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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Room with the Tassels By Carolyn Wells Characters: 18738

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Black Aspens

Though mid-July, it was a chilly dusk through which the two motor cars ascended the last stretch of mountain road toward the old Montgomery mansion. The sun set early behind the Green Mountains and the house, half-way up an eastern slope, appeared faintly through the shadows.

To the right, tall forest trees waved their topmost branches with an eerie, soughing sound, or stood, menacingly silent, in black, sullen majesty. Beneath them a tangled underbrush gave forth faint, rustling hints of some wild life or suddenly ceased to a grim stillness.

Then the road lay through a thick grove of aspens, close, black and shivering as they stood, sentinel like and fearsome, only dimly outlined against the dark, clouded sky. Once in the grove, the shadows were dense, and the quivering sounds seemed intensified to a muttered protest against intrusion. A strange bird gave forth a few raucous notes, and then the dread silence returned.

A quick, damp chill foreboded still water and the road followed the margin of a small lake or pond, sinister in its inky depths, which mirrored the still blacker aspen trees.

Suddenly, in a small clearing, they came upon the house. In the uncertain light it seemed enormous, shapeless and beyond all words repelling. It seemed to have a personality, defiant and forbidding, that warned of mystery and disaster. Aspen trees, tall and gaunt, grew so close that their whispering leaves brushed the windows, and crowded in protecting, huddled clumps to ward off trespassers.

No lights showed through the deep caverns of the windows, but one faint gleam flickered above the entrance door.

"Whew!" cried Landon, jumping from his seat with a thud on the stone terrace, "I won't go through that woods again! I'll go home in an aeroplane,-and I'm ready to go now!"

"So am I," said Milly, in a quivering, tearful voice. "Oh, Wynne, why did we ever come?"

"Now, now," cheered Braye, "keep your heads, it's all right. Only these confounded shadows make it impossible to know just where we're at. Here's the house, and by jinks, it's built of marble!"

"Of course," said the Professor, who was curiously feeling of the old ivy-grown stone, "this is the marble country, you know. Vermont marble was plenty enough when this house was put up."

"Let's get in," begged Vernie. "It isn't as much fun as I thought it would be."

They went, in a close group, up a short flight of broad marble steps and reached a wide portico, in the centre of which was a spacious vestibule indented into the building, and which stood within the main wall. Though the walls of the house were of marble, those of this vestibule were of panelled mahogany, and the entrance doorway was flanked on either side by large bronze columns, which stood half within and half without the mahogany wall.

"Some house!" exclaimed Tracy, in admiration of the beautiful details, which though worn and blackened by time, were of antique grandeur. "These bronze doors must have come from Italy. They're marvellous. I'm glad I came."

"Oh, do get in, Wynne," wailed Milly. "You can examine the house to-morrow. I wish we hadn't come!"

Landon was about to make search for knocker or bell, when one of the big bronze doors swung open, and a man peered out.

"You folks here?" he said, a bit unnecessarily. "Bring another lamp, Hester."

"Yes, we're here," Landon assured him, "and we want to get in out of the wet!"

"Rainin'?" and the man stepped out of the door to look, blocking all ingress.

"No! that's a figure of speech!" Landon's nerves were on edge. "Open that door,-the other one,-let us in!"

"Go on in, who's henderin' you?" and the indifferent host stepped out of the way.

Landon went in first and Braye followed, as the others crowded after. At first they could see only a gloomy cavernous hall, its darkness accentuated by one small lamp on a table.

"Thought I wouldn't light up till you got here," and the man who had admitted them came in and closed the door. "I'm Stebbins, and here's the keys. This is the house you've took, and Hester here will look after you. I'll be goin'."

"No, you won't!" and Landon turned on him. "Why, man, we know nothing of this place. You stay till I dismiss you. I want a whole lot of information, but not till after we get lights and make the ladies comfortable."

"Comfortable! At Black Aspens! Not likely." The mocking laugh that accompanied these words struck terror to most of his hearers. "Nobody told me that you folks came up here to be comfortable."

"Shut up!" Landon's temper was near the breaking point. "Where's that woman with the lamps? Where's the man I engaged to look after things?"

"Hester, she's here. She'll be in in a minute. Thorpe, that's her husband, he's goin' to be a sort of butteler for you, he can't come till to-morrow. But Hester, she's got supper ready, or will be, soon's you can wash up and all."

Hester came in then, a gaunt, hard-featured New England woman, who looked utterly devoid of any emotion and most intelligence.

Stebbins, on the other hand, was apparently of keen perceptions and average intellect. His small blue eyes roved from one face to another, and though he looked sullen and disagreeable of disposition, he gave the effect of one ready to do his duty.

"All right," he said, as if without interest, "I'll set in the kitchen and wait. Hester here, she'll take the ladies to their rooms, and then after you get your supper, I'll tell you all you ask me. But I rented this place to you, I didn't agree to be a signboard and Farmers' Almanac."

"All right, old chap," and Landon smiled faintly, "but don't you get away till I see you. Now, girls, want to select your rooms?"

"Y-Yes," began Eve, bravely, and then a glance up the dark staircase made her shudder.

"What we want is light,-and plenty of it," broke in Braye. "Here you, Hester, I'll relieve you of that lamp you're holding, and you hop it, and get more,-six more,-twelve more-hear me?"

"We haven't that many in the house." Dull-eyed the woman looked at him with that sublime stolidity only achieved by born New Englanders.

"Oh, you haven't! Well, bring all you have and to-morrow you manage to raise a lot more. How many have you, all told?"

"Four, I think."

"Four! For a party of nine! Well, have you candles?"

"Half a dozen."

"And three candlesticks, I suppose! Bring them in, and if you're shy of candlesticks, bring old bottles,-or anything."

"Good for you, Braye, didn't know you had so much generalship," and Gifford Bruce clapped his nephew on the shoulder. "I'm glad I don't believe in ghosts, for every last one of you people are shaking in your shoes this minute! What's the matter with you? Nothing has happened."

"It was that awful ride through the woods," said Vernie, cuddling into her uncle's arm. "I l-like it,-I like it all,-but, the local colour is so-so dark!"

"That's it, Kiddie," said Braye, "the local colour is about the murkiest I ever struck. But here are our lights, hooray!"

Hester brought two more small hand lamps, and after another trip to the kitchen brought six candles and six battered but usable candlesticks.

A candle was given to each of the four women, and Norma politely selected the oldest and most broken holder.

"Land sake!" exclaimed Stebbins, coming in, "you goin' to use that candlestick? That's the very one the murderin' woman used!"

With a scream, Norma dropped it and no one moved to pick it up.

"Get out, Stebbins!" roared Landon, "you queer the whole business."

"I'll take this one," and Mr. Bruce picked up the old brass affair; "I'm not afraid of such things. Here, Miss Cameron, take mine, it's new and commonplace, I assure you."

White-faced and trembling, Norma took the cheap crockery thing, and shortly they all followed Hester up the stairs to the shadows of the floor above.

The place was silent as the grave. Hester's slippered feet made no sound, and a voluntary scraping of Tracy's shoes stopped as soon as he realized its enormous sound in those empty halls. A multitude of doors led to rooms in all directions, there seemed to be no plan or symmetry of any sort. The candle flames flickered, the small lamps burned with a pale sickly light.

Hester paused midway of the main corridor.

"What rooms you want?" she asked, uninterestedly.

"Give me a cheerful one," wailed Milly. "Oh, Wynne, let us take a little, cozy one."

"Of course you shall," said Braye, kindly. "Hester, which is the pleasantest room in the house? Give that to Mr. and Mrs. Landon! And then we'll put all you girls near them. The rest of us will camp anywhere."

"Let's all pretty much camp anywhere till to-morrow," suggested the Professor. "I'd like to select my room by daylight."

"I've made up some of the rooms, and some I ain't," volunteered Hester.

"Then, for Heaven's sake, show us the made-up rooms, and get out!" burst forth Landon. "I wish we'd brought our maids, Milly; that woman affects me like fever and ague."

But after a time they were assigned to various more or less inhabitable bedrooms, and as quickly as possible, all reappeared in the great hall below, ready for supper.

The dining room, toward the back of the house, was not half bad, after all the available lights had been commandeered for the table.

"You knew there were no electrics," said Braye to Eve, who was bewailing the fact.

"Of course I did, and I thought candles would be lovely and picturesque and all that; and kerosene gives a good soft light, but-well, somehow,-do you know what I thought as we came through that dreadful wood?"

"What?"

"Only one sentence rang through my mind,-and that was,-The Powers of Darkness!"

"That isn't a sentence," objected the Professor, a little querulously, and everybody laughed. Also, everybody blessed the occasion for laughter.

But Eve went on. "I don't care if it's a sentence or a syllogism, or what it is! It just rang in my ears. And I tell you this whole place is under the Powers of Darkness--"

"Do hush, Eve," pleaded Milly. "I was just beginning to pull myself together, and now you've upset me again!"

"But Milly,--"

"Let up, Eve! For the love of Mike, let up! You're enough to give anybody the creeps." Landon glared at her.

"It's only a question of light," Tracy broke in, in his pleasant way. "Now, we've light enough for the moment, and to-morrow we'll make this the house of a thousand candles and a hundred lamps, and a few lanterns if you like. Incidentally, Friend Hester makes first-rate doughnuts."

"Aren't they bully!" chimed in Vernie. "I've eaten six, and here goes for another."

"Lucky they're small," said her uncle. "But seven doughnuts are enough to make you see the ghost of old Montgomery himself!"

"And all the Green Mountain boys," added Tracy, who was determined to keep conversation away from fearsome subjects.

By the time they had finished the meal, every one felt more at ease, Landon had recovered his poise, and Milly her cheerfulness.

"Now, then," the Professor asked, as they left the table, "shall we explore the house to-night--"

"Lord, no!" cried Braye. "Leave it lay till daylight. Also, don't quiz old Stebbins as to who's who in Black Aspens! Let's turn on the Victrola and dance, or let's play poker or sing glees, or anything that's a proper parlour trick. But nothing, I insist, pertaining to our mission up here. That'll keep."

"As you like," and now Landon could smile. "And you mollycoddles may pursue those light-minded pleasures. But I'm going to have it out with Steb, because I want to know some several Laws for Beginners. But, don't let me interfere with your plans. Go ahead, and have play 'Hide and Seek All Over the House,' if you choose. That used to be my favourite indoor game."

"Oh!" squealed Vernie, "what an awful suggestion! In this house!"

"I move we hear the story of the house to-night.-right now," said Eve.

Milly clasped her hands over her ears, instead of, as usual, over her mouth, and cried, "No! I forbid it! Don't let 'em, will you, Wynne?"

"Seems to me," remarked Mr. Stebbins, "you folks don't know your own minds! You want a ha'nted house, then when you git it, you're too scared to hear the story of the ha'nt."

"I'm not scared," asserted Norma, "but somehow, a ha'nt sounds so much worse than a haunt. Doesn't it, now?"

"It sure does," agreed Braye. "A ha'nt is concrete, while a haunt is abstract."

"Good!" and Hardwick nodded approval. "Now, I suggest that we look around a bit, get the general lay of the house and then all go to bed early. A good night's sleep will put our nerves and muscles in condition again. I'm delighted with the place, and I foresee a first-class vacation ahead of us."

"I wish it was behind us, and we were just starting for home," murmured Milly, but Eve reprimanded her.

"Don't be a spoilsport! I like the place too, Professor, and I'm going to investigate a little. What room is this?"

Eve's graceful figure crossed the great square hall, where they were all standing about, and paused at the closed door of a room just at the right hand as one entered the house.

"Why, it's locked!" she exclaimed. "That won't do, Mr. Stebbins! This whole domain is ours, now, you know. Open this door, please."

Eve wore the light gray skirt of her travelling costume, and a thin sheer white silk blouse, whose V'd neck fell away from her long, slender throat. Her hand on the door knob, she suddenly turned her strange beryl eyes toward Stebbins, her face turning whiter and her thin lips redder as she gazed.

"This is the room-isn't it?" she breathed, and her hand slowly fell from the knob and hung loosely at her side.

"Yes, ma'am," replied Stebbins, stolidly. "How'd you know?"

"How could I help knowing!" and Eve's voice rang out like a clarion. "I see it! I see it all!"

She rushed across the hall and fell trembling on a settee. Tracy flew to her side, and took her hand.

"There, there, Miss Carnforth, brace up! We're all right here. Nothing can hurt you."

"Beats all how she knew!" muttered Stebbins. "You see that's the room--"

A cry from Milly stirred Landon to action.

"Drop it, Stebbins," he said, and took a step toward him. "None of that to-night. We do want your haunted house, but the long journey up here, and your confounded negligence in the matter of lights and servants and general good will, has got on the ladies' nerves. Beat it now, to the kitchen, or wherever your quarters are, but you stay here to-night and be ready to report in the morning. You hear me?"

"Yes, sir," and shrugging his shoulders, the man disappeared among the shadows in the back of the hall.

The great main hall was so large that the lights they had were all insufficient for illumination. There seemed to be innumerable doors and openings of side corridors, also a second staircase, far behind the main one.

"Here's a good-looking room, let's go in here," said Tracy, stepping through some old, faded draperies to the room on the left of the hall as one entered the house.

Hardwick followed, and the others with lamps and candles pushed in. It was a large, dignified apartment, evidently a parlour or ballroom of the old mansion. The furniture was of old, carved rosewood, its upholstery worn, but fairly decent. Oil portraits were on the walls and massive ornaments of imitation bronze stood about, showing white here and there where the coating was chipped off.

Yellowish onyx vases graced the mantels, and the windows were hung with heavy rep curtains which, however, veiled no lighter ones.

"Ghastly!" cried Norma.

"What do you mean by ghastly?" began the Professor, and Tracy laughed.

"She didn't mean it at all, Professor," he said, "Miss Cameron meant to say hideous. Now, don't ask me what I mean by hideous, just look at the interior decorations here and draw your own conclusions as to my meaning. But though not to be called ?sthetic, this furniture is fairly comfy. The springs of this sofa are intact,-come sit by my side, little darling." This last to Vernie, who was wide-eyed and alert, lapping up these strange, new impressions.

"All right," and she flung herself down beside him. "You're a real comfort, Mr. Tracy,-you're so,-so-unministerial!"

"Thank you, my child. One needn't carry one's pulpit voice into social life."

"Oh, I don't mean you do or say anything that a man of your calling oughtn't to, but you're so nice about it."

"I think so too," chattered Milly, "I do think a clergyman with a sense of humour makes a fine combination."

The mental atmosphere gradually lightened and when Landon suggested they all retire, it was a composed and merry hearted group that obeyed the summons.

When twelve sonorous strokes boomed from the tall clock in the upper hall, the men beneath the roof of Black Aspens were all sleeping more or less soundly.

Milly, with only occasional little quivering shudders, slumbered in Landon's arms. Vernie slept with the sound dreamless sleep of youth.

But Eve and Norma were wide awake, and unable to close their eyes.

In adjoining rooms, the communicating door ajar, they could hear one another toss restlessly, but they said no words.

Norma's blue eyes were wide open, her thoughts rambling over the strange surroundings in which she found herself, and her mind leaping forward, speculating on what might happen.

Eve, her long, glittering eyes half closed, listened for any sound; her nerves alert, her thoughts darting from material things to the supernatural, every muscle tense with a nameless apprehension.

More hours were rung out by the old clock, and at last dawn began to creep in at the deep narrow windows of the old house.

With a shrug and a stretch Vernie awoke. Drowsily, in the half light she tried to make out her surroundings, and then, suddenly remembering where she was, she dove her head under her blanket, in a quick rush of fear. Then curiosity conquered, and she came to the surface again, and looked about. The light, growing gradually stronger, showed the appointments of the room, the ugly old four-poster bedstead, of light wood,-apple or hickory,-the heavy rep lambrequins, that seemed to be a feature of the house, and the scantily appointed dresser, on which, the night before, she had set her extinguished candle.

Shadows still lurked in the corners of the room, still hung round the draperies and furniture, yet through the gloom Vernie saw something that made her eyes stare and her flesh creep. Clenching her hands till her sharp nails bit into her palms, she gave a shriek that rang through the silent house.

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