MoboReader > Literature > The Camp Fire Girls Solve a Mystery; Or, The Christmas Adventure at Carver House

   Chapter 10 THE SECRET PASSAGE

The Camp Fire Girls Solve a Mystery; Or, The Christmas Adventure at Carver House By Hildegard G. Frey Characters: 29636

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Oh, tell Aunt Aggie I think the Winter Palace is the most wonderful place in the whole world!" cried Sylvia enthusiastically. "Tell her that the ladies-in-waiting are the dearest that ever lived, and the three court jesters are the funniest. Tell her I'm so happy I feel as though I were going to burst! And be sure and tell her that I'm going to get well!"

Sylvia had not been able to conceal her rapture for a minute after Hinpoha had told her the news the day before. They all knew she knew it, and when they saw her rapture they did not scold Hinpoha for letting the cat out of the bag before the time set. To have given her those two extra days of happiness was worth the sacrifice of their surprise. All morning she had filled the house with her song and chattered happily of the time when she would go camping with the Winnebagos.

"We've made more plans than we can carry out in a hundred years!" she told Nyoda gleefully. "Oh, please live that long, so you can help us do all we've planned." Nyoda smiled back into the starry eyes, and promised faithfully to live forever, if need be, to accommodate her.

"I'll give Aunt Aggie all your messages," she said now, stopping in the act of drawing on her gloves to pat the shining head.

"You're so good to go and see Aunt Aggie!"

Nyoda patted her on the head again and then started cityward with her big box of delicacies for Mrs. Deane. With her went Migwan and Gladys and Hinpoha, who wanted to do some shopping in the city.

Sahwah and Katherine refused to give up their search for the passage even for one afternoon. Sahwah had an idea that possibly there was a secret door in the back of one of the built-in bookcases in the library, and had Nyoda's permission to take out all the books and look. Justice and Slim and the Captain had promised to help take out the books. Sylvia was wheeled into the library where she could watch the proceedings, and the work of removing the books began. Sherry looked on for a while and then went out to tinker with the car.

Section by section they took the books from the cases and examined the wall behind them, but it was apparently solid. Sahwah and the Captain worked faithfully, taking out the books and replacing them, but Katherine would stop to read, and Slim soon fell asleep with his head against the seat of a chair. Justice spied Slim after a while and began to throw magazines at him. Slim wakened with an indignant grunt and returned the volley and then the two engaged in a good-natured wrestling bout.

"I know a new trick," said Justice. "It's for handling a fellow twice your size. A Japanese fellow down in Washington taught it to me. Let me practice it on you, will you? You're the first one I've seen since I learned it who was so much heavier than I."

Slim consented amiably enough and Justice proceeded with a series of operations that rolled his big antagonist around on the floor like a meal sack.

"Don't make so much noise, boys!" commanded Katherine, putting a warning finger to her lips. "Don't you see that Sylvia has fallen asleep? Go on out into the hall and do your wrestling tricks out there."

Slim and Justice removed themselves to the hall and continued their wrestling, and the Captain abandoned the books to watch them and cheer them on.

"Bet you can't back him all the way up the stairway!" said the Captain, as Justice forced Slim up the first step.

"Bet I can!" replied Justice, and then began a terrific struggle, science against bulk. Slim fought every inch of the way, but, nevertheless, went up steadily, step by step. Sahwah and Katherine, drawn by the Captain's admiring exclamations at Justice's feat, also abandoned the books and came out to watch.

Justice got Slim as far as the landing, and there Slim got his arms wound around the stair post and anchored himself effectively. One step above the landing was as far as Justice could get him. Justice leaned over him and tried another trick to break his grip on the post and the two were see-sawing back and forth when suddenly the Captain gave a yell that made Justice loosen his hold on Slim and ask in a scared voice, "What's the matter?"

"The landing!" gasped the Captain. "Look at the landing!"

Justice looked, and the others looked, and they all stood speechless with amazement, for the stair landing was doing something that they had never in all their born days seen a stair landing do before. It was sliding out of its place, sliding out over the bottom flight of stairs as smoothly and silently as though on oiled wheels. The five stood still and blinked stupidly at the phenomenon, unable to believe their eyes. The landing came out until there was a gap of about two feet between it and the wall, and then noiselessly came to a stop. In the opening thus made they could see the top of an iron ladder set upright against the wall below.

Sahwah rallied her stunned senses first. "The secret passage!" she cried triumphantly.

"Daggers and dirks!" exclaimed the Captain.

"What made it open up?" asked Katherine curiously. "Where is the spring that works it?"

Justice and the Captain shook their heads.

"The post!" exclaimed Slim, mopping the perspiration from his brow. "I was pulling at it for dear life when all of a sudden something clicked inside of it. Then the Captain yelled that the stair landing was coming out. The spring that works it is in the landing post!"

Slim reached out and tugged away at the post again, but nothing happened. Then he got hold of the carved head and began to twist it and it turned under his hands. There was a click, faint, but audible to the eagerly listening ears, and the landing began to slide smoothly back into place. In a moment the opening was closed, and the landing was apparently a solid piece of carpentry.

"Whoever invented that was a genius!" exclaimed Justice in admiration. "And all the while we were trying to find a secret passage through the walls by tapping on the panels! If it hadn't been for Slim we could have spent all the rest of our lives looking for it and never would have found it, for we never in all the wide world would have thought of twisting the head of that stair post. Slim, you weren't born in vain after all."

"See if you can make it open up again," said Sahwah.

Slim twisted the head of the post, and presently there came the now familiar click and the floor slid out with uncanny quietness.

"Let's go down!" said the Captain, going to the edge of the opening and looking in.

"What's down there?" asked Katherine.

"Nothing but space," replied the Captain, straining his eyes to peer into the darkness, "at least that's all I can see from here. Give me your flashlight, Slim, I'm going down."

Slim handed him his pocket flash and the Captain began to descend the ladder. He counted twelve rungs before he felt solid footing under him. He found himself in a tiny room about six feet square, whose walls and floor were of stone. The top was open to allow the passage of the ladder. The Captain figured out that he was standing level with the floor of the basement and that the space above the opening at the top of the little room was the space under the stairway. There was a door in the outside wall, next to the ladder.

"What's down there?" asked Sahwah from above.

"Just a little place with a door in it," replied the Captain, retracing his steps up the ladder.

"The passage isn't inside the house at all," he reported when he reached the top. "It's outside. There's a door down there that probably opens into it. I'm going to get my coat and see where the passage leads to."

"We'll all go with you," said Sahwah, and it was she who went down the ladder first when the expedition started.

The Captain came next, carrying a lantern he had found in the kitchen. At the bottom of the ladder he lit the lantern. The first thing its light fell upon was a broken glass jar, lying in a corner, and from it there extended across the floor a bright red stream. Sahwah recoiled when she saw it, but the Captain stooped over and streaked his finger through it.

"Paint!" he exclaimed. "Red paint."

"Oh!" said Sahwah. "It looked just like blood. Why-that's what must have made the footprints on the stairs! The man must have stepped in this paint! He came in through this passage!"

The other three had come down by that time, and they all looked at each other in dumb astonishment. How clear it all was now! The footprints beginning under the stair landing-the mystery connected with the entrance of the intruder-they all fitted together perfectly.

"The paint's still sticky," said the Captain, examining his finger, which had a bright red daub on the end. "It must have been spilled there quite recently."

"The burglar must have spilled it himself," said Katherine.

"But how on earth would a burglar know about this secret entrance?" marveled Sahwah.

The others were not prepared to answer.

"Maybe Hercules told somebody," said Justice.

"But Hercules doesn't seem to know about it himself," said Katherine.

"He says he doesn't, but I'll bet he does, just the same," said Justice.

"Hercules wouldn't tell any burglar about this way of getting into the house!" Sahwah defended stoutly. "He's as true as steel. If anybody told the burglar it was somebody beside Hercules."

"Maybe the burglar discovered the other end of the passage himself, by accident, just as we did this end," said Slim.

"Come on," said the Captain impatiently, "let's go and see where that other end is."

"Wait a minute, what's this," said Justice, spying a long rope of twisted copper wire hanging down close beside the ladder. This rope came through the opening above them; that was as far as their eyes could follow it. Its beginning was somewhere up in the space under the stairs.

"Pull it and see what happens," said Slim.

"I bet it works the slide opening from below here," said Justice. He gave it a vigorous pull and they heard the same click that had followed the twisting of the stair post. In a moment the light that had come down through the opening vanished, and they knew that the landing had gone back into position. Another pull at the rope and it opened up again.

"Pretty slick," commented Justice. "It works two ways, both coming and going. A fellow on the inside could get out, and a fellow on the outside could get in, without the people in the house knowing anything about it."

"Are you coming now?" asked the Captain. "I'm going to start."

He opened the door in the outer wall as he spoke. It swung inward, crowding them in the narrow space in which they stood. A rush of cold air greeted them. The Captain held the lantern in front of him and peered out into the darkness.

"There are some steps down," he said.

He stepped over the threshold and led the way. Six steps down brought them to the floor of a rock-lined passage, a natural tunnel through the hill.

"Carver Hill must be a regular stone quarry," said Justice. "All the cellar walls of Carver House are made of slabs of stone like this, and so is the foundation."

"There are big stones cropping out all over the hill," said the Captain. "It's a regular granite monument. What a jolly tunnel this is!"

"And what a gorgeous way of escape!" remarked Justice admiringly.

"But what need would there be of an underground way of escape?" asked Katherine wonderingly. "What were the people escaping from?"

"This house was built in the days of the Colonies," replied Justice sagely, "and the Carvers were patriots. That probably put them in a pretty tight position once in a while. No doubt they concealed American soldiers in their home at times. This passage was probably built as a means of entrance and escape when things got too hot up above. British troops may have been quartered in the house, or watching the outside. What a peach of a way this was to evade them!" he exclaimed in a burst of admiration.

"I wish I'd lived in those times," he went on, with envy in his tone. "They didn't keep fellows out of the army on account of their throats then. What fun a soldier must have had, getting in and out of this house, right under the nose of the British! Suppose they suspected he was in the house and came in to search for him? He'd just turn the post on the stairs, and click! the landing would slide open and down the ladder he'd go and out through this passage. The enemy would never discover where he went in a million years."

"Come on, let's see where this passage comes out," urged the Captain, and started ahead with the lantern.

The passage sloped steeply downward, with frequent turns and twists.

"We're going down the hill," said the Captain.

"Whoever heard of going down the inside of a hill," said Sahwah.

"It's like going through that passage under Niagara Falls," said Slim, "only it's not quite so wet."

After another sharp turn and a steep drop they came out in a good-sized chamber whose walls, floor and ceiling were all of rock.

"It's a cave!" shouted the Captain, and his voice echoed and re-echoed weirdly, until the place seemed to be filled with dozens of voices. A cold draught played upon them from somewhere, and, although they all had on sweaters and caps, they shivered in the chilly atmosphere. There was no glimmer of light anywhere to indicate an opening to the outside.

The light of the lantern fell upon a wooden bench and a rough table, both painted bright red. On the table stood two tall bottles, thickly covered with dust, and between them was a grinning human skull with two cross bones behind it. Katherine and Sahwah involuntarily jumped and shrieked when they saw it.

"Somebody died down here!" gasped Sahwah.

"Nonsense!" said Justice. "It was Uncle Jasper playing pirate. See, there's his chest over there."

Against the rocky wall stood a large wooden chest, likewise painted bright red, with a huge black skull and cross bones done on its lid.

"That must be Uncle Jasper's 'Dead Man's Chest,' that he mentions in his diary," said Sahwah. "Of course, this is the pirates' den where he and Tad played."

The five looked around them with interest at this playroom of the two boys of long ago, its treasures living on after they were both dead and gone. Truly the den was a place to inspire terror in the heart of a luckless captive. Skulls and cross bones were painted all over the rocky walls, grinning reflections of the one on the table. Sahwah and Katherine clung to each other and peered nervously over each other's shoulders into the darkness beyond the radius of the lantern light.

"What a peach of a pirate's cave!" exclaimed the Captain enthusiastically. "Captain Kidd himself couldn't have had a better one. It seems as if any minut

e we'll hear a voice muttering, 'Pieces of eight, pieces of eight.'" He picked up one of the bottles from the table and set it down again with a resounding bang.

"'Fifteen men on a dead man's chest,

Yo! ho! ho! And a bottle of rum!'"

he shouted in a fierce voice which the echoes gave back from all around. "This must have been the life!"

"Those must have been the bottles from which they drank the molasses and water that they used for rum," said Katherine. "What fun it must have been!"

"I wish I'd known Uncle Jasper Carver when he was a boy," sighed the Captain. "He must have been no end of a chap, and Tad, too."

"Let's have a look at what's in the chest," said Justice.

He raised up the heavy oak lid and the Captain held the lantern down while they all crowded around to see. One by one he lifted out the pirates' treasures and held them up; wooden swords, several tomahawks, a white flag with a skull and cross bones done on it in India ink, a stuffed alligator, a ship's compass, a section of a hawser, a heavy iron chain, deeply rusted, a pocket telescope, a brass dagger, a pair of bows and a number of real flint-headed arrows, and a box of loose arrow heads which the Captain seized eagerly.

"Glory! what wouldn't I have given for a bunch of real Indian arrow heads when I was a kid," he said enviously.

"They look like Delawares," said Justice knowingly, pawing them over.

"How can you tell?" asked the Captain.

Justice explained the characteristics of the dreaded weapon of the Lenni-Lenape.

Slim and the Captain could not dispute him because they didn't know anything about arrow heads, so they listened to him in respectful silence.

"They must have had fun, those two," sighed the Captain enviously. "I thought I had fun when I was a kid, but Uncle Jasper Carver had it all over me with this cave and secret passage of his."

Slim and Justice echoed his envious sigh. In their minds' eye they too had traveled back with Uncle Jasper to his lively boyhood and saw a panorama of delightful plays passing in review, with the secret passage and the pirate's cave as the background.

The last thing that came out of the chest was a flat stone on which had been carved the names "Jasper the Feend" and "Tad the Terror," bracketed together at both ends and surmounted by a wobbly skull and cross bones, under which was carved the legend, "Frends til Deth." When Sahwah saw it she could not keep back the tears at the thought of this wonderful boyish friendship which had endured through thick and thin, and then had ended so bitterly. To Sahwah the breaking up of a friendship was the most awful thing that could happen. There were tears in Katherine's eyes, too, and the three boys looked very solemn as the stone was laid back in the chest.

"Now let's go and see where the passage leads on to," said the Captain, when the treasures of the two youthful pirates had been replaced in the chest. At a point opposite to the passage by which they had entered the cave another passage opened, or rather, a continuation of the first one, for the cave was merely a widening out of this subterranean tunnel.

"This way out," said the Captain, lighting the way with his lantern.

"Why, there's a door here!" exclaimed the Captain, when they had gone some thirty or forty feet into the passage.

The door was just like the one beside the ladder in Carver House; tremendously heavy, bound in brass and studded thickly with nails. It had been painted over with bright red paint, but here and there the paint had chipped off, showing the metal underneath. It was set into a doorway of brick and mortar. Over the knob was a curious latch, the like of which they had never seen. To their joy it snapped back without great difficulty and they got the door open.

Several stone steps down, and then they saw they were in a cellar passage.

"The passage comes out in another house!" said the Captain. "I wonder whose?"

"It must be that old empty brick cottage that stands at the foot of the hill," said Sahwah, who knew the lay of the land from the previous summer. "We often used to poke around in it and wonder who had lived in it. In the old days it must have been a place of safety for the American soldiers. It's at the back of the hill, toward the woods. The soldiers probably escaped through the woods."

"Let's go on into the cellar proper and up into the house," said the Captain, eager to continue his exploration.

But what he proposed was impossible, for they discovered that the end of the passage was blocked by a huge stone that had fallen out of the wall. It filled up the space from the floor to the low ceiling, all but a few inches at the top and a few inches at the one side, where an irregularity in its contour did not fit against the straight side of the wall. A very faint light from the cellar showed through these crevices, and a cold draught of air played like a thin stream down the backs of their necks.

"There doesn't seem to be any way of getting out around that rock," said the Captain. "Can you see any way?"

They all looked diligently for some way to get over, or around it, or through it, and soon admitted that it was impossible.

"How on earth did that fellow ever get in from this end?" asked Justice in perplexity. "There isn't a ghost of a show of getting through."

"He couldn't have," said Katherine decidedly, "unless he really was the devil, as Hercules believed."

"Or unless the stone fell after he was in," suggested the Captain.

"But if he came in this way and went out again, how does it happen that the door here was fastened on the other side?" asked Sahwah.

"I give it up," said Justice. "I don't believe he came in this way."

"Maybe he didn't come in through the secret passage at all," said Slim. "Maybe he did come in through the upstairs window, as we thought at first."

"But how about the paint?" objected Sahwah. "He stepped into it and tracked it down the stairway. He must have come in through this way."

Just then Katherine reached up to brush her hair out of her eyes, and her cold hand brushed Slim's neck. He jumped convulsively, lost his footing, and pitched over against the door, which went shut with a bang. He was up again immediately, and stretched out his hand to open the door, but it resisted his attempt.

"I guess she's stuck," he remarked. Justice and the Captain both lent a hand, but not a bit would the door budge. They gave it up after a few minutes, and stared at each other in perplexity.

"The door's locked!" said Justice in a voice of consternation.

"The lock must have snapped over from the jar when the door banged," said Sahwah.

"I don't see how it could," said Justice skeptically.

"Oh, yes, it could," replied Sahwah. "The same thing happened to me once with our back screen door at home. It slammed on my skirt one day, when I was going out, and the latch latched itself, and there I was, caught like a mouse in a trap. I couldn't pull my skirt loose and I couldn't unlatch the door from the outside. There was nobody at home and I had to stand there a long while before someone came and set me free. Latches do latch themselves sometimes, and that's what this one has done now!"

"Well, we're caught like mice in a trap, too," said Justice gloomily. "With the passage blocked at this end, and the door locked, how are we going to get out of here?"

"Break the door down," suggested Sahwah.

"Easier said than done," replied the Captain. "What are we going to break it down with? You can't knock down a door like that with your bare hands."

Nevertheless they tried it, pounding frantically with their fists, and kicking the solid panel furiously.

"No use, we can't break it down," said Slim crossly, nursing his aching hand. "My knuckles are smashed and my toes are smashed, but there's never a dent in the door. You'd think the old thing would be rotten down here in this hole, but it's so covered with paint that it's waterproof. It isn't wet enough to rot it," he finished unhappily, scowling at the piles of dust at his feet.

"We'll have to call until somebody hears us and comes down," said Sahwah.

"Nobody'll ever hear us down here," said Justice. "We're on the lonesome side of the hill, remember!"

Nevertheless they did shout at the tops of their lungs, and called again and again until their ears ached with the racket their voices made in the closed-in little place, and their throats ached with the strain.

"Nobody can hear us!"

The disheartening realization came to them all at last.

"Do you suppose we'll have to stay down here until we starve to death?" asked Sahwah in an awe-stricken voice, after a terrified hush had reigned for several minutes.

"We'll freeze to death before we starve," said Justice pessimistically, shivering until his teeth chattered.

"Nonsense!" said Katherine severely. "We'll get out somehow. Sherry and Nyoda will find the stair landing open and will come after us," she finished, and the rest shouted aloud, so great was their relief at the thought.

Then Justice struck them cold again with his next words. "No, they won't find it open, because I closed it several times, but I left it closed. They'll never find that spring in a million years."

A groan of disappointment went up at his words and their hearts sank like lead.

"We'll get out somehow," repeated Katherine determinedly, after a minute. "We were shut up in a cave once before, and we got out all right."

"Yes, but that time Slim and I were on the outside, not on the inside with you," the Captain reminded her.

"Yes, and that time it wasn't so cold," said Sahwah, vainly trying to stop shivering, "and we had eaten so many strawberries that we could have lasted for days. I'm hungry already."

"So'm I," said Slim decidedly. "I've been hungry for an hour."

"You're always hungry," said Justice impatiently. "I guess you'll last as long as the rest of us, though."

"Stop talking about 'lasting,'" said Katherine with a shudder of something besides cold. "You give me the creeps."

"If we only had something to break the door down with!" sighed Justice. "It would take a battering ram, though," he finished hopelessly.

"Too bad Hercules' old goat isn't down here with us," said Sahwah with a sudden reminiscent giggle. "He could have smashed the door down in no time with his forehead."

"But he isn't here, and we are," remarked Slim gloomily.

"I wish now I'd waked Sylvia up and shown her the stair landing opening," sighed Katherine regretfully. "She was so sound asleep, though, I couldn't bear to waken her. If she only knew about it she could send Sherry after us!" Oh, the tragedy bound up in that little word "if"!

Then to add to their troubles the lantern began to burn out with a series of pale flashes, and Slim was so agitated about it that he dropped the biggest electric flashlight on the floor and put it out of commission. Katherine's small pocket flash had burned out some time before. That left only two small flashlights.

"Put them out," directed Justice, "so they'll last. We can flash them when we need a light."

It was much worse, being there in the darkness. Sahwah and Katherine clung to each other convulsively and the boys instinctively moved nearer together. Conversation dropped off after a while and it seemed as if the silence of the tomb hovered over them. No sound came from any direction.

During another one of these silences, following a desperate outburst of shouting, a sound burst through the uncanny stillness. It was a slight sound, but to their strained nerves it was as startling as a cannon shot. It was merely a faint pat, pat, pat, coming from somewhere. They could not tell the direction, it was so far off.

"It's footsteps!" said Sahwah, starting up wildly.

"No, it's only water dropping," said Justice, cupping his hand over his ear in an attempt to locate the direction of the sound. "I wonder where it can be."

He flashed the light and looked for the dropping water, but failed to find it. He turned the light out again. Then in the darkness the sound seemed clearer than before-pat, pat, pat, pat.

"It's getting louder," said Katherine.

"It is footsteps!" cried Sahwah positively. "They're coming nearer! Listen!"

The tapping noise increased until it became without a doubt the sound of a footfall drawing nearer along the passage on the other side of the cave.

"It's Sherry looking for us; he's found the passage!" shrieked Sahwah, "or maybe it's Hercules!"

"Yell, everybody!" commanded Justice, "and let him know where we are."

They set up a perfectly ear-splitting shout, and as the echoes died away they heard the snap of the lock on the other side of the door. Slim, who was nearest, flung himself upon the door handle and in another instant the door yielded under his hand and swung inward.

"Sherry!" they shouted, and crowded out into the passage, all talking at once.

"Sherry! Sherry! Where are you?" Sahwah called, suddenly aware that no one had answered them. Justice and the Captain sprang their flashlights and looked about them in astonishment. There was no one in the passage beside themselves.

Who had unfastened the latch and let them out?

Sahwah and Katherine suddenly gripped each other in terror, while the cold chills ran down their spines. The same thought of a supernatural agency had come into the mind of each. Then they both laughed at the absurdity of it.

"It couldn't have been a ghost," declared Katherine flatly. "Ghosts don't make any noise when they walk."

As fast as they could they ran back through the passage to the door in the cellar wall, jerked the cable that opened the trap, and came out through the landing just as Nyoda, arriving home, was taking off her furs at the foot of the stairs. They never forgot her petrified expression when she saw them coming up through the floor.

"We thought it must be nearly midnight!" said Sahwah in amazement, when they found out that they had never even been missed. They had only been gone from the house for two hours.

Sherry came in presently and was as dumbfounded as Nyoda when he saw the opening in the landing and heard the tale of the Winnebagos and the boys.

"We thought you had found the passage and were coming to let us out," said Sahwah, "but it must have been Hercules, after all!"

"But Hercules was with me all afternoon, helping me overhaul the motor of the car," said Sherry. "I just left him now."

"Then-who-unlocked the-door?" cried the five in a bewildered way.

"Thunder!" suddenly shouted Justice. "It was the same man that made the footprints on the stairs! He got in through that secret passage, and what's more, he's down there yet!"

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