Nancy Drew always enjoyed acting as her father’s courier, especially on a warm fall day. The scenery was lovely, trees bursting with the brilliant reds and oranges of autumn. She had stopped to visit with Abigail Rowen, an elderly lady she had befriended this summer while solving her first real mystery, “The Secret of the Old Clock”. The widow had been one of the beneficiaries of a lost will, which Nancy had located. She was proud of her detective skills, but also pleased to have been of service to someone in need.
She had noticed the house after leaving Mrs. Rowen’s home. It was older and rambling, set back in a grove of trees as if it were hiding. The house badly needed repairs and fresh paint, although Nancy’s keen eyes detected signs of work in progress. Something about the house gave her a funny feeling, and Nancy wondered who was living there.
Nancy’s business was in Masonville, collecting legal paperwork from Judge Matthew Hartgrave, a friend of her father, the famed lawyer Carson Drew. She drove directly back to River Heights, knowing that her father wanted the papers promptly. Her father was in with a client when she arrived, and Nancy was surprised when her father’s secretary asked her to sit down after accepting the papers.
Carson Drew stepped out of his office, and looked at his daughter. She made an appealing picture – her curly blonde bob slightly windblown, healthy color in her cheeks, and a smart blue frock that echoed her sparkling eyes. Carson knew his daughter was not only a lovely young woman, but also a very clever one. It gave him some bad moments, because while he was proud of her intelligence, she had a way of charging in to help people, no matter how dangerous the situation was. Yet here he was, preparing to ask her to help one of his clients.
“Nancy, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Two women sat in Carson Drew’s office – one only a few years older than Nancy’s sixteen years and one in comfortable middle age, both dressed in black. Carson ushered Nancy to a seat beside his seat before sitting again.
“Mrs. Spencer, Miss Summers, this is my daughter Nancy. Nancy, this is Mrs. Catherine Spencer and Miss Sabrina Summers.”
Pleasantries were exchanged, and then Carson leaned forward. “Miss Summers is the granddaughter of Millicent Roberts.”
“My condolences,” Nancy said quietly, but her mind was racing. Millicent Summers Roberts had been a leading force for historical preservation in River Heights, having descended from one of the town founders. In fact, she had been distantly related to Nancy, on her mother’s side. She had also been lucky enough to make two successful marriages, leaving her a wealthy woman. Carson Drew had been her lawyer, and had handled her will. The Roberts mansion – one of the finest in River Heights – had been left to Kenneth Roberts, a grandson from Mr. Roberts’ first marriage, and the majority of the fortune had been evenly split between Kenneth and Sabrina.
“Mrs. Spencer is also a beneficiary. Mrs. Roberts left her a property near Masonville,” Carson Drew explained.
“Your father has suggested that you may be able to help us, Miss Drew,” Sabrina said. “You see, my grandmother left Mrs. Spencer this property because she knew that Mrs. Spencer wanted to start a boarding school for young ladies. But for some reason, Kenneth is very upset that it was not left to him.”
“He offered to buy the property from me at an exorbitant cost,” Mrs. Spencer said. “He was not pleased when I refused to sell. And that’s when the trouble began.”
“May I ask why you would not sell?” Nancy was wondering just why her father was so interested in her hearing the story.
The older woman smiled a little. “One reason is that Millicent and I had discussed my plan, and the property was perfect, with a little work. The other is that I don’t like to be forced.”
Nancy smiled. She liked Mrs. Spencer already.
“Ever since, there have been problems. Supplies going missing, strange noises at night, as if someone is trying to drive us away. It simply doesn’t make sense, and I do not believe in ghosts. My sister – she was an ambulance driver in the World War – is out there now, keeping an eye on things.”
Nancy turned to her father. “How can I help?”
“I’m sending a watchman out there. But I would like you to go out there as well, and see if you can discover why someone is so interested in making them leave.”
Nancy’s eyes sparkled. She loved a challenge. It would have to wait until the next day, for she was already promised to attend a dinner party at Helen Corning’s house, but Nancy could hardly restrain her excitement.
The next day, Nancy was not surprised to find that Catherine Spencer’s property was the house she had passed on her way to Masonville. Up close, Nancy could see that “a little work” was somewhat optimistic, at least on the outside of the house. There was a large garden that had promise, and there was a beautiful lawn behind the house.
“I am hopeful that we can open the school after the New Year,” Catherine Spencer explained as she walked with Nancy. “The inside of the house looks better,” she added after a moment.
“And you have no idea why Kenneth Roberts was so upset about not getting this property?” Nancy asked Sabrina.
“None at all. It really makes no sense, because after all, my grandmother was quite generous. She felt it was only fair to leave him the house since he had more of a connection with it. There’s just nothing special about this property, at least not to anyone besides Mrs. Spencer.” Sabrina went on to explain that she was staying with Mrs. Spencer to help her with the house.
Mrs. Spencer’s sister, Victoria Grayson, came out of the house to greet them.
“The watchman arrived last night, with a note from Mr. Drew,” Victoria told them. “Having a man around the house is a bit of a relief, with the odd things going on.”
Nancy was thrilled by the chance to search an entire house without any interference. She had read about the subject, of course, and some of the detectives her father had worked with had been more than happy to show his young daughter some tricks of the trade. They had found it entertaining, but she had filed the information away, sometimes demonstrating the knowledge to her father. It came in handy now, as she began a methodical search of the house – rapping on walls and floors, examining carvings for secret entrances.
By the time Nancy had searched the entire third floor and found nothing, Catherine Spencer had insisted that she come down and join them for luncheon.
Her search of the second floor had only revealed an empty hidden closet. Nancy had been excited at first, but it had become clear that it was only a small, empty compartment. She was sure that there had to be something to explain why Kenneth Roberts wanted the house so much he was willing to pay far more money than it was worth - and she intended to find it. Her father, and Mrs. Spencer, were counting on her.
Nancy also wondered where exactly the watchman was keeping an eye on the house from. Her father used a reputable agency when he needed to hire one, and she thought it just a little odd that she hadn’t seen him. But she soon put that out of her mind, and concentrated on her search.
The first floor seemed like the most likely place to find something, but Nancy believed that it was better to start at the top, and work her way down. It was late afternoon before she started searching the first floor.
Sabrina came to call her for dinner, and found Nancy intently examining the wall of the parlor.
“Have you ever realized,” Nancy asked, “that this room seems like it should be longer than it is?”
“I can’t say I have ever paid much attention,” Sabrina said. “We’ve been out here for two weeks, and before that, my grandmother used to only visit occasionally.”
“The wall sounds hollow,” Nancy explained. “But I can’t seem to find a way to get behind it.”
She reluctantly allowed Sabrina to pull her away for the dinner Victoria had prepared - roast chicken, baked potatoes, and a luscious-looking blackberry cobbler - but Nancy barely tasted any of the food. She was too busy thinking about the parlor wall. There just had to be some way to get behind it, she knew.
When dinner was over, she hurried back to the parlor, this time focusing on the fireplace – testing tiles and stones, searching for anything that might let her access the space she believed was behind the wall. The fireplace looked unused, and Sabrina had explained that the parlor was rarely used.
Finally, on the back wall of the fireplace itself, Nancy found a stone that pushed in, and watched as the back of the fireplace swung open, revealing a dark passage. She knew she should tell the others that she had found it, but she decided that she really should have a look at the passage first. Nancy turned on her flashlight, and entered the passage.
It was surprisingly clean, and apparent that someone was using it for something. The beam of her flashlight showed her what appeared to be a leg, and Nancy held her breath as she moved forward. It was a man, bound and gagged. Nancy knelt beside him, quickly removing the gag from his mouth.
“Miss Drew,” he gasped. “Your father sent me out here to keep an eye on things.”
“How long have you been here?” Nancy asked, thinking that this explained the watchman’s absence.
“I was attacked not long after I started patrolling the grounds. They took the note of introduction from me.”
Nancy assured him that it had only been one night, as she untied his feet and hands. The watchman sat up, rubbing his hands and feet to restore circulation.
“I saw a figure going into the parlor, and I followed it. He must have had an accomplice, because someone hit me over the head.” He touched the back of his head and winced slightly.
Nancy moved her flashlight around, taking in the crates that were piled in the passageway. She managed to pry the top off of one, and gasped as she realized that it was full of jewelry and other valuables. Someone was using this house for criminal purposes – either smuggling or stashing stolen goods – and Nancy thought she understood now why Kenneth Roberts had wanted the house so badly.
Then she heard a loud bang. Nancy ran back to the entrance to the secret passage, only to find that it was shut. She ran her hands over the wall, trying to find some way to make it open up from her side, with no success.
They were trapped.
Worse, Nancy realized she could smell smoke!
She forced herself to think. It only made sense that there was another entrance to the passage, if it was being used to hide stolen or illegal goods. Of course, she told herself, it was possible that someone had only lit a fire in the fireplace. But the others knew she had been searching the parlor, so… Nancy was afraid they were all in danger.
She had to find a way out!
Nancy shone her flashlight farther down the passage, then motioned to the watchman. “I think we should try this way. The way I came in seems blocked.”
He seemed steady enough on his feet, now, and followed Nancy as she led the way.
Finally, they found an end to the passage. Nancy hoped that there would be an entrance here that she could open, for she feared the smoke smell was getting stronger. She forced herself to move slowly and deliberately, and was rewarded for her patience when she found the hidden lever that made part of the wall swing out. Nancy and the watchman crawled through the small tunnel, and found themselves in a small clearing in the woods.
She wondered where they were, judging that they could not be too far from the house. But when she turned to her left, Nancy saw a red glow against the evening sky. Fire! It must be the house, she thought, as she and the watchman ran towards it. He grabbed her hand to slow her down as they reached the edge of the woods.
“It may not be safe to rush out, Miss Drew,” he cautioned her. Then he pointed at the small crowd of people outside the house, at a man in a uniform similar to his own. “I’ll bet that’s the man who attacked me!”
They crouched by the edge of the woods, until Nancy saw a familiar car pull up – her father’s car. When she saw him rush from the car, and saw the false watchman turn his head away, she knew this was their moment.
“We have to go now,” she whispered to the watchman. “Otherwise, that man may escape!”
That, and Nancy could see the pain on her father’s face as he looked up at the burning house, thinking she might be trapped inside.
They made their way quietly, but something must have tipped off the false watchman, for he turned in their direction, and then began running away. The watchman, recovered from his captivity now, chased after him. But Nancy only had eyes for her father.
“Nancy!” Carson Drew crushed her in a tight embrace, brushing his hand over her hair. “They said you were missing!”
“I found a secret passage, Dad. Someone is using this house to hide stolen goods.” Breathlessly, she explained the whole story, as State Police cars pulled up. Nancy hurried to show two of the troopers where the exit to the hidden passage was.
When she returned to the house, a fire crew was trying to save it, but Nancy could see that at least the middle block of the house was beyond help. At least the three women had made it out safely, although Nancy could see tears on Mrs. Spencer’s cheeks as she watched the blaze destroy her planned school.
She was relieved a few minutes later, when she saw the watchman emerge from the woods with the false watchman in tow. The man was more than willing to confess to his actions, and to confirm Carson Drew’s guess as to who had hired him – Kenneth Roberts.
A week later, Nancy and Carson were at home in the evening when Hannah Gruen, their maid-of-all-work, announced that they had visitors. They turned out to be Catherine Spencer and Sabrina Summers.
Luckily, the fire damage had turned out to not be quite as extensive as it had appeared. Although the middle block of the house was going to require some major work, Catherine Spencer was also going to receive quite a bit of reward money on the stolen goods that had been found in the secret passage – more than enough to cover the costs.
Nancy had declined any share of the reward money, claiming that the experience had been reward enough. Kenneth Roberts had also been arrested the night before, although he was denying any knowledge of the stolen goods.
“I cannot thank you enough, Nancy,” Catherine Spencer said. “Since you would not accept any of the reward money, I was hoping that you would accept this instead.”
She held out a flat, wrapped parcel, and Nancy took it. When she had unwrapped it, she discovered a lovely framed watercolor of the Masonville house.
“That’s what it looked like when it was new,” Sabrina explained. “We thought you would enjoy having it as a souvenir.”
Nancy smiled. “I certainly will,” she said as she admired the picture. She did not know yet that it would only be a matter of time until she was involved in another mystery, involving a hidden staircase.
But Nancy knew she would always be ready for another mystery.
Watching his daughter, Carson Drew sighed. He supposed he could stand a few more gray hairs.