Authors: John Bellairs
"Have you ever heard of this Evaristus Sloane character?" he asked as he lit a black and gold cigarette. "You know, the nutty inventor?"
The owner frowned. "Yes, I have," he said sourly. "What about him?"
The professor hemmed and hawed. "Oh, well... you see, the fact is, I'm writing a book on old New Hampshire legends, and I want to do a little piece on Sloane. Is it true he used to live in Stark Corners?"
The owner grunted. "Not exactly
the town. He lived in a house halfway up Mount Creed, which is the big mountain that kinda hangs over the town. You go outa town 'bout half a mile on Burnt Mill Road, an' there's this dirt road that leads on up the mountain. If you take my advice, you'll leave your car down at the bottomâroad's not in too great a shape. Anyways, the house is 'bout a half hour walk up the road. It's all closed up an' fallin' to pieces, an' if you want some more advice, I wouldn't hang around after sunset."
The professor stared. "Why not?"
The owner gave the professor a quick, nervous glance. "Well, there's a lot o' broken boards an' nails in the yard, an' there's an old cistern with a wooden cover that's all rotted out. You might fall in an' hurt yerself. Y'know what I mean?"
The professor stared harder. There was something about the way the owner was acting that was very creepy and unnerving. "Humph!" snorted the professor as he stubbed his cigarette out in an ashtray that stood on the counter. "Well, thank you for the advice and the directions." He turned and motioned toward Johnny and Fergie. "Come on, boys. We've got a little car ride and a hike ahead of us."
The boys grinned and put the comic books back in the rack. Then they followed the professor out the door and down the sidewalk toward the inn.
"I hate people who won't give you a straight answer," grumbled the professor as they walked along. "If the old fool thinks there are any ghosts up at Sloane's house, why the blue blazes doesn't he
so? Nails, my foot! Rotten cistern cover! He just didn't have the decency to say what he meant!"
Maybe he thought you'd laugh at him,
thought Johnny. He was still unhappy about the way the professor had brushed off his story about the disappearing magazine.
When they arrived at the inn, Fergie and Johnny waited downstairs while the professor went up to his room and got his camera, pocket compass, and sunglasses.
"All right, boys!" he said as he shoved the camera into Fergie's hands. "Are you ready to inspect that nest of spooks and spectres?"
Fergie and Johnny nodded, and they all got into the car. The engine roared, and off they went. When they were about a half mile out of town, the professor slowed down and started looking for the place where they were supposed to turn off. As they rounded a curve, they saw it: a rutty little dirt road running up into the trees that covered the mountain. The professor swerved the car left, and they started bouncing and jolting up the mountain road. Fergie was in the backseat. He leaned forward and started talking into the professor's ear.
"Hey, prof," he said, "I don't like to crab, but didn't that guy in the store say we shouldn't try to drive up this road?"
"Yeah," said Johnny, who was sitting up in front next to the professor. "I think he did say that."
what the man said!" the professor muttered testily. "But for the time being, the road seems passable, andâ"
The professor's little speech was interrupted by a loud musical
A rock had hit the underside of the car. But the professor did not stop. He drove on, and the car jolted and jounced, and the springs squealed and complained. Finally, after a few twists and turns, the road became totally impossible: it turned into a pair of ruts with boulders jutting up here and there, and even the professor could see that driving on was useless. With a muttered curse, he pulled off onto a sandy shoulder, and they all got out.
It was a good morning for a hike. The sun was shining, and the maple trees were aflame with red and yellow and orange leaves. For half an hour they slogged up the steep, rocky road. Finally they came to a little meadow full of tall bearded grass and purple pieweed. And there was the house. It was made of yellowish sandstone, and it had a steep-pitched roof and narrow, pointed gables. The place looked utterly abandoned: the downstairs windows were boarded up, and the porch sagged. As they trudged across the meadow toward the house, Johnny tripped over a square board that lay hidden in the grass. It was a weathered for SALE sign.
"I'm not surprised they had trouble selling this dump," said the professor as he glanced at the sign. "You'd have to be a little dotty to want to live up here the year round. Can you imagine how lonely it would be in the winter? And it's much too grim and gloomy to be a vacation home." He gave the sign a little kick and walked on toward the house.
For some reason, nobody wanted to go in right away. The professor snapped pictures and chattered about old houses, and Johnny picked pieweed stalks and then threw them away. Whenever they stopped talking, the oppressive silence of the place began to make them feel nervous, and they would start talking again. As the sun rose higher, the three of them circled around into the yard that lay on the north side of the house. Suddenly, Fergie raised his hand and pointed at something. In the middle of the sloping roof was a tiny square window.
"Hey, look at that!" he said. "That's a heck of a funny place for a window, isn't it?"
"I've seen them before," said the professor as he squinted up into the sun. "They put them there to let more light into the attic. Speaking of which, I suppose that's the first place we ought to look. How about it, kids? Are you ready for a little breaking and entering?"
Johnny started getting fidgety. He was always terrified of doing something illegal, but he didn't want Fergie to think he was chicken. However, when he glanced at Fergie, he saw that he was looking nervous too.
There's something about the house that he doesn't like,
thought Johnny. But he said nothing.
The professor glowered at the boys. "Look, you two!" he growled, "are you coming or not? Byron, you're the one who always loves exploring, aren't you? Well, here's your chance! Am I going to have to go charging in there by myself?"
Fergie looked at Johnny, and he smiled weakly. "C'mon, big John," he said, with a half-hearted wave of his hand. "Let's go search for robots an' stuff. Okay?"
"Okay," muttered Johnny, and he started walking slowly toward the house.
There wasn't any problem about getting inâthe lock on the front door was broken, and the door hung slightly ajar. With the professor in the lead, the three of them stepped inside the old house and began walking through the empty and desolate rooms. Pieces of plaster had fallen from the ceiling here and there, and flies buzzed and bumped against the dirty windows. They started up the stairs. On the second floor they found a door that led to a narrow staircase, and they climbed it too. The attic was as empty as the rest of the house. An old-fashioned light socket hung from one of the rafters, and there was a small, floor-level window at the far end of the room. But there was nothing up there, no robot, not even a stick of broken furniture.
"Phooey!" said the professor. "Double phooey, with cheese and tartar sauce!" Stooping, he ran his fingertip over the floorboards, and then he examined the tip of his finger. "You know what's funny?" he went on in a thoughtful voice. "This place is a lot cleaner than you would expect it to be. There isn't any junk lying aroundâno beer bottles or moldy half-eaten sandwiches, or things of that sort. Usually hoboes camp out overnight in abandoned houses like this one. But I don't see any sign that they have."
"Maybe they didn't feel welcome here," said Johnny in a strange voice.
The professor looked at him for a second and opened his mouth to say something. But at this point Fergie interrupted.
"Hey, prof!" he said, jabbing his finger into the professor's arm. "I'll tell you somethin' else that's screwy: I can't see that little roof window anywhere. Wouldn't it be right up over our heads?"
The professor was startled. He thought a bit, and then he began to smile. There was a gleam in his eyes. "Ye-es ..." he said slowly. "The window
be over our heads, unless... unless ..."
"Unless there's another attic room!" said Johnny excitedly.
"Precisely," said the professor. "Pree-
! And now I think we had better go see if we can find a way to get into it. Are you coming, gentlemen?"
The professor and the two boys went down to the second floor of the house, and they started going through the rooms. It didn't take them long to find what they were looking for. In a bedroom in the northeast corner of the house, they saw the outline of a door under the faded pink wallpaper. Eagerly they went to work ripping away the paper, and when they were through, there was an old paneled door. The knob was gone and the keyhole was filled with putty, but when the professor gave the door a kick, it groaned and moved inward. Eddies of dust sifted down from the top of the door frame. He kicked harder, and the door flew back with a loud, alarming clatter. Behind the door lay a shallow closet, and a ladder was bolted to the back wall. At the top of the ladder, set in the ceiling, was a small trapdoor.
"Well, well!" said the professor, putting his hands on his hips. "It looks as if we have struck pay dirt! Who wants to go up first?"
Fergie said that he had the right to go first, since he had been the one who noticed the window in the roof. The professor grinned and stepped back, and Fergie started to climb. When he got to the top of the ladder, he reached up and shoved at the trapdoor. It was loose, so Fergie gave it a hard push, and it went flying back. More dust and a stale, shut-up smell came drifting down through the small square opening. Fergie climbed up another rung and poked his head into the room above.
"Oh, my gosh!" he exclaimed in an awestruck voice. "Hey, you guys, it's up here! It really is! The robotâthe whole darned thing!"
Johnny was overjoyed. He felt like dancing and yelling, and he could see that the professor was pretty tickled too. They were like archeologists who had discovered King Tut's tomb.
"Wonderful!" crowed the professor, rubbing his hands with glee. "Byron, climb on up into the room. John, you can go up next if you want to."
A few minutes later, all three of them were kneeling on the floor of the tiny attic room. Overhead, a thick pane of lead-colored glass let a faint light seep in. Lying in a heap against the wall were the pieces of the wonderful baseball-throwing robot. Its arms lay stacked on its headless body, and its legs stood against the wall. The wheeled platform was propped against a rafter, and nearby, on a little shelf, stood the robot's head. It stared weirdly out into the room, but the stare was blankâthe robot's eyes were gone.
Humming quietly, the professor picked up one of the robot's arms and examined it. It was the cast-iron throwing arm, and it was quite heavy. "Interesting," muttered the professor. "He had the arm coated with zinc, so there really isn't much rust. I brought my toolbox with me in the car, and I'll bet I could get this silly gizmo slapped back together and in working order in no time."
Fergie glanced quickly at Johnny, and Johnny winced. He knew what Fergie was thinking: The professor was always bragging about how good he was with tools, but everybody knew that he could hardly drive a nail straight. If he tried putting the robot together, they might be up here in New Hampshire for a long, long time.
The professor glowered. "Well, what are you two simpering and snickering about? Hmm? I fixed the windshield wipers on my car the other day, and they worked... for a while, anyway. If either of you thinks he can put the robot together faster, go right ahead."
Fergie gave Johnny another look, and then he coughed and tried to smile in a reassuring way. "Prof," he began, "we... we know you're a real whiz with tools an' all, but... well, doncha think we ought to take the pieces of this whatchamajigger back with us in the car? We could get a real... er, I mean some car repair man to screw it back together for us. It probably wouldn't cost much, would it?"
The back of the professor's neck began to get red, which was a sign that he was becoming irritated. "Gentlemen," he said in a biting tone, "I was not planning to do the whole job of reassembling the robot up here. I thought I would merely, well, screw the head onto the body and have a look at the machinery inside the chest cavity. Then we could carry the pieces of the robot down to my car and take it to my basement workshop at home. And I wish you two would stop giving each other funny looks. I'm a perfectly reasonable person, and I'm not all
bad with tools. Now, why don't you two help me carry the pieces of our friend here downstairs, and then I'll go get my toolbox and we'll see what can be done. Okay?"
Fergie and Johnny shrugged helplessly. The professor climbed halfway down the ladder, and the boys handed pieces of the robot down to him through the trapdoor hole. Except for the cast-iron arm, the pieces were surprisingly light, and the professor remarked that the robot might be made of aluminum.
said Fergie in a surprised voice. "Did they have aluminum way back then?"
The professor nodded. "They did indeed! There's a statue in Piccadilly Circus in London that's made of aluminum, and it was put there in 1893. Anything else you'd like to know? Hmm?"
A little while later, all the pieces of the robot were lying on the grass in the field next to the house. The professor was kneeling next to the shiny metal body, and he was peering in through a little door in the man's chest.
"Mercy!" he said, shaking his head in despair. "It looks like the night they went crazy at the clock factory! I've never seen so many gears and levers in my born days!" With a sigh, he shut the metal door and stood up. "And there's another thing," he went on, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I wonder what happened to the eyes? People claimed they were extremely lifelikeâmade of glass, probably. Oh, well. The eyes were just ornaments, and I'm wasting time yammering on like this. You boys stay hereâI'll scoot on down to the car and get my toolbox, and we'll see what can be done."