The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 1
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 portières 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.