FIFTY years ago, more or less, — no one is quite sure, either way, — there lived an old man in the large corner house at the end of our Street. It was an eighteenth-century house to begin with, but he modernized it according to the standards of fifty years ago, and put in white marble mantelpieces of ornate design, and faceted mirrors in the ceilings, to reflect the light from gilded chandeliers. Across from the drawing-room he built a large conservatory, with a black-and-white marble floor — a room with a glass end and a high curved glass roof, high enough to receive tall palms and tropical plants. He spent huge sums on the house, making it magnificent, but after the builders were out no one ever saw the inside of it during his lifetime.
He was rich and eccentric and lived alone, and rumor had it that he collected silver half crowns, just as one might collect threepenny bits. Now to collect threepenny bits, among such as you and me, is no light matter. Therefore to collect half crowns, to withdraw them completely from the needs of daily life without feeling it, means wealth indeed. But wealth he had, for the story goes that he covered one of his rooms with these silver half crowns, and set them into the plaster. The coins, so went the report, were placed together so closely, so precisely, so evenly and smoothly, that they covered the entire walls and ceiling of one room, and when it was thus covered he papered the whole thing over with a disguising wall paper, so that no one knew which room it was. So well had he set in his half crowns that no coin showed through, and there were no little ridges or circles or depressions by which one could possibly recognize the silver room from any other.
Naturally the Street took a deep interest in this old man and his silver room, and there was much speculation as to which it might be. Some had it one room, some another, on this floor or that. Consensus of opinion finally placed it as the largest room in the house, because, if one was rich enough and odd enough to cover a little room, one was also rich and odd enough to cover the biggest. But, whichever it was, the old man kept his secret. No one could rob him without such fuss and disturbance and tearing of paper as would have aroused him; therefore no one ever attempted to rob him, our Street not being very enterprising in such matters.
At this point the story has an unsatisfactory ending. Many years ago the old man died, leaving no bank account, no papers, no hoard of gold, not so much as a farthing piece to be found anywhere. Nothing but the magnificent house, on which a fortune had been spent; yet not a trace of a fortune could be found. Had the money been buried or hidden in the house, or secreted elsewhere? No one knew. Moreover, no trace could be found of the silver room. Apparently there was none, which was contrary to all gossip and tradition. The house then passed into other hands, and eventually Miss Anne took it over on one of those interminable 999-year leases, or something of that kind.
Below, as you know, is the restaurant, where one can get a good meal at a trifling cost. Above, on the first floor, is the sitting room, with Miss Anne’s bedroom adjoining. The two upper floors are let out at ridiculously low prices to people financially unstable, who do or who do not meet their rent. But Miss Anne, warmhearted and generous, never presses for the weekly rent when overdue. Presumably, if it is n’t met, it can’t be, so there is an end of it. Next week, perhaps — or the week after; one always hopes. People say — there is a lot of gossip in our Street — that the house has now become so run down and so shabby that of course none but the poorest would think of lodging there: impecunious gentlefolk, who have heard of the hidden treasure and have come to look for it; have come to live in the old house, hoping to be lodged in the mythical silver room and so make their fortunes; and that it is because of these greedy lodgers, these treasure hunters, that the house looks so appallingly shabby. Not the furniture, — that is well enough, — but the state of the rooms, with the wall paper all in nicks and shreds, cut by sharp tools into ribbons.
Now and then, when things get too down at heel, Miss Anne remonstrates with her lodgers, protests there is nothing to be found, and puts on new wall paper over the old tatters. But the ghost of the silver room cannot be laid. The new wall paper goes as did its predecessor; strips are torn from above the baseboard, or in most unexpected places, till the rooms are spotted like a leopard — rips and tears all over. In the quiet of the night, when the buses have stopped running, one hears furniture being moved about, surreptitiously. Rickety chairs are being placed on shaky tables, so that some old lady may climb up and rake the ceiling paper down. Always they are all of them searching for those half crowns. When lodgers do that sort of thing, systematically, no room can look nice for long.
A small gathering of five or six people was assembled in the sitting room one evening after supper, trying to advise Miss Anne. Things had reached a climax. It was not only the silver room, but the reputed buried treasure itself that was being searched for — a new turn which threatened to undermine the house. But, as usual, advice bounced off Miss Anne, although she listened patiently enough. By rights, she was told, — once more, having already been told repeatedly, — she should have made a good thing of it, letting all those rooms. But not by letting them to undesirables trying to make a fortune. And now look what was happening! Not content with destroying the wall paper, the lodgers had begun to tamper with the walls and floors. It was pointed out that there seemed no end to it — that she must, in self-protection, let the rooms to richer people who did not need half crowns so badly.
' Look at Miss Carfax,’ came an excited and indignant chorus. ‘She got a man in with a pick, last week, and tore up the whole floor on the landing —’
‘Well, Miss Carfax has gone,’ said Miss Anne gently. ‘ I told her she really must go, after that. Though, poor thing, it won’t be easy for her to find another home — but she really was getting so destructive.’
And how much does it cost in wall paper?’ asked someone. ‘Three rooms, all in shreds, this very minute. It’s utter nonsense.'
Miss Anne admitted that it was nonsense, and most trying and provoking. ‘I never would have taken this house had I known its reputation,’ she added. ‘The upkeep is so expensive. However,’she continued cheerfully, ‘I have a nice lot of you in now! ’
She beamed at her friends. Those gentle, kindly eyes were so disarming.
‘But there is one terrible one left,’expostulated the red-haired girl indignantly, ‘and there will never be any peace or safety while she stays! ’
Miss Anne nodded. There was no need to mention names. With one accord they all thought of the tenant in the garret room, the little elderly lady who tiptoed up and down the stairs with a bun in a bag, or went out with a jug for a ha’pennyworth of milk. She was pitiful, if you looked at her one way; maddening, if you brought your common sense to bear. If she would just stay in her garret room, and not go poking into other people’s; if she would just stop being so genteel and selfish; if she would just stop prying about, and sneaking into any open door that offered, to have a go at the wall paper!
‘She knowns there is nothing to be found,’continued the red-haired girl. ‘You have told her over and over! She has cost you a good twenty pounds in repairs. You have got to send her off!’
‘My dear, where could she go but here? She has n’t a penny,’ said Miss Anne. And, she might have added, she has n’t paid a penny in rent these three years. A fact that the others all knew, though they also knew that Miss Anne was terribly fond of these lame ducks. Still, this particular one was becoming unbearable. Prying and poking, and slipping into other rooms, and never offering to lend a hand, to pick up a dish, to help clear the table, to do any little kind thing in return for the many kindnesses Miss Anne was always doing her. Nothing but an irritant, doing damage whenever she could. Besides, under Miss Carfax’s influence, she had just bought a hatchet, and there was no knowing where that would lead. It was a shame. Miss Anne, having a little money of her own, could afford Miss Winston if she liked that was her affair. But she could not afford — decidedly she could not afford — the extra expense Miss Winston was letting her in for.
‘I’d tell her just once more — warn her one more time — that if she goes hacking about with that new hatchet of hers, out she goes,’ came the chorus of advice.
‘She seems to have a theory,’explained Miss Anne, ‘that the treasure is buried in the walls somewhere — it is not the half crowns she is searching for now.'
‘And I suppose you have told her the laws of treasure-trove?' someone asked. ‘That it goes to the Crown — and the Crown lets the finder keep half? Why, her half, — which by rights should be yours, only you’ll give it to her, of course! — her half will have to be spent in rebuilding this old house by the time she’s demolished it!’
The company by this time was growing thoroughly vexed with their beloved Miss Anne, a vicarious vexation that should have been spent on Miss Winston upstairs. But Miss Anne, having had enough, changed the subject.
‘I paid two and six for that!' she exclaimed with an air of triumph, placing a small electric torch upon the table. The parson picked it up and examined it critically.
‘Two and six,’ he repeated thoughtfully. ‘Then it must be worth at least fourpence. Does it go?’
’In the shop it did,’replied Miss Anne eagerly, ‘ but I think now — perhaps —’
‘Exactly. Fully fourpence,’said the parson, making it click and revealing its unreliable habits. ‘May I ask why you fancied it?’
‘It will be so nice for the lift room,’protested Miss Anne. ‘Or at least it would have been. You see, it is such a nuisance, the lift room having no gas laid on, so that one has to fumble about in the dark, putting the dishes on the food lift.’
The lift room, across the hall from the sitting room, had been the conservatory in the old days when the house was magnificent. But as a conservatory It had gone to seed. True, the marble floor was intact, which was a convenience, because the large glass roof which covered one end had several panes out, — more than several, — and as they were of large size, of a fine curved glass, they had been too expensive to replace. On rainy nights the rain beat in through the openings and splashed upon the marble floor, which fortunately slightly sloped, so that for the most part the water drained off nicely down a gutter. It had been a well-built conservatory, but the gutter could not manage a deluge. Whenever the rain was too heavy, buckets and jugs had to be set about to take the strain off the outlet pipe.
In one corner of the room was the food lift, a neat little dumb-waiter to take the dishes down to the kitchen. Because of the glass roof, it was possible on moonlight or clear nights to see quite comfortably, and put in the dishes with comparative ease. But in winter, or on dark, stormy evenings, it was more difficult. Still, one acquired amazing skill in the darkness, and the dishes were stowed on the lift shelves without too many mishaps. Only now and then, when the lift had not been hauled up from the kitchen, were things dropped down the shaft. That sort of accident, however, took place about once a month, according to some calculations, and about once a week, according to others. If it had worked, this electric torch would have saved its cost in broken china. It had a small loop for hanging it up, and was guaranteed to go, so Miss Anne said, for several hours. The torch was passed from hand to hand, and regrets were expressed that so useful a thing should be out of order. Consequently the supper dishes had to be cleared away in the usual groping manner.
Now while all these discussions had been going on in the sitting room the lodger in the garret, Miss Winston, had been standing at the head of the stairs, two flights up, listening to the voices from below. A meagre figure, dressed in shabby black, wearing a very cockeyed pince-nez, one glass of which was cracked. Because of this crack, the pince-nez had to be worn at an angle, to enable the wearer to see round the defect. With a tin candlestick in one hand, she peered over the railing and listened intently to the sounds from below. They were making considerable noise. Supper was apparently over, and it was just the usual, prolonged aftersupper talk, in which she never joined. The moment seemed auspicious.
Miss Winston cautiously descended the steps, candle in one hand, and in the other, hidden under the folds of her shawl, the formidable hatchet. Alone, in her garret, she had evolved a theory as to the hiding place of the hidden treasure, and was about to test it. It was in the conservatory, or lift room. There could be no possible doubt that it was secreted in the lift shaft, above the small square ceiling of the shaft, where the lift roof bumped when pulled up too violently.
Cautiously she descended the stairs, hesitating and pausing. If they would only go on talking and laughing like that they would not hear her as she tiptoed past the sitting-room door and into the conservatory. It was the only feasible hour of the day, the only time possible, when they were all gathered in the sitting room, with the door shut, talking their interminable twaddle. She would be obliged to make some noise, but the noise would not be noticed. The dead of night was no time for her activities; the house was too silent at night — someone would hear and rush in to stop her. They were too tiresome about it now, always stopping her on all occasions, preventing her from accomplishing her purpose. Golden sovereigns were hidden above the ceiling of the lift shaft, ready to rain down upon her at the first good whack from her hatchet! She could reach them by pushing down the lift, by standing on the top of the box. No one ever entered that room once the supper dishes were put away; to-night, when there were visitors, she could work undisturbed.
She slipped quietly into the dark conservatory, and by the light of the candle noted with satisfaction that the lift shelves were full — everything put away, ready to be pushed down to the kitchen below. She pulled on the rope, gently. Slowly the lift descended, slowly the box sank till its top was on a level with the opening. With considerable dexterity she scrambled-up and stood on the top of the box, rather crouching, and held the candle high for a good survey of the small square of paneling overhead.
Then something happened. The lift slowly began to sink. Very gently, noiselessly, not in jerks, the lift began to descend — to sink, just as she was raising the hatchet for a good overhead chop. And even as it sank, slowly, the sitting-room door opened — they were coming out into the hall. They, or some one of them. Possibly coming into the lift room itself, with something forgotten. She hurriedly blew out the candle, and the lift sank lower and lower, till only her head was on a level with the opening. Slowly it descended to the kitchen, fifteen feet below, leaving her imprisoned between the two floors, and a good ten feet below the room above. Distinctly she heard voices; mercifully she was out of sight.
‘I should warn her once and for all,’ said the disagreeable voice, ‘that all further tampering with this house must cease. That if you ever catch her at it again, no matter where — out she goes!’
Miss Winston, hidden in the lift shaft between floors, was furious.
There were steps overhead — someone was indeed entering the lift room to deposit something forgotten. They would not catch her this time, however! Mercifully she was out of sight, at the bottom of a well.
Miss Anne returned to the sitting room, amused.
‘I’ve done it now!’ she exclaimed. ‘Just dropped the milk pudding down the shaft. The lift was n’t there, though I don’t remember having sent it down!’
A burst of laughter greeted this casual announcement, but Miss Anne became troubled. ‘A milk pudding does make such a mess below,’ she explained. ‘We can’t go to the pictures till we have cleared it up. Cook will be so furious when she comes in the morning and finds it has happened again!’
‘Did it make much of a crash?’ asked the parson, raising a concerned eyebrow.
‘Not as much as you’d think,’ replied Miss Anne. ‘At least, not nearly as much as last time. No — come to think of it, there was n’t the usual splash. Something soft seemed to be down there—perhaps it was Peter, the cat.’
‘Lucky Peter,’ commented the parson. ‘Let him enjoy himself till we return. Now if that gadget of yours had only been working —’
But the red-haired girl was lighting a candle. She disappeared, and in a few moments returned to the sitting room.
‘It’s time we were off,’ she said. ‘We must hurry — we must n’t miss anything. There is such a good show on at the Palace.’
Miss Anne put on her bonnet, then hesitated.
‘I think I must first go up and speak to Miss Winston,’ she said. ‘With all of us going out like this, leaving her and that hatchet alone for a whole evening — I shall have to tell her that she positively must not —’
‘Oh, don’t bother about Miss Winston to-night!’ exclaimed the girl insistently. ‘Let’s hurry out. I have a feeling that she won’t be up to her tricks to-night. Leave her alone; let her stay where she is — till we come back at eleven. Or,’ she concluded viciously, ‘let her stay where she is till morning! Unless,’ she added, ‘unless we see a show all full of sentimental tosh, calculated to melt a heart of stone.’