Carol Norton.

The Phantom Yacht





In and out, the narrow creek wound, making so many turns that often they could not see three feet ahead of them.

For a moment the four young people in the punt were silent, listening to the faint rustle of the dry reeds all about them in the swamp. There was no other sound save that made by the flat-bottomed boat, as Dick, standing in the stern, pushed it with one oar.

Theres another curve ahead, Nann whispered. Somehow in that silent place they could not bring themselves to speak aloud.

Seems to me the water is getting very shallow, Dories observed. She was staring over one side of the boat watching for the slimy snakes Dick had told her made the marsh their feeding ground.

H-m-m! I wonder! Nann, with half closed eyes looked meditatively ahead.

Wonder what? her friend glanced up to inquire.

I was thinking that perhaps we wont be able to go much farther up this channel, since the tide is going out. The water in the marsh keeps getting lower and lower.

Gee-whiliker, Nann! Dick looked alarmed. I believe youre right. Ive been thinking for some seconds that the pushing was harder than it has been.

They had reached a turn in the narrow channel as he spoke, but, when he tried to steer the punt into it, the flat-bottomed boat stopped with such suddenness that, had he not been leaning hard on the oar, he would surely have been thrown into the muddy water. As it was, he lost his balance and fell on the broad stern seat. Dories, too, had been thrown forward, while Gib leaped to the bow to look ahead and see what had obstructed their progress.

Great fish-hooks! If we havent run aground, was the result of his observation.

Nanns right. This here channel dries up with the tide goin out.

Then the only way to get to the old ruin is to come when the turning tide fills this channel in the marsh, Dick put in.

Wall, its powerful disappointin, Gib looked his distress, bein as the tide wont turn till long about midnight, an youve got to go back to Boston on the evening train.

Id ought to go, to be there in time for school on Monday, the lad agreed.

Couldnt you make it if you took the early morning train? Nann inquired.

May be so, Dick replied, but we can decide that later. The big thing just now is, howre we going to get out of this creek?

Why The girls looked helplessly from one boy to the other. Is there any problem about it? Cant you just push out the way you pushed in?

Dicks expression betrayed his perplexity. Hmm! Im not at all sure, with the tide going out as fast as it is now.

Gracious! Dories looked up in alarm. We wont have to stay in this dreadful marsh until the tide turns, will we? Then appealingly, Oh, Dick, please do hurry and try to get us out of here. Aunt Jane will be terribly worried if we dont get home before dark.

The boy addressed had already leaped to the stern of the boat and was pushing on the one oar with all his strength.

Gib snatched the other oar and tried to help, but still they did not move. Then Nann had an inspiration. Dori, she said, you catch hold of the reeds on that side and I will on this and lets pull, too. Now, one, two, three! All together!

Their combined efforts proved successful. The punt floated, but it was quite evident that they would have to travel fast to keep from again being grounded, so they all four continued to push and pull, and it was with a sigh of relief that they at last reached deeper water as the channel widened into the sea.

Well, that certainly was a narrow escape, Nann exclaimed as the punt slipped out of the narrow channel of the marsh into the quiet waters of the cove.

Now we know why the pilot of the airplane left. He probably visits the old ruin only at high tide, when he is sure that there is water enough in the creek, Dick announced.

Dories seemed greatly relieved that the expedition had returned to the open, and, as it was sheltered in the cove, the boys soon rowed across to the point of rocks. If Gib could leave the punt here where the water is so sheltered and quiet, your mother, Dick, would not object even if you went out when the tide is high, would she? Nann inquired.

No, indeed, the boy replied. Mother merely had reference to the open sea. A punt would have little chance out there if it were caught between the surf and the rocks, but here it is always calm.

While they had been talking, Gib had been busy letting his home-made anchor overboard. It was a heavy piece of iron tied to a rope, which in turn was fastened to the bow.

Hold on there, Capn! Dick merrily called. Let the passengers ashore before you anchor. Gib grinned as he drew the heavy piece of iron back into the punt. Then Dick rowed close to the rocks and assisted the girls out.

What shall we do now? he turned to ask when he saw that Gib had pushed off again. He dropped the anchor a little more than a boat length from the point, pulled off his shoes and stockings and waded to the rocks. After putting them on again he joined the others, who had started to climb.

When they reached the wide, flat tiptop rock Dories sank down, exclaiming, Honestly, I never was so hungry before in all my life. Then, laughingly, she added, Nann Sibbett, here we have been carrying that box of lunch all this time and forgot to eat it. The boys must be starved.

Whoopla! Dick shouted. Starved doesnt half express my famished condition. Does it yours, Gib?

The red-headed boy beamed. Im powerful hungry all right, he acknowledged, but Im sort o used to that. However, he sat down when he was invited to do so and ate the good sandwiches given him with as much relish as the others.

Half an hour later they were again on the sand walking toward the row of cottages. Nann glanced at the upper window of the Burton cabin, and Dick, noticing, glanced in the same direction. Then, smiling at the girl, he said, I guess, after all, there has been no one in the cottage. The blind is still closed just as I left it yesterday.

Well look again tonight, Nann said, adding, Well each have to carry a lantern.

What are you two planning? Dories asked suspiciously.

Cant you guess the meaning that underlies our present conversation? Nann smilingly inquired.

Goodness, Im almost afraid that I can, was her friends queer confession. I do believe you are plotting a visit to the old ruin at the turn of the tide, and that will not be until midnight, Gib said.

Its something like that, Dick agreed.

Well, you can count me out. Dories shuddered as she spoke.

Nann laughed. I know just exactly what will happen (this teasingly) when you hear me tiptoeing down the back stairs. Youll dart after me; for you know youre afraid to stay alone in our loft at night.

You are wrong there, Dories contended. Now that I know about the ghost, I wont be afraid to stay alone, and I would be terribly afraid to go to the ruin at midnight, even with three companions.

Speaking of lanterns, Dick put in, if its foggy we wont be able to go at all. That would be running unnecessary risks, but if it is clear, there ought to be a full moon shining along about midnight, and that will make all the light we will need. Then he hastened to add, But well take lanterns, for we might need them inside the old ruin, and what is more, Ill take my flashlight.

The boys had left the white horse tied to the cottage nearest the road. When they had mounted, Spindly started off as suddenly as hours before it had stopped.

Good-bye, Dick waved his cap to the girls, well whistle when we get to the beach.

Just look at Spindly gallop, Dories said. The poor thing is eager to get to its dinner, I suppose. Arm in arm they turned toward their home-cabin.

My, such exciting things are happening! Nann exclaimed joyfully. I wouldnt have missed this month by the sea for anything.

Dories shuddered. Ill have to confess that Im not very keen about visiting the old ruin at She interrupted herself to cry out excitedly, Nann, do look over toward the island. We forgot all about that sea plane. There it is just taking to the air. What do you suppose it has been doing out on that desolate island all this time?

Nann shook her head, then shaded her eyes to watch the airplane as it soared high, again headed for Boston.

Little do you guess, Mr. Pilot, she called to him, that tonight we are to discover the secret of your visits to the old ruin.

Maybe! Dories put in laconically.

CHAPTER XXII
THE OLD RUIN AT MIDNIGHT

Never had two girls been more interested and excited than were Dories and Nann as midnight neared. Of course they neither of them slept a wink nor had they undressed. Nann had truly prophesied. Dories declared that when she came to think of it, nothing could induce her to stay alone in that loft room at midnight, and that if she were to meet a ghost or any other mysterious person, she would rather meet him in company of Nann, Dick and Gib.

Every hour after they retired, they crept from bed to gaze out of the small window which overlooked the ocean. At first the fog was so dense that they could see but dimly the white line of rushing surf out by the point of rocks.

Well, we might as well give up the plan, Dories announced as it neared eleven and the sky was still obscured.

But Nann replied that when the moon was full it often succeeded in dispelling the fog by some magic it seemed to possess, and that she didnt intend to go to sleep until she was sure that the boys werent coming. She declared that she wouldnt miss the adventure for anything.

Dories fell asleep, however, and, for that matter, so, too, did Nann, and since they were both very weary from the unusual excitement and late hours, they would not have awakened until morning had it not been for a low whistle at the back of the cabin.

Instantly Nann sprang up. That must be Gib, she whispered. Then added, jubilantly: Its as bright as day. The moon is shining now in all its splendor.

In five seconds the two girls had crept down the outer stairway, and as they tiptoed across the back porch, two dark forms emerged from the shadows and approached them.

Hist! Gib whispered melodramatically, bent on making the adventure as mysterious as possible. You gals track along arter us fellows, and dont make any noise.

Then without further parley, Gib darted into the shadow of the woodshed, and from there crept stealthily along back of the seven boarded-up cabins.

Whats the idea of stealing along like this? Nann inquired when the wide sandy spaces were reached.

We thought wed keep hidden as much as possible, Dick told her. For if that airplane pilot is anywhere around, we dont want him to get wise to us.

But, of course, he isnt around, Dories said. How could he be? An airplane cant fly over our beach without being heard. It would waken us from the deepest sleep, I am sure.

They were walking four abreast toward the point which loomed darkly ahead of them. I suppose youre right, Dick agreed, but it sort of adds to the zip of it to pretend were going to steal upon that airplane pilot and catch him at whatever it is that he comes here to do.

The girls did not need much assistance in climbing the rocks nor in descending on the side of the cove. Gibralter, as before, removed his shoes and stockings, waded out to the punt, drew up the anchor and then returned for the others. The moon had risen high enough in the clear starlit sky to shine down into the narrow channel in the marsh and, as the water deepened continually and was flowing inward, it was merely a matter of steering the flat-bottomed boat, which the boys did easily, Dick in the stern with an oar while Gib in the bow caught the reeds first on one side and then on the other, thus keeping the blunt nose of the punt always in the middle of the creek.

Sh! Dont say a loud word, Gib cautioned, as they reached the curve where the afternoon before they had run aground.

Goodness, you make me feel shivery all over, Dories whispered. Who do you suppose would hear if we did speak out loud?

Dunno, Dick replied, but we wont take any chances.

The creek was perceptibly widening and the rising tide carried them along more swiftly, but still the reeds were high over their heads and so, even though Dick was standing as he pushed with an oar, he could not see the old ruin, but abruptly the marsh ended and there, high and dry on a mound, stood the object of their search, looking more forlorn and haunted than it had from a distance.

The boys had been about to run the boat up on the mound, when suddenly, and without a sound of warning, Dick shoved the punt as fast he could back into the shelter of the reeds from which they had just emerged.

Why dy do that? Gib inquired in a low voice. Dy see anything that scared you, kid?

I saw it, too! Dories eyes were wide and startled. That is, I thought I saw a light, but it went out so quickly I decided maybe it was the moonlight flashing on something.

Maybe it was and maybe it wasnt. Dick moved the punt close to the edge of the reeds that they might observe the ruin from a safe distance.

But who could be in there? Nann wondered. We have never seen anyone around except the pilot of the airplane and we have all agreed that he cant be here tonight.

No, he isnt! Dick was fast recovering his courage. I believe Dories may have been right Probably it was only reflected moonlight. Perhaps you girls had better remain in the punt while we fellows investigate.

No, indeed, well all go together. Nann settled the matter. Now shove back up to the mound, Dick, and lets get out. This was done and the four young people climbed from the punt and stood for a long silent moment staring at the ruin that loomed so dark and desolate just ahead of them.

Thar tis! Thars that light agin! Gib seized his friends arm and pointed, adding with conviction: Dori was right. Its suthin swingin in the wind an flashin in the moonlight.

Gib, Nann said, that is probably what the people in Siquaw Center have seen on moonlight nights.

Likes not! the red-headed lad agreed. Then stealthily they tiptoed toward the two tall pillars that stood like ghostly sentinels in front of the roofless part of the house which had once been the salon.

The side walls were crumbled, but the rear wall stood erect, supporting one side of the roof which tipped forward till it reached the ground, although one corner was upheld by a heap of fallen stone.

I suppose well have to creep beneath that corner if we want to see whats under the roof, Dick said. He looked anxiously at the girls as he spoke, but Nann replied briskly, Of course we will. Wholl lead the way?

Since I have a flashlight, I will, the city boy offered. Here, Nann, give me your lantern and Ill light it. Then if you girls get separated from us boys, you wont be in the dark.

Goodness, Dick! Dories shivered. What in the world is going to separate us? Cant we keep all close together?

Course we can, Gib cheerfully assured her. Dick kin go in furst, you girls follow, an Ill be rear guard.

You mean I can go in when I find an opening, the city boy turned back to whisper. Somehow they just couldnt bring themselves to talk out loud.

Nann held her lantern high and looked at the corner nearest where a crumbling wall upheld the roof. There ought to be room to creep in over there, she pointed, if it werent for all that debris on the ground.

Well soon dispose of that, Dick said, going to the spot and placing his flashlight on a rock that it might illumine their labors. The two boys fell to work with a will tossing away bricks and stones and broken pieces of plaster.

At last an opening large enough to be entered on hands and knees appeared. Dick cautioned the girls ta stay where they were until he had investigated. Dories gave a little startled cry when the boy disappeared, fearing that the wall or the roof might fall on him. After what seemed like a very long time, they heard a low whistle on the inside of the opening. Gib peered under and received whispered instructions from Dick. Its safe enough as far as I can see. Bring the girls in. And so Dories crept through the opening, followed by Nann and Gib. Rising to their feet they found themselves in what had one time been a large and handsomely furnished drawing-room. A huge chandelier with dangling crystals still hung from the cross-beams, and in the night wind that entered from above they kept up a constant low jangling noise. Heavy pieces of mahogany furniture were tilted at strange angles where the rotting floor had given way.

Watch your step, girls, Dick, in the lead, turned to caution. See, theres a big hole ahead. Ill go around it first to be sure that the boards will hold. Aha, yonder is a partition that is still standing. I wonder what room is beyond that.

Look out, Dick! came in a low terrorized cry from Dories. The boy turned to see the girl, eyes wide and frightened, pointing toward a dark corner ahead. Theres a man crouching over there. Im sure of it! I saw his face.

Instantly Dick swung the flashlight until it illumined the corner toward which Dories was still pointing. There was unmistakably a face looking at them with piercing dark eyes that were heavily overhung with shaggy grey brows.

For one terrorized moment the four held their breath. Even Dick and Gib were puzzled. Then, with an assumption of bravery, the former called: Say, who are you? Come on out of there. Were not here to harm anything.

But the upper part of the face (that was all they could see) did not change expression, and so Dick advanced nearer. Then his relieved laughter pealed forth.

Some man that, he said, as he flashed the light beyond the pile of debris which partly concealed the face.

Why, if it isnt an old painting! Nann ejaculated.

And that, indeed, was what it proved to be. Battered by its fall, the broken frame stood leaning against a partition.

I believe its a portrait of that cruel old Colonel Woodbury himself, Dories remarked. Then eagerly added, I do wish we could find a picture of that sweet girl, his daughter. Ever since Gib told us her story I have thought of her as being as lovely as a princess. Though I dont suppose a real princess is always beautiful.

I should say not! Ive seen pictures of them that couldnt hold a candle to Nann, here. This was Dicks blunt, boyish way of saying that he admired the fearless girl.

Gib, having found a heavy cane, was poking around in the piles of debris that bordered the partition and his exclamation of delight took the others to his side as rapidly as they could go.

What have you found, old man? Dick asked, eagerly peering at a heap of rubbish.

Nuther picture, seems like, or leastwise I reckon its one.

Gib busied himself tossing stones and fragments of plaster to one side, and when he could free it, he lifted a canvas which faced the wall and turned it so that light fell full upon it.

Gee-whiliker, its yer princess all right, all right! he averred. Say, wasnt she some beaut, though?

There were sudden tears in Nanns eyes as she spoke. Oh, you poor, poor girl, she said as she bent above the pictured face, how you have suffered since that long-ago day when some artist painted your portrait.

Even then she wasnt happy, Dories put in softly. See that little half-wistful smile? Its as though she felt much more like crying.

And now she is a woman and over in Europe somewhere with a little girl and boy, Nann took up the tale; but Gib amended: Not so very little. Didnt we callate that if theyre livin the gald be about sixteen, an the boy eighteen or nineteen?

Why, thats so. Nann looked up brightly. When I spoke I was remembering the story as you told it, and how sad the young mother looked when she landed from the snow-white yacht and led a little boy and girl up to this very house to beg her father to forgive her. But I recall now, you said that was at least ten years ago.

What shall we do with this beautiful picture? Dories inquired. It doesnt seem a bit right to leave it here in all this rubbish, now that weve found it.

Lets take it into the next room, Dick said; maybe well find a better place to leave it.

They had reached an opening in the rear partition, but the heavy carved door still hung on one hinge, obstructing their passage.

We must get through somehow, Nann, the adventurous, said. I feel in my bones that the next room holds something that will help solve the mystery of the air pilots visits.

Dories held the painting while Nann flashed the light where it would best aid the boys in removing the debris that held the old door in such a way that it obstructed their passage into the room back of the salon.

A long half-hour passed and the boys labored, lifting stones and heavy pieces of ceiling, but, when at last the floor space in front of the heavy door was cleared, they found that something was holding it tight shut on the other side.





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