The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 8
CYNTHIA HAS AN IDEA
"It's no use, Cynthia. We've come to the end of our rope!" Joyce sat back on her heels (she had been rummaging through a box of old trash in the kitchen of the Boarded-up House) and wiped her grimy hands on the dust-cloth. Cynthia, perched gingerly on the edge of a rickety chair, nodded a vigorous assent.
"I gave it up long ago. It seemed so hopeless! But you would continue to hunt, so I've trotted around after you and said nothing."
More than three weeks had elapsed since the finding of the old newspaper and the definite settling of the date. Filled with new hope over this find, the girls had continued to search diligently through the neglected old mansion, strong in the belief that they would eventually discover, if not the missing key, at least a trail of clues that would lead to the unraveling of the mystery. The mystery, however, refused to be unraveled. They made no further discoveries, and to-day even Joyce expressed herself as completely discouraged.
"There's just one thing that seems to me thoroughly foolish," Cynthia continued. "It's your still insisting that we keep from mentioning the Boarded-up House to outsiders. Good gracious! do you think they're all going to suspect that we're inside here every other day, just because you happen to speak of the place? If you do, it's your guilty conscience troubling you!" Cynthia had never spoken quite so sharply before. Joyce looked up, a little hurt.
"Why, Cynthia, what's the matter with you? One would think I'd been doing something wrong, the way you speak!"
"Oh, I didn't mean it that way," explained Cynthia, contritely. "But you don't know how this remembering not to speak of it has got on my nerves! I catch myself a dozen times a day just going to make some innocent remark about the B. U. H., generally at the table, and then I stutter and blush, and they all ask what's the matter, and I don't know what in the world to answer! Now I have an idea. Perhaps it isn't worth anything; mine generally aren't! But it's this: why wouldn't it be a good scheme to get the older folks to talk about this house, without letting them know you have any special interest in it—just start the subject, somehow? I notice folks are liable to talk quite a long while on most any subject that's started. And they might have something to say that would interest us, and we might get some new clues. And I don't see any reason why they should connect us with it, specially."
Joyce considered the subject in thoughtful silence.
"I believe you're right," she said at last. "It is silly to continue keeping so 'mum' about it, and we might get some good new points. Anyhow, in the detective stories Sherlock Holmes didn't keep everything so quiet, but talked to lots of outside people, and got ideas that way, too. Why didn't I think of it before! Good old Cynthia! You had the right notion that time. Come, let's go home now. I'm tired and sick of this dusty grubbing, and we're not going to do any more of it!"
Next morning, Joyce came flying over to Cynthia's house half an hour before it was time to start for high school. She seemed rather excited.
"Come on! Do hurry, Cyn! I've something important to tell you."
"But it isn't time to start yet," objected Cynthia, "and I'm only half through breakfast. Tell me here!" Joyce gave her a warning glance before turning away.
"Oh, later will do," she remarked casually, and strolled into the sitting-room to chat with Mrs. Sprague. This was sufficient to hasten Cynthia, who usually loved to linger cozily over her morning meal. She had her hat and coat on and her books under her arm inside of seven minutes, and the two girls hurried away together. They were no sooner down the steps than Joyce began:
"Last night an idea came to me, just through some remark that Father happened to make. It's queer we never thought of it before. There's a real-estate agent over the other side of the town—Mr. Wade—and he ought to know everything about all the property here. That's his business. Let's go to his office and ask him about the old house. He doesn't know us, and won't suspect anything. We'll go this afternoon, right after school!"
"But there's a meeting of the Sigma Sigma Society this afternoon," Cynthia remonstrated, "and they're going to give that little play. I'm crazy to see it!"
"I don't care!" cried Joyce, recklessly. "What's the meeting of an old literary society compared to an important thing like this?"
"But we could do it just as well to-morrow."
"I can't wait till to-morrow, Cynthia Sprague!" And that settled the matter. They started on their expedition that very afternoon.
It was a bleak, raw day, and they found Mr. Wade huddled over a red-hot stove in his little office. He stared at them in some surprise as they entered.
"Pardon me," began Joyce, always the spokesman, "but I'd like to ask a question or two about the old boarded-up house on Orchard Avenue." Now the agent was apparently not in the best of spirits that day. Business had been very dull, he had two children at home sick with measles, and he himself was in the first stage of a cold.
"I don't know anything about it!" he mumbled crossly. "It ain't in the market—never was!"
"Oh, we don't want to buy it or rent it!" explained Joyce, politely. "We only wanted to know if you knew the owners, where they live and what their names are."
"No, I don't!" he reiterated. "Tried to find out once. It's some estate. Business all transacted through lawyers in New York, and they won't open their heads about it. Plain as told me it was none of my affairs!"
"Then perhaps you could tell us—" Joyce was persisting, when the agent suddenly interrupted, turning on her suspiciously:
"Say, what do you want to know all this for? What's the old place to you, anyhow?"
"Oh, nothing—nothing at all!" protested Joyce, alarmed lest their precious secret was about to be discovered. "We only asked out of curiosity. Good day, sir!" And the two girls fled precipitately from the office.
"I was going to ask him the name of the lawyers," Joyce explained as they hurried away. "But it wouldn't do any good, I guess, if we knew. We couldn't go and question them, for it's plain from what the agent said that they don't want to talk about it. My, but that man was cranky, wasn't he!"
"I think he was sick," said Cynthia. "He looked it. Well, I suppose we will have to give it all up! We've tried just about everything." Suddenly she stopped and stood perfectly still, staring blankly at nothing.
"Come on!" urged Joyce. "Whatever is the matter with you, standing here like that?"
"I was just thinking—seems to me I remember something about the first day we got into the B. U. H. Didn't you tell me that you knew the house was left furnished, that somebody had told your father so?"
"Why, of course!" cried Joyce, excited at once. "I certainly did, and what a stupid I am not to have thought of it since!" And she herself stopped short and stood thinking.
"Well, what is it?" demanded Cynthia, impatiently. "Who's stopping and staring now?"
"The trouble is," said Joyce, slowly, "that the whole thing's not very clear in my mind. It was several years ago that I heard Father mention it. Somebody was visiting us when we first moved here, and asked him at the table about the old house next door. And Father said, I think, that he didn't know anything much about it only that it was a queer old place, and once he had met an elderly lady who happened to mention to him that she knew the house was left furnished, just as it was, and she didn't think the owners would ever live in it again. I don't know why I happened to remember this. It must have made quite an impression on me, because I was a good deal younger and didn't generally listen much to what they were saying at table."
"Well," announced Cynthia, still standing where she had stopped, and speaking with great positiveness, "there's only one thing to do now, and that is, find out who the old lady is and hunt her up!"
"I suppose I can find out her name from Father—if he remembers it—but what then? I can't go and scrape up an acquaintance with a perfectly strange person, and she may live in Timbuctoo!" objected Joyce.
"It's the only thing left, the 'last resort' as they say in stories," said Cynthia. "But, of course, you can do as you like. You're engineering this business!"
"Well, I will," conceded Joyce, not very hopefully, however. "I'll lead Father round to talking of her this evening, if I can, and see what comes of it."
Joyce was as good as her word. That evening when she and her father were seated cozily in the library, she studying, her father smoking and reading his paper, while her mother was temporarily out of the room, she began diplomatically:
"Do you know any real elderly people, Father?" He looked up with a quizzical expression.
"Well, a few. Most people do, don't they? What do you inquire for, Duckie? Thinking of founding an old people's home?" he asked teasingly.
"Oh, no! But who are they, Father? Do you mind telling me?"
"Mercy, Joyce! I can't think just now of all of them!" He was deep in a preëlection article in his paper, and wanted to return to it.
"But can't you think of just a few?" she implored.
"Well, you are the queerest child! There's Grandfather Lambert, and your Great-aunt Lucia, and old Mr. Selby, and—oh, I can't think, Joyce! What's all this foolishness anyway?" Joyce saw at once that she was getting at nothing very definite along this line and determined on a bold move.
"Well, who is the old lady that you spoke of once, who, you said, knew something about that queer old boarded-up house next door?"
"Now, why in the world didn't you say so at once, without first making me go through the whole list of my elderly acquaintances?" he laughed. "That was your Great-aunt Lucia."
"What!" Joyce almost shouted in her astonishment.
"Why, certainly! What's queer about that? She used to live in New York City, and knew all the best families for miles around. When we first moved here, next to that ramshackle old place, I remember her telling me she'd known the people who used to live there."
"Who were they?" demanded Joyce, eagerly.
"Oh, I don't remember their name! I don't know that she ever mentioned it. She only said she knew them, and they'd gone away rather suddenly and left their house all furnished and never came back. Now do let me finish my paper in peace, Duckie dear!"
Joyce said no more, and turned again to her studies; but her brain was in a whirl, and she could not concentrate her thoughts on her work. Great-aunt Lucia!—of all people! And here she had been wondering how she could ever get to know some stranger well enough to put her questions. But, for that matter, there were difficulties in the way of questioning even Great-aunt Lucia. She was a very old lady, a confirmed invalid, who lived in Poughkeepsie. For many years she had not left her home, and the family seldom saw her; but her father paid a visit to the old lady once in a while when he was in that vicinity.
Joyce then fell to planning how she could get into communication with this Great-aunt Lucia. She couldn't write her inquiries,—that certainly would never do! If she could only visit her and get her to talk about it! But Joyce had never visited this relative in her life, and never particularly wanted to, and it would appear strange to seem suddenly so anxious to see the old lady. This, however, was obviously the only solution, and she began to wonder how it could be arranged. Very prudently, she waited till her father had finished his pipe and laid aside his paper. Then she commenced afresh, but casually, as though the idea had just entered her mind:
"Great-aunt Lucia must be a very interesting old lady, Father!"
"She is, she certainly is! I was always very fond of her. My! how she can talk, and the stories she can tell about old times!" said Mr. Kenway, waxing enthusiastic.
"Oh, I wish I could visit her!" exclaimed Joyce.
"Well, you certainly may, if you really want to. I've always wanted her to see you since you've grown so, and I've proposed a number of times that you go with me on the trip. But you've always refused to be separated from your precious Cynthia, and I couldn't think of inflicting two youngsters on her." Joyce remembered now, with a good deal of self-reproach, how many times she had begged off from accompanying her father. It had not seemed very interesting then, and, as he had said, she did not want to leave Cynthia, even for two or three days. She realized now that she had not only been a little selfish about it, but had plainly missed a golden opportunity.
"Oh, Father," she cried in real contrition, "I was mean to refuse you! I didn't realize that you wanted me to go. I thought you only did it to give me a good time, and, somehow, it didn't seem like a good time—then! When are you going again? And won't you take me?"
"I haven't been there in two years," he mused. "I ought to go again soon. The old lady may not live very long, she's so feeble. Let's see! Suppose we make it the week-end before election. I'll write to her to-morrow that we're all coming, you and Mother and I."
"Oh, but, Father!" exclaimed Joyce. "Couldn't we go sooner? That's nearly a month off!"
"Best I can do, Duckie dear! I simply can't get away before. What's your hurry anyway? First you won't be hired to go and see her, and then you want to rush off and do it at once! What a funny little daughter it is!" He kissed her laughingly, as she bade him good night.
But Joyce slept little that night. She was wild for morning to come so that she could tell Cynthia, and wilder with impatience to think of the long dragging month ahead before the visit to Great-aunt Lucia, and the solution of the mystery.