Author: Randolph, Helen
Young women — Juvenile fiction
Americans — Mexico — Juvenile fiction
The Secret of Casa Grande
Mexican Mystery Stories #1
Four strong arms caught her before her feet touched the floor of the balcony.
THE SECRET OF
THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY
Akron, Ohio New York
Mexican Mystery Series
by Helen Randolph
The Secret of Casa Grande
The Mystery of Carlitos
Crossed Trails in Mexico
The Saalfield Publishing Company
Printed in the United States of America
- CHAPTER PAGE
- I The Mysterious Window 7
- II The Search Begins 22
- III A New Discovery 36
- IV Jo Ann’s Secret Quest 50
- V The Siesta Hour 66
- VI Jo Ann’s Predicament 82
- VII The Promenade 99
- VIII The Señor’s Library 116
- IX The Sealed Door 134
- X Through the Mysterious Window 148
- XI The Hastily Planned Merienda 162
- XII Florence’s Surprise 173
- XIII Into the Unknown 185
- XIV Ghostly Figures 200
- XV The Black Box 220
- XVI More Precious Than Jewels 229
- XVII The Señor’s Story 240
THE MYSTERIOUS WINDOW
Aroused by a slight noise in the room, Jo Ann sleepily tossed back the turbulent black curls from her forehead and slowly opened first one eye, then the other. She lay staring half dazedly as the solid doorlike shutters swung back, letting the rays of the morning sun filter into the room through the iron bars of the window. Where was she? Why the iron bars?
Slowly her gaze traveled over the room, taking in the high, heavily beamed ceiling, the bare plastered walls, and finally resting on Peggy sleeping peacefully beside her. Everything floated again before her mind’s eye: their long trip to Mexico, their midnight arrival at this great old stone house, and their warm welcome by Peggy’s friend, Florence Blackwell, whom she had never seen before.
The next moment the Indian woman, who had wakened her by opening the heavy shutters, noiselessly crossed the room and began arranging dishes on a small table beside the bed.
“Buenos dias, señorita [Good morning, miss],” she said softly in Spanish as she noticed that one of the girls was awake.
“Ah—buenos dias,” stammered Jo Ann.
Again the woman spoke to her, but Jo Ann shook her head. After the woman had repeated her words very slowly, she was able to understand a few phrases.
Disturbed by their voices, Peggy suddenly sat up in bed, opening wide her dark-fringed hazel eyes. She, too, was startled for a moment by the unfamiliar surroundings; then, noticing the servant and the expression on Jo Ann’s face, she burst out laughing. “What’s the matter, Jo?” she asked teasingly a moment later. “Can’t you understand what she’s saying?”
“I think she’s trying to tell me something about Florence, but I’m not sure. I wonder where she is.”
Almost simultaneously there burst into the room a small trim girl with smooth fair hair and gentian-blue eyes. “Good morning, sleepy-heads,” she laughed, dropping down on the foot of the bed and fanning herself with a large sun hat. “Girls, this is Juana. Did she deliver my message?”
“She tried to,” Jo Ann replied, “but I’m afraid she wasn’t very successful.”
Turning to the servant, Florence spoke rapidly in Spanish.
Juana grinned broadly, bowed to the girls, and jabbered something they could not understand.
“She’s trying to tell you how happy she is that you have come to stay with her Florencita,” explained Florence.
“Tell her that we’re delighted to be here,” put in Peggy promptly.
“How I envy you—being able to speak Spanish that way, Florence,” Jo Ann sighed. “I’d give anything to do half as well.”
Florence smiled. “Oh, you’ll get on to it in no time.” As she had lived more than half of her sixteen years in Mexico, Spanish was perfectly natural to her. It seemed so simple that sometimes she found it easier to express herself in Spanish than in English.
“Though I’ve studied it two years, I have my doubts about ever being able to speak it fluently,” said Jo Ann slowly. Noticing Florence’s flushed face she added, “Where’ve you been? What time is it?”
“Almost ten o’clock. I’ve just been to market.”
“To market? Why didn’t you call us?”
“Well, I knew you girls would be tired and sleepy after your trip, so I didn’t disturb you. I go to market early every morning. I like to do the buying myself.”
“Promise you’ll call me next time. I didn’t come down here to lie in bed and sleep all the time. There’s too much to do and see.”
“All right, then; I’ll call you tomorrow. But come on, let’s have breakfast. I’m ravenous after my walk, and I know you two must be starving.”
“If having breakfast served in bed is your idea of our helping you to keep house, then I’m all for it,” declared Peggy gaily as she flopped her pink-pajamed legs over the side of the bed. “It suits my taste exactly.”
Florence nodded smilingly toward Juana. “It wasn’t my idea. It was hers. She’d be terribly hurt if we didn’t let her wait on us. After you two get rested from your trip, though, I’ll set you to work planning meals and cooking—and everything.”
“Well, I’m going to enjoy being waited on as long as I can,” laughed Peggy.
Sitting on the side of the bed, clad in their gay pajamas and eating their breakfast from an exquisitely inlaid tea table, Peggy and Jo Ann felt very sophisticated indeed.
“This is the most delicious orange juice and the best toast I’ve ever tasted,” declared Jo Ann, a moment later.
“It’s the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten in my whole life,” added Peggy with her usual exaggeration.
Florence turned to the servant, who had just returned with a plate of hot toast, and repeated their remarks in Spanish.
From that moment Juana was their devoted slave, anticipating their every wish.
As soon as they had finished breakfast, Jo Ann and Peggy dressed for the street, Florence insisting, much to their disapproval, that they wear hats. “The sun is too hot here in the middle of the day to go out without something on your head,” she explained.
While Peggy was arranging her hair in neat auburn waves, Jo Ann, who had finished her hasty toilet, stepped to the door leading into the hall and stood taking in every visible detail of the strangely constructed building. The immense rooms, each opening onto the long central hall, seemed dark and gloomy, owing to the thick walls, the concrete floor, the heavy doors, and the iron-barred windows. Though the bright-colored rugs, the gay-flowered chintz, and a few well-chosen pictures added a cheerful homelike note, the general effect was one of austere simplicity.
Having noticed Jo Ann’s interest, Florence came up beside her and, slipping her arm around her waist, asked, “How do you like our house? It’s very old, you know.”
“I love old houses,” Jo Ann replied quickly. “This one is extremely interesting—so different from anything I’ve ever seen.” She hesitated, then added, “I’ve been thinking of studying architecture when I go to college.”
“Would you care to see the rest of the house? There are some rather unusual features about it.”
Jo Ann’s dark brown eyes sparkled. “I’d adore it!”
“I, too,” put in Peggy, who had come out in time to hear Florence’s words.
Florence pointed to the open door on the right. “This is the sitting room, but Mother and I stay in the office with Dad more than in here. Come on and I’ll show you the office.” She led the two girls across the hall, but stopped a moment later, saying, “The office door’s closed—Dad probably has a patient—but I can show you the other rooms. The kitchen is the most interesting room in the house, I think.”
She took them into the dining room and on to the end of the long hall, then turned into an immense room having three large windows all heavily barred.
“My goodness, you could ’most put our whole house into this one room!” exclaimed Peggy. “I’ve never seen such a huge kitchen before in a private residence. Why do you suppose they built it so large?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure. It’s the strangest house I’ve ever seen. Just look at that fireplace, for instance.” Florence motioned toward one side of the room, which was entirely taken up by a huge fireplace set back in a broad arched recess. “It’s large enough to belong to some big hotel—and yet we’ve only two bedrooms in the house.”
“But why did they build the fireplace in three sections? All the fireplaces I’ve ever seen were built on a level with the floor. This one reminds me of the ‘Three Bears.’ This section belongs to the great big bear; and this one——”
Florence broke into a peal of laughter at Peggy’s whimsical idea. “No one but you would have thought of that,” she said.
Juana glanced up from her preparations for lunch, smiling to herself. She had not seen her Florencita happy for months—not since her mother had been taken ill and had been sent to a sanitarium for a several weeks’ stay.
As their laughter died away, Florence went on to explain, “You see, the lowest section—in the middle—was where they built their fire to cook the food; this section here, of medium height, was where they made their tortillas. It’s just the right height for the metate, the stone on which corn is rubbed or ground into a paste. There’s room here for several women to work at the same time.”
“But what was the great big bear’s section used for?” interrupted Peggy.
“The highest one was used for draining the dishes and earthen cooking utensils. Each section is covered with smooth hard stones, and here in the corner is a small hole left to let the water drain off. It was a very well-equipped kitchen in its day.”
Florence was delighted to find that her guests were so interested in the old house which had been her home for many years. She went on to explain that although modern equipment had been installed wherever possible, they had tried to leave the quaint old atmosphere undisturbed.
While she was answering Peggy’s questions about the new equipment, Jo Ann was busily taking in the details of the architecture, especially noting the absence of woodwork in the queer windows that had iron bars and no glass.
As her gaze wandered to the window at the end of the room, she caught a glimpse of something which sent a little thrill of excitement over her. She crossed the room quickly and stared through the iron bars at what seemed to be the ruins of an ancient building. Could this be the ruins of one of those old cathedrals which she had read about and had wanted to see for so long?
“What’s this old building back of your house, Florence?” she asked eagerly.
Peggy rushed over to the window to see the building that had caused the note of excitement in Jo Ann’s voice, while Florence merely smiled and replied, “That’s a part of a very old church, now used only by the poorest peons.”
Jo Ann’s eyes opened in surprise. “I don’t see how they can use it—it looks as if it were falling down.”
“The main part of the church is all right, but they never use the other part. I don’t know whether it was partially destroyed in a war or whether it just caved in from old age.”
“How old do you think this church is?”
“I don’t know exactly, but it’s several hundred years old. I’ve heard that it’s one of the oldest buildings in this part of Mexico. All the better classes of people attend the large modern cathedral across the Plaza.”
“May we go over to the old church? I’d love to see it.”
“Why, yes, we’ll have time to go over there before lunch. There isn’t much to see, so it won’t take us long.”
Florence turned and said something in Spanish to Juana; then the three girls started out of the kitchen door. “Before we go,” Florence added, “I’ll show you this other room just across the hall—there’s nothing interesting or unusual about it, though. It has only one window looking out on the back street. There’s nothing but the back of that old church to be seen from it.”
After glancing about this room they hurried on down to the street, Jo Ann in the lead. She could scarcely wait to visit the old church.
As they started across the street, Peggy looked longingly toward the Plaza and the crowded streets of the business section of the city. She much preferred sightseeing in that direction, but she knew Jo Ann had set her heart on seeing the old church and that there was no changing her.
A few minutes later the girls passed under the old stone arch and into the vestibule with its font of holy water, then walked softly on into the church.
Having come in from the bright sunlight, they were unable at first to distinguish anything except the candles burning on the altar. A reverent silence lay over the entire building. With her finger to her lips Florence motioned Jo Ann and Peggy to a bench. They sat down quietly, careful lest they disturb the peacefulness of the place.
As their eyes became accustomed to the dim interior, they noticed several figures with black shawls about their heads and shoulders, kneeling at the altar. A woman with a baby in her arms and a tiny, half-naked tot beside her was kneeling before the statue of Mary, Mother of Jesus, her lips moving in silent prayer. Direst poverty was evident among all the worshipers.
Many minor details that had escaped Peggy’s eyes caught and held Jo Ann’s attention. The benches, altar rail, and pedestals, she noticed, were hand hewn and decorated with exquisite carving; the statues were different from any that she had ever seen; and even the candles were unusual—probably, hand dipped, she decided.
For almost an hour they sat there silent, Jo Ann intent in absorbing the atmosphere of this ancient building.
“I feel as if I’d actually stepped back through the centuries into the Mexico of ages past,” she thought dreamily.
By this time Peggy had begun to get restless. To her the place seemed close and stuffy, the odor and fumes of the candles suffocating. Without saying a word she rose and went outside. Leaning against the wall in the shadow of the stone arch, she waited for the girls and amused herself by gazing idly at the rear of Florence’s home across the street.
“Florence, I don’t like to make remarks about your house,” she said, half smiling as Florence and Jo Ann drew near, “but from the rear it looks more like a fort or a prison than a home.”
“It reminds me of an old castle with its high stone walls and heavy iron bars at the windows,” added Jo Ann, gazing over at the house.
Florence smiled good-naturedly. “It doesn’t look very homelike, I’ll admit. I don’t believe I’ve ever noticed it before from this viewpoint. I never come to this old church—at least, I haven’t been here for several years. As I said before, only people of the lowest classes attend this church.”
“I didn’t see a window in your hall,” Jo Ann suddenly remarked to Florence. “I thought I noticed a shaded light burning on that little table at the end of the hall.”
“There isn’t a window in the hall—it’s dark as pitch there, and we have to keep a light burning day and night.”
“Then how do you account for that little narrow, crosswise opening up there in the wall? There it is on a level with the top of the kitchen and back bedroom windows.”
“I don’t know.” Florence gazed puzzledly at the small opening. “I’ve never seen a window like that on the inside of the house, and I know I’ve seen every inch of the walls inside.”
“Well, there it is—a tiny window, just as plain as the nose on your face.”
In silent amazement Florence stared at this narrow opening high up in the bleak stone wall.
“That certainly is strange!” she said finally, her brows drawn together in a thoughtful frown.
“It certainly is,” agreed Jo Ann and Peggy, equally mystified.
Everything was forgotten now except this queer window. Why was it there? Into what did it open?
THE SEARCH BEGINS
“This is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard of,” declared Florence as they hurried back to the house, eager to examine the rear wall from the inside.
“How long have you lived here, Florence?” asked Jo Ann. “I’m sure I’d have seen that window long before this if I’d been in your place.”
“We’ve lived here about eight years, but, as I told you, I’ve only been in that church a few times, and I’ve never walked down that back street.”
“Lived here eight years and never walked back of your own house!” exclaimed Jo Ann in surprise. “Who ever heard of such a thing?”
“But you don’t understand,” Florence replied. “It isn’t exactly proper for me to wander down that back street.”
Both girls opened their eyes wide in astonishment.
“Not proper to go back of your own house!” ejaculated Peggy. “The very idea!”
“Yes, you see it’s only a narrow street leading to one of the poorest sections of the city. Only the very lowest class of people live on it. Mother and I drive down on the next street sometimes, accompanied by Felipe, to carry food and clothes to the destitute families, but I’ve never been down that narrow street.”
“It must be something like it is on the street cars at home,” Jo Ann said thoughtfully, coming to Florence’s assistance. “You know how they are, Peggy—one section marked ‘Colored,’ and you never sit there.”
Up the long flight of stairs they ran to the Blackwells’ apartment, each girl eager to be the first to solve the mystery. Jo Ann’s long legs carried her ahead of Florence and Peggy, who arrived a moment later out of breath.
There stood Jo Ann staring blankly at the solid plastered wall at the end of the hall.
“I’m sure this is where that window ought to be,” she said finally in a perplexed tone.
“There certainly isn’t any sign of one that I can see,” added Peggy, while Florence gazed silently at the spot where she thought the opening should be.
Just then Juana ran in from the kitchen to see what had caused so much commotion in the silent old house. “Florencita! Que es [What is it?]?” she asked in alarm.
“It’s nothing,” replied Florence in Spanish. Understanding the superstitious nature of the Indians, she thought it wiser not to tell Juana about this mysterious window for the present.
Juana stared in shocked surprise. Something was wrong, she was sure. Young ladies of the best families did not deport themselves in such a manner. Her Florencita had never acted this way before—racing into the house like mad. Finally, shaking her head and mumbling to herself, she returned to the kitchen to finish her preparations for lunch.
The moment she disappeared through the kitchen door, Jo Ann hastened through the one opposite and called to Florence and Peggy, “Come on, maybe we can see something from the window in this back room.”
Much to their disappointment, the iron bars, set in the deep recess of the thick walls, prevented them from seeing anything except a part of the ruins of the old church directly across the narrow street.
“And so the mystery deepens,” laughed Jo Ann. “I’ve heard of bumping your head against a stone wall, but I’ve never understood what it meant till now.”
“Do you know what I think it is?” remarked Florence as they wandered back to the hall. “At one time there probably was an opening here”—she motioned toward the solid wall at the end of the hall—“then, sometime when they were fixing the house over, they closed it up. This house is very, very old, you know.”
“But why would they leave a hole on the outside?” Peggy asked.
“Oh, they probably didn’t think it mattered on that back street, and maybe the stones didn’t fit or something. These walls are so thick, you know, it wouldn’t make any difference. It’s too small to be a window, anyway.”
“Maybe so,” commented Peggy, “but it sounds funny to me.”
Jo Ann was silent. She was thinking