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The two girls cuddled up close to each other on the low couch by the open window and lowered their voices to a whisper. Through the warm darkness of the June night came the hum of a great city, a subdued, murmurous sound, strangely unfamiliar to one of the girls, who was in the city for the first time in all her country life. To the other the sound had some time since become an accustomed one. As they leaned their elbows on the sill and, chins in hand, stared out into the darkness, Marcia began...
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Augusta Huiell Seaman
The Girl Next Door
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
New Edition, Timeless Classic, World Classic
Published by Sovereign
An imprint of Max Bollinger
27 Old Gloucester St,
London WC1N 3AX
First published in 2013
Author: Augusta Huiell Seaman
Editor: Max Bollinger
Copyright © 2013 Sovereign
Cover design and artwork © 2013 urban-pic.co.uk
All Rights Reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
The greatest care has been taken in compiling this book. However, no responsibility can be accepted by the publishers or compilers for the accuracy of the information presented.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data.
A catalogue record for this book has been requested.
ISBN: 9781909676039 (ebk)
“Marcia Brett, do you mean to tell me—”
“That you’ve had a secret two whole months and never told me about it yet? And I’m your best friend!”
“I was waiting till you came to the city, Janet. I wanted to tell you; I didn’t want to write it.”
“Well, I’ve been in the city twelve hours, and you never said a word about it till just now.”
“But, Janet, we’ve been sight-seeing ever since you arrived. You can’t very well tell secrets when you’re sight-seeing, you know!”
“Well, you might have given me a hint about it long ago. You know we’ve solemnly promised never to have any secrets from each other, and yet you’ve had one two whole months?”
“No, Jan, I haven’t had it quite as long as that. Honest! It didn’t begin till quite a while after I came; in fact, not till about three or four weeks ago.”
“Tell me all about it right away, then, and perhaps I’ll forgive you!”
The two girls cuddled up close to each other on the low couch by the open window and lowered their voices to a whisper. Through the warm darkness of the June night came the hum of a great city, a subdued, murmurous sound, strangely unfamiliar to one of the girls, who was in the city for the first time in all her country life. To the other the sound had some time since become an accustomed one. As they leaned their elbows on the sill and, chins in hand, stared out into the darkness, Marcia began:
“Well, Jan, I might as well commence at the beginning, so you’ll understand how it all happened. I’ve been just crazy to tell you, but I’m not good at letter-writing, and there’s such a lot to explain that I thought I’d wait till your visit.
“You know, when we first moved to this apartment, last April, from ‘way back in Northam, I was all excitement for a while just to be living in the city. Everything was so different. Really, I acted so silly—you wouldn’t believe it! I used to run down to the front door half a dozen times a day, just to push the bell and see the door open all by itself! It seemed like something in a fairy-story. And for the longest while I couldn’t get used to the dumb-waiter or the steam-heat or the electric lights, and all that sort of thing. It is awfully different from our old-fashioned little Northam—now isn’t it?”
“Yes, I feel just that way this minute,” admitted Janet.
“And then, too,” went on Marcia, “there were all the things outside to do and see—the trolleys and stores and parks and museums and the zoo! Aunt Minerva said I went around ‘like a distracted chicken’ for a while! And beside that, we used to have the greatest fun shopping for new furniture and things for this apartment. Hardly a bit of that big old furniture we brought with us would fit into it, these rooms are so much smaller than the ones in our old farm-house.
“Well, anyhow, for a while I was too busy and interested and excited to think of another thing—”
“Yes, too busy to even write to me!” interrupted Janet. “I had about one letter in two weeks from you, those days. And you’d promised to write every other day!”
“Oh well, never mind that now! You’d have done the same, I guess. If you don’t let me go on, I’ll never get to the secret! After a while, though, I got used to all the new things, and I’d seen all the sights, and Aunt Minerva had finished all the furnishing except the curtains and draperies (she’s at that, yet!), and all of a sudden everything fell flat. I hadn’t begun my music-lessons, and there didn’t seem to be a thing to do, or a single interest in life.
“The truth is, Jan, I was frightfully lonesome—for you!” Here Marcia felt her hand squeezed in the darkness. “Perhaps you don’t realize it, but living in an apartment in a big city is the queerest thing! You don’t know your neighbor that lives right across the hall. You don’t know a soul in the house. And as far as I can see, you’re not likely to if you lived here fifty years! Nobody calls on you as they do on a new family in the country. Nobody seems to care a rap who you are, or whether you live or die, or anything. And would you believe it, Janet, there isn’t another girl in this whole apartment, either older or younger than myself! No one but grown-ups.
“So you can see how awfully lonesome I’ve been. And as Aunt Minerva had decided not to send me to high school till fall, I didn’t have a chance to get acquainted with any one of my own age. Actually, it got so I didn’t do much else but moon around and mark off the days till school in Northam closed and you could come. And, oh, I’m so glad you’re here for the summer! Isn’t it gorgeous!” She hugged her chum spasmodically.
“But to go on. I’m telling you all this so you can see what led up to my doing what I did about—the secret. It began one awfully rainy afternoon last month. I’d been for a walk in the wet, just for exercise, and when I came in, Aunt Minerva was out shopping. I hadn’t a new book to read nor a blessed thing to do, so I sat down right here by the window and got to thinking and wondering why things were so unevenly divided—why you, Jan, should have a mother and father and a big, jolly lot of brothers and sisters, and I should be just one, all alone, living with Aunt Minerva (though she’s lovely to me), with no mother, and a father away nearly all the time on his ship.
“And it seemed as if I just hated this apartment, with its little rooms, like cubbyholes, all in a row. I longed to be back in Northam. And looking out of the window, I even thought I’d give anything to live in that big, rambling, dingy, old place next door, beyond the brick wall, for at least one could go up and down stairs to the different rooms.
“And then, if you’ll believe me, Jan, as I stared at that house it began to dawn on me that I’d never really ‘taken it in’ before—that it was a very strange-looking old place. And because I didn’t have another mortal thing to do, I just sat and stared at it as if I’d never seen it before, and began to wonder and wonder about it. For there were a number of things about it that seemed decidedly queer.”
“What’s it like, anyway?” questioned Janet. “There were so many other things to see to-day that I didn’t notice it at all. And it’s so dark now I can’t see a thing.”
“Why, it’s a big, square, four-story brick house, and it’s terribly in need of paint. Looks as if it hadn’t had a coat in years and years. It stands ‘way back from the street, in a sort of ragged, weedy garden, and there’s a high brick wall around the whole place, except for a heavy wooden gate at the front covered with ironwork. That gate is always closed. A stone walk runs from the gate to the front door. ‘Way back at the rear of the garden is an old brick stable that looks as if it hadn’t been opened or used in years.
“You’ll see all this yourself, Janet, when you look out of the window in the morning. For this apartment-house runs along close to the brick wall, and as we’re three floors up, you get a good view of the whole place. This window in my room is the very best place of all to see it—fortunately.
“But the queer thing about it is that, though the shutters are all tightly closed or bowed,—every one!—and the whole place looks deserted, it really isn’t! There’s some one living in it; and once in a long while you happen to see signs of it. For instance, that very afternoon I saw this: ‘most all the shutters are tightly closed, but on the second floor they are usually just bowed. And that day the slats in one of them were open, and I thought I could see a muslin curtain flapping behind it. But while I was looking, the fingers of a hand suddenly appeared between the slats and snapped them shut with a jerk.
“Of course, there’s nothing so awfully strange about a thing like that, as a rule, but somehow the way it was done seemed mysterious. I can’t explain just why. Anyhow, as I hadn’t anything else to do, I concluded I’d sit there for a while longer and see if something else would happen. But nothing did—not for nearly an hour; and I was getting tired of the thing and just going to get up and go away when—”
“What?” breathed Janet, in an excited whisper.
“The big front door opened (it was nearly dark by that time) and out crept the queerest little figure! It appeared to be a little old woman all dressed in dingy black clothes that looked as if they must have come out of the ark, they were so old-fashioned! Her hat was a queer little bonnet, with no trimming except a heavy black veil that came down over her face. She had a small market-basket on her arm, and a big old umbrella.
“But the queerest thing was the way she scuttled down the path to the gate, like a frightened rabbit, turning her head from side to side, as if she was afraid of being seen or watched. When she got to the gate, she had to put down her basket and umbrella and use both hands to unlock it with a huge key. When she got outside of it, on the street, she shut the gate behind her, and of course I couldn’t see her any more.
“Well, it set me to wondering and wondering what the story of that queer old house and queer little old lady could be. It seemed as if there must be some story about it, or some explanation; for, you see, it’s a big place, and evidently at one time must have been very handsome. And it stands right here in one of the busiest and most valuable parts of the city.
“The more I thought of it, the more curious I grew. But the worst of it was that I didn’t know a soul who could tell me the least thing about it. Aunt Minerva couldn’t, of course, and I wasn’t acquainted with another person in the city. It just seemed as if I must find some explanation. Then, all of a sudden, I thought of our new colored maid. Perhaps she might have heard something about it. I made up my mind I’d go right out to the kitchen. So I went and started her talking about things in general and finally asked her if she knew anything about that old house. And then—I wish you could have heard her! I can’t tell it all the way she did, but this is the substance of it:
“It seems that she’s discovered that the janitor here is the son of an old friend from North Carolina. Of course she’s been talking to him a lot, and he has told her all about the whole neighborhood, and especially about the queer old house next door. He says it’s known all around here as ‘Benedict’s Folly.’”
“Why?” queried Janet.
“Well, because years and years ago, when the owner built it (his name was Benedict), it was ‘way out of the city limits, and everybody thought he was awfully foolish, going so far, and building a handsome city house off in the wilderness. But he wasn’t so foolish after all, for the city came right up and surrounded him in the end, and the property is worth no end of money now.
“But here’s the queer thing about it. Old Mr. Benedict’s been dead many years, and the place looks as if no one lived there—but some one does! It’s a daughter of his, a queer little old lady, who keeps herself shut up there all the time; some think she’s alone, others say no, that some one else is there with her. No one seems to know definitely. Anyhow, although she is very wealthy, she does all the work herself, and the marketing; and she even carries home all the things, and won’t allow a single one of the tradesmen to come in.
“Mr. Simmonds (that’s our janitor) says that two years ago, in the winter, a water-pipe there burst, and Miss Benedict just had to get a plumber; and he afterward told awfully peculiar things about the way the house looked,—the furniture all draped and covered up, and even the pictures on the walls covered, too,—and not a single modern improvement except the running water and some old-fashioned gas-fixtures. And the little old lady never raised her veil while he was there, so he couldn’t see what she looked like.
“Mr. Simmonds says every one thinks there is some great mystery about ‘Benedict’s Folly,’ but no one seems to be able to guess what it can be. Now, Janet, isn’t that just fascinating? Think of living next door to a mystery!”
“It’s simply thrilling!” sighed Janet. “But, Marcia, I still don’t see what this has to do with a secret. Where do you come in? I don’t see why you couldn’t have written all this to me.”
“Wait!” said Marcia. “I haven’t finished yet. That was absolutely all I could get out of our maid Eliza, all she or any one else knew, in fact. But as you can imagine, I couldn’t get the thing out of my mind, and I couldn’t stop looking at the old place, either. I tried to talk to Aunt Minerva about it, but she wasn’t a bit interested. Said she couldn’t understand how any one could keep house in that slovenly fashion, and that’s all she would say. So I gave up trying to interest her.
“Now, I must tell you the odd thing that happened that very night. You know I’ve said it was raining hard all that day, and by ten o’clock the wind was blowing a gale. I was just ready for bed, and had turned off my light and raised the shade, when I thought I’d take another peep at my mysterious mansion across the fence. All I could see, however, were just some streaks of light through the chinks in the shutters in that one room on the second floor. All the rest of the place was as dark as a pocket. And as I sat staring out, it suddenly came to me what fun it would be to try to unravel the whole mysterious affair all by myself. It would certainly help me to pass the dull days till you came!
“But then, too, the only way to do it would be to watch this old place like a cat, and I knew that wouldn’t be right. It would be too much like spying into your neighbor’s affairs, and, of course, that’s horrid. Finally, I concluded, that if I could do it without being meddlesome or prying, I’d just watch the place a little and see if anything interesting would happen. And while I was thinking this, a strange thing did happen—that very minute!
“The wind had grown terrific, and, all of a sudden, it just took one of the shutters of that lighted room, and ripped it from its fastening, and threw it back against the wall. And the next moment a figure hurried to the window, leaned out, and drew the shutter back in place again. But just for one instant I had caught a glimpse of the whole inside of the room! And what do you suppose I saw, Jan?”
“What?” demanded Janet.
“Well, not much of the furnishing, except a lighted oil-lamp on a table. But, directly in the center of the room, in a perfectly enormous armchair sat—a woman! And it wasn’t the one I’d seen in the afternoon, either. I’m sure of that. I couldn’t see her face, for it was in shadow, but she was looking down at something spread out on her lap. And she held her right hand over it in the air and waved it back and forth, sort of uncertainly. You can’t imagine what a strange picture it was—and then the shutter was closed. There was something so weird about it all.
“If I was curious before, I was simply wild with interest then. It seemed as if I must know what it all meant—what that strange old lady could be doing, sitting there in state in the middle of the room, and all the rest of it. You don’t blame me, do you, Jan?”
“Indeed I don’t! I’d be ten times worse, I guess. But what about the secret? And did you find out anything else?”
“Yes, I did. And that’s the secret. The whole mysterious thing is in the secret, because no one but you knows I’m the least interested in the affair, and I don’t want them to—now! I’ll tell you what happened next.”
But just at this moment they were interrupted by a knock at the door, and a voice inquiring:
“Girls, girls! haven’t you gone to bed yet? I’ve heard you talking for the last hour.”
“No, Aunt Minerva!” answered Marcia, “we are sitting by the window.”
“Well, you must go to bed at once! It’s nearly midnight. You won’t either of you be fit for a thing to-morrow. Now, mind, not another word! Good-night!”
“Good-night!” they both answered, but heaved a sigh when Aunt Minerva was out of hearing.
“It’s no use!” whispered Marcia. “We’ll have to stop for to-night. But there’s lots more, and the most interesting part of it, too. Well, never mind, I’ll tell you all the rest to-morrow!”
THE FACE BEHIND THE SHUTTER
Janet had no sooner hopped out of bed next morning than she flew to the window to examine “Benedict’s Folly” by broad daylight. In the streaming sun of a June morning the dingy old mansion certainly bore out the truth of Marcia’s mysterious description.
“Gracious! I should think you would have been interested in it from the first!” she exclaimed.
“Interested in what?” yawned Marcia, sleepily, opening her eyes.
“’Benedict’s Folly,’ of course! Let’s see,” went on Janet, who possessed a very practical, orderly mind; “from your story last night it seems there must be two people living there—but look here! how did you know, Marcia, that it was another old lady you saw that night when the shutter blew open?”
“Why, for several reasons,” answered Marcia. “In the first place, the one who goes out is short and slight. The one sitting in the chair was evidently large, and rather stout, and—and different, somehow, although I didn’t see either of their faces. And then, it wasn’t the lady in the chair who closed the shutter. She evidently never moved. So it must have been some one else.”
“Yes, it must have been,” agreed Janet, convinced. “Queer that nobody seems to know about the second one. I wonder who she is? And are there any more? Go on with your story, Marcia.”
“No,” said Marcia. “Wait till we can be by ourselves for a long while. I don’t want to be interrupted. Aunt Minerva’s going out this morning, and then we’ll have a chance.”
So, later in the morning, the two girls sat by Marcia’s window, each occupied with a dainty bit of embroidery, and Marcia began anew:
“Well, after that rainy night, for several days I didn’t see a thing more that was interesting about the old house or the queer people who live in it. I used to watch once in a while to see if the little lady in black would go out again in the afternoon, as she did before, but she didn’t. Then, a day or two later, I did something that surprised even myself, for I hadn’t the faintest intention of doing it. I had been taking a walk that afternoon and was just coming home, passing on the way the high brick wall of the Benedict house. It was just as I reached the closed gate that an idea popped into my head.
“You know, they say that no visitors are ever admitted, and no rings or knocks at the gate are ever answered. Well, something suddenly prompted me to ring that bell and see what would happen. I never stopped to ask myself what I should say if some one came and inquired what I wanted. I just rang it suddenly (and I had to pull hard, the old thing was so rusty) and far away somewhere in the house I heard a faint tinkle.
“Then I got kind of panic-stricken, wondering what I’d say if any one did really come. But I needn’t have worried, for what do you suppose happened?”
“Nothing!” answered Janet, promptly.
“That’s just where you’re mistaken; but you’d never guess what it was. About a minute after I’d rung the bell, I heard light footsteps on the walk behind the gate. But, instead of coming toward the gate, they were hurrying away from it; and in another minute I heard the front door close. After that it was all quiet, and nothing else happened. Then I went on home.”
“I know,” interrupted Janet, whose quick mind had already worked out the problem, “exactly what occurred. It was Miss Benedict, who had been just about to come out on her way to do the marketing. And your ring frightened her, and sent her hurrying back into the house. Isn’t it all singular!”
“Yes, that must have been it,” agreed Marcia. “And it made me more curious than ever to understand about it. And I was so annoyed at myself for ringing at all. If I hadn’t, I might have seen Miss Benedict close by, when she came out of the gate. It served me right for doing such a thing, anyhow!
“But after that I got to watching, every time I went out, thinking I might see her on the street somewhere, especially if it was about the time she usually did her marketing—along toward dusk. Several days passed, however, and I never did. I had thought of watching from my window to see when she went out, and then following her. But that didn’t seem right, somehow. It would be too much like spying on her. So I just concluded I’d trust to chance. And luck favored me at last, one morning, about a week after I’d rung her bell.
“It happened that the night before, Eliza suddenly discovered we were all out of oatmeal for breakfast, and I promised her I’d get some very early in the morning, when I went to take my walk. You know, I’ve found that on these warm summer days in the city it’s much pleasanter to take a walk in the real early morning than to wait till later in the day, when it’s crowded and hot. And I always used to love walking in the early morning, up in Northam.
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