Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point/Chapter 18
ANOTHER NIGHT ADVENTURE
Ruth was startled, to say the least, by the discovery that Nita was absent. And how softly the runaway girl must have crept out of bed and out of the room for Ruth—who had been awake—not to hear her!
"She certainly is a sly little thing!" gasped Ruth.
But as she turned back to see what had become of the figure running beside the path, the lantern light was flashed into her eyes. Again the beam was shot through the window and danced for a moment on the wall and ceiling.
"It is a signal!" thought Ruth. "There's somebody outside besides Nita—somebody who wishes to communicate with her."
Even as she realized this she saw the lantern flash from the dock. That was where it had been all the time. It was a dark-lantern, and its ray had been intentionally shot into the window of their room.
The figure she had seen steal away from the bungalow had now disappeared. If it was Nita—as Ruth believed—the strange girl might be hiding in the shadow of the boathouse.
However, the girl from the Red Mill did not stand idly at the window for long. It came to her that somebody ought to know what was going on. Her first thought was that Nita was bent on running away from her new friends—although, as as far as any restraint was put upon her, she might have walked away at any time.
"But she ought not to go off like this," thought Ruth, hurrying into her own garments. By the faint light that came from outside she could see to dress; and she saw, too, that Nita's clothing had disappeared.
"Why, the girl must have dressed," thought Ruth, in wonder. "How could she have done it with me lying here awake?"
Meanwhile, her own fingers were busy and in two minutes from the time she had turned from the window, she opened the hall door again and tiptoed out.
The house was perfectly still, save for the ticking of the big clock. She sped down the stairway, and as she passed the glimmering face of the time-keeper she glanced at it and saw that the minute hand was just eight minutes past the hour.
In a closet under the stairs were the girls' outside garments, and hats. She found somebody's tam-o'-shanter and her own sweater-coat, and slipped both on in a hurry. When she opened the door the chill, salt air, with not a little fog in it, breathed into the close hall.
She stepped out, pulled the door to and latched it, and crossed the porch. The harbor seemed deserted. Two or three night lights sparkled over on the village side. What vessels rode at anchor showed no lights at their moorings. But the great, steady, yellow light of the beacon on the point shone steadily—a wonderfully comforting sight, Ruth thought, at this hour of the night.
There were no more flashes of lantern light from the dock. Nor did she hear a sound from that direction as she passed out through the trimly cut privet hedge and took the shell walk to the boathouse. She was in canvas shoes and her step made no sound. In a moment or two she was in the shadow again.
Then she heard voices—soft, but earnest tones—and knew that two people were talking out there toward the end of the dock. One was a deep voice; the other might be Nita's—at least, it was a feminine voice.
"Who under the sun can she have come here to meet?" wondered Ruth, anxiously. "Not one of the boys. This can't be merely a lark of some kind——"
Something scraped and squeaked—a sound that shattered the silence of the late evening completely. A dog instantly barked back of the the bungalow, in the kennels. Other dogs on the far shore of the cove replied. A sleep-walking rooster began to crow clamorously, believing that it was already growing day.
The creaking stopped in a minute, and Ruth heard a faint splash. The voices had ceased.
"What can it mean?" thought the anxious girl. She could remain idle there behind the boathouse no longer. She crept forth upon the dock to reconnoiter. There seemed to be nobody there.
And then, suddenly, she saw that the catboat belonging to Mr. Stone's little fleet the Jennie S.' it was called, named for Heavy herself—was some distance from her moorings.
The breeze was very light; but the sail was raised and had filled, and the catboat was drifting quite rapidly out beyond the end of the dock. It was so dark in the cockpit that Ruth could not distinguish whether there were one or two figures aboard, or who they were; but she realized that somebody was off on a midnight cruise.
"And without saying a word about it!" gasped Ruth. "Could it be, after all, one of the boys and Nita? Are they doing this just for the fun of it?"
Yet the heavy voice she had heard did not sound like that of either of the three boys at the bungalow. Not even Bob Steele, when his unfortunate voice was pitched in its very lowest key, could rumble like this voice.
The girl of the Red Mill was both troubled and frightened. Suppose Nita and her companion should be wrecked in the catboat? She did not believe that the runaway girl knew anything about working a sailboat. And who was her companion on this midnight escapade? Was he one of the longshoremen?
Suddenly she thought of Jack Crab. But Crab was supposed to be at the lighthouse at this hour; wasn't he? She could not remember what she had heard about the lighthouse keeper's assistant.
Nor could Ruth decide at once whether to go back to the house and give the alarm, or not. Had she known where Phineas, the boatkeeper lodged, she would certainly have tried to awaken him. He ought to be told that one of the boats was being used—and, of course, without permission.
The sail of the catboat drifted out of sight while she stood there undecided. She could not pursue the Jennie S. Had she known where Phineas was, they might have gone after the catboat in the Miraflame; but otherwise Ruth saw no possibility of tracking the two people who had borrowed the Jennie S.
Nor was she sure that it was desirable to go in, awaken the household, and report the disappearance of Nita. The cruise by night might be a very innocent affair.
"And then again," murmured Ruth, "there may be something in it deeper than I can see. We do not really know who this Nita is. That piece in the paper may not refer to her at all. Suppose, instead of having run away from a rich uncle and a big cattle ranch, Nita comes from bad people? Mrs. Kirby and the captain knew nothing about her. It may be that some of Nita's bad friends have followed her here, and they may mean to rob the Stones!
"Goodness! that's a very bad thought," muttered Ruth, shaking her head. "I ought not to suspect the girl of anything like that. Although she is so secret, and so rough of speech, she doesn't seem to be a girl who has lived with really bad people."
Ruth could not satisfy herself that it would be either right or wise to go in and awaken Miss Kate, or even the butler. But she could not bring herself to the point of going to bed, either, while Nita was out on the water.
She couldn't think of sleep, anyway. Not until the catboat came back to the dock did she move out of the shadow of the boathouse. And it was long past one o'clock when this occurred. The breeze had freshened, and the Jennie S. had to tack several times before the boatman made the moorings.
The starlight gave such slight illumination that Ruth could not see who was in the boat. The sail was dropped, the boat moored, and then, after a bit, she heard a heavy step upon the dock. Only one person came toward her.
Ruth peered anxiously out of the shadow. A man slouched along the dock and reached the shell road. He turned east, moving away toward the lighthouse. It was Jack Crab.
"And Nita is not with him!" gasped Ruth. "What has he done with her? Where has he taken her in the boat? What does it mean?"
She dared not run after Crab and ask him. She was really afraid of the man. His secret communication with Nita was no matter to be blurted out to everybody, she was sure. Nita had gone to meet him of her own free will. She was not obliged to sail away with Crab in the catboat. Naturally, the supposition was that she had decided to remain away from the bungalow of her own intention, too.
"It is not my secret," thought Ruth. "She was merely a visitor here. Miss Kate, even, had no command over her actions. She is not responsible for Nita—none of us is responsible.
"I only hope she won't get into any trouble through that horrid Jack Crab. And it seems so ungrateful for Nita to walk out of the house without saying a word to Heavy and Miss Kate.
"I'd best keep my own mouth shut, however, and let things take their course. Nita wanted to go away, or she would not have done so. She seemed to have no fear of Jack Crab; otherwise she would not have met him at night and gone away with him.
"Ruth Fielding! you mind your own business," argued the girl of the Red Mill, finally going back toward the silent house. "At least, wait until we see what comes of this before you tell everything you know."
And so deciding, she crept into the house, locked the door again, got into her room without disturbing any of the other girls, and so to bed and finally to sleep, being little the wiser for her midnight escapade.