English Literature

The Slipper Point Mystery by Augusta Huiell Seaman

The Slipper Point Mystery by Augusta Huiell Seaman

CHAPTER I

THE ENCOUNTER

She sat on the prow of a beached rowboat, digging her bare toes in the sand.

There were many other rowboats drawn up on the sandy edge of the river,—as many as twenty or thirty, not to speak of the green and red canoes lying on the shore, bottoms up, like so many strange insects. A large number of sailboats were also anchored near the shore or drawn up to the long dock that stretched out into the river.

For this was Carter’s Landing, the only place on lovely little Manituck River where pleasure-boats could be hired. Beside the long dock there was, up a wide flight of steps,[Pg 4] a large pavilion where one could sit and watch the lights and shadows on the river and its many little activities. There were long benches and tables to accommodate picnic-parties and, in an inner room, a counter where candies, ice cream and soda-water were dispensed. And lastly, one part of the big pavilion was used as a dancing-floor where, afternoons and evenings, to the music of a violin and piano, merry couples whirled and circled.

Down on the sand was a signboard which said:

Children Must Not Play in the Boats.”

Nevertheless, she sat on the prow of one, this girl of fourteen, digging her bare toes aimlessly in the sand, and by her side on the prow-seat sat a tiny child of about three, industriously sucking the thumb of her right hand, while she pulled at a lock of her thick straight hair with her left. So she sat, saying nothing, but staring contentedly out over the water. The older girl wore a blue skirt and a soiled white middy-blouse. She had dark brown[Pg 5] eyes and thick auburn hair, hanging down in a ropelike braid. Her face was somewhat freckled, and apart from her eyes and hair she was not particularly pretty.

The afternoon was hot, though it was only the early part of June, and there was no one else about except one or two helpers of the Landing. The girl stared moodily out over the blue river, and dug her bare toes deeper into the sand.

“Stop sucking your thumb, Genevieve!” she commanded suddenly, and the baby hastily removed the offending member from her mouth. But a moment later, when the older girl’s attention was attracted elsewhere, she quietly slipped it back again.

Presently, from around the bend of the river, there slid into sight a red canoe, paddled vigorously by one person sitting in the stern. The girl in the prow of the rowboat sat up and stared intently at the approaching canoe.

“There it is,” she announced to her younger sister. “The first canoe Dad’s hired this season. Wonder who has it?” The baby made[Pg 6] no reply and placidly continued to suck her thumb, her older sister being too absorbed to notice the forbidden occupation.

The canoe approached nearer, revealing its sole occupant to be a girl of fourteen or fifteen, clad in a dazzlingly white and distinctly tailored linen Russian blouse suit, with a pink satin tie, her curly golden hair surmounted by an immense bow of the same hue. She beached her canoe skilfully not six feet away from the rowboat of the occupied prow. And as she stepped out, further details of her costume could be observed in fine white silk stockings and dainty patent leather pumps. Scarcely stopping to drag her canoe up further than a few inches on the sand, she hurried past the two in the rowboat and up the broad steps to the pavilion.

“You’d better drag up your canoe further,” called out the barefooted girl. “It’ll float away if you leave it like that.”

“Oh, I’m coming right back!” replied the other. “I’m only stopping a moment to get some candy.” She disappeared into the pavilion[Pg 7] and was out again in two minutes, bearing a large box of candy, of the most expensive make boasted by Carter’s Landing. Down the steps she tripped, and crossed the strip of sand toward her canoe. But in front of the occupied rowboat she stopped, drawn perhaps by the need of companionship on this beautiful but solitary afternoon.

“Have some?” she asked, proffering the open box of candy. The barefooted girl’s eyes sparkled.

“Why, yes, thanks!” she answered, and gingerly helped herself to one small piece.

“Oh, take some more! There’s plenty!” declared her companion, emptying fully a quarter of the box into her new friend’s lap. “And give some to the baby.” The younger child smiled broadly, removed her thumb from her mouth and began to munch ecstatically on a large piece of chocolate proffered by her sister.

“You’re awfully kind,” remarked the older girl between two bites, “but what’ll your mother say?”

[Pg 8]

“Why, she won’t care. She gave me the money and told me to go get it and amuse myself. It’s awfully dull up at the hotel. It’s so early in the season that there’s almost nobody else there,—only two old ladies and a few men that come down at night,—besides Mother and myself. I hate going to the country so early, before things start, only Mother has been sick and needed the change right away. So here we are—and I’m as dull as dishwater and so lonesome! What’s your name?”

The other girl had been drinking in all this information with such greedy interest that she scarcely heard or heeded the question which ended it. Without further questioning she realized that this new acquaintance was a guest at “The Bluffs,” the one exclusive and fashionable hotel on the river. She at once became guiltily conscious of her own bare brown toes, still wriggling in the warm sand. She blamed herself fiercely for not taking the trouble to put on her shoes and stockings that afternoon. Up till this moment it had scarcely seemed worth while.

[Pg 9]

“Tell me, what’s your name?” the girl in white and pink reiterated.

“Sarah,” she answered, “but most every one calls me Sally. What’s yours?”

“Doris Craig,” was the reply and the girl of the bare toes unconsciously noted that “Doris” was an entirely fitting name for so dainty a creature. And somehow she dreaded to answer the question as to her own.

“My name’s horrid,” she added, “and I always did hate it. But baby’s is pretty,—Genevieve. Mother named her that, ’cause Father had insisted that mine must be ‘Sarah,’ after his mother. She said she was going to have one pretty name in the family, anyway. Genevieve, take your thumb out of your mouth!”

“Why do you tell her to do that?” demanded Doris, curiously.

“‘Cause Mother says it’ll make her mouth a bad shape if she keeps it up, and she told me it was up to me to stop it. You see I have Genevieve with me most of the time. Mother’s so busy.” But by this time, Doris’s roving[Pg 10] eye had caught the sign forbidding children to play in the boats.

“Do you see that?” she asked. “Aren’t you afraid to be sitting around in that boat?”

“Huh!” exclaimed Sally scornfully. “That doesn’t mean Genevieve and me.”

“Why not?” cried Doris perplexedly.

“‘Cause we belong here. Captain Carter’s our father. All these boats belong to him. Besides, it’s so early in the season that it doesn’t matter anyway. Even we don’t do it much in July and August.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Doris, a light beginning to break on her understanding. “Then that—er—lady up at the candy counter is your mother?” She referred to the breathlessly busy, pleasant, though anxious-faced woman who had sold her the candy.

“Yes. She’s awfully busy all the time, ’cause she has to wait on the soda and candy and ice cream, and see that the freezer’s working all right, and a lot of other things. In July and August we have to have girls from the village to help. We don’t see much of her[Pg 11] in the summer,—Genevieve and I. We just have to take care of ourselves. And that’s Dad, down on the dock.” She pointed to a tall, lanky, slouchily dressed man who was directing the lowering of a sail in one of the cat-boats.

“Yes, I know Captain Carter,” averred Doris. “I hired this canoe of him.”

“Did you go and hire a canoe—all by yourself?” inquired Sally, eyeing her very youthful new acquaintance with some wonder. “How did your mother come to let you?”

“Well, you see Mother’s been awfully sick and she isn’t at all well yet. Has to stay in bed a good deal of the day and just sits around on the veranda the rest of the time. She couldn’t tend to things like that, so I’ve got used to doing them myself lately. I dress myself and fix my hair all by myself, without the least help from her,—which I couldn’t do three months ago. I did it today. Don’t you think I look all right?”

Again Sally flushed with the painful consciousness of her own unkempt appearance,[Pg 12] especially her bare feet. “Oh, yes! You look fine,” she acknowledged sheepishly. And then added, as a concession to her own attire:

“I hate to get all dressed up these hot days, ‘specially when there’s no one around. Mother often makes me during ‘the season,’ ’cause she says it looks bad for the Landing to see us children around so sloppy.”

“My mother says,” remarked Doris, “that one always feels better to be nicely and cleanly dressed, especially in the afternoons, if you can manage it. You feel so much more self-respecting. I often hate to bother to dress, too, but I always do it to please her.”

Sally promptly registered the mental vow that she would hereafter array herself and Genevieve in clean attire every single afternoon, or perish in the attempt. But clothes was not a subject that ever interested Doris Craig for any length of time, so she soon switched to another.

“Can’t you and the baby come out with me in my canoe for a while?” she suggested. “I’m so lonesome. And perhaps you know[Pg 13] how to paddle. You could sit in the bow, and Genevieve in the middle.”

“Yes, I know how to paddle,” admitted Sally. To tell the truth she knew how to run every species of boat her father owned, not even omitting the steam launches. “But we can’t take Genevieve in a canoe. She won’t sit still enough and Mother has forbidden it. Let’s go out in my rowboat instead. Dad lets me use old 45 for myself any time I want, except in the very rush season. It’s kind of heavy and leaks a little, but I can row it all right.” She indicated a boat far down at the end of the line.

“But I can’t row!” exclaimed Doris. “I never learned because we’ve always had a canoe up at Lake Placid in the Adirondacks where we’ve usually gone.”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” laughed Sally. “I can row the whole three. You sit in the stern with Genevieve, and I’ll take you around the river to some places I warrant you’ve never seen.”

Filled with the spirit of the new adventure,[Pg 14] the two hurried along, bearing a somewhat reluctant Genevieve between them, and clambered into the boat numbered “45” at the end of the line. Doris seated herself in the stern with Genevieve and the box of candy. And the baby was soon shyly cuddling up to her and dipping her chubby little fist into the box at frequent intervals. Sally established herself in the bow rowing seat, pushed off with a skilful twist of her oars, and was soon swinging out into the tide with the short, powerful strokes of the native-born to Manituck.

It was a perfect June afternoon. The few other boats on the river were mainly those of the native fishermen treading for clams in the shallows, and one or two dipping sailboats. Overhead the fish-hawks sailed and plunged occasionally with a silver flash into the river. The warm scent of the pines was almost overpoweringly sweet, and a robin sang insistently on the farther shore. Even the thoughtless children were unconsciously swayed by the quiet beauty of the day and place.

“Do you know,” commented Doris, “I like[Pg 15] it here. Really I like it a lot better than any other place we’ve ever been. And I’ve only been here two days. Do you live here all the year round?”

“Yes, but it isn’t half so nice in winter,” said Sally; “though the skating’s good when it’s cold enough. But I get awfully tired of all this all the time. I’d love to live in New York a while. There’s the island,” she indicated. “You can see that from most anywhere on the river. It’s pretty, but there isn’t anything much interesting about it. I think I’ve explored every inch of this river ’cause I’ve so little else to do in the summer. Genevieve and I know more about it than the oldest inhabitant here, I reckon.”

There was something about the way she made this last remark that aroused Doris’s curiosity.

“Why do you say that?” she demanded. “Of course it’s all lovely around here, and up above that bridge it seems rather wild. I went up there yesterday in the canoe. But what is there to ‘know’ about this river or its shores?[Pg 16] There can’t be anything very mysterious about a little New Jersey river like this.”

“You wouldn’t think so to look at it,” said Sally, darkly. “Especially this lower part with just the Landing and the hotel and the summer bungalows along the shore. But above the bridge there in the wild part, things are different. Genevieve and I have poked about a bit, haven’t we, Genevieve?” The baby nodded gravely, though it is doubtful if she understood much of her older sister’s remark.

“Oh, do tell me what you’ve found?” cried Doris excitedly. “It all sounds so mysterious. I’m just crazy to hear. Can’t you just give me a little hint about it, Sally?”

But the acquaintance was too new, and the mystery was evidently too precious for the other to impart just yet. She shook her head emphatically and replied:

“No, honestly I somehow don’t want to. It’s Genevieve’s secret and mine. And we’ve promised each other we’d never tell any one about it Haven’t we, Genevieve?”

[Pg 17]

The baby gravely nodded again, and Sally headed her boat for the wagon-bridge that crossed the upper part of the river.

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