“Well, what d’you know!” Penny exclaimed as she peered over her father’s shoulder to reread the telegram. “So that explains why Mr. Ayling didn’t meet me today!”

“If he takes the first train back, he should get in early tomorrow,” her father said. “I wonder who tricked him into going to Chicago?”

“Whoever did it probably figured he’d give up the search for Mrs. Hawthorne in disgust,” Penny added excitedly. “Dad, this case is getting more interesting every minute!”

Mr. Parker smiled but made no comment as he pocketed the telegram. Together he and Penny went downstairs to the waiting car.

“Maybe I could help Mr. Ayling by inquiring around the city if anyone has seen Mrs. Hawthorne or her granddaughter,” Penny suggested as she drove with skill through dense downtown traffic.

“I thought Mr. Ayling checked all hotels.”

“Only the larger ones, I imagine. Anyhow, I might run into interesting information.”

“Go ahead, if you like,” her father encouraged her.

Early the next morning, Penny set off alone to visit a dozen hotels. At none of them had anyone by the name of Hawthorne registered.

“She may have used an assumed name,” Penny thought, a trifle discouraged. “In that case, I’ll never find her.”

Hopeful that Mr. Ayling might arrive on the morning train, she went to the Union Railroad Station. Among those waiting on the platform for the incoming Chicago Express was Winkey, the hunchback.

He did not see Penny, and in the large crowd, she soon lost sight of him.

Finally, the train pulled in. But Mr. Ayling did not alight from either the coaches or pullmans. Feeling even more depressed, Penny went home for lunch.

Several times during the afternoon, she telephoned Mr. Ayling’s hotel to inquire if he had arrived. Each time she was told he had not checked in.

“Wonder what’s keeping him in Chicago?” Penny mused. “I hope he didn’t change his mind about coming back here.”

Throughout the day, she kept thinking about the monastery and its strange occupants. The skiing incident of the previous afternoon had convinced her that Winkey at least was cruel and dishonest. As to Father Benedict’s character, she could not make up her mind.

“Possibly he doesn’t know how surly and mean his servant acts,” she thought. “Someone ought to tell him!”

Penny longed to return to the monastery, but hesitated to go there for the deliberate purpose of reporting Winkey’s misbehavior.

“Mr. Ayling may return here tomorrow,” she told herself. “Then perhaps we can drive out there together.”

However, a check of the Riverview Hotel the following morning, disclosed that the investigator still had not arrived in the city.

Decidedly mystified by his failure to return, Penny clomped into the Parker kitchen after having spent an hour downtown. To her surprise she saw that during her absence a bulky package had been delivered.

“It came for you a half hour ago,” Mrs. Weems explained.

“For me! Must be a mistake. I’ve ordered nothing from any store.”

Plainly the package bore her name, so she tore off the heavy wrappings. Inside was a pair of new hickory skis.

“Dad must have sent them!” she exclaimed. “Just what I need.”

However, the skis were not from her father. Among the wrappings she found a card with Mr. Eckenrod’s name.

“Try these for size,” the artist had scrawled in an almost illegible hand. “Thanks for pulling me out of a hole! My leg is mending rapidly, so don’t forget our date!”

“Oh, the darling!” Penny cried. “Mighty decent of him to replace the skis I broke! Only I’m afraid I won’t get to use them many times. It’s thawing fast today.”

Slipping her slim ankles through the leather bindings, she glided awkwardly about the polished linoleum.

“How soon’s luncheon?” she asked impatiently. “I want to go skiing right away!”

“I’ll put it on after I’ve telephoned Jake Cotton,” the housekeeper promised. “He failed to show up here today.”

“Jake Cotton, the carpenter?”

“Yes, your father ordered another bookcase for the den. Jake promised to build it last week. He’s always putting other jobs ahead.”

After telephoning, Mrs. Weems toasted sandwiches and made hot chocolate. Penny ate rapidly, as was her habit when thinking of other matters.

“You won’t need any help with the dishes,” she said hopefully when the meal was over.

“No, run along and ski,” Mrs. Weems smiled. “In spirit you’re already out there on the hills!”

Penny changed quickly into skiing outfit and telephoned Louise Sidell, inviting her to go along.

“Okay,” her chum agreed half-heartedly, “but I’m still lame from the last time.”

By the time the girls reached the hills near the Abbington Monastery, the weather had turned discouragingly warm.

Touring over the slopes, they discarded first their mittens, then their jackets. After Louise had fallen down several times, soaking her clothes in melted snow, she proposed that they abandon the sport.

“So early in the afternoon?” Penny protested. “Oh, we can’t go home yet!”

“Then let’s try something else. It’s no fun skiing today.”

Penny’s gaze fastened speculatively upon the distant chimneys of the old monastery visible through the pine trees. “I have it, Lou!” she exclaimed.

“We’re not going there!” cried Louise, reading the thought.

“Why not?” Already Penny was removing her skis. “I haven’t learned half what I want to know about that place and the people who live there.”

“It gives me the shivers to go near the property. Anyhow, that old hunchback never will let us inside!”

“Why don’t we try, just for luck? Come on, Lou, at least we can talk to him.”

Much against her will, Louise was induced to accompany Penny to the big grilled gate.

To their surprise, it stood slightly ajar as if in invitation for them to enter. The front grounds were deserted and so was the gatehouse.

“We’re in luck!” chuckled Penny. “Winkey’s gone off somewhere.”

Louise’s feet were reluctant as she followed her chum to the entrance door of the monastery. “Please—” she whispered, but already Penny had thumped the lion’s head knocker against the brass plate.

Several moments elapsed and then a peephole panel just above their heads shot open. Old Julia, in white lace cap, her eyes dilated with wonder or fear, peered out at them.

Her lips moved in a gibberish they could not understand.

“She’s telling us to go away!” Louise decided quickly. “And that’s what we’re doing!”

“No! Wait!” Penny held tight to her chum’s arm. “Someone else is coming now.”

Even as she spoke, the door opened and Father Benedict towered above them in his impressive robes.

“Yes?” he inquired. The word was mildly spoken but with no cordiality.

“Good afternoon, Father,” said Penny brightly. “I hope you don’t mind our coming here again. We’re deeply interested in the work you’re doing and would like to learn more about the cult.”

“A story for newspaper publication?”

“Oh, no!” Penny assured him, reading displeasure in his eyes. “We’re just interested on general principles. No one sent us.”

The monk relaxed slightly but still did not invite the girls in. “I am very busy today,” he said. “Perhaps another time—”

“Oh, but we’ll be in school after this weekend, Father.”

“We are preparing for a ceremonial to be held in the cloister,” Father Benedict frowned. “I deeply regret—”

“Oh, a ceremonial!” Penny interrupted eagerly. “May we see it?”

“That is not allowed. Only members of our cult may take part or observe.”

“Well, at least you don’t mind if we come in and warm ourselves at your hospitable fire,” Penny said, determined not to be turned away. “Since the organization is devoted to charity, shouldn’t it begin with a couple of school girls?”

Father Benedict’s thin lips cracked into a slight smile.

“My observation would lead me to believe that the day is a warm one and that neither of you are suffering from frost-bite. However, I admire perseverance and it shall be rewarded. You may come in—though only for a short while.”

“Oh, thank you, Father!” Penny exclaimed, rather astonished by the decision.

In her eagerness to enter, she nearly stumbled over Old Julia, who huddled by the wall just inside the door. Angrily, the monk glared at his servant.

“Keep from underfoot, Julia!” he ordered. “Begone to the kitchen!”

The old woman, with a frightened glance directed at Louise and Penny, scurried away.

Once inside, the girls could understand why visitors were not welcome, for little had been done to make the place habitable since Penny’s previous visit.

Through chilly halls the monk conducted the girls to the study beyond the cloister. There he motioned them to footstools before the fire. On the hearth a large log which Penny suspected had come from the Eckenrod property, had burned down to a cherry mass of coals.

“Now, suppose you tell me what you actually came here to learn?” Father Benedict asked, looking hard at Penny.

The abrupt question caught her slightly off guard. She could think of no ready reply. As she debated whether or not to tell him of Winkey’s fight with Mr. Eckenrod, footsteps pounded down the corridor.

Suddenly the study door was flung open. The hunchback stood there, breathing hard from having hurried so fast.

“Come quick!” he said tersely to the monk.

“What’s wrong, Winkey?”

“Trouble below!”

Preparing to follow the hunchback, Father Benedict briefly made his excuses to the girls. “I’ll be gone only a minute,” he said. “Warm yourselves until my return.”

After the door had closed behind the pair, Penny said in a low tone: “Wonder what’s up? So far as I know, the only rooms below are the storage cellars and crypt.”

“Maybe some of the dead bodies are coming to life!” Louise joked feebly. “I hate this place worse every minute.”

She arose and wandered slowly about the room. “Somehow, the air is oppressive. I feel as if doom were about to descend upon me!”

“Nerves!” chuckled Penny.

Louise paused beside the crystal ball. “What’s this thing?” she asked suspiciously.

“Only Father Benedict’s crystal globe. Take a look and see what’s doing in the cellar!”

“You’re joking!”

“Guess I am,” Penny agreed. Arising, she joined Louise and for a long moment peered intently into the depths of the crystal ball. Seeing nothing in the glass she muttered in disgust: “Bunk!”

“How does one reach the basement and crypt?” Louise inquired.

“According to a plan I saw at Mr. Eckenrod’s, a stairway leads down from the far end of the cloister. Say! Why not do a little exploring while Father Benedict is away?”

“He wouldn’t like it.”

“We’ll never have a better chance.” Crossing the room in long strides, Penny tried to open the door.

The knob turned readily, but the door would not open.

“Lou,” she exclaimed in dismay, “Father Benedict certainly played a nice trick on us! We’re locked in!”

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