The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 10
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!