THE BOARDED-UP HOUSE
BY AUGUSTA HUIELL SEAMAN Author of "Jacqueline of The Carrier Pigeons," etc.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY C. CLYDE SQUIRES
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO.
Copyright, 1915, by THE CENTURY CO.
I GOLIATH LEADS THE WAY 3
II IN SEARCH OF ADVENTURE 22
III AMATEUR DETECTIVES 33
IV THE ROOM OF MYSTERY 46
V JOYCE MAKES A NEW DISCOVERY. SO DOES GOLIATH 56
VI JOYCE'S THEORY 68
VII GOLIATH MAKES ANOTHER DISCOVERY 79
VIII CYNTHIA HAS AN IDEA 90
IX THE MEMORIES OF GREAT-AUNT LUCIA 107
X AN EXCITING DISCOVERY 122
XI THE ROOM THAT WAS LOCKED 135
XII A SLIGHT DISAGREEMENT 145
XIII THE GREAT ILLUMINATION 154
XIV THE MEDDLING OF CYNTHIA 166
XV THE STRANGER AT THE DOOR 173
XVI JOYCE EXPLAINS 184
XVII IN WHICH ALL MYSTERIES ARE SOLVED 192
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Both girls gasped and stared incredulously Frontispiece
A flight of stairs could be dimly discerned 19
They stared with the fascination of horror 43
"Well, what do you suppose that can be?" queried Cynthia 61
"Do you know any real elderly people, father?" 99
"Oh, I wish I were Sherlock Holmes!" 125
There was nothing to do but sit and enjoy the spectacle 161
Then, with one accord they began to steer their way around the furniture 213
GOLIATH LEADS THE WAY
Cynthia sat on her veranda steps, chin in hand, gazing dolefully at the gray September sky. All day, up to half an hour before, the sky had been cloudlessly blue, the day warm and radiant. Then, all of a sudden, the sun had slunk shamefacedly behind a high rising bank of cloud, and its retiring had been accompanied by a raw, chilly wind. Cynthia scowled. Then she shivered. Then she pulled the collar of her white sweater up to her ears and buttoned it over. Then she muttered something about "wishing Joy would hurry, for it's going to rain!" Then she dug her hands into her sweater pockets and stared across the lawn at a blue hydrangea bush with a single remaining bunch of blossoms hanging heavy on its stem.
Suddenly there was a flash of red on a veranda farther down the street, and a long, musical whistle. Cynthia jumped up and waved madly. The flash of red, speeding toward her, developed into a bright red sweater, cap, and skirt.
"Don't scold! Now you mustn't be cross, Cynthia. Anne was just putting a big batch of sugar-cookies in the oven, and I simply had to wait till they were done! I've brought a lot over for you. Here!" The owner of the red sweater crammed a handful of hot cookies into Cynthia's pocket.
"You did keep me waiting an age, Joy," Cynthia began, struggling with a mouthful of cooky; "but I forgive you. I'd almost begun to be—angry!" Joy (her right name was Joyce) ignored the latter remark.
"We can't go! Momsie positively forbade it. Why on earth couldn't it have kept sunny a little longer? It'll rain any minute now, I suppose."
"I know," Cynthia sympathized. "Mother forbade me too, long before you came out, and we counted on it so! Won't be much more chance to go canoeing this season." They sat down listlessly on the veranda steps, and solaced themselves with the last remnants of the cookies. Life appeared a trifle drab, as it usually does when cherished plans are demolished and the sun goes in! Very shortly there were no more cookies.
"What on earth has happened to your hydrangea bush? It was full of blossoms yesterday," Joyce suddenly exclaimed.
"Bates's pup!" replied Cynthia, laconically. There was no need of further explanation. Joyce giggled at its shorn appearance, and then relapsed into another long silence. There were times when these two companions could talk frantically for hours on a stretch. There were other seasons when they would sit silent yet utterly understanding one another for equally prolonged periods. They had been bosom friends from babyhood, as their parents had been before them. Shoulder to shoulder they had gone through kindergarten and day-school together, and were now abreast in their first high-school year. Even their birthdays fell in the same month. And the only period of the year which saw them parted was the few weeks during vacation when their respective parents (who had different tastes in summer resorts) dragged them unwillingly away to mountain and sea-shore. Literally, nothing else ever separated them save the walls of their own dwellings—and the Boarded-up House.
It is now high time to introduce the Boarded-up House, which has been staring us out of countenance ever since this story began! For the matter of that, it had stared the two girls out of countenance ever since they came to live in the little town of Rockridge, one on each side of it. And long before they came there, long before ever they were born, or Rockridge had begun its mushroom growth as a pretty, modern, country town, the Boarded-up House had stared the passers-by out of countenance with almost irritating persistence.
It was set well back from the street, in a big inclosure guarded by a very rickety picket-fence, and a gate that was never shut but hung loosely on one hinge. Unkempt bushes and tall rank grass flourished in this inclosure, and near the porch grew two pine-trees like sentinels at the entrance. At the back was a small orchard of ancient cherry-trees, and near the rear door a well-curb, with the great sweep half rotted away.
The house itself was a big, rambling affair of the Colonial type, with three tall pillars supporting the veranda roof and reaching above the second story. On each side of the main part was a generous wing. It stood rather high on a sloping lawn, and we have said that it "stared" at passers-by—with truth, because very near the roof were two little windows shaped like half-circles. They somehow bore a close resemblance to a pair of eyes that stared and stared and stared with calm, unwinking blankness.
As to the other windows and doors, they were all tightly boarded up. The boards in the big front door had a small door fashioned in them, and this door fastened with a very rusty lock. No one ever came in or out. No one ever tended the grounds. The place had been without an occupant for years. The Boarded-up House had always been boarded up, as long as its neighbors could recollect. It was not advertised for sale. When the little town of Rockridge began to build up, people speculated about it for a while with considerable interest. But as they could never obtain any definite information about it, they finally gave it up, and accepted the queer old place as a matter of course.
To Cynthia Sprague and Joyce Kenway, it had, when they first came to live on either side of it, some five years before, afforded for a while an endless source of attraction. They had played house on the broad veranda, climbed the trees in the orchard, organized elaborate games of hide-and-seek among the thick, high bushes that grew so close to the walls, and in idle moments had told each other long stories about its former (imaginary) inmates. But as they grew older and more absorbed in outside affairs, their interest in it ceased, till at length it came to be only a source of irritation to them, since it separated their homes by a wide space that they considered rather a nuisance to have to traverse.
So they sat, on this threatening afternoon, cheated of their anticipated canoe-trip on the little stream that threaded its way through their town to the wide Sound,—sat munching sugar-cookies, glowering at the weather, and thinking of nothing very special. Suddenly there was a flash of gray across the lawn, closely pursued by a streak of yellow. Both girls sprang to their feet, Joyce exclaiming indignantly:
"Look at Bates's pup chasing Goliath!" The latter individual was the Kenways' huge Maltese cat, well deserving of his name in appearance, but not in nature, for he was known to be the biggest coward in cat-dom. The girls stood on tiptoe to watch the chase. Over the lawn and through an opening in the picket-fence of the Boarded-up House sped Goliath, his enemy yapping at his heels, and into the tangled thicket of bushes about the nearer wing. Into the bushes also plunged Bates' pup, and there ensued the sound of sundry baffled yelps. Then, after a moment, Bates's pup emerged, one ear comically cocked, and ambled away in search of other entertainment. Nothing else happened, and the girls resumed their seat on the veranda steps. Presently Joyce remarked, idly:
"Does it strike you as queer, Cynthia, what could have become of Goliath?"
"Not at all," replied Cynthia, who had no special gift of imagination. "What could have happened to him? I suppose he climbed into the bushes."
"He couldn't have done that without being in reach of the pup," retorted Joyce. "And he couldn't have come out either side, or we'd have seen him. Now where can he be? I vote we go and look him up!" She had begun with but a languid interest, seeking only to pass the time, and had suddenly ended up with tremendous enthusiasm. That was like Joyce.
"I don't see what you want to do that for," argued Cynthia. "I don't care what became of him as long as he got away from Bates's pup, and I'm very comfortable right here!" Cynthia was large and fair and plump, and inclined to be a little indolent.
"But don't you see," insisted Joyce, "that he must have hidden in some strange place,—and one he must have known about, too, for he went straight to it! I'm just curious to find out his 'bunk.'" Joyce was slim and dark and elfin, full of queer pranks, sudden enthusiastic plans, and very vivid of imagination, a curious contrast to the placid, slow-moving Cynthia. Joyce also, as a rule, had her way in matters, and she had it now.
"Very well!" sighed Cynthia, in slow assent. "Come on!" They wandered down the steps, across the lawn, through the gap in the fence, and tried to part the bushes behind which Goliath had disappeared. But they were thick lilac bushes, grown high and rank. Joyce struggled through them, tearing the pocket of her sweater and pulling her hair awry. Cynthia prudently remained on the outskirts The quest did not greatly interest her.
"There's nothing back there but the foundation of the house," she remarked.
"You're wrong. There is!" called back Joy, excitedly, from the depths. "Crawl around the end of the bushes, Cyn! It will be easier. I want to show you something." There was so much suppressed mystery in Joy's voice that Cynthia obeyed without demur, and back of the bushes found her examining a little boarded-up window into the cellar. One board of it had, through age and dampness, rotted and fallen away. There happened to be no glass window-frame behind it.
"Here's where Goliath disappeared," whispered Joyce, "and he's probably in there now!" Cynthia surveyed the hole unconcernedly.
"That's so," she agreed. "He will probably come out after a while. Now that you've discovered his 'bunk,' I hope you're coming back to the veranda. We might have a game of tennis, too, before it rains." Joyce sat back on her heels, and looked her companion straight in the eye.
"Cynthia," she said, in a tense whisper, "did it ever occur to you that there's something strange about the Boarded-up House?"
"No," declared Cynthia, honestly, "it never did. I never thought about it."
"Well, I have—sometimes, at least—and once in a long while, do you know, I've even dreamed I was exploring it. Look here, Cynthia, wouldn't you like to explore it? I'm just crazy to!" Cynthia stared and shrugged her shoulders.
"Mercy, no! It would be dark and musty and dirty. Besides, we've no business in there. We'd be trespassers. What ever made you think of it? There's probably nothing to see, anyway. It's an empty house."
"That's just where you're mistaken!" retorted Joyce. "I heard Father say once that it was furnished throughout, and left exactly as it was,—so some one told him, some old lady, I think he said. It's a Colonial mansion, too, and stood here before the Revolution. There wasn't any town of Rockridge, you know, till just recently,—only the turnpike road off there where Warrington Avenue is now. This house was the only one around, for a long distance."
"Well, that sounds interesting, but, even still, I don't see why you want to get inside, anyhow. I'm perfectly satisfied with the outside. And, more than that, we couldn't get in if we tried. So there!" If Cynthia imagined she had ended the argument with Joyce by any such reasoning, she was doomed to disappointment. Joyce shrugged her shoulders with a disgusted movement.
"I never saw any one like you, Cynthia Sprague! You've absolutely no imagination! Don't you see how Goliath got in? Well, I could get in the same way, and so could you!" She gave the boards a sharp pull, and succeeded in dislodging another. "Five minutes' work will clear this window, and then—"
"But good gracious, Joy, you wouldn't break in a window of a strange house and climb in the cellar like a burglar!" cried Cynthia, genuinely shocked.
"I just would! Why, it's an adventure, Cynthia, like the kind we've always longed for. You know we've always said we'd love to have some adventures, above everything else. And we never have, and now here's one right under our noses!" Joyce was almost tearful in her earnestness to convince the doubting Cynthia. And then Cynthia yielded, as she always did, to Joy's entreaties.
"Very well. It is an adventure, I suppose. But why not wait till some bright, sunny day? It'll be horridly dark and gloomy in there this afternoon."
"Nonsense!" cried Joyce, who never could bear to wait an instant in carrying out some cherished plan. "Run back to your house, Cynthia, and smuggle out a candle and a box of matches. And don't let any one see what you take!" But this Cynthia flatly refused to do, urging that she would certainly be discovered and held up for instant explanation by the lynx-eyed Bridget who guarded the kitchen.
"Very well, then I'll have to get them from mine, I suppose. Anne never asks what I'm doing," said Joyce, resignedly. "You stay here and wait!" She sped away toward her own house, but was soon back, matches and candle under her sweater, her hands full of fresh cookies.
"We'll eat these when we're inside. Here, stuff them into your pockets! And help me break these other boards away. My! but they're rotten!" Cynthia helped, secretly very reluctant and fearful of consequences, and they soon had the little window free of obstructions. Joyce poked in her head and peered about.
"It's as dark as a pocket, but I see two things like balls of fire,—that's Goliath up on a beam, I suppose. It isn't far to the ground. Here goes!" She slipped in, feet first, let herself down, hung on to the sill a moment, then disappeared from view.
"Oh, Joyce!" gasped Cynthia, sticking her head through the opening into the dark, "where are you?"
"Right here!" laughed Joyce from below. "Trying to light the candle. Come along! The stones of the wall are like regular steps, you can put your feet on 'em!"
"Oh, but the mice, and the spiders, and—and all sorts of things!" groaned Cynthia. "I'm afraid of them!"
"Nonsense! they can't hurt you!" replied Joyce, unsympathetically. "If you don't come soon, I'm going on. I'm so impatient to see things, I can't wait. You'd better hurry up, if you're coming."
"But it isn't right! It's trespassing!" cried Cynthia, making her last stand. Joyce scorned to argue further along this line.
"We talked that all over before. Good-by! I'm off! I've got the candle lit." Cynthia suddenly surrendered.
"Oh, wait, wait! I'm coming!" She adopted Joyce's mode of ingress, but found it scarcely as easy as it looked, and her feet swung in space, groping wildly for the steps described.
"I'm stuck! I can't move! Oh, why am I so fat and clumsy!" she moaned. Joyce laughed, placed her companion's feet on a ledge, and hauled her down, breathless, cobwebby, and thoroughly scared.
The lighted candle threw but a feeble illumination on the big, bare space they stood in. The beams overhead were thick with cobwebs hanging like gray portieres from every projection. Otherwise the inclosure was clear except for a few old farm implements in a distant corner. As Joyce raised the candle over her head, a flight of stairs could be dimly discerned.
"This way!" she ordered, and they moved toward it cautiously. At that moment, there came from behind them a sudden scratching and scrambling, and then a thud. Both girls uttered a low, frightened shriek and clung together. But it was only Goliath, disturbed in his hiding-place. They turned in time to see him clambering through the window.
"Joyce, this is horrid!" gasped Cynthia. "My heart is beating like a trip-hammer. Let's go back."
"It's lovely!" chuckled Joyce. "It's what I've always longed for. I feel like Christopher Columbus! I wouldn't go back now for worlds! And to think we've neglected such a mystery at our front doors, as you might say, all these years!" And she dragged the protesting Cynthia toward the cellar stairs.
IN SEARCH OF ADVENTURE
They stumbled up the cellar steps, their eyes growing gradually used to the semi-darkness. At the top was a shut door which refused to be moved, and they feared for a moment that failure awaited them in this early period of the voyage of discovery. But after some vigorous pushing and rattling, it gave with an unexpected jerk, and they were landed pell-mell into a dark hallway.
"Now," declared Joyce, "this is the beginning of something interesting, I hope!" Cynthia said nothing, having, indeed, much ado to appear calm and hold herself from making a sudden bolt back to the cellar window. With candle held high, Joyce proceeded to investigate their surroundings. They seemed to be in a wide, central hall running through the house from front to back. A generous stairway of white-painted wood with slender mahogany railing ascended to an upper floor. Some large paintings and portraits hung on the walls, but the candle did not throw enough light to permit seeing them well. The furniture in the hall consisted of several tall, straight-backed chairs set at intervals against the walls, and at one side a massive table covered thick with the dust of years. There was a distinctly old-fashioned, "different" air about the place, but nothing in any other way remarkable.
"You see!" remarked Cynthia. "There isn't anything wonderful here, and the air is simply horrid. I hope you're satisfied. Do come back!"
"But we haven't seen a quarter of it yet! This is only the hall. Now for the room on the right!" Joyce hauled open a pair of closed folding-doors, and held the candle above her head. If they were searching for things strange and inexplicable, here at last was their reward! Both girls gasped and stared incredulously, first at the scene before them, then at each other.
The apartment was a dining-room. More portraits and paintings shone dimly from the walls. A great candelabrum hung from the ceiling, with sconces for nearly a hundred candles and ornamented with glittering crystal pendants. An enormous sideboard occupied almost an entire end of the room. In the middle, a long dining-table stood under the candelabrum.
But here was the singular feature. The table was still set with dishes, as though for a feast. And the chairs about it were all pushed awry, and some were overturned. Napkins, yellowed with age, were fallen about, dropped apparently in sudden forgetfulness. The china and glassware stood just as they had been left, though every ancient vestige of food had long since been carried away by the mice.
As plain as print, one could read the signs of some feasting party interrupted and guests hastily leaving their places to return no more. The girls understood it in a flash.
"But why—why," said Joyce, speaking her thought aloud, "was it all left just like this? Why weren't things cleared up and put away? What could have happened? Cynthia, this is the strangest thing I ever heard of!" Cynthia only stared, and offered no explanation. Plainly, she was impressed at last.
"Come on!" half whispered Joyce, "Let's see the room across the hall. I'm crazy to explore it all!" Together they tiptoed to the other side of the hall. A kind of awe had fallen upon them. There was more here than even Joyce had hoped or imagined. This was a house of mystery.
The apartment across the hall proved to be the drawing-room. Though in evident disarray it, however, exhibited fewer signs of the strange, long-past agitation. In dimensions it was similar to the dining-room, running from front to back of the house. Here, too, was another elaborate candelabrum, somewhat smaller than the first, queer, spindle-legged, fiddle-backed chairs, beautiful cabinets and tables, and an old, square piano, still open. The chairs stood in irregular groups of twos and threes, chumming cozily together as their occupants had doubtless done, and over the piano had been carelessly thrown a long, filmy silk scarf, one end hanging to the floor. Upon everything the dust was indescribably thick and cobwebs hung from the ceiling.
"Do you know," spoke Joyce, in a whisper after they had looked a long time, "I think I can guess part of an explanation for all this. There was a party here, long, long ago,—perhaps a dinner-party. Folks had first been sitting in the drawing-room, and then went to the dining-room for dinner. Suddenly, in the midst of the feast, something happened,—I can't imagine what,—but it broke up the good time right away. Every one jumped up from the table, upsetting chairs and dropping napkins. Perhaps they all rushed out of the room. Anyway, they never came back to finish the meal. And after that, the owner shut the house and boarded it up and went away, never stopping to clear up or put things to rights. Awfully sudden, that, and awfully queer!"
"Goodness, Joy! You're as good as a detective! How did you ever think all that out?" murmured Cynthia, admiringly.
"Why, it's very simple," said Joyce. "The drawing-room is all right,—just looks like any other parlor where a lot of people have been sitting, before it was put to rights. But the dining-room's different. Something happened there, suddenly, and people just got their things on and left, after that! Can't you see it? But what could it have been? Oh, I'd give my eyes to know, Cynthia!
"See here!" she added, after a moment's thought. "I've the loveliest idea! You just spoke of detectives, and that put it into my head. Let's play we're detectives, like Sherlock Holmes, and ferret out this mystery. It will be the greatest lark ever! We will come here often, and examine every bit of evidence we can find, and gather information outside if we can, and put two and two together, and see if we can't make out the whole story. Oh, it's gorgeous! Did two girls ever have such an adventure before!" She clasped her hands ecstatically, first having presented the candle to Cynthia, because she was too excited to hold it. Even the placid and hitherto objecting Cynthia was fired by the scheme.
"Yes, let's!" she assented. "I'll ask Mother if she knows anything about this old place."
"No you won't!" cried Joyce, coming suddenly to earth. "This has got to be kept a strict secret. Never dare to breathe it! Never speak of this house at all! Never show the slightest interest in it! And we must come here often. Do you want folks to suspect what we are doing and put a stop to it all? It's all right, really, of course. We're not doing any actual wrong or harming anything. But they wouldn't understand."
"Very well, then," agreed Cynthia, meekly, cowed but bewildered. "I don't see, though, how you're going to find out things if you don't ask."
"You must get at it in other ways," declared Joyce, but did not explain the process just then.
"This candle will soon be done for!" suddenly announced the practical Cynthia. "Why didn't you bring a bigger one?"
"Couldn't find any other," said Joyce. "Let's finish looking around here and leave the rest for another day." They began accordingly to walk slowly about the room, peering up at the pictures on the walls and picking their way with care around the furniture without moving or touching anything. Presently they came abreast of the great open fireplace. A heavy chair was standing directly in front of it, but curiously enough, with its back to what must have been once a cheery blaze. They moved around it carefully and bent to examine the pretty Delft tiles that framed the yawning chimney-place, below the mantel. Then Joyce stepped back to look at the plates and vases on the mantel. Suddenly she gave a little cry:
"Hello! That's queer! Look, Cynthia!" Cynthia, still studying the tiles, straightened up to look where her companion had pointed. But in that instant the dying candle-flame sputtered, flickered, and went out, leaving only a small mass of warm tallow in Cynthia's hand For a moment, there was horrified silence. The heavy darkness seemed to cast a spell over even the irrepressible Joyce. But not for long.
"Too bad!" she began. "Where are the matches, Cynthia? I handed them to you. We can light our way out by them." Cynthia produced the box from the pocket of her sweater and opened it.
"Mercy! There are only three left!" she cried, feeling round in it.
"Never mind. They will light us out of this room and through the hall to the cellar stairs. When we get there the window will guide us."
Cynthia struck the first match, and they hurriedly picked their way around the scattered furniture. But the match went out before they reached the door. The second saw them out of the room and into the long hall. The third, alas! broke short off at its head, and proved useless. Then a real terror of the dark, unknown spaces filled them both. Breathless, frantic, they felt their way along the walls, groping blindly for the elusive cellar door. At length Joyce's hand struck a knob.
"Here it is!" she breathed. They pulled open the door and plunged through it, only to find themselves in some sort of a closet, groping among musty clothes that were hanging there.
"Oh it isn't, it isn't!" wailed Cynthia. "Oh I'll never, never come into this dreadful house again!" But Joyce had regained her poise.
"It's all right! Our door is just across the hall. I remember where it is now. She pulled the shuddering Cynthia out of the closet, and felt her way across the wide hall space.
"Here it is! Now we are all serene!" she cried triumphantly, opening a door which they found gave on a flight of steps. And as they crept down, a dim square of good, honest daylight sent their spirits up with a bound. It was raining great pelting drops as they scrambled out and scampered for Cynthia's veranda. But daylight, even if dismal with rain, had served to restore them completely to their usual gaiety.
"By the way, Joyce," she said, as they stood on the porch shaking the rain from their skirts, "what was it you were pointing at just when the candle went out? I didn't have time to see."
"Why, the strangest thing!" whispered Joyce. "There was a big picture hanging over the mantel. But what do you think? It hung there with its face turned to the wall!"
While Cynthia was bending over her desk during study-hour, struggling with a hopelessly entangled account in Latin of Caesar and his Gallic Wars, her next neighbor thrust a note into her hand. Glad of any diversion, she opened it and read:
This afternoon for the B. U. H. How much pocket-money have you?
Cynthia had no difficulty in guessing the meaning of the initials, but she could not imagine what pocket-money had to do with the matter, so she wrote back:
All right. Only thirty cents. More next week.
She passed it along to Joyce at the other end of the room, and returned to Caesar in a more cheerful frame of mind. Joyce, she knew, would explain all mysteries later, and she was content to wait.
Almost a week had passed since the first adventure of the Boarded-up House, and nothing further had happened. Joyce and Cynthia were healthy, normal girls, full of interests connected with their school, with outdoor affairs, and with social life, so they had much to occupy them beside this curious quest on which they had become engaged. A fraternity meeting had occupied one afternoon, dancing-school another, a tramping-excursion a third, and so on through the ensuing week. Not once, however, in the midst of all these outside interests, had they forgotten their strange adventure. When they were alone together they talked of it incessantly, and laid elaborate plans for future amateur detective work.
"It's just like a story!" Joyce would exclaim. "And who would ever have thought of a story in that old, Boarded-up House. And us in the midst of it!" Cynthia's first question that afternoon, on the way home from high school, was:
"What did you ask about pocket-money for? I'm down pretty low on my allowance, but I don't see what that's got to do with things." Joyce laughed.
"Well, I'm lower yet—ten cents to last till the month's out! But hasn't it struck you that we've got to have candles—plenty of them—and matches, and a couple of candlesticks at least? How else can we ever get about the place, pitch-dark as it all is? And if we tried to get them from home, some one would suspect right away."
"Ten cents' worth of candles ought to last us quite a while," began the practical Cynthia; "and ten cents more will buy a whole package of safety-matches. And for five cents we can get a candlestick, but we'd better stop at one for the present, or we won't have a cent left between us! Let's get them right now." While they were making their purchases, Cynthia had another idea.
"I'll tell you what, Joyce, I'm going to take along a dust-cloth and clean up around the window where we get in. My sweater was just black with dirt and cobwebs last time, and Mother almost insisted on an explanation. Fortunately she was called away for something, just then, and afterward didn't think of it. I've washed the sweater since!"
"Good idea!" assented Joyce. "Momsie wanted to know how I'd torn mine and got it so mussy, too. I told her I'd been chasing up Goliath,—which was really quite true, you know."
"I never can think of things to say that will be the truth and yet not give the whole thing away!" sighed the downright Cynthia. "I wish I were as quick as you!"
"Never mind! You've got the sense, Cynthia! I never would have thought of the dust-cloth."
Getting into the Boarded-up House this time was accompanied by less difficulty than the first. Before entering, Cynthia thoroughly dusted the window-ledge and as far about it as she could reach, with the result that there was less, if any, damage to their clothes. Armed as they were with plenty of candles and matches, there were no shudders either, or fears of the unknown and the dark. Even Cynthia was keen for the quest, and Joyce was simply bursting with new ideas, some of which she expounded to Cynthia as they were lighting their candles in the cellar.
"You know, Cyn, I've been looking at the place carefully from the outside. We haven't seen a third of it yet,—no, not even a quarter! There's the wing off the parlor toward your house, and the one off the dining-room toward mine. I suppose the kitchen must be in that one, but I can't think what's in the other, unless it's a library. We must see these to-day. And then there's all up-stairs."
"What I want to see most of all is the picture you spoke of that hangs in the parlor," said Cynthia. "Do you suppose we could turn it around?"
"Oh, I'd love to, only I don't know whether we ought! And it's heavy, too. I hardly think we could. Perhaps we might just try to peep behind it. You know, Cynthia, I realize we're doing something a little queer being in this house and prying about. I'm not sure our folks would approve of it. Only the old thing has been left so long, and there's such a mystery about it, and we're not harming or disturbing anything, that perhaps it isn't so dreadful. Anyhow, we must be very careful not to pry into anything we ought not touch. Perhaps then it will be all right." Cynthia agreed to all this without hesitation. She, indeed, had even stronger feelings than Joyce on the subject of their trespassing, but the joy of the adventure and the mystery with which they were surrounding it, outweighed her scruples. When they were half-way up the cellar steps, Joyce, who was ahead, suddenly exclaimed:
"Why, the door is open! Probably we left it so in our hurry the other day. We must be more careful after this, and leave everything as we find it." They tiptoed along the hall with considerably more confidence than on their former visit, pausing to hold their candles up to the pictures, and peeping for a moment into the curiously disarranged dining-room.
But they entered the drawing-room first and stood a long while before the fireplace, gazing at the picture's massive frame and its challenging wooden back. A heavy, ropelike cord with large silk tassels attached the picture to its hook, and the cord was twisted, as if some one had turned the picture about without stopping to readjust it.
"How strange!" murmured Cynthia. But Joyce had been looking at something else.
"Do you see that big chair with its back close to the mantel?" she exclaimed. "I've been wondering why it stands in that position with its back to the fireplace. There was a fire there. You can tell by the ashes and that half-burned log. Well, don't you see? Some one pulled that chair close to the mantel, stepped on it, and turned the picture face to the wall. Now, I wonder why!"
"But look here!" cried Cynthia. "If some one else stood up there and turned the picture around, why couldn't we do the same? We could turn it back after we'd seen it, couldn't we?" Joyce thought it over a moment.
"I'll tell you, Cynthia (and I suppose you'll think me queer!), there are two reasons why I'd rather not do it right now. In the first place, that silk cord it's hanging by may be awfully rotten after all these years, and if we touch it, the whole thing may fall. And then, somehow, I sort of like to keep the mystery about that picture till a little later,—till we've seen the rest of the house and begun 'putting two and two together.' Wouldn't you?" Cynthia agreed, as she was usually likely to do, and Joyce added:
"Now let's see what's in this next room. I think it must be a library. The door of it opens right into this." Bent on further discovery, they opened the closed door carefully. It was, as Joyce had guessed, a library. Book-shelves completely filled three sides of the room. A long library table with an old-fashioned reading-lamp stood in the middle. The fourth side of the room was practically devoted to another huge fireplace, and over the mantel hung another portrait. It was of a beautiful young woman, and before it the girls stopped, fascinated, to gaze a long while.
There was little or nothing in this room to indicate that any strange happening had transpired here. A few books were strewn about as though they had been pulled out and thrown down hastily, but that was all. The one thing that attracted most strongly was the portrait of the beautiful woman—she seemed scarcely more than a girl—over the fireplace. The two explorers turned to gaze at it afresh.
"There's one thing I've noticed about it that's different from the others," said Joyce, thoughtfully. "It's fresher and more—more modern than the rest of the portraits in the drawing-room and hall. Don't you think so?" Cynthia did.
"And look at her dress, those long, full sleeves and the big, bulging skirt! That's different, too. And then her hair, not high and powdered and all fussed up, but low and parted smooth and drawn down over her ears, and that dear little wreath of tiny roses! She almost seems to be going to speak. And, oh, Cynthia, isn't she beautiful with those big, brown eyes! Somehow I feel as if I just loved her—she's such a darling! And I believe she had more to do with the queer things in this house than any of those other dead-and-alive picture-ladies. Tell you what! We'll go to the public library to-morrow and get out a big book on costumes of the different centuries that I saw there once. Then, by looking up this one, we can tell just about what time she lived. What do you say?"
"As usual, you've thought of just the thing to do. I never would have," murmured Cynthia, still gazing at the picture of the lovely lady. Suddenly Joyce started nervously:
"Hush! Do you hear anything? I'm almost certain I heard a sound in the other room!" They both fell to listening intently. Yes, there was a sound, a strange, indefinable one like a soft tiptoeing at long intervals, and even a curious, hoarse breathing. Something was certainly outside in the drawing-room.
"What shall we do?" breathed Cynthia. "We can't get out of here without passing through that room! Oh, Joyce!" They listened again. The sound appeared to be approaching the door. It was, without doubt, a soft tiptoeing step. Suddenly there was the noise of a chair scraping on the floor as if it had been accidentally brushed against. Both girls were now numb with terror. They were caught as in a trap. There was no escape. They could only wait in racking suspense where they were.
As they stared with the fascination of horror, the partially open door was pushed farther open and a dim gray form glided around its edge. Joyce clutched Cynthia, gave one little shriek, half-relief and half-laughter, and gasped:
"Oh, Cynthia! It's Goliath!"
THE ROOM OF MYSTERY
It was, indeed, Goliath. He was an enormous cat, and his purr was as oversized as his body. That was the hoarse sound that they had thought was heavy breathing. His footfalls too could be distinctly heard when all else was quiet, and he had evidently rubbed against some light article of furniture in the outer room and moved it. In the reaction of relief, Cynthia seized Goliath, sat down on the floor, and—cried! having first deposited her candlestick carefully on the table. Joyce did quite the opposite, and laughed hysterically for several minutes. The tension of suspense and terror had been very real.
"How did he get in here?" sobbed Cynthia, at length.
"Why, through the window, of course. And he must have been in before we came. Don't you remember, we found the door at the head of the cellar steps open? I closed it when we came up, so he couldn't have got here afterward." Joyce bent down and scratched Goliath's fat jowls, at which he purred the louder.
"Well, let's let him stay, since he's here," sighed Cynthia, wiping her eyes. "He'll be sort of company!" So Goliath was allowed to remain, and the two girls, escorted by him, proceeded on their voyage of discovery. Back across the drawing-room and hall they went, and through the dining-room. There for a moment they stood, surveying anew the curious scene.
"Does it strike you as strange," Joyce demanded suddenly, "that there's no silver here, no knives, forks, spoons, sugar-bowls, or—or anything of that kind? Yet everything else in china or glass is left. What do you make of it?"
"Somebody got in and stole it," ventured Cynthia.
"Nonsense! Nobody's been here since, except ourselves, that's perfectly plain. No, the people must have stopped long enough to collect it and put it away,—or take it with them. Cynthia, why do you suppose they left in such a hurry?" But Cynthia, the unimaginative, was equally unable to answer this query satisfactorily, so she only replied:
"I don't know, I'm sure!"
A room, however, beyond the dining-room was awaiting their inspection. In a corner of the latter, two funny little steps led up to a door, and on opening it, they found themselves in the kitchen. This bore signs of as much confusion as the neighboring apartment. Unwashed dishes and cooking utensils lay all about, helter-skelter, some even broken, in the hurry with which they had been handled. But, apart from this further indication of the haste with which a meal had been abandoned unfinished, there was little to hold the interest, and the girls soon turned away.
"Now for up-stairs!" cried Joyce. "That's where I've been longing to get. We will find something interesting there, I'll warrant." With Goliath scampering ahead, they climbed the white, mahogany-railed staircase. On the upper floor they found a wide hall corresponding with the one below, running from front to back, crossed by a narrower one connecting the wings with the main part of the house. Turning to their left, they went down the narrow one, peering about them eagerly. The doors of several bedrooms stood open.
Into the first they entered. The high, old-fashioned, four-post bed with its ruffled valance and tester was still smoothly made up and undisturbed. The room was in perfect order. But Joyce's eye was caught by two candlesticks standing on the mantel.
"Here's a find!" she announced. "We'll take these to use for our candles. They're nicer and handier than our tin one. We will keep that for an emergency."
"But ought we disturb them?" questioned Cynthia.
"Oh, you are too particular! What earthly harm can it do? Here! Take this one and I'll carry the other. This must have been a guest-room, and no one was occupying it when—it all happened. Let's look in the one across the hall." This one also proved precisely similar, bed untouched and furniture undisturbed. Another, close at hand, had the same appearance. They next ventured down a narrower hall, over what was evidently the kitchen wing. On each side were bedrooms, four in all, with sparse, plain furnishings and cot-beds. Each room presented a tumbled, unkempt appearance.
"I guess these must have been the servants' rooms," remarked Cynthia.
"That's the first right guess you've made!" retorted Joyce, good-naturedly, as she glanced about. "And they all left in a hurry, too, judging from the way things are strewn about. I wonder—"
"What?" cried Cynthia, impatient at the long pause.
"Oh, nothing much! I just wonder whether they went off of their own accord, or were dismissed. I can't tell. But one thing I can guess pretty plainly—they went right after the dinner-party and didn't stay over another night. 'Cause why? Most of their beds are made, and they left everything in a muss down-stairs. But come along. This isn't particularly interesting. I want to get to the other end of the hall. Something different's over there!" They turned and retraced their steps, emerging from the servants' quarters and passing again the rooms they had already examined.
On the other side of the main hall they entered an apartment that was not a bedroom, but appeared to have been used as a sitting-room and for sewing. An old-fashioned sewing-table stood near one window. Two chairs and another table were heaped with material and with garments in various stages of completion. An open work-box held dust-covered spools. But still there was nothing special in the room to challenge interest, and Joyce pulled her companion across the hall toward another partially open door.
They had scarcely been in it long enough to illuminate it with the pale flames of their candles, before they realized that they were very near the heart of the mystery. It was another bedroom, the largest so far, and its aspect was very different from that of the others. The high four-poster was tossed and tumbled, not, however, as if by a night's sleep, but more as if some one had lain upon it just as it was, twisting and turning restlessly. Two trunks stood on the floor, open and partially packed. One seemed to contain household linen, once fine and dainty and white, now yellowed and covered with the dust of years. The other brimmed with clothing, a woman's, all frills and laces and silks; and a great hoop-skirt, collapsed, lay on the floor alongside. Neither of the girls could, for the moment, guess what it was, this queer arrangement of wires and tape. But Joyce went over and picked it up, when it fell into shape as she held it at arm's-length. Then they knew.
"I have an idea!" cried Joyce. "This hoop-skirt, or crinoline, I think they used to call it, gave it to me. Cynthia, we must be in the room belonging to the lovely lady whose picture hangs in the library."
"How do you know?" queried Cynthia.
"I don't know, I just suspect it. But perhaps we will find something that proves it later." She held the candle over one of the trunks and peered in. "Dresses, hats, waists," she enumerated. "Oh, how queer and old-fashioned they all seem!" Suddenly, with a little cry of triumph, she leaned over and partially pulled out an elaborate silk dress.
"Look! look! what did I tell you! Here is the very dress of the picture-lady, this queer, changeable silk, these big sleeves, and the velvet sewed on in a funny criss-cross pattern! Now will you believe me?"
Truly, Cynthia could no longer doubt. It was the identical dress, beyond question. The portrait must have been painted when the garment was new. They felt that at last they had taken a long step in the right direction by thus identifying this room as belonging to the lovely lady of the portrait down-stairs. Joy grew so excited that she could hardly contain a "hurrah," and Cynthia was not far behind her in enthusiasm. But the room had further details to be examined.
An open fireplace showed traces of letters having been torn up and burned. Little, half-charred scraps with faint writing still lay scattered on the hearth. On the dressing-table, articles of the toilet were littered about, and a pair of candlesticks were set close to the mirror. (There were, by the way, no traces of candles about the house. Mice had doubtless carried off every vestige of such, long since.) A great wardrobe stood in one corner, the open doors of which revealed some garments still hanging on the pegs, woolen dresses mostly, reduced now to little more than rags through the ravages of moths and mice and time. Near the bed stood a pair of dainty, high-heeled satin slippers, forgotten through the years. Everywhere a hasty departure was indicated, so hasty, as Joyce remarked, "that the lady decided probably not to take her trunks, after all, but left, very likely, with only a hand-bag!"
"And now," cried Joyce, the irrepressible, "we've seen everything in this room. Let's hurry to look at the last one on this floor. That's right over the library, I think, at the end of the hall. We've discovered a lot here, but I've a notion that we'll find the best of all in there!" As they were leaving the room, Goliath, who had curled himself up on a soft rug before the fireplace, rose, stretched himself, yawned widely, and prepared to follow, wherever they led.
"Doesn't he seem at home here!" laughed Cynthia. "I hope he will come every time we do. He makes things seem more natural, somehow." They reached the end of the hall, and Joyce fumbled for the handle, this door, contrary to the usual rule, being shut. Then, for the first time in the course of their adventures in the Boarded-up House, they found themselves before an insurmountable barrier.
The door was locked!
JOYCE MAKES A NEW DISCOVERY. SO DOES GOLIATH
Yes, the door was locked, and there was no vestige of a key. Joyce was suddenly inspired with an idea.
"Let's try the keys of the other doors! I noticed that they most all had keys in the locks. Perhaps one will fit this." They hunted up several and worked with them all, but not one made the slightest impression on this obstinate lock.
"Now isn't this provoking!" exclaimed Joyce. "The only room in the house that we can't get in, and the most interesting of all, I'm certain! What shall we do?" Cynthia made no reply, but looked at her little silver watch.
"Do you know that it's quarter-past six?" she asked quietly.
"Mercy, no! We've got to go at once then. How the time has gone!" Reluctantly enough they hunted up Goliath, who in thorough boredom had returned to his place on the hearth-rug in the big bedroom, gathered together their candles, and found their way to the cellar. Cynthia had thoughtfully requested a tin biscuit-box from the grocer, and in this they packed their candles, thus protecting them against the ravages of mice, and left them in the cellar near the window. Then they clambered out.
"To-morrow's Saturday," said Joyce. "In the morning we'll go to the library and look up that book of costumes. After lunch we'll go back to the B. U. H. and finish exploring. There's the attic yet, and maybe we can find that key, too!" With a gay good-by they separated each to her home, on opposite sides of the Boarded-up House.
The result of their researches in the library, next morning, was not wholly satisfactory. They found that the most recent fashion of hoop-skirts or crinolines had prevailed all the way from 1840 to 1870, or thereabouts. And while these dates limited, to a certain extent the time of the mysterious happening, it did not help them very much. They felt that they must look for some more definite clue.
That afternoon they entered the Boarded-up House for the third time. They found Goliath already in the cellar, owing, no doubt, to the fact that Bates's pup was patrolling the front yard. So they invited him to accompany them, an invitation which he accepted with arched back and resounding purr. Deciding to explore the attic first, they found that a door from the upper hall opened on a stairway leading to it.
At any other time, or in any other house, they would have found this attic of absorbing interest. In its dusky corners stood spinning wheels and winding-reels. Decrepit furniture of an ancient date had found a refuge there. Antique hair trunks lined the sides, under the eaves, and quaint garments hung about on pegs. The attic was the only apartment in this strange house that received the light of day, for the two little windows like staring eyes were not boarded up. So dim were they, however with dirt and cobwebs, that very little daylight filtered through.
But the attic had no great holding interest at present, since it was evident that it contained no clue to help them in the solution of the mystery. And they soon left it, to search anew every room below, in the hope of coming upon the missing key.
"These old-fashioned keys are so immense that it hardly seems possible that any one would carry one off—far," conjectured Joyce. "But why in the world should just that room be locked, anyway? What can be hidden there? I'm wild,—simply wild with impatience to see it all!"
The search for the key was not exactly systematic. Neither of the girls felt at liberty to open bureau-drawers or pry into closets and trunks. Besides, as Cynthia wisely suggested, it was not likely that any one would lock a door so carefully and then put the key in a drawer or trunk or on a shelf. They would either carry it away with them or lay it down, forgotten, or hide it in some unusual place. If it had been carried away, of course their search was useless. But if it had been thoughtlessly laid aside somewhere, or even hidden away in some obscure corner, there was a possibility that they might come upon it.
With this hope in mind, they went from room to room, searching on desks, chairs, and tables, poking into dark corners, peeping into vases and other such receptacles, and feeling about under the furniture; but all to no purpose. They came at last to the great bedroom where were so many signs of agitation and hurried departure, deciding that here would be the most likely field for discovery. Goliath had evidently preceded them, for they found him once more curled up on the soft rug before the fireplace. He seemed to prefer this comfortable spot to all others, but he rose and stretched when the girls came in. Joyce went straight for the chimney-place.
"I'm going to poke among these ashes," she announced. "A lot of things seem to have been burned here, mostly old letters. Who knows but what the key may have been thrown in too!" She began to rake the dead ashes, and suddenly a half-burned log fell apart, dropping something through to the bottom with a "chinking" sound.
"Did you hear that?" she whispered. "Something clinked! Ashes or wood won't make that sound. Oh, suppose it is the key!" She raked away again frantically, and hauled out a quantity of charred debris, but nothing even faintly resembling a key. When nothing more remained, she poked the fragments disgustedly, while Cynthia looked on.
"See there!" Cynthia suddenly exclaimed. "It isn't a key, but what's that round thing?" Joyce had seen it at the same moment and picked it up—a small, elliptical disk so blackened with soot that nothing could be made of it till it was wiped off. When freed from its coating of black, one side proved to be of shining metal, probably gold, and the other of some white or yellowish substance, the girls could not tell just what. In the center of this was a curious smear of various dim colors.
"Well, what do you suppose that can be?" queried Cynthia.
"I can't imagine. Whatever it was, the fire has pretty well finished it. You can see that it must have been rather valuable once,—there's gold on it. Here's another question to add to our catechism: what is it, and why was it thrown in the fire? Whatever it was, it doesn't help much now. If it had only been the key!— Good gracious! is that a rat?" Both girls jumped to their feet and stood listening to the strange sounds that came from under the valance hanging about the bottom of the great four-poster bed. It was a curious, intermittent, irregular sound, as of something being pushed about the floor. After they had listened a moment, it suddenly struck them both that the noise was somehow very familiar.
"Why, it's Goliath, of course!" laughed Cynthia. "This is the second time he has scared us. He has something under there that he's playing with, knocking it about, you know. Let's see what it is!" They tiptoed over and raised the valance.
Cynthia was right. Goliath was under the bed, dabbing gracefully with one paw at something attached to a string or narrow ribbon. Despite the rolls of dust that lay about, Joyce crawled under and rescued it. She emerged with a flushed face and a triumphant chuckle. "Goliath beats us all!! He's made the best find yet!"
"Is it the key?" cried Cynthia.
"No, it's this!" And before Cynthia's astonished eyes Joyce dangled a large gold locket, suspended on a narrow black velvet ribbon. In the candle-light the locket glistened with tiny jewels.
"Do you recognize it?" demanded Joyce.
"Recognize it? How should I?"
"Why, Cynthia! It's the very one that hangs about the neck of our Lovely Lady in the picture down-stairs!" It was, indeed, no other. Even the narrow black velvet ribbon was identical.
"She must have dropped it accidentally, perhaps when she took it off, and it rolled under the bed. In her hurry she probably forgot it," said Joyce, laying it beside the curious disk they had raked from the fireplace. "Isn't it a beauty? It must be very valuable." Cynthia bent down and examined both articles closely.
"Did you notice, Joyce," she presently remarked, "that those two things are exactly the same shape, and almost the same size?"
"Why, so they are!" exclaimed Joyce. "Oh, I have an idea, Cynthia! Can we open the locket? Let's try." She picked it up and pried at the catch with her thumb-nail. After a trifling resistance it yielded. The locket fell open and revealed itself—empty. Joyce took up the disk and fitted it into one side. With the gold back pressed inward, it slid into place, leaving no shadow of doubt that it had originally formed part of this trinket.
"Now," announced Joyce, "I know! It was a miniature, an ivory one, but the fire has entirely destroyed the likeness. Question: how came it in the fire?" The two girls stood looking at each other and at the locket, more bewildered than ever by this curious discovery. Goliath, cheated of his plaything, was making futile dabs at the dangling velvet ribbon. Suddenly Joyce straightened up and looked Cynthia squarely in the eyes.
"I've thought it out," she said quietly. "It just came to me. The miniature was taken out of the locket—on purpose, to destroy it! The miniature was of the same person whose picture is turned to the wall down-stairs!"
"Cynthia, what's your theory about the mystery of the Boarded-up House?"
The two girls were sitting in a favorite nook of theirs under an old, bent apple-tree in the yard back of the Boarded-up House, on a sunny morning a week later. They were supposed to be "cramming" for the monthly "exams," and had their books spread out all around them. Cynthia looked up with a frown, from an irregular Latin conjugation.
"What's a theory?"
"Why, you know! In Conan Doyle's mystery stories Sherlock Holmes always has a 'theory' about what has happened, before he really knows; that is, he makes up a story of his own, from the few things he has found out, before he gets at the whole truth."
"Well," replied Cynthia, laying aside her Latin grammar, "since you ask me, my theory is that some one committed a murder in that room we can't get in, then locked it up and went away, and had the house all boarded up so it wouldn't be discovered. I've lain awake nights thinking of it. And I'd just as lief not get into that room, if it's so!"
Joyce broke into a peal of laughter. "Oh, Cynthia! If that isn't exactly like you! Who but you would have thought of such a thing!"
"I don't see anything queer about it," retorted Cynthia. "Doesn't everything point that way?"
"Certainly not, Cynthia Sprague! Do you suppose that even years and years ago any one in a big house like this could commit a murder, and then calmly lock up and walk away, and the matter never be investigated? That's absurd! The murdered person would be missed and people would wonder why the place was left like this, and the—the authorities would get in here in a hurry. No, there wasn't any murder or anything bloodthirsty at all; something very different."
"Well, since you don't like my theory," replied Cynthia, still nettled, "what's yours? Of course you have one!"
"Yes, I have one, and I have lain awake nights, too, thinking it out. I'll tell you what it is, and if you don't agree with me, you're free to say so. Here's the way it all seems to me:
"Whatever happened in that house must have concerned two persons, at least. And one of them, you must admit, was our Lovely Lady whose portrait hangs in the library. Her room and clothes and locket show that. She looks very young, but she must have been some one of importance in the house, probably the mistress, or she wouldn't have occupied the biggest bedroom and had her picture on the wall. You think that much is all right, don't you?" Cynthia nodded.
"Then there's some one else. That one we don't know anything at all about, but it isn't hard to guess that it was the person whose picture is turned to the wall, and whose miniature was in the locket, and who, probably, occupied the locked-up room. That person must have been some near and dear relation of the Lovely Lady's, surely. But—what? We can't tell yet. It might be mother, father, sister, brother, husband, son, or daughter, any of these.
"The Lovely Lady (I'll have to call her that, because we don't know her name) was giving a party, and every one was at dinner, when word was suddenly brought to her about this relative. Or perhaps the person was right there, and did something that displeased her,—I can't tell which. Whatever it was,—bad news either way,—it could only have been one of two things. Either the relative was dead, or had done something awful and disgraceful. Anyhow, the Lovely Lady was so terribly shocked by it that she dismissed her dinner party right away. I don't suppose she felt it right to do it. It was not very polite, but probably excusable under the circumstances!"
"Maybe she fainted away," suggested Cynthia, practically. "Ladies were always doing that years ago, especially when they heard bad news."
"Good enough!" agreed Joyce. "I never thought of it. She probably did. Of course that would break up the party at once. Well when she came to and every one had gone, she was wild, frantic with grief or disappointment or disgust, and decided she just couldn't stay in that house any longer. She must have dismissed her servants right away, though why she didn't make them clear up first, I can't think. Then she began to pack up to go away, and decided she wouldn't bother taking most of her things. And sometime, just about then, she probably turned the picture to the wall and took the other one out of her locket and threw it into the fire. Then she went away, and never, never came back any more."
"Yes, but how about the house?" objected Cynthia. "How did that get boarded up?"
"I have thought that out," said Joyce. "She may have stayed long enough to see the boarding up done, or she may have ordered some one to do it later. It can be done from the outside."
"I think she was foolish to leave all her good clothes," commented Cynthia, "and the locket under the bed, too."
"I don't believe she remembered the locket—or cared about it!" mused Joyce. "She was probably too upset and hurried to think of it again. And I'm sure she lay on the bed and cried a good deal. It looks like that. Now what do you think of my theory, Cynthia?"
"Why, I think it is all right, fine—as far as it goes. I never could have pieced things together in that way. But you haven't thought about who this mysterious relative was, have you?"
"Yes, I have, but, of course, that's much harder to decide because we have so little to go on. I'll tell you one thing I've pretty nearly settled, though. Whatever happened, it wasn't that anybody died! When people die, you're terribly grieved and upset, of course, and you may shut up your house and never come near it again. I've heard of such things happening. But you generally put things nicely to rights first, and you don't go away and forget more than half your belongings. If you don't tend to these things yourself, you get some one else to do it for you. And one other thing is certain too. You don't turn the dead relative's picture to the wall or tear it out of your locket and throw it into the fire. You'd be far more likely to keep the picture always near so that you could look at it often. Isn't that so?"
"Of course!" assented Cynthia.
"Then it must have been the other thing that happened. Somebody did something wrong, or disappointing, or disgraceful. It must have been a dreadful thing, to make the Lovely Lady desert that house forever. I can't imagine what!"
"But what about the locked-up room?" interrupted Cynthia. "Have you any theory about that? You haven't mentioned it."
"That's something I simply can't puzzle out," confessed Joyce. "The Lovely Lady must have locked it, or the disgraceful relative may have done it, or some one entirely different. I can't make any sense out of it."
"Well, Joy," answered Cynthia, "you've a theory about what happened, and it certainly sounds sensible. Now, have you any about what relative it was? That's the next most interesting thing."
"I don't think it could have been her father or mother," replied Joyce, thoughtfully. "Parents aren't liable to cause that kind of trouble, so we'll count them out. She looks very young, not nearly old enough to have a son or daughter who would do anything very dreadful, so we'll count them out. (Isn't this just like the 'elimination' in algebra!)' That leaves only brother, sister, or husband to be thought about."
"You forget aunts, uncles, and cousins!" interposed Cynthia.
"Oh, Cyn! how absurd! They are much too distant. It must have been some one nearer than that, to matter so much!"
"I think it's most likely her husband, then," decided Cynthia. "He'd matter most of all."
"Yes, I've thought of that, but here's the objection: her husband, supposing she had one would probably have owned this house. Consequently he wouldn't be likely to allow it to be shut up forever in this queer way. He'd come back after a while and do what he pleased with it. No, I don't think it was her husband, or that she was married at all. It must have been either a sister or brother,—a younger one probably,—and the Lovely Lady loved her—or him—better than any one else in the world."
"Look here!" interrupted Cynthia, suddenly. "There's the easiest way to decide all this!"
"What is it?" cried Joyce, opening her eyes wide.
"Why, just go in there and turn that picture in the drawing-room around!"
"Oh, Cynthia, you jewel! Of course it will be the easiest way! What geese we are to have waited so long! Only it will be a heavy thing to lift. But the time has come when it must be done. Let's go right away!"
Full of new enthusiasm, they scrambled to their feet, approached the cellar window by a circuitous route (they were always very careful that they should not be observed in this), and were soon in the dim cellar lighting their candles. Then they scurried up-stairs, entered the drawing-room, and set their candlesticks on the table. After that they removed all the breakable ornaments from the mantel and drew another chair close to the fireplace.
"Now," commanded Joyce, stepping on the seat of one while Cynthia mounted the other, "be awfully careful. That red silk cord it hangs by is perfectly rotten. I'm surprised it hasn't given way before this. Probably, as soon as we touch the picture the cord will break. If so, let the picture down gently to rest on the mantel. Ready!"
They reached out and grasped the heavy frame. True to Joy's prediction, the silk cord snapped at once, and the picture's whole weight rested in their hands.
"Quick!" cried Cynthia. "I can't hold it any longer!" And with a thud, the heavy burden slipped to the mantel. But there was no damage done and, feeling on the other side Joyce discovered that it had no glass.
"Now what?" asked Cynthia.
"We must turn it around as it rests here. We can easily balance it on the mantel." With infinite caution, and some threatened mishaps, they finally got it into position, right side to the front, and sprang down to get their candles. On holding them close, however, the picture was found to be so coated with gray dust that absolutely nothing was distinguishable.
"Get the dust-rag!" ordered Joyce. And Cynthia, all excitement, rushed down cellar to find it. When she returned, they carefully wiped from the painting its inch-thick coating of the dust of years, and again held their candles to illumine the result.
For one long intense moment they stared at it. And then, simultaneously, they broke into a peal of hysterical giggles.
GOLIATH MAKES ANOTHER DISCOVERY
"Oh, Cynthia!" gasped Joy at length, "isn't it too comical! We're just as far from it all as ever!" And they both fell to chuckling again.
They were certainly no nearer the solution of their problem. For, facing the room once more, the mysterious picture looked forth—the portrait of two babies! They were plump, placid babies, aged probably about two or three years, and they appeared precisely alike. It took no great stretch of imagination to conjecture what they were—twins—and evidently brother and sister, for one youngster's dress, being a trifle severe in style, indicated that it was doubtless a boy. These two cherubic infants had both big brown eyes, fat red cheeks, and adorable, fluffy golden curls. They were pictured as sitting, hand in hand, on a green bank under a huge spreading tree and gazing solemnly toward a distant church steeple.
"The poor little things!" cried Cynthia. "Think of them having been turned to the wall all these years! Now what was the sense of it,—two innocent babies like that!" But Joyce had not been listening. All at once she put down her candle on the table and faced her companion.
"I've got it!" she announced. "It came to me all of a sudden. Of course those babies are twins, brother and sister. Any one can tell that! Well, don't you see, one of them—the girl—was our Lovely Lady. The other was her twin brother. It's all as clear as day! The twin brother did something she didn't like, and she turned his picture to the wall. Hers happened to be in the same frame too, but she evidently didn't care about that. Now what have you to say, Cynthia Sprague?"
"You must be right," admitted Cynthia. "I thought we were 'stumped' again when I first saw that picture, but it's been of some use, after all. Do you suppose the miniature was a copy of the same thing?"
"It may have been, or perhaps it was just the brother alone when he was older. We can't tell about that." All this while Cynthia had been standing, candle in one hand and dust-cloth in the other. At that point she put the candlestick on the table and stood gazing intently at the dust-cloth. Presently she spoke:
"Joyce, do you think there would be any harm in my doing something I've longed to do ever since we first entered this house?"
"What in the world is that?" queried Joyce.
"Why, I want to dust this place, and clear out of the way some of the dirt and cobwebs! They worry me terribly. And, besides, I'd like to see what this lovely furniture looks like without such quantities of dust all over it."
"Good scheme, Cyn!" cried Joyce, instantly delighted with the new idea. "I'll tell you what! We'll come in here this afternoon with old clothes on, and have a regular house-cleaning! It can't hurt anything, I'm sure, for we won't disturb things at all. I'll bring a dust-cloth, too, and an old broom. But let's go and finish our studying now, and get that out of the way. Hurrah for house-cleaning, this afternoon!"
Filled with fresh enthusiasm, the two girls rushed out to hurry through the necessary studies before the anticipated picnic of the afternoon. If their respective mothers had requested them to perform so arduous a task as this at home, they would, without doubt, have been instantly plunged into deep despair. But because they were to execute the work in an old deserted mansion saturated with mystery, no pleasure they could think of was to be compared with it. This thought, however, did not enter the heads of the enthusiastic pair.
* * * * *
Smuggling the house-cleaning paraphernalia into the cellar window, unobserved, that afternoon, proved no easy task, for Cynthia had added a whisk-broom and dust-pan to the outfit. Joyce came to the fray with an old broom and a dust-cloth, which latter she thought she had carefully concealed under her sweater. But a long end soon worked out and trailed behind her unnoticed, till Goliath, basking on the veranda steps, spied it. The lure proved too much for him, and he came sporting after it, as friskily as a young kitten, much to Cynthia's delight when she caught sight of him.
"Oh, let him come along!" she urged. "I do love to see him about that old house. He makes it sort of cozier. And, besides, he seems to belong to it, anyway. You know he discovered it first!" And so Goliath followed into the Boarded-up House.
They began on the drawing-room. Before they had been at work very long, they found that they had "let themselves in" for a bigger task than they had dreamed. Added to that, performing it by dim candle-light did not lessen its difficulties, but rather increased them tenfold. First they took turns sweeping, as best they could, with a very ancient and frowsy broom, the thick, moth-eaten carpet. When they had gone over it once, and taken up what seemed like a small cart-load of dust, they found that, after all, there remained almost as much as ever on the floor. Cynthia was for going over it again.
"Oh, never mind it!" sighed Joyce. "My arms ache and so do yours. We'll do it again another time. Now let's dust the furniture and pictures." And they fell to work with whisk-broom and dust-cloths. Half an hour later, exhausted and grimy, they dropped into chairs and surveyed the results. It was, of course, as but a drop in the bucket, in comparison with all the scrubbing and cleaning that was needed. Yet, little as it was, it had already made a vast difference in the aspect of the room. Surface dust at least had been removed, and the fine old furniture gave a hint of its real elegance and polish. Joyce glanced at the big hanging candelabrum and sighed with weariness. Then she suddenly remarked:
"Cynthia, we have the dimmest light here with only those two candles! Why not have some more burning?"
"We've only three left," commented Cynthia, practical as ever. "And my pocket-money is getting low again, and you haven't any left, as usual. So we'd better economize till allowance day!"
"Tell you what!" cried Joyce, freshly inspired. "I've the loveliest idea! Don't you just long to know what this room would look like with that big candelabrum going? I do. They say illumination by candle-light is the prettiest in the world. Sometime I'm going to buy enough wax candles to fill that whole chandelier—or candelabrum rather—and we'll light it just once and see how it makes things look. What do you say?"
"It'll cost you a good deal more than a dollar," remarked Cynthia, after an interval spent in calculation. "Of course I'd like to see it too, so I'll go halves with you on the expense. And I don't believe we can get nice wax candles, only penny tallow ones. But they'll have to do. I wonder, though, if people could see the light from the street, through any chinks in the boarding?"
"Of course not," said Joyce. "Don't you see how all the inside shutters are closed and the velvet curtains drawn? It isn't possible. Then we'll have the illumination for a treat, sometime, and I'll begin to save up for it. And I hope before that time we'll have puzzled out this mystery. I'm afraid we aren't very good detectives, or we'd have done it long before this. Sherlock Holmes would have!"
"But remember," suggested Cynthia, "that those Sherlock Holmes mysteries were usually solved very soon after the thing happened. This took place years and years ago. I reckon we're doing pretty nearly as well as Sherlock, when you come to think of it."
"Perhaps that's so," admitted Joyce, thoughtfully. "It's not so easy after goodness knows how many years! But I'm rested now. Come and see what we can do with the library. I'm wild to look at the Lovely Lady again. I really think I love that picture!" And so, in the adjoining room, they stood a while with elevated candles, gazing fascinated at the portrait of the beautiful woman.
"She's lovely, lovely, lovely!" sighed Joyce. "Oh, wouldn't I like to have known her! And do you notice, Cynthia, she has the same big brown eyes of the girl-baby in the parlor. There isn't a doubt but what that baby was she."
They tore themselves away from the portrait after a time, and commenced digging at the dust and cobwebs of the library. But they were thoroughly tired after their heroic struggles with the drawing-room, and made, on the whole, but little progress. Added to this, their enthusiasm for cleaning-up had waned considerably.
"I guess we'll have to leave this for another day," groaned Joyce at last. "I'm just dog-tired!"
"All right," assented Cynthia, in muffled tones, her head being under a great desk in the corner. "But wait till I finish sweeping out under here. Mercy! what's that? I just touched something soft!" On the instant, Joyce was at her side with the candle.
"Why, it's Goliath as usual!" they both cried, peering in. "Isn't he the greatest for getting into odd corners!" Far at the back sat Goliath, curled into a comfortable ball, his front paws tucked under, and purring loudly.
"He's sitting on an old newspaper, I think," said Joyce. "He always does that if he can find one, because they're warm." Suddenly she snatched at the paper so violently that Goliath went tobogganing off with a protesting "meouw."
"Look, look, Cynthia!" she exclaimed, brushing off a cloud of dust with the whisk-broom, and pointing to the top of the sheet. "Here's one of the biggest discoveries yet!" And Cynthia, following her index-finger, read aloud:
"'Tuesday, April 16, 1861.'"
"Which proves," added Joyce, "that whatever happened here didn't take place much earlier than this date, or the paper wouldn't be here. What we want to do now is hunt around and see if there are any newspapers of a later date. Let's do it this minute!"
Forgetting all their weariness, they seized their candles and scurried through the house, finding an occasional paper tucked away in some odd corner. But upon examination these all proved to be of earlier date than that of their first discovery. And when it was clear that there were no more to be found, Joyce announced:
"Well, I'm convinced that the Boarded-up House mystery happened not earlier than April 16, 1861, and probably not much later. That's over forty years ago, for this is 1905! Just think, Cynthia, of this place standing shut up and untouched and lonely all that time! It's wonderful!" But Cynthia had turned and snatched up Goliath.
"You precious cat!" she crooned to him as he struggled unappreciatively in her embrace. "You're the best detective of us all! We ought to change your name to 'Sherlock Holmes'!"
CYNTHIA HAS AN IDEA
"It's no use, Cynthia. We've come to the end of our rope!" Joyce sat back on her heels (she had been rummaging through a box of old trash in the kitchen of the Boarded-up House) and wiped her grimy hands on the dust-cloth. Cynthia, perched gingerly on the edge of a rickety chair, nodded a vigorous assent.
"I gave it up long ago. It seemed so hopeless! But you would continue to hunt, so I've trotted around after you and said nothing."
More than three weeks had elapsed since the finding of the old newspaper and the definite settling of the date. Filled with new hope over this find, the girls had continued to search diligently through the neglected old mansion, strong in the belief that they would eventually discover, if not the missing key, at least a trail of clues that would lead to the unraveling of the mystery. The mystery, however, refused to be unraveled. They made no further discoveries, and to-day even Joyce expressed herself as completely discouraged.
"There's just one thing that seems to me thoroughly foolish," Cynthia continued. "It's your still insisting that we keep from mentioning the Boarded-up House to outsiders. Good gracious! do you think they're all going to suspect that we're inside here every other day, just because you happen to speak of the place? If you do, it's your guilty conscience troubling you!" Cynthia had never spoken quite so sharply before. Joyce looked up, a little hurt.
"Why, Cynthia, what's the matter with you? One would think I'd been doing something wrong, the way you speak!"
"Oh, I didn't mean it that way," explained Cynthia, contritely. "But you don't know how this remembering not to speak of it has got on my nerves! I catch myself a dozen times a day just going to make some innocent remark about the B. U. H., generally at the table, and then I stutter and blush, and they all ask what's the matter, and I don't know what in the world to answer! Now I have an idea. Perhaps it isn't worth anything; mine generally aren't! But it's this: why wouldn't it be a good scheme to get the older folks to talk about this house, without letting them know you have any special interest in it—just start the subject, somehow? I notice folks are liable to talk quite a long while on most any subject that's started. And they might have something to say that would interest us, and we might get some new clues. And I don't see any reason why they should connect us with it, specially."
Joyce considered the subject in thoughtful silence.
"I believe you're right," she said at last. "It is silly to continue keeping so 'mum' about it, and we might get some good new points. Anyhow, in the detective stories Sherlock Holmes didn't keep everything so quiet, but talked to lots of outside people, and got ideas that way, too. Why didn't I think of it before! Good old Cynthia! You had the right notion that time. Come, let's go home now. I'm tired and sick of this dusty grubbing, and we're not going to do any more of it!"
* * * * *
Next morning, Joyce came flying over to Cynthia's house half an hour before it was time to start for high school. She seemed rather excited.
"Come on! Do hurry, Cyn! I've something important to tell you."
"But it isn't time to start yet," objected Cynthia, "and I'm only half through breakfast. Tell me here!" Joyce gave her a warning glance before turning away.
"Oh, later will do," she remarked casually, and strolled into the sitting-room to chat with Mrs. Sprague. This was sufficient to hasten Cynthia, who usually loved to linger cozily over her morning meal. She had her hat and coat on and her books under her arm inside of seven minutes, and the two girls hurried away together. They were no sooner down the steps than Joyce began:
"Last night an idea came to me, just through some remark that Father happened to make. It's queer we never thought of it before. There's a real-estate agent over the other side of the town—Mr. Wade—and he ought to know everything about all the property here. That's his business. Let's go to his office and ask him about the old house. He doesn't know us, and won't suspect anything. We'll go this afternoon, right after school!"
"But there's a meeting of the Sigma Sigma Society this afternoon," Cynthia remonstrated, "and they're going to give that little play. I'm crazy to see it!"
"I don't care!" cried Joyce, recklessly. "What's the meeting of an old literary society compared to an important thing like this?"
"But we could do it just as well to-morrow."
"I can't wait till to-morrow, Cynthia Sprague!" And that settled the matter. They started on their expedition that very afternoon.
It was a bleak, raw day, and they found Mr. Wade huddled over a red-hot stove in his little office. He stared at them in some surprise as they entered.
"Pardon me," began Joyce, always the spokesman, "but I'd like to ask a question or two about the old boarded-up house on Orchard Avenue." Now the agent was apparently not in the best of spirits that day. Business had been very dull, he had two children at home sick with measles, and he himself was in the first stage of a cold.
"I don't know anything about it!" he mumbled crossly. "It ain't in the market—never was!"
"Oh, we don't want to buy it or rent it!" explained Joyce, politely. "We only wanted to know if you knew the owners, where they live and what their names are."
"No, I don't!" he reiterated. "Tried to find out once. It's some estate. Business all transacted through lawyers in New York, and they won't open their heads about it. Plain as told me it was none of my affairs!"
"Then perhaps you could tell us—" Joyce was persisting, when the agent suddenly interrupted, turning on her suspiciously:
"Say, what do you want to know all this for? What's the old place to you, anyhow?"
"Oh, nothing—nothing at all!" protested Joyce, alarmed lest their precious secret was about to be discovered. "We only asked out of curiosity. Good day, sir!" And the two girls fled precipitately from the office.
"I was going to ask him the name of the lawyers," Joyce explained as they hurried away. "But it wouldn't do any good, I guess, if we knew. We couldn't go and question them, for it's plain from what the agent said that they don't want to talk about it. My, but that man was cranky, wasn't he!"
"I think he was sick," said Cynthia. "He looked it. Well, I suppose we will have to give it all up! We've tried just about everything." Suddenly she stopped and stood perfectly still, staring blankly at nothing.
"Come on!" urged Joyce. "Whatever is the matter with you, standing here like that?"
"I was just thinking—seems to me I remember something about the first day we got into the B. U. H. Didn't you tell me that you knew the house was left furnished, that somebody had told your father so?"
"Why, of course!" cried Joyce, excited at once. "I certainly did, and what a stupid I am not to have thought of it since!" And she herself stopped short and stood thinking.
"Well, what is it?" demanded Cynthia, impatiently. "Who's stopping and staring now?"
"The trouble is," said Joyce, slowly, "that the whole thing's not very clear in my mind. It was several years ago that I heard Father mention it. Somebody was visiting us when we first moved here, and asked him at the table about the old house next door. And Father said, I think, that he didn't know anything much about it only that it was a queer old place, and once he had met an elderly lady who happened to mention to him that she knew the house was left furnished, just as it was, and she didn't think the owners would ever live in it again. I don't know why I happened to remember this. It must have made quite an impression on me, because I was a good deal younger and didn't generally listen much to what they were saying at table."
"Well," announced Cynthia, still standing where she had stopped, and speaking with great positiveness, "there's only one thing to do now, and that is, find out who the old lady is and hunt her up!"
"I suppose I can find out her name from Father—if he remembers it—but what then? I can't go and scrape up an acquaintance with a perfectly strange person, and she may live in Timbuctoo!" objected Joyce.
"It's the only thing left, the 'last resort' as they say in stories," said Cynthia. "But, of course, you can do as you like. You're engineering this business!"
"Well, I will," conceded Joyce, not very hopefully, however. "I'll lead Father round to talking of her this evening, if I can, and see what comes of it."
Joyce was as good as her word. That evening when she and her father were seated cozily in the library, she studying, her father smoking and reading his paper, while her mother was temporarily out of the room, she began diplomatically:
"Do you know any real elderly people, Father?" He looked up with a quizzical expression.
"Well, a few. Most people do, don't they? What do you inquire for, Duckie? Thinking of founding an old people's home?" he asked teasingly.
"Oh, no! But who are they, Father? Do you mind telling me?"
"Mercy, Joyce! I can't think just now of all of them!" He was deep in a preelection article in his paper, and wanted to return to it.
"But can't you think of just a few?" she implored.
"Well, you are the queerest child! There's Grandfather Lambert, and your Great-aunt Lucia, and old Mr. Selby, and—oh, I can't think, Joyce! What's all this foolishness anyway?" Joyce saw at once that she was getting at nothing very definite along this line and determined on a bold move.
"Well, who is the old lady that you spoke of once, who, you said, knew something about that queer old boarded-up house next door?"
"Now, why in the world didn't you say so at once, without first making me go through the whole list of my elderly acquaintances?" he laughed. "That was your Great-aunt Lucia."
"What!" Joyce almost shouted in her astonishment.
"Why, certainly! What's queer about that? She used to live in New York City, and knew all the best families for miles around. When we first moved here, next to that ramshackle old place, I remember her telling me she'd known the people who used to live there."
"Who were they?" demanded Joyce, eagerly.
"Oh, I don't remember their name! I don't know that she ever mentioned it. She only said she knew them, and they'd gone away rather suddenly and left their house all furnished and never came back. Now do let me finish my paper in peace, Duckie dear!"
Joyce said no more, and turned again to her studies; but her brain was in a whirl, and she could not concentrate her thoughts on her work. Great-aunt Lucia!—of all people! And here she had been wondering how she could ever get to know some stranger well enough to put her questions. But, for that matter, there were difficulties in the way of questioning even Great-aunt Lucia. She was a very old lady, a confirmed invalid, who lived in Poughkeepsie. For many years she had not left her home, and the family seldom saw her; but her father paid a visit to the old lady once in a while when he was in that vicinity.
Joyce then fell to planning how she could get into communication with this Great-aunt Lucia. She couldn't write her inquiries,—that certainly would never do! If she could only visit her and get her to talk about it! But Joyce had never visited this relative in her life, and never particularly wanted to, and it would appear strange to seem suddenly so anxious to see the old lady. This, however, was obviously the only solution, and she began to wonder how it could be arranged. Very prudently, she waited till her father had finished his pipe and laid aside his paper. Then she commenced afresh, but casually, as though the idea had just entered her mind: