Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 14 page 241
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ILDEGARDE wrote to Madeleine Smulsky, now Mrs. Jacob L. Dorn. Madeleine's husband, being a Pacific Coast importer in a large way, might be able to advise in which of the fleet of steamers advertised to sail from San Francisco, and certain to be the first boat of the year to reach Nome--in which should a traveler put trust.
The answer brought Mr. Dorn's somewhat scornful profession that he knew nothing whatever about the hastily formed San Francisco lines, and little good about the mushroom companies of his own city, but if Hildegarde thought of sailing from Seattle he would look into the matter for her. Seattle was the better port, being the natural gateway to the North (Hildegarde could hear Mr. Dorn saying that), in witness whereof the bustling, booming city swarmed already with more prospective passengers than there were ships to float them--all wisely laying in their provisions, buying machinery and outfit in that best of all places--San Francisco? oh, dear, no! in Seattle, the City of the Future! Hildegarde must at all events come and visit the Dorns. Under the guidance of Madeleine's husband, she would probably find out that, at best, the journey to Nome was impracticable for a lady.
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The middle of April found Miss Mar a guest of the Dorns. Jacob L. seemed presentlly to abandon all idea of dissuading his wife's friend from carrying her wild scheme into execution, but he pointed out the little need there was to rush blindly into avoidable difficulties. Better ships were in process of being chartered for the northern service, in view of the undreamed-of demand. The season, moreover, was late this year. Those earlier, inferior vessels (schooners and what not) that were to get off before the middle of May would only spend the time "knocking about the North Pacific, among the icebergs."
So Hildegarde waited while Mr. Dorn looked thoroughly into the question. Even looking into it seemed perilous. It told on the gentleman's health, as one might suppose. When Hildegarde had been only a few days under his roof, her host took to his bed with congestion of the lungs.
Madeleine absorbed in nursing the husband had little time for the friend. Hildegarde was suddenly thrown on her own resources. But she felt it would be impolitic to write that fact to Valdivia. From one shipping office to another, from Southwick's Great Outfitting Emporium to the Baumgarten Brothers' Wholesale Provision House, she went in quest of information; threading her way through the bustling streets. where among the featureless thousands, day by day she often saw the figure of the frontiersman in broad-brimmed hat and brown boots, laced to the knee; or the weather-beaten miner, in "waders" and brown duck or mackinaw. "They 're coming to Nome!" she would say to herself, looking on them already as fellow-travelers. One feel-
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ing much with her is perhpas really rather new in woman's experience, among the many things called "new" that are yet so old. It seems as if never before her generation could it have been a matter of course to a girl like Hildegarde Mar, that she should feel instinctively it would be as absurd to treat these bearded frontiersmen with condenscension, as to be terrified of them. Not that she analyzed the situation. It was too simple for that. Her feeling was merely that these uncouth fellow-creatures were possible friends of hers. As she met and passed them, or in imagination "placed" them in her coming experience, her mental attitude was singularly untarnished by the age-old anxiety of the unprotected female casting about for a champion. Something less self-centered than that, something kindlier, less the child of fear. Cheviot might have qualms, but man was not for Hildegarde her natural enemy. A woman alone was not obliged to peep furtively about for shelter, or for some coign of vantage, like one pursued in a hostile land. Not his immemorial prey, she; but like him the possible prey of circumstance, with ignorance for her arch-enemy as well as his. Those booted and sombreoed men--some of them at least--had already met and overcome the common enemy. They would be masters of the situation up there. Herself the mere ignorant human being, eager to learn, innocent of class-illusion, intensely alive to "differences," yet knowing which of them were only skin-deep, or rather education-deep; young, yes; attractive, too; a girl going into a strange new world who yet goes fearlessly, hopefully, carrying faith in human nature along for her shield and her buckler. If this is an apparition new upon the earth, then perhaps
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the modern world has something to be proud of beyond the things it has celebrated more.
Not that she encountered no difficult moments. She was stared at, and she could see that she was speculated about. Well, that was no killing matter. Perhaps it was becasue she was so tall. When in the thronged and noisy offices she was crowded and pushed by an excited horde--though shown no special disrespect as a woman--she was certainly not comfortable, and was even a little forlorn. When a brow-beating passenger-agent vented his ill-temper upon her refusal to buy a ticket forthwith without waiting "to inquire further," she felt the man's rudeness keenly, absurdly. But it was not till some "masher" of a clerk spoke to her with a vulgar familiarity that discomfort went down before humiliation in the thought, "What would Louis say if he knew?" However, the clerk soon saw his error, and the tall, quiet girl was taken at a different valuation. Men, even the most ignorant men, learn these lessons more quickly than is supposed. But, oh, it was n't easy to do the work of preparation alone! comparing, eliminating, deciding all by oneself. For at every step, upon every question, one encountered conflicting testimony. Every store-window that one passed displayed things "Indispensable for Nome." Every ship that sailed was the best, and bound to be first at the goal. Now and then to some one of the besieging hundreds at the offices, Hildegarde would put a question. The women looked askance. The men answered civilly enough. But if they knew little more than Hildegarde, they entertained darker fears. And still, and always, testimony was in conflict. The firm that impressed her most favorably,
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whose office she had just left to "think it over"--why they, it seemed, were a set of thieves. Passage on one of their ships meant ten to twenty days' starvation on short rations of sour bread and salt horse. Heavens, what an escape! But that other firm she was on her way to interrogate--they were traffickers in human life! Did n't she know they had been buying up abandoned wrecks out of the sea, sweeping the entire Pacific for derelict and rotten craft that they might paint and rename, and make a fortune out of crowding such crazy vessels full of ignorant human cattle for Cape Nome?
But these people, proprietors of the New Line, in whose offices they stood--their ships if starting later were at least seaworthy. Seaworthy? 'Sh! Their ships did n't so much as exist. These men only waited, postponing sailing dates on one pretext or another, till they had got your money and filled, and over-filled, the lists of their phantom ships. When they 'd done that, you 'd see! They 'd pocket their thousands and abscond into Canada.
While Hildegarde waited hesitating, even on the smallest and least faith-inspiring boats the passenger lists rapidly filled. And still every train that thundered into the Seattle station disgorged its hundreds clamoring to be taken to Nome. Already, since Hildegarde's arrival, a number of schooners and several steamers, with flags flying and bands playing, had gone forth to meet the early ice floes. Would these daring ones get any further, after all, than the Aleutian Islands before June? "You 'll see they 'll have to put in at Dutch Harbor for a month!" Hildegarde saw men, standing in dense
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crowds on the wharves, shake their heads, as they watched each ship go forth on the great adventure.
"All my life," thought the girl, "I shall remember the port of Seattle, when the first boats went to Nome."
There were those who might seem to have more cause than Hildegarde Mar to remember that unprecedented spectacle. For to the wonderful "Water Front" sooner or later every creature in Seattle found his way--commonly to suffer there some strange, malignant change. Even the quiet ones began to emit strange sounds, and to tear about as if afflicted with rabies; the most self-controlled went mad among the rest. They fought their way through the barriers, men and women alike; they screamed about their freight upon the docks, hurrahing and gesticulating, they saw maniac friends off, on ships whose decks were black with people, whose rigging, even, swarmed with clotted humanity, like bees clinging in bunches to the boughs of a tree.
In the "orderly" streets of a great city, a girl like Hildegarde would have been remarked, followed, probably accosted. She had had experience of that even in Valdivia, where nearly every creature knew who she was. In the vast and eager crowd on the Seattle water front she passed with little notice and wholly unmolested. Every one had business of his own. If the man who pushed against you till he nearly knocked you down was not an excited passenger rushing for the next ship, he was a company agent seeing off a hundred thousand dollars' worth of machinery; or he was the gentleman in a smaller way of business, who was beating up trade in the neighborhood of the Last Chance Bazaar. Here and there on a tiny temporary platform nearly swamped by
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the crowd, or standing insecurely on a jostled barrow, merchants whose ages ranged from eight to eighty, offered you something you 'd bless them for every hour of your life at Nome. Here an improved sort of prospecting pan--you had only to carry it up to lat. 62° to fill it full of gold all day long. There was a Nome mosquito-mask, fastened like a gallows'-cap on the face of a stiff, pale figure of wax, lifted high in air, rigid, travestying death--horribly arresting. There was every kind of waterproof--hat, coat and boot; for, that summer at Nome meant nothing but rain, was the one point upon which every one agreed. By way of object lesson, "rockers" for separating Nome gold from Nome sand are being jogged to and fro upon the wharves; vendors of patent medicine are crying one another down; a different concentrated food is proclaimed at every corner, a new gold "process" every ten feet and bedlam all around you. Copper plates; pickaxes; shovels; and--"Here y' are! The last thing out! Compound-corkscrew-screw-driver -monkey-wrench, 'n' can-opener. All y' grub goes to Nome in cans. Y' 'll starve to death right plumb in the middle o' plenty, 'nless y' get this yer noo compound-corkscrew-screw-driver-monkey--" The rest is drowned by the dernier cri in "Nome sto-o-o-ves! Burn - oil- burn - wood - burn - coke - burn - anything - in - hell - and - never - burn - the - dinner! Nome sto-o-o-ves!" Other hawkers so hoarse you heard nothing but "Nome! Nome!" as if they had it there--a nostrum you might buy at home.
Hildegarde's mind went back to the old reconnaissance map in the dining-room. She so little she must climb upon a chair to read in her father's fine, clear writing,
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the name opposite a tiny projection in the coast line. It had been a place only he seemed to know about. Now on every sign, on every lip, Nome! Nome! Nome!
Overheard fragments among new-comers at the shipping offices, no more "Which boat?" but "can you, even by paying some feller a bonus, get anything in the shape of a ticket before June?"
The element of chance was not to be eliminated. It must be faced. On her way to the office of the line she had first affected, she saw swinging in in front of her, hands in overcoat pockets, shouldering his way through the throng, one of those same high-booted, wide-hatted men of whom she had said at first, "He's going, too!" But this man had been marked out by his air of enjoying the enterprise. Most people, even away from the maddening water front, bore about with them a harassed, or at best, pre-occupied countenance, the majority sallow and seamed and weary. This wide-mouthed young giant, with the fresh complexion--he was one of whom you felt not only "he knows," but "he knows it 's all right." Now, if he should be on his way to secure a passage at this same office, Hildegarde would take it as a lucky omen. But he carried his tall figure swinging by. His back seemed to say, "No, thank you. I know too much to be taken in by the Golden Sands Company." Hildegarde went past the Golden Sands Company herself, without quite intending to. The ruddy-complexioned one was stopped by a fussy little, middle-aged man, who said, "Wonder if you can tell me where the Centrifugal Pump Company's offices are?"
"What?" says the red-cheeked giant as Hildegarde went by. "You mean Mitchell, Lewis and Starver?"
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"Y-yes," said the fussy man. "Are they all right, do you think?" and the rest was lost. What a pity she could n't go up as simply as that, and ask his Giantship about the boats. But no. He was a rather young giant, and a little too enterprising-looking. No, better not. He stared at people. That was n't the sort of man she 'd ever spoken to.
She had n't analyzed it, but with all her simplicity and all her sense of freedom, she was acutely sensitive about making any avoidable move that might be misconstrued. The unfortunate women of the world had spoiled things. Not only for themselves--for others, too. She crossed the street and went back toward the "Golden Sands." Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the giant part from his interlocutor and disappear in the office of Hankin & Company. So that was the best line! Slowly she retraced her steps, turning over in her mind all she 'd heard about Hankin & Company. Perhaps even without this last indication the evidence did point Hankinward. She went in. Craning over heads, and peering across shoulders she saw the huge young man talking to the agent. She edged her way nearer.
"You 'll have plenty o' time to load your stuff. The Congress 'll be at the docks Toosday."
The giant nodded and strode out on seven-league boots. A moment later Hildegarde had laid $125 down before the alcohol-reeking, red-eyed, nervous agent, who seemed to feel called on to explain that he 'd been up all night "on the water front, seeing off the Huron." While he made out the voucher, huskily he congratulated
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the young lady that an intending passenger by this best of all ships had had a fit on the water front the night before, and was probably dying now "over at the Rainier Grand." His wife had been in half an hour ago about reselling the ticket. And that was it. Number twenty-one. He handed Hildegarde the slip of gray-blue paper which transferred to her the dying man's right to a first-class berth on Hankin & Company's Steamer Congress, sailing from Seattle to Cape Nome on the 19th of May.
Now for a decision amongst the contending outfitters and provision dealers.
She had studied well the prospectuses, the "folders" and the hand-books. She had made notes and lists. She knew she must provide herself with:
"A tent and two pair dark blue Hudson Bay blankets.
"Several yards stout netting.
"Canvas bag, with shoulder strap.
"Oil stove, and oil."
To this, upon her mother's initiative, she proposed to add a pistol; on her own, four pounds of chocolate and a handsome supply of peppermints.
She had culled from newspapers, books, and advertisements at least six different lists of the kind and quantity of food one would need. Already she had ordered several cases of mineral water, but she was still pondering "evaporated eggs," "desiccated potatoes," "malted milk tablets," and "bouillon capsules," as she stood in one of the great provision houses that very day she had got her ticket.
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The place was crowded. Here, as elsewhere, a few women among the many men; both sexes equally bent on business. While she waited in the throng, a clerk who, with difficulty, had been making his way to her, interrupted a query modestly preferred by a little weather-beaten woman in black. As if he had not heard the one who spoke, of the one who had said nothing he asked, "Is anybody looking after you?"
"As soon as the lady has finished--" began Hildegarde. The rusty one glanced at her fellow-woman in some surprise, and said again to the clerk, "I just stepped in to ask you to be sure to have a keg of witch-hazel ready to go out with our stuff. You ran out of it last year."
"Oh, are you Mrs. Blumpitty?"
"Have you given your order?" The clerk's manner had changed, he had plenty of time now.
"Mr. Blumpitty will step in to-morrow about it. He is quite a little rushed to-day, hunting around for a place to sleep in."
"There 's a good many doing that," said the clerk. There has n't been a room vacant at a hotel for a week."
"I guess that 's right. And we got a party of twenty-eight this time. I only wanted to jog you about that witch-hazel." She was moving off.
Hildegarde stood in the way. "Are you going to Nome?" asked the girl.
"Do you mind telling me what you are going to do with witch-hazel, up there?"
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"A person wants witch-hazel everywhere."
"Why do they?"
"Best doctor in the world."
"What's it good for?" Typhoid was in the ignorant mind.
"Good for anything. Burns, cuts, bruises, anything."
"Oh!" Down at the foot of the list, after peppermints, went witch-hazel. Again the little woman showed signs of moving on. But she looked back at Hildegarde over her shoulder and, as if to imply: this much I leave you, even if you are too good-looking to inspire confidence. "Witch-hazel ain't like those noo things they advertise. It 's been tested."
"Oh, has it?"
She did n't know much, this young lady. "Guess it has," said the little woman. "In every country store in my part of the world, you 'll find a keg of witch-hazel!" and with that she would have been gone but that the crowd pressed her back.
"What is your part?" asked Hildegarde.
The woman looked round at her suspiciously. "Maine."
"You come all the way from Maine to go to Nome?"
She nodded. "Guess everybody here but you is goin' straight to Nome." Her eye fell on Hildegarde's pencil, suspended above the list held too high for the little woman to know its exact nature. "Noospaper woman?" she said, putting the most charitable construction on the presence here among the hard-featured horde of a person like this.
Hildegarde had been asked that question before. "No," she said, and saw her credit fall in the rusty one's
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eyes. "But I 'm going to Nome, too," the girl hastened to add, wishing to recover ground. But it was plain she had only further damaged herself.
"Oh," said the witch-hazel advocate, moving off with some precipitation through a momentary opening.
Hildegarde found the clerk who had seemed to know Mrs. Blumpitty. "Have you heard what boat she 's going by?"
"No," said the clerk, "but she 'll go by the best, I bet."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, she 's one o' the few that knows the ropes. She was there last year." And he was called away.
She might know Hildegarde's father!
Early the next day the girl reappeared at Baumgarten's. No, she was n't going to give her order just yet. She was waiting to see Mrs. Blumpitty. So the Baumgarten Brother turned from her to advise a customer against taking saccharine instead of sugar. "You 'll come to hate the taste even in tea and coffee, and, as for eating it sprinkled on anything, you 'll find you simply can't." A group of people were hotly discussing vegetables, and whether to take them desiccated or "jest as they are." The new ones "not in yet," the Baumgarten Brother admitted; "and the old ones sure to sprout," said some one else. A Klondiker gave his views: "Take 'em dried. Lot less freight on the boat. Lot easier packed about afterwards." A babel of voices rose: "Tasteless," "No good left in 'em," "No feeding power." Another voice: "Who cares about how easy it is to take somethin' that 's no good?" "People go on about evaporated food jest as if it was the Klondike and the Chilcoot Pass all over ag'in. 'T ain't. Nome's a
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different proposition." The Baumgarten Brother was instructed to put down half the order in dried and half in fresh. Then a detachment went away to see opened and to taste a new brand of canned cooked sausages. People stood about with pickles and shavings of "chipped beef" and cheese samples in their hands, nibbling and looking thoughtful. Others ate butter off the end of a penknife, and said, "It ain't no better 'n margarine, an' costs more." When for two hours and ten minutes Hildegarde had stood there against the low columnar wall of piled tomato cans (a kind of basaltic formation, showing singularly regular "fracture" and wide range of color-stain), the clerk of yesterday gave her a stool to perch on in the corner. Many of the crowding faces were grown already familiar. There was the fresh-complexioned giant. He came in with a pleasant towering briskness, and stood talking to one of the Baumgartens. As Hildegarde watched him, she told herself she was glad that man was going on "her" ship. Then reflecting, "Why, I 'm staring at him now!" she turned away her eyes, and there sudddenly was Mrs. Blumpitty, with a thick-set, dun-colored husband--his face a grayish-yellow, his hair a yellow-gray, his eyes yellow, with pale gray irises.
Hildegarde descended from the high stool and made her way to the couple. "Is it true you were at Nome last summer?"
"Yes." Mrs. Blumpitty drew closer to the dun-colored husband, as if more than ever mistrustful of the tall young lady.
But Hildegarde took no notice of that. "I wonder," she said, "if you met a Mr. Mar up there?"
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The woman looked at her husband, and he looked straight along his nose. It was a long nose, and it seemed to take him a great while to get to the end of it.
Hildegarde could n't wait. "Yes, Mr. Mar," she said eagerly, "Mr. Nathaniel Mar."
"I don't think--" began the woman.
"Oh, please try to remember. He is very thin and tall, with bushy hair. I feel sure you 'd remember him if you thought a moment. He is the kind people remember."
Something in the trembling eearnestness of a person who looked as self-possessed as Hildegarde had its effect.
"You can know people up there pretty well and never hear their names. Nome is like that. I may have seen him."
Oh, how close it brought him to hear the dun-colored husband saying, "I may have seen him!"
"A young man?" asked the wife.
"No," said Hildegarde, and she was shaking with excitement. He is gray, and he--he is very lame." This bald picture of her own drawing suddenly overcame her. "Try,"--she found herself catching at the rusty arm--"try to remember. He is my father."
"Oh, your father," said the woman in a different tone, and the vague man turned his pale eyes on Hildegarde as though only now fully aware of her.
"Lame! There was a lame man. No, I never spoke to him."
"We were n't much in Nome," the woman explained. "Our cliams are out on Glaysher River, and we were at our camp there most of the time."
Hildegarde leaned against the brilliant dado of
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Delicious Tomato Soup, and she looked so disheartened the man said, "Was you thinkin' o' goin' out?"
"Yes, I 'm going to him."
"No, no party at all."
"You 're not goin' alone?"
Yes, I 'm the only one of my family who has time."
The pale eye fell on Hildegarde's list, which she still had in her hand. "If your father 's there you won't have to take supplies."
"I must go prepared for--anything." And she turned her face away.
After a pause, "You got anybody to advise you?" said the man.
The rusty woman looked at the vague man, and the vague man looked at Van Camp's Soup.
"Where are you at?" he said presently.
He pushed back his black slouch hat and sadly mopped his yellow-gray brow. It was warm to-day. The crowd at Baumgarten's made it seem warmer still. "Which hotel?" asked Mr. Blumpitty.
"I 'm not at any hotel. I am at Mr. Jacob Dorn's."
"Jacob L. Dorn's?"
"Oh, do you know him?"
"No, I don't know him, but I know his firm." It was plain the name had impresssed both Blumpittys.
"What boat you goin' in?" asked the yellow-gray man.
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"What 's the matter with the Congress?"
Blumpitty shook his head, murmered, "--pretty hot," and slowly divested himself of his overcoat. That done he stood revealed in black from head to heel. Something inexpressibly funereal about him now, that the dun-colored coat had masked. "Pity you did n't know about the Los Angeles," he said dolefully.
"What is there to know about her?"
"She 's goin' to be fitted up in style."
"Oh, I shan't mind style."
"We 're goin' on the Los Angeles," said the little wife.
"I do mind that--not going with you." Hildegarde looked into the woman's weather-beaten face and felt regret deepen.
From columns of Van Camp Mr. Blumpitty raised his weary eyes and they fell on an acquaintance in the crowd. You saw that even the teeth of the dun-colored husband were yellow-gray. But the effect of his watery smile was altogether gray, and without sispicion of any hue less somber. It made you think of a dripping day in November, with winter all before you. But lo! it was the cheerful giant Blumpitty had recognized. How long had he been there at Hildegarde's elbow.
"What 's that I heard you sayin' against the Congress?" he demanded of Blumpitty. Congress is the best boat goin'."
"We could n't get passage for all of us on the Congress," said Blumpitty meekly.'
"And we did n't want to be divided," contributed Mrs. Blumpitty.
"We 're sure the Los Angeles is all right."
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"What makes you sure?"
"Becuz she 's just fresh from the Gover'mint service."
The giant laughed, and took out a big silver watch. Hildegarde saw with a start of surprise that it was past luncheon time.
"They do keep you hangin' around here." Blumpitty looked wearily at the crowd. "Guess I 'll go and make an appointment with Baumgarten for right away after breakfast to-morrer." He moved off with the giant at his side and the small wife at his heels.
Hildegarde hurried back to Madeleine's, where behold Mrs. Mar and Harry!
"The boys began to fuss when they read in the papers about Mr. Dorn being ill."
"Oh, it 's all right--about me, I mean," said Hildegarde.
"I told you it would be," Mrs. Mar said to Harry. "Now, here we are in a town where every hotel is full to overflowing, and Jacob Dorn dying--to judge by the way Madeleine behaves. But she always was a little theatrical--that girl."
"No, her husband is very ill. I feel I ought n't to be here myself, really." Obvious enough Hildegarde's dismay at the apparition of her family. Ignorant as she was, already she had learned how little help the average person could be about this undertaking. The Blumpittys were different. She told about them.
Mrs. Mar no sooner heard of their existence than she said: "Now, if you could travel with a respectable couple--" In vain Hildegarde pointed out she was going on another ship. Anyhow, those people could tell
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Hildegarde things--they could advise. Anybody but Hildegarde would have had them here and pumped them well. The girl, in a subdued voice, reminded her mother that it was a house whose owner lay dangerously ill.
"The very reason! Mr. Dorn is n't advising you, as he promised. You must find some one who will. Oh, you are slow-witted! Where are those people staying with their foolish name? You don't even know their address? Well, upon my soul, it 's a good thing we did come, after all! How you 'll ever be able to get on by yourself, I don't know." In a trice Mrs. Mar had despatched Harry to scour Seattle, to ransack every hotel register in the place, "And don't come back here without those Blumpittys."
When, at four o'clock, there was no news either of Harry or them, Hildegarde and her mother set out together--having told the Japanese servant to keep anybody who called, as they 'd be gone only half an hour. If the Blumpittys, Mrs. Mar said, were not among the crowds in the principal street, they 'd very probably be on that water front Hildegarde had written about.
But no, not a Blumpitty to be seen. On their way home--the giant. "He might know--he 's a friend of theirs," Hildegarde said.
Without an instant's hesitation Mrs. Mar accosted him.
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