Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part I.--Five Miles Out
Chapter I. Five Miles Out
The four Lanes--Max, Sally, Alec and Robert--climbed the five flights of stairs to their small flat with the agility of youth and the impetus of high but subdued excitement. Uncle Timothy Rudd, following more slowly, reached the outer door of the little suite of rooms in time to hear what seemed to be the first outburst.
"Well, what do you think now?"
"Forty-two acres and the house! Open the windows and give us air!"
"Acres run to seed, and the house tumbling down about its own ears! A magnificent inheritance that!" Max cast his hat upon a chair as if he flung it away with the inheritance.
"But who ever thought Uncle Maxwell Lane would ever leave his poor relations anything?" This was Sally.
"Five miles out by road--a bit less by trolley. Let's go and see it to-morrow afternoon. Thank goodness a half holiday is so near."
"Anybody been by the place lately?"
"I was, just the other day, on my wheel. I didn't think it looked so awfully bad." This was Robert, the sixteen-year-old.
As Uncle Timothy entered the tiny sitting-room Sally was speaking. She had thrown her black veil back over her hat, revealing masses of flaxen hair, and deep blue eyes glowing with interest. Her delicate cheeks were warmly flushed, partly with excitement, and partly because for two hours now--during the journey from the flat to the lawyer's office, the period spent therein listening to the reading of Uncle Maxwell Lane's will and the business appertaining thereto, and the return trip home--she had worn the veil closely drawn. Her simple mourning was to her a screen behind which to shield herself from curious eyes, always attracted by those masses of singularly fair hair and the unusual contours of the young face beneath.
"I think it's a godsend, if ever anything was," she was saying. "Here's Max, killing himself in the bank, and Alec growing pale and grouchy in the office, and even Bob--" She was interrupted by a chorus of protests against her terms of description.
"I'm not killing myself!"
"Pale and grouchy! I'm not a patch on--"
"What's the matter with Bob, Sally Lunn?"
"And Uncle Timmy," continued Sally, undisturbed by interpolations to which she was quite accustomed, "pining for fresh air--."
"I walk in the park every day, my dear," Uncle Timothy felt obliged to remind her.
"Yes, I know. But you've lived in a little city flat just as long as it's good for you, and you need to be turned outdoors. So do we all. Oh, boys, and Uncle Timmy!--I just sat there, crying and smiling under my veil in that dreadful office--crying to think that I couldn't cry for Uncle Maxwell, because he was so cold and queer to us always, and yet he had given us this property, after all--."
"And a mighty small fraction of the estate it is, I hope you understand!" growled Max.
But Sally went on without minding. Everybody was used to Max's growls. "And smiling because I couldn't help it just to think we had a chance at last to get out of the city. We can do it. Five miles by trolley is nothing for you boys, or for me, when I need to come in."
"You're not talking about our going to live out there!" Max's tone was derisive.
"Have you seen the place lately?"
"Not since I was a little girl, but I remember I thought it was lovely then."
"It isn't lovely now, if it ever was--which I doubt. In the first place it belongs to that little suburb of Wybury--as commonplace a village as ever existed within five miles of as big a city as this. In the second place it's as much an abandoned farm as neglect can make a place that was once, I suppose, an aristocratic sort of country home. The old mansion is as big as a barn, and as hopeless. You couldn't any more make a home out of it!--Why, you could put this whole apartment into the room at the left of the hall!"
"How do you know so much about it?" demanded Sally. "None of us has been there since Aunt Alicia died--that was when we were children, and Uncle Maxwell used to spend his summers there."
"He hasn't spent them there since she died," Max asserted. "How do I know so much about it? I was down there last summer with Frank Sustis. His father sent him out to look the place over, with a view to buying it himself for a summer home. You should have heard Prank jeer at the idea while we were going about."
"It makes no difference," persisted Sally, removing her hat and folding the veil with care. "I want to see it. We'll go out to-morrow, won't we?"
She appealed to her second brother, Alec, a young fellow of twenty, who had thrown himself listlessly into a chair but who was listening attentively to the discussion. He nodded. "Of course. You couldn't keep one of us away, even Max. He wouldn't be done out of the pleasure of showing us over the place and pointing out the defects, if, by keeping still, he could own the whole ranch himself."
"It'll be jolly fun to go!" cried Bob, quickly. He could not bear sounds of disagreement between the members of his family, because he knew Sally did not like it.
"What do you think about the old place, Uncle Timmy?" questioned Sally presently. She had taken off her one carefully-used street suit, and had put on a fresh little black-and-white print, in which she was setting the table for dinner. All the others except Uncle Timothy had gone out on various errands.
"Well, Sally," said Mr. Timothy Rudd, thoughtfully, "I don't know that I'm a competent judge. Your Uncle Maxwell's place was considered a fine one in its day. Before he made so much money and took to living in town, he used to like it there, I think, though he didn't say much about it. I'm sorry it's been allowed to run down. There was a pine grove on it, and a splendid young apple orchard, and a timber tract at the back that ought to be worth considerable money by this time, if it hasn't been cut. Probably it has, with timber bringing the prices it does now."
"About the house," inquired Sally, after Uncle Timothy had gone into more or less detail concerning the place itself. "I'm especially interested in the house. Do you think it would be out of the question for us to live there?"
"I don't know. It would be something of a change from this," he admitted, looking about the little dining-room. "You've managed to make us all pretty comfortable here, with what there was left of the furniture after the sale. I don't know how far it would go in Maxwell's big house. It's pretty large, that's a fact. According to Max, it's in need of a good deal of repair. Of course, as far as I'm concerned, I should like to live out in the country among the green things, as I used to do, up in New Hampshire. It would be good for us all. But you can tell better after you've seen the place again."
There was no denying this. Sally's head was so full of plans it was difficult to wait until the afternoon of the next day, when everybody should be at liberty to make the trip to Wybury. The moment luncheon was over they started, and by two o'clock the trolley-car, whizzing out through the suburbs to the open country, then following the curve along the river edge to pass through the small settlement called Wybury, had deposited them in the centre of that village.
The Maxwell place lay a quarter of a mile down the river road, and the party set off promptly to cover the short distance. It was early April, sunny and mild, but still rather damp under foot. After leaving the board sidewalks of Wybury there was no accommodation for foot passengers except the path at the side of the road.
"Imagine tramping through this mud every night and morning," was Max's first contribution to the effort he meant to make to disillusionize his romantic sister, whose dreams of life in the country he considered worse than folly. He turned up his trousers widely at the bottom as he spoke.
"It's such a little way, we could soon have a better path," Sally replied. "Look, there are the chimneys, I'm sure, just beyond that grove of pines. It's hardly more than five minutes' walk from the car."
"Five minutes through a February blizzard is five minutes too much."
"But five minutes through a midsummer evening is an hour too little," Sally gave him back.
"That pine grove belongs to the place," called back Bob, who was considerably in advance of the others. Sally, in spite of her eagerness, was adapting her pace to the limitations of Uncle Timothy, who at sixty could hardly be expected to walk in competition with nineteen.
"Pine groves are worth something these days," said Max, eyeing the thick tops critically.
Sally had charmed eyes for the pine grove; but she did not look at it long, for beyond showed the great chimney-tops she remembered from her childhood, when it had been the happiest treat she knew to be invited by Aunt Alicia to spend the day at Uncle Maxwell's country place.
The young Lanes had all been born and brought up in the city. Their home had been one of moderate luxury until, three years before, their father had died suddenly, leaving the mere remnant of an estate which had been supposed to be a large one. The shock, and the change from a life of ease to one of close economy, had weakened the always delicate constitution of the wife and mother until, a year after her husband's death, she had followed him.
Max had left college at the end of his third year and gone into the bank of which his Uncle Maxwell was vice-president. Alec, just ready for college, had reluctantly resigned his purpose and taken a position in the drafting-office of a firm of contractors, friends of his father. Even Robert, the youngest, had found something to do. The family had sold the old home to obtain money with which to meet expenses until the salaries of the workers should begin to count, and had moved into the little flat where the nineteen-year-old sister had, for a year now, done her girlish best to make a home for her "four men," as she called them, while she kept many violent attacks of heartache bravely hidden--for the most part--under a bright exterior. Nobody knew how Sally disliked the flat--unless it was Bob, who was her closest confidant.
"There's your fine family mansion!" called Max, pointing from the curve of the road, which he had reached close after Bob.
Sally stood still in astonished surprise. Could that really be the aristocratic old place of her memory? Max could hardly be blamed for his derisive comments.
A noble house gone to decay is a sight infinitely more depressing than that of an humble one. This once had been an imposing structure; it looked now like a relic of war times.
"Look at the tumbling chimneys!" crowed Alec. "Look at the broken shutters, swinging by one hinge. See those porch pillars--were they ever white? Behold that side entrance--looks as if a cyclone had struck it!"
Sally was silent. Even her buoyant hopes fell before the indisputable evidence given by her eyes. It was so big--the old place! A small house one might hope to repair, but a large building like this--it would cost more than they would have to spare in years. If the outside were any indication of the inside, the situation was hopeless.
She followed Alec in through the gateway, at the dilapidated stone side-posts of which Max gave a significant wave of the hand as he passed. An overgrown hedge ran along the entire front of the place, its untrimmed wildness adding to the general unkempt look, as did the sodden, tangled surface of what had once been a lawn, the rank bunches of shrubbery which half hid the front windows from sight, and the broken bricks in the old walk which led, beside a grass-grown driveway, from gate-post to porch.
"How did Maxwell ever come to let this place go to seed like this?" lamented Uncle Timothy. "He must have cared nothing at all for it. One would think it was forty years instead of only ten that it had been left to wind and weather."
"It's a wonder that some passing tramp hasn't set fire to it," commented Max, searching in his pocket for the key which had been delivered to him by Mr. Sidway, his uncle's executor. "Take a long breath before I let you in. It'll be musty and fusty enough to stifle you, probably."
With considerable difficulty he turned the key in the rusty lock and opened the door, which turned creakingly upon its long unused hinges. But with the first step inside Sally's drooping spirits leaped up again.
"Oh Max," she cried, "what a beautiful old hall!"
"Beautiful, is it?" inquired Max, laughing contemptuously. "Well, I can't say I see it."
"Looks just like a barracks to me!" sniffed Alec. "Phew-w--what air--or lack of it!"
"But it is beautiful," persisted Sally, in genuine enthusiasm. "See how wide and high, sweeping straight through to that door at the back. And see the wide, low staircase with the spindle railing and the curved posts at the bottom. See the carving over the doors--and the fanlight over the outside ones. And look at that fireplace!"
She dragged Max by one arm and Uncle Timothy by the other, to stand in front of it. Halfway down the hall, sharing one of the great chimneys with another fireplace on the other side of the wall, was a chimney-piece of fine old colonial design. The proportions were colossal.
"It would take a cord of wood to keep the thing going an evening," asserted Max.
"And then nobody'd be warm unless he was sitting with his head inside the hood," supplemented Alec.
But Sally was already off upon explorations. She rushed into the room upon the left of the hall; it was a drawing-room thirty feet long by twenty wide. She darted into the room on the right--it was twenty feet square, and back of it lay another of similar size. She could no longer wait for her party, with their slow and indifferent following of her, but ran from room to room, calling back injunctions to note special points of interest.
Bob kept close behind her. If he cared little for old houses, he cared much for Sally, and he liked to see her eyes sparkle and her lips laugh. Sally had times of being very sad and discouraged, as no one knew so well as he, and if she could find interest in this old barracks--he thought Alec had struck the right word--he was not the boy to dampen it.
"Let's skip up this back staircase, Bobby," proposed Sally, as they turned about from exploring the kitchen and store-rooms. "I'm crazy to find if there aren't some smaller rooms--nice, cozy ones, you know. It can't be all so big everywhere."
"Don't you suppose the upstairs rooms are just the shape of the lower ones?" suggested Bob, as they ran up.
"In front, perhaps, but not back here. There ought to be some lovely rambling passageways, and steps up and steps down, and rooms where you don't expect them, and a splendid attic--and perhaps a secret staircase. Bob--what if there should actually be a secret staircase!"
Bob laughed. "You've been reading spooky stories. I suppose--"
"Robert Rudd Lane! Will you behold that little flight of five steps, leading up to that door!"
Sally was down the hall and up the five steps in a flash. She would have burst into the unknown region beyond, but a locked door barred her way. Bob stood below and laughed at her baffled expression. "You'd rather see through that door than into any other spot in the house that isn't locked up, wouldn't you, Sally Lunn?" he commented, knowingly.
"Run down to Max for the keys, will you, dear?" she begged, and Bob ran.
The others came up. Max and Bob, Alec, and even Uncle Timothy, tried every key in the bunch in vain. Sally attempted to peer through the key-hole. Bob ran outside, and returning reported that there were no shutters in the region opposite the probable position of the door.
"It's undoubtedly a dark store-room, with a row of empty shelves," said Max. "Give it up, Sally. There are places enough to explore. A regiment of infantry could be bivouacked in this second story. See the rooms, and rooms inside of rooms."
"Oh, come away home!" cried Alec, impatiently, before Sally was half satisfied.
"I'm going over to the timber tract. You'd better come along, Al. Let Sally stay here and plan her hotel. Maxwell Inn--eh, Sally? A number on each door, and a fire-escape at each end of the hall. A bell-boy and two chambermaids for this floor; in time, an elevator and a manicure shop!" And Max clattered laughing away down the front staircase, the shallow steps of which he took two at a time.
"It isn't a very cozy nest, is it, Sis?" said Bob, sympathetically, as Sally, after one look into the great square rooms over the front, closed the doors with a bang.
At mention of the timber tract Uncle Timothy had gone downstairs after the others. They heard him shut the front door, and from an upper window saw him walking briskly away.
"No, it isn't--now," she admitted, soberly, "but--what a home it could be made!"
"It's pretty near twice as big as our old one, and that was a fairly good size. We could camp out in a corner of it, but that would be lonesome, don't you think so? We might keep summer boarders."
Sally shook her head. She began to walk back through the upper halls. Bob followed her, and they climbed the attic stairs, finding a great space above, lighted by low windows shut in by patterns of ironwork.
"Jolly, what a place for rainy days!" ejaculated the boy, moved to greater enthusiasm than he had felt anywhere below stairs. "You could have a workshop and a gymnasium and all sorts of things. You could make it really festive with a few rugs and pillows and hammocks and things. How the fellows I know would like to get up here!"
He lingered behind his sister, who, after one comprehensive look round the big, bare, dusty place, had slipped away downstairs again, guarding her skirts carefully. When Bob, after planning in detail a possible and desirable arrangement of the attic, reluctantly descended, he found her at the top of the little flight of steps which led to the one locked door.
"Look out! The family skeleton may be hidden behind that door!" he called, racing down the hall. "Or worse. Come away, Fatima!"
"Bob," said Sally, regarding him from the top of the steps, her cheeks brightly flushed, her eyes alight with interest, "I simply have to know what's beyond this door."
"What are you expecting to find there, Sis? Trunks full of gold? Family papers, leaving all the Maxwell Lane estate to the Lanes of Henley Street?"
She shook her head with a laughing challenge. "Wait till I get a locksmith here!" she said.
"I'll wait," and Bob sat composedly down on the bottom step, grinning up at his excited sister. "Going to get him out by wireless?"