Betty Gordon in Washington/22
The water struck the lady given to hysterics, and she promptly opened her mouth and shrieked again.
"We're drowning!" she cried, her terrified mind picturing a broken water pipe. "I tell you, we're drowning!"
"And I tell you we're not!" Betty stiffled a desire to laugh as one of the men contradicted her. "Some idiot—"
The crash of the water cooler against the top of the car as it slipped from the hands of the person holding it interrupted his assurance and weakened it hopelessly. A chorus of shrieks arose from those in the car.
"Well, there's your drink, Betty," grinned Bob, assisting the girls to crowd on to the one seat, for the floor was soaked with ice-cold water. "And here come your firemen—maybe they'll have better luck."
Some of the firemen went to the third floor and others obeyed orders to stay on the second.
"I'd say knock 'er down," said the grizzled old fire chief after a careful inspection of the wedged car. "We'll fix it up to break the fall. And, anyway, a drop from the third to the basement would not be dangerous."
But the occupants of the elevator protested vigorously against this plan. They made it quite clear that they had had all the "drop" they wanted for that day, and some of them intimated that they preferred to spend the night there rather than be experimented with.
"Women is like that," they heard the fire chief confide sadly to his lieutenant. "You can't reason with 'em. Well, we'll have to dope out another scheme."
After a consultation, it was proposed, via the chief's voice which had a carrying quality that was famous throughout the city, to let a ladder down from the third floor, have a fireman chop a hole in the top of the car, and assist the prisoners up the ladder to safety.
This plan met with the approval of all but the two rather prim and elderly women who flatly refused to walk up a ladder, even to get out of their present unpleasant predicament.
"Well, then, you'll have to stay here," announced the fire chief disgustedly. "The others are willing, and we can't hang around here all day. If there was a fire you wouldn't be consulted. A fireman would have you up or down a ladder before you could open your mouth to object. I ain't used to arguing with anybody."
"There's another way that might work, chief," suggested his aide. "If we can fix ropes and rig up a windlass, we can maybe hoist the car up to the level of the gate."
It was decided to try this plan, but the wily chief first extracted a promise from every one in the car that if the scheme failed, they would submit to a ladder rescue.
"'Cause I ain't saying this will work, and I don't aim to cook up a different plan every minute till you're all suited," he declared, with commendable precaution. "You all agree to the ladder if this ain't a go?"
An unanimous chorus assured him that they did.
It took some time to arrange the ropes, but at last, creakingly and slowly, the car began to make its ascent.
"Bless the Lord!" ejaculated the darky operator fervently. "I done guess our troubles is ovah!"
He changed his mind in a minute when it was discovered that the car gates were jammed. There the eleven imprisoned passengers stood, on a level with the third floor, a crowd gathered in the corridor as far as the eye could see, a thin iron grating separating them from escape.
"I don't know but I'd just as lief stay here as to face that mob," murmured Bob, but some one heard him.
"You're among friends, bub," a man called. "Keep up a stout heart."
There was a general laugh, and some one was dispatched to get a file. Ten minutes' work with this, and the stubborn catch was filed through, the gates slid back and those behind them found themselves once more on good solid mosaic tiling.
Bob's employer came up to him, and was presented to the girls. He was a pleasant, prosperous-looking man, middle-aged, and evidently fond of Bob. He immediately offered him the rest of the day off, insisting that after such an experience he should rest quietly for a few hours.
"By the way," he remarked sotto voce, "those two young men over there at the head of the stairs are newspaper reporters. One has a camera. I imagine they want to get a story on your morning's sensations."
Bob had not yet met Mr. Littell, but he had a lively idea of what that gentleman might say should he find his daughters' pictures spread over the first page of the evening papers, accompanied by a more or less accurate analysis of their emotions during the trying period through which they had just passed.
"Whisk us into your office, can't you, Mr. Derby?" he urged. "They're stopping people as they go down; they'll take no notice of us if we go on up to the fourth floor."
The crowd, satisfied that no one had been killed or was likely to be, had drifted down the staircase, the two alert youths questioning each one in an effort to get the stories of those who had been in the stalled car. The negro operator had already furnished enough copy for a half-column of thrills.
Mr. Derby managed to usher the girls and Bob upstairs to his office without exciting suspicion, and once there the question of how to get to the street was considered. There were still enough people in the corridors to make a quick run down impossible, and the elevator was, of course, out of commission.
"I'll tell you," said Mr. Derby suddenly. "Go down the fire escape to the second floor and get in at the hall window. It's always open. I'll have to wait here for Anderson, Bob. He had an appointment at eleven, but telephoned he was delayed. But perhaps the nerves of the young ladies are not equal to a climb down the fire escape? In that case you could all remain here and I'll have lunch sent in."
The girls, however, ridiculed the idea of nervousness. And indeed, with the elasticity of youth, they had already dismissed the accident from their minds except as an exciting story to tell at home that afternoon or evening.
"I'll go first," said Bob, stepping out on the fire escape. "All there is to do is to take it easy, don't hurry, and don't push. There's only two flights, so you can't get dizzy."
"Isn't this a lark!" chuckled Bobby, as she and Betty waited for the younger girls to go first after Bob. "I never had so much fun in my life. What's Bob stopping for?"
Bob was working with the window directly over the fire escape on the second floor. The girls caught up with him before he turned with a flushed face.
"The blame thing's locked," he announced. "Isn't that the worst luck! It's a rule of the building that all hall windows be left open unless there's a storm. Well, I suppose we might as well go back. There's no window on the first floor."
"We could climb in there," suggested Betty, pointing to another window, half-opened. "See, Bob, I can reach it easily."
She drew herself up before Bob could stop her, and, raising the window as high as it would go, scrambled over the sill.
"It's fine—come on in," she laughed back at the others. "Cunning office and no one in it. I suppose the owner has gone out to see us rescued."
Bob lifted up Libbie, who was the shortest, and, one after the other, the girls climbed in, Bob following last.
It was a finely furnished office and one Bob had never been in, though he had a speaking acquaintance with many of the tenants in the building. A pair of tiny scales and a little heap of yellow dust lay on the highly polished mahogany desk.
The door into the corridor was partly open, and as they had to pass the desk to reach the door, it was natural that the group should draw nearer and glance curiously at the pair of scales.
"No nearer are you to come!" snapped a sharp voice with the precision of a foreigner who is not sure enough of his English to speak hurriedly. "I warn you not to put a finger out."
Libbie squawked outright in terror, and the others fell back a step. A little man with very black eyes stood facing them, and at them he was leveling a small, businesslike looking revolver. The door had closed noiselessly, and he had evidently been behind it.
"I saw you all to enter," he informed them sternly. "I, of all in the building, remembered that it is in excitement that sneak thieves do their best work. Mr. Matthews is trusting, but I—I stood on guard. It is well. You are not to move while I telephone to the police."
"Look here," said Bob determinedly, almost overwhelmed with his responsibility and blaming himself for having placed the girls in such an awkward position. "We're no thieves. You can telephone upstairs to Mr. Derby and he'll vouch for us."
"I know no Mr. Derby," said the little man stubbornly. "Why should you pick out a jeweler's office and creep in through the window? Answer me that! Are there not stairs?"
"Well we wanted to avoid some—er—men," blurted Bob.
"Yah—already the police seek you!" triumphed their captor. "Well, they will not have long to seek."
"They were not the police." Betty found her voice and spoke earnestly. "They were reporters, and we didn't want to be interviewed. We came down the fire escape from the fourth floor, and found the hall window locked. This window was open, and we crawled in, intending to get out into the hall. That is the absolute truth."