The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 15
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 reëntered 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!