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Text - "The Ranch Girls in Europe" Margaret Vandercook


Frequently she had to use a cane in walking. Today, however, she had insisted that she was able to get along without it. So Olive feared that this sudden and surprising news of her little sister might prove too much for her. It was characteristic of the two friends' relations that Olive's first thought in this crisis was not so much for Frieda as for Jack. Nevertheless her friend did not yet require her aid. Although at Jean's surprising words Jacqueline Ralston had turned pale, she was perhaps not more so than Ruth and the other two girls. However, she was evidently doing her best to hold on to her self-control and not to allow the moment's bewilderment and fright to overwhelm her. "No, Frieda did not come on the ship with us the second time, Ruth," she explained, turning quietly toward their chaperon. "But please do not let us be alarmed. She must have come aboard by herself beforehand. For I can remember hearing her say her last good-by to Jim while I was still talking to Peter. Frieda is nearly seventeen; why, it is ridiculous to suppose that she would be so foolish as to let the steamer sail off without her! Besides, wasn't Jim right there! And isn't he always possessed of the idea that we will be late for things and that unknown catastrophes will overtake us? If necessary he would have put Frieda on board by main force. So let's go find her." Very quickly, then, the little party of four turned from their former places. And Jean's face, which had been the gayest in the group at the beginning of this conversation, was now the most terrified. "If Frieda Ralston isn't on board the Martha Washington with us, she most certainly is not on land with any of our friends," Jean insisted, "for I know that Frieda left them on the pier before I did. So if she isn't on this ship something dreadful must have happened to her; some one must have stolen her away. Oh, what on earth shall we do?" Jean was following the others in such a complete state of panic that she hardly knew what she was saying. So at first she scarcely heard the low voice sounding close to her ears. Only one thought occupied her mind. Frieda was lost before they had fairly started on their journey. If she could not be found on the ship, what were they to do? Of course they could send Marconigrams back to Jim Colter and Ralph Merrit, who had come all the way from the ranch to New York City to say farewell to them. But if Frieda should happen not to be with them or with any of their other friends, must there not be days and days of horrible waiting and anxiety before they could return home? Each moment the great steamer was carrying them farther and farther away from the United States and not all the gold in the Rainbow Mine could persuade her to alter her course or to stop until they reached Gibraltar. The voice spoke again. Evidently its owner must have pursued Ruth and the three girls. "I am afraid you are in some difficulty. If my maid or courier can be of any service to you I shall be most happy. Evidently you have not crossed before." This final suggestion, even in the midst of her anxiety, made Jean flush uncomfortably. Immediately she stopped and turned around, recognizing the young woman who had previously both attracted and annoyed her. Something in Jean's expression must have betrayed her irritation, for the stranger smiled again. "I hope I haven't offended you," she apologized. "I only wished to be useful. You are in trouble, so you must let me try to serve you." In their overwhelming anxiety Ruth, Olive and Jack had continued on the way to their staterooms, leaving Jean to answer for all of them. Now, to her chagrin, the tears began overflowing her eyes like a frightened baby's. And only a few moments before had she not secretly hoped to make a favorable impression upon this most interesting of their fellow voyagers? Jean had believed that she was looking unusually well herself. For her blue silk dress with its touches of red embroidery, her blue chinchilla coat with its scarlet lining and her hat with the single red wing in it had been considered the most effective of the Ranch party's going-away costumes. So why should she be making herself so ridiculous before a total stranger? Jean did not realize that the emotion of parting with her friends and of leaving her own country had been greater than she cared to admit even to herself. Then this sudden overwhelming worry about Frieda had left her nerves completely unstrung. Therefore she was extremely grateful when the older woman led her to a more secluded part of the promenade deck. New York was now out of sight, and most of the passengers were hurrying off to their rooms. Jean and her companion were almost entirely alone. "We-we have lost our little sister," the young girl began incoherently. "Or at least we have been unable to find her and do not feel altogether sure that she came aboard with the rest of us. Oh, I realize that this must sound absurd and impossible to you. It does to all of us. But what can have become of her?" With a slight but imperious nod of her head, which, even in her excitement, Jean did not fail to observe, her new acquaintance summoned her courier. And although she spoke to him in Italian the girl was able to understand. The man was told to await their return. Then if ordered he was to see that the ship was thoroughly searched for a missing passenger without unnecessary notoriety. A little later the young woman moved away with Jean. "Your sister is probably in her own stateroom by this time. However, if she is not and is on the ship we shall find her in a few moments." Her tone was that of absolute authority, as though the great vessel were her private yacht. Jean wondered how any woman not more than twenty-eight could give such an impression of poise and experience. Notwithstanding Frieda had not yet been discovered in any one of the staterooms. She had been expected to occupy a room with Jean. Olive and Jack were to be together and Ruth to sleep alone. However, in Ruth's stateroom, which the girls had chosen as being specially attractive, Jean and her new friend found Jacqueline Ralston waiting alone. "I have promised to remain here while Miss Drew and Olive have gone to speak to the proper authorities," Jack explained, with the curious self-control which she was almost always able to summon under special strain. "We hope my sister has simply mistaken her stateroom and may come to us at any moment. But if you will be so kind as to have your man assist us in our search, why we shall be deeply grateful. You see, we are rather too frightened to be sensible, besides being inexperienced travelers. And Frieda is so much the younger!" Here, with a break in her self-command, Jack dropped unexpectedly into the nearest chair. She had forgotten even to ask their visitor to be seated, nor did she have the faintest idea of her name, nor the reason for her interest in their predicament. An hour later and the Martha Washington had been thoroughly and quietly searched for the missing Frieda Ralston. Yet there appeared to be absolutely no trace of her. Of course her baggage had been brought aboard the ship with the other girls'. Even her silver toilet bag, Jim's parting gift, was safely stored in her stateroom. Frieda had been last seen ashore with nothing in her hands except a small gold link purse. Finally when the news reached the Ranch party that Frieda was positively not to be found on the steamer, for the first time in her career Ruth Drew collapsed.

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