The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 3
While Cynthia was bending over her desk during study-hour, struggling with a hopelessly entangled account in Latin of Cæsar and his Gallic Wars, her next neighbor thrust a note into her hand. Glad of any diversion, she opened it and read:
This afternoon for the B. U. H. How much pocket-money have you?
Cynthia had no difficulty in guessing the meaning of the initials, but she could not imagine what pocket-money had to do with the matter, so she wrote back:
All right. Only thirty cents. More next week.
She passed it along to Joyce at the other end of the room, and returned to Cæsar in a more cheerful frame of mind. Joyce, she knew, would explain all mysteries later, and she was content to wait.
Almost a week had passed since the first adventure of the Boarded-up House, and nothing further had happened. Joyce and Cynthia were healthy, normal girls, full of interests connected with their school, with outdoor affairs, and with social life, so they had much to occupy them beside this curious quest on which they had become engaged. A fraternity meeting had occupied one afternoon, dancing-school another, a tramping-excursion a third, and so on through the ensuing week. Not once, however, in the midst of all these outside interests, had they forgotten their strange adventure. When they were alone together they talked of it incessantly, and laid elaborate plans for future amateur detective work.
"It's just like a story!" Joyce would exclaim. "And who would ever have thought of a story in that old, Boarded-up House. And us in the midst of it!" Cynthia's first question that afternoon, on the way home from high school, was:
"What did you ask about pocket-money for? I'm down pretty low on my allowance, but I don't see what that's got to do with things." Joyce laughed.
"Well, I'm lower yet—ten cents to last till the month's out! But hasn't it struck you that we've got to have candles—plenty of them—and matches, and a couple of candlesticks at least? How else can we ever get about the place, pitch-dark as it all is? And if we tried to get them from home, some one would suspect right away."
"Ten cents' worth of candles ought to last us quite a while," began the practical Cynthia; "and ten cents more will buy a whole package of safety-matches. And for five cents we can get a candlestick, but we'd better stop at one for the present, or we won't have a cent left between us! Let's get them right now." While they were making their purchases, Cynthia had another idea.
"I'll tell you what, Joyce, I'm going to take along a dust-cloth and clean up around the window where we get in. My sweater was just black with dirt and cobwebs last time, and Mother almost insisted on an explanation. Fortunately she was called away for something, just then, and afterward didn't think of it. I've washed the sweater since!"
"Good idea!" assented Joyce. "Momsie wanted to know how I'd torn mine and got it so mussy, too. I told her I'd been chasing up Goliath,—which was really quite true, you know."
"I never can think of things to say that will be the truth and yet not give the whole thing away!" sighed the downright Cynthia. "I wish I were as quick as you!"
"Never mind! You've got the sense, Cynthia! I never would have thought of the dust-cloth."
Getting into the Boarded-up House this time was accompanied by less difficulty than the first. Before entering, Cynthia thoroughly dusted the window-ledge and as far about it as she could reach, with the result that there was less, if any, damage to their clothes. Armed as they were with plenty of candles and matches, there were no shudders either, or fears of the unknown and the dark. Even Cynthia was keen for the quest, and Joyce was simply bursting with new ideas, some of which she expounded to Cynthia as they were lighting their candles in the cellar.
"You know, Cyn, I've been looking at the place carefully from the outside. We haven't seen a third of it yet,—no, not even a quarter! There's the wing off the parlor toward your house, and the one off the dining-room toward mine. I suppose the kitchen must be in that one, but I can't think what's in the other, unless it's a library. We must see these to-day. And then there's all up-stairs."
"What I want to see most of all is the picture you spoke of that hangs in the parlor," said Cynthia. "Do you suppose we could turn it around?"
"Oh, I'd love to, only I don't know whether we ought! And it's heavy, too. I hardly think we could. Perhaps we might just try to peep behind it. You know, Cynthia, I realize we're doing something a little queer being in this house and prying about. I'm not sure our folks would approve of it. Only the old thing has been left so long, and there's such a mystery about it, and we're not harming or disturbing anything, that perhaps it isn't so dreadful. Anyhow, we must be very careful not to pry into anything we ought not touch. Perhaps then it will be all right." Cynthia agreed to all this without hesitation. She, indeed, had even stronger feelings than Joyce on the subject of their trespassing, but the joy of the adventure and the mystery with which they were surrounding it, outweighed her scruples. When they were half-way up the cellar steps, Joyce, who was ahead, suddenly exclaimed:
"Why, the door is open! Probably we left it so in our hurry the other day. We must be more careful after this, and leave everything as we find it." They tiptoed along the hall with considerably more confidence than on their former visit, pausing to hold their candles up to the pictures, and peeping for a moment into the curiously disarranged dining-room.
But they entered the drawing-room first and stood a long while before the fireplace, gazing at the picture's massive frame and its challenging wooden back. A heavy, ropelike cord with large silk tassels attached the picture to its hook, and the cord was twisted, as if some one had turned the picture about without stopping to readjust it.
"How strange!" murmured Cynthia. But Joyce had been looking at something else.
"Do you see that big chair with its back close to the mantel?" she exclaimed. "I've been wondering why it stands in that position with its back to the fireplace. There was a fire there. You can tell by the ashes and that half-burned log. Well, don't you see? Some one pulled that chair close to the mantel, stepped on it, and turned the picture face to the wall. Now, I wonder why!"
"But look here!" cried Cynthia. "If some one else stood up there and turned the picture around, why couldn't we do the same? We could turn it back after we'd seen it, couldn't we?" Joyce thought it over a moment.
"I'll tell you, Cynthia (and I suppose you'll think me queer!), there are two reasons why I'd rather not do it right now. In the first place, that silk cord it's hanging by may be awfully rotten after all these years, and if we touch it, the whole thing may fall. And then, somehow, I sort of like to keep the mystery about that picture till a little later,—till we've seen the rest of the house and begun 'putting two and two together.' Wouldn't you?" Cynthia agreed, as she was usually likely to do, and Joyce added:
"Now let's see what's in this next room. I think it must be a library. The door of it opens right into this." Bent on further discovery, they opened the closed door carefully. It was, as Joyce had guessed, a library. Book-shelves completely filled three sides of the room. A long library table with an old-fashioned reading-lamp stood in the middle. The fourth side of the room was practically devoted to another huge fireplace, and over the mantel hung another portrait. It was of a beautiful young woman, and before it the girls stopped, fascinated, to gaze a long while.
There was little or nothing in this room to indicate that any strange happening had transpired here. A few books were strewn about as though they had been pulled out and thrown down hastily, but that was all. The one thing that attracted most strongly was the portrait of the beautiful woman—she seemed scarcely more than a girl—over the fireplace. The two explorers turned to gaze at it afresh.
"There's one thing I've noticed about it that's different from the others," said Joyce, thoughtfully. "It's fresher and more—more modern than the rest of the portraits in the drawing-room and hall. Don't you think so?" Cynthia did.
"And look at her dress, those long, full sleeves and the big, bulging skirt! That's different, too. And then her hair, not high and powdered and all fussed up, but low and parted smooth and drawn down over her ears, and that dear little wreath of tiny roses! She almost seems to be going to speak. And, oh, Cynthia, isn't she beautiful with those big, brown eyes! Somehow I feel as if I just loved her—she's such a darling! And I believe she had more to do with the queer things in this house than any of those other dead-and-alive picture-ladies. Tell you what! We'll go to the public library to-morrow and get out a big book on costumes of the different centuries that I saw there once. Then, by looking up this one, we can tell just about what time she lived. What do you say?"
"As usual, you've thought of just the thing to do. I never would have," murmured Cynthia, still gazing at the picture of the lovely lady. Suddenly Joyce started nervously:
"Hush! Do you hear anything? I'm almost certain I heard a sound in the other room!" They both fell to listening intently. Yes, there was a sound, a strange, indefinable one like a soft tiptoeing at long intervals, and even a curious, hoarse breathing. Something was certainly outside in the drawing-room.
"What shall we do?" breathed Cynthia. "We can't get out of here without passing through that room! Oh, Joyce!" They listened again. The sound appeared to be approaching the door. It was, without doubt, a soft tiptoeing step. Suddenly there was the noise of a chair scraping on the floor as if it had been accidentally brushed against. Both girls were now numb with terror. They were caught as in a trap. There was no escape. They could only wait in racking suspense where they were.
As they stared with the fascination of horror, the partially open door was pushed farther open and a dim gray form glided around its edge. Joyce clutched Cynthia, gave one little shriek, half-relief and half-laughter, and gasped:
"Oh, Cynthia! It's Goliath!"