The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 11
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.
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!"