Scamper had squeezed under the gate and gone bounding up the smooth, snowy path. The marks of his feet were clearly to be seen. He barked joyfully.
The curtains at the ground-floor window moved and a cross, wrinkled old face looked out. Then the window was thrown up.
«You get out of here! Take your dog away! I won't have children or dogs here, pestering little varmints!»
Scamper stood and barked boldly at the old caretaker. He disappeared. Then a door opened at the side of the house and the old man appeared, with a big stick. He shook it at the alarmed children.
«I'll whack your dog till he's black and blue!» shouted the man.
«Scamper, Scamper, come here!» shouted Peter. But Scamper seemed to have gone completely deaf. The caretaker advanced on him grimly, holding the stick up to hit the spaniel.
Peter pushed open the gate and tore up the path to Scamper, afraid he would be hurt.
«I'll take him, I'll take him!» he shouted to the old man.
«What's that you say?» said the cross old fellow, lowering his stick. «What do you want to go and send your dog in here for?»
«I didn't. He came in himself!» called Peter, slipping his fingers into Scamper's collar.
«Speak up, I can't hear you», bellowed the old man, as if it was Peter who was deaf and not himself. Peter bellowed back:
«I DIDN'T SEND MY DOG IN!»
«All right, all right, don't shout», grumbled the caretaker. «Don't you come back here again, that's all, or I'll send the policeman after you.»
He disappeared into the side door again. Peter marched Scamper down the drive and out of the gate.
«What a bad-tempered fellow», he said to the others. «He might have hurt Scamper awfully if he'd hit him with that great stick.»
Janet shut the gate. «Now you and Scamper have spoilt the lovely smooth path», she said. «Goodness, there's the church clock striking a quarter to one. We'll really have to hurry!»
«We'll let you all know when the next meeting is!» shouted Peter, as they parted at the corner. «And don't forget the password and your badges.»
They all went home. Jack was the first in because he lived very close. He rushed into the bathroom to wash his hands. Then he went to brush his hair.
«I'd better put my badge away», he thought, and put up his hand to feel for it. But it wasn't there. He frowned and went into the bathroom. He must have dropped it.
He couldn't find it anywhere. He must have dropped it in the field when he was making the snowmen with the others. Bother! Blow!
“Mother's away, so she can't make me a new one”, he thought. “And I'm sure Miss Ely wouldn't.”
Miss Ely was his sister's governess. She liked Susie, Jack's sister, but she thought Jack was dirty, noisy and bad-mannered. He wasn't really, but somehow he never did behave very well with Miss Ely.
“I'll ask her if she will make one”, he decided. “After all, I've been jolly good the last two days.”
Miss Ely might perhaps have said she would make him his badge if things hadn't suddenly gone wrong at dinner-time.
«I know where you've been this morning», said Susie, slyly, when the three of them were at table. «Ha, ha. You've been to your silly Secret Society. You think I don't know anything about it. Well, I do!»
Jack glared at her. «Shut up! You ought to know better than to talk about other people's secrets in public. You just hold that horrid, interfering tongue of yours.»
«Don't talk like that, Jack», said Miss Ely at once.
«What's the password?» went on the annoying Susie. «I know what the last one was because you wrote it down in your notebook so as not to forget and I saw it! It was – »
She gave a loud cry of pain. «Oh! My ankle! How dare you, Jack! Leave the table and go without your dinner. I shall not speak another word to you all day long, if that is how you behave.»
«I'm awfully sorry, Miss Ely», muttered Jack, scarlet with shame. «I didn't mean to kick you.»
«It's the kicking that matters, not the person», said Miss Ely, coldly. «It doesn't make it any better knowing that you meant to kick Susie, not me. Leave the room, please.»
Jack went out. He didn't dare to slam the door, though he felt like it. He wasn't cross with Susie any more. He had caught sight of her face as he went out of the room, and had seen that she was alarmed and upset. She had meant to tease him, but she hadn't meant him to lose his nice dinner.
He kicked his toes against each step as he went upstairs. It was a pity he'd been sent out before the jam-tarts were served. He liked those so much. Blow Miss Ely! Now she certainly wouldn't make a new badge for him, and probably he would be turned out of the Society for losing it. Peter had threatened to do that to anyone who turned up more than once without a badge.
“I seem to remember something falling off me when I was making that last snowman”, thought Jack. “I think I'll go out and look this afternoon. I'd better go before it snows again, or I'll never find it.”
But Miss Ely caught him as he was going out and stopped him. «No, Jack. You are to stay in today, after that extraordinary behaviour of yours at the dinner-table», she said sternly. «You will not go out to play any more today.»
«But I want to go and find something I lost, Miss Ely», argued Jack, trying to edge out.
«Did you hear what I said?» said Miss Ely, raising her voice, and poor Jack slid indoors again.
All right! He would jolly well go out that night then, and look with his torch. Miss Ely should not stop him from doing what he wanted to do!
4 – What Happened to Jack
Jack was as good as his word. He went up to bed at his usual time, after saying a polite good night to Miss Ely, but he didn't get undressed. He put on his coat and cap instead! He wondered whether he dared go downstairs and out of the garden door yet.
“Perhaps I'd better wait and see if Miss Ely goes to bed early”, he thought. “She sometimes goes up to read in bed. I don't want to be caught. She'd only go and split on me when Mother comes home.”
So he took a book and sat down. Miss Ely waited for the nine o'clock news on the wireless and then she locked up the house and came upstairs. Jack heard her shut the door of her room.
Good! Now he could go. He slipped his torch into his pocket, because it really was a very dark night. The moon was not yet up.
He crept downstairs quietly and went to the garden door. He undid it gently. The bolt gave a little squeak but that was all. He stepped into the garden. His feet sank quietly into the snow.
He made his way to the lane and went down it to the field, flashing his little torch as he went. The snow glimmered up, and there was a dim whitish light all round from it. He soon came to the field where they had built the snowmen, and he climbed over the gate.
The snowmen stood silently in a group together, almost as if they were watching and waiting for him. Jack didn't altogether like it. He thought one moved, and he drew his breath in sharply. But, of course, it hadn't. It was just his imagination.
«Don't be silly», he told himself, sternly. «You know they're only made of snow! Be sensible and look for your dropped button.»
He switched on his torch and the snowmen gleamed whiter than ever. The one with eyes and nose and mouth, with the cap and the coat on, seemed to look at him gravely as he hunted here and there. Jack turned his back on him.
«You may only have stone eyes, but you seem to be able to look with them, all the same», he said to the silent snowman. «Now don't go tapping me on the shoulder and make me jump!»
Then he suddenly gave an exclamation. He had found his badge! There lay the button in the snow, with S.S. embroidered on it, for Secret Seven. Hurrah! He must have dropped it here after all then.
He picked it up. It was wet with snow. He pinned it carefully on his coat
. That really was a bit of luck to find it so easily. Now he could go home and get into bed. He was cold and sleepy.
His torch suddenly flickered, and then went out. «Blow!» said Jack. «The battery's gone. It might have lasted till I got home, really it might! Well, it's a good thing I know my way.»
He suddenly heard a noise down the lane, and saw the headlights of a car. It was coming very slowly. Jack was surprised. The lane led nowhere at all. Was the car lost? He'd better go and put the driver on the right road, if so. People often got lost when the roads were snowbound.
He went to the gate. The car came slowly by and then Jack saw that it was towing something – something rather big. What could it possibly be?
The boy strained his eyes to see. It wasn't big enough for a removal van, and yet it looked rather like the shape of one. It wasn't a caravan either, because there were no wide windows at the side. Were there any windows at all? Jack couldn't see any. Well, whatever was this curious van? And where was it going? The driver simply must have made a mistake! The boy began to climb over the gate. Then he suddenly sat still.
The car's headlights had gone out. The car itself had stopped, and so had the thing it was towing. Jack could make out the dark shapes of the car and the van behind, standing quite still. What was it all about?
Somebody spoke to somebody else in a low voice. Jack could see that one or two men had got out of the car, but he could not hear their footsteps because of the snow.
How he wished the moon was up, then he could hide behind the hedge and see what was happening! He heard a man's voice speaking more loudly.
«Nobody about, is there?»
«Only that deaf fellow», said another voice.
«Have a look-see, will you?» said the first voice. «Just in case.»
Jack slipped quickly down from the gate, as he saw a powerful torch flash out. He crouched behind the snowy hedge, scraping snow over himself. There came the soft crunch of footsteps walking over frosty snow by the hedge. The flashlight shone over the gate and the man gave an exclamation.
«Who's there? Who are you?»
Jack's heart beat so hard against him that it hurt. He was just about to get up and show himself, and say who he was, when the man at the gate began to laugh.
«My word – look here, Nibs – a whole lot of snowmen standing out here! I thought they were alive at first, watching for us! I got a scare all right.»
Another man came softly to the first and he laughed too. «Kids' work, I suppose», he said. «Yes, they look real all right, in this light. There's nobody about here at this time of night, Mac. Come on – let's get down to business.»
They went back towards the car. Jack sat up, trembling. What in the world could the men be doing down here in the snowy darkness, outside an old empty house? Should he try to see what they were up to? He didn't want to in the least. He wanted to go home as quickly as ever he could!
He crept to the gate again. He heard queer sounds from where the men were – as if they were unbolting something – opening the van perhaps.
And then there came a sound that sent Jack helter-skelter over the gate and up the lane as fast as his legs would take him! An angry, snorting sound, and then a curious high squeal – and then a noise of a terrific struggle, with the two men panting and grunting ferociously.
Jack couldn't think for the life of him what the noise was, and he didn't care, either. All he wanted was to get home before anything happened to him. Something was happening to somebody, that was certain, out there in the snowy lane. It would need a very, very brave person to go and interfere – and Jack wasn't brave at all, that night!
He came to his house, panting painfully. He crept in at the garden door and locked and bolted it. He went upstairs, not even caring if the stairs creaked under his feet! He switched on the light in his bedroom. Ah – that was better. He didn't feel so scared once he had the light on.
He looked at himself in the glass. He was very pale, and his coat was covered with snow. That was through lying in the snowy ditch below the hedge. He caught sight of his badge, still pinned on to his coat. Well, anyhow, he had that.
“I went out to find my badge – and goodness knows what else I've found”, thought the boy. “Golly – I must tell the others. We must have a meeting tomorrow. This is something for the Secret Seven! I say – what a thrill for them!”
He couldn't wait to tell them the next day. He must slip out again – and go to the shed at the bottom of Peter's garden. He must leave a note there, demanding a meeting at once!
«It's important. Very, very important», said Jack to himself, as he scribbled a note on a bit of paper. «It really is something for the Society to solve.»
He slipped down the stairs again, and out of the garden door. He wasn't frightened any more. He ran all the way up the lane and round to Peter's house. The farmhouse stood dark and silent. Everyone was in bed; they did not stay up late at the farm.
Jack went down to the old shed. The door. It was locked. His hands felt on the door itself. He bent down and slid his note under the crack at the bottom.
Then home he went again to bed – but not to sleep. Who had made that noise? What was that strange high van? Who were the men? It really was enough to keep anybody awake for hours!
5 – Exciting Plans
Next morning Janet went down to the shed by herself. Peter was brushing Scamper. He was well and truly brushed every single morning, so it was no wonder his coat shone so beautifully.
«Just open the shed and give it an airing», ordered Peter. «We shan't be using it today. There won't be any meeting yet.»
Janet skipped down the path, humming. She took the key from its hiding-place – a little ledge beneath the roof of the shed – and slipped it into the lock. She opened the door.
The shed smelt rather stuffy. She left the door open and went to open the little window too. When she turned round she saw Jack's note on the floor.
At first she thought it was an odd piece of waste paper, and she picked it up and crumpled it, meaning to throw it away. Then she caught sight of a word on the outside of the folded paper.
“URGENT. VERY IMPORTANT INDEED.”
She was astonished. She opened the paper out and glanced down it. Her mouth fell open in amazement. She raced out of the shed at top speed, yelling for Peter. «Peter! PETER! Where are you? Something's happened, quick!»
Her mother heard her and called to her. «Janet, Janet, what's the matter, dear? What's happened?»
«Oh – nothing, Mummy», called back Janet, suddenly remembering that this was Secret Society business.
«Well, why are you screeching for Peter like that?» said her mother. «You made me jump.»
Janet flew up the stairs to where Peter was still brushing Scamper. «Peter! Didn't you hear me calling? I tell you, something's happened!»
«What is it?» asked Peter, surprised. «Look – I found this paper when I went to the shed this morning», said Janet, and she gave him Jack's note. «It's marked: “Urgent, Very Important Indeed.” Look what it says inside.»
Peter read out loud what Jack had written: «Peter, call a meeting of the Secret Seven at once. Very important Mystery to solve. It happened to me last night about half-past nine. Get the others together at ten if you can. I'll be there. Jack. What on earth does he mean?» said Peter, in wonder. «Something happened to him last night? Well, why is it such a mystery then? I expect he's exaggerating.»
«He's not, he's not. I'm sure he's not», cried Janet, dancing from one foot to another in her excitement. «Jack doesn't exaggerate, you know he doesn't. Shall I go and tell the others to come at ten if they can? Peter, it's exciting. It's a mystery!»
«You wait and see what the mystery is before you get all worked up», said Peter, who, however, was beginning to feel rather thrilled himself. «I'll go and tell Colin and George – you can tell the girls.»
Janet sped off in one direction and Peter in another. How lovely to have to call a meeting alread
y – and about something so exciting too.
It was about half-past nine when the two came back.
Everyone had promised to come. They were all very anxious to know what Jack had got to say.
«Remember your badges», Janet said to the two girls. «You won't be admitted to an important meeting like this unless you know the password and have your badge.»
Everyone turned up early, eager to hear the news. Everyone remembered the password, too.
«Weekdays!» and the door was opened and shut.
«Weekdays», and once more the door was opened and shut. Member after member passed in, wearing the badge and murmuring the password. Both Colin and George had their badges this morning. George had found his and Colin's mother had already made him one.
Jack was the last of all to arrive, which was most annoying because everyone was dying to hear what he had to say. But he came at last.
«Weekdays», said his voice softly, outside the shed door. It opened and he went in. Everybody looked at him expectantly.
«We got your note, and warned all the members to attend this meeting», said Peter. «What's up, Jack? Is it really important?»
«Well, you listen and see», said Jack, and he sat down on the box left empty for him. «It happened last night.»
He began to tell his story – how he had missed his badge and felt certain he had dropped it in the field where the snowmen were – how he had slipped out with his torch to find it, and what he had heard and seen from the field.
«That frightful noise – the snorting and the horrid squeal!» he said. «It nearly made my hair stand on end. Why did those men come down that lane late at night? It doesn't lead anywhere. It stops a little further on just by a great holly hedge. And what could that thing be that they were towing behind?»
«Was it a cage, or something – or was it a closed van where somebody was being kept prisoner?» said Barbara, in a half-whisper.