The Oakdale Affair

Produced by Judith Boss, and David Widger

THE OAKDALE AFFAIR

By Edgar Rice Burroughs


Chapter One

                             [And only chapter ED.]

The house on the hill showed lights only upon the first floor—in the spacious reception hall, the dining room, and those more or less mysterious purlieus thereof from which emanate disagreeable odors and agreeable foods.

From behind a low bush across the wide lawn a pair of eyes transferred to an alert brain these simple perceptions from which the brain deduced with Sherlockian accuracy and Raffleian purpose that the family of the president of The First National Bank of—Oh, let’s call it Oakdale—was at dinner, that the servants were below stairs and the second floor deserted.

The owner of the eyes had but recently descended from the quarters of the chauffeur above the garage which he had entered as a thief in the night and quitted apparelled in a perfectly good suit of clothes belonging to the gentlemanly chauffeur and a soft, checked cap which was now pulled well down over a pair of large brown eyes in which a rather strained expression might have suggested to an alienist a certain neophytism which even the stern set of well shaped lips could not effectually belie.

Apparently this was a youth steeling himself against a natural repugnance to the dangerous profession he had espoused; and when, a moment later, he stepped out into the moonlight and crossed the lawn toward the house, the slender, graceful lines which the ill-fitting clothes could not entirely conceal carried the conviction of youth if not of innocence.

The brazen assurance with which the lad crossed the lawn and mounted the steps to the verandah suggested a familiarity with the habits and customs of the inmates of the house upon the hill which bespoke long and careful study of the contemplated job. An old timer could not have moved with greater confidence. No detail seemed to have escaped his cunning calculation. Though the door leading from the verandah into the reception hall swung wide to the balmy airs of late Spring the prowler passed this blatant invitation to the hospitality of the House of Prim. It was as though he knew that from his place at the head of the table, with his back toward the great fire place which is the pride of the Prim dining hall, Jonas Prim commands a view of the major portion of the reception hall.

Stooping low the youth passed along the verandah to a window of the darkened library—a French window which swung open without noise to his light touch. Stepping within he crossed the room to a door which opened at the foot of a narrow stairway—a convenient little stairway which had often let the Hon. Jonas Prim pass from his library to his second floor bed-room unnoticed when Mrs. Prim chanced to be entertaining the feminine elite of Oakdale across the hall. A convenient little stairway for retiring husbands and diffident burglars—yes, indeed!

The darkness of the upper hallway offered no obstacle to this familiar housebreaker. He passed the tempting luxury of Mrs. Prim’s boudoir, the chaste elegance of Jonas Prim’s bed-room with all the possibilities of forgotten wallets and negotiable papers, setting his course straight for the apartments of Abigail Prim, the spinster daughter of the First National Bank of Oakdale. Or should we utilize a more charitable and at the same time more truthful word than spinster? I think we should, since Abigail was but nineteen and quite human, despite her name.

Upon the dressing table of Abigail reposed much silver and gold and ivory, wrought by clever artisans into articles of great beauty and some utility; but with scarce a glance the burglar passed them by, directing his course straight across the room to a small wall safe cleverly hidden by a bit of tapestry.

How, Oh how, this suggestive familiarity with the innermost secrets of a virgin’s sacred apartments upon the part of one so obviously of the male persuasion and, by his all too apparent calling, a denizen of that underworld of which no Abigail should have intimate knowledge? Yet, truly and with scarce a faint indication of groping, though the room was dark, the marauder walked directly to the hidden safe, swung back the tapestry in its frame, turned the knob of the combination and in a moment opened the circular door of the strong box.

A fat roll of bills and a handful of jewelry he transferred to the pockets of his coat. Some papers which his hand brushed within the safe he pushed aside as though preadvised of their inutility to one of his calling. Then he closed the safe door, closed the tapestry upon it and turned toward a dainty dressing table. From a drawer in this exquisite bit of Sheraton the burglar took a small, nickel plated automatic, which he slipped into an inside breast pocket of his coat, nor did he touch another article therein or thereon, nor hesitate an instant in the selection of the drawer to be rifled. His knowledge of the apartment of the daughter of the house of Prim was little short of uncanny. Doubtless the fellow was some plumber’s apprentice who had made good use of an opportunity to study the lay of the land against a contemplated invasion of these holy precincts.

But even the most expert of second story men nod and now that all seemed as though running on greased rails a careless elbow raked a silver candle-stick from the dressing table to the floor where it crashed with a resounding din that sent cold shivers up the youth’s spine and conjured in his mind a sudden onslaught of investigators from the floor below.

The noise of the falling candlestick sounded to the taut nerved house-breaker as might the explosion of a stick of dynamite during prayer in a meeting house. That all Oakdale had heard it seemed quite possible, while that those below stairs were already turning questioning ears, and probably inquisitive footsteps, upward was almost a foregone conclusion.

Adjoining Miss Prim’s boudoir was her bath and before the door leading from the one to the other was a cretonne covered screen behind which the burglar now concealed himself the while he listened in rigid apprehension for the approach of the enemy; but the only sound that came to him from the floor below was the deep laugh of Jonas Prim. A profound sigh of relief escaped the beardless lips; for that laugh assured the youth that, after all, the noise of the fallen candlestick had not alarmed the household.

With knees that still trembled a bit he crossed the room and passed out into the hallway, descended the stairs, and stood again in the library. Here he paused a moment listening to the voices which came from the dining room. Mrs. Prim was speaking. “I feel quite relieved about Abigail,” she was saying. “I believe that at last she sees the wisdom and the advantages of an alliance with Mr. Benham, and it was almost with enthusiasm that she left this morning to visit his sister. I am positive that a week or two of companionship with him will impress upon her the fine qualities of his nature. We are to be congratulated, Jonas, upon settling our daughter so advantageously both in the matter of family and wealth.”

Jonas Prim grunted. “Sam Benham is old enough to be the girl’s father,” he growled. “If she wants him, all right; but I can’t imagine Abbie wanting a bald-headed husband with rheumatism. I wish you’d let her alone, Pudgy, to find her own mate in her own way—someone nearer her own age.”

“The child is not old enough to judge wisely for herself,” replied Mrs. Prim. “It was my duty to arrange a proper alliance; and, Jonas, I will thank you not to call me Pudgy—it is perfectly ridiculous for a woman of my age—and position.”

The burglar did not hear Mr. Prim’s reply for he had moved across the library and passed out onto the verandah. Once again he crossed the lawn, taking advantage of the several trees and shrubs which dotted it, scaled the low stone wall at the side and was in the concealing shadows of the unlighted side street which bounds the Prim estate upon the south. The streets of Oakdale are flanked by imposing battalions of elm and maple which over-arch and meet above the thoroughfares; and now, following an early Spring, their foliage eclipsed the infrequent arclights to the eminent satisfaction of those nocturnal wayfarers who prefer neither publicity nor the spot light. Of such there are few within the well ordered precincts of law abiding Oakdale; but to-night there was at least one and this one was deeply grateful for the gloomy walks along which he hurried toward the limits of the city.

At last he found himself upon a country road with the odors of Spring in his nostrils and the world before him. The night noises of the open country fell strangely upon his ears accentuating rather than relieving the myriad noted silence of Nature. Familiar sounds became unreal and weird, the deep bass of innumerable bull frogs took on an uncanny humanness which sent a half shudder through the slender frame. The burglar felt a sad loneliness creeping over him. He tried whistling in an effort to shake off the depressing effects of this seeming solitude through which he moved; but there remained with him still the hallucination that he moved alone through a strange, new world peopled by invisible and unfamiliar forms—menacing shapes which lurked in waiting behind each tree and shrub.

He ceased his whistling and went warily upon the balls of his feet, lest he unnecessarily call attention to his presence. If the truth were to be told it would chronicle the fact that a very nervous and frightened burglar sneaked along the quiet and peaceful country road outside of Oakdale. A lonesome burglar, this, who so craved the companionship of man that he would almost have welcomed joyously the detaining hand of the law had it fallen upon him in the guise of a flesh and blood police officer from Oakdale.

In leaving the city the youth had given little thought to the practicalities of the open road. He had thought, rather vaguely, of sleeping in a bed of new clover in some hospitable fence corner; but the fence corners looked very dark and the wide expanse of fields beyond suggested a mysterious country which might be peopled by almost anything but human beings.

At a farm house the youth hesitated and was almost upon the verge of entering and asking for a night’s lodging when a savage voiced dog shattered the peace of the universe and sent the burglar along the road at a rapid run.

A half mile further on a straw stack loomed large within a fenced enclosure. The youth wormed his way between the barbed wires determined at last to let nothing prevent him from making a cozy bed in the deep straw beside the stack. With courage radiating from every pore he strode toward the stack. His walk was almost a swagger, for thus does youth dissemble the bravery it yearns for but does not possess. He almost whistled again; but not quite, since it seemed an unnecessary provocation to disaster to call particular attention to himself at this time. An instant later he was extremely glad that he had refrained, for as he approached the stack a huge bulk slowly loomed from behind it; and silhouetted against the moonlit sky he saw the vast proportions of a great, shaggy bull. The burglar tore the inside of one trousers’ leg and the back of his coat in his haste to pass through the barbed wire fence onto the open road. There he paused to mop the perspiration from his forehead, though the night was now far from warm.

For another mile the now tired and discouraged house-breaker plodded, heavy footed, the unending road. Did vain compunction stir his youthful breast? Did he regret the safe respectability of the plumber’s apprentice? Or, if he had not been a plumber’s apprentice did he yearn to once again assume the unharried peace of whatever legitimate calling had been his before he bent his steps upon the broad boulevard of sin? We think he did.

And then he saw through the chinks and apertures in the half ruined wall of what had once been a hay barn the rosy flare of a genial light which appeared to announce in all but human terms that man, red blooded and hospitable, forgathered within. No growling dogs, no bulking bulls contested the short stretch of weed grown ground between the road and the disintegrating structure; and presently two wide, brown eyes were peering through a crack in the wall of the abandoned building. What they saw was a small fire built upon the earth floor in the center of the building and around the warming blaze the figures of six men. Some reclined at length upon old straw; others squatted, Turk fashion. All were smoking either disreputable pipes or rolled cigarets. Blear-eyed and foxy-eyed, bearded and stubbled cheeked, young and old, were the men the youth looked upon. All were more or less dishevelled and filthy; but they were human. They were not dogs, or bulls, or croaking frogs. The boy’s heart went out to them. Something that was almost a sob rose in his throat, and then he turned the corner of the building and stood in the doorway, the light from the fire playing upon his lithe young figure clothed in its torn and ill fitting suit and upon his oval face and his laughing brown eyes. For several seconds he stood there looking at the men around the fire. None of them had noticed him.

“Tramps!” thought the youth. “Regular tramps.” He wondered that they had not seen him, and then, clearing his throat, he said: “Hello, tramps!”

Six heads snapped up or around. Six pairs of eyes, blear or foxy, were riveted upon the boyish figure of the housebreaker. “Wotinel!” ejaculated a frowzy gentleman in a frock coat and golf cap. “Wheredju blow from?” inquired another. “‘Hello, tramps’!” mimicked a third.

The youth came slowly toward the fire. “I saw your fire,” he said, “and I thought I’d stop. I’m a tramp, too, you know.”

“Oh,” sighed the elderly person in the frock coat. “He’s a tramp, he is. An’ does he think gents like us has any time for tramps? An’ where might he be trampin’, sonny, without his maw?”

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