Chapter XXV. Mystery
 

By the light streaming through the doorway Jasper could see that Betty's face was very pale. She was greatly agitated as well, and her teeth chattered as she spoke.

"You have been running hard," Jasper remarked. "You had better come in and rest awhile."

"No, no," the girl protested. "Don't let us wait a minute. We must find Mr. David!"

"Are you sure he isn't home?" Jasper asked.

"Yes, I am sure he isn't there."

"But he may have slipped in and you didn't hear him."

"No, no, he couldn't have done it. I was listening and watching every minute for him to come back. I am certain I would have seen him."

"Does Mrs. Peterson know where you are?"

"No. She was asleep when I left. I only intended, to come a short distance for I was sure that I would meet Mr. David coming back. But when I didn't, I came all the way here. Oh, let us go at once."

Jasper stepped back into the room, and put out the light. He was about to close the door when he paused.

"Wait a minute," he said, "until I get my lantern. We can't do anything without a light. Mr. David may have fainted by the side of the road. He is an old man, you know."

It did not take Jasper long to get the lantern, and soon they were speeding across the field toward the main highway. He noticed that Betty kept very close to him, and as they drew near the Haven she seemed to be trembling violently. She started often, and Jasper wondered what was the matter with her.

"Were you not frightened to come all the way alone?" he asked.

"Not at first," was the reply. "But I was frightened after a while and I ran hard."

"What frightened you? Were you afraid of the dark?"

"No--yes," Betty faltered. Jasper wondered at her answer, but made no comment.

All along the road they watched most carefully, thinking they might find David. Especially careful was this search as they neared the Haven but not a trace of him could they find.

The Petersons were greatly concerned over the missing man. The captain suggested that the neighbours should be notified and a search-party should start out at once. As this seemed the only thing to do, Jasper hurried to the village and aroused Andy Forbes from his slumbers. It took the storekeeper several minutes to grasp the significance of the affair, and Jasper had to do considerable explaining.

"So you tell me that Crazy David is lost?" he at length queried.

"Certainly. Isn't that what I have been trying to tell you? We must get a search-party out after him at once. I fear that evil has befallen the old man. He may be wandering off in the woods somewhere, as his mind seems to be uncertain at times."

"I'm afraid we can't do much to-night," and Andy scratched his head in perplexity. "However, I'll see what I can do. Maybe I can get a bunch of men together before morning."

"That's good," Jasper encouraged. "You round up the men here, and I'll go to the camp down the road. There are several men there and I'll get one of them to hurry to the falls and bring in all the men. I feel responsible for the welfare of David as I had strict instructions to look after him. If anything has befallen him I shall never forgive myself."

It took Jasper over an hour to go to the camp and bring back a half dozen men. In the meantime a dozen or more had left the village with lanterns to begin the search. These he met up the road. They had searched every nook and corner, but had found no trace of the missing one.

"It's no use hunting when it is so dark," Andy informed him. "We might as well look for a needle in a hay-stack. I move that we wait until morning."

This suggestion was carried out, and while most of the men went back to their homes in order to get something to eat, Jasper made his way to the Haven. Mrs. Peterson met him at the door and her face bore a worried expression.

"Have you found him?" she enquired. "We have been so uneasy."

"No," was the reply. "We must wait until morning. It is no use groping about in the dark. Where is Betty?"

"She's in Mr. David's room. I am so anxious about her. She has been crying and wringing her hands ever since you left. I cannot tell what has come over the girl."

"She is fretting about David, no doubt."

"Yes, that may account for some of her grief," and Mrs. Peterson's eyes rested thoughtfully upon the floor. "But there's something else troubling her, mark my word. She's been nearly frightened to death over something, and the way she sits and shivers at times is hard for me to stand."

"But won't she tell you what's the matter?" Jasper asked.

"I have asked her over and over again, but she always shakes her head, and falls to sobbing and moaning worse than ever. Poor child, I feel so sorry for her."

"It is strange," Jasper mused. "May I see her? Perhaps it is only the excitement that is troubling her."

Betty's face brightened somewhat as Jasper entered the room. This was for only an instant, however, and then she buried her face in her hands and sobbed as if her heart would break.

"Betty, Betty, what is the matter?" Jasper asked. "Tell me what is worrying you?"

"It's about Mr. David!" she moaned. "He's lost and I'm sure he's dead!"

"But we hope to find him," Jasper soothed. "Just as soon as it is light enough we are going to continue our search for him. He must have wandered away into the woods, and no doubt we shall soon find him. There is something else troubling you, is there not? Won't you tell me what it is?"

But the girl shook her head, and try as he might Jasper could not induce her to talk. She was determined to remain obstinately silent.

There was but one person to whom Jasper felt he could turn for assistance, and that was Lois. He had thought of her before, and wondered if she had heard the news of David's disappearance. He felt that it was unlikely as no one would think of carrying the news there. As he stood for a few minutes looking upon Betty who was sitting before him the very embodiment of abject misery, he believed that Lois was the only one who could comfort her, and perhaps induce her to reveal the cause of her unusual state of agitation. Telling the girl to be brave, and to keep up hope for David's safe return, he left the Haven and hastened down the road toward the main highway, and then took a short cut across the field toward the Sinclair house. Far off in the east light was breaking above the horizon, and he knew that in a short time the search would again begin for the missing man, and he must be there.

Not a sign of life could he observe around the place, and he wondered how he could awaken Lois and not disturb the whole household. As he drew near the verandah he noticed that a light shone from one of the upstairs windows. Whether it was Lois' room or not he could not tell, but scarcely had he stepped upon the verandah and tapped gently upon the door, ere it was opened and Lois stood before him, dressed in her out-of-door clothes.

"What's the matter?" she asked before Jasper had time to say a word.

"Have you heard anything?" Jasper enquired,

"No, nothing," was the reply. "But I saw the lights near the Haven and along the road and felt sure that something was wrong."

Jasper noted that Lois' face was very pale, and that she was trembling as if cold. He did not know that she had been unable to sleep owing to the strange presentiment which had come to her the previous evening. So strong had this at last become that she had risen and looked out of the window facing the Haven. It was then that she saw the moving lights, and her worst tears were confirmed.

"David is missing," Jasper told her, "and we are waiting for daylight to have another search for him."

"David is missing!" Lois slowly repeated, as if she had not heard aright. "Have you any idea where he is?"

"No. I left him last night on the road near the Haven. He may have wandered off somewhere into the woods. But Betty is feeling very badly, and I have come thinking that perhaps you might be able to comfort her."

"I shall go at once," Lois replied. "I am so glad you have come for me, as I was almost frantic wondering what was going on."

As they made their way toward the Haven Jasper told Lois more about Betty and her state of agitation.

"What is the cause of it, do you suppose?" Lois asked. "Do you think it is in connection with Mr. David?"

"Not altogether, I am quite certain. There is something else on her mind. She might explain to you what it is when she would tell no one else."

They had just reached the gate leading to the Haven when Andy Forbes, accompanied by several men, swung up the road.

"I must leave you now," Jasper told Lois, "and assist in the search."

"Please let us know as soon as you find any trace of Mr. David," Lois replied. "I shall stay with Betty for a while."

It was quite light now, and as the men walked along the road they searched most carefully every nook and corner, but all in vain.

"He is not anywhere here," Andy remarked. "But he may have wandered into the woods along that old winter road. I suggest that we follow it for a while. He may be wandering about in there. We can comb the woods if he's not on the road."

The men moved very quietly, keenly alert, each hoping to make the discovery first. To Jasper there seemed something uncanny about the way they moved so silently onward at that weird morning hour. A spirit of depression came upon him, and his companions appeared like enemies. He felt that in some unaccountable way they believed that he was to blame for all the trouble, and that he should have taken more care of the old man.

After they had gone some distance along the old road and had found nothing, they stopped and held a consultation as to what they should do.

"Suppose we divide up and search through the woods," Jasper suggested. "Andy, you and Dave come with me, and we'll work back on this side of the road, while the rest of the men do the same on the other."

Acting upon this suggestion, they at once plunged into the woods and took up their positions several rods from one another. Jasper was nearest the road. Next to him was Dave, while Andy was farthest off. Walking abreast among the trees, they were thus enabled to examine every portion of the ground. In a way it seemed almost a hopeless task, but there was nothing else for them to do. They knew that other men would be scouring up and down the main road, as well as through the fields, and in fact every place where David might have strayed.

They had been thus searching for some time and were not far from the main highway, when they heard loud shouting from the men on the other side of the old wood-road. Feeling sure that they were needed, the three men hurried forward in the direction from whence the sounds came. Jasper led, and his heart beat fast as he bounded through the woods, unheeding scratches upon his face and hands from the rough branches which brushed his body.

It took him only a few minutes to accomplish this, and he suddenly came upon the men grouped around something which was lying upon the ground. When his eyes rested upon the form of David huddled there, he gave a half-suppressed cry, and brushing the men aside, dropped upon his knees by the old man's side.

"Is he dead?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

"Dead as a door nail," Jim Goban replied. "Guess he's been dead fer some time by the look of things. Mighty bad piece of business this, I call it."

"Do you suppose he was killed?" Jasper enquired.

"Sure. There's no doubt about that from the mark on his head. He's been knocked down like an ox."

A shiver shook Jasper's body at these words, and he straightened himself up. He did not notice that several of the men were watching him closely and observing his every word and action.

"Who could have done such a diabolical thing?" Jasper mused, as if to himself. "Let us examine the ground very carefully to see if the man who did this deed left any trace. He might have dropped something."

"We have looked," Jim replied, "and we found this."

Jasper's eyes had been searching the ground, but something in Jim's voice caused him to turn suddenly, and as he did so his heart almost stopped beating and his face turned ghastly pale, for there in the man's out-stretched hand was an envelope with his own name upon it.

"Where did you find that?" he gasped, as he reached out to take it.

But Jim drew back, while an expression of exultation gleamed in his eyes.

"No, I guess I better keep it," he replied. "It might come in handy later on. We found it right there," and he pointed to a spot near where the dead man was lying. "Guess we all saw it at once."

A sickening feeling suddenly overwhelmed Jasper, and he felt faint. He looked keenly into the faces of the men standing near, but their eyes were averted. Did they believe him to be guilty of such a foul deed? he asked himself. Something told him that they did, and the less he now said the better it would be. He wanted to get away from their presence to think it all over.

"You better carry the body to the Haven," he at length suggested in a voice as calm as possible. "I'm afraid I can't be of any more service."

With that, he turned and walked rapidly away, leaving the men staring after him with suspicious, wondering eyes.