The blinding rain which had been steadily falling for the last hour cut and stung our faces, and the wind wheezing through the trees about us rocked our little car until it made progress almost impossible. An illuminating streak of lightning, followed by a deafening crash of thunder, caused me to cower down in the seat and cover my ears with my hands.
“Well, here’s our finish!” exclaimed my brother, who had valiantly striven to pilot the machine in the storm. “There’s a tree lying directly across the road.”
He brought the car to a standstill, and turned his spotlight on the dark object blocking our path. It was a huge tree, evidently stricken down by the lightning, and it covered the entire road.
“What on earth are we going to do ?” I sobbed hysterically. “We can’t stay out in a storm like this, and we are miles and miles away from anyone!”
We had been steadily climbing an upward grade, and the cavern-like ravines on either side and the depths of blackness behind me struck a chill in my heart. “I wish we’d never come out on this crazy motor trip,” I wailed. “New York is good enough for me. Alan, what can we do?”
“I’ll see,” he answered. “Keep your hand on the brake, this is a pretty stiff hill, and the road is slippery; if the car starts skidding it’s good night.”
He spoke jocularly enough, but I knew he was worried. Climbing out of the machine, he went around to the big, supine tree and examined it.
“It’s no use, Nell,” he called to me, pitching his voice above the roar of the wind, “I can’t budge it.”
In the brief light caused by a second flash of lightning, I saw the stark, bare outlines of a two-story house, possibly a hundred feet ahead of us on my right.
“Alan, there’s a house! A house up there further on the hill,” I cried wildly.
“You’re right, there is. It’s either an empty one, or its occupants hit the hay early. I’ll pull the car out onto the side of the road, and we’ll make a run for it.”
He got back into his seat, and with a few careful maneuvers of the wheel succeeded in bringing the machine around to a spot where it might stand in safety. Then he searched in the darkness until he found a rock, which he placed under the wheel in case something should start it rolling down-grade.
“Turn up your collar! The rain feels like ice-water when you’re out in it. That house is probably farther off than it looks.”
Taking my hand, he helped me out. My feet went into deep mud, and I almost lost my balance. With a little shriek I clutched him to save myself. Then we started to run.
It was up-hill all the way, a much steeper and longer climb than I had anticipated, and, as Alan had said, the rain was like ice-water beating against the back of my neck and shoulders. I was shaking and shivering like a drowned cat by the time we reached the stoop on the front of the building.
The house was barren of fence and surrounding trees, and stood on a sort of knoll at the side of the hills. No light was visible anywhere. Alan used his pocket flash and that guided us to the front door, which was swinging dismally back and forth on one hinge, making a doleful, creaking noise, distinguishable above the wind. We did not stop to knock, feeling pretty certain the house had no occupant or the door would be locked on a night like this.
“For such shelter let us give thanks!” Alan chuckled grimly, pushing me in first. He closed the door after us to shut out the rain, but it immediately swung open again.
We found ourselves in a long, wide hall which evidently divided the house through the centre. At the extreme end was an old-fashioned staircase with banisters. The floors creaked and gave with the weight of our bodies as we walked, and I fancied a rat scurried across my foot.
There was an odor of mustiness and damp about the place, as though it had not been occupied for years.
There were no furnishings of any kind, no blinds to the windows, and most of the panes of glass were missing ; but even in the dim light that Alan’s “spot” afforded we could see it had an old-time elegance. Probably at one time monstrous log fires had burnt in the massive brick fireplaces at the end of the two rooms opening off the separating hallway. The woodwork appeared to be of black walnut, the floors unquestionably had been highly polished, though now they were worn and earth- stained. The ceilings were falling, and the wallpaper hung in great strips from the plastering — a more uninviting place could not be imagined. I clung to Alan’s arm, half afraid to venture farther.
“I’m awfully cold,” I whimpered, through chattering teeth. “D’ye suppose there’s a stove in the kitchen ? Maybe we can find some paper and start a fire if there is.”
Alan did not answer, but led the way to the back of the house. Before some swinging doors he hesitated a second, then flung them open and entered; I followed. It was an old-fashioned brick-floored kitchen. In one corner stood a battered, rust-covered coal-range. The chimney was disconnected, and part of it lay on the floor before the open oven. Piles of old rags and broken bits of twigs and newspaper filled a box near it.
Alan thrust the spot light into my hand and pounced upon the debris. In a little while he had a fire burning in the old stove, and the kitchen was filled with sooty smoke and blessed warmth.
I stripped off my soggy motor coat, and flung it across the box to dry out; Alan removed his coat and did likewise.
“Now, if I just had a cup of coffee and a sandwich I wouldn’t be at all unhappy,” I said.
“Forget it!” he laughed. “Nothing doing. It’s a lucky thing for us this old barn is well built. If it wasn’t I could see visions of that wind lifting it off its pins and tossing it down into the cavern.”
I shuddered. “Let’s not think about it. The car may not even be there in the morning.”
To kill time and to get our mind off the storm outside I suggested that we rummage around a bit, and see what the place was like upstairs.
As we stepped into the long open hallway, a gust of wind whipped through the swinging door and carried with it a perfect torrent of rain, that made little puddles at our feet.
Fearfully I followed Alan up the long, broad flight of stairs, feeling that uncanny something that is so often present in an old, unused house. I half expected some spectre of the past to reach out and lay clammy, unearthly hands upon me, or a shadowy something to greet us on the landing where we paused and looked about.
There were six doors leading off the corridor, all exactly alike. With the exception of one they were slightly ajar — the sixth appeared to be locked.
Curiosity prompted me to go toward it first. The knob turned in my hand, but the door stayed closed.
“Bluebeard’s den!” laughed Alan. “Take care that you aren’t another Ann.”
“I wonder why.”
“Possibly for the same reason that all the others aren’t. The owner, when he left the place, didn’t take the trouble to unlock it.”
I twisted and turned the knob, trying to force an entrance, but the lock held in spite of its age and rustiness. Alan laughed at my efforts, then he pushed open the door to his right, which was slightly ajar. His exclamation of surprise called my attention from the bolted door.
“What is it?” I gasped.
“By George, Nell, look here!”
* * * * *
The Dead Man
I followed him into the room. My surprise equalled his own at what I saw. In direct contrast to the barrenness of the rooms below, this one was beautifully furnished with rich draperies covering the crumbling walls, and rugs upon the floor. The furniture was evidently new, and though a trifle gaudy, not without taste.
A table in the centre of the room covered with a damask cloth, china and silver, was spread as though for a meal. There was a half-emptied bottle of wine, and two glasses. One glass still contained the liquor. Even a loaf of bread and some cold cuts and salad remained. An open lunch kit rested in a chair near the table.
· END OF PART 1 ·
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Entering one of the rooms off the corridor, Alan discovers …
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