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CHAPTER VI
JOYCE'S THEORY

"Cynthia, what's your theory about the mystery of the Boarded-up House?"

The two girls were sitting in a favorite nook of theirs under an old, bent apple-tree in the yard back of the Boarded-up House, on a sunny morning a week later. They were supposed to be "cramming" for the monthly "exams," and had their books spread out all around them. Cynthia looked up with a frown, from an irregular Latin conjugation.

"What's a theory?"

"Why, you know! In Conan Doyle's mystery stories Sherlock Holmes always has a 'theory' about what has happened, before he really knows; that is, he makes up a story of his own, from the few things he has found out, before he gets at the whole truth."

"Well," replied Cynthia, laying aside her Latin grammar, "since you ask me, my theory is that some one committed a murder in that room we can't get in, then locked it up and went away, and had the house all boarded up so it wouldn't be discovered. I've lain awake nights thinking of it. And I'd just as lief not get into that room, if it's so!"

Joyce broke into a peal of laughter. "Oh, Cynthia! If that isn't exactly like you! Who but you would have thought of such a thing!"

"I don't see anything queer about it," retorted Cynthia. "Doesn't everything point that way?"

"Certainly not, Cynthia Sprague! Do you suppose that even years and years ago any one in a big house like this could commit a murder, and then calmly lock up and walk away, and the matter never be investigated? That's absurd! The murdered person would be missed and people would wonder why the place was left like this, and the—the authorities would get in here in a hurry. No, there wasn't any murder or anything bloodthirsty at all; something very different."

"Well, since you don't like my theory," replied Cynthia, still nettled, "what's yours? Of course you have one!"

"Yes, I have one, and I have lain awake nights, too, thinking it out. I'll tell you what it is, and if you don't agree with me, you're free to say so. Here's the way it all seems to me:

"Whatever happened in that house must have concerned two persons, at least. And one of them, you must admit, was our Lovely Lady whose portrait hangs in the library. Her room and clothes and locket show that. She looks very young, but she must have been some one of importance in the house, probably the mistress, or she wouldn't have occupied the biggest bedroom and had her picture on the wall. You think that much is all right, don't you?" Cynthia nodded.

"Then there's some one else. That one we don't know anything at all about, but it isn't hard to guess that it was the person whose picture is turned to the wall, and whose miniature was in the locket, and who, probably, occupied the locked-up room. That person must have been some near and dear relation of the Lovely Lady's, surely. But—what? We can't tell yet. It might be mother, father, sister, brother, husband, son, or daughter, any of these.

"The Lovely Lady (I'll have to call her that, because we don't know her name) was giving a party, and every one was at dinner, when word was suddenly brought to her about this relative. Or perhaps the person was right there, and did something that displeased her,—I can't tell which. Whatever it was,—bad news either way,—it could only have been one of two things. Either the relative was dead, or had done something awful and disgraceful. Anyhow, the Lovely Lady was so terribly shocked by it that she dismissed her dinner party right away. I don't suppose she felt it right to do it. It was not very polite, but probably excusable under the circumstances!"

"Maybe she fainted away," suggested Cynthia, practically. "Ladies were always doing that years ago, especially when they heard bad news."

"Good enough!" agreed Joyce. "I never thought of it. She probably did. Of course that would break up the party at once. Well when she came to and every one had gone, she was wild, frantic with grief or disappointment or disgust, and decided she just couldn't stay in that house any longer. She must have dismissed her servants right away, though why she didn't make them clear up first, I can't think. Then she began to pack up to go away, and decided she wouldn't bother taking most of her things. And sometime, just about then, she probably turned the picture to the wall and took the other one out of her locket and threw it into the fire. Then she went away, and never, never came back any more."

"Yes, but how about the house?" objected Cynthia. "How did that get boarded up?"

"I have thought that out," said Joyce. "She may have stayed long enough to see the boarding up done, or she may have ordered some one to do it later. It can be done from the outside."

"I think she was foolish to leave all her good clothes," commented Cynthia, "and the locket under the bed, too."

"I don't believe she remembered the locket—or cared about it!" mused Joyce. "She was probably too upset and hurried to think of it again. And I'm sure she lay on the bed and cried a good deal. It looks like that. Now what do you think of my theory, Cynthia?"

"Why, I think it is all right, fine—as far as it goes. I never could have pieced things together in that way. But you haven't thought about who this mysterious relative was, have you?"

"Yes, I have, but, of course, that's much harder to decide because we have so little to go on. I'll tell you one thing I've pretty nearly settled, though. Whatever happened, it wasn't that anybody died! When people die, you're terribly grieved and upset, of course, and you may shut up your house and never come near it again. I've heard of such things happening. But you generally put things nicely to rights first, and you don't go away and forget more than half your belongings. If you don't tend to these things yourself, you get some one else to do it for you. And one other thing is certain too. You don't turn the dead relative's picture to the wall or tear it out of your locket and throw it into the fire. You'd be far more likely to keep the picture always near so that you could look at it often. Isn't that so?"

"Of course!" assented Cynthia.

"Then it must have been the other thing that happened. Somebody did something wrong, or disappointing, or disgraceful. It must have been a dreadful thing, to make the Lovely Lady desert that house forever. I can't imagine what!"

"But what about the locked-up room?" interrupted Cynthia. "Have you any theory about that? You haven't mentioned it."

"That's something I simply can't puzzle out," confessed Joyce. "The Lovely Lady must have locked it, or the disgraceful relative may have done it, or some one entirely different. I can't make any sense out of it."

"Well, Joy," answered Cynthia, "you've a theory about what happened, and it certainly sounds sensible. Now, have you any about what relative it was? That's the next most interesting thing."

"I don't think it could have been her father or mother," replied Joyce, thoughtfully. "Parents aren't liable to cause that kind of trouble, so we'll count them out. She looks very young, not nearly old enough to have a son or daughter who would do anything very dreadful, so we'll count them out. (Isn't this just like the 'elimination' in algebra!)' That leaves only brother, sister, or husband to be thought about."

"You forget aunts, uncles, and cousins!" interposed Cynthia.

"Oh, Cyn! how absurd! They are much too distant. It must have been some one nearer than that, to matter so much!"

"I think it's most likely her husband, then," decided Cynthia. "He'd matter most of all."

"Yes, I've thought of that, but here's the objection: her husband, supposing she had one would probably have owned this house. Consequently he wouldn't be likely to allow it to be shut up forever in this queer way. He'd come back after a while and do what he pleased with it. No, I don't think it was her husband, or that she was married at all. It must have been either a sister or brother,—a younger one probably,—and the Lovely Lady loved her—or him—better than any one else in the world."

"Look here!" interrupted Cynthia, suddenly. "There's the easiest way to decide all this!"

"What is it?" cried Joyce, opening her eyes wide.

"Why, just go in there and turn that picture in the drawing-room around!"

"Oh, Cynthia, you jewel! Of course it will be the easiest way! What geese we are to have waited so long! Only it will be a heavy thing to lift. But the time has come when it must be done. Let's go right away!"

Full of new enthusiasm, they scrambled to their feet, approached the cellar window by a circuitous route (they were always very careful that they should not be observed in this), and were soon in the dim cellar lighting their candles. Then they scurried up-stairs, entered the drawing-room, and set their candlesticks on the table. After that they removed all the breakable ornaments from the mantel and drew another chair close to the fireplace.

"Now," commanded Joyce, stepping on the seat of one while Cynthia mounted the other, "be awfully careful. That red silk cord it hangs by is perfectly rotten. I'm surprised it hasn't given way before this. Probably, as soon as we touch the picture the cord will break. If so, let the picture down gently to rest on the mantel. Ready!"

They reached out and grasped the heavy frame. True to Joy's prediction, the silk cord snapped at once, and the picture's whole weight rested in their hands.

"Quick!" cried Cynthia. "I can't hold it any longer!" And with a thud, the heavy burden slipped to the mantel. But there was no damage done and, feeling on the other side Joyce discovered that it had no glass.

"Now what?" asked Cynthia.

"We must turn it around as it rests here. We can easily balance it on the mantel." With infinite caution, and some threatened mishaps, they finally got it into position, right side to the front, and sprang down to get their candles. On holding them close, however, the picture was found to be so coated with gray dust that absolutely nothing was distinguishable.

"Get the dust-rag!" ordered Joyce. And Cynthia, all excitement, rushed down cellar to find it. When she returned, they carefully wiped from the painting its inch-thick coating of the dust of years, and again held their candles to illumine the result.

For one long intense moment they stared at it. And then, simultaneously, they broke into a peal of hysterical giggles.