The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 17
IN WHICH ALL MYSTERIES ARE SOLVED
At last the two on the staircase heard footsteps approaching the door, and a pleasant voice called out:
"Where are you both, little ladies? Will you not come and join us? I think we must have some things to be explained!" They came forward, a little timidly, and their latest visitor held out a hand to each.
"You wonderful two!" he exclaimed. "Do you realize that, had it not been for you, this would never have happened? My mother and I owe you a debt of gratitude beyond all expressing! Come and join us now, and we will solve the riddles which I'm sure are puzzling us all." He led them over to the sofa, and placed them beside his mother.
Never was a change more remarkable than that which had come upon Mrs. Collingwood. Her face, from being one of the saddest they had ever seen, had grown fairly radiant. She looked younger, too. Ten years seemed suddenly to have dropped from her shoulders. Her brown eyes flashed with something of their former fire, and she smiled down at them as only the Lovely Lady of the portrait had ever smiled. There was no difficulty now in identifying her with that picture.
"Oh, please—" began Joyce, breathlessly, "won't you tell us, Mr. Collingwood, how you come to be—not dead!—and why you gave another name at the door—and—and—" He laughed.
"I'll tell you all that," he interrupted, "if you'll tell me who 'Joyce Kenway' is!"
"Why, I am!" said Joyce in surprise. "Didn't you guess it?"
"How could I?" he answered. "I never supposed it was a girl who sent me that note. I did not even feel sure that the name was not assumed to hide an identity. In fact, I did not know what to think. But I'll come to all that in its proper place. I'm sure you are all anxious to hear the strange story I have to tell.
"In the first place, as it's easy to guess, I wasn't killed at the battle of Shiloh at all,—but so very seriously wounded—that I came to be so reported. As I lay on the field with scores of others, after the battle, a poor fellow near me, who had been terribly hurt, was moaning and tossing. My own wound did not hamper me so much at the time, so I crawled over to him and tried to make him as comfortable as possible till a surgeon should arrive. Presently he began to shiver so, with some sort of a chill, that I took off my coat and wrapped it round him. The coat had some of my personal papers in it, but I did not think of that at the time.
"When the surgeons did arrive, we were removed to different army hospitals, and I never saw the man again. But he probably died very soon after, and evidently, finding my name on him, in the confusion it was reported that I was dead. Well, when I saw the notice of my own death in the paper, my first impulse was to deny it at once. But my second thought was to let it pass, after all. I believed that I had broken forever with my home. In the year that had elapsed, I had never ceased to hope that the note I left would soften my mother's feelings toward me, and that at least she would send me word that I was forgiven. But the word had never come, and hope was now quite dead. Perhaps it would be kinder to her to allow her to think I was no more, having died in the cause I thought right. The more I thought it over, the more I became convinced that this was the wisest course. Therefore I let the report stand. I was quite unknown where I was, and I decided, as soon as I was able, to make my way out West, and live out my life far from the scenes of so much unhappiness. My wound disqualified me from further army service and gave me a great deal of trouble, even after I was dismissed from the hospital.
"Nevertheless, I worked my way to the far West, partly on foot and partly in the slow stage-coaches of that period. Once in California, I became deeply interested in the gold mines, where I was certain, like many another deluded one, that I was shortly going to amass an enormous fortune! But, after several years of fruitless search and fruitless toil, I stood as poor as the day I had first come into the region. In the meantime, the fascination of the life had taken hold of me, and I could relinquish it for no other. I had always, from a small child, been passionately fond of adventure and yearned to see other regions and test my fortune in new and untried ways. I could have done so no more acceptably than in the very course I was now pursuing.
"At the end of those hard but interesting years in California, rumors drifted to me of golden possibilities in upper Canada, and I decided to try my luck in the new field. The region was, at that time, practically a trackless wilderness, and to brave it at all was considered the limit of folly. That, however, far from deterring me, attracted me only the more. I got together an outfit, and bade a long farewell to even the rough civilization of California.
"Those were strange years, marvelous years, that I spent in the mountain fastnesses of upper Canada. For month on month I would see no human being save the half-breed Indian guide who accompanied me, and most of the time he seemed to me scarcely human. And all the while the search for gold went on, endlessly—endlessly. And the way led me farther and farther from the haunts of men. Then,—one day,—I found it! Found it in a mass, near the surface, and in such quantities that I actually had little else to do but shovel it out, wash it, and lay the precious nuggets aside, till at length the vein was exhausted. On weighing it up, I found such a quantity that there was really no object in pursuing the search any farther. I had enough. I was wealthy and to spare, and the longing came upon me to return to my own kind again. By this time, fifteen years had passed.
"You must not, however, think that in all these years and these absorbing interests, I had forgotten my mother. On the contrary, especially when I was in the wilderness, she was constantly in my thoughts. Before I left California for Canada (the war was then over some four or five years) I had contemplated writing to her, informing her of the mistake about my death, and begging her once more to forgive me. But, for several reasons, I did not do this. In the first place, I had heard of the exceeding bitterness of the South, increased tenfold by the period of reconstruction through which it was then passing. Old grudges, they told me, were cherished more deeply than ever, and members of the same family often regarded each other with hatred. Of what use for me then, I thought, to sue for a reconciliation at such a time.
"Beside that, my very pride was another barrier. I had not been successful. I was, in fact, practically penniless. Would it not appear as though I were anxious for a reconciliation because I did not wish to lose the property which would one day have been mine, had not my mother disinherited me? No, I could never allow even the hint of such a suspicion. I would wait.
"But, in the Canadian wilderness, I began to see matters in another light. So far from the haunts of humanity and the clash of human interests, one cannot help but look at all things more sanely. It occurred to me that perhaps my mother, far from cherishing any bitter feeling toward me, now that she thought me dead, might be suffering agonies of grief and remorse because we had not been reconciled before the end. If there were even a possibility of this, I must relieve it. So I sat down one day, and wrote her the most loving, penitent letter, begging anew for forgiveness, and giving her the history of my adventures and my whereabouts. This letter I sent off by my guide, to be mailed at the nearest trading-post.
"It took him a month to make the journey there and back. I waited three months more, in great impatience, then sent him back to the same post, to see if there might be a reply. He came back in due time, but bringing nothing for me, and I felt that my appeal had been in vain. Nevertheless, a few months later I wrote again, with no better result. My guide returned empty-handed. And during the last year I was there, I made the third and final trial, and, when again no answer came, I felt that it was beyond all hope to expect forgiveness, since she could ignore three such urgent appeals.
"I have just learned from my mother that these letters were never received by her, which is a great surprise to me, but I think I know the explanation. My guide was not honest,—indeed, few of them are,—but, strangely enough, I never discovered any dishonesty in him, while he was with me. At that time, the postage on letters from that region was very high, sometimes as much as fifty or sixty cents, or even a dollar. This, of course, I always gave to the guide to use in sending the letter when he got to the trading-post. Now, though the sum seems small to us, it was large to him. And though I never suspected it at the time, I have no doubt that he pocketed the money and simply destroyed the letters. So that explains why my mother never received any of them.
"Well, I returned to California a rich man, able to indulge myself in any form of amusement or adventure that pleased me. I found that I still felt the lure of foreign countries, and the less explored or inhabited, the better. I shipped for a voyage to Japan and China, and spent several more years trying to penetrate the forbidden fastnesses of Tibet. From there, I worked down through India, found my way to the South Sea Islands, and landed at length in Australia with the intention of penetrating farther into that continent than any white man had yet set foot.
"I think by this time, I had pretty well lost all desire ever to return to America, especially to New York. But at intervals I still felt an inexpressible longing to see or hear from my mother. Ten or twelve added years had slipped by, and it did not seem human that she should continue to feel bitterly toward me. I had almost decided to write to her once more, when in Sydney, New South Wales, where I happened to be looking over the files of an old New York paper in the public library, I stumbled on the death-notice of a Mrs. Fairfax Collingwood of Chesterton, South Carolina. The paper was dated seven years before.
"The knowledge was like a knife-wound in my heart. There could be no doubt of the truth. I knew of no other of that name, and the town was the very one in which she lived. My mother now tells me that she knew of this mistake, an error of the New York paper in copying the item from a Southern journal. As a matter of fact, it was a very distant cousin of hers who had died, a Mrs. Fanshawe Collingwood, who also lived in the town. She was my mother's only living relative, and the paper mentioned this circumstance. But when the New York paper copied it, they left out all about the surviving cousin, and merely mentioned the name of the deceased as 'Mrs. Fairfax Collingwood.' My mother had this rectified in a later publication of the paper, but that, of course, I never saw.
"Well, I went into the heart of Australia under the impression that I was now really motherless, and under that impression I have lived ever since. I cannot now detail to you all my wanderings and adventures. I will only say that I became deeply interested in the Australian gold mines, bought up one finally, and have superintended its running ever since. Lately, it became necessary for me to make a business trip to New York in connection with this mine, and I decided to come by way of Europe, since I had never seen that portion of the globe. My business would not keep me in New York more than a week, and I intended to travel at once back to Australia across the continent, in order to see the changes that had taken place since I left.
"I had absolutely no idea of visiting this old home. Why, indeed, should I? My mother, as I supposed, was dead. Nothing else mattered. I had no interest in the property. For aught I knew it might have changed hands twenty times since we lived there. It might not even be in existence. At any rate, I had no wish to revive the bitterness of that memory. Then came the strange note this morning, which I believe you, Miss Joyce, are responsible for!
"To say that I was completely bewildered by it, would be putting it mildly. It made a statement that was new to me, indeed, and might account for many things. But what was I to do about it? Which way should I turn? No use to hurry down to South Carolina,—my mother being dead. Of whom should I make inquiries? The firm of New York lawyers that I remembered her as formerly retaining, I dreaded to consult, lest they think I had come to make a claim on the property. There seemed to be absolutely no clue.
"And then I happened to look at the envelope and saw that it was postmarked Rockridge, a region which I speedily ascertained was right in the vicinity of my old home. That decided me to come out here at once, this afternoon, hunt up the spot, and try to discover in this way whether there was any use of pursuing investigations further in this direction.
"As I have said, I naturally supposed that the property had changed hands many times before this; and that all its old belongings had long since been sent to my mother or sold by her orders.
"When I arrived in this street and saw the old house still standing, forlorn, unkempt, apparently deserted, and quite unchanged since I knew it, I was still more astonished. But when I noticed the little door in the boarding standing open, I resolved to begin my investigations right there, and I boldly went up and knocked. Then Miss Joyce came out and announced that a member of the Collingwood family was here on business. That, too, seemed incredible, as I remembered no surviving member of the family. Discretion, however, seemed to me the better part of valor, and I decided to give the name that I had borne during my first years in California, till I could ascertain more definitely just what the situation was.
"So I came in—as Mr. Arthur Calthorpe—and the mystery deepened tenfold when I saw this old room all lit up precisely as I had remembered it so many years ago. It so carried me back into my youth that, for a few moments, I quite lost track of the present. And when I came to the old piano, the impulse seized me to play a few bars and hum the lines of a little song I had once composed for my mother. I had at that time rather a gift for music, and this song was a sort of secret of ours—I never sang or played it for any one else. And she remembered it!
"Well, you know the rest!—" And he stopped abruptly. They all drew long breaths of relaxed tension.
"There's something that has puzzled me all along," began Joyce, at last. "I wonder if Mrs. Collingwood would object to my asking about it?"
"No, indeed, dear child," replied that lady. "Have no hesitation in asking what you wish."
"It's this, then. I have often and often wondered why you never came back to this beautiful old home, or at least sent for the books and pictures and lovely things that were going to ruin here. Did you never think of it?"
"I do not wonder that you ask," answered Mrs. Collingwood, "for it must have seemed very strange to an outsider. Of course, for the first few years, my anger had been so great, and my grief was still so terrible, that I felt I could never, never look upon the place or anything in it again. Then, as you have heard, I willed the house itself and the land to the Southern Society, as I had no one to whom I wished to leave it, and my means were sufficient, so that I did not need to sell it. As the years passed on, however, and my feelings altered, I did begin to think it a pity that the place should run to neglect and ruin.
"So strong did this conviction become, that I decided to come North myself, and personally superintend putting the house in order. I could not bear to leave this task to outsiders. I even thought that, if I found I could endure the memories, I would live in it a while, for the sake of the old happy years with my little boy. I even had my trunks packed and my ticket bought, when suddenly I came down with typhoid fever, so severe an attack that it was thought I could not live. That ended all thoughts of my coming North for a long while, as I was miserably weak and helpless for months after, and in fact, have never quite recovered my strength. The years drifted on and with them came old age, and the reluctance to make the long journey and endure the strain of it all. Had it not been for Miss Cynthia's letter, I should never have come.
"But, to change the subject a trifle, my son is very anxious to know how you two young things have come to be concerned in all this, and I have not yet had time to tell him—fully. Will you not give him an account of it now? It is very wonderful."
And so they began, first Joyce and then Cynthia,—interrupting and supplementing each other. They were still rather anxious on the subject of meddling and trespassing, but they did not try to excuse themselves, recounting the adventures simply and hiding nothing. The older people listened intently, sometimes amused, sometimes touched, often more deeply moved than they cared to show.
"We began it at first just for fun,—we pretended to be detectives. But as it went on, we got more and more deeply interested, till at last this—this all seemed more important than our own lives," ended Joyce. "Only, I know we did wrong in the beginning ever to come in here at all. We are trespassers and meddlers, and I hope you can forgive us!"
"The dearest little meddlers in the world!" cried Mrs. Collingwood. "Can any forgiveness be necessary?" And she cuddled them both in her arms.
"There's just one thing I'd like to ask, if you don't mind," said Cynthia, coming suddenly out of a brown study. "It's the one thing we never could account for. Why was that room up-stairs locked, and what has become of the key?" Mrs. Collingwood flushed.
"I locked the door and threw the key down the well—that night!" she answered slowly. "I don't suppose you can quite understand, if you are not afflicted with a passionate temper, as I was. When my son—when Fairfax here—had gone, and I was shutting up the house and came to his room,—I wanted to go in,—oh, you cannot know how I wanted to go in! But I knew that if I once entered and stood among his dear belongings, I should relent—I should rush away to find him and beg him to come back to me. And I—I did not want to relent! I stood there five minutes debating it. Then I suddenly locked the door on the outside, and before giving myself time for a second thought, I rushed down-stairs, out of doors, and threw the key into the old well,—where I could never get it again!
"Children, I am an old woman. I shall be seventy-five next birthday. Will you heed a lesson I have learned and paid for with the bitterest years of my life? If you are blessed with a calm, even, forgiving nature, thank God for it always. But if you are as I was, pray daily for help to curb that nature, before you have allowed it to work some desperate evil!" She hid her face in her hands.
"There, there, little Mother of mine!" murmured her son. "Let us forget all that now! What does anything matter so long as we are together again—for always?" He leaned over, pulled her hands from her face, and kissed her tenderly. The moment was an awkward one, and Cynthia wished madly that she had not been prompted to ask that unfortunate question. Suddenly, however, the tension was broken by Mrs. Collingwood exclaiming:
"Mercy me! See that enormous cat walking in! Wherever did it come from?" They all turned toward the door.
"Oh, that's Goliath!" said Joyce, calmly. "He feels very much at home here, for he has come in with us often. He led the way that first day, if you remember. And he's been such a help!— He's a better detective than any of us!"
"Blessings on Goliath then, say I!" laughed Mr. Fairfax Collingwood, and, approaching the huge feline with coaxing words, he gathered its unresisting form in his arms and deposited the warm, furry purring beast in his mother's lap.
And while they were all laughing over and petting Goliath, a queer thing happened. The candles, which had been burning now for several hours, had, unnoticed by all, been gradually guttering and spluttering out. At length only four or five flames remained, feebly wavering in their pools of melted wax. The occupants of the room had been too absorbed with their own affairs to notice the gradual dimming of the illumination. But now Joyce suddenly looked up and perceived what had happened.
"Why, look at the candles!" she cried. "There are only about three left, and they won't last more than a minute or two!" Even as she spoke, two of them flickered out. The remaining one struggled for another half-minute, and flared up in one last, desperate effort. The next instant, the room was in total darkness. So unexpected was the change, that they all sat very still. The sudden pall of darkness in this strange house of mystery was just a tiny bit awesome.
"Well! This is a predicament!" exclaimed Fairfax Collingwood who was first to recover from the surprise. "Fortunately I have a box of matches!"
"Oh, don't worry!" added the practical Cynthia. "There's an extra candle that I left on the mantel. It will do nicely to light us out." Groping to the chimney-place with the aid of his matches, Mr. Collingwood found the candle and lit it. Then, with one accord, they all rose and began to steer their way around the furniture toward the hall, Goliath following. In the hall, Mr. Collingwood looked at his watch, exclaiming:
"It is six-thirty! Who would believe it!" The two girls gave a simultaneous gasp of dismay.
"Dinner!—It was ready half an hour ago! What will they think?" cried Joyce.
"Never mind what they think, just for to-night!" responded Mrs. Collingwood, gaily. "You can tell them when you're explaining all this, that what you've done for us two people is beyond the power of words to express. They'll forgive you!" She bent down and kissed them both with a caress that thrilled them to their finger-tips. Then they all passed out through the great front door to the wide old veranda. Mr. Collingwood, taking the key from his mother, locked the little door in the boarding, after them. And in the warm, waning May afternoon, they filed down the steps. At the gate, Mr. Collingwood turned to the girls:
"I am taking my mother back to New York for a few days. She must rest, and we have much to talk over. I scarcely need tell you that I am not returning to Australia!—We shall come back here very soon, open up this old home, put it in order, and probably spend the rest of our lives between here and the South.
"Dear girls, I hardly need say to you that in all the world we shall consider that we have no closer or more devoted friends than yourselves! This house will always be open to you. You must look upon it as a second home. You have given back to us the most priceless blessing,—the one thing we neither hoped nor expected to enjoy again in this world,—each other!" He could not go on. He was very much moved. And as for the two girls, they were utterly speechless under the pressure of feeling.
They remained standing at the gate, watching the two go down the street in the sunset, and waved to them wildly as they turned to look back, just before rounding the corner. And at last the intervening trees shut them from sight.
When they were gone, Cynthia and Joyce turned and looked long and incredulously into each other's eyes. They might have made, on this occasion, a number of high-flown and appropriate remarks, the tenor of which would be easy to imagine. Certainly the time for it was ripe, and beyond a doubt they felt them! But, as a matter of fact, they indulged in nothing of the sort. Instead, Joyce suddenly broke into a laugh.
"We'll never have to go in there by the cellar window again!" she remarked.
"Sure enough!" agreed Cynthia. "What a relief that'll be!"
And so ended the adventure of the Boarded-up House!