24. At The Haunted House
 

"Boys, I've got a proposition to make," said Dick, one Friday afternoon, as he and his brothers, with Songbird and Stanley, were strolling along the river bank.

"All right. We'll accept it for twenty-five cents on the dollar," returned Tom gaily.

"What is it, Dick?" asked Songbird.

"Do you remember the haunted house at Rushville, the place Mr. Sanderson called the Jamison home?" asked Dick of his brothers.

"Sure!" returned Sam and Tom promptly.

"Well, I propose we visit that house to-morrow and investigate the ghosts--if there are any."

"Just the thing!" cried Sam.

"I've heard of that place," said Stanley. "I am willing to go if the rest are."

"If I go as far as Rushville I might as well go on to the Sanderson home," said Songbird, who could not get Minnie out of his mind.

"Well, we'll leave you off--after we have interviewed the ghosts," answered Dick with a laugh.

"Do you believe in ghosts?" asked Stanley with a faint smile.

"No. Do you?"

"Hardly, although I have heard some queer stories. My aunt used to think she had seen ghosts."

"She was mistaken," said Tom. "There are no real ghosts."

"Say, Tom, how could a ghost be real and still be a ghost?" asked Songbird and this question brought forth a general laugh.

The boys sat down on a bench in the warm sunshine to discuss the proposed visit to the deserted Jamison place, and it was arranged that they should drive to the spot in a two-seated carriage. Then, while the Rovers and Stanley investigated to their hearts' content, Songbird was to drive on to the Sanderson home for a brief visit.

"But, mind, you are not to stay too long," said Dick. "An hour is the limit."

  "To-morrow, ere the hour is late,

  We shall go forth to investigate.

     The Jamison ghost

     Shall be our host;

  We trust we'll meet a kindly fate!"

"I'll make it an hour by the watch," answered the would-be poet. "Say, I just thought of something," he went on, and murmured softly:

"That's as cheerful as a funeral dirge!" cried Tom.

"We don't want to meet any kind of a fate," added Sam. "We want to have some fun."

While the boys were discussing the proposed trip to Rushville they did not notice that Larkspur was close at hand, taking in much that was said. Presently Larkspur sauntered off and hunted up Jerry Koswell.

"The Rovers are going off to-morrow," he said. "Where do you suppose they are going?"

"I am not good at guessing riddles," answered Koswell rather sourly. He hated to hear the Rover name mentioned, since it made him think of his defeat at Tom's hands.

"They are going to the old Jamison place at Rushville."

"Well, what of it?"

"I was thinking," answered Larkspur meaningly. "You said you would like to square up with the Rovers, and with Tom especially."

"So I would. Show me how it can be done and I'll go at it in jig time." And now Koswell was all attention.

"I happen to know that Tom Rover and Professor Sharp are on the outs again," said Larkspur. "The professor wouldn't like anything better than to catch him doing something against the rules."

"Well, what do you propose, anyway?" demanded Jerry Koswell.

"Come up to the room and I'll tell you," answered Larkspur, and then the two hurried off and, joined by Dudd Flockley, hatched out a scheme to get the Rovers into dire trouble with the college authorities. They had a number of preparations to make, and paid a hurried visit to Ashton and several other places, Flockley hiring a runabout for that purpose.

Saturday proved clear and warm, and the Rovers and their friends started directly after lunch for Rushville in a two-seated carriage, hired from a liveryman of Ashton. As they did not wish to excite any curiosity, they told Tubbs and Max that they were going out merely for a long ride.

"Going to call on Miss Stanhope and the Misses Laning, I suppose," said William Philander.

"No. They have some lessons to make up to-day," answered Dick, and this was true; otherwise the Rovers might not have been so willing to spend their time at the haunted house.

No sooner had the Rovers and their two friends driven away from Brill than an automobile dashed up on the side road, and Flockley, Koswell and Larkspur climbed in. The automobile kept to the side road until the Rovers turnout was passed, then took to the main highway, passing the upper end of Ashton.

"Here is where you can leave us," said Koswell to the chauffeur. "I'll see to it that the machine comes back safely."

"You are sure about being able to run it?" asked the man.

"Of course. I ran a big six-cylinder at home."

"Very well, then. This is a fine car, and there would be trouble with the boss if anything happened to it."

"Nothing is going to happen, so don't worry," answered Koswell coolly. Then the chauffeur left, and the automobile dashed on its way in the direction of Rushville.

As the Rovers and their chums were out purely for pleasure, they took their time in driving to Rushville, going there by way of Hope Seminary. They thought they might catch sight of Dora and the Lanings, but were disappointed.

"Too bad that they have got to grind away on such a fine day as this," said Dick.

"Well, such is life," returned Sam. "One good thing, schooldays won't last forever."

"Just wait till the summer vacation comes!" cried Tom. "I'm going to have the best time anybody ever heard about."

"What doing?" questioned Stanley.

"Oh, I don't know yet."

They took their time climbing the long hill leading to the haunted house, and it was just three o'clock when they came in sight of the dilapidated structure, almost hidden in the tangle of trees and underbrush.

"Now, Songbird, you've got to be back here by four, or half after, at the latest," said Dick as he and his brothers and Stanley got out. "No spooning with Minnie till six."

"Huh! I don't spoon," grumbled the would-be poet. "I am--er--only going to show her some new verses I wrote. They are entitled--"

"Keep them for Minnie!" cried Sam. "And remember what Dick said. We are not going to hang around here after dark."

"Scared already?" asked Songbird.

"No, but enough of this place is enough, that's all."

"I'll be back, don't worry," said Songbird, and away he drove at a swift gait, leaving the Rovers and Stanley in the roadway in front of the house said to be haunted.

It was certainly a lonely spot, no other house being in sight, for Rushville lay under the brow of a hill. The boys stood still and listened. Not a sound broke the stillness that surrounded the deserted house.

"It sure is a ghostlike place," remarked Stanley. "I shouldn't care to come here at midnight."

"Oh, that wouldn't make any difference, if you had a light," answered Dick. The thought of a ghost had never bothered him very much.

Boldly the four boys entered what had once been a fine garden. The pathway was now overrun with weeds and bushes, and they had to pick their way with care. Then they ascended the piazza, the flooring of which was much decayed.

"Look out that you don't fall through somewhere, and break a leg," cautioned Tom. "This is worse than it looks from the outside."

"Wait till we get inside," said Sam. "Glad we brought a lantern." For a light had been taken along at the last minute.

They pushed open the front door and entered the broad hall. As they did so they heard a noise at the rear of the place.

"What was that?" asked Stanley nervously.

"Sounded like a door closing," answered Dick.

"Hello!" called out Tom. "Is any one here?"

To this call there was no answer. Nor was the noise they had heard repeated.

"Come on," said Dick bravely. "I am going to walk right through the house, room by room, from top to bottom."

"And we'll all go along," said Tom and Sam.

"Well, I am with you," came from Stanley. But he plainly showed that he did not relish what was before him.