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CHAPTER XXI


THE ACCIDENT


"I'd like to live up here!" It was Esther who spoke so enthusiastically, as she stood, with Bob Henderson and the four girls, on the roof of the building proudly pointed out as the tallest in Washington.

A soft breeze was blowing, and it was a cloudless day so that the city was clearly spread before them.

"Wouldn't I like to go up in an airplane!" exclaimed Betty. "See, they're flying over the Navy Yard now. I'd give anything to know how it feels to fly."

"If you go much nearer that edge you'll know how it feels all right," Bob warned her. "Come down here and I'll show you our drying racks. Perhaps that will keep your mind off airplanes."

The wooden racks held lengths of silk and cloth, weighted at the ends to keep them from blowing away. The materials were dyed in crude, vivid colors, and Bob explained that they were brought from the factory after being dipped so that his employer might personally observe the changes they underwent after exposure to strong sunlight.

"We only take orders and send out salesmen from the office downstairs," he said. "The factory is near Georgetown and employs about two hundred hands."

After they had made the circuit of the roof, picking out familiar landmarks and wrangling lazily over distances and geographical boundaries, they were ready to go down. Bob must return to work, and the girls had planned a trip to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

"I tell you I was glad our office wasn't on the top floor this morning," Bob casually remarked as they stood waiting for the elevator. "Something was the matter, and everybody had to walk up. The fourth floor was plenty far enough up for us then."

"Mother always says we don't appreciate conveniences till we have to do without them," said Bobby. "Here comes the car."

The grinning negro boy who operated the elevator smiled a wide smile as they filed into his car.

"You-all get a nice view?" he asked sociably.

They assured him that they had, and he seemed pleased, but his red light glowing at that moment, he gave all his attention to stopping at the next floor. Two women got on and, at the next floor, two men.

The gate had just closed after this last stop, and Betty had opened her mouth to tell Bobby that her hat was tipped crookedly when with a sickening speed the car began to drop!

"We's slipping! I can't stop her! Oh, good gracious, the brakes or nothin' don't work !" The frenzied wail of the negro who was working valiantly at his levers gave the first intimation of danger.

Betty saw Bob spring to his aid, saw Esther sink in a miserable little white heap to the floor, Bobby put her hands up to her eyes as if to shut out the light, and Louise mechanically try to defend herself from the strangle hold of the woman who stood next to her. It seemed minutes to Betty that the car was falling, and she watched the others' behavior with a curious, semi-detached interest that was oddly impersonal. One of the men passengers began to claw at the gate frantically and the other kept muttering under his breath, softly and steadily, biting off his words crisply and quite unconscious of what he was saying. The woman who had clutched Louise was silent at first, but her companion instantly screamed, and in a fraction of a second she, too, was screaming.

Now Betty had never heard the sound of women in terror, and she was unprepared for the wild anguish of those shrill voices.

The experience was terrifying, but it was all over very swiftly. The mechanism jammed between the third and second floors and the elevator came to a stop with a suddenness that jarred the teeth of the passengers. It had begun to fall after leaving the seventh floor.

For a moment every one stared at every one else stupidly. Bobby Littell was the first to find her voice.

"Well, I guess we're all here," she observed matter-of-factly. "Esther, are you hurt?"

"No-o, I think not," said Esther slowly. "Wasn't it awful! Let's get out of here, quick."

A hasty investigation proved that no one was injured, and as one of the men said, shaken nerves could not be allowed to count.

"That was a narrow escape, a mighty narrow escape!" said the other man. "I fully expected to be smashed in the wreck of the car when it struck the concrete well."

"I'll never ride in another elevator, never!" ejaculated the woman who had seized Louise. "Why, I'll dream of this for weeks to come."

The girls said nothing, though their lips were white and Betty's knees were trembling. She was rather angry that she should feel this loss of control after everything was over, but it was natural.

"How do we get out?" Bob addressed the operator briskly. "Can you open the doors? Come on now, nothing is going to hurt you—the danger is over."

The poor darky was actually gray with fright, and his face was bruised where he had been thrown against the grating when the car stopped.

"I doan know how you-all kin get out, Boss," he said tremulously. "We's stuck between the floors."

"Hello! Hello you, down there! Anybody hurt?" a friendly bellow came down to them from the grating of the floor above.

A crowd had collected on each floor, having heard the screams, and all these people now ran downstairs to get as close to the stranded car as they could. They collected about the gate on the third floor, and many from the street, hearing that there had been an accident, crowded around the shaft on the second floor. They were advised that no one was hurt and what was needed was a way of escape from the brass cage.

"Knock a hole in the roof," some one advised cheerfully. "You can crawl out on the top of the car and then shinny your way up to us. Or we'll let down a rope to you."

"What'll we knock a hole in the roof with?" demanded Bob, and when offers were made to drop an axe down to him he had difficulty in calming the woman who had so nearly strangled Louise, and who had visions of being accidently decapitated.

"I cain't get the doors open," announced the darky, after tinkering vainly with them. "I reckon the lock's done got jammed. If I could get 'em open the lil girl under the seat could shinny up the wall and that would be one out, 'tannyrate."

Attention thus focused upon her, Libbie crawled from under the seat where she had dived, following an ostrich-like impulse to hide her head from coming danger. Her confusion was increased by the tactless comment of the operator who, seeing her "full view" for the first time, exclaimed:

"Lawsy, Missie, you couldn't shinny up no wall. You is too fat."

Many suggestions were forthcoming, all of them impractical, and the already frayed nerves of the passengers began to show evidence of reaching the snapping point. Bob's employer was among those who had gathered in the corridor, and he decidedly favored the axe idea.

The plan to chop their way out gained in favor, and a boy had been dispatched for one of the fire axes when the woman who had grasped Louise created a diversion by going into hysterics and declaring that she would not have them dropping axes on her head. Her companion tried in vain to soothe her, but she was in a highly nervous state and it was impossible to explain or reason with her. She began to scream again, and this was more than those imprisoned in the car with her could be expected to stand.

"That settles it—call off the axe!" shouted the older man, exchanging a desperate glance with Bob. "If this goes on much longer we'll be floated out on a river of salt tears. It's all right, Madam, they are not going to send any axes down."

The women continued to sob violently for a time, but at last they got her quieted and were free to consider other ways and means of escape.

Pat Kelly, the genial engineer of the building, was sent down to the basement to see what he could do with the refractory machinery, for although the elevator people had been telephoned to, their men had not yet put in an appearance. Pat's contribution was to create a horrible din by hammering on every pipe he came to, stopping at three-minute intervals to yell, "Can ye be moving now?"

"Call that man off!" shouted the younger of the two men passengers. "What do you think this is—a boiler factory? About all the good he'll do will be to dislodge the car, and we'll fall the rest of the way."

This was a bad suggestion, and only by hard work were two more cases of hysterics averted.

"I think what we need is a drink of water," declared Betty timidly. "Do you think they could get some down to us? And, Bob, why don't they send for the fire department?"

"I suppose because we are not on fire," answered Bob seriously. "What good could the firemen do?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Betty vaguely. "Only in Pineville the firemen get people out of all sorts of scrapes. They can climb you know, and they have long ladders and ropes—"

"By George, the girl is right!" The elder man looked at Betty admiringly. "Hey, some of you who want to help! Go and 'phone the fire department. And say, send us down some water—we're dry as dust after this rumpus."

Half of the waiting crowd scattered to telephone to the fire department and the other half ran for the water coolers. Their zeal outstripped their judgment In this latter service, and the result was an icy stream of water that poured into the car.