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They stumbled up the cellar steps, their eyes growing gradually used to the semi-darkness. At the top was a shut door which refused to be moved, and they feared for a moment that failure awaited them in this early period of the voyage of discovery. But after some vigorous pushing and rattling, it gave with an unexpected jerk, and they were landed pell-mell into a dark hallway.

"Now," declared Joyce, "this is the beginning of something interesting, I hope!" Cynthia said nothing, having, indeed, much ado to appear calm and hold herself from making a sudden bolt back to the cellar window. With candle held high, Joyce proceeded to investigate their surroundings. They seemed to be in a wide, central hall running through the house from front to back. A generous stairway of white-painted wood with slender mahogany railing ascended to an upper floor. Some large paintings and portraits hung on the walls, but the candle did not throw enough light to permit seeing them well. The furniture in the hall consisted of several tall, straight-backed chairs set at intervals against the walls, and at one side a massive table covered thick with the dust of years. There was a distinctly old-fashioned, "different" air about the place, but nothing in any other way remarkable.

"You see!" remarked Cynthia. "There isn't anything wonderful here, and the air is simply horrid. I hope you're satisfied. Do come back!"

"But we haven't seen a quarter of it yet! This is only the hall. Now for the room on the right!" Joyce hauled open a pair of closed folding-doors, and held the candle above her head. If they were searching for things strange and inexplicable, here at last was their reward! Both girls gasped and stared incredulously, first at the scene before them, then at each other.

The apartment was a dining-room. More portraits and paintings shone dimly from the walls. A great candelabrum hung from the ceiling, with sconces for nearly a hundred candles and ornamented with glittering crystal pendants. An enormous sideboard occupied almost an entire end of the room. In the middle, a long dining-table stood under the candelabrum.

But here was the singular feature. The table was still set with dishes, as though for a feast. And the chairs about it were all pushed awry, and some were overturned. Napkins, yellowed with age, were fallen about, dropped apparently in sudden forgetfulness. The china and glassware stood just as they had been left, though every ancient vestige of food had long since been carried away by the mice.

As plain as print, one could read the signs of some feasting party interrupted and guests hastily leaving their places to return no more. The girls understood it in a flash.

"But why—why," said Joyce, speaking her thought aloud, "was it all left just like this? Why weren't things cleared up and put away? What could have happened? Cynthia, this is the strangest thing I ever heard of!" Cynthia only stared, and offered no explanation. Plainly, she was impressed at last.

"Come on!" half whispered Joyce, "Let's see the room across the hall. I'm crazy to explore it all!" Together they tiptoed to the other side of the hall. A kind of awe had fallen upon them. There was more here than even Joyce had hoped or imagined. This was a house of mystery.

The apartment across the hall proved to be the drawing-room. Though in evident disarray it, however, exhibited fewer signs of the strange, long-past agitation. In dimensions it was similar to the dining-room, running from front to back of the house. Here, too, was another elaborate candelabrum, somewhat smaller than the first, queer, spindle-legged, fiddle-backed chairs, beautiful cabinets and tables, and an old, square piano, still open. The chairs stood in irregular groups of twos and threes, chumming cozily together as their occupants had doubtless done, and over the piano had been carelessly thrown a long, filmy silk scarf, one end hanging to the floor. Upon everything the dust was indescribably thick and cobwebs hung from the ceiling.

"Do you know," spoke Joyce, in a whisper after they had looked a long time, "I think I can guess part of an explanation for all this. There was a party here, long, long ago,—perhaps a dinner-party. Folks had first been sitting in the drawing-room, and then went to the dining-room for dinner. Suddenly, in the midst of the feast, something happened,—I can't imagine what,—but it broke up the good time right away. Every one jumped up from the table, upsetting chairs and dropping napkins. Perhaps they all rushed out of the room. Anyway, they never came back to finish the meal. And after that, the owner shut the house and boarded it up and went away, never stopping to clear up or put things to rights. Awfully sudden, that, and awfully queer!"

"Goodness, Joy! You're as good as a detective! How did you ever think all that out?" murmured Cynthia, admiringly.

"Why, it's very simple," said Joyce. "The drawing-room is all right,—just looks like any other parlor where a lot of people have been sitting, before it was put to rights. But the dining-room's different. Something happened there, suddenly, and people just got their things on and left, after that! Can't you see it? But what could it have been? Oh, I'd give my eyes to know, Cynthia!

"See here!" she added, after a moment's thought. "I've the loveliest idea! You just spoke of detectives, and that put it into my head. Let's play we're detectives, like Sherlock Holmes, and ferret out this mystery. It will be the greatest lark ever! We will come here often, and examine every bit of evidence we can find, and gather information outside if we can, and put two and two together, and see if we can't make out the whole story. Oh, it's gorgeous! Did two girls ever have such an adventure before!" She clasped her hands ecstatically, first having presented the candle to Cynthia, because she was too excited to hold it. Even the placid and hitherto objecting Cynthia was fired by the scheme.

"Yes, let's!" she assented. "I'll ask Mother if she knows anything about this old place."

"No you won't!" cried Joyce, coming suddenly to earth. "This has got to be kept a strict secret. Never dare to breathe it! Never speak of this house at all! Never show the slightest interest in it! And we must come here often. Do you want folks to suspect what we are doing and put a stop to it all? It's all right, really, of course. We're not doing any actual wrong or harming anything. But they wouldn't understand."

"Very well, then," agreed Cynthia, meekly, cowed but bewildered. "I don't see, though, how you're going to find out things if you don't ask."

"You must get at it in other ways," declared Joyce, but did not explain the process just then.

"This candle will soon be done for!" suddenly announced the practical Cynthia. "Why didn't you bring a bigger one?"

"Couldn't find any other," said Joyce. "Let's finish looking around here and leave the rest for another day." They began accordingly to walk slowly about the room, peering up at the pictures on the walls and picking their way with care around the furniture without moving or touching anything. Presently they came abreast of the great open fireplace. A heavy chair was standing directly in front of it, but curiously enough, with its back to what must have been once a cheery blaze. They moved around it carefully and bent to examine the pretty Delft tiles that framed the yawning chimney-place, below the mantel. Then Joyce stepped back to look at the plates and vases on the mantel. Suddenly she gave a little cry:

"Hello! That's queer! Look, Cynthia!" Cynthia, still studying the tiles, straightened up to look where her companion had pointed. But in that instant the dying candle-flame sputtered, flickered, and went out, leaving only a small mass of warm tallow in Cynthia's hand For a moment, there was horrified silence. The heavy darkness seemed to cast a spell over even the irrepressible Joyce. But not for long.

"Too bad!" she began. "Where are the matches, Cynthia? I handed them to you. We can light our way out by them." Cynthia produced the box from the pocket of her sweater and opened it.

"Mercy! There are only three left!" she cried, feeling round in it.

"Never mind. They will light us out of this room and through the hall to the cellar stairs. When we get there the window will guide us."

Cynthia struck the first match, and they hurriedly picked their way around the scattered furniture. But the match went out before they reached the door. The second saw them out of the room and into the long hall. The third, alas! broke short off at its head, and proved useless. Then a real terror of the dark, unknown spaces filled them both. Breathless, frantic, they felt their way along the walls, groping blindly for the elusive cellar door. At length Joyce's hand struck a knob.

"Here it is!" she breathed. They pulled open the door and plunged through it, only to find themselves in some sort of a closet, groping among musty clothes that were hanging there.

"Oh it isn't, it isn't!" wailed Cynthia. "Oh I'll never, never come into this dreadful house again!" But Joyce had regained her poise.

"It's all right! Our door is just across the hall. I remember where it is now. She pulled the shuddering Cynthia out of the closet, and felt her way across the wide hall space.

"Here it is! Now we are all serene!" she cried triumphantly, opening a door which they found gave on a flight of steps. And as they crept down, a dim square of good, honest daylight sent their spirits up with a bound. It was raining great pelting drops as they scrambled out and scampered for Cynthia's veranda. But daylight, even if dismal with rain, had served to restore them completely to their usual gaiety.

"By the way, Joyce," she said, as they stood on the porch shaking the rain from their skirts, "what was it you were pointing at just when the candle went out? I didn't have time to see."

"Why, the strangest thing!" whispered Joyce. "There was a big picture hanging over the mantel. But what do you think? It hung there with its face turned to the wall!"