Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part I.--Five Miles Out
Chapter II. Everybody Explores
Alighting from her mother's carriage in front of the Winona apartments in Henley Street, Josephine Burnside dismissed her coachman and hurried eagerly into the florid vestibule.
"I don't see how Sally endures this sort of thing," she thought, for the hundredth time since the Lane house, near her own in Grosvenor Place, had been sold. The door-latch clicked promptly in answer to her ring, and at the top of the third flight she met Sally.
"I was sure it was you! I'm so glad! I'm all alone," was Sally's joyful welcome; and the next minute Josephine found herself inside the small passage, her outer garments being forcibly removed, and herself borne into the little living-room and established in Uncle Timothy's reading chair, which was the most comfortable one in the place.
"Sewing--as usual? What are you making now? Something lovely out of nothing at all, I suppose?"
"Of course. It's a convenient accomplishment. You didn't know that four and a half yards of Swiss muslin would make a whole frock, did you? Well, it will--under some conditions." And Sally proudly held up the work of her hands, a nearly finished product at which her friend, attired at the moment in some fifteen yards of silk, stared in amazement.
"Sally Lunn! You didn't--you couldn't! It's not skimpy in the least. You must have pieced out with something else. But where?"
"The remains of my old one, re-enforced underneath, and used where the least wear will come on it. It's not an exact match, but I don't think it will show."
"Show! Not a bit. But I thought putting old and new wash goods together wouldn't do."
"I've shrunk the new, and, as I told you, re-enforced the old with some very thin, cheap lawn. I shall wash it myself--with the ends of my fingers, and my eyes looking the other way. Find the old parts!"
Thus challenged, Josephine brought a pair of very bright black eyes to bear upon the pretty frock, turning it over critically, and after some search discovered the resourceful trick which had made the whole lower half of the skirt and part of the sleeves out of the old muslin.
"You genius!" she cried. "I wish I were half as clever as you." She regarded her friend with the genuine admiration and affection which had carried the comradeship of the two girls safely through the test of the Lanes' altered fortunes.
"How good it is to have you back!" said Sally, returning the look. "You haven't half told me about your winter."
"Yes--but never mind that just now," said Josephine. "I've come to hear about you. Jarvis met Max this morning, heard the news, and told it at luncheon. I simply flew down to show you how glad I am, and to hear more. Tell me, is it a beautiful old place, and shall you go there to live? I suppose I've seen it, but I've forgotten."
"It's a forlorn old place, dreadfully run down, but I want to live in it. The boys won't hear of it--as yet. We've only been there once. We're going again Saturday--you know that's the only time they can all get away."
"What fun. Can't I go, too? There must be something nice about it, or you wouldn't want to live there."
"There's a locked door in it," said Sally, smiling, as her thoughts turned to the mystery. She described the finding of the door to Josephine, who exclaimed:
"I must be there to see it opened! What do you suppose you'll find?"
"Dust and empty shelves, Max says. Blue-beard's murdered wives, says Bob. Alec guesses a lot of broken-backed chairs and a desk with the hinges off. Uncle Timothy thinks it merely leads to the roof. But the steps from the attic do that."
"What do you think?"
"I think everything," admitted Sally, "from antique mirrors and old clothes to empty flower pots and battered and rons. I'm prepared for anything--except the empty shelves. Why should the door be locked so securely if there's nothing behind it?"
"Why, indeed? I don't know why, but my imagination shudders deliciously at the thought of seeing it opened. May I go on Saturday? May Jarvis go? He wanted me to ask. He's having a bad time with his eyes again, can't read, and pines for something to do. A locked closet will interest him."
"Of course you may both go, if you'll get Jarvis to promise not to throw any cold water on my schemes."
"He's not likely to discourage any of your schemes, you know well enough. Hasn't he always taken your part, even against me, since we used to quarrel over which should have the shady side of the sand pile? 'Sun won't hurt your gipsy face, Joey,' he'd say. 'Give Sally the shade, like a gentleman.'"
Both girls laughed. Then Sally grew sober. "Seems to me it's only a little while since Jarvis had his last siege with his eyes," she observed. "Are they quite as bad again?"
"He's not shut up in the dark this time, but has to wear blue goggles in the daytime, is forbidden reading and writing absolutely for weeks, and goes to Doctor Meyer every other day for treatment. He's getting as rampageous as a caged lion, and vows he'll go off to the South Seas, or Labrador, or some other place where books and libraries and literary work won't tantalize him. He'd go to-morrow, I believe, if it weren't for mother. She can't bear the idea."
"It was that last awful year's work at college," said Sally regretfully. "Why did he ever conceive the idea of doing two years' work in one--and why did his friends let him do it?"
"I know--that's what we all say now. So does he."
"Of course he must go Saturday; tell him I particularly want him."
"That will please him. Now do tell me about the whole place," and Josephine settled herself to listen.
Long before Sally had finished, her friend was as eager as herself to see the old house, and was planning with all the help of a vivid imagination what it would be like when it should be "restored." When she went away, just before Sally set about getting dinner for her family, it was with assurances that she and her brother would help Sally, to the best of their ability, to realize her hopes.
This assurance was renewed when, on Saturday afternoon, the Lanes met the Burnsides at the appointed hour to take the trolley-car. With the exception of Uncle Timothy, they were all there, even Max, who had declared his only interest in the place was to sell it. But, hearing that Jarvis Burnside was to inspect it, he had decided to point out to Jarvis the impracticability of making a home out of the property--unless for some rich man who might be induced to buy it at a figure worth while. He sat beside Jarvis in the car, talking to him, as Sally could see, in a way intended to prejudice him against the place.
But as the party left the car, Jarvis joined Sally, smiled at her from behind the ugly goggles which half disguised a face by no means ugly, and said in an undertone:
"I believe I'm in possession of all the facts. From now on I intend to let the fancies have full play."
"Good for you! I knew you'd never desert me, no matter how much in the wrong I might be," answered Sally, gratefully.
Jarvis had been a fourth brother to her for so long that it seemed a matter of course for her to depend upon his support, but she appreciated it when occasionally the real brothers failed to remember how lonely the young sister was, with no mother at hand to love or advise her. All but Bob. He, the youngest of the family, was like a faithful dog, always beside her when the others jeered or reproached, and always her strongest, most faithful, ally.
"The walking is better today," Sally called out, as they started. Max, true to his cause, promptly denied the truth of this statement. Josephine came to the rescue.
"Who cares what the walking is like, on an April day like this?" she challenged Max. "Isn't the air glorious? And won't it be lovely, across the bridge and along the river, as soon as the leaves are out?"
Max was escorting Josephine, and as they turned the bend in the road he pointed out to her the boundary lines of the estate. She asked him about the values of land in this neighbourhood and the possibilities of making such a place profitable.
"You sound like a business woman," was his comment. "Thinking of investing out here? You ought to get Sally to talk the place up to you. She estimates that by raising violets on the whole forty-two acres and selling them to the florists in town we can be millionaires the first year."
"Why not, at a dollar a bunch?" laughed Josephine. "And think how picturesque your property will look, all a soft purple in the sunshine!"
"Won't it!" agreed Max. "There, that's the house. I suppose you're prepared to fall into ecstasies with Sally on the door-step, and dance a reel with her down the hall."
"Of course I am. But what I really came for is the locked door."
"The door! I believe Sally's forgotten the subject of her dreams. We haven't a tool, any more than we had a week ago."
"Haven't we though?" shouted Bob, from the rear. He began to extract various implements from his pockets on the spot. Sally herself waved her shopping-bag. Jarvis Burnside pulled off his glove and began to search his own pockets.
"I think we'll effect an entrance," he declared, and produced a curious-looking skeleton key. "This will open any ordinary lock."
Josephine said everything Sally could have hoped for about the exterior of the house, and a few things more. It did seem a little less forlorn than before, the effect, perhaps, of the April sunshine, which lighted its red brick walls into warm and cheerful hues. Jarvis, within the door, removed his goggles and blinked approvingly at the fine colonial features of the wood-work, the lines of the stairway, and the proportions of the fireplace.
"Anybody can see those two are loaded," complained Alec in Max's ear, as they brought up the rear of the procession. "Trust Jarve Burnside to back up Sally every time, and Josephine to join 'em. It's all right enough for him to talk about restoration. He could do it by putting his hand into his pocket. Between 'em they'll get Sally completely off her head."
"There's no harm in looking the thing over," Max replied, absently, but Alec continued to rail. Bob turned and frowned at him as meaningly as Bob's round and sunny face could frown. Why must Alec follow Max's lead? he thought. One could gain one's point quite as readily and much more agreeably by being amiable. At least, this was Bob's philosophy.
"The door, Sally, the door!" urged Josephine, as the party finished the survey of the lower floor. "I can't take an interest in any more open rooms while I know there's a closed one waiting. Do lead the way up that impressive staircase and take us straight to the place of mystery!"
"Sally's still young enough to want to save the plums in the cake till the last," said Jarvis, as they went up. "Well, well, this stairway is certainly a quaint one--risers about five inches, aren't they, Max? Treads fourteen, at least. Fine for infants and invalids. And comfortable for sitting out dances, Sally!"
"But not so interesting as the five steep steps we are coming to," and Sally led the way down the hall to the side passage, from the end of which rose the little flight which approached the locked door. "Here we are. Now who'll let us in?"
It took the combined efforts of Jarvis and Max, working with one tool after another, to effect an entrance. Clearly this was not an ordinary closet lock which barred the way. But at last, with a vigorous wrench, Jarvis held the yielding door under his hand. From the top step he waved his free arm at the company, standing below.
"One last guess apiece," he demanded of them, "before you look."
"Old seed catalogues and empty hair-oil bottles," said Alec.
"A skeleton in armour!" cried Bob.
"All your Aunt Alicia's ball-dresses and your Uncle Maxwell's wedding clothes," guessed Josephine.
"A mahogany sideboard, dining-table and chairs," murmured Sally, at which there was a general shout.
"Dead beetles, fallen plaster, and a musty copy of 'Plutarch's Lives,'" was Max's cynical contribution.
"Open the door!" cried Bob.
But Jarvis still held it. "I think I'll let in one at a time," he declared. "Who'll venture first?"
Sally walked up the steps.
"Oh, don't send her in all alone!" begged Josephine. "Think, what if there should be--"
"The skeleton in armour," urged Bob.
"Go on, Sally, you're game," and Max grinned at Josephine and Bob. "It doesn't take much to rouse some people's imaginations. Go ahead, and confront the seed catalogues and the beetles with a bold front."
Jarvis, smiling at Sally and taking note of her pink cheeks, detained her with an injunction. "Whatever you find," he stipulated, "make no outcry. Retain your composure. Remember your friends are close at hand. Three raps on the inside of this door will summon four stout retainers to your side. Are you ready?"
"Remember that defunct beetles are harmless, old clothes retain no characteristics of their former owners, no matter how blood-thirsty, and empty bottles probably never contained fatal potions. If the place is dark, press your finger on this"--he thrust a small electric search-light into her hand--"and the mystery will be illumined. Brave lady, enter!"
He opened the door just wide enough to admit the slim figure in black, which slipped through and promptly closed the door upon itself.
"Jarvis, don't let her shut that door! Something might happen! There might be a--hole in the floor."
"She has blue eyes and you black!" retorted Jarvis. "She has golden locks, you raven. Don't let the outward attributes belie themselves like that."
"Sh!--Sh-h!" Josephine held up a beseeching finger.
Everybody listened. A silence ensued, unbroken by raps or sounds of any sort. When this had continued for some five minutes, Josephine spoke urgently: "Jarvis Burnside, open that door! It's all right to joke, but things do happen, and it's not right to fool this way!"
"What's the matter with you, Jo Burnside?" demanded Max, while Jarvis, looking quizzical, still held the door. "Don't you know Sally well enough to know she's not afraid of her shadow? She's playing the game through. She'll come back in her own good time, when she's thoroughly explored whatever's behind that door. A mouse won't give her hysterics, or a flapping window-shade make her scream."
Josephine held her peace, but she looked at Bob. Bob was genuinely uneasy, though determined not to show it. There is undeniably a peculiar atmosphere about old and unused houses, and queer fancies are prone to take possession of those who explore them. It was ten years since this house had been lived in. There was something odd about its having been so completely deserted, with not even a tenant left to occupy its kitchen regions and look after it. And the lock on this door had been strangely resistant.
Josephine suddenly opened her lips to say: "I shall not stand here waiting another minute!" when three raps on the door brought back her composure.
Jarvis, himself looking a trifle relieved, promptly turned the knob. But he could not open the door.
"It must be a spring-lock," he grunted disgustedly. "Idiot that I was! All right, Sally!" he called. "Got to work the tools over again."
"Sally, O Sally, are you all right?" called Josephine.
There was no reply. Jarvis worked rapidly, repeating his former processes with an impatient hand. When the lock yielded once more, he threw the door open, and the others crowded up the steps.
"A staircase!" was the common ejaculation.
Bob pushed by the rest and ran up it, closely followed by all except Jarvis. "I'll stay on the outside of this fool lock!" he called. But a moment later, investigating, he found that it could be rendered inoperative by a catch on the inside, which, being set, allowed the door to open and close freely. So, after the others, he hurried up the stairs.
These ascended straight between the walls until a sharp curve at the top brought them to a door now wide open. Within the room beyond stood the party, exclaiming at the tops of their voices.
They might well exclaim. Of all the guesses, none had come within distant range of the real thing.
The room was that of a collector of old books, and it had been closed and left precisely as its former owner had arranged it, so far as could be judged by its present appearance. A faded Turkey carpet covered the floor; sun-rotted and dusty draperies hung at the windows, which were of the same sort as those in the attic, close under the eaves, and shut in by a pattern of ironwork. All around the walls stood bookcases, filled with a large collection of books, the greater proportion of them of an age suggestive, to the inexperienced eye, of worthlessness, to the more discerning, of value. An antique desk and a few straight-backed chairs were all the other furnishings of the room, but of these it needed none. Even in its dust-covered condition it was a room to command respectful consideration.
As Jarvis came in, Max was studying the rows of books. He turned about with a small calf-bound volume in his hand, and his eye fell on Jarvis, entering.
"Jarve," he exclaimed, "I believe this is treasure-trove, sure enough! If this isn't a 'first edition,' I'll eat the book, covers and all!"
Jarvis hurried to his side. He took the book, examined the fly-leaf, and turned its pages. His eyes lighted with interest. "Of course it is!" he declared. "And by the looks of them, there are plenty more. How on earth do they come to be here? This is a gold mine that beats the mahogany sideboard out of sight."
"It's more than I know. Uncle Maxwell was no book-lover, as far as I've ever heard. Perhaps Uncle Tim can tell, though he's on mother's side, and never was here much."
Bob's eyes were round with delight. He did not know much about books, but the flush on Sally's cheeks and the excitement in Max's voice were enough for him. He could not resist giving his elder brother a rap on the back.
"How about the dead beetles now, Max?" he exulted.
Alec was poking in the pigeon-holes of the desk. There were no papers to be found except one bundle of letters, yellow with age. In one of the drawers, there were a few old daguerreo-types in velvet cases and a yellowed meer-schaum pipe.
"'Eliphalet Lane, Esquire,'" read Sally, from the addresses on the letters, which were written on the folded outer sheet of the letters themselves. "Why, I know who he was. He was Uncle Maxwell's elder brother. He lived with them all his life. He died before we were born, but I've heard father tell about him. He was a queer old man when father was a boy. This must be his collection."
"And Uncle Maxwell didn't think enough of it to take it to town with him--just locked it up and left it." This was Max's theory. "Uncle Maxwell knew nothing about books and cared less; he was all for business."
"Luckily for you. This must be worth a good deal, if you care to sell it," said Jarvis, who, close by one of the odd windows, was studying the fine text of a set of English dramatists.
Sally walked over and gently took the books out of his hand. "Jarvis Burnside," said she, decidedly, "the value of this collection is nothing beside the value of your eyes. Put on your goggles, and don't look at another line of type!"