The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 13
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!