Mysterious Room [9/18]

Ninth evening.

The legal steps having been taken, Mr. Briggs took full possession of the Pendleton property, and at an early date commenced to settle according to law. There was no will. Hezekiah Pendleton had such a firm grasp on life that he never allowed himself to think of death; and if he had, I doubt if he could have brought his mind to the point where he would have been willing to put on paper the words, “I give,” for they were unknown to his vocabulary since Seth got the Simpson farm; but “I keep” were words that filled all the space.

“My child, I hope you fully realize the misfortune that befalls any one who forms such a penurious habit as did Mr. Pendleton. [*1] I would not have you unmindful of the future and fail to prepare for old age, but guard against a miserly propensity.”

A few days after the funeral Mr. Briggs appeared early in the morning with three men, he having spent the greater part of each day there since the funeral. They were Jones and Taylor, both Justices of the Peace, and Mr. Larkin, who were to take an inventory of the property. Mr. Briggs was careful to guard against any opportunity for the many jealous people of the village to charge him with appropriating anything to his personal use, so he decided not to enter that room alone, and he had not touched the lock since he took the key from its dead owner, and was quite sure no one had, and believing no one could find any other entrance to the den, he felt perfectly safe in waiting until the appraisers were duly sworn, before he touched the door which had swung

[ p 80 ]

open for no one but Hezekiah Pendleton for twenty years. [^1] They waited for Seth, that every member of the family might be present when the old rusty key was turned. They did not wait long; Seth soon came puffing in at a rapid pace, and up the back stairs they went. Mr. Briggs turned the key and swung open the door. The squeak of the old rusty hinges, that had sent a shudder through each member of the family for years, had now turned to melody and sent a thrill of joy through every one of them. A little window of diamond shaped glass set in lead, opening out upon the roof of a shed at the rear, was the only means of obtaining light, and this being partly screened by a board resting against it, allowed but a very dim light to enter the room. The screen being removed, and the eyes of each of the explorers, for such they might well be called, becoming accustomed to the conditions, there was but little difficulty in viewing the surroundings. The room was about ten feet wide and a little longer; quite low studded, with the rafters all visible. It was entirely unfinished. The old beams and braces were perforated by the worms of years, but as it was the contents that interested the appraisers, administrator and heirs, as well as Hannah and all the townfolks, so that is what is of the most interest to you.

This room was none other than the temple which contained Hezekiah Pendleton’s god. Here was what he had worked for; that for which he had denied his wife and children the comforts, yes, necessities of life; and what had afforded him no comfort in the hour of death. Yet it was his god.

“What do I mean? Why, my child, I mean that any thing or person that is worshipped by another becomes that person’s

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idol, and any one who sets his affections on such an object or person, breaks the first commandment, which you well know to be, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me;’ and from what you have learned of Hezekiah Pendleton, do you think he kept that commandment?” [^2]

“No, grandma, I do not, said Ned; “but do tell me what was there.”

There were a few partially burnt sticks on the old hearth, a little round table near it, on which was a piece of birch bark, that revealed some figures — columns added, and some not added. [^3] These articles, with an old wooden chair without a back, were all of the furnishings; but on the beams, in the angles where the braces met, and in fact on all parts and in all corners of the room, were piles of coins and rolls of bank bills, and hanging from wooden pegs were bags that held from a quart upwards, filled with rusty coppers and odd pieces of coin, the value of which could not be then determined. It was noticeable that at one side there seemed to be an empty appearance, when compared with the other parts, and one remarked, “Well, the old man didn’t live long enough to fill up this end.” At this time Saul and the girls seemed to be uneasy, yet it was but little noticed, and the work of counting and recording went on. All of the coin that was familiar to the appraisers and of which the value could be determined was thrown into one large box, and that which was not known was deposited in another, while the paper notes were uncertain and given over to Mr. Briggs to be examined by experts in the city, a record of the denominations being made without the value.

The beams being cleared, the company descended to the lower floor, and the work of appraisal contin-

[ p 82 ]

[ interior sketch ]
[[ Opening the Mysterious Room. ]]
“Mr. Briggs turned the key and swung open the door.”

[ p 83 ]

ued with more rapidity, for the heirs were not quite as attentive, and their company might well have been dispensed with; their duties thus far had been self-imposed, and were mostly those of watching each other. While looking at the cattle in the barn, Squire Taylor said, “If the old man had put a few of those bank bills on the cattle, they would have been in better condition, and I am mistaken if he wouldn’t have left more property. I shall miss my guess if half of those rolls that he has been counting over for years, until they are worn thin with his fingering, are not worthless.”

After serving a good, hot dinner for the gentlemen, Sally and Priscilla concluded to go up to the mysterious room and give it a cleansing, such as it had not received for many years; neither broom nor brush had entered there for a score of years, unless their father had taken it, [*2] and as that was not in keeping with the habits of Mr. Pendleton, it was not at all likely that any cleaning had been done there at all, and the appearance of the floor and any unoccupied parts indicated neglect, while every corner and angle that held the coin and bills was free from dust and cobwebs, and the hoarded wealth was noticeable for its freedom of dirt, showing conclusively that the owner spent his time here in counting and rearranging his accumulations. Had Mr. Pendleton put his money at interest and spent his time, if he must waste so much of it, in reckoning up the interest, he would have left a much larger estate. Sally was down on her knees peering into every dark corner and giving each part a thorough cleaning, when she discovered a hole, evidently the work of rats, and calling Priscilla, who was up on a stool brushing the

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cobwebs from above, a candle was lighted and brought in and investigation made. A bunch of tattered paper was brought out that proved to be parts of bank bills, and aroused the sweepers to such an interest that they hardly knew what course to pursue.

“I’ll go and tell Mr. Briggs,” said Sally.

“No,” said Priscilla, “let’s look into the matter ourselves, and if there is anything here we’ll keep it. Seth has got the Simpson farm and Saul will git the best of us anyhow.”

[ house sketch ]
The Pendleton Homestead.

They concluded to say nothing about it, and sometime when Saul was away they would take up a floor board and see what they could find. Night came on long before the appraisers had completed the round of the buildings. They left the records with Mr. Briggs, and decided to resume work on the following day. Josiah Briggs came for his father with the horse and sled, as the snow had been falling all day and the first sledding of the early winter had come. It was fortunate that the son was so thoughtful, otherwise Mr. Briggs would have been obliged to

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remain all night as he had allowed his helpers to go home without making any provision for the safekeeping of the money, and he could not feel secure in leaving it long enough there with the legal heirs, to go for his team; [*3] and not one of the four children of Hezekiah Pendleton had confidence enough in the others to leave them while the boxes were in the house, so they would not go to the barn to get the Pendleton team for Mr. Briggs.

With the heavy boxes of coin on the sled, Josiah drove off, while his father kept an eye on the precious load. They were but a short distance down the hill when Seth was seen coming the same way, but as Mr. Briggs knew that Saul and the sisters would not be easy if he should permit Seth to ride, he did not halt. On reaching home he found Saul, who had taken a short cut across the lots in order to learn if his brother had got on to the sled and thus had a chance to put his hands into the contents of the boxes. These acts of the Pendleton children were not because of a loss of confidence in Mr. Briggs, but indicated their lack of confidence in each other. The three who lived at home had some reason for the feeling against their older brother, while he distrusted them. A bad state of affairs to be sure, but the Pendleton family was not the only one where such feelings exist and are manifested, especially when there is property left to be divided, and where the members have had the advantages of a better training.

It took more than another day to finish the work. There were broad acres of a heavy growth of the best of timber and many acres of out-land that had to be visited and looked over, and the snow was a hindrance to that part of the work. Ike Fuller con-

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vinced Seth and Saul that they would be taxed, if it was known how much property there was, to such an extent, that they would be alarmed; so, with the advice of Fuller, they undertook to persuade Mr. Briggs not to make a correct return of the inventory to the Probate Court, and in fact did try to bribe him and the appraisers as well, but Mr. Briggs was above bribes and true as steel, and went on doing his full duty, fearless of any man. The town was not without jealous people who were ready to say that he would “feather his own nest,” but he had such a reputation for truth and veracity, that any thoughtful, honest person in the community would not have the least suspicion of him.

After the work of appraisal was over, Mr. Briggs took a trip to Boston on horse-back, carrying a different load from what he had ever taken before. The large leather saddle bags were thrown over the back of the horse, filled with the coins of doubtful value to be exchanged for currency of the day. He was obliged to make several such journeys for the same purpose before the value of the contents of the boxes was known. And when many of the bank notes were offered for exchange, they proved to be worthless, and the banks which they represented were no longer in existence, and to all appearances were worthless when Mr. Pendleton took them and packed them away in the mysterious room; but as he did not know of their worthlessness, he derived as much comfort from counting them as he did from reckoning up the piles of silver crowns and other pieces; and I don’t know but it was just as well for his children as though they had brought par value.

This report disheartened the girls and they at once

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lost confidence in their secret prospect, so they told Mr. Briggs about it and he at once took up the floor boards and found that what they had taken from the mouth of the hole was only the beginning of the store that the destructive animals had taken away. Doubtless the greasy surface of the bills had made them doubly attractive to the marauders, and they had gathered a large quantity, the remnants of which filled the largest milk pan of the family; but the mass was so thoroughly torn that it was impossible to make any accurate estimate of the value that had been carried away. The wonderment was that so much could have been taken while Mr. Pendleton lived and not have been missed by him. From the appearance of the nest, it was not a fresh one, and must have been taken from the room some months before.

When this fact became known to the people of the village, it furnished a subject for discussion at many gatherings, and the next meeting at Larkin’s shop faithfully considered all sides of the question, and the verdict reached was that Mr. Pendleton did realize that his funds were on the decrease, and this was what made him more fretful towards the end of life; and some of the company fully believed that the anxiety and worriment hastened him to his grave. How much good that old man might have done with the money, and how much better it would have been if he had put it on his cattle as Squire Taylor remarked. All the benefit that can result from the regrets of any one now, must come in the way of guarding against such propensities as predominated in Hezekiah Pendleton.


SOURCE TEXT


EMENDATIONS

  1. but ∨ bnt
  2. Pendleton, ∨ Pendlton,
  3. columns ∨ colums

ANNOTATIONS

  1. “penurious”: miserly
  2. “a score of”: twenty
  3. “team”: team of horses

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