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“Where are you going, my pretty maid, and why the step ladder?” said Nyoda to Migwan one morning. “Have your beans grown up so high over night that you have to climb a ladder to pick them?”
“Come and see!” said Migwan, mysteriously. Nyoda followed her to the front lawn. Migwan set the ladder up beside a dead tree, from which the branches had been sawn, leaving a slender trunk about seven feet high. On top of this Migwan proceeded to nail a flat board.
“Are you going to live on a pillar, like St. Simeon Stylites?” asked Nyoda, curiously, as Migwan mounted the ladder with a basin of water in her hand.
“O come, Nyoda,” said Migwan, “don’t you know a bird bathtub when you see one?”
“A bathtub, is it?” said Nyoda. “Now I breathe easily again. But why so extremely near the earth?”
Migwan laughed at her chaffing. “You have to put them high up,” she explained, “or else the cats get the birds when they are bathing. Mr. Landsdowne told me how to make it.” The other girls wandered out and inspected the drinking fountain-bathtub. Hinpoha closed one eye and looked critically at the outfit.
“Doesn’t it strike you as being a little inharmonious?” she asked. “Black stump, unfinished wood platform, and blue enamel basin.”
“Paint the platform and basin dark green,” said Sahwah, the practical. “There is some green paint down cellar, I saw it. Let me paint it. I can do that much for the birds, even if I didn’t think of building them a drinking fountain.” She sped after the paint and soon transformed the offending articles so that they blended harmoniously with the surroundings.
“It’s better now,” said Nyoda, thoughtfully, “but it’s still crude and unbeautiful. What is wrong?”
“I know,” said Hinpoha, the artistic one. “It’s too bare. It looks like a hat without any trimming. What it needs is vines around it.”
“The very thing!” exclaimed Migwan. “I’ll plant climbing nasturtiums and train them to go up the pole and wind around the basin, so it will look like a fountain.”
“Four heads are better than one,” observed Nyoda, as the seeds were planted, “when they are all looking in the same direction.”
Just then a young man came up the path from the road. “May I use your telephone?” he asked, courteously raising his hat. He spoke with a slight foreign accent.
“Certainly you may,” said Migwan, going with him into the house. She could not help hearing what he said. He called up a number in town and when he had his connection, said, “This is Larue talking. We are going to do it on the Centerville Road. There is a river near.” That was all. He rang off, thanked Migwan politely and walked off down the road. The incident was forgotten for a time.
That afternoon Gladys was coming home in the automobile. At the turn in the road just before you came to Onoway House there was a car stalled. The driver, a young and pretty woman, was apparently in great perplexity what to do. “Can I help you?” asked Gladys, stopping her machine.
“I don’t know what’s the matter,” said the young woman, “but I can’t get the car started. I’m afraid I’ll have to be towed to a garage. Do you know of anyone around here who has a team of horses?”
Gladys looked at the starting apparatus of the other car, but it was a different make from hers and she knew nothing about it. “Would you like to have me tow you to our barn?” she asked. “There is a man up the road who fixes automobiles for a great many people who drive through here and I could get him to come over.”
The young woman appeared much relieved. “If you would be so kind it would be a great favor,” she said, “for I am in haste to-day.”
Gladys towed the car to the barn at Onoway House and phoned for the car tinker. The young woman, who introduced herself as Miss Mortimer, was a very pleasant person indeed, and quite won the hearts of the girls. She was delighted with Onoway House, both with the name and the house itself, and asked to be shown all over it, from garret to cellar. “How near that tree is to the window!” she said, as she looked out of the attic window into the branches of the big Balm of Gilead tree that grew beside the house, close to Migwan and Hinpoha’s bedroom. It was much higher than the house and its branches drooped down on the roof. “How do you ever move about up here with all this furniture?” asked Miss Mortimer.
“Oh,” answered Migwan, “we never come up here.”
The barn likewise struck the visitor’s fancy, with its big empty lofts, and she fell absolutely in love with the river. The girls took her for a ride on the raft, and she amused herself by sounding the depth of the water with the pole. They could see that she was experienced in handling boats from the way she steered the raft. The girls were so charmed with her that they felt a keen regret when the neighborhood tinker announced that the car was in running shape again.
“I’ve had a lovely time, girls,” said Miss Mortimer, shaking the hand of each in farewell. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“Come and see us again, if you are ever passing this way,” said Migwan, cordially.
“You may possibly see me again,” said Miss Mortimer, half to herself, as she got into her machine and drove away.
There was no moon that night and the cloud-covered sky hinted at approaching rain, but Sahwah wanted to go out on the river on the raft, so Nyoda and Migwan and Hinpoha and Gladys went with her. It was too dark to play any kind of games and the girls were too tired and breathless from the hot day to sing, so they floated down-stream in lazy silence, watching the shapeless outlines made against the dull sky by the trees and bushes along the banks. On the other side of Farmer Landsdowne’s place there was an abandoned farm. The house had stood empty for many years, its cheerless windows brooding in the sunlight and glaring in the moonlight. Just as they did with every other vacant house, the Winnebagos nicknamed this one the Haunted House, and vied with each other in describing the queer noises they had heard issuing from it and the ghosts they had seen walking up and down the porch. As they passed this place, gliding silently along the river, they were surprised to see an automobile standing beside the house, at the little side porch, in the shadow of a row of tall trees.
“The ghosts are getting prosperous,” whispered Migwan, “they have bought an automobile to do their nightly wandering in. Pretty soon we can’t say that ghosts ‘walk’ any more. Ah, here come the ghosts.”
From the side door of the house came two men, who proceeded to lift various boxes from under the seats of the car and carry them into the house. Then they lifted out a small keg, which the girls could not help noticing they handled with greater care than they had the boxes. The wind was blowing toward the river, and the girls distinctly heard one man say to the other, “Be careful now, you know what will happen if we drop this.”
“I’m being as careful as I can,” answered the second man.
After a few seconds the first one spoke again. “When’s Belle coming?”
“She arrived in town to-day,” said his partner.
When they had gone into the house this time the machine suddenly drove away, revealing the presence of a third man at the wheel, whom the girls had not noticed before this. The two men stayed in the house.
“What on earth can be happening there?” said Sahwah.
“It certainly does look suspicious,” said Nyoda.
They waited there in the shadow of the willows for a long time to see what would happen next, but nothing did. The house stood blank and silent and apparently as empty as ever. Not a glimmer of light was visible anywhere. Sahwah and Nyoda were just on the point of getting into the rowboat, which had been tied on behind the raft, and towing the other girls back home, when their ears caught the sound of a faint splashing, like the sound made by the dipping of an oar. They were completely hidden from sight either up or down the river, for just at this point a portion of the bank had caved in, and the water filling up the hole had made a deep indentation in the shore line, and into this miniature bay the Tortoise-Crab had been steered. The thick willows along the bank formed a screen between them and the stream above and below. But they could look between the branches and see what was coming up stream, from the direction of the lake. It was a rowboat, containing two persons. The scudding clouds parted at intervals and the moon shone through, and by its fitful light they could see that one of these persons was a woman. When the rowboat was almost directly behind the house it came to a halt, only a few yards from the place where the Winnebagos lay concealed.
“This is the house,” said the man.
“I told you the water was deep enough up this far,” said the woman, in a tone of satisfaction. Just then the moon shone out for a brief instant, and the Winnebagos looked at each other in surprise. The woman, or rather the girl, in the rowboat was Miss Mortimer, who had been their guest only that day. The next moment she spoke. “We might as well go back now. There isn’t anything more we can do. I just wanted to prove to you that it could be towed up the river this far without danger.”
“All right, Belle,” replied the man, and at the sound of his voice Migwan pricked up her ears. There was something vaguely familiar about it; something which eluded her at the moment. The rowboat turned in the river and proceeded rapidly down-stream. The Winnebagos returned home, full of excitement and wonder.
The barn at Onoway House stood halfway between the house and the river. As they landed from the raft and were tying it to the post they saw a man come out of the barn and disappear among the bushes that grew nearby. It was too dark to see him with any degree of distinctness. Gladys’s thought leaped immediately to her car, which was left in the barn. “Somebody’s trying to steal the car!” she cried, and they all hastened to the barn. The automobile stood undisturbed in its place. They made a hasty search with lanterns, but as far as they could see, none of the gardening tools were missing. Satisfied that no damage had been done, they went into the house.
“Probably a tramp,” said Mrs. Gardiner, when the facts were told her. “He evidently thought he would sleep in the barn, and then changed his mind for some reason or other.”
Migwan lay awake a long time trying to place the voice of the man in the rowboat. Just as she was sinking off to sleep it came to her. The voice she had heard in the darkness had a slightly foreign accent, and was the voice of the man who had used the telephone that morning.
Sometime during the night Onoway House was wakened by the sounds of a terrific thunder storm. The girls flew around shutting windows. After a few minutes of driving rain against the window panes the sound changed. It became a sharp clattering. “Hail!” said Sahwah.
“Oh, my young plants!” cried Migwan. “They will be pounded to pieces.”
“Cover them with sheets and blankets!” suggested Nyoda. With their accustomed swiftness of action the Winnebagos snatched up everything in the house that was available for the purpose and ran out into the garden, and spread the covers over the beds in a manner which would keep the tender young plants from being pounded to pieces by the hailstones. Migwan herself ran down to the farthest bed, which was somewhat separated from the others. As she raced to save it from destruction she suddenly ran squarely into someone who was standing in the garden. She had only time to see that it was a man, when, with a muffled exclamation of alarm he disappeared into space. Disappeared is the only word for it. He did not run, he never reached the cover of the bushes; he simply vanished off the face of the earth. One moment he was and the next moment he was not. Much excited, Migwan ran back to the others and told her story, only to be laughed at and told she was seeing things and had lurking men on the brain. The thing was so queer and uncanny that she began to wonder herself if she had been fully awake at the time, and if she might not possibly have dreamed the whole thing.
The morning dawned fresh and fair after the shower, green and gold with the sun on the garden, and Migwan’s delight at finding the tender little plants unharmed, thanks to their timely covering, was inclined to thrust the mysterious goings-on at the empty house the night before into secondary place in her mind. But she was not allowed to forget it, for it was the sole topic of conversation at the breakfast table. Gladys, with her nose buried in the morning paper, suddenly looked up. “Listen to this,” she said, and then began to read: “Another dynamite plot unearthed. Society for the purpose of assassinating men prominent in affairs and dynamiting large buildings discovered in attempt to blow up the Court House. An attempt to blow up the new Court House was frustrated yesterday when George Brown, one of the custodians, saw a man crouching in the engine room and ordered him out. A search revealed the fact that dynamite had been placed on the floor and attached to a fuse. On being arrested the man confessed that he was a member of the famous Venoti gang, operating in the various large cities. The man is being held without bail, but the head of the gang, Dante Venoti, is still at large, and so is his wife, Bella, who aids him in all his activities. No clue to their whereabouts can be found.”
“Do you suppose,” said Gladys, laying the paper down, “that those men we saw last night could belong to that gang? You remember how carefully they carried the keg into the house, as if it contained some explosive. They couldn’t have any business there or they wouldn’t have come at night. And they called the woman in the boat ‘Belle,’ or it might have been ‘Bella.’”
“And that man in the boat was the same one who came here and used the telephone yesterday morning,” said Migwan. “I couldn’t help noticing his foreign accent. He said, ‘We are going to do it on the Centerville Road. There is a river near.’ What are they going to do on the Centerville Road?”
The garden work was neglected while the girls discussed the matter. “And the man we saw coming out of the barn when we came home,” said Sahwah, “he probably had something to do with it, too.”
“And the man I saw in the garden in the middle of the night,” said Migwan.
“If you did see a man,” said Nyoda, somewhat doubtfully. Migwan did not insist upon her story. What was the use, when she had no proof, and the thing had been so uncanny?
They were all moved to real grief over the fact that the delightful Miss Mortimer should have a hand in such a dark business—in fact, was undoubtedly the famous Bella Venoti herself. “I can’t believe it,” said Migwan, “she was so jolly and friendly, and was so charmed with Onoway House.”
“I wonder why she wanted to go through it from attic to cellar,” said Sahwah, shrewdly. “Could she have had some purpose? Migwan!” she cried, jumping up suddenly, “don’t you remember that she said, ‘How near that tree is to the window’? Could she have been thinking that it would be easy to climb in there? And when she asked how we ever moved about with all that furniture up there, you said, ‘We never come up here’! Don’t you see what we’ve done? We’ve given her a chance to look the house over and find a place where people could hide if they wanted to, and as much as told her that they would be safe up here because we never came up.”
Consternation reigned at this speech of Sahwah’s. The girls remembered the incident only too well. “I’ll never be able to trust anyone again,” said Migwan, near to tears, for she had conceived a great liking for the young woman she had known as “Miss Mortimer.”
“Do you remember,” pursued Sahwah, “how she took the pole of the raft and found out how deep the water was all along, and then afterwards she said to the man in the boat, ‘I told you it was deep enough.’ Everything she did at our house was a sort of investigation.”
“But it was only by accident that she got to Onoway House in the first place,” said Gladys. “All she did was ask me to tell her where she could get a team of horses to tow her to a garage. She didn’t know I belonged to Onoway House. It was I who brought her here, and she only stayed because we asked her to. It doesn’t look as if she had any serious intentions of investigating the neighborhood. She said she was in a hurry to go on.” Migwan brightened visibly at this. She clutched eagerly at any hope that Miss Mortimer might be innocent after all.
“How do you know that that breakdown in the road was accidental?” asked Nyoda. “And how can you be sure that she didn’t know you came from Onoway House? She may have been looking for a pretense to come here and you played right into her hands by offering to tow her into the barn.” Migwan’s hope flickered and went out.
“And the man in the barn,” said Sahwah, knowingly, “he might have come to look the automobile over and become familiar with the way the barn door opened, so he could get into the car and drive away in a hurry if he wanted to get away.” Taken all in all, there was only one conclusion the girls could come to, and that was that there was something suspicious going on in the neighborhood, and it looked very much as if the Venoti gang were hiding explosives in the empty house and were planning to bring something else; what it was they could not guess. At all events, something must be done about it. Nyoda called up the police in town and told briefly what they had seen and heard, and was told that plain clothes men would be sent out to watch the empty house. When she described the man who had called and used the telephone, the police officer gave an exclamation of satisfaction.
“That description fits Venoti closely,” he said. “He used to have a mustache, but he could very easily have shaved it off. It’s very possible that it was he. He’s done that trick before; asked to use people’s telephones as a means of getting into the house.”
The girls thrilled at the thought of having seen the famous anarchist so close. “Hadn’t we better tell the Landsdownes about it?” asked Migwan. “They are in a better position to watch that house from their windows than we are.”
“You’re right,” said Nyoda. “And we ought to tell the Smalleys, too, so they will be on their guard and ready to help the police if it is necessary.”
“I hate to go over there,” said Migwan, “I don’t like Mr. Smalley.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” said Nyoda, firmly. “The fact that he is fearfully stingy and grasping has no bearing on this case. He has a right to know it if his property is in danger.” And she proceeded forthwith to the Red House.
Mr. Smalley was inclined to pooh-pooh the whole affair as the imagination of a houseful of women. “Saw a man running out of your barn, did you?” he asked, showing some interest in this part of the tale. “Well now, come to think of it,” he said, “I saw someone sneaking around ours too, last night. But I didn’t think much of it. That’s happened before. It’s usually chicken thieves. I keep a big dog in the barn and they think twice about breaking in after they hear him bark, and you haven’t any chickens, that’s why nothing was touched.” It was a very simple explanation of the presence of the man in the barn, but still it did not satisfy Nyoda. She could not help connecting it in some way with the occurrences in the vacant house.
Mr. Landsdowne was very much interested and excited at the story when it was told to him. “There’s probably a whole lot more to it than we know,” he said, getting out his rifle and beginning to clean it. “There’s more going on in this country in the present state of affairs than most people dream of. You have notified the police? That’s good; I guess there won’t be many more secret doings in the empty house.”
As Nyoda and Migwan went home from the Landsdownes they passed a telegraph pole in the road on which a man was working. Silhouetted against the sky as he was they could see his actions clearly. He was holding something to his ear which looked like a receiver, and with the other hand he was writing something down in a little book. Migwan looked at him curiously; then she started. “Nyoda,” she said, in a whisper, “that is the same man who used our telephone. That is Dante Venoti himself.” As if conscious that they were looking at him, the man on the pole put down the pencil, and drawing his cap, which had a large visor, down over his face, he bent his head so they could not get another look at his features. “That’s the man, all right,” said Migwan. “What do you suppose he is doing?”
“It looks,” said Nyoda, judicially, “as if he were tapping the wires for messages that are expected to pass at this time. Possibly you did not notice it, but I began to look at that man as soon as we stepped into the road from Landsdowne’s, and I saw him look at his watch and then hastily put the receiver to his ear.”
“Oh, I hope the police from town will come soon,” said Migwan, hopping nervously up and down in the road.
“Until they do come we had better keep a close watch on what goes on around here,” said Nyoda. Accordingly the Winnebagos formed themselves into a complete spy system. Migwan and Gladys and Betty and Tom took baskets and picked the raspberries that grew along the road as an excuse for watching the road and the front of the house, while Nyoda and Sahwah and Hinpoha took the raft and patrolled the river. As the girls in the road watched, the man climbed down from the pole, walked leisurely past them, went up the path to the empty house and seated himself calmly on the front steps, fanning himself with his hat, apparently an innocent line man taking a rest from the hot sun at the top of his pole.
“He’s afraid to go in with us watching him,” whispered Migwan. Just then a large automobile whirled by, stirring up clouds of dust, which temporarily blinded the girls. When they looked again toward the house the “line man” had vanished from the steps. “He’s gone inside!” said Migwan, when they saw without a doubt that he was nowhere in sight outdoors.
Meanwhile the girls on the raft, who had been keeping a sharp lookout down-stream with a pair of opera glasses, saw something approaching in the distance which arrested their attention. For a long time they could not make out what it was—it looked like a shapeless black mass. Then as they drew nearer they saw what was coming, and an exclamation of surprise burst from each one. It was a structure like a portable garage on a raft, towed by a launch. As it drew nearer still they could make out with the opera glasses that the person at the wheel was a woman, and that woman was Bella Venoti.
The hasty arrival of an automobile full of armed men who jumped out in front of the “vacant” house frightened the girls in the road nearly out of their wits, until they realized that these were the plain clothes men from town. After sizing up the house from the outside the men went up the path to the porch. The girls were watching them with a fascinated gaze, and no one saw the second automobile that was coming up the road far in the distance. One of the plain clothes men, who seemed to be the leader of the group, rapped sharply on the door of the house. There was no answer. He rapped again. This time the door was flung wide open from the inside. The girls could see that the man in the doorway was Dante Venoti. The officer of the law stepped forward. “Your little game is up, Dante Venoti,” he said, quietly, “and you are under arrest.”
Dante Venoti looked at him in open-mouthed astonishment. “Vatevaire do you mean?” he gasped. “I am under arrest? Has ze law stop ze production? Chambers, Chambers,” he called over his shoulder, “come here queek. Ze police has stop’ ze production!”
A tall, lanky, decidedly American looking individual appeared in the doorway behind him. “What the deuce!” he exclaimed, at the sight of all the men on the porch. At this moment the second automobile drove up, followed by a third and a fourth. A large number of men and women dismounted and ran up the path to the house.
“Caruthers! Simpson! Jimmy!” shouted Venoti, excitedly to the latest arrivals, “ze police has stop ze production!”
“What do you know about it!” exclaimed someone in the crowd of newcomers, evidently one of those addressed. “Where’s Belle?”
“She is bringing zeze caboose! Up ze rivaire!” cried the black haired man, wringing his hands in distress.
The plain clothes men looked over the band of people that stood around him. There was nothing about them to indicate their desperate character. Instead of being Italians as they had expected, they seemed to be mostly Americans. The leader of the policemen suddenly looked hard at Venoti. “Say,” he said, “you look like a Dago, but you don’t talk like one. Who are you, anyway?”
“I am Felix Larue,” said the black haired man, “I am ze director of ze Great Western Film Company, and zeze are all my actors. We have rent zis house and farm for ze production of ze war play ‘Ze Honor of a Soldier.’ Last night we bring some of ze properties to ze house; zey are very valuable, and Chambers and Bushbower here zey stay in ze house wiz zem.”
The plain clothes men looked at each other and started to grin. Migwan and Gladys, who had joined the company on the porch, suddenly felt unutterably foolish. “But what were you doing on top of the pole?” faltered Migwan.
Mr. Larue turned his eyes toward her. He recognized her as the girl who had allowed him to use her telephone the day before, and favored her with a polite bow. “Me,” he said, “I play ze part of ze spy in ze piece—ze villain. I tap ze wire and get ze message. I was practice for ze part zis morning.” He turned beseechingly to the policeman who had questioned him. “Zen you will not stop ze production?” he asked.
“Heavens, no,” answered the policeman. “We were going to arrest you for an anarchist, that’s all.”
The company of actors were dissolving into hysterical laughter, in which the plain clothes men joined sheepishly. Just then a young woman came around the house from the back, followed at a short distance by Nyoda, Sahwah and Hinpoha. Seeing the crowd in front she stopped in surprise. Larue went to the edge of the porch and called to her reassuringly. “Come on, Belle,” he called, gaily. When she was up on the porch he took her by the hand and led her forward. “Permit me to introduce my fellow conspirator,” he said, in a theatrical manner and with a low bow. “Zis is Belle Mortimer, ze leading lady of ze Great Western Film Company!”
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