On the main street of Crowfield stood a little old red house, with a gabled roof, a pillared porch, and a quaint garden. For many weeks it had been quite empty, the shutters closed and the doors locked; ever since the death of Miss Nan Corliss, the old lady who had lived there for years and years.
It began to have the lonesome look which a house has when the heart has gone out of it and nobody puts a new heart in. The garden was growing sad and careless. The flowers drooped and pouted, and leaned peevishly against one another. Only the weeds seemed glad,—as undisturbed weeds do,—and made the most of their holiday to grow tall and impertinent and to crowd their more sensitive neighbors out of their very beds.
But one September day something happened to the old house. A lady and gentleman, a big girl and a little boy, came walking over the slate stones between the rows of sulky flowers. The gentleman, who was tall and thin and pale, opened the front door with a key bearing a huge tag, and cried:—
“Good-day, Crowfield! Welcome your new friends to their new home. We greet you kindly, old house. Be good to us!”
“What a dear house!” said the lady, as they entered the front hall. “I know I am going to like it. This paneled woodwork is beautiful.”
“Open the windows, John, so that we can see what we are about,” said Dr. Corliss.
The hallway in which they stood did, indeed, seem rather like the entrance to a museum, as Mary Corliss said. On the white paneled walls which Mrs. Corliss admired were hanging all sorts of queer things: huge shells, and ships in glass cases, stuffed fishes, weapons, and china-ware. On a shelf between the windows stood a row of china cats, blue, red, green, and yellow, grinning mischievously at the family who confronted them. On the floor were rugs of bright colors, and odd chairs and tables sprawled about like quadrupeds ready to run.
“Gee!” whispered John Corliss, “don’t they look as if they were just ready to bark and mew and wow at us? Do you suppose it’s welcome or unwelcome, Daddy?”
“Oh, welcome, of course!” said Dr. Corliss. “I dare say they remember me, at least, though it’s thirty years since I was in this house. Thirty years! Just think of it!”
They were in the parlor now, which had been Miss Corliss’s “best room.” And this was even queerer than the hallway had been. It was crowded with all sorts of collections in cabinets, trophies on the walls, pictures, and ornaments.
Dr. Corliss looked around with a chuckle. “Hello!” he cried. “Here are a lot of the old relics I remember so well seeing when I was a boy, visiting Aunt Nan in the summer-time. Yes, there’s the old matchlock over the door; and here’s the fire-bucket, and the picture of George Washington’s family. I expect Aunt Nan didn’t change anything here in all the thirty years since she let any of her relatives come to see her. Yes, there’s the wax fruit in the glass jar—just as toothsome as ever! There’s the shell picture she made when she was a girl. My! How well I remember everything!”
They moved from room to room of the old house, flinging open the blinds and letting fresh air and sunshine in upon the strange furniture and decorations. Mrs. Corliss looked about with increasing bewilderment. How was she ever to make this strange place look like their home? Aunt Nan and her queer ways seemed stamped upon everything.
“It’s a funny collection of things, Owen!” she laughed to her husband. “All this furniture is mine, I suppose, according to Aunt Nan’s will. But I am glad we have some things of our own to bring and make it seem more like a truly home. Otherwise I should feel, as Mary says, as if we were living in a kind of museum.”
“We can change it as much as we like, by and by,” her husband reassured her.
“What a funny old lady Great-Aunt Nan must have been, Daddy!” said John, who had been examining a hooked rug representing a blue cat chasing a green mouse. “Did she make this, do you think?”
“Oh, yes,” said Dr. Corliss. “I remember seeing her working at it. She hooked all these rugs. It was one of her favorite amusements. She was strange enough, I believe. I can remember some of the weird things she used to do when I was a lad. She used to put on a man’s coat and hat and shovel coal or snow like any laborer. She was always playing tricks on somebody, or making up a game about what she happened to be doing. We must expect surprises and mysteries about the house as we come to live here. It wouldn’t be Aunt Nan’s house without them.—Hello!”
John had sat down on a little three-legged stool in the corner; and suddenly he went bump! on the floor. The legs of the stool had spread as if of their own accord and let him down.
“That was one of Aunt Nan’s jokes, I remember!” laughed Dr. Corliss. “Oh, yes! I got caught myself once in the same way when I was a boy.”
“Tell about it, Father,” said Mary.
“Well; I was about your age, John,—about ten; and I was terribly bashful. One day when I was visiting Aunt Nan the minister came to call. And though I tried to escape out of the back door, Aunt Nan spied me and made me come in to shake hands. As soon as I could I sidled away into a corner, hoping he would forget about me.
“This innocent little stool stood there by the stuffed bird cabinet, just as it does now, and I sat down on it very quietly. Then bump! I went on to the floor, just as John did. Only I was not so lucky. I lost my balance and kicked my heels up almost in the minister’s face. I can tell you I was mortified! And Aunt Nan laughed. But the minister was very nice about it, I will say. I remember he only smiled kindly and said, ‘A little weak in the legs,—eh, John? I’m glad my stool in church isn’t like that, Miss Corliss. I’d never trust you to provide me with furniture,—eh, what?’”
“I don’t think that was a bit funny joke,” spluttered John, who had got to his feet looking very red.
“Neither do I,” said his mother. “I hate practical jokes. I hope we shan’t meet any more of this sort.”
“You never can tell!” Dr. Corliss chuckled reminiscently.
“What a horrid mirror!” exclaimed Mary, peering into the glass of a fine gilt frame. “See! It makes me look as broad as I am long, and ugly as a hippopotamus. The idea of putting this in the parlor!”
“Probably she meant that to keep her guests from growing conceited,” suggested Dr. Corliss with a grin. “But we shall not need to have it here if we don’t like it. There’s plenty of room in the attic, if I remember rightly.”
“Yes, we shall have to change a great many things,” said Mrs. Corliss, who had been moving about the room all by herself. “What do you suppose is in that pretty carved box on the mantel?”
“It’s yours, Mother. Why don’t you open it?” said John eagerly.
Mrs. Corliss lifted the cover and started back with a scream. For out sprang what looked like a real snake, straight into her face.
“Oh! Is it alive?” cried Mary, shuddering.
But John had picked up the Japanese paper snake and was dangling it merrily to reassure his mother. “I’ve seen those before,” he grinned. “The boys had them at school once.”
“Come, come!” frowned Dr. Corliss. “That was really too bad of Aunt Nan. She knew that almost everybody hates snakes, though she didn’t mind them herself. I’ve often seen her put a live one in her pocket and bring it home to look at.”
“Ugh!” shuddered Mrs. Corliss. “I hope they don’t linger about anywhere. I see I shall have to clean the whole house thoroughly from top to bottom. And if I find any more of these jokes—!” Mrs. Corliss nodded her head vigorously, implying bad luck to any snakes that might be playing hide-and-seek in house or garden.
Secretly John thought all this was great fun, and he dashed ahead of the rest of the family on their tour of the house, hoping to find still other proofs of Aunt Nan’s special kind of humor. But to the relief of Mary and her mother the rest of their first exploring expedition was uneventful.
They visited dining-room and kitchen and pantry, and the room that was to be Dr. Corliss’s study. Then they climbed the stairs to the bedroom floor, where there were three pretty little chambers. They took a peep into the attic; but even there, in the crowded shadows and cobwebs, nothing mysterious happened. It was a nice old house where the family felt that they were going to be very happy and contented.
Down the stairs they came once more, to the door of the ell which they had not yet visited. It was a brown wooden door with a glass knob.
“Well, here is your domain, Mary!” said Dr. Corliss, pausing and pointing to the door with a smile. “This is your library, my daughter. Have you the key ready?”
Yes, indeed, Mary had the key ready; a great key tagged carefully,—as all the other keys of Aunt Nan’s property had been,—this one bearing the legend: “LIBRARY. Property of Mary Corliss.”
“Here is the key, Father,” said Mary, stepping up proudly. “Let me put it in myself. Oh, I hope there are no horrid jokes in here!” And she hesitated a moment before fitting the key in the lock of her library—her very own library!