Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch
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Mildred flushed and seemed embarrassed. Then she answered calmly:
“I think Miguel speaks truly, for my father did not bear the name of Travers. He was called by another name.”
“Then why do you call yourself Travers?” retorted the other.
“I did not like my old name,” she said, “and so I changed it. But this is a secret I have told you, Inez, and you must not tell anyone of it.”
Inez nodded, looking at the other curiously. This confession had aroused her sympathy, for the first time, for her fellow nurse. The fact that there was a secret between them dissolved to an extent her antipathy for Mildred, and it might be a bond to eventually draw them nearer together. With more tolerance than she had yet shown she asked:
“Did Se?or Cristoval show you the secrets of this house?”
“Yes. I was a little girl and he was good to me. I am not a witch-woman, Inez. Oh, if I were, I would witch a little happiness into my life!” she added miserably.
This burst of rebellious longing interested Inez even more than the secret. She could understand such a protest against fate.
“At first,” continued Mildred, reverting to her former cold speech, while the hard look, which for an instant had given way to a flash of sentiment, again crept into her eyes, “I thought I had forgotten the queer recesses and secret rooms built by the elder Cristoval; but now I am beginning to remember them. In the days when this wing was built, the country was wild and lawless. Robbers often visited a house in broad daylight and took away all that was of value; so the first Cristoval – the father of the one I knew – made the secret place to hide his treasure in, and even to hide himself and his family if the thieves threatened them.”
“Is the treasure there now?” asked Inez eagerly.
Mildred frowned, as if the question displeased her.
“Of course not. That was long ago. When I was a girl they no longer needed the rooms in the wall as a hiding-place from thieves; but they kept them secret, just the same. I think I am the only person Se?or Cristoval ever told. He did it to please me, I suppose, because I was a child.”
Inez was much impressed. She began to regard Mildred more amicably. If she were not a witch-woman, she reflected, there was no reason to fear her. The Mexican girl thought deeply on what she had heard, during the next half hour. She watched Mildred put the baby to sleep and then take up a book to read as she sat beside the crib. Inez went out into the deserted court and squatting beside the fountain pondered upon the fascinating mysteries of the old house.
She crept back, presently, and reentered the nursery where Mildred was sitting.
“Tell me,” she began, in a friendly and familiar way that was new in her relations with the other girl, “are there indeed rooms hidden in these walls – big enough for people to hide in?”
Mildred smiled and laid down her book.Inez in this mood was worth cultivating, if she hoped to win her confidence. It would be far easier to get on in her new situation if Inez would learn to like her.
Another thing influenced her: a reflection that had not been absent from her mind since the Weldons departed for the day and had left her practically in charge of the house. She had come to this house for a purpose. Could that purpose be best accomplished to-day, or at some later period?
“I believe,” she answered musingly, “that this wall back of us is hollow and contains several rooms, which may be entered at various secret places – if one knows where the places are.”
“They cannot be very big rooms,” said Inez in a hushed, awed voice, as she glanced at the wall.
“No; they must be narrow. But they are quite long and high – some of them – and there are stairs leading from one floor to another, just like the big stairs in the hall.”
Inez stared at her.
“How you know that?” she inquired.
“Why, I’ve seen the rooms,” was the reply. “Let me think a moment.”
During the pause she scrutinized the Mexican girl closely, wondering if it would be advisable to take her into her confidence. Then she continued, speaking slowly:
“I’m almost sure it was in this very room that one of the secret entrances was built. It was not a nursery when I was here before, you know; it was Se?or Cristoval’s office, where he kept his books and his money-boxes.”
She rose, as she spoke, and looked uncertainly up and down the wall. Then, with a nod of satisfaction, she quickly walked to the east corner and counted four blocks of adobe, starting from the floor. The fourth line of blocks she followed to the third one, and placed her hand upon it.
“I think I am right, so far,” she said. “This is the door to the secret rooms, but the key that unlocks it is somewhere in the floor. Turn back the rug, please, Inez.”
The girl obeyed, her brown fingers trembling with excitement. The floor was of adobe blocks similar to those which formed the wall, but smaller in size. Mildred regarded them reflectively and then placed her foot on the edge of the second block directly in a line with the place where her hand rested. The pressure of her foot made the block tip slightly, and observing this she pressed hard with her hand against the inner edge of the upper block.
The result seemed magical. Three seemingly solid blocks of the wall swung slowly outward, disclosing a dimly lighted recess beyond.
Mildred stepped in, stooping her head slightly because the opening was so small. Inez followed her, nervously seizing the other girl’s hand for support. The light seemed to come from some place far above and as their eyes grew accustomed to it they could discern a passage about three feet in width and fourteen feet long, which occupied the center of the wall. At the right, a flight of steps led upward, and to their left the place was occupied by some chairs and stools. Against the walls were several narrow shelves, easily reached by one standing upright.
“Why, they have left the place furnished, just as it was when Se?or Cristoval first showed it to me,” said Mildred. “The mattings and upholstery must be ready to fall to pieces, by this time; but you see, Inez, I was right about the secret rooms.”
Just then little Jane wakened with a lusty cry.
“See to the baby,” said Mildred quickly, and the Mexican girl reluctantly turned away to obey.
Mildred remained in the recess, thoughtfully eyeing the various antique objects which had been allowed to remain there, some of which were of real value. She reflected that the last Cristoval had doubtless passed away without disclosing the secret of the wall to anyone, and his executors, in selling the mansion, had been quite unaware that anything was hidden in the adobe wall. Without doubt the property might now be justly claimed by the new owner, Arthur Weldon, and this thought made Mildred flush with eager resolve to take full advantage of her present opportunity. For here was the consummation of her hopes; here was the realization of the important plan which had brought her to Southern California and to this house.
Inez had caught the baby from its cradle and, holding a bottle of fresh milk-food to its lips to comfort it, again advanced through the opening. Mildred had stepped a few paces along the passage and Inez, the baby in her arms, started to join her.
At that moment she heard a sound in the court, as of some one approaching, and to avoid letting others know of this fascinating secret the girl thoughtlessly grasped the adobe door with her free hand and swung it shut behind her.
It closed with a sharp “click!” and Mildred, hearing the sound, turned with a low cry of fear.
“Great heavens, what have you done?” she exclaimed in tense tones and brushing the Mexican aside she threw her whole weight against the wall. It did not yield a hair’s breadth.
Inez, with terror in her eyes, stared at her companion.
“Is it lock?” she whispered.
Mildred pushed again, straining every muscle. Then she bent and examined the wall. It was easy to see, from this side, where the series of three blocks were firmly joined together. Also the butts of three huge iron hinges protruded slightly into the passage. There could be no mistake. The closing of the door had made them prisoners.
CHAPTER XIV – PRISONERS OF THE WALL
Mildred silently turned and regarded her companion. Her eyes were not hard and cold now. They were glowing with anxiety and terror.
“Cannot we get out?” demanded Inez.
Mildred shook her head.
“Not the way we came in,” she replied. “I remember now that Cristoval warned me never to close the door behind me; but I forgot to tell you that, so you are not to blame.”
Inez looked down at baby, who had again fallen asleep, snuggled close to her breast. Her fear at this time was not for herself. It was dreadful to think of the danger she had placed the darling baby in – the child she would have died rather than injure.
Mildred saw the look and read its anguish. Her own cheeks blanched for a moment, but there was an inherent quality of courage in this girl that forbade her to despair. Speaking as much to herself as to Inez she said:
“We were able to open this adobe door only by pressing downward on a block of the floor outside, which released a catch which is securely hidden in the lower edge of the opening – where I cannot reach it. So, unless some one knew the secret and could press that block in the nursery, the door cannot again be opened.”
Inez staggered to a stool and sat down.
“Must we stay here always?” she pleaded piteously.
“I think not. I am sure not, Inez. They will find some way to break through the wall and rescue us.”
“But no one knows we are here!”
“True. Well, I believe there are other ways to get out of this hollow wall, besides the opening we came through. I am quite certain I was told that Se?or Cristoval could enter from his room, on the second floor; and perhaps there are other entrances. Stay here and keep baby quiet and I will make an examination of our prison.”
As she started to ascend the stairs Inez arose to follow her.
“Let me come, too,” she begged. “I am afraid to stay alone.”
“Very well; but try not to waken baby.”
The stairs were built the full width of the space, completely blocking it at that end. At the top they stepped into another narrow room, which was not over the lower one but extended farther along the wall. It was, indeed, extraordinary to note how comfortable the genius of that ancient Cristoval who had planned the place, had made this originally comfortless corridor-like room, for room it was despite its narrow confines.
The ceiling was high, and light and air were admitted by gratings placed at the top, letting onto the bastion of the roof, where they could not be observed by those below. The gratings were covered by projections that kept out the rain and dew. On the floor was a thick carpet, somewhat musty and dusty now, and at the far end was placed a couch with silken curtains. This was still piled high with bedding and pillows and was boxed in, the full width of the passage, with elaborately carved woods. Upholstered seats, rather narrow but long and quite comfortable, were built against the wall and supported by richly carved frames of ebony and panels of cherry. There were pictures upon the walls; oil paintings of quite good quality. A sort of wall-cabinet and some small brackets supported numerous hooks, ornaments, and several boxes of metal and sandalwood, which last Mildred eyed expectantly but had now no leisure to examine.
The girls were both awed by this discovery, for Mildred had never been permitted to mount the stair to this room when Se?or Cristoval had allowed her to peep into the lower passage. The intense silence lent a weirdness to the place that was at first quite disconcerting. A gray rat scuttled along the carpet, causing them to jump and cry out, and then disappeared somewhere beneath the couch. Inez, trembling with nervous fear, hugged the baby with one arm and clutched Mildred’s arm with the other, and then they sat together on one of the cushioned seats and tried to collect their thoughts.
Mildred reflected that no person had entered this place for at least eight years, for it was eight years since the last Cristoval had passed to his fathers. Yet, aside from the dust, everything seemed in an excellent state of preservation. The secret room had been fitted up by its builder more than fifty years before and much of the furnishings must have been placed there then.
“My first task,” she said to Inez, “must be to make a thorough examination of this place. Since there is no one to help us, we must help ourselves, and any weakness at this time would be fatal.”
With this she rose and carefully began to inspect the walls. The heavy carpet was merely laid flat on the adobe floor and she raised it here and there and tested the blocks to see if any was movable. There was no means of reaching the ceiling but an opening there was out of the question.
Near the center of the room, on the inner wall and about two feet from the floor, was a square of wood firmly embedded in the adobe. This, she thought, might possibly be a means of egress or ingress, so she tested it eagerly, pressing not only upon the wood but on all the blocks of adobe near it, in the endeavor to discover a hidden spring or some other clever mechanical contrivance which would prove the “open sesame.” But the panel and the wall defied all her efforts and she finally concluded it was solid planking placed there to support the wall or to allow cupboards or shelves to be nailed against it.
Another similar place, where a huge panel of plank was set in the wall, she found at the very end of the passage, beyond the couch, and was only able to reach it by mounting the bed and climbing over the bedding. This panel was also immovable and she decided it could not be an opening because the wall beyond it was doubtless solid. This space beyond the bed, where the room ended, contained a huge chest of quaintly carved oak. As she saw the chest her heart gave a great bound and forgetting for the moment her desire to escape she reached down and raised the lid.
Then her face fell. Despite the dim light in this corner, which she had grown somewhat accustomed to in investigating the panel, she could see that the chest contained merely papers, with which it was half filled. This might be the accumulated correspondence of the Cristovals, of no use to any but themselves, and losing all interest in the chest she closed the lid and again crossed over the high bed to Inez.
The result of this investigation, which had consumed a full hour, so thorough had she been, convinced Mildred that there was no immediate way for them to leave their prison. So she began to plan how they might keep themselves and baby Jane comfortable until they were rescued.
The bottle of milk, which Inez still held in her hand, was a prepared food of a highly nourishing quality. The contents of the bottle had scarcely been touched by baby when, rousing from her sleep, she had been taken up and comforted by Inez until slumber again overtook her. Usually Jane consumed two bottles of such food each day, and another during each night.
Mildred looked at her watch and found it was nearly four o’clock. With a little care in its administration the baby’s food might last until morning, but not longer. For themselves, they must be content without food, unless —
She decided to search the boxes and shelves while daylight lasted, and bade Inez place the sleeping infant on one of the cushioned seats and support it with a pillow brought from the couch. Then the two girls began to take down the boxes from the shelves and explore their contents. Some were of tin and square in shape; others were round, like canisters.
In one they found some tea and in another a small quantity of loaf sugar. There was no other food, except a few cracker crumbs in the bottom of a tin.
Leaving Inez to sit beside baby, Mildred next visited the room below. Here the light was more dim, but she discovered a box of wax candles – two or three dozen in number – and a quantity of matches in a small iron safe. She tried these last and after several attempts managed to light one of them and with it light a candle. The matches were at least eight years old, but there was not a particle of dampness in the place and so they had not greatly deteriorated.
A broad slab of redwood, hinged and fastened to the wall by turn-buttons, was made to let down and serve as a table. When Mildred lowered it she found that it covered a small recess or cupboard in the wall, in which stood three tin cans. One was labeled “tomatoes” and the other two “corn.”
Here was food, of a certain sort; but the cans were tightly soldered and there seemed to be no tool that might be used to open them. Although the place was littered with many small articles there was nothing else among them that especially interested the girl. Two sabers were crossed upon the wall over the table, and below them hung a big revolver. A panama hat, yellowed with age, hung upon a peg. A broom made of palm fiber stood in a corner.
Mildred returned to the upper floor, carrying with her several candles and some matches.
“Inez,” said she, “we must make the best of our misfortune. I hope that before long we shall be rescued, both on baby’s account and on our own. There are some tins of tomatoes and corn down stairs, but nothing that baby could eat. However, we shall suffer more from thirst than from hunger, as there is not a drop of water in the place.”
Inez had been thinking during Mildred’s absence.
“Can we not scream, and so make them hear us?” she asked.
“I have thought of that and we will make the attempt. The servants are all in the opposite wing, so it is useless to try to arouse their attention; but when Mr. and Mrs. Weldon return, with the others, they may be able to hear us and so rescue us.”
“When will they be back?” Inez inquired.
Mildred considered this question.
“I heard them say they were to stay in town for luncheon, but Mrs. Weldon remarked that they would be back soon after. I think, Inez, they may already have returned and even now may be searching for us. Stay here, and I will go below, so as not to disturb baby, and call.”
She went again down the steep stairs to the lower room where, standing near to the place where they had come through the wall, she uttered a sharp, shrill cry, such as she thought might penetrate the thick blocks of adobe. The sound echoed with startling reverberations through the secret chambers and baby Jane, wakening in affright, set up a series of such lusty screams that it seemed as if they ought to be heard a mile away.
Inez did her best to soothe and quiet the baby, but succeeded only when she had given little Jane the precious bottle of milk.
CHAPTER XV – MILDRED CONFIDES IN INEZ
Mildred had hastened upstairs in alarm at the pandemonium of sound her own cry had aroused, for the baby’s screams also gave back a thousand echoes and these sent the little one into fresh paroxysms of terror.
“This won’t do, at all,” she said anxiously, when baby Jane had sobbed herself into a doze, with the bottle to comfort her. “If we scream again it will frighten the child to death.”
“Perhaps they have heard us,” suggested Inez, rocking Jane to and fro in her arms.
“Perhaps. Let us hope so,” sighed Mildred.
Presently she went over to the couch and examined the condition of the bedding. The linen sheets had withstood the years very well, but the blankets and coverlets had a musty smell. She spread some of these out to air and then went back and sat beside Inez.
Together they watched the light fade until the narrow space was full of creeping shadows. The air began to grow chilly, so Mildred arranged the couch and they laid baby Jane upon it, covered her snugly with a blanket and drew the silk curtain to shield her eyes from the glare of the candles. They had lighted several of these, placing them in heavy brass candlesticks which they found ranged upon the shelves. Each of the girls took a blanket and folded it about her and then they sat down together to await their fate as patiently as they could.
They both realized, by this time, that their dilemma was likely to prove serious. Not a sound from within the house penetrated the adobe walls of their prison. They were unable to tell if their whereabout had yet been discovered.
“I think it best to wait until morning before we make any further effort to be heard,” said Mildred. “Our cries would only distract baby and if our screams have not already attracted notice it would be folly to continue them. Anyway, let us try to be brave and patient. Something may happen to save us, before morning.”
Even by the flickering candle-light the place was awesome and uncanny. Inez crept closer to Mildred’s side, quite forgetting her former aversion for her companion. Because the sound of their own voices lent them a certain degree of courage they conversed together in low tones, talking on any subject that occurred to them.
At one time Inez broke an oppressive stillness by saying:
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