Alan Douglas.

Under Canvas: or, The Hunt for the Cartaret Ghost



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So bright was the moon, now fairly high in the sky, that even small objects could readily be distinguished. There was nothing in sight that they could notice where the rank grass grew, and the trees and bushes were absent; but looking further they could actually see something white moving along through the brush.

No one said a single word, but there might have been heard several quick gasps; and a hand that fell on the sleeve of Elmer's khaki coat trembled fiercely. If ever some of those boys were willing to confess to the truth they would admit that their hearts began to beat furiously about that time, as with staring eyes they watched that mysterious white object pushing through the matted bushes that grew just beyond the open space near the walls of the haunted house.

CHAPTER XIII
A STRANGE FIGURE IN WHITE

"Oh!"

After all it was George, boasting George, who gasped this one word in Elmer's ear; and the scout master knew then whose trembling hand had clutched his sleeve.

But if several of the others refrained from giving vent to their agitated feelings about that time, it was only because they had lost their breath completely.

All of them were staring as hard as they could at the strange white object that kept creeping, creeping along through the brush. Not the slightest sound did it appear to make, and that added to the weirdness of it all. They must just then have had flash into their brains all they had ever read or heard about the wonderful manner in which ghosts and hobgoblins are able to advance or retreat, without betraying their presence by even the least rustling.

Then all at once there broke out the sharp, furious barking of a dog. Every scout reeled back as though struck a blow. At the same moment they saw the white object whirl around, and rush away through the brush; and now they could plainly detect the rapid patter of canine feet.

"It was only a stray farmer's dog after all!" exclaimed Lil Artha, with a sigh of absolute relief.

"Yes," added Toby, "and when he barked up at us he was scared at the sound he made himself, so that he lit out as though he had a tin pan tied to his tail. But I own up I was shivering to beat the band, for I sure thought it must be that Cartaret thing they say hangs out here. Whew!"

George, as usual, having recovered from his own fright wanted to make it appear that he considered any one foolish who would actually allow himself to be alarmed by such a silly thing as a white object.

"Anybody might have known it was only a white cur," he affirmed; "why, if you looked right sharp you could see the shine of his eyes out there in the shadows."

"Did you look sharp, George; and if so why didn't you put us wise?" demanded Toby. "But I bet you were just as badly rattled as the rest of us, only you won't own up to it."

"What, me? Huh, guess again, Toby, and don't measure everybody by your own standard, please," George told him; meanwhile congratulating himself over the fact that he had been standing in the shadow, so that none of his mates could possibly have seen how pale he must have been.

"That dog couldn't belong around here, Elmer!" suggested Chatz.

"No, it was most likely some farmer's dog that had been running rabbits through the forest, and chanced to wander over this way.

But even he considered it a queer place, and was glad to shake the dust of it off his paws after he gave that one volley of barks. No danger of him coming back."

"He scented us up here, don't you think?" continued Chatz.

"As like as not; but don't say anything more now, please. It must be close on twelve o'clock!"

They knew what Elmer meant when he said that. If the ghost walked at all it must be around the middle of the night. So they would have to take up their weary vigil again, and await developments. Even whispering must cease, and their attention be wholly given to watching, inside and out of the house.

The seconds crept into minutes, though to some of the scouts these latter had never moved with such leaden wings, and they could almost believe hours were passing in review instead.

Had it been summer-time when they made this pilgrimage to the woods near the old Cartaret house they would have expected to hear the chirping of crickets in the lush grass; the shrill call of the katydid answering his mate, and prophesying an early frost; and perhaps other sounds as well – the croak of the bull-frog, the loud cry of the whippoorwill, or the hooting of owls perched on some dead tree.

At the tail end of November, with most of the dead leaves strewn on the ground, and the trees standing there bare of foliage, these familiar sounds were hushed; and only a somber silence lay upon the land, which was ten times more apt to produce nervousness on the part of the listening boys than any combination of well known night cries.

Now and then some one would sigh, or move slightly; but beyond that they maintained the utmost silence; which showed how well drilled they were as scouts, and obedient to orders.

Their senses were under such a tremendous strain that it actually seemed to Toby and perhaps Lil Artha, that they would have given a great deal for the privilege of shouting at the top of their voices a few times; but they did not attempt such a foolish remedy.

Lil Artha did make a slight movement after a long time, and as the others fastened their anxious eyes upon him they saw that he had gently taken out the little nickel dollar watch he carried. Bending forward so that a ray of moonlight might fall on the face of the time-piece, Lil Artha consulted it to learn if his suspicions were correct.

When he glanced around and saw that he was the center of observation, he just nodded his head up and down several times. In that fashion he informed the others that it was fully midnight; which was what they were so anxious to know.

So far there had been no sign of a walking specter. George was getting over his fears. He even commenced to shrug his shoulders every time he saw one of the others looking his way. That was George's mute protest against all this foolishness; of course he had known that it would end this way right from the start, and had only agreed to come along to please Elmer, as well as show them that ghosts had no terrors for any sensible scout.

"'Sh!"

A thrill passed over every fellow as Elmer gave vent to this warning hiss. They looked at him instinctively in order to learn the reason for it, and found that the scout master did not seem to be staring out of the open window as before. On the contrary he was intently focussing his gaze down the wide hall toward the group of shadows that clustered at the further end.

And as their eyes also roved in this direction once again did that cold hand seem to grip every heart. Something white was moving there, beyond the shadow of a doubt! They watched it advance, and then retreat methodically, systematically, as though it might be a part of a well-oiled machine.

Toby rubbed his eyes very hard, as though under the impression that they were playing him false; while George shoved up closer to the next in line, which happened to be Chatz, who bent over to stare into his face, as though eager to learn the condition of George's bold heart.

What could it be? Certainly no dog had anything to do with this new source of alarm, for it was tall, after the fashion of a man, and seemed to be dressed in white from head to foot.

Though they listened with all their might none of them could catch the sound of footfalls. If the mysterious object were a human being he must be barefooted to be able to move along without making a sound; while if it were a spirit, as doubtless most of them were ready to admit by now, of course there was not anything remarkable about the silent tread, because all spirits are able to project themselves through space without even a shivering sound – so those who deem themselves competent to judge tell us.

Elmer was perhaps also mystified more or less. Though he might know more about the secrets of the old house than any of his companions, still this particular manifestation was something he would like to have explained.

There was no use asking any of the other boys, because they were naturally much more shaken up than he could be, and hardly able to give any information. The only way to do was to go to headquarters for his knowledge of facts; in other words creep along the hall, keeping in the shadows, until he found himself close enough to learn the true nature of the "ghost."

That was what Elmer finally started to do. George managed to sense his going, and the gasp he gave voiced his apprehension, as well as his admiration for the bravery of his fellow scout.

"Stay here!" whispered the leader, in the lowest possible tone, which could not have penetrated more than two feet away, but was enough to warn the others that he did not wish them to follow when he crept away.

He went on hands and knees, picking out his shelter carefully as he advanced.

Five other fellows crouched there and continued to watch, first that puzzling white figure that noiselessly kept up its ceaseless parade back and forth, and then the creeping scout, slowly and carefully covering the space that separated him from the object under observation.

They did not know what to expect in the way of a shock; anything seemed liable to happen just then. George in particular was wondering if his scoffing remarks, so lately uttered, could have been overheard; and whether they would likely attract particular attention in his quarter. He also remembered what Chatz had said, while they were still near the tents, to the effect that it was always much easier running in the moonlight than when the pall of darkness lay upon things; not that George was contemplating a wild retreat, of course not, so long as the others stood their ground; but then it did no harm to be prepared like a true and careful scout, so that he would know just how he must leap through that open window if there arose a sudden necessity.

Meanwhile, there was Elmer hunching his way along the hall toward the moving object in white that had so mystified them. He would raise himself, and push along a foot or so, and then resume his squatting position; but all the while steady progress was being made, and without any noise, however slight.

When he had managed to make out what the nature of the white thing was, Elmer planned to return again to his chums, and if it proved to be simply a human being like themselves, he had a scheme in his mind looking to first cutting off all retreat, and then making a capture, after which perhaps they could learn what all this mummery meant.

Of course Elmer was always conscious of the fact that it would be an unwise act for him to pass out of the line of shadow, and allow the moonlight to fall upon him while making this advance. Fortunately there was sufficient shadow to admit of his passage without taking these chances.

He had already passed over a quarter of the distance separating him from the mystery at the time he started, and everything seemed to be going as well as any one could wish. If he could only keep the good work up a little while longer Elmer believed he would be in a position to judge things for what they were, and not what the fears of the boys had made them appear.

By straining his eyes to the utmost he fancied that he could even now make out what seemed to be the tall figure of a man, who was dressed all in white. His bearing was erect, and he carried himself with the stiffness of a soldier on parade. Yes, this comparison was made even stronger by the fact that he seemed to have something very much like a gun, though it may have been merely a stick, gripped tight, and held as a sentry might his weapon, while pacing back and forth before the tent where his commanding general lay sleeping.

Elmer also stopped to rub his eyes, not that he was doubting what he saw, but the continued strain weakened them, and even brought signs of tears, that made accurate seeing next to impossible.

Well, half a dozen or so more hunches ought to carry him along far enough to enable him to make positive; and he believed he could accomplish it without betraying his presence to the unknown walker, be he human or a ghost.

By this time the scout had drawn so close that he thought it good policy to remain perfectly quiet while the mysterious white object advanced toward him, making all his progress when the other had turned, and was moving away.

The half-dozen contemplated movements had now been reduced to three, and he saw no reason to believe that his presence was known. This spoke well for his work as a scout; it also promised such a thing as success.

Elmer had one thing in his favor, and this was an entire freedom from any belief in things supernatural. While he never boasted, like George, and some of the other scouts liked to do, at the same time he believed that everything claimed as belonging to the realm of spirits could be explained, if only one went about it the right way.

On this account, then, he had not allowed himself to give even the least thought to such a thing as meeting a ghost. That white figure, to him, must be a man, no matter what motive influenced him to act in this strange way; and before he was done with the affair the scout master hoped to be able to probe the enigma, and find a reasonable answer that would fit the case.

Another turn along on his hands and haunches took him just that much nearer the object of his solicitude. That left only two more to be negotiated before he would have reached the mark he had mentally chosen as the limit of his investigation. After that he must return to inform his friends of his discoveries, so that together they might lay plans looking to the capture of the white mystery.

But boys as well as men often lay splendid plans without taking into account the element of chance that always abounds. Elmer might be doing all he figured on, and yet meet with a cruel disappointment.

He had just drawn back to make the next to last forward hunch, and was in a position where any other movement was an utter impossibility when there sounded a loud and unmistakable sneeze! A draught of air had caught George without warning, and brought this catastrophe about before he could think to try and head it off by rubbing the sides of his nose vigorously, or through any other known agency.

As the sneeze rang out Elmer, knowing what the result must be, attempted to gain his feet, meaning to spring boldly forward; but his awkward position placed a handicap on quick action, so that he wasted several precious seconds trying. When he did finally manage to gain an upright position it was to find that the white figure had vanished as utterly as though the floor had opened and swallowed it up; nor had the scout heard the slightest sound of a footfall.

CHAPTER XIV
TOLD AROUND THE CAMP FIRE

Of course Elmer was disappointed when his carefully laid plans all went by the board, owing to that unfortunate sneeze, just at the worst possible time.

As a matter of duty he ran forward to where that strange figure in white had been marching to and fro, but just as he fully expected there was not a single sign of the late presence.

So Elmer walked back to where his anxious chums were crouching, craning their necks in the endeavor to ascertain what was going on. He found them ready to ply him with questions; and Toby's first act was to free himself from suspicion.

"George did it, Elmer!" he hastened to say; "with his silly little sneeze. It sure gave us all a shock, and when I thought to look again that bally ghost was gone."

"But how could I help it?" complained the guilty culprit. "I never had the least idea it was coming, when all at once it gripped me hard. If you'd offered me half a million dollars right then not to sneeze, I couldn't have earned thirty cents. It took me just as quick as that," and he snapped his fingers to illustrate how impotent he had been in the grasp of a necessity.

"I've been there myself, George," said Elmer, kindly, because he knew how badly the other scout must feel on account of having upset all their plans; "and just as you say, sometimes a sneeze comes so fast you can't keep it back if your life depended on it. Of course it was unfortunate, because in another minute I'd have been close enough to have done all I wanted."

"But my stars! Elmer," exclaimed Lil Artha, in dismay, "you didn't expect to jump that spooky thing all alone, I hope?"

Elmer laughed, which act proved to the distressed George that his offense could not set so heavily on the mind of the scout master after all.

"Certainly not, Lil Artha," Elmer told the long-legged scout; "I expected to drop back, and get the rest of you before anything was done. But accidents will happen even in the best regulated scout troops, and that was something nobody could help. Better luck next time."

"Then, suh, you don't mean to give up this ghost hunt?" asked Chatz, with a ring of exultation in his voice.

"Not if we have another chance to hook up with the mystery," replied Elmer.

"But tell us, weren't you close enough up to see whether it was a real ghost or not?" demanded George, arousing to his old self again.

Chatz could be heard giving a little indignant snort. He was evidently unable to understand how any one could doubt after seeing what they had. Chatz, with all his leaning toward a belief in spirits, had never before come so close to an object that had all the earmarks of a ghost; and he was correspondingly elated.

"I guess I was all of that," Elmer replied, quietly.

"And what do you think about it, Elmer?" continued George, persistently.

"We want to know!" added Toby, determined to get his word in somehow.

"There's a whole lot to tell," said Elmer, "and this isn't just the place to begin the story. So let's get back to the camp, where we can sit around the fire for another half hour, while I enlighten you on some things I happen to know."

What he said gave the others a new thrill. For the first time some of the scouts became aware that their leader had all along been in possession of certain facts in connection with the strange appearance of this reputed ghost. One or two there were, notably Chatz Maxfield, who had suspected something of the kind, owing to the queer way Elmer had often smiled while the others were disputing fiercely concerning the possible identity of the specter.

"That sounds good to me, Elmer," announced Lil Artha, without a second's hesitation, "and for one I'm ready to skip out of this place. It's raw and spooky enough here to give us all pneumonia. Let's get alongside a cheery old camp fire; and then you to spin the yarn. It wouldn't surprise me so much if I heard that you'd known the pedigree of our ghost all along, and was just holding back to see what fun you could shake out of the situation."

"No, you're wrong there, Lil Artha!" declared the scout master, earnestly; "that isn't so. I began to have my suspicions, but up to now had found nothing to confirm them enough to warrant me telling what I knew, or thought. But the time has come, because this thing has gone far enough. Lend me your little flash-light torch, Lil Artha. The rest of you wait here for me again, please."

As Elmer hurried away they noticed that he was making along the hall directly toward the spot where they had recently seen the weird white object that moved forward and back, again and again, with the regularity of clockwork.

"He's gone to see if he can find any footprints in the dust on the floor?" suggested Ty Collins.

At that Chatz gave another grunt, as though to his superior mind it was a very foolish remark; because ghosts never left any tracks behind them. But as he seemed to be in the minority, and knew it was hardly wise to invite another verbal attack, Chatz chose to seal his lips and remain dumb. His triumph would come later on, when they were seated around the glowing fire, and Elmer chose to explain his views of the matter, gleaned at close range.

A short time passed thus. The scouts were keyed up to top-notch pitch, and the seconds dragged fearfully while they awaited the coming of their leader. They could see him moving about, by means of the little glow cast by the hand electric torch he had borrowed from Lil Artha; who felt that his fetching such a useful article along had vindicated his wisdom. Scouts should look ahead, and prepare themselves for all sorts of possible needs. That was what they were learning to do day after day, as they strove to earn new honors, and reach a higher plane in the great organization.

Finally when the waiting scouts were beginning to sigh, and wish Elmer would get through with his searching around, they heard him give the well-known signal that was meant to call them to his side.

"All ready to go back to camp now, fellows," was all Elmer said as they hastened to join him; for it was necessary to pass by that way in heading for the stairs.

Whether or not he had been successful in finding any traces of the mysterious thing they had been gaping at so long, Elmer did not bother telling them just then. That would keep until he was ready to explain fully.



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