By Joseph C. Lincoln
The road from Wellmouth Centre to East Wellmouth is not a good one; even in dry weather and daylight it is not that. For the first two miles it winds and twists its sandy way over bare hills, with cranberry swamps and marshy ponds in the hollows between. Then it enters upon a three-mile stretch bordered with scrubby pines and bayberry thickets, climbing at last a final hill to emerge upon the bluff with the ocean at its foot. And, fringing that bluff and clustering thickest in the lowlands just beyond, is the village of East Wellmouth, which must on no account be confused with South Wellmouth, or North Wellmouth, or West Wellmouth, or even Wellmouth Port.
On a bright sunny summer day the East Wellmouth road is a hard one to travel. At nine o'clock of an evening in March, with a howling gale blowing and rain pouring in torrents, traveling it is an experience. Winnie S., who drives the East Wellmouth depot-wagon, had undergone the experience several times in the course of his professional career, but each time he vowed vehemently that he would not repeat it; he would "heave up" his job first.
He was vowing it now. Perched on the edge of the depot wagon's front seat, the reins leading from his clenched fists through the slit in the "boot" to the rings on the collar of General Jackson, the aged horse, he expressed his opinion of the road, the night, and the job.
"By Judas priest!" declared Winnie S.—his name was Winfield Scott Hancock Holt, but no resident of East Wellmouth called him anything but Winnie S.—"by Judas priest! If this ain't enough to make a feller give up tryin' to earn a livin', then I don't know! Tell him he can't ship aboard a schooner 'cause goin' to sea's a dog's life, and then put him on a job like this! Dog's life! Judas priest! What kind of a life's THIS, I want to know?"
From the curtain depths of the depot-wagon behind him a voice answered, a woman's voice:
"Judgin' by the amount of dampness in it I should think you might call it a duck's life," it suggested.
Winnie S. accepted this pleasantry with a grunt. "I 'most wish I was a duck," he declared, savagely. "Then I could set in three inches of ice-water and like it, maybe. Now what's the matter with you?" This last a roar to the horse, whose splashy progress along the gullied road had suddenly ceased. "What's the matter with you now?" repeated Winnie. "What have you done; come to anchor? Git dap!"
But General Jackson refused to "git dap." Jerks at the reins only caused him to stamp and evince an inclination to turn around. Go ahead he would not.
"Judas priest!" exclaimed the driver. "I do believe the critter's drowndin'! Somethin's wrong. I've got to get out and see, I s'pose. Set right where you be, ladies. I'll be back in a minute," adding, as he took a lighted lantern from beneath the seat and pulled aside the heavy boot preparatory to alighting, "unless I get in over my head, which ain't so dummed unlikely as it sounds."
Lantern in hand he clambered clumsily from beneath the boot and disappeared. Inside the vehicle was blackness, dense, damp and profound.
"Auntie," said a second feminine voice, "Auntie, what DO you suppose has happened?"
"I don't know, Emily. I'm prepared for 'most anything by this time. Maybe we've landed on Mount Ararat. I feel as if I'd been afloat for forty days and nights. Land sakes alive!" as another gust shot and beat its accompanying cloudburst through and between the carriage curtains; "right in my face and eyes! I don't wonder that boy wished he was a duck. I'd like to be a fish—or a mermaid. I couldn't be much wetter if I was either one, and I'd have gills so I could breathe under water. I SUPPOSE mermaids have gills, I don't know."
Emily laughed. "Aunt Thankful," she declared, "I believe you would find something funny in a case of smallpox."
"Maybe I should; I never tried. 'Twouldn't be much harder than to be funny with—with rain-water on the brain. I'm so disgusted with myself I don't know what to do. The idea of me, daughter and granddaughter of seafarin' folks that studied the weather all their lives, not knowin' enough to stay to home when it looked as much like a storm as it did this mornin'. And draggin' you into it, too. We could have come tomorrow or next day just as well, but no, nothin' to do but I must start today 'cause I'd planned to. This comes of figgerin' to profit by what folks leave to you in wills. Talk about dead men's shoes! Live men's rubber boots would be worth more to you and me this minute. SUCH a cruise as this has been!"
It had been a hard trip, certainly, and the amount of water through which they had traveled the latter part of it almost justified its being called a "cruise." Old Captain Abner Barnes, skipper, for the twenty years before his death, of the coasting schooner T. I. Smalley, had, during his life-long seafaring, never made a much rougher voyage, all things considered, than that upon which his last will and testament had sent his niece and her young companion.
Captain Abner, a widower, had, when he died, left his house and land at East Wellmouth to his niece by marriage, Mrs. Thankful Barnes. Thankful, whose husband, Eben Barnes, was lost at sea the year after their marriage, had been living with and acting as housekeeper for an elderly woman named Pearson at South Middleboro. She, Thankful, had never visited her East Wellmouth inheritance. For four years after she inherited it she received the small rent paid her by the tenant, one Laban Eldredge. His name was all she knew concerning him. Then he died and for the next eight months the house stood empty. And then came one more death, that of old Mrs. Pearson, the lady for whom Thankful had "kept house."
Left alone and without present employment, the Widow Barnes considered what she should do next. And, thus considering, the desire to visit and inspect her East Wellmouth property grew and strengthened. She thought more and more concerning it. It was hers, she could do what she pleased with it, and she began to formulate vague ideas as to what she might like to do. She kept these ideas to herself, but she spoke to Emily Howes concerning the possibilities of a journey to East Wellmouth.
Emily was Mrs. Barnes' favorite cousin, although only a second cousin. Her mother, Sarah Cahoon, Thankful's own cousin, had married a man named Howes. Emily was the only child by this marriage. But later there was another marriage, this time to a person named Hobbs, and there were five little Hobbses. Papa Hobbs worked occasionally, but not often. His wife and Emily worked all the time. The latter had been teaching school in Middleboro, but now it was spring vacation. So when Aunt Thankful suggested the Cape Cod tour of inspection Emily gladly agreed to go. The Hobbs house was not a haven of joy, especially to Mr. Hobbs' stepdaughter, and almost any change was likely to be an agreeable one.
They had left South Middleboro that afternoon. The rain began when the train reached West Ostable. At Bayport it had become a storm. At Wellmouth Centre it was a gale and a miniature flood. And now, shut up in the back part of the depot-wagon, with the roaring wind and splashing, beating rain outside, Thankful's references to fish and ducks and mermaids, even to Mount Ararat, seemed to Emily quite appropriate. They had planned to spend the night at the East Wellmouth hotel and visit the Barnes' property in the morning. But it was five long miles to that hotel from the Wellmouth Centre station. Their progress so far had been slow enough. Now they had stopped altogether.
A flash of light showed above the top of the carriage boot.
"Mercy on us!" cried Aunt Thankful. "Is that lightnin'? All we need to make this complete is to be struck by lightnin'. No, 'tain't lightnin', it's just the lantern. Our pilot's comin' back, I guess likely. Well, he ain't been washed away, that's one comfort."
Winnie S., holding the lantern in his hand, reappeared beneath the boot. Raindrops sparkled on his eyebrows, his nose and the point of his chin.
"Judas priest!" he gasped. "If this ain't—"
"You needn't say it. We'll agree with you," interrupted Mrs. Barnes, hastily. "Is anything the matter?"
The driver's reply was in the form of elaborate sarcasm.
"Oh, no!" he drawled, "there wasn't nothin' the matter. Just a few million pines blowed across the road and the breechin' busted and the for'ard wheel about ready to come off, that's all. Maybe there's a few other things I didn't notice, but that's all I see."
"Humph! Well, they'll do for a spell. How's the weather, any worse?"
"Worse? No! they ain't no worse made. Looks as if 'twas breakin' a little over to west'ard, fur's that goes. But how in the nation we'll ever fetch East Wellmouth, I don't know. Git dap! GIT DAP! Have you growed fast?"
General Jackson pulled one foot after the other from the mud and the wagon rocked and floundered as its pilot steered it past the fallen trees. For the next twenty minutes no one spoke. Then Winnie S. breathed a sigh of thankfulness.
"Well, we're out of that stretch of woods, anyhow," he declared. "And it 'tain't rainin' so hard, nuther. Cal'late we can get to civilization if that breechin' holds and the pesky wheel don't come off. How are you, in aft there; tolerable snug?"
Emily said nothing. Aunt Thankful chuckled at the word.
"Snug!" she repeated. "My, yes! If this water was salt we'd be as snug as a couple of pickled mackerel. How far off is this civilization you're talkin' about?"
"Well, our hotel where you're bound is a good two mile, but there's—Judas priest! there goes that breechin' again!"
There was another halt while the breeching underwent temporary repairs. The wind blew as hard as ever, but the rain had almost stopped. A few minutes later it stopped altogether.
"There!" declared Winnie S. "The fust mile's gone. I don't know's I hadn't ought to stop—"
Aunt Thankful interrupted. "Stop!" she cried. "For mercy sakes, don't stop anywheres unless you have to. We've done nothin' but stop ever since we started. Go on as far as you can while this—this machine of yours is wound up."
But that was not destined to be far. From beneath the forward end of the depot-wagon sounded a most alarming creak, a long-drawn, threatening groan. Winnie S. uttered his favorite exclamation.
"Judas priest!" he shouted. "There goes that wheel! I've, been expectin' it."
He tugged at the right hand rein. General Jackson, who, having been brought up in a seafaring community, had learned to answer his helm, swerved sharply from the road. Emily screamed faintly.
"Where are you goin'?" demanded Mrs. Barnes.
The driver did not answer. The groan from beneath the carriage was more ominously threatening than ever. And suddenly the threat was fulfilled. The depot-wagon jerked on for a few feet and then, with a crack, settled down to port in a most alarming fashion. Winnie S. settled down with it, still holding tight to the reins and roaring commands to General Jackson at the top of his lungs.
"Whoa!" he hollered. "Whoa! Stand still! Stand still where you be! Whoa!"
General Jackson stood still. Generally speaking he needed but one hint to do that. His commander climbed out, or fell out, from beneath the boot. The ground upon which he fell was damp but firm.
"Whoa!" he roared again. Then scrambling to his feet he sprang toward the wagon, which, the forward wheel detached and flat beneath it, was resting on the remaining three in a fashion which promised total capsizing at any moment.
"Be you hurt? Be you hurt?" demanded Winnie S.
From inside, the tightly drawn curtains there came a variety of sounds, screams, exclamations, and grunts as of someone gasping for breath.
"Be you hurt?" yelled the frantic Mr. Holt.
It was the voice of the younger passenger which first made coherent reply.
"No," it panted. "No, I—I think I'm not hurt. But Aunt Thankful—Oh, Auntie, are you—"
Aunt Thankful herself interrupted. Her voice was vigorous enough, but it sounded as if smothered beneath a heavy weight.
"No, no," she gasped. "I—I'm all right. I'm all right. Or I guess I shall be when you get—off of me."
"Judas priest!" cried Winnie S., and sprang to the scene. It was the younger woman, Emily, whom he rescued first. She, being on the upper side of the tilted wagon, had slid pell-mell along the seat down upon the body of her companion. Mrs. Barnes was beneath and getting her out was a harder task. However, it was accomplished at last.
"Mercy on us!" exclaimed the lady, as her companions assisted her to rise. "Mercy on us! I feel like a pancake. I never knew you weighed so much, Emily Howes. Well, that's all right and no bones broke. Where are we now? Why—why, that's a house, I do believe! We're in somebody's yard."
They were, that was plain even on a night as dark as this. Behind them, bordering the stretch of mud and puddles which they had just left, was the silhouette of a dilapidated picket fence; and in front loomed the shadowy shapes of buildings.
"We're in somebody's yard," repeated Thankful. "And there's a house, as sure as I live! Well, I never thought I'd be so grateful just at the bare sight of one. I'd begun to think I never would see a house again. If we'd run afoul of a ship I shouldn't have been so surprised. Come on, Emily!"
She seized her companion by the hand and led the way toward the nearest and largest building. Winnie S., having retrieved and relighted the overturned lantern, was inspecting the wreck of the depot-wagon. It was some minutes before he noticed that his passengers had disappeared. Then he set up a shout.
"Hi! Where you be?" he shouted.
"Here," was the answer. "Here, by the front door."
"Hey? Oh, all right. Stay where you be. I'll be there pretty soon."
The "pretty soon" was not very soon. Mrs. Barnes began to lose patience.
"I ain't goin' to roost on this step till mornin'," she declared. "I'm goin' inside. Ain't that a bell handle on your side of the door, Emily? Give it a pull, for mercy sakes!"
"Give it a pull, I tell you! I don't know who lives here and I don't care. If 'twas the President of the United States he'd have to turn out and let us in this night. Here, let me do it!"
She gave the glass knob a sharp jerk. From within sounded the jingle of an old-fashioned spring bell.
"There!" she exclaimed, "I guess they'll hear that. Anyway, I'll give 'em one more for good measure."
She jerked the bell again. The peal died away in a series of lessening tinkles, but there was no other sound from within.
"They must be sound sleepers," whispered Emily, after a moment.
"They must be dead," declared Thankful. "There's been smashin' and crackin' and hollerin' enough to wake up anybody that wa'n't buried. How that wind does blow! I—Hello! here comes that man at last. About time, I should say!"
Winnie S. appeared, bearing the lantern.
"What you doin'?" he asked. "There ain't no use ringin' that bell. Nobody'll hear it."
Thankful, who had just given the bell a third pull, took her hand from the knob.
"Why not?" she demanded. "It makes noise enough. I should think a graven image would hear it. What is this, a home for deaf people?"
Winnie S. grinned. "'Tain't nobody's home, not now," he said. "This house is empty. Ain't nobody lived in it for 'most a year."
The two women looked at each other. Mrs. Barnes drew along breath.
"Well," she observed, "if this ain't the last straw. Such a cruise as we've had; and finally be shipwrecked right in front of a house and find it's an empty one! Don't talk to ME! Well," sharply, "what shall we do next?"
The driver shook his head.
"Dummed if I know!" he answered. "The old wagon can't go another yard. I—I cal'late you folks'll have to stay here for a spell."
"Stay? Where'll we stay; out here in the middle of this howlin' wilderness?"
"I guess so. Unless you want to walk the rest of the way, same's I'm cal'latin' to. I'm goin' to unharness the horse and put him under the shed here and then hoof it over to the village and get somebody to come and help. You can come along if you want to, but it'll be a tougher v'yage than the one we've come through."
"How far off is this—this village of yours?"
"Oh, about a mile and a half!"
"A mile and a half! And it's beginnin' to rain again! Emily, I don't know how you feel, but if the horse can wait under the shed until somebody comes I guess we can. I say let's do it."
Emily nodded. "Of course, Auntie," she said, emphatically. "We couldn't walk a mile and a half in a storm like this. Of course we must wait. Where is the shed?"
Winnie S. led the way to the shed. It was a ramshackle affair, open on one side. General Jackson, tethered to a rusty ring at the back, whinnied a welcome.
The driver, holding the lantern aloft, looked about him. His two passengers looked also.
"Well," observed Thankful, "this may have been a shed once, but it's more like a sieve now. There's more leaks to the roof than there is boards, enough sight. However, any port in a storm, and we've got the storm, sartin. All right, Mister What's-your-name, we'll wait."
Winnie S. turned away. Then he turned back again.
"Maybe I'd better leave you the lantern," he said, doubtfully. "I guess likely I could get along without it and—and 'twould make it more sociable for you."
He put the lantern down on the earth floor beside them and strode off into the dark. Mrs. Barnes called after him.
"Ain't there any way of gettin' into that house?" she asked. "It acts as if 'twas goin' to storm hard as ever and this shed ain't the most—what did you call it?—sociable place in creation, in spite of the lantern. If we could only get inside that house—"
Winnie S. interrupted. They could not see him, but there was a queer note in his voice.
"Get inside!" he repeated. "Get into THAT house this time of night! Well—well, maybe you could, but I wouldn't do it, not for nothin'. You better wait in the shed. I'll be back soon as ever I can."
They heard him splashing along the road. Then a gust of wind and a torrent of rain beating upon the leaky roof drowned all other sounds. Emily turned to her companion.
"Auntie," she said, "if you and I were superstitious we might think all this, all that we've been through, was what people call a sign, a warning. That is what ever so many South Middleboro people would say."
"Humph! if I believed in signs I'd have noticed the weather signs afore we started. Those are all the 'signs' I believe in and I ought to have known better than to risk comin' when it looked so threatenin'. I can't forgive myself for that. However, we did come, and here we are—wherever 'here' is. Now what in the world did that man mean by sayin' we better not try to get into that house? I don't care what he meant. Give me that lantern."
"Auntie, where are you going?"
"I'm goin' to take an observation of those windows. Nine chances to one they ain't all locked, and if there's one open you and I can crawl into it. I wish we could boost the horse in, too, poor thing, but self-preservation is the first law of nature and if he's liable to perish it's no reason we should. I'm goin' to get into that house if such a thing's possible."
"Don't say another word. I'm responsible for your bein' here this night, Emily Howes. You wouldn't have come if I hadn't coaxed you into it. And you shan't die of pneumonia or—or drownin' if I can help it. I'm goin' to have a look at those doors and windows. Don't be scared. I'll be back in a jiffy. Goodness me, what a puddle! Well, if you hear me holler you'll know I'm goin' under for the third time, so come quick. Here goes!"
Lantern in hand, she splashed out into the wet, windy darkness.
Miss Howes, left to share with General Jackson the "sociability" of the shed, watched that lantern with faint hope and strong anxiety. She saw it bobbing like a gigantic firefly about the walls of the house, stopping here and there and then hurrying on. Soon it passed around the further corner and disappeared altogether. The wind howled, the rain poured, General Jackson stamped and splashed, and Emily shivered.
At last, just as the watcher had begun to think some serious accident had happened to her courageous relative and was considering starting on a relief expedition, the lantern reappeared.
"Emily!" screamed Mrs. Barnes. "Emily! Come here!"
Emily came, fighting her way against the wind. She found her cousin standing by the corner of the house.
"I've got it," cried Aunt Thankful, panting but triumphant. "I've got it. One of the windows on the other side is unfastened, just as I suspicioned it might be. I think one of us can get in if t'other helps."
She seized the arm of her fellow castaway and together they turned the corner, struggled on for a short distance and then stopped.
"This is the window," gasped the widow. "Here, right abreast of us. See!"
She held up the lantern. The window was "abreast" of them, but also it was a trifle high.
"It ain't fastened," shouted Thankful; she was obliged to shout in order to be heard. "I could push it open a little mite from the bottom, but I couldn't reach to get it up all the way. You can if I steady you, I guess. Here! Put your foot on that box. I lugged it around from the back yard on purpose."
Standing on an empty and shaky cranberry crate and held there by the strong arm of Mrs. Barnes, Emily managed to push up the lower half of the window. The moment she let go of it, however, it fell with a tremendous bang.
"One of the old-fashioned kind, you might know," declared Thankful. "No weights nor nothin'. We'll have to prop it up with a stick. You wait where you are and I'll go get one. There's what's left of a woodpile out back here; that's where that crate came from."
She hastened away and was back in a moment with a stout stick. Emily raised the window once more and placed the stick beneath it.
"There!" panted her companion. "We've got a gangway anyhow. Next thing is to get aboard. You come down and give me a boost."
But Emily declined.
"Of course I shan't do any such thing," she declared, indignantly. "I can climb through that window a great deal easier than you can, Auntie. I'm ever so much younger. Just give me a push, that's all."
Her cousin demurred. "I hate to have you do it," she said. "For anybody that ain't any too strong or well you've been through enough tonight. Well, if you're so set on it. I presume likely you could make a better job of climbin' than I could. It ain't my age that bothers me though, it's my weight. All ready? Up you go! Humph! It's a mercy there ain't anybody lookin' on. . . . There! all right, are you?"
Emily's head appeared framed by the window sash. "Yes," she panted. "I—I think I'm all right. At least I'm through that window. Now what shall I do?"
"Take this lantern and go to one of the doors and see if you can unfasten it. Try the back door; that's the most liable to be only bolted and hooked. The front one's probably locked with a key."
The lantern and its bearer disappeared. Mrs. Barnes plodded around to the back door. As she reached it it opened.
"It was only hooked," said Emily. "Come in, Auntie. Come in quick!"
Thankful had not waited for the invitation; she was in already. She took the lantern from her relative's hand. Then she shut the door behind her.
"Whew!" she exclaimed. "If it don't seem good to get under cover, real cover! What sort of a place is this, anyhow, Emily?"
"I don't know. I—I've been too frightened to look. I—I feel like a—O, Aunt Thankful, don't you feel like a burglar?"
"Me? A burglar? I feel like a wet dishcloth. I never was so soaked, with my clothes on, in my life. Hello! I thought this was an empty house. There's a stove and a chair, such as it is. Whoever lived here last didn't take away all their furniture. Let's go into the front rooms."
The first room they entered was evidently the dining-room. It was quite bare of furniture. The next, however, that which Emily had entered by the window, contained another stove, a ramshackle what-not, and a broken-down, ragged sofa.
"Oh!" gasped Miss Howes, pointing to the sofa, "see! see! This ISN'T an empty house. Suppose—Oh, SUPPOSE there were people living here! What would they say to us?"
For a moment Thankful was staggered. Then her common-sense came to her rescue.
"Nonsense!" she said, firmly. "A house with folks livin' in it has somethin' in the dinin'-room besides dust. Anyhow, it's easy enough to settle that question. Where's that door lead to?"
She marched across the floor and threw open the door to which she had pointed.
"Humph!" she sniffed. "Best front parlor. The whole shebang smells shut up and musty enough, but there's somethin' about a best parlor smell that would give it away any time. Phew! I can almost smell wax wreaths and hair-cloth, even though they have been took away. No, this is an empty house all right, but I'll make good and sure for your sake, Emily. Ain't there any stairs to this old rattle-trap? Oh, yes, here's the front hall. Hello! Hello, up there! Hi-i!"
She was shouting up the old-fashioned staircase. Her voice echoed above with the unmistakable echo of empty rooms. Only that echo and the howl of the wind and roar of rain answered her.
She came back to the apartment where she had left her cousin.
"It's all right, Emily," she said. "We're the only passengers aboard the derelict. Now let's see if we can't be more comf'table. You set down on that sofa and rest. I've got an idea in my head."
The idea evidently involved an examination of the stove, for she opened its rusty door and peered inside. Then, without waiting to answer her companion's questions, she hurried out into the kitchen, returning with an armful of shavings and a few sticks of split pine.
"I noticed that woodbox in the kitchen when I fust come in," she said. "And 'twa'n't quite empty neither, though that's more or less of a miracle. Matches? Oh, yes, indeed! I never travel without 'em. I've been so used to lookin' out for myself and other folks that I'm a reg'lar man in some ways. There! now let's see if the draft is rusted up as much as the stove."
It was not, apparently, for, with the dampers wide open, the fire crackled and snapped. Also it smoked a little.
"'Twill get over that pretty soon," prophesied Mrs. Barnes. "I can stand 'most any amount of smoke so long's there's heat with it. Now, Emily, we'll haul that sofa up alongside and you lay down on it and get rested and warm. I'd say get dry, too, but 'twould take a reg'lar blast furnace to dry a couple of water rats like you and me this night. Perhaps we can dry the upper layer, though; that'll be some help. Now, mind me! Lay right down on that sofa."
Emily protested. She was no wetter and no more tired than her cousin, she said. Why should she lie down while Aunt Thankful sat up?
"'Cause I tell you to, for one thing," said the widow, with decision. "And because I'm well and strong and you ain't. When I think of how I got you, a half invalid, as you might say, to come on this crazy trip I'm so provoked I feel like not speakin' to myself for a week. There! now you LOOK more comf'table, anyhow. If I only had somethin' to put over you, I'd feel better. I wonder if there's an old bed quilt or anything upstairs. I've a good mind to go and see."
Emily's protest was determined this time.
"Indeed you shan't!" she cried. "You shan't stir. I wouldn't have you go prowling about this poky old place for anything. Do you suppose I could stay down here alone knowing that you might be—might be meeting or—or finding almost anything up there. Sit right down in that chair beside me. Don't you think it is almost time for that driver to be back?"
"Land sakes—no! He's hardly started yet. It's goin' to take a good long spell afore he can wade a mile and a half in such a storm as this and get another horse and wagon and come back again. He'll come by and by. All we've got to do is to stay by this fire and be thankful we've got it."
Emily shivered. "I suppose so," she said. "And I know I am nervous and a trial instead of a help. If you had only been alone—"
"Alone! Heavens to Betey! Do you think I'd like this—this camp-meetin' any better if I was the only one to it. My! Just hear that wind! Hope these old chimneys are solid."
"Auntie, what do you suppose that man meant by saying he wouldn't enter this house at night for anything?"
"Don't know. Perhaps he meant he'd be afraid of bein' arrested."
"But you don't think we'll be arrested?"
"No, no, of course not. I'd be almost willin' to be arrested if they'd do it quick. A nice, dry lock-up and somethin' to eat wouldn't be so bad, would it? But no constable but a web-footed one would be out this night. Now do as I say—you lay still and give your nerves a rest."
For a few moments the order was obeyed. Then Miss Rowes said, with another shiver: "I do believe this is the worst storm I have ever experienced."
"'Tis pretty bad, that's a fact. Do you know, Emily, if I was a believer in signs such as mentioned a little while ago, I might almost be tempted to believe this storm was one of 'em. About every big change in my life has had a storm mixed up with it, comin' at the time it happened or just afore or just after. I was born, so my mother used to tell me, on a stormy night about like this one. And it poured great guns the day I was married. And Eben, my husband, went down with his vessel in a hurricane off Hatteras. And when poor Jedediah run off to go gold-diggin' there was such a snowstorm the next day that I expected to see him plowin' his way home again. Poor old Jed! I wonder where he is tonight? Let's see; six years ago, that was. I wonder if he's been frozen to death or eat up by polar bears, or what. One thing's sartin, he ain't made his fortune or he'd have come home to tell me of it. Last words he said to me was, 'I'm a-goin', no matter what you say. And when I come back, loaded down with money, you'll be glad to see me.'"
Jedediah Cahoon was Mrs. Barnes' only near relative, a brother. Always a visionary, easy-going, impractical little man, he had never been willing to stick at steady employment, but was always chasing rainbows and depending upon his sister for a home and means of existence. When the Klondike gold fever struck the country he was one of the first to succumb to the disease. And, after an argument—violent on his part and determined on Thankful's—he had left South Middleboro and gone—somewhere. From that somewhere he had never returned.
"Yes," mused Mrs. Barnes, "those were the last words he said to me."
"What did you say to him?" asked Emily, drowsily. She had heard the story often enough, but she asked the question as an aid to keeping awake.
"Hey? What did I say? Oh, I said my part, I guess. 'When you come back,' says I, 'it'll be when I send money to you to pay your fare home, and I shan't do it. I've sewed and washed and cooked for you ever since Eben died, to say nothin' of goin' out nursin' and housekeepin' to earn money to buy somethin' TO cook. Now I'm through. This is my house—or, at any rate, I pay the rent for it. If you leave it to go gold-diggin' you needn't come back to it. If you do you won't be let in.' Of course I never thought he'd go, but he did. Ah hum! I'm afraid I didn't do right. I ought to have realized that he wa'n't really accountable, poor, weak-headed critter!"
Emily's eyes were fast shutting, but she made one more remark.
"Your life has been a hard one, hasn't it, Auntie," she said.
Thankful protested. "Oh, no, no!" she declared. "No harder'n anybody else's, I guess likely. This world has more hards than softs for the average mortal and I never flattered myself on bein' above the average. But there! How in the nation did I get onto this subject? You and me settin' here on other folks's furniture—or what was furniture once—soppin' wet through and half froze, and me talkin' about troubles that's all dead and done with! What DID get me started? Oh, yes, the storm. I was just thinkin' how most of the important things in my life had had bad weather mixed up with 'em. Come to think of it, it rained the day Mrs. Pearson was buried. And her dyin' was what set me to thinkin' of cruisin' down here to East Wellmouth and lookin' at the property Uncle Abner left me. I've never laid eyes on that property and I don't even know what the house looks like. I might have asked that depot-wagon driver, but I thought 'twas no use tellin' him my private affairs, so I said we was bound to the hotel, and let it go at that. If I had asked he might at least have told me where. . . . Hey? Why—why—my land! I never thought of it, but it might be! It might! Emily!"
But Miss Howes' eyes were closed now. In spite of her wet garments and her nervousness concerning their burglarious entry of the empty house she had fallen asleep. Thankful did not attempt to wake her. Instead she tiptoed to the kitchen and the woodbox, took from the latter the last few slabs of pine wood and, returning, filled the stove to the top. Then she sat down in the chair once more.
For some time she sat there, her hands folded in her lap. Occasionally she glanced about the room and her lips moved as if she were talking to herself. Then she rose and peered out of the window. Rain and blackness and storm were without, but nothing else. She returned to the sofa and stood looking down at the sleeper. Emily stirred a little and shivered.
That shiver helped to strengthen the fears in Mrs. Barnes' mind. The girl was not strong. She had come home from her school duties almost worn out. A trip such as this had been was enough to upset even the most robust constitution. She was wet and cold. Sleeping in wet clothes was almost sure to bring on the dreaded pneumonia. If only there might be something in that house, something dry and warm with which to cover her.
"Emily," said Thankful, in a low tone. "Emily."
The sleeper did not stir. Mrs. Barnes took up the lantern. Its flame was much less bright than it had been and the wick sputtered. She held the lantern to her ear and shook it gently. The feeble "swash" that answered the shake was not reassuring. The oil was almost gone.
Plainly if exploring of those upper rooms was to be done it must be done at once. With one more glance at the occupant of the sofa Mrs. Barnes, lantern in hand, tiptoed from the room, through the barren front hall and up the stairs. The stairs creaked abominably. Each creak echoed like the crack of doom.
At the top of the stairs was another hall, long and narrow, extending apparently the whole length of the house. At intervals along this hall were doors. One after the other Thankful opened them. The first gave entrance to a closet, with a battered and ancient silk hat and a pasteboard box on the shelf. The next opened into a large room, evidently the spare bedroom. It was empty. So was the next and the next and the next. No furniture of any kind. Thankful's hope of finding a quilt or a wornout blanket, anything which would do to cover her sleeping and shivering relative, grew fainter with the opening of each door.
There were an astonishing number of rooms and closets. Evidently this had been a big, commodious and comfortable house in its day. But that day was long past its sunset. Now the bigness only emphasized the dreariness and desolation. Dampness and spider webs everywhere, cracks in the ceiling, paper peeling from the walls. And around the gables and against the dormer-windows of these upper rooms the gale shrieked and howled and wailed like a drove of banshees.
The room at the very end of the long hall was a large one. It was at the back of the house and there were windows on two sides of it. It was empty like the others, and Mrs. Barnes, reluctantly deciding that her exploration in quest of coverings had been a failure, was about to turn and retrace her steps to the stairs when she noticed another door.
It was in the corner of the room furthest from the windows and was shut tight. A closet, probably, and all the closets she had inspected so far had contained nothing but rubbish. However, Thankful was not in the habit of doing things by halves, so, the feebly sputtering lantern held in her left hand, she opened the door with the other and looked in. Then she uttered an exclamation of joy.
It was not a closet behind that door, but another room. A small room with but one little window, low down below the slope of the ceiling. But this room was to some extent furnished. There was a bed in it, and a rocking chair, and one or two pictures hanging crookedly upon the wall. Also, and this was the really important thing, upon that bed was a patchwork comforter.
Thankful made a dash for that comforter. She set the lantern down upon the floor and snatched the gayly colored thing from the bed. And, as she did so, she heard a groan.
There are always noises in an empty house, especially an old house. Creaks and cracks and rustlings mysterious and unexplainable. When the wind blows these noises are reenforced by a hundred others. In this particular house on this particular night there were noises enough, goodness knows. Howls and rattles and moans and shrieks. Every shutter and every shingle seemed to be loose and complaining of the fact. As for groans—old hinges groan when the wind blows and so do rickety gutters and water pipes. But this groan, or so it seemed to Mrs. Barnes, had a different and distinct quality of its own. It sounded—yes, it sounded human.
Thankful dropped the patchwork comforter.
"Who's that?" she asked, sharply.
There was no answer. No sounds except those of the storm. Thankful picked up the comforter.
"Humph!" she said aloud—talking to herself was a habit developed during the years of housekeeping for deaf old Mrs. Pearson. "Humph! I must be gettin' nerves, I guess."
She began folding the old quilt in order to make it easier to carry downstairs. And then she heard another groan, or sigh, or combination of both. It sounded, not outside the window or outside the house, but in that very room.
Again Mrs. Barnes dropped the comforter. Also she went out of the room. But she did not go far. Halfway across the floor of the adjoining room she stopped and put her foot down, physically and mentally.
"Fool!" she said, disgustedly. Then, turning on her heel, she marched back to the little bedroom and picked up the lantern; its flame had dwindled to the feeblest of feeble sparks.
"Now then," said Thankful, with determination, "whoever—or—or whatever thing you are that's makin' that noise you might just as well show yourself. If you're hidin' you'd better come out, for I'll find you."
But no one or no "thing" came out. Thankful waited a moment and then proceeded to give that room a very thorough looking-over. It was such a small apartment that the process took but little time. There was no closet. Except for the one window and the door by which she had entered, the four walls, covered with old-fashioned ugly paper, had no openings of any kind. There could be no attic or empty space above the ceiling because she could hear the rain upon the sloping roof. She looked under the bed and found nothing but dust. She looked in the bed, even under the rocking-chair.
"Well, there!" she muttered. "I said it and I was right. I AM gettin' to be a nervous old fool. I'm glad Emily ain't here to see me. And yet I did—I swear I did hear somethin'."
The pictures on the wall by the window caught her eye. She walked over and looked at them. The lantern gave so little light that she could scarcely see anything, but she managed to make out that one was a dingy chromo with a Scriptural subject. The other was a battered "crayon enlargement," a portrait of a man, a middle-aged man with a chin beard. There was something familiar about the face in the portrait. Something—
Thankful gasped. "Uncle Abner!" she cried. "Why—why—"
Then the lantern flame gave a last feeble sputter and went out. She heard the groan again. And in that room, the room she had examined so carefully, so close as to seem almost at her very ear, a faint voice wailed agonizingly, "Oh, Lord!"
Thankful went away. She left the comforter and the lantern upon the floor and she did not stop to close the door of the little bedroom. Through the black darkness of the long hall she rushed and down the creaky stairs. Her entrance to the sitting-room was more noisy than her exit had been and Miss Howes stirred upon the sofa and opened her eyes.
"Auntie!" she cried, sharply. "Aunt Thankful, where are you?"
"I'm—I'm here, Emily. That is, I guess—yes, I'm here."
"But why is it so dark? Where is the lantern?"
"The lantern?" Mrs. Barnes was trying to speak calmly but, between agitation and loss of breath, she found it hard work. "The lantern? Why—it's—it's gone," she said.
"Gone? What do you mean? Where has it gone?"
"It's gone—gone out. There wa'n't enough oil in it to last any longer, I suppose."
"Oh!" Emily sat up. "And you've been sitting here alone in the dark while I have been asleep. How dreadful for you! Why didn't you speak to me? Has anything happened? Hasn't that man come back yet?"
It was the last question which Thankful answered. "No. No, he ain't come back yet," she said. "But he will pretty soon, I'm sure. He—he will, Emily, don't you fret."
"Oh, I'm not worried, Auntie. I am too sleepy to worry, I guess."
"Sleepy! You're not goin' to sleep AGAIN, are you?"
Mrs. Barnes didn't mean to ask this question; certainly she did not mean to ask it with such evident anxiety. Emily noticed the tone and wondered.
"Why, no," she said. "I think not. Of course I'm not. But what made you speak in that way? You're not frightened, are you?"
Thankful made a brave effort.
"Frightened!" she repeated, stoutly. "What on earth should I be frightened of, I'd like to know?"
"Why, nothing, I hope."
"I should say not. I—Good heavens above! What's that?"
She started and clutched her companion by the arm. They both listened.
"I don't hear anything but the storm," said Emily. "Why, Auntie, you ARE frightened; you're trembling. I do believe there is something."
Thankful snatched her hand away.
"There isn't," she declared. "Of course there isn't."
"Then why are you so nervous?"
"Me? Nervous! Emily Howes, don't you ever say that to me again. I ain't nervous and I ain't goin' to be nervous. There's no—no sane reason why I should be and I shan't. I shan't!"
"But, Auntie, you are. Oh, what is it?"
"Nothin'. Nothin' at all, I tell you. The idea!" with an attempt at a laugh. "The idea of you thinkin' I'm nervous. Young folks like you or rich old women are the only ones who can afford nerves. I ain't either young nor rich."
Emily laughed, too. This speech was natural and characteristic.
"If you were a nervous wreck," she said, "it would be no wonder, all alone in the dark as you have been in a deserted house like this. I can't forgive myself for falling asleep. Whose house do you suppose it is?"
Aunt Thankful did not answer. Emily went on. Her short nap had revived her courage and spirit.
"Perhaps it is a haunted house," she said, jokingly. "Every village has a haunted house, you know. Perhaps that's why the stage-driver warned us not to go into it."
To her surprise Mrs. Barnes seemed to take offense at this attempt at humor.
"Don't talk silly," she snapped. "If I've lived all these years and been as down on spooks and long-haired mediums as I've been, and then to—there—there! Don't let's be idiots altogether. Talk about somethin' else. Talk about that depot-wagon driver and his pesky go-cart that got us into this mess. There's plenty of things I'd like to say about THEM."
They talked, in low tones. Conversation there in the dark and under such circumstances, was rather difficult. Emily, although she was determined not to admit it, was growing alarmed for the return of Winnie S. and his promised rescue expedition. Aunt Thankful was thinking of the little back bedroom upstairs. An utter lack of superstition was something upon which she had prided herself. But now, as she thought of that room, of the portrait on the wall, and what she had heard—
"Listen!" whispered Emily, suddenly. "Listen! I—I thought I heard something."
Mrs. Barnes leaned forward.
"What? Where? Upstairs?" she asked, breathlessly.
"No. Out—out there somewhere." She pointed in the direction of the front hall. "It sounded as if someone had tried the front door. Hark! There it is again."
Aunt Thankful rose to her feet. "I heard it, too," she said. "It's probably that driver man come back. I'll go and see."
"No—no, Auntie, you mustn't. I—I shan't let you."
"I shall! I shall, I tell you! If I've got any common-sense at all, I ain't goin' to be scared of—Of course it's that driver man. He's wonderin' where we are and he's lookin' for us. I'll go let him in."
She broke away from Miss Howes' grasp and started for the front hall. The action was a braver one than her cousin realized. If there was one thing on earth that Thankful Barnes did not wish to do at that moment, it was to go nearer the stairs landing to the rooms above.
But she went, and Emily went with her. Cautiously they peered through the little windows at the sides of the front door. There was no one in sight, and, listening, they heard nothing.
"I—I guess we was mistaken, Emily," whispered Thankful. "Let's go back to the fire."
"But Auntie, I DID hear something. Didn't you?"
"Well, I thought I did, but I guess—Oh, DON'T stay here another minute! I—I shall be hearin' 'most anything if we do."
They returned to the room they had left. But they had scarcely entered it when they stopped short and, clinging to each other, listened.
It was the latch of the kitchen door they heard click now. And the door was opening. In the kitchen they heard the sounds of cautious footsteps, footsteps which entered the dining-room, which came on toward the sitting-room. And a voice, a man's voice, whispered:
"I told you so! I—I told you so! I said I see a light. And—and that door was undone and—and—By time! Obed Bangs, you can go on if you want to, but I tell you you're riskin' your life. I—I ain't goin' to stay no longer. I'm goin' to fetch the constable—or—or the minister or somebody. I—"
Another voice interrupted.
"Shut up! Belay!" it ordered. "If there's anybody or anything in this house we'll have a look at it, that's all. You can go to the minister afterwards, if you want to. Just now you'll come along with me if I have to haul you by the neck. Let's see what's in here."
There was a flash of light in the crack of the door leading from the dining-room. That door was thrown open and the light became a blaze from a big lantern held aloft.
"Hey! What!" exclaimed the second voice. "Who—women, by the everlastin'!"
Mrs. Barnes and Emily clinging to each other, blinked in the lantern light.
"Women! Two women!" said the voice again.
Thankful answered. The voice was real and it came from a human throat. Anything human—and visible—she did not fear.
"Yes," she said, crisply, "we're women. What of it? Who are you?"
The man with the lantern entered the room. He was big and broad-shouldered and bearded. His companion was short and stout and smooth-faced; also he appeared very much frightened. Both men wore oilskin coats and sou'westers.
"Who are you?" repeated Aunt Thankful.
The big man answered. His sunburned, good-humored face was wrinkled and puckered with amazement.
"Well," he stammered, "I—we—Humph! well, we're neighbors and—but—but, I don't know as I know you, ma'am, do I?"
"I don't know why you should. I don't know you, fur's that goes. What are you doin' here? Did that depot-wagon man send you?"
"Depot-wagon man? No, ma'am; nobody sent us. Kenelm—er—Mr. Parker here, saw a light a spell ago and, bein' as this house is supposed to be empty, he—"
"Wait a minute!" Miss Howes interrupted. "Whose house is this?"
"Why—why, it ain't anybody's house, ma'am. That is, nobody lives here."
"But somebody used to live here, it's likely. What was his name?"
"His name? Well, old Laban Eldredge used to live here. The house belongs to Captain Abner Cahoon's heirs, I believe, and—"
Again Thankful interrupted.
"I knew it!" she cried, excitedly. "I wondered if it mightn't be so and when I see that picture of Uncle Abner I was sure. All right, Mr. Whoever-you-are, then I'm here because I own the house. My name's Barnes, Thankful Barnes of South Middleboro, and I'm Abner Cahoon's heir. Emily, this—this rattle-trap you and I broke into is the 'property' we've talked so much about."
Emily said—well, the first thing she said was, "Oh, Aunt Thankful!" Then she added that she couldn't believe it.
"It's so," declared Mrs. Barnes, "whether we believe it or not. When you come to think it over there's nothin' so wonderful about it, after all. I had a sneakin' suspicion when I was sittin' here by you, after you'd gone to sleep. What I saw afterwards made me almost sure. I—Hum! I guess likely that'll keep till we get to the hotel, if we ever do get there. Perhaps Mr.—Mr.—"
"Bangs is my name, ma'am," said the big man with the lantern. "Obed Bangs."
"Thank you, Mr. Bangs. Or it's 'Cap'n Bangs,' ain't it?"
"They generally call me Cap'n, ma'am, though I ain't been doin' any active seafarin' for some time."
"I thought as much. Down here on Cape Cod, and givin' orders the way I heard you afore you come into this room, 'twas nine chances to one you was a cap'n, or you had been one. Bangs—Bangs—Obed Bangs? Why, that name sounds kind of familiar. Seems as if—Cap'n Bangs, you didn't use to know Eben Barnes of Provincetown, did you?"
"Eben Barnes? Cap'n Eben of the White Foam, lost off Cape Hatteras in a gale?"
"Yes, that's the one. I thought I heard him speak of you. He was my husband."
Captain Obed Bangs uttered an exclamation. Then he stepped forward and seized Mrs. Barnes' hand. The lady's hand was not a very small one but the Captain's was so large that, as Thankful remarked afterward, it might have shaken hers twice at the same time.
"Eben Barnes' wife!" exclaimed Captain Obed. "Why, Eben and I was messmates on I don't know how many v'yages! Well, well, well, ma'am, I'm real glad to see you."
"You ain't so glad as we are to see you—and your friend," observed Thankful, drily. "Is he a captain, too?"
He didn't look like one, certainly. He had removed his sou'wester, uncovering a round head, with reddish-gray hair surrounding a bald spot at the crown. He had a double chin and a smile which was apologetic but ingratiating. He seemed less frightened than when he first entered the room, but still glanced about him with evident apprehension.
"No—no, ma'am," he stammered, in answer to the question. "No, ma'am, I—I—my name's Parker. I—I ain't a cap'n; no, ma'am."
"Kenelm ain't been promoted yet," observed Captain Obed gravely. "He's waitin' until he get's old enough to go to sea. Ain't that it, Kenelm?"
Kenelm smiled and shifted his sou'wester from his right hand to his left.
"I—I cal'late so," he answered.
"Well, it don't make any difference," declared Thankful. "My cousin and I are just as glad to see him as if he was an admiral. We've been waitin' so long to see any human bein' that we'd begun to think they was all drowned. But you haven't met my cousin yet. Her name's Howes."
Emily, who had stood by, patient but chilly, during the introductions and reminiscences, shook hands with Captain Bangs and Mr. Parker. Both gentlemen said they were pleased to meet her; no, Captain Obed said that—Kenelm said that he was "glad to be acquaintanced."
"I don't know as we hadn't ought to beg your pardon for creepin' in on you this way," said the captain. "We thought the house was empty. We didn't know you was visitin' your—your property."
"Well, so far as that goes, neither did we. I don't wonder you expected to find burglars or tramps or whatever you did expect. We've had an awful time this night, ain't we, Emily?"
"We certainly have," declared Miss Howes, with emphasis.
"Yes, you see—"
She gave a brief history of the cruise and wreck of the depot-wagon. Also of their burglarious entry of the house.
"And now, Cap'n," she said, in conclusion, "if you could think up any way of our gettin' to that hotel, we'd be ever so much obliged. . . . Hello! There's that driver, I do believe! And about time, I should say!"
From without came the sound of wheels and the voice of Winnie S., hailing his missing passengers.
"Hi! Hi-i! Where be ye?"
"He'll wear his lungs out, screamin' that way," snapped Thankful. "Can't he see the light, for goodness sakes?"
Captain Obed answered. "He couldn't see nothin' unless 'twas hung on the end of his nose," he said. "That boy's eyes and brains ain't connected. Here, Kenelm," turning to Mr. Parker, "you go out and tell Win to shut down on his fog whistle; he's wastin' steam. Tell him the women-folks are in here. Look alive, now!"
Kenelm looked alive, but not much more than that.
"All right, Cap'n," he stammered. "A—a—all right. What—what—shall I say—what shall I—had I better—"
"Thunderation! Do you need a chart and compass? Stay where you are. I'll say it myself."
He strode to the window, threw it open, and shouted in a voice which had been trained to carry above worse gales than the present one:
"Ahoy! Ahoy! Win! Fetch her around aft here. Lay alongside the kitchen door! D'you hear? Ahoy! Win! d'you hear?"
Silence. Then, after a moment, came the reply. "Yup, I hear ye. Be right there."
The captain turned from the window.
"Took some time for him to let us know he heard, didn't it," he observed. "Cal'late he had to say 'Judas priest' four or five times afore he answered. If you cut all the 'Judas priests' out of that boy's talk he'd be next door to tongue-tied."
Thankful turned to her relative.
"There, Emily," she said, with a sigh of relief. "I guess likely we'll make the hotel this tack. I begun to think we never would."
Captain Bangs shook his head.
"You won't go to no hotel this night," he said, decidedly. "It's a long ways off and pretty poor harbor after you make it. You'll come right along with me and Kenelm to his sister's house. It's only a little ways and Hannah's got a spare room and she'll be glad to have you. I'm boardin' there myself just now. Yes, you will," he added. "Of course you will. Suppose I'm goin' to let relations of Eben Barnes put up at the East Wellmouth tavern? By the everlastin', I guess not! I wouldn't send a—a Democrat there. Come right along! Don't say another word."
Both of the ladies said other words, a good many of them, but they might as well have been orders to the wind to stop blowing. Captain Obed Bangs was, evidently, a person accustomed to having his own way. Even as they were still protesting their new acquaintance led them to the kitchen door, where Winnie S. and a companion, a long-legged person who answered to the name of "Jabez," were waiting on the front seat of a vehicle attached to a dripping and dejected horse. To the rear of this vehicle "General Jackson" was tethered by a halter. Winnie S. was loaded to the guards with exclamatory explanations.
"Judas priest!" he exclaimed, as the captain assisted Mrs. Barnes and Emily into the carriage. "If I ain't glad to see you folks! When I got back here and there wa'n't a sign of you nowheres, I was took some off my pins, I tell ye. Didn't know what to do. I says to Jabez, I says—"
Captain Obed interrupted. "Never mind what you said to Jabez, Win," he said. "Why didn't you get back sooner? That's what we want to know."
Winnie S. was righteously indignant. "Sooner!" he repeated. "Judas priest! I tell ye right now I'm lucky to get back at all. Took me pretty nigh an hour to get to the village. Such travelin' I never see. Tried to save time by takin' the short cut acrost the meadow, and there ain't no meadow no more. It's three foot under water. You never see such a tide. So back I had to frog it and when I got far as Jabe's house all hands had turned in. I had to pretty nigh bust the door down 'fore I could wake anybody up. Then Jabe he had to get dressed and we had to harness up and—hey? Did you say anything, ma'am?"
The question was addressed to Mrs. Barnes, who had been vainly trying to ask one on her own account.
"I say have you got our valises?" asked Thankful. "Last I saw of them they was in that other wagon, the one that broke down."
The driver slapped his knee. "Judas priest!" he cried. "I forgot all about them satchels. Here, Jabe," handing the reins to his companion. "You take the hellum while I run back and fetch 'em."
He was back in a few moments with the missing satchels. Then Jabez, who was evidently not given to wasting words, drawled: "Did you get the mail? That's in there, too, ain't it?"
"Judas priest! So 'tis. Why didn't you remind me of it afore? Set there like—like a wooden figurehead and let me run my legs off—"
His complaints died away in the distance. At last, with the mail bag under the seat, the caravan moved on. It was still raining, but not so hard, and the wind blew less fiercely. They jogged and rocked and splashed onward. Suddenly Winnie S. uttered another shout.
"The lantern!" he cried. "Where's that lantern I lent ye?"
"It's there in the house," said Thankful. "It burned itself out and I forgot it. Mercy on us! You're not goin' back after that, I hope."
"Well, I dunno. That lantern belongs to the old man—dad, I mean—and he sets a lot of store by it. If I've lost that lantern on him, let alone leavin' his depot-wagon all stove up, he'll give me—"
"Never mind what he'll give you," broke in Captain Bangs. "You keep on your course or I'LL give you somethin'. Don't you say another word till we get abreast of Hannah Parker's."
"Humph! We're there now. I thought these folks was goin' to our hotel."
"Take my advice and don't think so much. You'll open a seam in your head and founder, first thing you know. Here we are! And here's Hannah! Hannah, Kenelm and I've brought you a couple of lodgers. Now, ma'am, if you'll stand by. Kenelm, open that hatch."
Mr. Parker opened the hatch—the door of the carriage—and the captain assisted the passengers to alight. Emily caught a glimpse of the white front of a little house and of a tall, angular woman standing in the doorway holding a lamp. Then she and Mrs. Barnes were propelled by the strong arms of their pilot through that doorway and into a little sitting-room, bright and warm and cheery.
"There!" declared Captain Obed. "That cruise is over. Kenelm! Where is Kenelm? Oh, there you are! You tell that Winnie S. to trot along. We'll settle for passage tomorrow mornin'. Now, ma'am," turning to Thankful, "you and your relation want to make yourselves as comf'table as you can. This is Miss Parker, Kenelm's sister. Hannah, this is Mrs. Barnes, Eben Barnes' widow. You've heard me speak of him. And this is Miss Howes. I cal'late they're hungry and I know they're wet. Seems's if dry clothes and supper might be the next items on the manifest."
Miss Parker rose to the occasion. She flew about preparing the "items." Thankful and Emily were shown to the spare room, hot water and towels were provided, the valise was brought in. When the ladies again made their appearance in the sitting-room, they were arrayed in dry, warm garments, partly their own and partly supplied from the wardrobe of their hostess. As to the fit of these latter, Mrs. Barnes expressed her opinion when she said:
"Don't look at me, Emily. I feel like a barrel squeezed into an umbrella cover. This dress is long enough, land knows, but that's about all you can say of it. However, I suppose we hadn't ought to—to look a gift dress in the waistband."
Supper was ready in the dining-room and thither they were piloted by Kenelm, whose hair, what there was of it, was elaborately "slicked down," and whose celluloid collar had evidently received a scrubbing. In the dining-room they found Captain Bangs awaiting them. Miss Parker made her appearance bearing a steaming teapot. Hannah, now that they had an opportunity to inspect her, was seen to be as tall and sharp-featured as her brother was short and round. She was at least fifteen years older than he, but she moved much more briskly. Also she treated Kenelm as she might have treated a child, an only child who needed constant suppression.
"Please to be seated, everybody," she said. "Cap'n Obed, you take your reg'lar place. Mrs. Barnes, if you'll be so kind as to set here, and Miss Howes next to you. Kenelm, you set side of me. Set down, don't stand there fidgetin'. WHAT did you put on that necktie for? I told you to put on the red one."
Kenelm fingered his tie. "I—I cal'late I must have forgot, Hannah," he stammered. "I never noticed. This one's all right, ain't it?"
"All right! It'll have to be. You can't change it now. But, for goodness sakes, look out it stays on. The elastic's all worn loose and it's li'ble to drop into your tea or anywheres else. Now," with a sudden change from a family to a "company" manner, "may I assist you to a piece of the cold ham, Miss Howes? I trust you are feelin' quite restored to yourself again?"
Emily's answer being in the affirmative, their hostess continued:
"I'm so sorry to be obliged to set nothin' but cold ham and toast and tea before you," she said. "If I had known you was comin' I should have prepared somethin' more fittin'. After such an experience as you must have been through this night to set down to ham and toast! I—I declare I feel real debilitated and ashamed to offer 'em to you."
"Don't say a word, Miss Parker," she said, heartily. "We're the ones that ought to be ashamed. Landin' on you this way in the middle of the night. You're awfully good to take us in at all. My cousin and I were on our way to the hotel, but Cap'n Bangs wouldn't hear of it. He's responsible for our comin' here."
Miss Parker nodded.
"Cap'n Obed is the most hospital soul livin'," she said, grandly. "He done just right. If he'd done anything else Kenelm and I would have felt hurt. I—Look out!" with a sudden snatch at her brother's shirt front. "There goes that tie. Another second and 'twould have been right in your plate."
Kenelm snapped the loop of the "made" tie over his collar button. "Don't grab at me that way, Hannah," he protested mildly. "I'm kind of nervous tonight, after what I've been through. 'Twouldn't have done no great harm if I had dropped it. I could pick it up again, couldn't I?"
"You could, but I doubt if you would. You might have ate it, you're so absent-minded. Nervous! YOU nervous! What do you think of me? Mrs. Barnes," turning to Thankful and once more resuming the "company" manner, "you'll excuse our bein' a little upset. You see, when my brother came home and said he'd seen lights movin' around in the old Barnes' house, he frightened us all pretty near to death. All Cap'n Obed could think of was tramps, or thieves or somethin'. Nothin' would do but he must drag Kenelm right back to see who or what was in there. And I was left alone to imagine all sorts of dreadful things. Tramps I might stand. They belong to this world, anyhow. But in THAT house, at eleven o'clock at night, I—Mrs. Barnes, do you believe in aberrations?"
Thankful was nonplused. "In—in which?" she asked.
"In aberrations, spirits of dead folks comin' alive again?"
For just a moment Mrs. Barnes hesitated. Then she glanced at Emily, who was trying hard not to smile, and answered, with decision: "No, I don't."
"Well, I don't either, so far as that goes. I never see one myself, and I've never seen anybody that has. But when Kenelm came tearin' in to say he'd seen a light in a house shut up as long as that one has been, and a house that folks—"
Captain Bangs interrupted. He had been regarding Thankful closely and now he changed the subject.
"How did it happen you saw that light, Kenelm?" he asked. "What was you doin' over in that direction a night like this?"
Kenelm hesitated. He seemed to find it difficult to answer.
"Why—why—" he stammered, "I'd been up to the office after the mail. And—and—it was so late comin' that I give it up. I says to Lemuel Ryder, 'Lem,' I says—"
His sister broke in.
"Lem Ryder!" she repeated. "Was he at the post-office?"
"Well—well—" Kenelm's confusion was more marked than ever. "Well—well—" he stammered, "I see him, and I says—"
"You see him! Where did you see him? Kenelm Parker, I don't believe you was at the postoffice at all. You was at the clubroom, that's where you was. At that clubroom, smokin' and playin' cards with that deprivated crowd of loafers and gamblers. Tell me the truth, now, wasn't you?"
Mr. Parker's tie fell off then, but neither he nor his sister noticed it.
"Gamblers!" he snorted. "There ain't no gamblers there. Playin' a hand or two of Californy Jack just for fun ain't gamblin'. I wouldn't gamble, not for a million dollars."
Captain Obed laughed. "Neither would I," he observed. "Nor for two cents, with that clubroom gang; 'twould be too much nerve strain collectin' my winnin's. I see now why you come by the Barnes' house, Kenelm. It's the nighest way home from that clubhouse. Well, I'm glad you did. Mrs. Barnes and Miss Howes would have had a long session in the dark if you hadn't. Yes, and a night at Darius Holt's hotel, which would have been a heap worse. So you've been livin' at South Middleboro, Mrs. Barnes, have you? Does Miss Howes live there, too?"
Thankful, very grateful for the change of topic, told of her life since her husband's death, of her long stay with Mrs. Pearson, of Emily's teaching school, and their trip aboard the depot-wagon.
"Well," exclaimed Miss Parker, when she had finished, "you have been through enough, I should say! A reg'lar story-book adventure, ain't it? Lost in a storm and shut up in an empty house, the one you come purpose to see. It's a mercy you wa'n't either of you hurt, climbin' in that window the way you did. You might have broke your arms or your necks or somethin'. Mr. Alpheus Bassett, down to the Point—a great, strong, fleshy man, weighs close to two hundred and fifty and never sick a day in his life—he was up in the second story of his buildin' walkin' around spry as anybody—all alone, which he shouldn't have been at his age—and he stepped on a fish and away he went. And the next thing we hear he's in bed with his collar-bone. Did you ever hear anything like that in your life, Miss Howes?"
It was plain that Emily never had. "I—I'm afraid I don't understand," she faltered. "You say he was in the second story of a building and he stepped on—on a FISH?"
"Yes, just a mackerel 'twas, and not a very big one, they tell me. At first they was afraid 'twas the spine he'd broke, but it turned out to be only the collar-bone, though that's bad enough."
Captain Obed burst into a laugh. "'Twa'n't the mackerel's collar-bone, Miss Howes," he explained, "though I presume likely that was broke, too, if Alpheus stepped on it. He was up in the loft of his fish shanty icin' and barrelin' fish to send to Boston, and he fell downstairs. Wonder it didn't kill him."
Miss Parker nodded. "That's what I say," she declared. "And Sarah—that's his wife—tells me the doctors are real worried because the fraction ain't ignited yet."
Thankful coughed and then observed that she should think they would be.
"If you don't mind," she added, "I think it's high time all hands went to bed. It must be way along into the small hours and if we set here any longer it'll be time for breakfast. You folks must be tired, settin' up this way and I'm sure Emily and I am. If we turn in now we may have a chance to look over that precious property of mine afore we go back to South Middleboro. I don't know, though, as we haven't seen enough of it already. It don't look very promisin' to me."
The captain rose from the table and, walking to the window, pushed aside the shade.
"It'll look better tomorrow—today, I should say," he observed. "The storm's about over, and the wind's hauled to the west'ard. We'll have a spell of fair weather now, I guess. That property of yours, Mrs. Barnes, 'll look a lot more promisin' in the sunshine. There's no better view along shore than from the front windows of that house. 'Tain't half bad, that old house ain't. All it needs is fixin' up."
Good nights—good mornings, for it was after two o'clock—were said and the guests withdrew to their bedroom. Once inside, with the door shut, Thankful and Emily looked at each other and both burst out laughing.
"Oh, dear me!" gasped the former, wiping her eyes. "Maybe it's mean to laugh at folks that's been as kind to us as these Parkers have been, but I never had such a job keepin' a straight face in my life. When she said she was 'debilitated' at havin' to give us ham and toast that was funny enough, but what come afterwards was funnier. The 'fraction' ain't 'ignited' yet and the doctors are worried. I should think they'd be more worried if it had."
Emily shook her head. "I am glad I didn't have to answer that remark, Auntie," she said. "I never could have done it without disgracing myself. She is a genuine Mrs. Malaprop, isn't she?"
This was a trifle too deep for Mrs. Barnes, who replied that she didn't know, she having never met the Mrs. What's-her-name to whom her cousin referred. "She's a genuine curiosity, this Parker woman, if that's what you mean, Emily," she said. "And so's her brother, though a different kind of one. We must get Cap'n Bangs to tell us more about 'em in the mornin'. He thinks that—that heirloom house of mine will look better in the daylight. Well, I hope he's right; it looked hopeless enough tonight, what I could see of it."
"I like that Captain Bangs," observed Emily.
"So do I. It seems as if we'd known him for ever so long. And how his salt-water talk does take me back. Seems as if I was hearin' my father and Uncle Abner—yes, and Eben, too—speakin'. And it is so sort of good and natural to be callin' somebody 'Cap'n.' I was brought up amongst cap'ns and I guess I've missed 'em more'n I realized. Now you must go to sleep; you'll need all the sleep you can get, and that won't be much. Good night."
"Good night," said Emily, sleepily. A few minutes later she said: "Auntie, what did become of that lantern our driver was so anxious about? The last I saw of it it was on the floor by the sofa where I was lying. But I didn't seem to remember it after the captain and Mr. Parker came."
Mrs. Barnes' reply was, if not prompt, at least conclusive.
"It's over there somewhere," she said. "The light went out, but it ain't likely the lantern went with it. Now you go to sleep."
Miss Howes obeyed. She was asleep very soon thereafter. But Thankful lay awake, thinking and wondering—yes, and dreading. What sort of a place was this she had inherited? She distinctly did not believe in what Hannah Parker had called "aberrations," but she had heard something—something strange and inexplicable in that little back bedroom. The groans might have been caused by the gale, but no gale spoke English, or spoke at all, for that matter. Who, or what, was it that had said "Oh Lord!" in the darkness and solitude of that bedroom?
Thankful opened her eyes. The sunlight was streaming in at the window. Beneath that window hens were clucking noisily. Also in the room adjoining someone was talking, protesting.
"I don't know, Hannah," said Mr. Parker's voice. "I tell you I don't know where it is. If I knew I'd tell you, wouldn't I? I don't seem to remember what I done with it."
"Well, then, you've got to set down and not stir till you do remember, that's all. When you went out of this house last evenin' to go to the postoffice—Oh, yes! To the postoffice—that's where you said you was goin'—you had the lantern and that umbrella. When you came back, hollerin' about the light you see in the Cap'n Abner house, you had the lantern. But the umbrella you didn't have. Now where is it?"
"I don't know, Hannah. I—I—do seem to remember havin' had it, but—"
"Well, I'm glad you remember that much. You lost one of your mittens, too, but 'twas an old one, so I don't mind that so much. But that umbrella was your Christmas present and 'twas good gloria silk with a real gilt-plated handle. I paid two dollars and a quarter for that umbrella, and I told you never to take it out in a storm because you were likely to turn it inside out and spile it. If I'd seen you take it last night I'd have stopped you, but you was gone afore I missed it."
"But—but, consarn it all, Hannah—"
"Don't swear, Kenelm. Profanity won't help you none."
"I wa'n't swearin'. All I say is what's the use of an umbrella if you can't hist it in a storm? I wouldn't give a darn for a schooner load of 'em when 'twas fair weather. I—I cal'late I—I left it somewheres."
"I cal'late you did. I'm goin' over to the village this mornin' and I'll stop in at that clubhouse, myself."
"I—I don't believe it's at the clubhouse, Hannah."
"You don't? Why don't you?"
"I—I don't know. I just guess it ain't, that's all. Somethin' seems to tell me 'tain't."
"Oh, it does, hey? I want to know! Hum! Was you anywheres else last night? Answer me the truth now, Kenelm Parker. Was you anywheres else last night?"
"Anywheres else. What do you mean by that?"
"I mean what I say. You know what I mean well enough. Was you—well, was you callin' on anybody?"
"Callin' on anybody? CALLIN' on 'em?"
"Yes, callin' on 'em. Oh, you needn't look so innocent and buttery! You ain't above it. Ain't I had experience? Haven't I been through it? Didn't you use to say that I, your sister that's been a mother to you, was the only woman in this world for you, and then, the minute I was out of sight and hardly out of hearin', you—"
"My soul! You've got Abbie Larkin in your head again, ain't you? It—it—I swear it's a reg'lar disease with you, seems so. Ain't I told you I ain't seen Abbie Larkin, nor her me, for the land knows how long? And I don't want to see her. My time! Do you suppose I waded and paddled a mile and a quarter down to call on Abbie Larkin a night like last night? What do you think I am—a bull frog? I wouldn't do it to see the—the Queen of Rooshy."
This vehement outburst seemed to have some effect. Miss Parker's tone was more conciliatory.
"Well, all right," she said. "I s'pose likely you didn't call on her, if you say so, Kenelm. I suppose I am a foolish, lone woman. But, O Kenelm, I do think such a sight of you. And you know you've got money and that Abbie Larkin is so worldly she'd marry you for it in a minute. I didn't know but you might have met her."
"Met her! Tut—tut—tut! If that ain't—and in a typhoon like last night! Oh, sartin, I met her! I was up here on top of Meetin'-house Hill, larnin' her to swim in the mud puddles. You do talk so silly sometimes, Hannah."
"Maybe I do," with a sniff. "Maybe I do, Kenelm, but you mean so much to me. I just can't let you go."
"Go! I ain't goin' nowheres, am I? What kind of talk's that?"
"And to think you'd heave away that umbrella—the umbrella I gave you! That's what makes me feel so bad. A nice, new, gilt-plated umbrella—"
"I never hove it away. I—I—well, I left it somewheres, I—I cal'late. I'll go look for it after breakfast. Say, when are we goin' to have breakfast, anyhow? It's almost eight o'clock now. Ain't them women-folks EVER goin' to turn out?"
Thankful had heard enough. She was out of bed the next instant.
"Emily! Emily!" she cried. "It's late. We must get up now."
The voices in the sitting-room died to whispers.
"I—I can't help it," pleaded Kenelm. "I never meant nothin'. I thought they was asleep. And 'TIS most eight. By time, Hannah, you do pick on me—"
A vigorous "Sshh!" interrupted him. The door between the sitting-room and dining-room closed with a slam. Mrs. Barnes and Emily dressed hurriedly.
They gathered about the breakfast table, the Parkers, Captain Obed and the guests. Miss Parker's "company manner" was again much in evidence and she seemed to feel it her duty to lead the conversation. She professed to have discovered a striking resemblance between Miss Howes and a deceased relative of her own named Melinda Ellis.
"The more I see of you, Miss Howes," she declared, "the more I can't help thinkin' of poor Melindy. She was pretty and had dark eyes and hair same's you've got, and that same sort of—of consumptic look to her. Not that you've got consumption, I don't mean that. Only you look the way she done, that's all. She did have consumption, poor thing. Everybody thought she'd die of it, but she didn't. She got up in the night to take some medicine and she took the wrong kind—toothache lotion it was and awful powerful—and it ate right through to her diagram. She didn't live long afterwards, poor soul."
No one said anything for a moment after this tragic recital. Then Captain Bangs observed cheerfully:
"Well, I guess Miss Howes ain't likely to drink any toothache lotion."
Hannah nodded sedately. "I trust not," she said. "But accidents do happen. And Melindy and Miss Howes look awful like each other. You're real well, I hope, Miss Howes. After bein' exposed the way you was last night I HOPE you haven't caught cold. You never can tell what'll follow a cold—with some people."
Thankful was glad when the meal was over. She, too, was fearful that her cousin might have taken cold during the wet chill of the previous night. But Emily declared she was very well indeed; that the very sight of the sunlit sea through the dining-room windows had acted like a tonic.
"Good enough!" exclaimed Captain Obed, heartily. "Then we ought to be gettin' a bigger dose of that tonic. Mrs. Barnes, if you and Miss Howes would like to walk over and have a look at that property of yours, now's as good a time as any to be doin' it. I'll go along with you if I won't be in the way."
Thankful looked down rather doubtfully at the borrowed gown she was wearing, but Miss Parker came to the rescue by announcing that her guests' own garments must be dry by this time, they had been hanging by the stove all night. So, after the change had been made, the two left the Parker residence and took the foot-path at the top of the bluff. Captain Obed seemed at first rather uneasy.
"Hope I ain't hurryin' you too much," he said. "I thought maybe it would be just as well to get out of sight of Hannah as quick as possible. She might take a notion to come with us. I thought sure Kenelm would, but he's gone on a cruise of his own somewheres. He hustled outdoor soon as breakfast was over."
Emily burst out laughing. "Excuse me, please," she said, "but I've been dying to do this for so long. That—that Miss Parker is the oddest person!"
The captain grinned. "Thinkin' about that 'diagram' yarn?" he asked. "'Tis funny when you hear it the first four or five times. Hannah Parker can get more wrong words in the right places than anybody I ever run across. She must have swallowed a dictionary some time or 'nother, but it ain't digested well, I'm afraid."
Thankful laughed, too. "You must find her pretty amusin', Cap'n Bangs," she said.
The captain shook his head. "She's a reg'lar dime show," he observed. Then he added: "Only trouble with that kind of a show is it gets kind of tiresome when you have to set through it all winter. There! now you can see your property, Mrs. Barnes, and ten mile either side of it. Look's some more lifelike and cheerful than it did last night, don't it?"
It most assuredly did. They had reached the summit of a little hill and before and behind and beneath them was a view of shore and sea that caused Emily to utter an exclamation of delight.
"Oh!" she cried. "WHAT a view! What a wonderful view!"
Behind them, beyond the knoll upon which stood the little Parker house which they had just left, at the further side of the stretch of salt meadow with the creek and bridge, was East Wellmouth village. Along the white sand of the beach, now garlanded with lines of fresh seaweed torn up and washed ashore by the gale, were scattered a half dozen fishhouses, with dories and lobster pots before them, and at the rear of these began the gray and white huddle of houses and stores, with two white church spires and the belfry of the schoolhouse rising above their roofs.
At their right, only a few yards from the foot-path where they stood, the high sand bluff broke sharply down to the beach and the sea. The great waves, tossing their white plumes on high, came marching majestically in, to trip, topple and fall, one after the other, in roaring, hissing Niagaras upon the shore. Over their raveled crests the gulls dipped and soared. The air was clear, the breeze keen and refreshing and the salty smell of the torn seaweed rose to the nostrils of the watchers.
To the left were barren hills, dotted with scrub, and farther on the pine groves, with the road from Wellmouth Centre winding out from their midst.
All these things Thankful and Emily noticed, but it was on the prospect directly ahead that their interest centered. For there, upon the slope of the next knoll stood the "property" they had come to see and to which they had been introduced in such an odd fashion.
Seen by daylight and in the glorious sunshine the old Barnes house did look, as their guide said, more "lifelike and cheerful." A big, rambling, gray-gabled affair, of colonial pattern, a large yard before it and a larger one behind, the tumble-down shed in which General Jackson had been tethered, a large barn, also rather tumble-down, with henhouses and corncribs beside it and attached to it in haphazard fashion. In the front yard were overgrown clusters of lilac and rose bushes and, behind the barn, was the stubble of a departed garden. Thankful looked at all these.
"So that's it," she said.
"That's it," said Captain Obed. "What do you think of it?"
"Humph! Well, there's enough of it, anyhow, as the little boy said about the spring medicine. What do you think, Emily?"
Emily's answer was prompt and emphatic.
"I like it," she declared. "It looks so different this morning. Last night it seemed lonesome and pokey and horrid, but now it is almost inviting. Think what it must be in the spring and summer. Think of opening those upper windows on a summer morning and looking out and away for miles and miles. It would be splendid!"
"Um—yes. But spring and summer don't last all the time. There's December and January and February to think of. Even March ain't all joy; we've got last night to prove it by. However, it doesn't look quite so desperate as I thought it might; I'll give in to that. Last night I was about ready to sell it for the price of a return ticket to South Middleboro. Now I guess likely I ought to get a few tradin' stamps along with the ticket. Humph! This sartin isn't ALL Poverty Lane, is it? THAT place wa'n't built with tradin' stamps. Who lives there?"
She was pointing to the estate adjoining the Barnes house and fronting the sea further on. "Estate" is a much abused term and is sometimes applied to rather insignificant holdings, but this one deserved the name. Great stretches of lawns and shrubbery, ornamental windmill, greenhouses, stables, drives and a towered and turreted mansion dominating all.
"I seem to have aristocratic neighbors, anyhow," observed Mrs. Barnes. "Whose tintype belongs in THAT gilt frame?"
Captain Obed chuckled at the question.
"Why, nobody's just now," he said. "There was one up to last fall, though I shouldn't have called him a tintype. More of a panorama, if you asked me—or him, either. That place belonged to our leadin' summer resident, Mr. Hamilton Colfax, of New York. There's a good view from there, too, but not as fine as this one of yours, Mrs. Barnes. When your uncle, Cap'n Abner, bought this old house it used to set over on a part of that land there. The cap'n didn't like the outlook so well as the one from here, so he bought this strip and moved the house down. Quite a job movin' a house as old as this one.
"Mr. Colfax died last October," he added, "and the place is for sale. Good deal of a shock, his death was, to East Wellmouth. Kind of like takin' away the doughnut and leavin' nothin' but the hole. The Wellmouth Weekly Advocate pretty nigh gave up the ghost when Mr. Colfax did. It always cal'lated on fillin' at least three columns with the doin's of the Colfaxes and their 'house parties' and such. All summer it told what they did do and all winter it guessed what they was goin' to do. It ain't been much more than a patent medicine advertisin' circular since the blow struck. Well, have you looked enough? Shall we heave ahead and go aboard your craft, Mrs. Barnes?"
They walked on, down the little hill and up the next, and entered the front yard of the Barnes house. There were the marks in the mud and sand where the depot-wagon had overturned, but the wagon itself was gone. "Cal'late Winnie S. and his dad come around early and towed it home," surmised Captain Obed. "Seemed to me I smelled sulphur when I opened my bedroom window this mornin'. Guess 'twas a sort of floatin' memory of old man Holt's remarks when he went by. That depot-wagon was an antique and antiques are valuable these days. Want to go inside, do you?"
Thankful hesitated. "I haven't got the key," she said. "I suppose it's at that Badger man's in the village. You know who I mean, Cap'n Bangs."
The captain nodded.
"Christopher S. H. Badger, tinware, groceries, real estate, boots and shoes, and insurance," he said. "Likewise justice of the peace and first mate of all creation. Yes, I know Chris."
"Well, he's been in charge of this property of mine. He collected the rent from that Mr. Eldredge who used to live here. I had a good many letters from him, mainly about paintin' and repairs."
"Um—hum; I ain't surprised. Chris sells paint as well as tea and tinware. He's got the key, has he?"
"I suppose he has. I ought to have gone up and got it from him."
"Well, I wouldn't fret about it. Of course we can't go in the front door like the minister and weddin' company, but the kitchen door was unfastened last night and I presume likely it's that way now. You haven't any objection to the kitchen door, have you? When old Laban lived here it's a safe bet he never used any other. Cur'ous old critter, he was."
They entered by the kitchen door. The inside of the house, like the outside, was transformed by day and sunshine. The rooms downstairs were large and well lighted, and, in spite of their emptiness, they seemed almost cheerful.
"Whose furniture is this?" asked Thankful, referring to the stove and chair and sofa in the dining-room.
"Laban's; that is, it used to be. When he died he didn't have chick nor child nor relation, so fur's anybody knew, and his stuff stayed right here. There wa'n't very much of it. That is—" He hesitated.
"But, there must have been more than this," said Thankful. "What, became of it?"
Captain Obed shook his head. "You might ask Chris Badger," he suggested. "Chris sells antiques on the side—the high side."
"Did old Mr. Eldredge live here ALL alone?" asked Emily.
"Yup. And died all alone, too. Course I don't mean he was alone all the time he was sick. Most of that time he was out of his head and folks could stay with him, but he came to himself occasional and when he did he'd fire 'em out because feedin' 'em cost money. He wa'n't what you'd call generous, Laban wa'n't."
"Where did he die?" asked Thankful, who was looking out of the window.
"Upstairs in the little back bedroom. Smallest room in the house 'tis, and folks used to say he slept there 'cause he could heat it by his cussin' instead of a stove. 'Most always cussin', he was—cussin' and groanin'."
Thankful was silent. Emily said: "Groaning? You mean he groaned when he was ill?"
"Yes, and when he was well, too. A habit of his, groanin' was. I don't know why he done it—see himself in the lookin'-glass, maybe; that was enough to make anybody groan. He'd groan in his sleep—or snore—or both. He was the noisiest sleeper ever I set up with. Shall we go upstairs?"
The narrow front stairs creaked as loudly in the daytime as they had on the previous night, but the long hall on the upper floor was neither dark nor terrifying. Nevertheless it was with just a suspicion of dread that Mrs. Barnes approached the large room at the end of the hall and the small one adjoining it. Her common-sense had returned and she was naturally brave, but an experience such as hers had been is not forgotten in a few hours. However, she was determined that no one should know her feelings; therefore she was the first to enter the little room.
"Here's where Laban bunked," said the captain. "You'd think with all the big comf'table bedrooms to choose from he wouldn't pick out this two-by-four, would you? But he did, probably because nobody else would. He was a contrary old rooster, and odd as Dick's hat-band."
Thankful was listening, although not to their guide's remarks. She was listening for sounds such as she had heard—or thought she had heard—on the occasion of her previous visit to that room. But there were no such sounds. There was the bed, the patchwork comforter, the chair and the pictures on the walls, but when she approached that bed there came no disturbing groans. And, by day, the memory of her fright seemed absolutely ridiculous. For at least the tenth time she solemnly resolved that no one should ever know how foolish she had been.
Emily uttered an exclamation and pointed.
"Why, Auntie!" she cried. "Isn't that—where did that lantern come from?"
Captain Obed looked where she was pointing. He stepped forward and picked up the overturned lantern.
"That's Darius Holt's lantern, I do believe," he declared. "The one Winnie S. was makin' such a fuss about last night. How in the nation did it get up here?"
Thankful laughed. "I brought it up," she said. "I come on a little explorin' cruise when Emily dropped asleep on that sittin'-room lounge, but I hadn't much more'n got in here when the pesky thing went out. You ought to have seen me hurryin' along that hall to get down before you woke up, Emily. No, come to think of it, you couldn't have seen me—'twas too dark to see anything. . . . Well," she added, quickly, in order to head off troublesome questioning, "we've looked around here pretty well. What else is there to see?"
They visited the garret and the cellar; both were spacious and not too clean.
"If I ever come here to live," declared Thankful, with decision, "there'll be some dustin' and sweepin' done, I know that."
Emily looked at her in surprise.
"Come here to live!" she repeated. "Why, Auntie, are you thinking of coming here to live?"
Her cousin's answer was not very satisfactory. "I've been thinkin' a good many things lately," she said. "Some of 'em was even more crazy than that sounds."
The inside of the house having been thus thoroughly inspected they explored the yard and the outbuildings. The barn was a large one, with stalls for two horses and a cow and a carriage-room with the remnants of an old-fashioned carryall in it.
"This is about the way it used to be in Cap'n Abner's day," said Captain Obed. "That carryall belonged to your uncle, the cap'n, Mrs. Barnes. The boys have had it out for two or three Fourth of July Antiques and Horribles' parades; 'twon't last for many more by the looks of it."
"And what," asked Thankful, "is that? It looks like a pigsty."
They were standing at the rear of the house, which was built upon a slope. Under the washshed, which adjoined the kitchen, was a rickety door. Beside that door was a boarded enclosure which extended both into the yard and beneath the washshed.
Captain Bangs laughed. "You've guessed it, first crack," he said. "It is a pigpen. Some of Laban's doin's, that is. He used to keep a pig and 'twas too much trouble to travel way out back of the barn to feed it, so Labe rigged up this contraption. That door leads into the potato cellar. Labe fenced off half the cellar to make a stateroom for the pig. He thought as much of that hog as if 'twas his own brother, and there WAS a sort of family likeness."
Thankful snorted. "A pigsty under the house!" she said. "Well, that's all I want to know about THAT man!"
As they were returning along the foot-path by the bluff Captain Obed, who had been looking over his shoulder, suddenly stopped.