The Corner House Girls on a Houseboat
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“Nothing much yet. But it may,” was the answer. “We’re adrift, and it’s coming on to blow. I’m going to see what the matter is.”
“I’ll come with you,” Ruth offered. Neale was like a brother to the Kenway girls. “Shall I call Mr. Howbridge and Mrs. Mac?” she asked.
“Not yet,” he answered in a low voice. “It may be that the cable has only slipped, but I don’t see how it could. In that case I’ll only have to take a few turns around a cleat and we’ll be all right. No use calling any one unless we have to.”
“I’ll come and help,” Ruth offered, and Neale knew she could be of excellent service.
Together they ascended the stairs in the half darkness, illuminated by the glow from a night oil lamp in the hall. But no sooner had they emerged on the open deck than they became aware of the gravity of the situation. They were almost blinded by an intense glare of lightning. This was followed by a menacing rumble of thunder, and then Ruth gasped for breath as a strong wind smote her in the face, and Neale, just ahead of her, turned to grasp her lest she be blown against a railing and hurt.
“Great guns!” exclaimed Neale, “it’s going to be a fierce storm.”
“Are we really adrift?” exclaimed Ruth, raising her voice to be heard above the howl of the wind.
“I should say we are!” cried Neale in answer. “But the boat is so big and solid she isn’t going as fast as an ordinary craft would. But we’re drifting all right, and it’s going to be a whole lot worse before it’s better. Do you want to stay here?” he asked.
“Of course I do! I’m going to help!” declared Ruth. But at that moment came another bright flash of lightning and a terrific peal of thunder. And then, as if this had split open the clouds, down came a deluge of rain.
“Go below and get on your waterproof and then tell the others to get up and dress,” advised Neale. “We may come out of it all right, and again we may not. It’s best to be prepared.”
“Are we – are we far from shore?” panted Ruth, the wind almost taking the words from her mouth. “Are we apt to be dashed against it, do you think?”
“We can’t be wrecked,” Neale answered her. “This is a well built boat. But we may have to go ashore in the rain, and it’s best for the children to be dressed.”
“I’ll tell them!” cried Ruth, and she descended, glad to be in out of the storm that was increasing in violence every moment. That little time she was exposed to it almost drenched her. Neale’s rubber coat was a great protection to him.
The boy gave one quick look around. The wind was blowing about over the deck a number of camp stools that had been left out, but he reasoned that they would be caught and held by the rope network about the deck. Neale’s chief anxiety was about the anchor.
The cable to which this was bent was made fast to a cleat on the lower deck, and as the lad made his way there by an outside stairway he heard some one walking on the deck he had just quitted.
“I guess that’s Hank,” Neale reasoned.
The boy was pulling at the anchor rope when he heard Hank’s voice near him asking:
“What’s the matter, Neale?”
“We’re either dragging our anchor or the cable’s cut,” answered the lad.And then, as the rope came dripping through his hands, offering no resistance to the pull, he realized what had happened. The anchor was gone! It had slipped the cable or been cut loose. Just which did not so much matter now, as did the fact that there was nothing to hold the Bluebird against the fury of the gale.
Realizing this, Neale did not pull the cable up to the end. He had found out what he wanted to know – that the anchor was off it and somewhere on the bottom of the lake. He next turned his attention to the boat.
“We’re drifting!” he cried to Hank. “We’ve got to start the motor, and see if we can head up into the wind. You go to that and I’ll take the wheel!”
“All right,” agreed the mule driver. “This is some storm!” he added, bending his head to the blast of the wind and the drive of the rain.
It was growing worse every moment, Neale realized. Buttoned as his rubber coat was, the lower part blew open every now and then, drenching his bare legs.
As the boy hurried to the upper deck again to take command of the steering wheel, he heard from within the Bluebird sounds which told him the Corner House girls, their guardian, and Mrs. MacCall were getting up. The voices of Tess and Dot could be heard, excited and somewhat frightened.
“The only real danger,” thought Neale to himself, “is that we may hit a rock or something, and stave a hole in us. In that case we’d sink, I guess, and this lake is deep.”
But he had not told Ruth that danger. He grasped the spokes of the wheel firmly, and waited for the vibration that would tell him Hank had started the motor. And as he waited he had to face the wind and rain, and listen to the vibrating thunder, the while he was almost blinded by the vivid lightning. It was one of those fierce summer storms, and the temperature took a sudden drop so that Neale was chilled through.
“Why doesn’t Hank start that motor?” impatiently thought the lad. “We’re drifting fast and that big island must be somewhere in this neighborhood. I wonder how close it is? If we hit that going like this – good-night!”
A vivid flash of light split the darkness like a dagger of flame and revealed the heaving tumultuous lake all about, the waters whipped and lashed into foam by the sudden wind. Storms came up quickly on Lake Macopic, due to the exposed situation of the body of water, and there were often fatalities caused by boats being caught unprepared.
Just as Neale was going to take a chance and hurry below to see what was delaying Hank, there came the vibration of the craft which told that the motor had been started.
“Now we’ll get somewhere,” cried Neale aloud. “I think I’d better head into the wind and try to make shore. If I can get her under the shelter of that bluff we passed this afternoon, it will be the best for all of us.”
He swung the wheel around, noting that the Bluebird answered to the helm, and then he dashed the water from his face with a motion of his head, shaking back his hair. As the craft gathered speed a figure came up the stairs and emerged on deck. It fought its way across the deck to the wheel and a voice asked:
“Are we making progress, Neale?”
“Oh, yes! But you shouldn’t have come up here, Aggie!” he cried, above the noise of the storm. “You’ll be drenched!”
“No, I have on Mr. Howbridge’s raincoat. I made him and Ruthie let me come up here to help you. You certainly need help in this emergency.”
“It’s an emergency all right!” declared Neale. “But we may come out of it safely.”
“Can’t I help you steer?” asked Agnes. “I know how.”
“Yes, you may help. I’m trying to make – ”
Neale never finished that sentence. A moment later there was a jar that made him and Agnes stagger, and then the Bluebird ceased to progress under the power of her motor and was again being blown before the fury of the storm.
CHAPTER XXII – ON THE ISLAND
“What’s the matter? What has happened?” cried Agnes, clinging partly to Neale and partly to the wheel to preserve her balance. “Are we sinking?”
“Oh, no,” he answered. “We either struck something, or the motor has gone bad and stopped. I think it’s the last. I’d better go and see.”
“I’ll take the wheel,” Agnes offered.
“You don’t need to,” said her companion. “She had no steerageway on her; and you might as well keep out of the storm. The rain is fierce!”
Agnes decided to take this advice, since staying on deck now would do no good and Neale was going below.
Neale raced to the motor room, where he found Hank ruefully contemplating the silent engine.
“What’s the matter?” asked Neale. “Is she broken?”
“Busted, or something,” was the answer. “If this was a mule, now, I could argue with it. But I don’t know enough about motors to take any chances. All I know is she was going all right, and then she suddenly laid down on me – stopped dead.”
“Yes, I felt it,” returned Neale. “Well, we’ll have to see what the trouble is.”
Agnes had gone into the main cabin where she found her sisters and Mr. Howbridge. Mrs. MacCall, in a nightcap she had forgotten to remove, was sitting in one corner.
“Oh, the perils o’ the deep! The perils o’ the deep!” she murmured. “The salty seas will snatch us fra the land o’ the livin’!”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Mr. Howbridge, for he saw that Dot and Tess were getting frightened by the fear of the Scotch housekeeper’s words. “Lake Macopic isn’t salty, and it isn’t deep. We’ll be all right in a little while. Here’s Agnes back to tell us so,” he added with a smile at his ward. “What of the night, Watchman?” he asked in a bantering tone.
“Well, it isn’t a very pleasant night,” Agnes was forced to admit.
“Why aren’t we moving?” asked Tess. “We were moving and now we have stopped.”
“Neale has gone to see, Tess. He will have things in shape before long,” was Agnes’ not very confident reply.
“Well, we’re nice and snug here,” said Ruth, guessing that something was wrong, and joining forces with Agnes in keeping it from Mrs. MacCall and the younger children. “We are snug and dry here.”
“I think I’ll go and give the sailors a hand,” Mr. Howbridge said. “Ruth, you tell these little teases a story,” he said as he shifted Dot out of his lap and to a couch where he covered her with a blanket.
“I’ll get this wet coat off,” remarked Agnes. “My, but it does rain!” She passed Mr. Howbridge his coat.
Ruth took her place as mistress of the little household of Corner House girls – mother to the three parentless sisters who depended so much on her.
“And now, children, for the story!” she said. “What shall it be about?”
This took the attention of Tess and Dot off their worries, and though the wind still howled and the rain dashed against the windows of the Bluebird, they heeded it not.
Meanwhile Mr. Howbridge had made his way to the motor room where a sound of hammering on iron told him that efforts to make repairs were under way.
“What is it, boys?” he asked as he saw Neale and Hank busy over the motor.
“A wrench was jarred loose and fell into the flywheel pit,” explained Neale. “It stopped the motor suddenly, and until we get it loose we can’t move the machinery. We’re trying to knock it out.”
“Need any help?” asked the lawyer, who had donned an old suit of clothing.
“I think we can manage,” said Neale. “But you might take a look outside and see what’s happening. That is, besides the storm. We can hear that.”
“Yes, it seems to insist on being heard,” agreed the guardian of the girls. “You say the anchor is dragging, Neale?”
“No, it’s gone completely. At the bottom of the lake somewhere. I didn’t have a chance to examine the end of the cable to see if it was cut or not.”
“Cut!” exclaimed the lawyer in surprise.
“Well, it may have been cut by – accident,” went on Neale, with a meaning look which Mr. Howbridge understood.
“I’ll find out,” was the comment, and then the lawyer went out into the rain while Neale and the mule driver resumed their labors to loosen the monkey wrench which was jammed under the flywheel, thus effectually preventing the motor from operating.
Mr. Howbridge made his way along the lower deck until he came to where the anchor cable was made fast to the holding cleat. He pulled up the dripping rope, hand over hand, until he had the end on deck.
A lightning flash served to show him that the end was partly cut and partly frayed through.
“It may have chafed on a sunken rock or been partly cut on the edge of something under water,” thought the lawyer. “At any rate the anchor is gone, and unless I can bend on a spare one we’ve got to drift until they can get the motor going. I wonder if I can find a spare anchor. Captain Leed said nothing about one when he turned the boat over to me.”
Stumbling about the deck in the rain, storm and darkness, the lawyer sought for a possible spare anchor. Meanwhile Ruth kept up the spirits of her two smallest sisters and Mrs. MacCall by gayly telling stories. She was a true “little mother,” and in this instance she well deserved the appellations of both “Martha” and “Minerva.”
Fortunate it was for the Corner House girls that the Bluebird was a staunch craft, broad of beam and stout in her bottom planks. Otherwise she never would have weathered the storm that had her in its grip.
Lake Macopic was subject to these sudden outbursts of the furious elements. It was surrounded by hills, and through the intervening valleys currents of air swept down, lashing the waters into big waves. Sailing craft are more at the mercy of the wind and water than are power boats, but when these last have lost their ability to progress they are in worse plight than the other craft, being less substantial in build.
But the Bluebird was not exactly of either of these types. In fact the craft on which the Corner House girls were voyaging was merely a big scow with a broad, flat bottom and a superstructure made into the semblance of a house on shore – with limitations, of course. It would be practically impossible to tip over the craft. The worst that could happen, and it would be a sufficient disaster, would be that a hole might be stove in the barge-like hull which would fill, and thus sink the boat. And the lake was deep enough in many places to engulf the Bluebird.
Mr. Howbridge realized this as he stumbled about the lower deck, looking for something that would serve as an anchor. He soon came to the conclusion that there was not a spare one on board, for had there been it naturally would have been in plain view to be ready for use in emergencies.
Having made a circuit of the deck, not finding anything that could be used, Mr. Howbridge debated with himself what he had better do next. He stepped into a small storeroom in the stern of the craft above the motor compartment where Neale and Hank were working, and there the lawyer flashed the pocket electric torch he carried. It gave him a view of a heterogeneous collection of articles, and when he saw a heavy piece of iron his eyes lightened.
“This may do for an anchor,” he said. “I’ll fasten it on the rope and heave it overboard.”
But when he tried to move it alone he found it was beyond his strength. He could almost manage it, but a little more strength was needed.
“I’ll have to get Neale or Hank,” mused Mr. Howbridge. “But I hate to ask them to stop. The safety of the Bluebird may depend on how quickly they get the motor started. And yet – ”
He heard some one approaching along the lower deck and a moment later a flash of lightning revealed to him Ruth.
“I heard some one in here,” said the Corner House girl, “and I came to see who it was. I thought maybe the door had blown open and was banging.”
“I was looking for an anchor, and I have found one, though I can’t move it alone,” the lawyer said. “But why have you left your sisters?”
“Because Mrs. Mac is telling them a Scotch story. She has managed to interest them, and, at the same time, she is forgetting her own troubles. So I came out. Let me help move the anchor, or whatever it is.”
“Spoken like Martha!” said Mr. Howbridge. “Well, perhaps your added strength will be just what is needed. But you must be careful not to strain yourself,” he added, anxiously.
“I am no baby!” exclaimed Ruth. “I want to help! Where is it?”
Flashing his light again, her guardian showed her, and then, while the wind seemed to howl in fiercer fury, if that were possible, and while the rain beat down like hail-pellets, they managed to drag out on deck the heavy piece of iron, which seemed to be some part of a machine.
The storeroom opened on that side of the deck where the superstructure of the houseboat gave some shelter, and, working in this, Ruth and Mr. Howbridge managed to get the frayed end of the anchor rope attached to the heavy iron.
“Now if we can heave this overboard it may save us from drifting on the rocks until Neale and Hank can get the engine to working again,” said the lawyer.
“We’ll try!” exclaimed Ruth. Her guardian caught a glimpse of her face as the skies flashed forth into flame again. Her lips were parted from her rapid breathing, revealing her white teeth, and even in the stress and fury of the storm Mr. Howbridge could not but admire her. Though no one ever called Ruth Kenway pretty, there was an undeniable charm about her, and that had been greater, her guardian thought, ever since the day of Luke Shepard’s entrance into her life.
“It’s our last hope, and a forlorn one,” Mr. Howbridge said dubiously, looking at their anchor.
Together they managed to drag the heavy piece of iron to the edge of the deck. Then, making sure the rope was fast about the cleat, they heaved the improvised anchor over the side. It fell into Lake Macopic with a great splash.
“What was that?” cried Neale, coming out on deck, followed by Agnes, who had been down watching him work at the engine.
“Our new anchor,” replied the lawyer. “It may serve to hold us if you can’t get the engine to working,” and he explained what he and Ruth had done.
“Good!” exclaimed Neale. “I hope it does hold, for it doesn’t seem as if we were going to get that monkey wrench out in a hurry. I’m looking for a long bar of iron to see if we can use it as a lever.”
“There may be one in the storeroom where we found the anchor,” remarked Ruth.
“I’ll have a look.”
The Bluebird was not living up to her name. Instead of skimming more or less lightly over the surface of the lake she was rolling to and fro in the trough of the waves, which were really high. Now and then the crest of some comber broke over the snub bow of the craft, sending back the spray in a shower that rattled on the front windows of the cabin.
Anxiously the four on deck waited to see the effect of the anchor. If it held, catching on the bottom of the lake, it would mean a partial solution of their troubles. If it dragged —
Neale hastened to the side and looked down at the anchor cable. It was taut, showing that the weight had not slipped off. But the drift of the boat was not checked.
“Why doesn’t it hold?” asked Ruth.
“Is it dragging?” came from the lawyer.
“I don’t believe it is touching bottom,” replied Neale. “I’m afraid the rope is too short. We are moving faster than before.”
Just as he spoke there came a vivid flash of lightning. Involuntarily they all shrank. It seemed as though they were about to be blasted where they stood. And then, as a great crash followed, they trembled with the vibration of its rumble.
The next instant Ruth and Agnes cried simultaneously:
“Look! We’re being blown ashore!”
Neale and Mr. Howbridge peered through the darkness. Another lightning flash showed their peril.
“We’re going to hit the island!” shouted Neale.
A few seconds later the wind blew the Bluebird, beams-on, upon a rocky shore.
CHAPTER XXIII – SUSPICIONS
The shock of the sudden stop, the tilting of the craft, which was sharply careened to one side, the howl of the wind, the rumble of the thunder, the flash of the lightning, and the dash of the rain – all these combined to make the position of those aboard the Bluebird anything but enviable.
“Are we lost! Oh, are we lost?” cried Mrs. MacCall, rushing out of the cabin. “Ha the seas engulfed us?”
“No, nothing of the sort!” answered Mr. Howbridge. “Please don’t get excited, and go back to the children. We are all right!”
“Yes, I believe we are,” added Neale, as another flash showed what had happened. “At least we are in no danger of sinking now.”
For they had been sent before the fury of the storm straight upon the rocky shore of one of the large islands of Lake Macopic. And there the houseboat came to rest.
As Neale had said, all danger of foundering was passed, and in case of need they could easily escape to substantial land, though it was but an island. But tilted as the Bluebird was, forming a less comfortable abode than formerly, she offered a better place to stay than did the woods of the island, bending as they were now to the fierce wind, and drenched as they were in the pelting rain.
“We’re here for the night, at least,” said Neale, as the continued lightning revealed more fully what had happened. “We shall not drift any more, and though there’s a lot of excitement going on, I guess we can keep dry.”
He and Mr. Howbridge, with Ruth and Agnes, stood out on the open, lower deck, but there was a shelter over their heads and the sides of the house part of the boat kept the rain from them. The storm was coming from the west, and they had been blown on the weather side of the island. The lee shore was on the other side. There they would have been sheltered, but they could not choose their situation.
“We’d better take a turn with a rope around a tree or two,” suggested Hank, as he came up to join the little party. “No use drifting off again.”
“You’re right,” agreed Neale. “And then we can turn in and wait for morning. I only hope – ”
“What?” asked Agnes, as he hesitated.
“I hope it clears,” Neale finished. But what he had been going to say was that he hoped no holes would be stove in the hull of the boat.
It was no easy task for him and Hank to get two lines ashore – from bow and stern – and fasten them to trees. But eventually it was accomplished. Then, as if it had worked its worst, the storm appeared to decrease in violence and it was possible to get a little rest.
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