The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 16
"Joyce, will you just oblige me by pinching me—real hard! I'm perfectly certain I'm not awake!"
Joyce pinched, obligingly, and with vigor, thereby eliciting from her companion a muffled squeak. The two girls were sitting on the lower step of the staircase in the dark hallway. They had been sitting there for a long, long while.
It was Joyce who had pulled Cynthia away from staring, wide-eyed, at the spectacle of that marvelous reunion. And they had slipped out into the hall unobserved, in order that the two in the drawing-room might have this wonderful moment to themselves. Neither of them had yet sufficiently recovered from her amazement to be quite coherent.
"I can't make anything out of it!" began Cynthia, slowly, at last. "He's dead!"
"Evidently he isn't," replied Joyce, "or he wouldn't be here! But oh!—it's true, then! I hardly dared to hope it would be so! I'm so glad I did it!" Cynthia turned on her.
"Joyce Kenway! What are you talking about? It sounds as though you were going crazy!"
"Oh, of course you don't understand!" retorted Joyce. "And it's your own fault too. I'd have been glad enough to explain, and talk it over with you, only you were so hateful that I just went home instead, and thought it out myself."
"Well, I may be stupid," remarked Cynthia, "but for the life of me I can't make any sense out of what you're saying!"
"Listen, then," said Joyce, "and I'll explain it all. You remember last night how I sat reading the newspaper,—first, just to tease you, and afterward I really got interested in it? Well, I happened to be glancing over the news about people who had just landed here from abroad, when a little paragraph caught my eye. I can't remember the exact words but it was something like this,—that among the passengers just arrived in New York on the Campania was Mr. Fairfax Collingwood, who was interested in Western and Australian gold mines. He had not been here in the East for nearly forty years, and it said how astounded he was at the remarkable changes that had taken place during his long absence. Then it went on to say that he was staying at the Waldorf-Astoria for only a few days, as he was just here on some important business, and was then going to cross the continent, on his way back to Australia.
"Well, you'd better believe that I nearly jumped out of my skin at the name—Fairfax Collingwood. It's an unusual one, and it didn't seem possible that more than one person could have it, though of course it might be a distant connection of the same family. And then, too, our Fairfax Collingwood was dead. I didn't know what to think! I tried to get your attention, but you were still as mad as you could be, so I made up my mind I'd go home and puzzle over it by myself, and I took the paper with me.
"After I got home, I sat and thought and thought! And all of a sudden it occurred to me that perhaps he wasn't killed in the war after all,—that there'd been some mistake. I've read that such things did happen; but if it were so, I couldn't imagine why he didn't go and make it up with his mother afterward. It seemed very strange. And then this explanation dawned on me,—he had left that note for his mother, and perhaps thought that if she really intended to forgive him, she'd have made some effort to get word to him in the year that elapsed before he was reported killed. Then, as she never did, he may have concluded that it was all useless and hopeless, and he'd better let the report stand, and he disappear and never come back. You see that article said he hadn't been East here for forty years.
"And when I'd thought this out, an idea popped into my head. If what I'd imagined was true, it didn't seem right to let him go on thinking that, when I knew that his mother never saw that letter, and I decided I'd let him know it. So I sat right down and wrote a note that went something like this:
"Mr. Fairfax Collingwood:
"If you are the same Mr. Fairfax Collingwood who, in 1861, parted from your mother after a disagreement, leaving a note for her which you hoped she would read, I want to tell you that she never saw that note.
"I signed my name right out, because Father has always said that to write an anonymous letter was the most despicable thing any one could do. And if he ever discovered who I was, I wouldn't be ashamed to tell him what we had done, anyway. Of course, I ran the chance of his not being the right person, but I thought if that were so, he simply wouldn't pay any attention to the note, and the whole thing would end there. I addressed the letter to his hotel, and decided that it must be mailed that very night, for he might suddenly leave there and I'd never know where else to find him. It was then nearly ten o'clock, and I didn't want Father or Mother to know about it, so I teased Anne into running out to the post-office with me. He must have received it this morning."
Cynthia had listened to this long explanation in astonished silence. "Isn't it the most remarkable thing," she exclaimed when Joyce had finished, "that each of us should write, I to the mother and you to the son, and neither of us even guess what the other was doing! And that they should meet here, just this afternoon! But there are a whole lot of things I can't understand at all. Why, for instance, did he give the name of Arthur Calthorpe when he came in, and pretend he was some one else?"
"That's been puzzling me too," replied Joyce, "and I can't think of any reason."
"But the thing that confuses me most of all," added Cynthia, "is this. Why, if you had written that note, and had an idea that he was alive, were you so tremendously astonished when he and his mother recognized each other? I should have thought you'd guess right away, when you saw him at the door, who he was!"
"That's just the queer part of it!" said Joyce. "In the first place, I never expected him to come out here at all,—at least, not right away. I never put the name of this town in the letter, nor mentioned this house. I supposed, of course, that he'd go piling right down to South Carolina to find his mother, or see whether she was alive. Then, later, when they'd made it all up (provided she was alive, which even I didn't know then), I thought they might come back here and open the house. That was one reason I wanted to have our illumination next week, on the chance of their arriving.
"So you see I was quite unprepared to see him rushing out here at once; and when he gave another name, that completely deceived me. And then, there's one thing more. Somehow, I had in my mind a picture of Fairfax Collingwood that was as different as could be from—well, from what he is! You see, I'd always thought of him as the boy whom Great-aunt Lucia described having seen. I pictured him as slim and young looking, smooth-faced, with golden curly hair, and big brown eyes. His eyes are the same but,—well, I somehow never counted on the change that all those forty years would make! You can't think how different my idea of him was, and naturally that helped all the more to throw me off the track."
"But why—" began Cynthia afresh.
"Oh, don't let's try to puzzle over it any more just now!" interrupted Joyce. "My head is simply in a whirl. I can't even think straight! I never had so many surprises all at once in my life. I think he will explain everything we don't understand. Let's just wait!"
There were faint sounds from the drawing-room, but they were indistinguishable,—low murmurings and half-hushed sobs. The two reunited ones within were bridging the gulf of forty years. And so the girls continued to wait outside, in the silence and in the dark.