25. In The Hands Of The Enemy
 

The first room the boys entered was the parlor. It was totally dark, the blinds of the windows being tightly closed. It was full of cobwebs, which brushed their cheeks as they passed along.

"Certainly this was a fine mansion in its day," said Dick, as he threw the rays of the lantern around. "But it is utterly worthless now," he added as he gazed at the fallen ceilings and rotted woodwork.

"I fancy the ghosts are nothing but rats and bats," said Tom. "Come on," he continued. "It's damp enough to give one the rheumatism."

From the parlor they passed to a sitting-room. Here there was a huge open fireplace, filled with ashes and cobwebs. As they entered the room they heard a rushing noise in the chimney.

"What's that?" cried Stanley anxiously.

"Birds," answered Dick. "I suppose they have made their home in the chimney, since it is not used for fires."

In a corner of the sitting-room was an old table, and on it several musty books. The boys looked the books over, but found little to interest them. As relics the volumes were of no value.

"Come on to the dining-room," said Tom. "Maybe we'll find something good to eat."

"Ugh! I don't want anything here," answered Stanley with a shudder.

"Wouldn't you like a piece of ghost pie, or some specter doughnuts?" went on Tom, who was bound to have his fun.

"Nothing, thank you, Tom."

The dining-room of the house was in a wing, and to get to it they had to pass through a pair of folding doors which were all but closed. As they did so all heard a peculiar rustling sound, but from whence it came they could not tell.

"What was that?" asked Sam.

"I don't know," answered his oldest brother.

"Say, this room looks as if it had been used lately," cried Tom, as the rays of the lantern illuminated the apartment. "Why, it's quite homelike!"

"Maybe some tramps have had their headquarters here," said Dick. "It would be just like them to single out a spot like this."

"Yes, provided they weren't afraid of ghosts," came from Stanley.

"Tramps aren't usually afraid of anything but work," answered Tom dryly. "But this is queer, isn't it?" he added, as he picked up an empty cigar box. "Somebody must smoke good cigars--these were imported."

"Here is an empty liquor flask," said Stanley.

"And here are some empty wine bottles," added Sam.

"And here are some decks of playing-cards," put in Dick. "Yes, some persons have certainly used this as a hangout."

"What is this in the fireplace?" asked Tom as he pointed to something smoking there.

"It certainly has a vile smell!" exclaimed Stanley, making a wry face.

"That shows somebody has been here recently," was Dick's comment. "We had better be on guard if they are tramps."

"I can't stand that smell," said Tom. "I am going to get out."

The stuff in the fireplace, whatever it was, now burned up more brightly. It gave off a peculiar vapor that made the boys dizzy.

Tom turned to a door that led to the kitchen of the house. The door was shut, and he tried in vain to open it. The others were behind him and they, too, tried to open the barrier.

"Must be locked from the other side," said Tom. "Come on out the way we came in. Gracious! Isn't that awful stuff that is burning?" he added, for the vapor now filled the room completely.

In sudden alarm the four boys turned back toward the folding doors through which they had entered the dining-room. To their consternation, the doors were tightly shut.

"Who shut these?" asked Dick as he tried to open one of the doors.

"I didn't," said Sam.

"Neither did I," added Tom.

"Nobody touched the doors!" ejaculated Stanley. "It must be some of the ghost's work."

"Nonsense!" answered Dick sharply. "Somebody shut the doors--and locked 'em," he added after trying both. "Hi, you!" he called. "Open these doors, and be quick about it!"

"Thou fool, to come here!" exclaimed a hollow voice from the other side of the doors.

"It's the ghost! I said it was!" said Stanley,

"It's somebody fooling us," answered Tom. "Open the door, or we'll smash it down!" he added in a loud voice.

Instead of a reply there came a weird groan and then the rattle of some heavy chains. Stanley turned pale and began to tremble, but the Rovers were not much impressed.

"We don't believe in ghosts, so you might as well let us out!" cried Dick. "That stuff you set on fire is smothering us!"

At this there was a murmur from the next room, but what was said the prisoners did not know.

"Come on, let us get out of a window!" cried Tom. His head was commencing to swim, and he could hardly see.

"Tha--that's it," murmured Sam. "Say, I'm--I'm--going--" He did not finish, but sank to the floor in a heap.

"Sam has been overcome!" cried Dick in horror.

"Oh, if only we hadn't come here!" groaned Stanley. "I--the window-- I--am--smothering!" He took another step forward and then fell. Dick tried to pick him up, but went down also, with his brain in a whirl and strange lights flashing before his closed eyes.

Tom was the last to be overcome. He reached a window, only to find it tightly locked. He smashed the glass, but could not open the blinds. Then he went down; but before he closed his eyes he saw the door to the kitchen open and several masked faces appeared. He tried to say something, but the words would not come, and then all became a terrible dark blank around him.

For about half a minute after Tom went down nothing was done. Then the door to the kitchen was thrown wide open and four figures appeared. All wore sheets and masks.

"You are sure it won't kill any of them, Parwick?" asked a voice that sounded like Jerry Koswell's, and which was far from steady.

"Yes, I'm sure," answered the voice of a stranger. "But we don't want to leave them in this room too long. Take 'em below."

"If we get found out--" said another, and one could readily recognize Flockley's voice.

"We won't get found out," put in a fourth person. It was Larkspur. "Come ahead, and don't waste time here."

With great haste the masked ones picked up the three Rovers and Stanley and dragged them into the kitchen of the old house. Then one after another the unconscious ones were taken down into a dark and musty cellar and placed on some straw.

"Now to fix up the evidence!" cried Koswell. "We must be quick, or it may be too late!"

For all of a quarter of an hour the three Rover boys and Stanley Browne lay where they had been placed on the moldy straw. They breathed with difficulty, for the strange vapor still exercised its influence on their lungs.

At last Sam stirred and opened his eyes.

"Wha--what's the matter with me?" he murmured, and then sat up.

He could see next to nothing, for the cellar was dark. His head ached keenly, and he could not collect his senses. He also felt somewhat sick at the stomach.

"Dick! Tom!" he called. "Where are you?"

There was no reply, but presently he heard somebody stir.

"Don't--don't kill me!" murmured Stanley. "Take the ghosts away!"

"Stanley!" called Sam. "Whe--where are we?"

"Who--who is tha--that?" stammered Stanley, sitting up.

"It is I--Sam!"

"Whe--where are we, Sam?"

"I--I don't know."

"My head is go--going around like--like a top."

"So is mine. Tom! Dick!"

"Is that you, Sam?" came faintly from the elder Rover as he opened his eyes.

"Yes. Where is Tom?"

"Here, I guess, beside me." Dick shook his brother. "Tom! Tom! Wake up!" he cried. But Tom continued to lay quiet with his eyes tightly closed.

Sam was feeling in his pocket for a matchbox, and presently he brought the article forth and made a light. He was still so dizzy he could scarcely see about him. Stanley had fallen back again, gasping for breath.

By the dim light afforded by the match the two brothers looked at Tom. He was gasping in a strange, unnatural fashion.

"I believe he is choking to death!" said Dick hoarsely. "Air! He must have air!" He arose unsteadily to his feet. "Bring him here!"

And he made for a closed cellar window with all the strength he could command.