«It wasn't a cage as far as I could see», said Jack. «I couldn't even see any windows to it. It was more like a small removal van than anything – but whatever was inside wasn't furniture. I tell you it snorted and squealed and struggled.»
«Was it a man inside, do you think?» asked Pam, her eyes wide with interest and excitement.
«No. I don't think so. It might have been, of course», said Jack. «But a man doesn't snort like that. Unless he had a gag over his mouth, perhaps.»
This was a new thought and rather an alarming one. Nobody spoke for a minute.
«Well», said Jack, at last, «it certainly is something for the Secret Seven to look into. There's no doubt about that. It's all very mysterious – very mysterious indeed.»
«How are we going to tackle it?» said George.
They all sat and thought. «We had better find out if we can tell anything by the tracks in the snow», said Peter. «We'll find out too if there are car-tracks up the drive to that old house.»
«Yes. And we could ask the old caretaker if he heard anything last night», said Colin.
«Bags I don't do that», said Pam at once. «I'd just hate to go and ask him questions.»
«Well, somebody's got to», said George. «It might be important.»
«And we might try and find out who owns the old empty house», said Colin.
«Yes», said Peter. «Well, let's split up the inquiries. Pam, you go with George and see if you can find out who owns the house.»
«How do we find out?» asked Pam.
«You will have to use your common sense», said Peter. I can't decide everything. Janet, you and Barbara can go down the lane and examine it for car-tracks and anything else you can think of.»
«Right», said Janet, glad that she hadn't got to question the caretaker.
«And I and Colin and Jack will go into the drive of the old house and see if we can get the caretaker to tell us anything», said Peter, feeling rather important as he made all these arrangements.
«What's Scamper to do?» asked Janet.
He's going to come with us», said Peter. «In case the caretaker turns nasty! Old Scamper can turn nasty too, if he has to!»
«Oh, yes – that's a good idea, to take Scamper», agreed Jack, relieved at the thought of having the dog with him. «Well – shall we set off?»
«Yes. Meet and report here this afternoon», said Peter. «You've discovered a most exciting mystery, Jack, and it's up to the Secret Seven to solve it as soon as they can!»
6 – Finding Out a Few Things
All the Secret Seven set off at once, feeling extremely important. Scamper went with Peter, Colin and Jack, his tail well up, and he also felt very important. He was mixed up in a Mystery with the Society! No wonder he turned up his nose at every dog he met.
They left Pam and George at the corner, looking rather worried. The two looked at one another. «How are we going to find out who owns the house?» said Pam.
«Ask at the post office!» said George, feeling that he really had got a very bright idea. «Surely if the house is owned by someone who has put in a caretaker, there must be letters going there.»
«Good idea!» said Pam, and they went off to the post office. They were lucky enough to see a postman emptying the letters from the pillar-box outside. George nudged Pam.
«Come on. We must start somewhere. We'll ask him.»
They went up to the man. «Excuse me», said George. «Could you tell us who lives at the old house down by the stream – you know, the empty house there?»
«How can anyone live in an empty house?» said the postman. «Don't ask silly questions and waste my time! You children – you think you're so funny, don't you?»
«We didn't mean to be funny, or cheeky either», said Pam in a hurry. «What George means is – who owns the house? There's a caretaker there, we know. We just wondered who the house belongs to.»
«Why? Thinking of buying it?» said the postman, and laughed at his own joke. The children laughed too, wishing the man would answer their question.
«How would I know who owns the place?» he said, emptying the last of the letters into his sack. «I never take letters there except to old Dan the caretaker, and he only gets one once in a month – his wages, maybe. Better ask at the estate office over there. They deal with houses, and they might know the owner – seeing as you're so anxious to find him!»
«Oh, thank you», said Pam, joyfully, and the two of them hurried across to the estate office. «We might have thought of this ourselves», said Pam. «But I say – what shall we say if the man here asks why we want to know? You only go to a house agent's if you want to buy or sell a house, don't you?»
They peeped in at the door. A boy of about sixteen sat at a table there, addressing some envelopes. He didn't look very frightening. Perhaps he would know – and wouldn't ask them why they wanted the name of the owner.
They went boldly in. The boy looked up.
«What do you want?» he said.
«We've been told to ask who owns the old house down by the stream», said George, hoping the boy might think that some grown-up had sent him to find out. Actually it was only Peter, of course, but he didn't see why he should say so.
«I don't think the house is on the market», said the boy, turning over the pages of a big book. «Do your parents want to buy it, or something? I didn't know it was to be sold.»
The two children said nothing, because they didn't really know what to say. The boy went on turning over the pages.
«Ah – here we are», he said. «No – it's not for sale – it was sold to a Mr. J. Holikoff some time ago. Don't know why he doesn't live in it, I'm sure!»
«Does Mr. Holikoff live anywhere here?» asked Pam.
«No – his address is 64, Heycom Street, Covelty», said the boy, reading it out. «Course, I don't know if he lives there now. Do your people want to get in touch with him? I can find out if this is his address now, if you like – he's on the telephone at this address.»
«Oh, no, thank you», said George hastily. «We don't want to know anything more, as the house is – er – not for sale. Thank you very much. Good morning.»
They went out, rather red in the face, but very pleased with themselves. «Mr. Holikoff», said Pam to George. «It's a peculiar name, isn't it? Do you remember his address, George?»
«Yes», said George. He took out his notebook and wrote in it: “Mr. J. Holikoff, 64, Heycom Street, Covelty”. «Well, we've done our part of the job! I wonder how the others are getting on.»
They were getting on quite well. Janet and Barbara were busy examining the tracks down the lane that led to the stream. They felt quite like detectives.
«See – the car with the van behind, or whatever it was, turned into the lane from the direction of Templeton; it didn't come from our village», said Janet. «You can see quite clearly where the wheels almost went into the ditch.»
«Yes», said Barbara, staring at them. «The tracks of the van wheels are narrower than the wheels of the car that towed it, Janet. And look – just here in the snow you can see exactly what the pattern was on the wheels of the van. Not of the car, though – they're all blurred.»
«Don't you think it would be a good idea to take a note of the pattern of the tyre?» said Janet. «I mean – it just might come in useful. And we could measure the width of the tyre print too.»
«I don't see how those things can possibly matter», said Barbara, who wanted to go down the lane and join the three boys.
«Well, I'm going to try and copy the pattern», said Janet firmly. «I'd like to have some thing to show the “boys”!»
So, very carefully, she drew the pattern in her notebook. It was a funny pattern, with lines and circles and V-shaped marks. It didn't really look very good when she had done it. She had measured the print as best she could. She had no tape-measure with her, so she had placed a sheet from her notebook over the track, and had marked on it the exact size. She felt rather pleased with herself, but she
did wish she had drawn the pattern better.
Barbara laughed when she saw it. «Gracious! What a mess!» she said.
Janet looked cross and shut her notebook up. «Let's follow the tracks down the lane now», she said. «We'll see exactly where they go. Not many vans come down here – we ought to be able to follow the tracks easily.»
She was quite right. It was very easy to follow them. They went on and on down the lane – and then stopped outside the old house. There were such a lot of all kinds of marks there that it was difficult to see exactly what they were – footprints, tyre-marks, places where the snow had been kicked and ruffled up – it was hard to tell anything except that this was where people had got out and perhaps had had some kind of struggle.
«Look – the tyre-marks leave all this mess and go on down the lane», said Janet. She looked over the gate longingly. Were the boys in the old house with the caretaker?
«Let's go and see if we can find the boys», said Barbara.
«No. We haven't quite finished our job yet», said Janet. «We ought to follow the tracks as far as they go. Come on – we'll see if they go as far as the stream. There are two lots of tracks all down the lane, as we saw – so it's clear that the car and trailer went down, and then up again. We'll find out where they turned.»
That was easy. The tracks went down to a field-gate, almost to the stream. Someone had opened the gate, and the car had gone in with the trailer, and had made a circle there, come out of the gate again, and returned up the lane. It was all written clearly in the tyre-tracks.
«Well, that's the story of last night», said Janet, pleased at their discoveries. «The car and the thing it was pulling came from the direction of Templeton, turned down into this lane, stopped outside the old house, where people got out and messed around – and then went down to the field, someone opened the gate, the car and trailer went in and turned, and came out again and went up the lane – and disappeared into the night. Who or what it brought in the trailer-van goodness knows!»
«Funny thing to do at that time of night», said Barbara.
«Very queer», agreed Janet. «Now let's go back to the old house and wait for the boys.»
«It's almost one o'clock», said Barbara. «Do you think they're still there?
They hung over the gate and watched and listened. To their horror the old caretaker came rushing out as soon as he saw them, his big stick in his hand.
«More of you!» he cried. «You wait till I get you. You'll feel my stick all right. Pestering, interfering children! You just wait!»
But Barbara and Janet didn't wait! They fled up the lane in fright, as fast as they could possibly go in the soft thick snow.
7 – A Talk With the Caretaker
The three boys and Scamper had had an exciting time. They had gone down the lane, noting the car-tracks as they passed. They came to the old house. They saw that the gate was shut. They leaned over the top and saw tracks going up the drive.
«There's my footprints that I made yesterday morning», said Peter, pointing to them. «And look, you can see Scamper's paw-marks here and there too – but our tracks are all overlaid with others – bigger footmarks – and other marks too, look – rather queer.»
«A bit like prints that would be made by someone wearing great flat, roundish slippers», said Jack, puzzled. «Who would wear slippers like that? Look, you can see them again and again, all over the place. Whoever wore them was prancing about a bit! Probably being dragged in.»
The boys leaned over the gate and considered all the marks carefully. They traced them with their eyes as far as they could see.
«Can any of you make out if the tracks go up the front door steps?» said Colin. «I can't from here – but it rather looks to me as if the snow is smooth up the steps – not trampled at all.»
«I can't make out from here», said Peter. «Let's go up the drive. After all, we've got to interview the caretaker and find out if he heard anything last night. So we've got to go in.»
«What shall we say if he asks us why we want to know?» said Colin. «I mean – if he's in this mystery, whatever it is, he may be frightfully angry if he thinks we know anything about it.»
«Yes, he might», said Peter. «We'll have to be jolly clever over this. Let's think.»
They thought. «I can't think of anything except to sort of lead him on a bit – ask him if he isn't afraid of burglars and things like that», said Peter at last. «See if we can make him talk.»
«All right», said Colin. «But it seems a bit feeble. Let's go in.»
Scamper ran ahead down the drive. He disappeared round a corner. The boys followed the footprints carefully, noting how the slipper-like ones appeared everywhere, as if the owner had gone from side to side and hopped about like mad.
«They don't go up the front door steps», said Colin. «I thought they didn't! They go round the side of the house – look here – right past the side door where the caretaker came out yesterday – and down this path – and round to the kitchen door!»
«Well – how queer!» said Peter, puzzled. «Why did everyone go prancing round to the kitchen door when there's a front door and a side door? Yes – all three tracks are here – two sets of shoe-prints – and those funny round slipper-prints too. It beats me!»
They tried the kitchen door, but it was locked. They peered in at the window. The kitchen was completely bare and empty. But they saw a gas-stove, a sink piled with plates, and a pail nearby when they looked through the scullery window.
«I suppose the caretaker has the use of the scullery and that front room in the house», said Jack.
«Look out – here he is!» said Peter suddenly.
The old fellow was shuffling into the empty kitchen. He saw the three boys through the window and went to fling it open in a rage. «If you want that there dog of yours, he's round in the front garden!» he shouted. «You clear out. I won't have kids round here. You'll be breaking windows before I know where I am!»
«No, we shan't», shouted Jack, determined to make the deaf old man hear. «We'll just collect our dog and go. Sorry he came in here.»
«Aren't you rather lonely here?» shouted Colin. «Aren't you afraid of burglars?»
«Somebody's been round to the back door, all the same», shouted Peter, seeing a chance to discuss this bit of mystery with the caretaker and see if he knew anything about it. He pointed to all the tracks leading to the back door. The old man leaned out of the window and looked at them.
«They're no more than the tracks you've made yourself, tramping about where you've no business to be!» he said angrily.
«They're not. I bet it was burglars or something last night», said Peter, and all three boys looked closely at the caretaker to see if his face changed in any way.
«Pah!» he said. «Trying to frighten me, are you, with your silly boys' nonsense!»
«No. I'm not», said Peter. «Didn't you hear anything at all last night? If burglars were trying to get in, wouldn't you hear them?»
«I'm deaf», said the old man. «I wouldn't hear nothing at all – but wait now – yes, I did think I heard something last night. I'd forgotten it. Ah – that's queer, that is.»
The boys almost forgot to breathe in their excitement. «What did you hear?» said Jack, forgetting to shout. The old man took no notice. He frowned, and his wrinkled face became even more wrinkled.
«Seems like I heard some squealing or some such noise», he said slowly. «I thought it was maybe some noise in my ears – I get noises often, you know – and I didn't go to see if anything was up. But, there now, nobody took nothing nor did any damage – so what's the use of bothering? If people want to squeal, let 'em, I say!»
«Was the squealing in the house?» shouted Peter.
«Well, I guess I wouldn't hear any squealing outside», said the old man. «I'm deaf as a post, usually. Ah, you're just makin
g fun of me, you are – trying to frighten an old man. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!»
«Can we come in and look round?» shouted Colin, and the others looked eagerly at the caretaker. If only he would say yes!
But he didn't, of course. «What are you thinking of, asking to come in!» he cried. «I know you kids – pestering creatures – wasting my time like this. You clear out and don't you come here again with your tale of burglars and such. You keep away. Kids like you are always up to mischief.»
Just at that moment Scamper came bounding up. He saw the old caretaker at the window and leapt up at him, in a friendly manner. The man jumped in alarm. He thought Scamper was trying to snap at him. He leaned forward and aimed a blow at him through the window with his stick. Scamper dodged and barked.
«I'm going to teach that dog a lesson!» cried the old fellow, in a fury. «Yes, and you too – standing out there cheeking me! I'll teach you to make fun of me, you and your dog!»
He disappeared. «He's going to dart out of the side door», said Peter. «Come on – we've learnt all we want to know. We'll go!»
8 – Another Meeting
The meeting that afternoon was very interesting and full of excitement. Everyone had something to report. They came punctually to the old shed, giving the password without a pause.
«Weekdays!» One after another the Seven passed in, and soon they were sitting round the shed. They all looked very important. Scamper sat by Peter and Janet, his long ears drooping down like a judge's wig, making him look very wise.
«Pam and George – you report first», said Peter.
So they reported, telling how they had found out that the old house had been sold to a Mr. J. Holikoff some time back, although he had never lived in it.
«Did you get his address?» asked Peter. «It might be important.»
«Yes», said George, and produced his note-book. He read the address.
«Good. We might have to get in touch with him if we find that he ought to know something queer is going on in his empty house», said Peter.