the other Limited. Our driver is in town to-day with the automobile and he can bring you out. He's in Morrison's now ordering some supplies, and the car is at the corner of ----th Avenue and L---- Street. Just get into the car and it'll be all right. John always calls me up before he starts for home and I'll tell him about you. It's a blue car, rather bright, with a cane streamer."

Much cheered by the thought of an automobile ride through the country instead of a two-hour wait and the prospect of being packed like sardines into the crowded interurban car, Nyoda and Gladys moved down to the corner of ----th Avenue and L---- Street and found the car just as Mrs. Bates had said. With a sigh of comfort they settled down on the cushions. "Our struggles are over," said Nyoda, leaning back luxuriously and counting over the various things that had happened to them since leaving school at noon. In a few moments the driver appeared, touched his hat respectfully to the two girls in the tonneau, and got into the front seat without any comment. He had his orders from Mrs. Bates.

"It's just like Norma Williamson to have a blue car with blue cushions," said Nyoda, as they sped through the streets toward the city limits. "She was always so fond of blue in college. And this cane streamer is just the finishing touch. She always liked things trimmed up gaily. It's a pleasant thing for the Winnebagos that I met her that day. She'll be a regular fairy godmother to us." Talking happily about the fun they would have on this week-end party, they rode along the pleasant country roads, bordered with flowering apple trees, and drank in the sweet-scented air with unbounded delight. "Could anything be lovelier than the country in May?" sighed Nyoda.

"Wouldn't it be a joke," said Gladys, "if we were to get there ahead of the others, after missing the car? Wouldn't they stare, though, to find us waiting for them? We must be nearly there now." The automobile left the main road and turned down toward the lake. "That must be the place," continued Gladys, as a white house came into view far in the distance.

"I don't see any of the girls waiting for us," said Nyoda. "I declare, I believe we're here first. Oh, what a joke!" The estate through which they were driving was a very large one, much of it covered with great trees. The house was painted white, and perched directly on the edge of the cliff. The automobile halted before the porch and Nyoda and Gladys got out. A woman, evidently a servant, came to the screen door and held it open, motioning them to come in. Neither Mrs. Bates nor any of the girls were in evidence. The servant said nothing.

"I believe they're all hiding on us!" said Nyoda, getting a sudden light on this apparently neglectful reception. "I know Norma's tricks of old. If we could only think of some way to turn the laugh on them!" The servant who had admitted them led the way to an inner room and opened a door, stepping aside to let them go first. Then she followed and closed the door after them. They found that they were in an elevator. The woman pushed a button and they began to rise. "Of all things, an elevator in a country house!" said Gladys. They rose to a height which must have equalled the third story of the house, although they passed no open floor. They came to a halt before an opening covered with an iron grating. To the girls it looked like the ordinary elevator entrance. At a touch from the woman the grating moved aside and they stepped out into the room. The elevator descended noiselessly and Nyoda and Gladys were alone.

"It's a tower room!" said Gladys. The chamber they were in was square, about fifteen by fifteen, furnished as a bedroom. Through a door which opened at one side they could see a luxurious tiled bath. The walls and ceiling of the chamber were tinted a deep violet, and the covers on the bed, dresser, table and the upholstery of the chairs were of the same shade. The lamp globes hanging from the ceiling were deep purple.

"What an extraordinary color to decorate a room in," said Nyoda. "I wonder if this is where we are going to sleep. Where can Mrs. Bates be, I wonder?" she said, getting rather impatient for the joke to be sprung.

Just at this time Gladys made a discovery. There was only one window in the room, curtained with heavy cretonne, purple, to match the rest of the hangings. Drawing the curtain aside to look out at the landscape, she suddenly stood still, frozen to the spot. At her exclamation Nyoda turned around and also stood as if turned to stone. The window was barred! "What does it mean?" asked Gladys in a horrified voice. The two hastened back to the elevator entrance and looked for the button to summon the elevator. There was none. They called down the shaft repeatedly, but there was no answer. As they stood listening for sounds from below they heard the automobile which had brought them start up and drive away from the house. After that there was not another sound of any kind. An unnamable terror seized them both. Each read the other's fear in her eyes. Rushing to the window, they looked out. There was nothing to be seen but the lake stretching out before them, calm and smiling in the May sunshine. The boom of the waves sounded directly beneath them, and they knew that the tower was on the extreme edge of the bluff.

"This is not Norma Bates's house," said Nyoda in a frightened voice. "She said that they were a hundred feet back from the lake."

"Whose house is it, then?" asked Gladys.

"I can't imagine," said Nyoda. "It's all a mistake somewhere."

"But that was the Bates's automobile, all right, that we got into," said Gladys.

"Yes," said Nyoda reflectively; "bright blue with a cane streamer, standing at the corner of ----th Avenue and L---- Street. But was it the right one?" she asked suddenly, putting her hands to her head. "That driver never said a word, just got in and drove off. What on earth are we into?"

Gladys's face suddenly went as white as chalk. "Nyoda!" she gasped, clutching the other girl's arm.

"What is it?" asked Nyoda.

"You read every day in the papers of girls disappearing," said Gladys faintly, "never to be heard of again. Have we--have we--disappeared?"

"I don't know," said Nyoda, with thoughts whirling. She turned away from the window, toward the elevator. Not a sound of any kind had been heard, and yet when she turned around there was the elevator up again with the same woman in it who had brought them up. Instead of opening the door, however, she pressed something and a little slide opened at about the height of her head. Through this she passed a supper tray, which she set on a shelf on the wall at the side of the elevator. Gladys and Nyoda hastened toward her.

"What is the meaning of this?" asked Nyoda. The woman made no answer. "In whose house are we?" demanded Nyoda. Still no reply. "Answer me," said Nyoda sharply. The woman pointed to her ears and shook her head, then pointed to her lips and shook her head. "She's deaf and dumb!" exclaimed Nyoda. The woman pressed a button and the elevator sank from sight.

Nyoda and Gladys faced each other in consternation. The mystery was becoming deeper. Beyond a doubt they were not in Mrs. Bates's house; beyond a doubt they were the victims of some mistake; but how was the mistake to be cleared up if they could not make themselves understood? They looked the room over thoroughly for some clew to the mystery. They found none. There was no door leading from the room except the one opening into the bath. There was no door leading out from the bath, to any other room; neither was there any window. The little room was lighted by electricity. As in the other room, everything here was violet-colored. The tiled walls, the floor, the calcimined ceiling, the light globe, the enameled medicine chest, the outside of the bathtub, and even a little three-legged stool, were all the same shade. The wonder of the girls increased momentarily.

"Can this be real," asked Nyoda, looking around her in a daze, "or are we in the middle of some nightmare? Pinch me to see if I'm awake."

"We're awake, all right," said Gladys.

"Then have we dropped back into one of the novels of Dumas? Can this be the year 1915? Imprisoned in a lonely tower, with no window except one over the lake, and that window barred. How did we get here, anyway?" she asked wearily, her head spinning with the effort to make head or tail out of their position. "Let's see, just how was it? We missed the Limited, telephoned Mrs. Bates, and she told us that her automobile was at the corner of ----th Avenue and L---- Street--a bright blue automobile with a cane streamer--and we should get in and the driver would come and take us out to Bates Villa. We went down to the corner, found the automobile, got in, and the driver came and drove off and we landed here." Her temples throbbed as she tried to recall anything out of the way in the business. But no light came. The whole thing was mysterious, inexplicable, grotesque.

"Hadn't we better eat something?" suggested Gladys gently. "It evidently isn't their intention to starve us, whatever they are keeping us here for."

"You are right," said Nyoda, and she lifted the tray down from the shelf. The dishes and silver were of good quality, but the knives were so dull that it was impossible to cut anything with them. After vainly trying to make an impression on a piece of meat, Gladys threw her knife aside impatiently.

"They certainly never made those knives to cut with," she said.

At her remark Nyoda raised her head suddenly. She thought she saw a ray of light on the situation. "Gladys," she said, "do you know what kind of people they give dull knives to? It's insane people! This room was undoubtedly designed for some one afflicted in that way. That is why the window is barred, and there is no door, and why the room is done in lavender. Lavender has a soothing and depressing effect on people's nerves and would probably keep an insane person from becoming violent. We got here through some awful mistake."

Gladys shuddered violently. "How horrible!" she said. "I suppose that woman actually considers us insane. How long do you suppose they will keep us here?"

"Only until they find out their mistake," answered Nyoda, "which I hope will be soon. I shall write a note and give it to the woman when she comes up again."

Both their spirits revived when they arrived at this theory, and they returned to their supper with good appetites. "I wish I could cut this meat," sighed Gladys. Then she brightened. "I have my Wohelo knife in my handbag," she said, rising and going over to the bed where her coat lay. She stopped in disappointment when she opened the bag. The knife was not there. "I remember now," she said; "I took it out just before we left home and must have forgotten to put it back in again, we left in such a hurry."

"What will the girls think, anyway, when we fail to arrive at the Bates's?" said Nyoda.

"They'll probably telephone to town," said Gladys, "and mother will know I didn't get there and she will be frantic." She lost all her appetite with a rush when this thought came to her.

They waited impatiently for the return of the woman with the tray. Nyoda wrote a note and had it ready for her. It read:

"There has been some mistake. We are not the persons you intended to keep here."

But the woman did not come. Darkness fell outside the window and they lighted the lights in the room, but still there was no movement of the elevator. They spent the evening pacing up and down the room, discussing the mysterious situation in which they found themselves, until from sheer weariness they lay down on the bed. They did not undress and they left the lights burning, intending to watch for the return of the woman. They set the tray on the floor at some distance from the elevator.

"Can it be possible," said Gladys, "that it was only this afternoon that we broke into our house? It seems years ago." Nyoda lay staring at the elevator shaft, awaiting the return of the cage.

"This purple glare over everything hurts my eyes," she said. She closed them a minute to get relief. When she opened them again there was a broad streak of light coming in through the window. The lights were out in the room and the tray had disappeared from the floor. Gladys lay sound asleep, her head pillowed on her arm. Nyoda started up and was on the point of rousing Gladys. "No, I'll let her sleep," she thought; "it's a good thing she can."

She went to the window and looked out through the bars at the sun rising over the water. There was the same old lake with which she had been familiar all her life, with the cliffs jutting out in points, one always a little farther out than the other, to form the great curve of the shore line. She must have passed this place dozens of times while riding in the lake boats. Here was a scene she had admired many times from the open shore, and now she was looking at it from behind bars, a prisoner. It was too grotesque to be true. She turned pensively toward the bed and noticed with a start that a tray containing breakfast for two stood on the shelf beside the elevator. And yet she had not heard a sound! Gladys was still asleep on the bed. As Nyoda stood looking down at her she woke up and stared around the room uncomprehendingly. She could not place herself at first. Then at the sight of the violet room the events of yesterday came back to her.

They ate breakfast with what appetite they could and then sat down close beside the elevator shaft to be sure and see the deaf-mute when she came, for it seemed impossible to detect her visit when they had their backs turned. While they waited they examined the iron grating for the door opening, but found none. There was apparently no break in the scroll-work anywhere, no hinge, no slide arrangement. "Did we come into the room through there, or did we only imagine it?" asked Nyoda, completely baffled. "Surely we didn't come through that little grating that opens on top, did we? I declare, I'm getting so bewildered that if any one told us we did come in that way I wouldn't dispute them."

Almost while she was speaking the elevator cage shot rapidly and noiselessly into view and the deaf-mute opened the slide to take the tray. Instead of giving it to her, however, they gave her the note first. She took it and read it and then looked at the two girls in silence. "Maybe she would write something if you gave her a pencil," suggested Gladys.

Nyoda handed the woman a pencil through the iron scroll-work. She wrote something on the bottom of the paper and handed it back to Nyoda. Nyoda took the piece of paper and read:

"There is no mistake about your being here."

As she stood in open-mouthed astonishment the elevator sank from view.