"Great-aunt Lucia must be a very interesting old lady, Father!"
"She is, she certainly is! I was always very fond of her. My! how she can talk, and the stories she can tell about old times!" said Mr. Kenway, waxing enthusiastic.
"Oh, I wish I could visit her!" exclaimed Joyce.
"Well, you certainly may, if you really want to. I've always wanted her to see you since you've grown so, and I've proposed a number of times that you go with me on the trip. But you've always refused to be separated from your precious Cynthia, and I couldn't think of inflicting two youngsters on her." Joyce remembered now, with a good deal of self-reproach, how many times she had begged off from accompanying her father. It had not seemed very interesting then, and, as he had said, she did not want to leave Cynthia, even for two or three days. She realized now that she had not only been a little selfish about it, but had plainly missed a golden opportunity.
"Oh, Father," she cried in real contrition, "I was mean to refuse you! I didn't realize that you wanted me to go. I thought you only did it to give me a good time, and, somehow, it didn't seem like a good time—then! When are you going again? And won't you take me?"
"I haven't been there in two years," he mused. "I ought to go again soon. The old lady may not live very long, she's so feeble. Let's see! Suppose we make it the week-end before election. I'll write to her to-morrow that we're all coming, you and Mother and I."
"Oh, but, Father!" exclaimed Joyce. "Couldn't we go sooner? That's nearly a month off!"
"Best I can do, Duckie dear! I simply can't get away before. What's your hurry anyway? First you won't be hired to go and see her, and then you want to rush off and do it at once! What a funny little daughter it is!" He kissed her laughingly, as she bade him good night.
But Joyce slept little that night. She was wild for morning to come so that she could tell Cynthia, and wilder with impatience to think of the long dragging month ahead before the visit to Great-aunt Lucia, and the solution of the mystery.
THE MEMORIES OF GREAT-AUNT LUCIA
Cynthia sat at her desk in high school, alternately staring out of the window, gazing intently across the room at Joyce, and scowling at the blackboard where the cryptic symbols
(a + b)^2 = a^2 + 2ab + b^2
were being laboriously expounded by the professor of mathematics. Of this exposition, it is safe to say, Cynthia comprehended not a word for the following simple reason. Early that morning Joyce had returned from the visit to her great-aunt Lucia and had entered the class-room late. Cynthia had not yet had a moment in which to speak with her alone. It was now the last period of the day, and her impatience had completely conquered her usual absorbed attention to her studies.
The professor droned on. The class feverishly copied more cryptic symbols in its notebooks. But at last the closing-bell rang, and after what seemed interminable and totally unnecessary delays, Cynthia found herself out of doors, arm-in-arm with Joyce. Then all she could find to say was:
"Now—tell me!" But Joyce was very serious, and very mysterious too.
"Not here," she answered. "I couldn't! Wait!"
"Well, where and when, then?" cried Cynthia.
"Home," said Joyce. Then, after a moment,—"No, I'll tell you in the Boarded-up House! That's the most appropriate place. We'll go there straight after we get home." So Cynthia was obliged to repress her impatience a little longer. But at length they had crept through the cellar window, lighted their candles, and were proceeding up-stairs.
"Come into the library," said Joyce. "I want to stand right where I can look at the Lovely Lady when I tell you this. It's all so strange—so different from what we thought!" So they went through the drawing-room, entered the library, and placed their candlesticks on the mantel where the light would best illuminate the portrait of the Lovely Lady. Then Joyce began.
"Great-aunt Lucia is very old and very feeble. She seemed so glad to see us all,—especially me. She talked to me a great deal, but I did not have a chance to mention this place to her at all till the last evening we were there. Mother and Father had gone out to call on some friends, but it was raining and I had a sore throat, so they decided not to take me. I was so glad, because then I could stay home and talk to Great-aunt Lucia, and it was the first time I'd been with her long alone.
"She had been telling me a lot about when she was a little girl, and asking me about myself. And I had told her about you and how we'd been together so many years, and what we did when we weren't in school. And finally I mentioned, just casually, that we often played in the grounds of this old house next door and described the place a little to her. Well, that started her, as I was sure it would! She began telling me that it was so strange,—that she had been in this house once, and curiously enough, just before it was closed for good. Then, you can warrant, I listened with all my ears!
"She said she had become acquainted with the lady through meeting her a short time before at the house of a friend in New York. This friend had then introduced them,—'Mrs. Hubert Kenway—Mrs. Fairfax Collingwood'!"
"Mrs. Collingwood!" cried Cynthia. "And we thought she wasn't married!—"
"Well, she was,—and we've made several mistakes beside that, Cynthia Sprague, as you'll find out later! It seems that Great-aunt Lucia took quite a fancy to young Mrs. Collingwood. She was so sweet and gracious and charmingly pretty. Later, Great-aunt Lucia discovered that she was a widow, living out here. Her husband had been dead a number of years,—ten, I think. She was a Southerner, having come originally from South Carolina.
"Great-aunt Lucia did not see her again till a few weeks later, when she received an invitation to go with her friend, take luncheon, and spend the day at Mrs. Collingwood's. There were several others invited, about a dozen in all. They all came out by train and drove here in hired carriages from the station, which was a long way off then. It was a beautiful, soft, balmy April day, and spring seemed well begun.
"Great-aunt Lucia said the place was delightful,—an old, Colonial house (it seemed so strange to hear her describe everything just as we've seen it!). And Mrs. Collingwood was a charming hostess. But they were just finishing luncheon when the strangest thing happened!
"A servant came in and handed Mrs. Collingwood a telegram as she sat at the head of the table. She excused herself to them, tore open the envelope and read it. Then, to their astonishment, she turned first a fiery red, and afterward white as a sheet. Then she sprang to her feet saying, 'Oh!' in a sort of stifled voice. Everyone jumped up too, some so quickly that they knocked over their chairs and asked if anything dreadful was the matter. Then, all of a sudden, she toppled over and slipped to the floor in a dead faint."
"Didn't I tell you so, long ago!" exclaimed Cynthia. "I said she probably fainted!"
"Yes, you were right. Well, two or three began to chafe her hands and face, and the rest sent the servants flying for smelling-salts and vinegar. Everything was confusion for a few minutes, till she presently came to. Then they all began again to question her about what was the matter, but she wouldn't tell them. She just said:
"'I've had bad news, dear friends, and it has made me feel quite ill. It is something I cannot speak about. I hope you will not think me thoroughly inhospitable, if I go to my room for a while.' They all told her she must certainly go and lie down, and that they would leave immediately. She begged them not to hurry, but of course they saw that it wasn't best to stay, since she wouldn't let them do anything for her. So, fifteen minutes later they were all driving away in the carriages which had remained for them at the house. And—" here Joyce paused dramatically,—"not one of them, except my great-aunt's friend, Mrs. Durand, ever saw her again!"
"But—but—" began Cynthia.
"Wait," said Joyce. "I haven't finished yet! Of course, all of them were crazy to know what happened, but most of them never did,—not till long, long afterward, anyway. There was one that did know soon, however, and that was Mrs. Durand. Two nights afterward, Mrs. Durand was astounded to have Mrs. Collingwood arrive at her house in New York, and beg to be allowed to stay there a day or two. She was dressed entirely in black, and carried only a small grip. Of course, Mrs. Durand took her right in, and that night Mrs. Collingwood told her what had happened.
"But first, I must tell you that Mrs. Collingwood had a son—"
"What?" gasped Cynthia, staring up at the girlish picture.
"Yes, a son! And not a baby, either, but a fine, handsome young fellow of seventeen. Great-aunt Lucia says that Mrs. Collingwood was married when she was only seventeen, and that she was thirty-five when all this happened. But she looked much younger. So that accounts for our mistake! The son was away at Harvard College,—or at least they thought he was, at the time of the luncheon. But Great-aunt Lucia says that the same afternoon, as they were driving to the station, they met a splendid young fellow with yellow hair and bright brown eyes, hurrying along the road in the opposite direction. He took off his cap to them gaily, and Mrs. Durand whispered that it was young Fairfax Collingwood, evidently coming home unexpectedly. Great-aunt Lucia says she will never forget his excited, happy look!
"Now, I'll go back to Mrs. Durand and Mrs. Collingwood. (And all that follows, Mrs. Durand told Great-aunt Lucia long, long long afterward.) Mrs. Collingwood came into the house, and her face looked set like a stone, and she seemed twenty years older than when she was having the luncheon. And Mrs. Durand cried:
"'Oh, my dear, you have lost some one? You are dressed in mourning!'
"'Yes,' said Mrs. Collingwood. 'I have lost my son! I am going away.' And Mrs. Durand said:
"Oh, how—how sudden! He can't be dead! We saw him!' And Mrs. Collingwood answered:
"'He is dead to me!' And for the longest time, Mrs. Durand couldn't get another word from her, except that she had shut up the house and was going home South, to live for good. Well, Mrs. Durand put her right to bed,—she was fairly sick with nervousness and exhaustion. And late that night, she broke down and cried and cried, and told Mrs. Durand everything.
"And, oh, Cynthia! What do you think it was? You'd never guess!— You know, the Civil War had just broken out,—Fort Sumter had surrendered and Mrs. Collingwood was a South Carolina woman, and was heart and soul with the Confederacy. She had married a Northern man, and had lived ever since up here, but that didn't make any difference. And all the time war had been threatening, she had been planning to raise a company in South Carolina for her son Fairfax, and put him in command of it. They did those things at that time. Her son didn't know about it, however. She was keeping the news to surprise him.
"And then, that day at luncheon, she received a telegram from him saying he had left college and enlisted—in the Union army—and was coming home at once to bid her good-bye before going to the front! The shock of it almost killed her! But later she thought that surely, when he came, she could persuade him out of it.
"And he came that very afternoon. The ladies had met him walking up from the train. She would not tell Mrs. Durand just what happened, but intimated that they had had a dreadful scene. You see, the young fellow had been born and brought up in the North, and his sympathies were all with that side, and he was just as enthusiastic about it as his mother was about the other. And besides, she'd never talked to him much about the Southern cause, so he didn't realize how she felt. At last, when he wouldn't give in, she admitted to Mrs. Durand that she disowned him, and told him never to see her face again.
"When he had gone to his room to pack his things, she went and dismissed her servants, and told them to go at once. Then she locked herself in her room till her boy went away. She never saw him again! After he had gone, that night, she collected all her silver and hid it, and partially packed her own things, and then decided she wouldn't take them with her. And when she had gone around shutting up the house, it was morning. As soon as it was daylight, she went out and got an old colored carpenter who lived nearby to come and board up the windows and doors. She had the boarding all in the cellar, for it had been made two years before when she went to Europe for six months. It took him nearly all day to finish the work, while she stood around and gave directions. I don't see how she had the strength to do it! When it was all done, she locked the door, walked to the station, took the train for New York, and came to Mrs. Durand." Joyce paused in her recital, from sheer lack of breath, and Cynthia took advantage of the silence.
"So that was the way of it! And we thought it was her brother, and that he'd done something awful,—committed a robbery or forged something! I don't see why that young Fairfax should have been treated so! I think what he did was fine!"
"You must remember," said Joyce, "that people felt so differently about such things in those days. We can't quite realize it now, and shouldn't judge them for the way they acted. I suppose Mrs. Collingwood could have forgiven him more easily if he'd committed a burglary instead! And Great-aunt Lucia says she was terribly high-tempered, too.
"I can't understand it, even so!" insisted Cynthia. "But did your great-aunt say anything about those pictures?"
"No, but I asked her if Mrs. Collingwood had any other children, and she said she understood that Fairfax had been a twin, but his little sister had died when she wasn't much more than three years old. So that's the explanation of the two babies in the other room. I suppose Mrs. Collingwood didn't tell all,—in fact I said she didn't tell any details about what happened that night. Probably she turned the portrait around and tore out the miniature when she was alone. But I haven't finished my story yet!"
"Oh, do go on then!" implored Cynthia.
"Mrs. Collingwood stayed at her friend's house two days," continued Joyce, "and then left for her old home in a little town in South Carolina and never came North again. Mrs. Durand never saw her again, either, but used to hear from her at very long intervals. But here's where the awful thing comes in. After the battle of Shiloh, a year later, when the papers published the list of killed—Fairfax Collingwood's name was among the first! So he did not live very long, you see. But what a terrible thing for the poor mother to think that she and her son had parted in anger, and now were never, never to meet again, and make it all up! Oh, I can hardly bear to think of it!" Joyce's eyes were full of tears, as she gazed up at the proud, beautiful face above them.
"Well, that's the end of the story, and that's the tragedy and mystery about this Boarded-up House. Oh!—there's one other thing,—Great-aunt Lucia says she thinks Mrs. Collingwood is still alive,—a very old lady, living down in the little old South Carolina town of Chesterton. She will never allow this old house to be touched nor let any one enter it. But she has made a will, leaving it to the Southern Society when she dies. That's positively all, and you see everything is explained."
"No, it isn't!" retorted Cynthia. "You haven't explained one thing, at all!"
"What's that?" asked Joyce.
"The mystery of the locked-up room!" replied Cynthia.
AN EXCITING DISCOVERY
The autumn of that year ended, the winter months came and went with all their holiday festivities, and spring entered in her appointed time. The passing winter had been filled with such varied outside activities for the two girls, that there was little time to think of the Boarded-up House, and still less to do any further investigating within it. Added to that, the cold had been so constant and intense that it would have been unsafe to venture into the unlighted, unheated, and unventilated old mansion.
But, in spite of these things, its haunting story was never out of their minds for long, and they discussed and re-discussed it in many a spare hour when they crouched cozily by themselves over the open fire during that long winter. It was a wonderful and appealing secret that they somehow felt was all their own. It was better, more interesting than the most engrossing story they had ever read. And the fascination of it was that, though they now knew so much, they did not yet know all. The mystery of the locked room always confronted them, always lured them on!
Once, on a day that was unusually mild, they ventured into the old house for a few moments, and looked long and intently at the Lovely Lady over the library mantel, and at the two pretty children in the drawing-room.
"Yes, that is the boy," said Cynthia. "You can see, even there, what a fine young fellow he must have made, with those big brown eyes and that curly golden hair. Oh, the poor mother!— How she must have grieved, all these years! You can see that she has never gotten over it, or she would have come back here sometime. I wonder if she is alive yet!"
In the library, Joyce picked up the paper that had been discovered through the help of Goliath, and looked it over curiously.
"Why in the world didn't we read this paper when we found it!" she exclaimed disgustedly. "Just see here,—the big headlines—'Fort Sumter Surrenders. War Formally Declared. Troops Rushing To Washington!' Why, Cynthia, it would surely have given us the clue!"
"I don't think it would have," declared Cynthia, sceptically. "I never would have connected anything in the paper with what happened here."
"Sherlock Holmes would have," mused Joyce. "Well, anyway, we got at the story in another fashion. But oh, Cynthia, will we ever know about the locked-up room?" As Cynthia could cast no further light on this vexed question, they were forced to drop it.
Then came spring, and the ancient cherry-trees in the enclosure back of the Boarded-up House blossomed anew. One brilliant Saturday morning early in May, the girls clambered through the fence with their books and fancy-work, to spend some of the shining hour under the white canopy of blossoms. They were reading aloud the "Sign of Four," (they inclined much toward mystery and detective stories at this time) turn and turn about, while the one who not have the book sewed or embroidered. Presently Joyce laid down the volume with a big sigh.
"Oh, I wish I were Sherlock Holmes!"
"Mercy! what for?" cried Cynthia. "I'm sure I don't!"
"Why, do you suppose Sherlock would have been all this time getting at the final facts about our Boarded-up House? Of course not! He'd have had it all worked out and proved by now!" Joyce got to her feet and began roaming about restlessly. Suddenly she stopped in front of her companion.
"I tell you, Cynthia, it haunts me! I can't explain to you why, but I feel there is something we haven't discovered yet,—something we ought to know. It isn't just 'idle curiosity' as Professor Marlow would call it! I never knew or heard of anything that went so—so deep in me as this thing has. That poor, loving, proud mother, and her terrible misunderstanding with her splendid son!— He was right, too, I can't help but think. But was she in the wrong? I suppose we can't judge about how people felt in those days. The whole thing is so different now,—all forgotten and forgiven! But I've read that the Confederates considered their cause almost a—a religion. So of course she would have felt the shock of what her son did, terribly. And think how he must have felt, too!
"And then to lose his life, almost in the beginning! Perhaps he and his mother might have made it all up after the war was over, if he'd only lived. It's—it's the saddest thing I ever heard!" Cynthia had risen too, and they linked arms, strolling up and down the little orchard as they talked.
"I feel exactly as you do about it, though I don't often speak of it," said Cynthia. "But, by the way, did it ever strike you that we might find it interesting to look over some of the books in that old library? Some of them looked very attractive to me. And even if it didn't lead to anything, at least it would be good fun to examine them. I love old books! Why not do it this afternoon?"
"Just the thing!" agreed Joyce. "I've thought of that too, but we've never had much chance to do it, till now. This afternoon, right after lunch!"
So the afternoon found them again in the dim, musty old library, illuminating the scene extravagantly with five candles. Three sides of the room were lined with book-shelves, reaching nearly to the ceiling. The girls surveyed the bewildering rows of books, puzzled where to begin.
"Oh, come over here!" decided Joyce, choosing the side opposite the fireplace. "These big volumes look so interesting." She brushed the thick dust off their backs, revealing the titles. "Look!— They're all alike, with red backs and mottled sides." She opened one curiously. "Why!—they're called 'Punch'! What a strange name! What kind of books can they be?" And then, on further examination,—"Oh! I see. It's a collection of English papers full of jokes and politics and that sort of thing. And this one is from way back in 1850 Why, Cynthia, these are the most interesting things!—"
But Cynthia had already extracted another volume and was absorbed in it, chuckling softly over the old-time humor. Joyce grouped the five candles on the floor and they sat down beside them, from time to time pulling out fresh volumes, reading aloud clever jokes to each other, and enjoying themselves immensely, utterly unconscious of the passing moments.
At length they found they had skimmed through all the volumes of "Punch," the last of which was dated 1860, and had them piled up on the floor beside them. This left a long space on the shelf from which they came, and the methodical Cynthia presently rose to put them back. As she fitted in the first volume, her eye was suddenly caught by something back of the shelves, illuminated in the flickering candle-light.
"Joyce, come here!" she called in a voice of suppressed excitement. And Joyce, who had wandered to another corner, came over in a hurry.
"What is it?"
"Look in there!" Joyce snatched a candle and held it close to the opening made by the books. Then she gave a long, low whistle.
"What do you make of it?" demanded Cynthia.
"Just what it is! And that's as 'plain as a pikestaff'—a keyhole!" Cynthia nodded.
"Yes, but what a strange place for it—back of those shelves!—" They brought another candle and examined the wall back of the shelves more carefully. There was certainly a keyhole—a rather small one—and around it what appeared to be the paneling of a door, only partially visible through the shreds of old, torn wall-paper that had once covered it.
"I have it!" cried Joyce, at length. "At least, I think this may be an explanation. That's a small door, without a doubt,—perhaps to some unused closet. Maybe there was a time, when this house was new, when this room wasn't a library. Then somebody wanted to make it into a library, and fill all this side of the room with book-shelves. But that door was in the way. So they had it all papered over, and just put the shelves in front of it, as though it had never been there. You see the paper has fallen away, probably through dampness,—and the mice seem to have eaten it too. And here's the keyhole! Isn't it lucky we just happened to take the books out that were in front of it!"
"But what are we going to do about it?" questioned Cynthia.
"Do? Why, there's just one thing to do, and that is move the shelves out somehow,—they seem to be movable, just resting on those end-supports,—and get at that door!"
"But suppose it's locked?"
"We'll have to take a chance on that! Come on! We can't move these books and shelves away fast enough to suit me!"
They fell to work with a zest the like of which they had not known since their first entrance into the Boarded-up House. It was no easy task to remove the armfuls of books necessary to get at the door behind, and then push and shove and struggle with the dusty shelves. In a comparatively short time, however, the floor behind them was littered with volumes hastily deposited, and the shelves for a space nearly as high as their heads were removed. Then they tore at the mouldy shreds of wall-paper till the entire frame of the paneled wooden doorway was free. Handle there was none, it having doubtless been removed when the place was papered. There seemed, consequently, no way to open the door. But Cynthia was equal to this emergency.
"I've seen an old chisel in the kitchen. We might pry it open with that," she suggested.
"Go and get it!" commanded Joyce, bursting with excitement. "I think this is going to be either a secret cupboard or room!"
Cynthia seized a candle and hurried away, coming back breathless with the rusty tool.
"Now for it!" muttered Joyce. She grasped the chisel and inserted it in the crack, pushing on it with all her might. But the door resisted, and Cynthia was just uttering the despairing cry,—
"Oh, it's locked too!" when it suddenly gave way, with a wholly unexpected jerk, and flew open emitting a cloud of dust.
"Mercy!" exclaimed Joyce, between two sneezes, "That almost knocked me off my feet. Did you ever see so much dust!" Snatching the candles again, they both sprang forward, expecting to gaze into the dusty interior of some long unused cupboard or closet. They had no sooner put their heads into the opening, than they started back with a simultaneous cry.
The door opened on a tiny, narrow stairway, ascending into the dimness above!
THE ROOM THAT WAS LOCKED
Before Cynthia could realize what had happened or was happening, Joyce seized her and began waltzing madly around the library, alternately laughing, sobbing, hugging, and shaking her distractedly.
"Stop, stop, Joyce! Please!" she begged breathlessly. "Have you gone crazy? You act so! What is the matter?"
"Matter!— You ask me that?" panted Joyce. "You great big stupid!—Why, we've discovered the way to the locked-up room!— That's what's the matter!" Cynthia looked incredulous.
"Why, certainly!" continued Joyce. "Can't you see? You know that room is right over this. Where else could those stairs lead, then? But come along! We'll settle all doubts in a moment!" She snatched up a candle again and led the way, Cynthia following without more ado.
"Oh, Joyce! It's horribly dirty and stuffy and cobwebby in here! Couldn't we wait a few moments till some air gets in?" implored Cynthia in a muffled voice.
"I sha'n't wait a moment, but you may if you wish," called back Joyce. "But I know you won't! Mind your head! These are the tiniest, lowest stairs I've ever seen!" They continued to crawl slowly up, their candles flickering low in the impoverished air of the long-inclosed place.
"What if we can't open the door at the top?" conjectured Cynthia. "What if it's behind some heavy piece of furniture?"
"We'll just have to get in somehow!" responded Joyce. "I've gone so far now, that I believe I'd be willing to break things open with a charge of dynamite, if we couldn't get in any other way! Here I am, at the top. Now you hold my candle, and we'll see what happens!" She handed her candle to Cynthia, braced herself, and threw her whole weight against the low door, which was knobless like the one below.
Then came the surprise. She had expected resistance, and prepared to cope with it. To her utter amazement, there was a ripping, tearing sound, and she found herself suddenly prone upon the floor of the most mysterious room in the house! The reason for this being that the door at the top was covered on the inner side with only a layer or two of wall-paper, and no article of furniture happened to stand in front of it. Consequently it had yielded with ease at the tremendous shove Joyce had given it, and she found herself thus forcibly and ignominiously propelled into the apartment.
"My!" she gasped, sitting up and dusting her hands, "but that was sudden! I don't care, though! I'm not a bit hurt, and—we're in!" They were indeed "in"! The mysterious, locked room was at last to yield up its secret to them. They experienced a delicious thrill of expectation, as, with their candles raised above their heads, they peered eagerly about.
Now, what they had expected to find within that mysterious room, they could not perhaps have explained with any definiteness. Once they stood within the threshold, however, they became slowly conscious of a vague disappointment. Here was nothing so very strange, after all! The room appeared to be in considerable disorder, and articles of clothing, books, and boyish belongings were tossed about, as in a hurry of packing. But beyond this, there was nothing much out of the ordinary about it.
"Well," breathed Cynthia at length. "Is this what we've been making all the fuss about!"
"Wait!" said Joyce. "You can't see everything just at one glance. Let's look about a little. Oh, what a dreadful hole we've made in the wall-paper! Well, it can't be helped now, and it's the only damage we've done." They commenced to tiptoe about the room, glancing curiously at its contents.
It was plainly a boy's room. A pair of fencing-foils hung crossed on one wall, a couple of boxing-gloves on another. College trophies decorated the mantel. On a center-table stood a photograph or daguerreotype in a large oval frame. When Cynthia had wiped away the veil of dust that covered it, with the dust-cloth she had thoughtfully tucked in her belt, the girls bent over it.
"Oh, Cynthia!" cried Joyce. "Here they are—the Lovely Lady and her boy. He must have been about twelve then. What funny clothes he wore! But isn't he handsome! And see how proudly she looks at him. Cynthia, how could he bear to leave this behind! I shouldn't have thought he'd ever want to part with it."
"Probably he went in such a hurry that he couldn't think of everything, and left this by mistake. Or he may even have had another copy," Cynthia added in a practical after-thought.
Garments of many descriptions, and all of old-time cut, were flung across the bed, and on the floor near it lay an open valise, half packed with books.
"He had to leave that too, you see, or perhaps he intended to send for it later," commented Joyce. "Possibly he didn't realize that his mother was going to shut up the house and leave it forever. Here's his big, businesslike-looking desk, and in pretty good order too. I suppose he hadn't used it much, as he was so little at home. It's open, though." She began to dust the top, where a row of school-books were arranged, and presently came to the writing-tablet, which she was about to polish off conscientiously. Suddenly she paused, stared, rubbed at something with her duster, and bending close, stared again. In a moment she raised her head and called in a low voice:
"Cynthia, come here!" Cynthia, who had been carefully dusting the college trophies on the mantel, hurried to her side.
"What is it? What have you found?" Joyce only pointed to a large sheet of paper lying on the blotter. It was yellow with age and covered with writing in faded ink,—writing in a big, round, boyish hand. It began,—
"My dearest Mother—" Cynthia drew back with a jerk, scrupulously honorable, as usual. "Ought we to read it, Joyce? It's a letter!"
"I did," whispered Joyce. "I couldn't help it for I didn't realize what it was at first. I don't think it will harm. Oh, Cynthia, read it!" And Cynthia, doubting no longer, read aloud:
MY DEAREST MOTHER,—the best and loveliest thing in my life,—I leave this last appeal here, in the hope that you will see it later, read it, and forgive me. We have had bitter words, but I am leaving you with no anger in my heart, and nothing but love. That we shall not see each other again in this life, I feel certain. Therefore I want you to know that, to my last hour, I shall love you truly, devotedly. I am so sure I am right, and I have pledged my word. I cannot take back my promise. I never dreamed that you feel as you do about this cause. My mother, my own mother, forgive me, and God keep you.
Your son, FAIRFAX.
When Cynthia had ended, there was a big lump in Joyce's throat, and Cynthia herself coughed and flourished a handkerchief about her face with suspicious ostentation. Suddenly she burst out:
"I think that woman must have had a—a heart of stone, to be so unforgiving to her son—after reading this!"
"She never saw it!" announced Joyce, with a positiveness that made Cynthia stare.
"Well!— I'd like to know how you can say a thing like that!" Cynthia demanded at once. "It lay right there for her to see!"
"How do you account for this room being locked?" parried Joyce, answering the question, Yankee fashion, by asking another. Cynthia pondered a moment.
"I don't account for it! But—why, of course! The boy locked it after him when he went away, and took the key with him!" Joyce regarded her with scorn.
"That would be a sensible thing to do, now, wouldn't it. He writes a note that he is hoping with all his heart that his mother will see. Then he calmly locks the door and walks off with the key! What for?"
"If he didn't do it, who did?" Cynthia defended herself. "Not the servants. They went before he did, probably. There's only one person left—his mother!"
"You've struck it at last. What a good guesser you are!" said Joyce, witheringly. Then she relented. "Yes, she must have done it, Cynthia. She locked the door, and took the key away, or did something with it,—though what on earth for, I can't imagine!"
"But what makes you think she did it before she read the note?" demanded Cynthia.
"There are just two reasons, Cynthia. She couldn't have been human if she'd read that heart-rending letter and not gone to work at once and made every effort to reach her son! But there's one other thing that makes me sure. Do you see anything different about this room?" Cynthia gazed about her critically. Then she replied:
"Why, no. I can't seem to see anything so different. Perhaps I don't know what you mean."
"Then I'll tell you. Look at the windows! Are they like the ones in the rest of the house?"
"Oh, no!" cried Cynthia. "Now I see! The curtains are not drawn, or the shutters closed. It's just dark because it's boarded up outside."
"That's precisely it!" announced Joyce. "You see, she must have gone around closing all the other inside shutters tight. But she never touched them in this room. Therefore she probably never came in here. The desk is right by the window. She couldn't have helped seeing the letter if she had come in. No, for some reason we can't guess, she locked the door,—and never knew!"
"And she never, never will know," whispered Cynthia. "That's the saddest part of it!"
A SLIGHT DISAGREEMENT
The Friday afternoon meeting of the Sigma Sigma literary society broke up with the usual confused mingling of chatter and laughter. There had been a lively debate, and Joyce and Cynthia, as two of the opponents, had just finished roundly and wordily belaboring each other. They entwined arms now, amiably enough, and strolled away to collect their books and leave for home. Out on the street, Cynthia suddenly began:
"Do you know, we've never had that illumination in the Boarded-up House that we planned last fall, when we commenced cleaning up there."
"We never had enough money for candles," replied Joyce.
"Yes, I know. But still I've always wanted to do it. Suppose we buy some and try it soon,—say to-morrow?" Joyce turned to her companion with an astonished stare.
"Why, Cynthia Sprague! You know it's near the end of the month, and I'm down to fifteen cents again, and I guess you aren't much better off! What nonsense!"
"I have two dollars and a half. I've been saving it up ever so long—not for that specially—but I'm perfectly willing to use it for that."
"Well, you are the queerest one!" exclaimed Joyce. "Who would have thought you'd care so much about it! Of course, I'm willing to go in for it, but I can't give my share till after the first of the month. Why do you want to do it so soon?"
"Oh, I don't know—just because I do!" replied Cynthia, a little confused in manner. "Come! Let's buy the candles right off. And suppose we do a little dusting and cleaning up in the morning, and fix the candles in the candelabrum, and in the afternoon light them up and have the fun of watching them?" Joyce agreed to this heartily, and they turned into a store to purchase the candles. Much to Joyce's amazement, Cynthia insisted on investing in the best wax ones she could obtain, though they cost nearly five cents apiece.
"Tallow ones will do!" whispered Joyce, aghast at such extravagance. But Cynthia shook her head, and came away with more than fifty.
"I wanted them good!" she said, and Joyce could not budge her from this position. Then, to change the subject, which was plainly becoming embarrassing to her, Cynthia abruptly remarked:
"Don't forget, Joyce, that you are coming over to my house to dinner, and this evening we'll do our studying, so that to-morrow we can have the whole day free. And bring your music over, too. Perhaps we'll have time to practise that duet afterward."
"I will," agreed Joyce, and she turned in at her own gate.
Joyce came over that evening, bringing her books and music. As Mr. and Mrs. Sprague were occupying the sitting-room, the two girls decided to work in the dining-room, and accordingly spread out their books and papers all over the big round table. Cynthia settled down methodically and studiously, as was her wont. But Joyce happened to be in one of her "fly-away humors" (so Cynthia always called them), when she found it quite impossible to concentrate her thoughts or give her serious attention to anything. These moods were always particularly irritating to Cynthia, who rarely indulged in causeless hilarity, especially at study periods. Prudently, however, she made no remarks.
"Let's commence with geometry," she suggested, opening the text-book. "Here we are, at Proposition XVI."
"All right," assented Joyce, with deceptive sweetness. "Give me a pencil and paper, please." Cynthia handed them to her and began:
"Angle A equals angle B."
"Angel A equals angel B," murmured Joyce after her.
"Joyce, I wish you would not say that!" interrupted Cynthia, sharply.
"Why not?" inquired Joyce with pretended surprise, at the same time decorating the corners of her diagram with cherubic heads and wings.
"Because it confuses me so I can't think!" said Cynthia. "Please call things by their right names."
"But it makes no difference with the proof, what you call things in geometry," argued Joyce, "whether it's angles or angels or caterpillars or coal-scuttles,—it's all the same in the end!" Cynthia ignored this, swallowed her rising wrath, and doggedly began anew:
"Angle A equals angle B!" But Joyce, who was a born tease, could no more resist the temptation of baiting Cynthia, than she could have refused a chocolate ice-cream soda, so she continued to make foolish and irrelevant comments on every geometrical statement, until, in sheer exasperation, Cynthia threw the book aside.
"It's no use!" she groaned. "You're not in a studying frame of mind, Joyce—certainly not for geometry. I'll go over that myself Monday morning; but what you're going to do about it, I don't know—and I don't much care! But we've got to get through somehow. Let's try the algebra. You always like that. Do you think you could put your mind on it?"
"I'll try," grinned Joyce, in feigned contrition. "I'll make the greatest effort. But you don't seem to realize that I'm actually working very hard to-night!" Cynthia opened her algebra, picked out the problem, and read:
"'A farmer sold 300 acres—'" when Joyce suddenly interrupted:
"Do you know, Cynthia, I heard the most interesting problem the other day. I wonder if you could solve it."
"What is it?" asked Cynthia, thankful for any awakening symptom of interest in her difficult friend.
"Why, this," repeated Joyce with great gravity. "'If it takes an elephant ten minutes to put on a white vest, how many pancakes will it take to shingle a freight-car?'" Cynthia's indignation was rapidly waxing hotter but she made one more tremendous effort to control it.
"Joyce, I told you that I was serious about this studying."
"But so am I!" insisted the wicked Joyce. "Now let's try to work that out. Let x equal the number of pancakes—" The end of Cynthia's patience had come, however. She pushed the books aside.
"Joyce Kenway, you are—abominable! I wish you would go home!"
"Well, I won't!" retorted Joyce, giggling inwardly, "but I'll leave you to your own devices, if you like!" And she rose from the table, walked with great dignity to a distant rocking-chair, seated herself in it, and pretended to read the daily paper which she had removed from its seat. From time to time she glanced covertly in Cynthia's direction. But there was no sign of relenting in that young lady. She was, indeed, too deeply indignant, and, moreover, had immersed herself in her work. Presently Joyce gave up trying to attract her attention, and began to read the paper in real earnest,—a thing which she seldom had the time or the interest to do.
There was a long silence in the room, broken only by the scratch of Cynthia's pencil or the rustling of a turned page. Suddenly Joyce looked up.
"Cynthia!" she began. Her voice sounded different now. It had lost its teasing tone and seemed a little muffled. But Cynthia was obdurate.
"I don't want to talk to you!" she reiterated. "I wish you'd go home!"
"Very well, Cynthia, I will!" answered Joyce, quietly. And she gathered up her books and belongings, giving her friend a queer look as she left the room without another word.
Later, Cynthia put away her work, yawned, and rose from the table. She was beginning to feel just a trifle sorry that she had been so short with her beloved friend.
"But Joyce was simply impossible, to-night!" she mused. "I never knew her to be quite so foolish. Hope she isn't really offended. But she'll have forgotten all about it by to-morrow morning.... I wonder where to-day's paper is? Joyce was reading it—or pretending to! I want to see the weather report for to-morrow. I hope it's going to be fair.... Pshaw! I can't find it. She must have gathered it up with her things and taken it with her. That was mighty careless—but just like Joyce! I'm going to bed!"
THE GREAT ILLUMINATION
The next morning the two girls met, as though absolutely nothing unpleasant had happened. These little differences were, as a fact, of frequent occurrence, and neither of them ever cherished the least grudge toward the other when they were over. Not a word was said in reference to it by either, but Cynthia noticed Joyce looking at her rather curiously several times. Finally she asked:
"What are you staring at me so for, Joyce?"
"Oh, nothing! I wasn't staring," Joyce replied, and began to talk of something else.
"By the way, Cyn, why wouldn't it be a good idea to wait till next week before we have our illumination? Perhaps we could get more candles by that time, too. I vote for next Saturday instead of to-day."
"I can't see why you want to wait," replied Cynthia. "To-day is just as good a time as any. In fact, I think it's better. Something might happen that would entirely prevent it next week. No, let's have it to-day. My heart is set on it."
"Very well then," assented Joyce. "But, do you know, I believe, if this time is a success, we might have it again next Saturday, too."
"Well, you can have it if you like, and if you can raise the money for candles," laughed Cynthia; "but you mustn't depend on me. I'll be 'cleaned out' by that time!"
That morning they carefully dusted the drawing-room and library of the Boarded-up House.
"We'll put the candles in the drawing-room, in the big candelabrum. That will take about forty—and we'll have enough for the library too," said Cynthia, planning the campaign. "And the rest of the candles we'll put in the 'locked-up room.' Let's go right up there now and dust it!"
"Oh, what do you want to light that room for!" cried Joyce. "Don't let's go in there. It makes me blue—even to think of it!" But Cynthia was obdurate.
"I want it lit up!" she announced. "If you don't feel like going up, I'll go myself. I don't mind. But I want candles there!"
"Oh, if you insist, of course I'll go! But really, Cynthia, I don't quite understand you to-day. You want to do such queer things!"
"I don't see anything queer about that!" retorted Cynthia, blushing hotly. "It just seemed—somehow—appropriate!"
But Joyce, in spite of her protests, accompanied Cynthia up the tiny, cramped stairway, the entrance to which they had not blocked by restoring the book-shelves.
"What a strange thing it is,—this secret stairway!" she marveled aloud. "I'm sure it is a secret stairway, and that it was long unused, even before Mrs. Collingwood left here. I even feel pretty certain that she never knew it was here."
"How do you figure that out?" questioned Cynthia.
"Well, in several ways. For one thing, because it was all closed up and papered over. That could have been done before she came here, and you know she only lived in this house eighteen years. But mainly because there wouldn't have been much sense in her locking up the room (if she did lock it) had she known there was another easy way of getting into it. No, I somehow don't think she knew!"
They did their dusting in the locked-up room, and tried to make it look as ship-shape as possible, carefully avoiding, however, the vicinity of the desk. Cynthia arranged six candles in holders, ready to light, and they went down stairs again to arrange the others,—a task that was accomplished with some difficulty, as the candelabrum was rather high, and they were obliged to stand on chairs. At last all was ready and they hurried home to luncheon, agreeing to meet at two for the "great illumination"!
When they returned that afternoon, Cynthia had smuggled over the gas-lighter, which they found a boon indeed in lighting so many candles at such a height. When every tongue of flame was sparkling softly, the girls stepped back to admire the result.
"Isn't it the prettiest thing you ever saw?" cried Joyce in an ecstasy of admiration. "It beats a Christmas-tree all hollow! I've always heard that candle-light was the loveliest of all artificial illumination, and now I believe it. Just see how this room is positively transformed! We never saw those pictures properly before."
"Now it looks as it did fifty years ago," said Cynthia, softly. "Of course, houses were lighted by gas then, but only city ones or those near the city. I know, because I've been asking about it. Other people had to use horrid oil-lamps. But there were some who kept on having candles because they preferred that kind of light—especially in country-houses. And evidently this was one of them."
Joyce eyed her curiously.
"You've certainly been interested in the question of illumination, half a century ago,—but why, Cynthia? I never knew you to go so deeply into anything of this kind before!" Cynthia started, and blushed again.
"Do you think so," she stammered. "Oh, well!—it's only because this—this house has taken hold of me—somehow. I can't get it out of my mind, day or night!"
"Yes," cried Joyce, "and I remember the day when I could hardly induce you to enter it! I just had to pull you in, and you disputed every inch of the way!"
"That's the way with me," returned Cynthia. "I'm not quick about going into things, but once I'm in, you can't get me out! And nothing I ever knew of has made me feel as this house has. Now I'm going to light the candles in the locked-up room."
"That's the one thing I can't understand!" protested Joyce, as they climbed the tiny stairs once more. "You seem perfectly crazy about that room, and it makes me so—so depressed that I hate to go near it! I like the library and the picture of the Lovely Lady best."
Cynthia did not reply to this but lit the candles and gave a last look about. Then they returned to the drawing-room. As there was nothing further to do but sit and enjoy the spectacle, the two girls cuddled down on a roomy old couch or sofa, and watched with all the fascination that one watches the soft illumination of a Christmas-tree. Sometimes they talked in low voices, commenting on the scene, then they would be silent for a long period, simply drinking it in and trying to photograph it forever on their memories. Joyce frankly and openly enjoyed it all, but Cynthia seemed nervous and restless. She began at length to wriggle about, got up twice and walked around restlessly, and looked at her watch again and again.
"I wonder how long these candles will last?" questioned Joyce, glancing at her own timepiece. "They aren't a third gone yet. Oh, I could sit here and look at this for hours! It's all so different from anything we've ever seen."
"What's that!" exclaimed Cynthia, suddenly and Joyce straightened up to listen more intently.
"I don't hear anything. What is the matter with you to-day, Cynthia Sprague?"
"I don't know. I'm nervous, I guess!"
"There— I did hear something!" It was Joyce who spoke. "The queerest click! Good gracious, Cynthia! Just suppose somebody should take it into his head to get in here to-day! Of all times! And find this going on!" But Cynthia was not listening to Joyce. She was straining her ears in another direction.
"There it is again! Somebody is at that front door!" cried Joyce. "I believe they must have seen these lights through some chink in the boarding and are breaking in to find out what's the matter! Perhaps they think—"
Cr-r-r-rack!— Something gave with a long, resounding noise, and the two girls clasped each other in an agony of terror. It came from the front door, there was no shadow of doubt, and somebody had just succeeded in opening the little door in the boarding. There was still the big main door to pass.
"Come!—quick!—quick!" whispered Joyce. "It will never do for us to be found here. We might be arrested for trespassing! Let's slip down cellar and out through the window, and perhaps we can get away without being seen. Never mind the candles! They'll never know who put them there!— Hurry!" She clutched at Cynthia, expecting instant acquiescence. But, to her amazement, Cynthia stood firm, and boldly declared:
"No, Joyce, I'm not going to run away! Even if we got out without being seen, they'd be sure to discover us sooner or later. We've left enough of our things around for that. I'm going to meet whoever it is, and tell them we haven't done any real harm,—and so must you!"
All during this speech they could hear the rattle of some one working at the lock of the main door. And a second after Cynthia finished, it yielded with another loud crack. Next, footsteps were heard in the hall. By this time, Joyce was so paralyzed with fright that she could scarcely move a limb, and speech had entirely deserted her. They were caught as in a trap! There was no escape now. It was a horrible position. Cynthia, however, pulled her to her feet.
"Come!" she ordered. "We'd better meet them and face it out!" Joyce could only marvel at her astonishing coolness, who had always been the most timid and terror-ridden of mortals.
At this instant, the drawing-room door was pushed open!
THE MEDDLING OF CYNTHIA
To Joyce, the moment that the drawing-room door was pushed open will always seem, with perhaps one exception, the most intense of all her life. She fully expected to see a man stride in—more likely half a dozen!—and demand the meaning of the unwarrantable intrusion and illumination. Instead of that, the slight figure of a woman dressed all in black, and with a long heavy dark veil over her face, stepped into the room!
For a moment she paused, surprised, uncertain, almost trembling. Then, with a firm movement, she threw back her veil, and, in the soft light of the candles, stood revealed. Joyce gave a tiny gasp. In all her life she had never seen so beautiful an old lady. Masses of soft wavy white hair framed a face of singular charm, despite its age, and the biggest, saddest brown eyes in all the world, looked out inquiringly on the two girls. There was complete silence. The three could hear each other breathe. Then the newcomer spoke:
"Which of you two friends was it, may I ask, who sent me the letter?" Her voice was sweet and low and soft, and as sad as her eyes. Joyce gave a start and opened her lips to speak, but Cynthia was before her.
"I did!" she announced calmly. The lady turned to her.
"That was very lovely of you,—and very thoughtful. I began planning to come soon after I received it, and tried to arrive at about the time you mentioned. But I do not quite understand all—all this!" She glanced toward the burning candles. "And I'm afraid I do not understand how you—how you came to be in here!"
"Oh," began Cynthia, stumblingly, "I—I couldn't quite explain it all in a letter—and I didn't even know you'd pay any attention to what I wrote, anyway. But we'll tell you all about it right now, if you care to hear." A light was beginning to dawn on the bewildered Joyce. Suddenly she sprang forward and seized the lady's hand.
"Tell me—oh, please tell me," she cried, "are you Mrs. Collingwood?"
"Yes, my dear!" said the lady.
And to the amazement of every one Joyce broke down and began to sob hysterically, exclaiming, "Oh, I'm so glad—so glad!" between every other sob.
"I think I'll sit down," said Mrs. Collingwood, when Joyce had regained control of herself. "I'm very tired—and very, very—bewildered!" She sat down on the sofa, and drew each of the girls down beside her.
"Now tell me," she said to Cynthia. "Explain it all, and then show me what you think will interest me so. You see, I have traveled many weary miles to hear this strange story."
So Cynthia began at the beginning and told how they had first found their way in, and had then become interested in unraveling the mystery of the old house. Mrs. Collingwood listened with deep attention; but when Cynthia reached the tale of the hidden stairway, she started in surprise.
"Why, I never dreamed there was such a thing in the house!" she exclaimed. "The rooms were re-papered once, but I was away when it was done. None of us knew!"
"No, we thought you didn't," continued Cynthia. "And so we went into the locked-up room. And there we found something,—oh!—Mrs. Collingwood! We felt sure you had never seen it, and that you ought to! You see, we knew all the rest of the—the story, from Joyce's great-aunt, Lucia Kenway. And we felt you ought to see it,—at least I felt that way, and so I wrote you the letter. I didn't even tell Joyce I'd done it, because—because I was afraid she'd think I was meddling in what didn't concern me! But I couldn't help it. I couldn't sleep nights till I'd sent that letter, because it all haunted me so! I just sent it to Chesterton, South Carolina, because that was all the address I knew. I didn't even feel sure it would ever reach you.
"And I set a special date for you to get here on purpose, because—well, because I thought we ought to be here to receive you, and have the place look sort of—homelike. It would be terrible, seems to me, to come back to a dark, deserted house that you'd left so long ago, and nobody here to—to welcome you. Well, that's all, I guess. But Mrs. Collingwood, I'm so afraid we haven't done right,—that we meddled in what was no business of ours, and trespassed in a house we should never have entered! I only hope you can forgive us!" Thus ended Cynthia, brokenly, and Mrs. Collingwood put out her hands to take a hand of each girl in her clasp.
"You dear little meddlers!" she exclaimed. "This is all so astonishing to me; but I feel sure, nevertheless, that you have done nothing but good! And now will you—will you show me what you spoke of?"
Cynthia rose, handed her a lighted candle, and led her to the opening of the little stairway in the library. "It's up these stairs, in the room above—on the desk," she said. "You will find it all lit up there. And I think that—you would rather go—alone!" Mrs. Collingwood took the candle, and Cynthia helped her into the opening at the foot of the stairs. Then she went back to Joyce.
When they were alone, the two girls stood staring at one another and Cynthia's cheeks grew fiery red.
"I don't know what—what you must think of me, Joyce!" she stammered. "I ought never to have done this, I suppose, without telling you."
"Why didn't you tell me?" demanded Joyce.
"Why, I was so afraid you'd think me silly and—and meddling, and you mightn't approve of it. I was unhappy,—I—somehow felt as though I'd committed a crime, and the only way to right it was this!"
"How long ago did you send your letter?" asked Joyce, presently.
Cynthia considered. "I think I posted it a week ago Thursday."
"And you knew all the time, last night, that this was going to happen to-day?" asked Joyce incredulously.
"Well, I sort of expected it,—that is, I really didn't know whether she'd come or not. It made me dreadfully nervous, and that's the reason I was so cross to you, Joyce, I suppose. Will you forgive me, now that you know?"
"Why, of course!" said Joyce. Then, suddenly, "But, oh!— I wish I'd known this all at the time!"
"What for? What difference would it have made?" demanded Cynthia.
But Joyce only replied: "Hush! Is that Mrs. Collingwood coming down?"
THE STRANGER AT THE DOOR
Mrs. Collingwood remained a long time up-stairs,—so long, indeed, that the girls began to be rather uneasy, fearing that she had fainted, or perhaps was ill, or overcome—they knew not what.
"Do you think we ought to go up?" asked Cynthia, anxiously. "Perhaps she needs help."
"No, I think she just wants to be by herself. It was fine of you, Cynthia, to send her up alone! I really don't believe I'd have thought of it."
At length they heard her coming slowly down, and presently she reentered the drawing-room. They could see that she was much moved, and had evidently been crying. She did not speak to them at once, but went and stood by the mantel, looking up long and earnestly at the portrait of the twins.
"My babies!" they heard her murmur unconsciously, aloud. At last, however, she came to them, and sat down once more between them on the sofa. They wondered nervously what she was going to say.
"My little girls—" she began, "forgive me!—you seem little and young to me, though. I suppose you consider yourselves almost young ladies; but you see, I am an old woman!— I was going to tell you a little about my life, but I suppose you already know most of the important things, thanks to Great-aunt Lucia!" She patted Joyce's hand.
"There are some things, however, that perhaps you do not know, and, after what you have done for me, you deserve to. I was married when I was a very young girl—only seventeen. I was a Southerner, but my husband came from the North, and brought me up North here to live. I always hated it—this Northern life—and, though I loved my husband dearly, I hated his devotion to it. We never agreed about those questions. When my twin babies were born, I secretly determined that they should be Southerners, in spirit, and only Southerners. I planned that when they were both old enough, they should marry in the South and live there—and my husband and I with them.
"But, in this life, things seldom turn out as we plan. My little girl died before she was three; and I had scarcely become reconciled to this grief when my husband was also taken from me. So I centered all my hopes on my son—on Fairfax. As he grew older, however, and as the Civil War came nearer, I noticed that he talked more and more in sympathy with the North, and this distressed me terribly. However, I thought it best not to say much about it to him, for he was a headstrong boy, and had always resented opposition. And I felt sure that he would see things differently when he was older.
"I wished to send him to a Southern college, but he begged me to send him to Harvard. As his heart was so set on it, I couldn't deny him, thinking that even this would make little difference in the end. Then came the crisis in the country's affairs, and the Confederacy was declared. I had already begun to correspond with Southern authorities, to arrange about raising a company for Fairfax. I never doubted that he would comply with my wishes. But I little knew him!
"I hardly need to tell you of the awful day that he came home. You are already acquainted with the history of it. That afternoon, shortly after he arrived, we had our interview. I have always possessed the most violent temper a mortal had to struggle with. And in those earlier years, when I got into a rage, it blinded me to everything else, to every other earthly consideration. And during that interview, well,—need I say it?—Fairfax was simply immovable,—gentle and loving always,—but I could no more impress him with my wishes than I could have moved the Rock of Gibraltar. The galling part to me was—that he kept insisting he was only doing what was right! Right?— How could he be right when it was all directly contrary— But never mind that now! I have learned differently, with the passing, sorrowful years.
"But, to go back,—I stood it as long as I could, and then,—I turned from him, disowned him, bade him leave the house at once and never see my face again, and informed him that I myself would abandon the place on the morrow, and return to the South. He left me, without another word, and went to his room. I immediately summoned the servants and dismissed them on the spot, giving them only time to get their things together and go. Then I locked myself in my room till—he was gone. He came several times, knocked at my door, and begged me to see him, but I would not. Heaven forgive me!— I would not! So he must have left me—that note!" She covered her eyes with her hand a moment. Then she went on:
"I never saw or knew of it till this day. If I had—" Just at this point, they were all startled by a loud knock, coming from the direction of the front door. So unexpected was the sound that they could only stare at each other inquiringly without stirring. In a moment it came again,—a thumping of the old knocker on the front inner door.
"I guess I'd better go," said Joyce. "Some one may have seen the little boarded-up door open— Did you leave it open?" she asked, turning to Mrs. Collingwood.
"I think I did. I was too hurried and nervous, when I came in, to think of it."
"That's it, then. Some one has seen it open, and has stopped to inquire if everything is all right." She hurried away to the front door, and, after an effort, succeeded in pulling it open. A man—a complete stranger to her—stood outside. They regarded each other with mutual surprise.
"Pardon me!" he said. "But perhaps you can inform me—is any one living in this house at present?"
"Why, no!" replied Joyce, rather confusedly. "That is—no, the house is empty, except just—just to-day!"
"Oh! er—I see! The fact is," the stranger went on, "I was passing here and noticed this outer door open, which seemed a little queer. I used to know the people who lived here—very well indeed—and I have been wondering whether the house was still in their possession. It seemed to be untenanted." At his mention of knowing the family, Joyce looked him over with considerably more interest. He was tall, straight and robust, though rather verging on the elderly. His iron-gray hair was crisply curly, and his dark eyes twinkled out from under bushy gray brows. His smile was captivating. Joyce decided at once that she liked him.
"Oh! did you know the family, the—the—"
"Collingwoods!" he supplemented, with his twinkling smile. "Yes, I knew them—quite intimately. Might I, perhaps, if it would not be intruding, come in just a moment to look once more at the old place? That is," he added hastily, seeing her hesitate, "only if it would be entirely convenient! I do not know, of course, why the house is open. Perhaps people are—are about to purchase it."
Joyce was, for a moment, tongue-tied with perplexity. She hated to refuse the simple wish of this pleasant stranger, yet how was she to comply with it, considering the presence of Mrs. Collingwood, and the almost unexplainable position of herself and Cynthia? What would he think of it all! While she was hesitating, an idea came to her.
"There is one of the family here to-day on—on business," she said, at last. "If you will give me your name, I will ask if—that person would like to see you."
"Oh, that is hardly worth while!" he said, hastily. "My name is Calthorpe,—but I'm sure they wouldn't remember me after all this time, and I do not wish to trouble them." But Joyce had excused herself and turned away, as soon as she heard the name, leaving him standing there. Mrs. Collingwood, however, shook her head when Joyce announced who was outside.
"I do not remember any one named Calthorpe, and I scarcely feel that I can see a stranger now. But we must not be inhospitable. Miss Cynthia and I will go and sit in the library, and you can bring him into the drawing-room a few moments. There is no other part of the house that can very well be shown." She took Cynthia's arm, walked into the library, and partly closed the door, while Joyce went out to admit the stranger.
"If you care to look around the drawing-room, you will be most welcome," she announced politely. He accepted the invitation gratefully, and entered with her. At the first glance, however, he started back slightly, as with a shock of surprise.
"Why, how strange—how very singular!" he murmured. "These candles—everything—everything just the same as though it were yesterday!"
"Did you often come here?" inquired Joyce. "You must be very well acquainted with the house!"
"Yes. I came often. I was almost like an inmate." He began to wander slowly about the room, examining the pictures. In front of the baby twins he paused a long time.
"Then you must have known young Mr. Fairfax very well," suggested Joyce. "That's he, on the right in the picture." The stranger eyed her curiously.
"Why, yes, I knew him well. But you, little lady, seem quite intimate with the Collingwood family history. Tell me, are you a—a relative?" This confused Joyce anew.
"Oh, no! Just a—just a friend!" she explained. "But I have been told a good deal about them."
"An unhappy family!" was his only comment, and he continued his tour around the room. In front of the old, square, open piano he paused again, and fingered the silk scarf that had, at some long ago date, been thrown carelessly upon it. Then he ran his fingers lightly over the yellow keys. The tones were unbelievably jangling and discordant, yet Joyce thought she caught the notes of a little tune. And in another moment he broke into the air, singing softly the opening line:—
"There never was a sweetheart like this mother fair of mine!—"
He had sung no more when the face of Mrs. Collingwood appeared in the doorway. Her eyes were wide and staring, her features almost gray in color.
"Who—who are you?" she demanded, in a voice scarcely louder than a whisper. The stranger gazed at her with a fixed look.
"Arthur— Arthur Calthorpe!" he faltered.
"No—you are not!"
They drew toward each other unconsciously, as though moving in a dream.
"No one—no one ever knew that song but—" Mrs. Collingwood came closer, and uttered a sudden low cry:
The two girls, who had been watching this scene with amazement unutterable, saw the strange pair gaze, for one long moment, into each other's eyes. Then, with a beautiful gesture, the man held out his arms. And the woman, with a little gasp of happiness, walked into them!
"Joyce, will you just oblige me by pinching me—real hard! I'm perfectly certain I'm not awake!"
Joyce pinched, obligingly, and with vigor, thereby eliciting from her companion a muffled squeak. The two girls were sitting on the lower step of the staircase in the dark hallway. They had been sitting there for a long, long while.
It was Joyce who had pulled Cynthia away from staring, wide-eyed, at the spectacle of that marvelous reunion. And they had slipped out into the hall unobserved, in order that the two in the drawing-room might have this wonderful moment to themselves. Neither of them had yet sufficiently recovered from her amazement to be quite coherent.
"I can't make anything out of it!" began Cynthia, slowly, at last. "He's dead!"
"Evidently he isn't," replied Joyce, "or he wouldn't be here! But oh!—it's true, then! I hardly dared to hope it would be so! I'm so glad I did it!" Cynthia turned on her.
"Joyce Kenway! What are you talking about? It sounds as though you were going crazy!"
"Oh, of course you don't understand!" retorted Joyce. "And it's your own fault too. I'd have been glad enough to explain, and talk it over with you, only you were so hateful that I just went home instead, and thought it out myself."
"Well, I may be stupid," remarked Cynthia, "but for the life of me I can't make any sense out of what you're saying!"
"Listen, then," said Joyce, "and I'll explain it all. You remember last night how I sat reading the newspaper,—first, just to tease you, and afterward I really got interested in it? Well, I happened to be glancing over the news about people who had just landed here from abroad, when a little paragraph caught my eye. I can't remember the exact words but it was something like this,—that among the passengers just arrived in New York on the Campania was Mr. Fairfax Collingwood, who was interested in Western and Australian gold mines. He had not been here in the East for nearly forty years, and it said how astounded he was at the remarkable changes that had taken place during his long absence. Then it went on to say that he was staying at the Waldorf-Astoria for only a few days, as he was just here on some important business, and was then going to cross the continent, on his way back to Australia.
"Well, you'd better believe that I nearly jumped out of my skin at the name—Fairfax Collingwood. It's an unusual one, and it didn't seem possible that more than one person could have it, though of course it might be a distant connection of the same family. And then, too, our Fairfax Collingwood was dead. I didn't know what to think! I tried to get your attention, but you were still as mad as you could be, so I made up my mind I'd go home and puzzle over it by myself, and I took the paper with me.
"After I got home, I sat and thought and thought! And all of a sudden it occurred to me that perhaps he wasn't killed in the war after all,—that there'd been some mistake. I've read that such things did happen; but if it were so, I couldn't imagine why he didn't go and make it up with his mother afterward. It seemed very strange. And then this explanation dawned on me,—he had left that note for his mother, and perhaps thought that if she really intended to forgive him, she'd have made some effort to get word to him in the year that elapsed before he was reported killed. Then, as she never did, he may have concluded that it was all useless and hopeless, and he'd better let the report stand, and he disappear and never come back. You see that article said he hadn't been East here for forty years.
"And when I'd thought this out, an idea popped into my head. If what I'd imagined was true, it didn't seem right to let him go on thinking that, when I knew that his mother never saw that letter, and I decided I'd let him know it. So I sat right down and wrote a note that went something like this:
"MR. FAIRFAX COLLINGWOOD:
"If you are the same Mr. Fairfax Collingwood who, in 1861, parted from your mother after a disagreement, leaving a note for her which you hoped she would read, I want to tell you that she never saw that note.
"I signed my name right out, because Father has always said that to write an anonymous letter was the most despicable thing any one could do. And if he ever discovered who I was, I wouldn't be ashamed to tell him what we had done, anyway. Of course, I ran the chance of his not being the right person, but I thought if that were so, he simply wouldn't pay any attention to the note, and the whole thing would end there. I addressed the letter to his hotel, and decided that it must be mailed that very night, for he might suddenly leave there and I'd never know where else to find him. It was then nearly ten o'clock, and I didn't want Father or Mother to know about it, so I teased Anne into running out to the post-office with me. He must have received it this morning."
Cynthia had listened to this long explanation in astonished silence. "Isn't it the most remarkable thing," she exclaimed when Joyce had finished, "that each of us should write, I to the mother and you to the son, and neither of us even guess what the other was doing! And that they should meet here, just this afternoon! But there are a whole lot of things I can't understand at all. Why, for instance, did he give the name of Arthur Calthorpe when he came in, and pretend he was some one else?"
"That's been puzzling me too," replied Joyce, "and I can't think of any reason."
"But the thing that confuses me most of all," added Cynthia, "is this. Why, if you had written that note, and had an idea that he was alive, were you so tremendously astonished when he and his mother recognized each other? I should have thought you'd guess right away, when you saw him at the door, who he was!"
"That's just the queer part of it!" said Joyce. "In the first place, I never expected him to come out here at all,—at least, not right away. I never put the name of this town in the letter, nor mentioned this house. I supposed, of course, that he'd go piling right down to South Carolina to find his mother, or see whether she was alive. Then, later, when they'd made it all up (provided she was alive, which even I didn't know then), I thought they might come back here and open the house. That was one reason I wanted to have our illumination next week, on the chance of their arriving.
"So you see I was quite unprepared to see him rushing out here at once; and when he gave another name, that completely deceived me. And then, there's one thing more. Somehow, I had in my mind a picture of Fairfax Collingwood that was as different as could be from—well, from what he is! You see, I'd always thought of him as the boy whom Great-aunt Lucia described having seen. I pictured him as slim and young looking, smooth-faced, with golden curly hair, and big brown eyes. His eyes are the same but,—well, I somehow never counted on the change that all those forty years would make! You can't think how different my idea of him was, and naturally that helped all the more to throw me off the track."
"But why—" began Cynthia afresh.
"Oh, don't let's try to puzzle over it any more just now!" interrupted Joyce. "My head is simply in a whirl. I can't even think straight! I never had so many surprises all at once in my life. I think he will explain everything we don't understand. Let's just wait!"
There were faint sounds from the drawing-room, but they were indistinguishable,—low murmurings and half-hushed sobs. The two reunited ones within were bridging the gulf of forty years. And so the girls continued to wait outside, in the silence and in the dark.
IN WHICH ALL MYSTERIES ARE SOLVED
At last the two on the staircase heard footsteps approaching the door, and a pleasant voice called out:
"Where are you both, little ladies? Will you not come and join us? I think we must have some things to be explained!" They came forward, a little timidly, and their latest visitor held out a hand to each.
"You wonderful two!" he exclaimed. "Do you realize that, had it not been for you, this would never have happened? My mother and I owe you a debt of gratitude beyond all expressing! Come and join us now, and we will solve the riddles which I'm sure are puzzling us all." He led them over to the sofa, and placed them beside his mother.
Never was a change more remarkable than that which had come upon Mrs. Collingwood. Her face, from being one of the saddest they had ever seen, had grown fairly radiant. She looked younger, too. Ten years seemed suddenly to have dropped from her shoulders. Her brown eyes flashed with something of their former fire, and she smiled down at them as only the Lovely Lady of the portrait had ever smiled. There was no difficulty now in identifying her with that picture.
"Oh, please—" began Joyce, breathlessly, "won't you tell us, Mr. Collingwood, how you come to be—not dead!—and why you gave another name at the door—and—and—" He laughed.
"I'll tell you all that," he interrupted, "if you'll tell me who 'Joyce Kenway' is!"
"Why, I am!" said Joyce in surprise. "Didn't you guess it?"
"How could I?" he answered. "I never supposed it was a girl who sent me that note. I did not even feel sure that the name was not assumed to hide an identity. In fact, I did not know what to think. But I'll come to all that in its proper place. I'm sure you are all anxious to hear the strange story I have to tell.
"In the first place, as it's easy to guess, I wasn't killed at the battle of Shiloh at all,—but so very seriously wounded—that I came to be so reported. As I lay on the field with scores of others, after the battle, a poor fellow near me, who had been terribly hurt, was moaning and tossing. My own wound did not hamper me so much at the time, so I crawled over to him and tried to make him as comfortable as possible till a surgeon should arrive. Presently he began to shiver so, with some sort of a chill, that I took off my coat and wrapped it round him. The coat had some of my personal papers in it, but I did not think of that at the time.
"When the surgeons did arrive, we were removed to different army hospitals, and I never saw the man again. But he probably died very soon after, and evidently, finding my name on him, in the confusion it was reported that I was dead. Well, when I saw the notice of my own death in the paper, my first impulse was to deny it at once. But my second thought was to let it pass, after all. I believed that I had broken forever with my home. In the year that had elapsed, I had never ceased to hope that the note I left would soften my mother's feelings toward me, and that at least she would send me word that I was forgiven. But the word had never come, and hope was now quite dead. Perhaps it would be kinder to her to allow her to think I was no more, having died in the cause I thought right. The more I thought it over, the more I became convinced that this was the wisest course. Therefore I let the report stand. I was quite unknown where I was, and I decided, as soon as I was able, to make my way out West, and live out my life far from the scenes of so much unhappiness. My wound disqualified me from further army service and gave me a great deal of trouble, even after I was dismissed from the hospital.
"Nevertheless, I worked my way to the far West, partly on foot and partly in the slow stage-coaches of that period. Once in California, I became deeply interested in the gold mines, where I was certain, like many another deluded one, that I was shortly going to amass an enormous fortune! But, after several years of fruitless search and fruitless toil, I stood as poor as the day I had first come into the region. In the meantime, the fascination of the life had taken hold of me, and I could relinquish it for no other. I had always, from a small child, been passionately fond of adventure and yearned to see other regions and test my fortune in new and untried ways. I could have done so no more acceptably than in the very course I was now pursuing.
"At the end of those hard but interesting years in California, rumors drifted to me of golden possibilities in upper Canada, and I decided to try my luck in the new field. The region was, at that time, practically a trackless wilderness, and to brave it at all was considered the limit of folly. That, however, far from deterring me, attracted me only the more. I got together an outfit, and bade a long farewell to even the rough civilization of California.
"Those were strange years, marvelous years, that I spent in the mountain fastnesses of upper Canada. For month on month I would see no human being save the half-breed Indian guide who accompanied me, and most of the time he seemed to me scarcely human. And all the while the search for gold went on, endlessly—endlessly. And the way led me farther and farther from the haunts of men. Then,—one day,—I found it! Found it in a mass, near the surface, and in such quantities that I actually had little else to do but shovel it out, wash it, and lay the precious nuggets aside, till at length the vein was exhausted. On weighing it up, I found such a quantity that there was really no object in pursuing the search any farther. I had enough. I was wealthy and to spare, and the longing came upon me to return to my own kind again. By this time, fifteen years had passed.
"You must not, however, think that in all these years and these absorbing interests, I had forgotten my mother. On the contrary, especially when I was in the wilderness, she was constantly in my thoughts. Before I left California for Canada (the war was then over some four or five years) I had contemplated writing to her, informing her of the mistake about my death, and begging her once more to forgive me. But, for several reasons, I did not do this. In the first place, I had heard of the exceeding bitterness of the South, increased tenfold by the period of reconstruction through which it was then passing. Old grudges, they told me, were cherished more deeply than ever, and members of the same family often regarded each other with hatred. Of what use for me then, I thought, to sue for a reconciliation at such a time.
"Beside that, my very pride was another barrier. I had not been successful. I was, in fact, practically penniless. Would it not appear as though I were anxious for a reconciliation because I did not wish to lose the property which would one day have been mine, had not my mother disinherited me? No, I could never allow even the hint of such a suspicion. I would wait.
"But, in the Canadian wilderness, I began to see matters in another light. So far from the haunts of humanity and the clash of human interests, one cannot help but look at all things more sanely. It occurred to me that perhaps my mother, far from cherishing any bitter feeling toward me, now that she thought me dead, might be suffering agonies of grief and remorse because we had not been reconciled before the end. If there were even a possibility of this, I must relieve it. So I sat down one day, and wrote her the most loving, penitent letter, begging anew for forgiveness, and giving her the history of my adventures and my whereabouts. This letter I sent off by my guide, to be mailed at the nearest trading-post.
"It took him a month to make the journey there and back. I waited three months more, in great impatience, then sent him back to the same post, to see if there might be a reply. He came back in due time, but bringing nothing for me, and I felt that my appeal had been in vain. Nevertheless, a few months later I wrote again, with no better result. My guide returned empty-handed. And during the last year I was there, I made the third and final trial, and, when again no answer came, I felt that it was beyond all hope to expect forgiveness, since she could ignore three such urgent appeals.
"I have just learned from my mother that these letters were never received by her, which is a great surprise to me, but I think I know the explanation. My guide was not honest,—indeed, few of them are,—but, strangely enough, I never discovered any dishonesty in him, while he was with me. At that time, the postage on letters from that region was very high, sometimes as much as fifty or sixty cents, or even a dollar. This, of course, I always gave to the guide to use in sending the letter when he got to the trading-post. Now, though the sum seems small to us, it was large to him. And though I never suspected it at the time, I have no doubt that he pocketed the money and simply destroyed the letters. So that explains why my mother never received any of them.
"Well, I returned to California a rich man, able to indulge myself in any form of amusement or adventure that pleased me. I found that I still felt the lure of foreign countries, and the less explored or inhabited, the better. I shipped for a voyage to Japan and China, and spent several more years trying to penetrate the forbidden fastnesses of Tibet. From there, I worked down through India, found my way to the South Sea Islands, and landed at length in Australia with the intention of penetrating farther into that continent than any white man had yet set foot.
"I think by this time, I had pretty well lost all desire ever to return to America, especially to New York. But at intervals I still felt an inexpressible longing to see or hear from my mother. Ten or twelve added years had slipped by, and it did not seem human that she should continue to feel bitterly toward me. I had almost decided to write to her once more, when in Sydney, New South Wales, where I happened to be looking over the files of an old New York paper in the public library, I stumbled on the death-notice of a Mrs. Fairfax Collingwood of Chesterton, South Carolina. The paper was dated seven years before.