Under canvas; or, the hu.., p.14
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       Under Canvas; or, The Hunt for the Cartaret Ghost, p.14
 

          
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  CHAPTER XIII

  A STRANGE FIGURE IN WHITE

  "OH!"

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

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

  All of them were staring as hard as they could at the strange whiteobject that kept creeping, creeping along through the brush. Not theslightest sound did it appear to make, and that added to the weirdnessof it all. They must just then have had flash into their brains all theyhad ever read or heard about the wonderful manner in which ghosts andhobgoblins are able to advance or retreat, without betraying theirpresence 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 theysaw the white object whirl around, and rush away through the brush; andnow they could plainly detect the rapid patter of canine feet.

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

  "Yes," added Toby, "and when he barked up at us he was scared at thesound he made himself, so that he lit out as though he had a tin pantied to his tail. But I own up I was shivering to beat the band, for Isure 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 itappear that he considered any one foolish who would actually allowhimself 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 therein 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 ofus, only you won't own up to it."

  "What, me? Huh, guess again, Toby, and don't measure everybody by yourown standard, please," George told him; meanwhile congratulating himselfover the fact that he had been standing in the shadow, so that none ofhis 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 rabbitsthrough the forest, and chanced to wander over this way. But even heconsidered it a queer place, and was glad to shake the dust of it offhis paws after he gave that one volley of barks. No danger of him comingback."

  "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 beclose on twelve o'clock!"

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

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

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

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

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

  Their senses were under such a tremendous strain that it actually seemedto Toby and perhaps Lil Artha, that they would have given a great dealfor 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 theothers fastened their anxious eyes upon him they saw that he had gentlytaken out the little nickel dollar watch he carried. Bending forward sothat a ray of moonlight might fall on the face of the time-piece, LilArtha consulted it to learn if his suspicions were correct.

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

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

  "'Sh!"

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

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

  Toby rubbed his eyes very hard, as though under the impression that theywere playing him false; while George shoved up closer to the next inline, 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 newsource of alarm, for it was tall, after the fashion of a man, and seemedto be dressed in white from head to foot.

  Though they listened with all their might none of them could catch thesound of footfalls. If the mysterious object were a human being he mustbe barefooted to be able to move along without making a sound; while ifit 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 withouteven a shivering sound--so those who deem themselves competent to judgetell us.

  Elmer was perhaps also mystified more or less. Though he might know moreabout the secrets of the old house than any of his companions, stillthis particular manifestation was something he would like to haveexplained.

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

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

  "Stay here!" whispered the leader, in the lowest possible tone, whichcould not have penetrated more than two feet away, but was enough towarn 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 headvanced.

  Five other fellows crouched there and continued to watch, first thatpuzzling white figure that noiselessly kept up its ceaseless parade backand forth, and then the creeping scout, slowly and c
arefully coveringthe space that separated him from the object under observation.

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

  Meanwhile, there was Elmer hunching his way along the hall toward themoving object in white that had so mystified them. He would raisehimself, and push along a foot or so, and then resume his squattingposition; but all the while steady progress was being made, and withoutany 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 besimply a human being like themselves, he had a scheme in his mindlooking 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 anunwise act for him to pass out of the line of shadow, and allow themoonlight to fall upon him while making this advance. Fortunately therewas sufficient shadow to admit of his passage without taking thesechances.

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

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

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

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

  By this time the scout had drawn so close that he thought it good policyto remain perfectly quiet while the mysterious white object advancedtoward him, making all his progress when the other had turned, and wasmoving away.

  The half-dozen contemplated movements had now been reduced to three, andhe saw no reason to believe that his presence was known. This spoke wellfor 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 fromany belief in things supernatural. While he never boasted, like George,and some of the other scouts liked to do, at the same time he believedthat everything claimed as belonging to the realm of spirits could beexplained, if only one went about it the right way.

  On this account, then, he had not allowed himself to give even the leastthought 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 thisstrange way; and before he was done with the affair the scout masterhoped to be able to probe the enigma, and find a reasonable answer thatwould fit the case.

  Another turn along on his hands and haunches took him just that muchnearer the object of his solicitude. That left only two more to benegotiated before he would have reached the mark he had mentally chosenas the limit of his investigation. After that he must return to informhis friends of his discoveries, so that together they might lay planslooking to the capture of the white mystery.

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

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

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

 
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