MoboReader> Literature > Whispers at Dawn; Or, The Eye

   Chapter 1 THREE BLACK BOXES

Whispers at Dawn; Or, The Eye By Roy J. Snell Characters: 15382

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


As Johnny Thompson put out a hand to ring the door bell of that brownstone house facing the deserted grounds of the Chicago Century of Progress and the lake, the door opened without a sound. He looked up, expecting to see a face, hear a voice, perhaps. The voice came: "Step inside, please." But there was no face. The space before him was empty.

A little puzzled, he stepped into the narrow passageway. Instantly in a slow, silent manner that seemed ominous, the door closed behind him.

The place was all but dark. Certainly there was no lamp; only a curious blue illumination everywhere. A little frightened, he put out a hand to grip the door knob. It did not give to his touch. Indeed it was immovable as the branch of an oak.

"Locked!" he muttered. Then for a space of seconds his heart went wild. From the wall to the right of him had flashed a pencil of white light. Like an accusing finger it fell upon something on the opposite wall. And that something was an eye, an eye in the wall,-or so it seemed to the boy. And even as he stared, with lips parted, breath coming short and quick, the thing appeared to wink.

"The eye!" he whispered, and again, "the eye!"

For a space of many seconds, like a bird charmed by a snake, he stood staring at that eye.

And then cold terror seized him. In the corner of the place he had detected some movement. It was off to his right. Whirling about, he found himself staring at-of all the terrible things in that eerie light-a skeleton.

And even as he stared, ready to sink to the floor in sheer terror, the skeleton appeared to move, to tremble, to open and close its fleshless hands.

He watched the thing for ten terrible seconds. Then a thought struck him with the force of a blow.

"That-" he whispered as if afraid the thing might hear, "that is me! That is my own skeleton!"

Of this there could be no doubt. For, as he lifted his right hand, the skeleton did the same. As he bobbed his head, the thing before him bobbed. And if further evidence were lacking, the thing had a crooked third finger, and so had he.

Then, as if ashamed of being discovered, the terrifying image vanished and the eye in the wall blinked out. Instantly the door at the inner end of the hall opened. There, standing in a flood of mellow light, was a girl of about his own age. She was smiling at him and shaking her mass of golden hair.

"Come in," she welcomed. "But-but you seem so frightened!" She stared at him for a second.

"Oh!" There was consternation in her tone. "Felix left that terrible thing on! How can you ever forgive us?

"But please do come in." Her tone changed. "You came about Father's books? How generous of you. Poor Father! His head is so full of things! He is always forgetting."

Johnny stepped inside. The door closed itself noiselessly.

"What kind of a house of magic is this?" he asked himself. "Doors close themselves. Eyes gleam at you from the wall. You see your own skeleton in the dark!"

The room he had entered seemed ordinary enough-plain furniture, a davenport, chairs, a table. But the light! He stared about him. The room was filled with mellow light, yet there was not a single lamp to be seen.

"Comes from everywhere and nowhere, that light," he whispered to himself.

"Let me take your hat." The girl held out her hand. She seemed a nice sort of girl, rather boyish. When she walked it was with a long stride, as if she were wearing knickers on a hike.

"I-I'll call Father." She marched across the floor.

Johnny started from his chair, then settled back. Had he caught the gleam of an eye blinking from the wall? He thought so. But now it had vanished.

The girl was still three paces from the door at the back of the room when, with a silence that was startling, that door swung open.

Johnny looked closely. The hall beyond was lighted. There was no one to be seen.

As if this was quite the usual thing, the girl marched straight through the open door. At once it closed behind her.

Johnny was alone.

If you have followed his career in our other books you will know that Johnny is no coward. He had been in tight places more than once. Persons much older than he had said he bore up under strain remarkably well. For all that, this place gave him the creeps. That it was not in the best part of the city he knew well enough. This brownstone house, as we have already said, was just across from the deserted Century of Progress grounds, and faced the lake. Back of it were shabby tenements and dingy shops where second-hand goods were sold and where auctioneers hung out their red flags.

"Rather senseless, the whole business," he mumbled to himself. "Fellow gets into all sorts of strange messes trying to fight other people's battles for them. And yet-"

His thoughts broke off. A small red light like an evil eye flashed above the outer door, then blinked out. A faint buzzing sound came from a clock-like affair on the wall. Then all was silent as before.

"The professor's house," he muttered. "Queer place! Why did I come? Couldn't help it really. It was the boxes-the three black boxes."

Ah yes, those three black boxes! First they had intrigued him, then they had aroused his interest and sympathy. After that there was just nothing to it. He had invested all but his last dollar in those three black boxes. Now he was trying to get his money back and do someone else a good turn as well.

"But it seems," he whispered to himself, "there are dragons in the way, gleaming eyes, skeletons. All-"

The red light flashed again, three times. The clock buzzed louder.

"Wish she'd come."

He rose to pace slowly back and forth across this room of many mysteries.

It was truly strange, he thought, the course of events leading up to this moment. After a considerable stay in the wilds of Michigan he had returned to the city of Chicago. On his arrival he had gone at once to the shack. The shack, on Grand Avenue, as you will know if you have read "Arrow of Fire," was occupied by Drew Lane, a keen young city detective, and such of his friends as happened to be about.

To his great disappointment, Johnny had found the shades down, the door locked. "Must be away," he told himself. At once he found himself all but overcome by a feeling of loneliness. Who can blame him? What is lonelier than a city where one has not a single friend?

Johnny had other friends in Chicago. Doubtless he would chance upon them in time. For the present he was completely alone.

"Be rather amusing," he told himself, "to try going it alone. Wonder how long it will be before someone will slap me on the back and shout, 'Hello, Johnny Thompson!'"

Having recalled the fact that at noon on every Tuesday of the year a rather unusual auction was held, he had decided to dispel his loneliness by mingling in the motley mob that attended that auction.

There for an hour he had watched without any great interest the auctioneer's hammer rise and fall as he sold a bicycle, a box of clocks, a damaged coffin, an artificial arm, three trunks with contents, if any, two white puppies in a crate and a bird in a cage-all lost or damaged while being carried by a great express company.

It was only when the Three Black Boxes were trundled out that his interest was aroused.

"This," he heard the auctioneer say in a low tone to a man seated near, "is a professor's library. He hasn't come to claim the shipment, so we are forced to sell his books."

"A professor's library! Poor fellow! What will he do without his books?" Johnny had said to the man next to him. "A professor without books is like a juggler without hands."

"A professor's

library." The words had intrigued him. The very word professor had a glorious sound to him. They had been so good to him, the professors of his college.

Without more than half willing it, he had begun bidding on those three heavy black boxes filled with books. In the end they were his, and his pockets were all but empty.

After the affair was over he had hunted up the auctioneer and secured the name and address of the professor.

"I'll sell the books back to him," he said to the auctioneer. "Surely he must have some money, or will have in a month or two."

"Well, maybe." The auctioneer had shaken his head. "Lots of folks pretty poor these days. Too bad!"

"And this," Johnny told himself as he continued to pace the floor of that mysterious room, "is the professor's house. Seems more like the haunts of an evil genius."

He felt an almost irresistible desire to find his way out of the place and make a dash for it. But there were the books. He must manage to get his money back somehow. He had hoped the professor might be able to pay him the money and take the library.

"Cost hundreds of dollars in the first place, those books," he murmured. "You'd think-"

Again he broke off to listen and stare. Strange noises, curious flashes of light, and then the door swung open. The golden-haired girl appeared. The door closed behind her.

"He-he'll be here soon." She seemed breathless. "He-he's working at something, a-a sort of trap. Do you know," she whispered, "this is a terrible neighborhood-truly frightful! That is why we live here."

"Curious sort of reason," the boy thought, but he said never a word, for at that instant the clock-like affair on the wall began buzzing loudly, the red light blinked six times in quick succession.

"Oh!" There was consternation in the girl's voice.

Seizing the astonished boy by the arm, she dragged him to a corner of the room. There he found himself looking at what appeared to be a narrow strip of mirror.

Upon that mirror moving objects began to appear. Before his astonished eyes these spots arranged themselves into the form of two skeletons, one tall, one short. Dangling from the hip-bone of the tall skeleton was what appeared to be a long knife. Again the girl whispered, "Oh!"

But the short skeleton! Trembling so it appeared to dance, it slipped a knife along its bony wrist to at last grip it firmly in its skeleton fingers.

The girl touched a button here, another there. The thing on the wall buzzed. Words were spoken outside the door, indistinct words. The skeletons disappeared. There came the sound of a door closing.

"They-they're gone!" The girl sighed.

Catching a slight sound of movement behind him, Jimmy whirled about to find himself looking into a pair of smiling blue eyes. "Here," he thought to himself, "is the girl's father, the professor." There were the same features, the same shock of golden hair.

"I am Professor Van Loon," the man said in a voice that was low, melodious and dreamy.

"Beth here tells me you bought my books," he went on. "That was kind of you. We've been moving about a great deal. The books have followed us here and there. Charges piled up. Until quite recently money has been scarce. Then, I confess, I forgot. In these days one is likely to forget his choicest treasures."

He turned to the girl. "Beth, who was at the door just now?"

"Two men." She trembled slightly. "They carried knives, so I opened the door on the outside. They-they hurried away."

"I dare say!" The professor chuckled dryly.

"Press the button, Beth," the professor said, nodding his head toward the right wall. "Our guest will stay for cocoa and cakes, I am sure. That right?" he asked, turning to Johnny.

"I will, yes," Johnny agreed.

The girl pressed a button like a lamp switch in the wall.

The boy's feelings were mixed. He wanted to stay. These people interested him and there were a hundred mysteries to solve,-living skeletons, eyes blinking from the walls, self-opening doors, lights that gleamed and clocks that buzzed.

A fresh mystery was added when five minutes later the girl pressed a second button and a tray laden with cups, saucers, a plate of cakes and a pot of steaming cocoa appeared.

"The 'Eye' did it for us," the professor explained in a matter-of-fact tone. "In these days one scarcely needs a servant even when he is able to afford one."

Perhaps Johnny would have said, "What is the 'Eye'?" but at that moment the door at the rear opened and a tall youth with tumbled red hair appeared.

The professor rose. "Son, meet Johnny Thompson. Now we are all here."

When, two hours later, Johnny left this place of enchantment, his head was in a whirl.

"Just goes to show," he chuckled to himself, "that when you do an unusual stunt anything may happen-just anything at all."

Several things had happened in the last two hours. He had come to have a high regard for the professor and his family. He had received payment in full for the professor's library and a ten dollar bill thrown in for good measure.

"Boy alive!" the professor had exclaimed when he hesitated to accept this extra ten. "If some shark that haunts those auctions had got my books it would have cost me a small fortune to redeem them."

All this had happened, and much more.

"Best of all," Johnny whispered to himself, "I am no longer alone. I've made a place for myself." Just what sort of place it was, he did not surely know.

"I should like to have you cast in your lot with us," the professor had said. "A boy who thinks of others, as you have done in this library affair, is sure to be of service anywhere.

"We do strange and interesting things here." The professor's eyes had twinkled. "Sometimes they are useful and practical; sometimes they are not. Always they are absorbing, at times quite too startling. At times we have money, at others none. Just now we are quite rich." He chuckled. "Someone offered us a great deal of money for an electric contraption that sorts beans, sorts a car load a day. Who wants that many beans?" He chuckled again. "Anyway we have money and they can sort beans. Money means material, equipment for fresh experiments. You will come with us?" He squinted at Johnny.

"Yes. Yes, sure." Johnny scarcely knew what leg he was standing on. "Queer business!" was his mental comment.

"We will exact only one promise," the professor continued. "You'll not pry into our secrets. Such secrets as we entrust to you you will divulge to no man. Do you promise?"

"I promise."

"You'll learn a lot and enjoy the work a heap," the son had said to Johnny.

"I want you to know," the professor had added in a sober tone, "that if you come with us you may be in some danger; in fact I'm quite certain that I can promise it, yet it will never be foolhardy nor reckless danger. You'll come to live with us. That is necessary."

"That's O.K.," Johnny had agreed.

And now Johnny found himself outside in the cool air of night, the lake breeze fanning his cheek, wondering if it all-the living skeletons, eyes blinking in the wall, the self-closing doors-all had been a dream.

"No!" He crushed the roll of bills in his pocket. "No, it was real enough. I-"

Suddenly two shadows materialized from a doorway, one tall, one short.

"The-the two men of the living skeletons, the ones that girl and I saw in the mirror!" he whispered, catching his breath sharply. If there had been any question in his mind regarding this last conclusion it was dispelled instantly. An inch of white steel, a knife blade, protruded from the short person's sleeve as he muttered menacingly, "Stand where you are!"

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