Read CHAPTER VI - Midnight Visitors of Penny Nichols and the Mystery of the Lost Key , free online book, by Joan Clark, on ReadCentral.com.

“I wish,” Rosanna commented emphatically, “that I had never brought you to this queer old house.”

Penny laughed as she went over to the fireplace and dropped on another stick of wood. She stood watching the sparks fly up the chimney.

“I think Caleb Eckert was only trying to be funny when he warned us of ghosts,” she declared. “At any rate, I’m too tired and sleepy to care much whether the place is haunted or not.”

“It’s a good night to sleep,” Rosanna admitted, going to the window. “I believe the storm is getting worse.”

Rain pounded steadily upon the roof and the wind was rising. It whistled weirdly around the corners of the house. The tall maple trees which shaded the front porch bent and twisted and snapped.

For a time the girls sat before the fire. Presently Penny suggested that they retire.

“I don’t believe I can sleep a wink tonight,” Rosanna protested. “Even though Caleb Eckert said it was all right for us to stay here, I don’t feel entirely easy about it.”

“I don’t see why not,” Penny protested as they mounted the creaking stairs to their bedroom. “According to the letter, you’ve inherited the house. And you have a key.”

“I had a key you mean. I can’t understand how or where I lost it.”

In thinking back over the activities of the day, Rosanna could not recall taking either the key or the letter from her purse. However, several times for one purpose or another she had opened her pocketbook, and it was quite likely that the articles had fallen out unobserved. She thought possibly she might find them on the floor of Penny’s car. She intended to search in the morning.

The upstairs room was damp and chilly. The girls hurriedly prepared to retire. Penny put up the window, snapped out the light and made a great running leap which landed her in bed.

“Listen to the wind howl,” she murmured, snuggling drowsily into her pillow. “Just the night for ghosts to be abroad.”

“Don’t!” Rosanna shivered, gripping her friend’s hand. “I can almost imagine that someone is coming up the stairway now! I’m afraid of this lonely old house.”

“I won’t let any mean old ghost get you,” Penny chuckled teasingly. “I love stormy nights.”

Rosanna lay awake long after her companion had fallen asleep. She listened restlessly to the crash of the tree branches against the roof, the creaking of old timbers and boards. But the steady beat of rain on the windowpanes had a soothing effect upon tense nerves. Presently she dozed.

Suddenly she found herself wide awake. She sat upright in bed, straining to hear. She was convinced that some unusual sound had aroused her.

Then she heard it again. A peculiar pounding noise downstairs.

She clutched Penny by the arm.

“What is it?” the latter muttered drowsily.

“Wake up! I think someone is trying to break into the house!”

As the words penetrated Penny’s consciousness, she became instantly alert. She too sat up, listening. Someone was pounding on the front door.

“What shall we do?” Rosanna whispered in terror.

Penny sprang from bed and snapped on the light. “I’m going to dress and go down. It may be Caleb Eckert.”

“Or a ghost,” Rosanna chattered. “If you’re going down, so am I.”

With the appearance of a light in the bedroom, the clanging on the door increased in violence. Penny, who was dressing as rapidly as she could, began to grow irritated.

“Are they trying to break down the door?” she grumbled. “I should think whoever it is would know we’re hurrying.”

Without delaying to lace up her shoes, she ran down the stairs, Rosanna close at her elbow. Before snapping on the living room lights the girls peered out the window.

Slightly reassured by the appearance of the midnight visitors, they cautiously unbolted the front door.

Mrs. Everett Leeds and her daughter Alicia, swept into the room. Both were bedraggled and obviously out of sorts.

Mrs. Leeds shook the rain from her cape, flung her wet hat into the nearest chair, and then coldly surveyed the two girls.

“What are you doing here, may I ask?” she inquired.

“We were sleeping,” Penny smiled.

“I mean, what are you doing in this house?”

“It seems to belong to Rosanna,” Penny said evenly. “She inherited it from her uncle, Jacob Winters.”

Mrs. Leeds’ expression was difficult to interpret. For an instant she looked stunned. But she quickly recovered her poise.

“Nonsense!” she said shortly. “This house belongs to me. Jacob Winters was my cousin. He died recently, leaving me everything. I have a letter and key to prove it. Naturally I couldn’t use my key to get into the house for you had it bolted from the inside.”

Mrs. Leeds looked accusingly at the girls as she offered the letter to Penny. A casual glance assured the girls that it was identical with the one Rosanna had received and lost.

“It’s too late to go into this tonight,” Penny protested. “Let’s discuss it in the morning.”

“Very well,” Mrs. Leeds agreed coldly. “Where are we to sleep?”

Penny informed her that there were several empty bedrooms upstairs. She led the way to the upper floor. Opening the door of one of the rooms, she was surprised to see that it was not as well furnished as the bedroom which she and Rosanna shared. Mrs. Leeds uttered an exclamation of disgust.

“Surely you don’t expect me to sleep here, Miss Nichols. The room is dirty. Positively filthy.”

“Look at that long cobweb hanging from the ceiling!” Alicia added indignantly. “I’d have hysterics if I slept here.”

“Perhaps the adjoining room is better,” Penny commented.

An inspection revealed that if anything it was even more neglected.

“I’m afraid you’ll just have to make the best of it for tonight,” Penny declared, “unless you care to drive on to the next town.”

“We’ll stay,” Mrs. Leeds decided instantly. “I’d prefer to sit up all night, rather than brave those horrible mountain roads again.”

“We slipped into a ditch coming here,” Alicia informed. “That’s what made us so late. We’ve had a terrible time.”

In a closet at the end of the hall, Penny and Rosanna found blankets and linen. As they made up the beds, neither Mrs. Leeds nor her daughter offered to assist. It was after one o’clock when the girls went back to their own room.

“Mrs. Leeds means to make trouble about the inheritance,” Penny remarked in an undertone as they snapped out the light once more. “I wonder if by any chance she could have picked up your letter and key?”

“Oh, I doubt it,” Rosanna returned. “I remember when we were at Mt. Ashland she dropped the hint that she was going to Raven Ridge. At least, she acted strangely when we mentioned the place.”

“Yes, she did. I had forgotten for the moment. Oh well, in the morning we’ll learn exactly what she intends to do.”

Penny rolled over and soon was sleeping soundly. Toward morning she awoke to hear a clock somewhere in the house chiming four. At first she thought nothing of it, then it occurred to her that no one had wound any of the timepieces the previous evening. While she was musing over such an odd happening her keen ears detected the sound of soft footsteps in the long hall outside.

“It’s probably Mrs. Leeds or her daughter,” she reasoned.

The sounds persisted. At length Penny quietly arose and tiptoed to the door. She looked out into the dark hall. No one was within sight. Mrs. Leeds’ door was closed.

Penny went back to bed, taking care not to awaken Rosanna. Scarcely had she pulled the blankets up than the soft pad of footsteps could be heard again.

“I hope it isn’t that ghost Caleb warned us about,” she thought uneasily. “Oh, bother! I know there aren’t any ghosts!”

Penny closed her eyes and tried to sleep but found it quite impossible. Even after the noise in the hall ceased she caught herself listening for the footsteps. At a quarter to seven she dressed and stole downstairs to see what she could find for breakfast.

At eight o’clock when Rosanna came into the kitchen, Penny had coffee, cereal and crisp bacon ready.

“The larder seems very well supplied,” she informed cheerfully. “Someone left milk on our doorstep too. I imagine it must have been Caleb.”

“I’m hungry enough to eat anything,” Rosanna declared. “Shall I call Mrs. Leeds and Alicia?”

“Yes, do, although I don’t know how they’ll take to my cooking.”

Rosanna went upstairs to rap on Mrs. Leeds’ door. She returned a minute later, reporting that neither of the guests would be down for breakfast.

“They were quite put out at being disturbed so early,” she told Penny ruefully.

“We’ll let them get their own breakfasts then. Come on, we’ll have ours anyway.”

Penny had learned to cook very well under the tutelage of Mrs. Gallup. She had done remarkably well with the meager supplies at her disposal and Rosanna declared that the breakfast was excellent.

The girls had finished the dishes and were stacking them away when Alicia came down the stairs.

“Mother and I will take our breakfast now,” she informed.

Rosanna started toward the kitchen, but Penny neatly blocked the way.

“Sorry,” she said cheerfully, “but we’ve just finished ours. You’ll find supplies in the kitchen.”

Alicia started to reply but without waiting to hear what she might have to say, Penny and Rosanna went out the back door.

“While she cools off we may as well look over the grounds,” Penny laughed. “If Mrs. Leeds and Alicia expect to get along with me, they’ll have to learn that this household is going to operate on a cafeteria basis.”

From the rear door a sandstone path led down a steep incline to the brow of a high cliff. A river wound its way directly below, emptying into a crystal blue lake. Deep in the pine woods, some distance from the path, a cabin could be seen. The girls decided that it must belong to Caleb Eckert.

While they were admiring the rugged scenery, someone came up behind them. They wheeled about to face Caleb himself.

“Well, well, you both look bright and gay this morning,” he greeted heartily. “Sleep well?”

“Quite well,” Rosanna told him shyly. “That is, we did until the visitors arrived.”

“Visitors?”

Rosanna explained about Mrs. Leeds and her daughter while Penny added omitted details. For some reason they both were beginning to feel that Caleb was their ally.

“All this talk about letters and keys and inheritances certainly has me puzzled,” he proclaimed, shaking his head. “It’s hard to believe that Jacob Winters is dead. I think I’ll walk back to the house with you and have a little talk with Mrs. Leeds.”

“Did you leave milk at our doorstep this morning?” Penny questioned as they returned together.

Caleb admitted that he had placed it there.

“You’ve been very kind,” Rosanna said gratefully. “I want to thank you before we leave.”

“You’re not aiming to leave today?” Caleb asked quickly.

“Well, yes, I imagine we will. I don’t feel right about staying here.”

Caleb lowered his voice. “Take my advice, Miss Winters, and don’t leave while that other woman and her daughter are here. From what you’ve told me, I think they mean to grab the property.”

“But what can I do?” Rosanna asked helplessly. “I’ve lost my letter and the key. I haven’t any proof that the property was left to me.”

“Maybe this Leeds woman hasn’t any proof that it was left to her either,” Caleb said sagely. “Anyway, we’ll find out what she has to say.”

At first, Mrs. Leeds, accosted in the living room of the old house, had little comment to make. She was out of sorts from lack of sleep the previous night, and the breakfast which she and Alicia had endeavored to cook had not been a success. Nor was she impressed with Caleb who wore high boots, an old pair of dirty trousers and a crumpled felt hat.

“I don’t see why I should discuss my business affairs with you,” she said aloofly. “I have inherited this property from my cousin and I mean to remain here in possession of it indefinitely if necessary.”

“May I see the letter which you say you received?” Caleb inquired.

Mrs. Leeds hesitated, then reluctantly handed it over. Caleb studied it briefly and returned it.

“You will require more than this as evidence of Mr. Winters’ death,” he said quietly. “For all I know, you may have forged this letter.”

“Preposterous!” Mrs. Leeds snapped. “I refuse to discuss the matter with you further. I shall send for my attorney and he will straighten out everything.”

“Not without the will, he can’t,” Caleb returned grimly. “And there’s no telling what became of it.”

“The will?” Mrs. Leeds caught him up. “Are you sure there was a will?”

“Mr. Winters told me once that he had made one and hidden it somewhere in the house.”

“Then of course it can be found.”

“Mr. Winters wouldn’t want anyone prying around in his private papers,” Caleb insisted. “Until I have definite word that he is dead, I can’t let anyone hunt for it.”

“I shouldn’t call searching for the will exactly prying!” Mrs. Leeds retorted indignantly. “What right have you to say what is to be done here? Are you the caretaker?”

“Well, not exactly, but Mr. Winters asked me to look after things until he got back.”

“That will must be found.”

Caleb’s face tightened. “Mrs. Leeds,” he said severely, “I repeat, things in this house must not be disturbed.”

Mrs. Leeds drew herself up proudly. “Unquestionably, the will leaves everything to me.”

“That may be,” Caleb acknowledged, “but this girl here has a claim too.” He indicated Rosanna.

Mrs. Leeds froze her with a glance. Her eyes snapped like brands of fire as she listened to Rosanna’s account of the letter and key. But a look of relief, which was not lost upon either of the girls, came over her face as she learned that they had been misplaced.

“The story sounds ridiculous to me,” Mrs. Leeds declared coldly. “If you can’t produce the letter or the key, what proof have you that you actually are Jacob Winters’ niece?”

“I could get evidence within a few days,” Rosanna declared. “The letter and key may show up too.”

“I think perhaps you dropped them in the car,” Penny interrupted. “Let’s look now.”

Leaving Mrs. Leeds and Caleb embroiled in another argument, they went outside where the automobile had been parked near the house. A careful search of the flooring and pockets of the car did not reveal the missing letter or key. Rosanna was completely discouraged.

“Do you think Mrs. Leeds could have picked it up?” she asked gloomily.

“I don’t see how,” Penny returned thoughtfully. “But there’s one thing certain. She intends to make trouble. You surely don’t intend to go away from here while she and her daughter are camped in the house?”

“What else can we do?”

“Send a wire to Dad that we’re staying on a day or two,” Penny answered instantly.

“But won’t that inconvenience both of you?”

“No, I suspect Dad will be grateful for the rest and as for myself, I’d enjoy seeing this thing through.”

It required little urging to convince Rosanna of the wisdom of remaining on the scene. She had taken an immediate dislike to Mrs. Leeds and her daughter, and agreed with Penny that they were determined to claim more than a rightful share of the inheritance.

Once the girls arrived at a decision they lost no time in driving to the nearest town where Penny dispatched a message to her father. Noticing an inviting looking restaurant, they ate lunch before motoring back to the Winters’ mansion. It was nearly two o’clock when they reached the Ridge again.

An unfamiliar car stood on the driveway. Penny was certain it did not belong to Mrs. Leeds for her mud-splattered sedan was parked some distance away.

“It looks like more visitors,” she commented as they crossed the veranda together.

At the doorway both girls involuntarily paused. Mrs. Leeds was engaged in conversation with a stranger.

For an instant Penny and Rosanna stood and stared. It was the same man who had refused them help on the road.