CHAPTER IV A Fruitless Search

“I’m afraid it really isn’t much of a clue,” Anne confessed, escorting her friend into the living room. “Just before Father died he tried to tell where he had hidden the formula but it was hard for him to speak. The nurse handed him paper and pencil and he managed to write a few words. He wasn’t able to finish the message.”

Anne moved over to the desk and took a scrap of paper from a pigeon hole. She handed it to Madge, watching her face closely as she scrutinized the cramped writing.

“Why, this doesn’t make sense!” Madge protested. “It just says, ‘written in secret—’ Is this all of it?”

Anne nodded.

“Only three words. I’ve puzzled over it until my head whirls. I’ve finally figured out that he was trying to tell me the formula had been written in some secret code.”

“Why would he have done that? To protect it?”

“Yes, Father was obsessed with the idea that someone wanted to steal the formula, particularly after his trouble with Clyde. At the very last—” Anne’s voice broke. “—he wasn’t quite himself. He kept calling for some one. ‘Kim’ he would say, ‘Kim’ and looked at me so strangely.”

“He knew some one by that name?”

“Not to my knowledge. He probably was delirious.”

It occurred to Madge that the entire idea of the formula might have been a delusion as her Aunt Maude had hinted. Tactfully, she broached the subject.

“Oh, no,” Anne protested. “At one time the formula actually existed and it was an excellent piece of research—I know that. I’m confident it is here in the house somewhere. Probably in the most out of the way place. Since Father took pains to write it out in code, I’m sure he secreted it where one would never think of searching.”

“Then our work is cut out for us,” Madge laughed. “If we ever do find the formula we’ll still have the code to unravel.”

“And it will be a real one too! Father made a hobby of codes. Years ago he did work along that line for the government.”

Madge’s interest in the missing formula had somewhat cheered Anne and the girls began their search of the house with high hope. They spent the better part of an hour browsing about Mr. Fairaday’s laboratory on the second floor, hunting through old ledgers and desk drawers. Satisfied that the lost paper was not to be found there they made a similar inspection of the old chemist’s bedroom, examining discarded letters and even searching behind pictures which hung on the walls.

“We might try the library,” Anne suggested at length. “I’ve looked there of course, but I’ve never gone carefully through the book shelves.”

They returned to the first floor and undaunted by the vast array of volumes lining the walls, attacked the stacks, working on opposite sides of the room. They went about the task methodically, removing each book from the shelf and shaking it carefully to see that nothing had been hidden between the pages.

Madge experienced a genuine thrill when an envelope, yellow with age, dropped from a volume of Keats’ poems. The girls seized upon it only to be bitterly disappointed when it turned out to be of no value.

“How provoking!” Anne cried impatiently. “I guess you’ve wasted your morning, Madge.”

“Oh, I don’t consider it wasted,” the other corrected without glancing up from the volume she was examining. “Say, this book looks interesting.”

“What is it? Kipling? That particular volume was Father’s favorite. It’s a real good story too. Take it home if you like.”

“I don’t think I should since it was your father’s—”

“Please do. I know you’ll take good care of it.”

“All right, but I’ll bring it back in a few days.”

“Keep it as long as you like.”

Presently, Madge said that she must return to the lodge and Anne accompanied her to the boat landing. Both were discouraged but tried not to disclose it to the other.

“Well, if we never find the formula, there’s one thing I can always do—sell this house. Jake Curtis has been after me to sell it to him ever since Father died.”

“Jake Curtis!” Madge exclaimed sharply. “Don’t you ever do it. He wouldn’t give you half what it’s worth. He has the reputation of being the shrewdest real estate shark in these parts.”

“I know. He wants to turn the house into a summer hotel.”

“And ruin Loon Lake. Imagine this place swarming with the sort of folks Jake Curtis would attract. The fishing would be ruined in two seasons!”

“He practically wants me to give him the place,” Anne informed. “You see, he holds a first mortgage on it—not a very large one but sufficient to embarrass me. If the bank will loan me enough money to pay it off, I’ll tell him to jump in the lake. I’d rather sell to anyone but him.”

“When does the mortgage come due?”

“Next month.”

Madge had heard her uncle remark that the local bankers were very reluctant to make loans at the present time and Anne’s prospects appeared especially slim.

“Well, I wish you luck,” she said turning to leave. “Things may straighten themselves out before the mortgage falls due.”

The next few days found Madge too busy to paddle over to the island for three guests arrived from the city to try their fishing luck. They asked endless questions, demanded constant service and had enormous appetites. In spite of the extra housework, Madge had time to consider Anne’s problem but she could think of no way out. Often too, her eyes turned toward Lookout 48 but while she frequently saw Jack French glide by in his canoe he never stopped at the lodge. Once she saw him carry a large box of groceries to Stewart Island.

“He has other things to do besides come to see me,” she told herself. “Why should I care?”

Yet she knew she did care a great deal.

One afternoon toward the end of the week, Madge was snatching a few minutes rest on the veranda when the telephone rang. Mrs. Brady answered, and soon stepped outside to speak to her niece.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Madge, but a stranger just telephoned from the White farmhouse. Jack French is bringing him out from town. He wants us to put him up for a few days.”

“Friend of Jack’s?”

“No, he merely brought him out as an accommodation. I don’t know the stranger’s name. He wants someone to meet him across the lake.”

“Just my luck Uncle George is gone. Isn’t Bill around?”

“He is always missing when there’s work to be done,” Mrs. Brady smiled. “I think his intuition warns him. I’m sorry to call on you.”

“Oh, I don’t really mind, providing there’s not more than one suitcase to ferry across,” Madge assured her quickly. “And if our guest is a gentleman he may offer to row back.”

She took her time crossing the lake for there was no sign of a car at the landing. Beaching the skiff she sat down on an old log. After a short wait she heard an automobile pounding down the private road which joined Loon Lake with the main highway. Madge arose expectantly.

A battered car swung into view and halted with a jerk. Jack French stepped lightly to the ground. He was a tall, handsome man, built like an All-American half-back, strong and straight, his every movement graceful. His face was richly tanned and his brown eyes were always a-twinkle, as though the world amused their owner. One knew at a glance that he would be restless under a man-made roof. He loved the canopy of the blue sky, and a wood or a stream or some rare tree gave him a keener enjoyment than any artificial diversion could have done.

He grinned cheerfully at Madge, greeting her flippantly.

“Hello, child. Here’s your new boarder—guess you’ve seen him before. I packed him out from Luxlow along with the grub.”

Jack’s gaze lingered half-quizzically as he spoke, but Madge looked beyond him to the man who was slowly climbing from the car. It was Clyde Wendell. The ranger had never liked him.

“I don’t believe we ever really met,” Madge stammered, slightly embarrassed at the unexpected meeting. “Of course, I’ve seen you from a distance.”

The chemist turned, surveying her rather sharply. His eyes were penetrating and hostile.

“You’re Miss Sterling, I suppose? I telephoned from the White’s for a room at Mrs. Brady’s lodge. If you’re here to take me across the lake, let’s get started. I’ve had a hard trip and I’m tired.”

In spite of his desire for haste, the chemist made no move to lift his suitcases from the rear of the car. He waited impatiently for the ranger to stow them in the skiff. Jack was provokingly slow.

“Aiming to do a little fishing?” he asked casually.

“I may.”

“Then I’ll give you a permit. This is a timber berth, you know and we have to be careful about fires.”

“Do I look like I’d set one?”

“I didn’t mean that,” Jack returned amiably. “In your case the permit is only a matter of form.”

“Then why issue it? I lived here several months.”

Jack did not respond but wrote out the necessary form and gave it to him. Clyde took it without a word of thanks and climbed into the skiff. Madge looked surprised and then went to the vacant seat beside the oars. She had expected that the chemist would at least offer to row across the lake.

“See here, Madge,” Jack protested quickly. “You can’t tote those heavy suitcases. I’ll bring them over later tonight.”

She would have accepted gratefully had not the chemist broke in irritably:

“The bags must go with us. I’ll need them before evening.”

“Really, I don’t mind,” Madge assured Jack. “Shove us off, will you, please?”

He complied, bestowing a look upon Clyde’s back which was far from complimentary. At first the skiff moved steadily through the water but before Madge had covered half the distance her arms began to tire. Clyde Wendell did not seem to notice. He stared moodily across the lake. Frequently, his dark, piercing eyes roved in the direction of Stewart Island.

The strangely tense expression of his face was not lost upon Madge. What thoughts could be running through his mind, she wondered? Why had he returned to Loon Lake?

“It’s for no good purpose,” she decided. “My guess is that he intends to make trouble for Anne Fairaday!”

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