The Boarded-Up House/Chapter 9
THE MEMORIES OF GREAT-AUNT LUCIA
Cynthia sat at her desk in high school, alternately staring out of the window, gazing intently across the room at Joyce, and scowling at the blackboard where the cryptic symbols
(a + b)² = a² + 2ab + b²
were being laboriously expounded by the professor of mathematics. Of this exposition, it is safe to say, Cynthia comprehended not a word for the following simple reason. Early that morning Joyce had returned from the visit to her great-aunt Lucia and had entered the class-room late. Cynthia had not yet had a moment in which to speak with her alone. It was now the last period of the day, and her impatience had completely conquered her usual absorbed attention to her studies.
The professor droned on. The class feverishly copied more cryptic symbols in its notebooks. But at last the closing-bell rang, and after what seemed interminable and totally unnecessary delays, Cynthia found herself out of doors, arm-in-arm with Joyce. Then all she could find to say was:
"Now—tell me!" But Joyce was very serious, and very mysterious too.
"Not here," she answered. "I couldn't! Wait!"
"Well, where and when, then?" cried Cynthia.
"Home," said Joyce. Then, after a moment,—"No, I'll tell you in the Boarded-up House! That's the most appropriate place. We'll go there straight after we get home." So Cynthia was obliged to repress her impatience a little longer. But at length they had crept through the cellar window, lighted their candles, and were proceeding up-stairs.
"Come into the library," said Joyce. "I want to stand right where I can look at the Lovely Lady when I tell you this. It's all so strange—so different from what we thought!" So they went through the drawing-room, entered the library, and placed their candlesticks on the mantel where the light would best illuminate the portrait of the Lovely Lady. Then Joyce began.
"Great-aunt Lucia is very old and very feeble. She seemed so glad to see us all,—especially me. She talked to me a great deal, but I did not have a chance to mention this place to her at all till the last evening we were there. Mother and Father had gone out to call on some friends, but it was raining and I had a sore throat, so they decided not to take me. I was so glad, because then I could stay home and talk to Great-aunt Lucia, and it was the first time I'd been with her long alone.
"She had been telling me a lot about when she was a little girl, and asking me about myself. And I had told her about you and how we'd been together so many years, and what we did when we weren't in school. And finally I mentioned, just casually, that we often played in the grounds of this old house next door and described the place a little to her. Well, that started her, as I was sure it would! She began telling me that it was so strange,—that she had been in this house once, and curiously enough, just before it was closed for good. Then, you can warrant, I listened with all my ears!
"She said she had become acquainted with the lady through meeting her a short time before at the house of a friend in New York. This friend had then introduced them,—'Mrs. Hubert Kenway—Mrs. Fairfax Collingwood'!"
"Mrs. Collingwood!" cried Cynthia. "And we thought she wasn't married!—"
"Well, she was,—and we've made several mistakes beside that, Cynthia Sprague, as you'll find out later! It seems that Great-aunt Lucia took quite a fancy to young Mrs. Collingwood. She was so sweet and gracious and charmingly pretty. Later, Great-aunt Lucia discovered that she was a widow, living out here. Her husband had been dead a number of years,—ten, I think. She was a Southerner, having come originally from South Carolina.
"Great-aunt Lucia did not see her again till a few weeks later, when she received an invitation to go with her friend, take luncheon, and spend the day at Mrs. Collingwood's. There were several others invited, about a dozen in all. They all came out by train and drove here in hired carriages from the station, which was a long way off then. It was a beautiful, soft, balmy April day, and spring seemed well begun.
"Great-aunt Lucia said the place was delightful,—an old, Colonial house (it seemed so strange to hear her describe everything just as we've seen it!). And Mrs. Collingwood was a charming hostess. But they were just finishing luncheon when the strangest thing happened!
"A servant came in and handed Mrs. Collingwood a telegram as she sat at the head of the table. She excused herself to them, tore open the envelope and read it. Then, to their astonishment, she turned first a fiery red, and afterward white as a sheet. Then she sprang to her feet saying, 'Oh!' in a sort of stifled voice. Everyone jumped up too, some so quickly that they knocked over their chairs and asked if anything dreadful was the matter. Then, all of a sudden, she toppled over and slipped to the floor in a dead faint."
"Didn't I tell you so, long ago!" exclaimed Cynthia. "I said she probably fainted!"
"Yes, you were right. Well, two or three began to chafe her hands and face, and the rest sent the servants flying for smelling-salts and vinegar. Everything was confusion for a few minutes, till she presently came to. Then they all began again to question her about what was the matter, but she wouldn't tell them. She just said:
"'I've had bad news, dear friends, and it has made me feel quite ill. It is something I cannot speak about. I hope you will not think me thoroughly inhospitable, if I go to my room for a while.' They all told her she must certainly go and lie down, and that they would leave immediately. She begged them not to hurry, but of course they saw that it wasn't best to stay, since she wouldn't let them do anything for her. So, fifteen minutes later they were all driving away in the carriages which had remained for them at the house. And—" here Joyce paused dramatically,—"not one of them, except my great-aunt's friend, Mrs. Durand, ever saw her again!"
"But—but—" began Cynthia.
"Wait," said Joyce. "I haven't finished yet! Of course, all of them were crazy to know what happened, but most of them never did,—not till long, long afterward, anyway. There was one that did know soon, however, and that was Mrs. Durand. Two nights afterward, Mrs. Durand was astounded to have Mrs. Collingwood arrive at her house in New York, and beg to be allowed to stay there a day or two. She was dressed entirely in black, and carried only a small grip. Of course, Mrs. Durand took her right in, and that night Mrs. Collingwood told her what had happened.
"But first, I must tell you that Mrs. Collingwood had a son—"
"What?" gasped Cynthia, staring up at the girlish picture.
"Yes, a son! And not a baby, either, but a fine, handsome young fellow of seventeen. Great-aunt Lucia says that Mrs. Collingwood was married when she was only seventeen, and that she was thirty-five when all this happened. But she looked much younger. So that accounts for our mistake! The son was away at Harvard College,—or at least they thought he was, at the time of the luncheon. But Great-aunt Lucia says that the same afternoon, as they were driving to the station, they met a splendid young fellow with yellow hair and bright brown eyes, hurrying along the road in the opposite direction. He took off his cap to them gaily, and Mrs. Durand whispered that it was young Fairfax Collingwood, evidently coming home unexpectedly. Great-aunt Lucia says she will never forget his excited, happy look!
"Now, I'll go back to Mrs. Durand and Mrs. Collingwood. (And all that follows, Mrs. Durand told Great-aunt Lucia long, long long afterward.) Mrs. Collingwood came into the house, and her face looked set like a stone, and she seemed twenty years older than when she was having the luncheon. And Mrs. Durand cried:
"'Oh, my dear, you have lost some one? You are dressed in mourning!'
"'Yes,' said Mrs. Collingwood. 'I have lost my son! I am going away.' And Mrs. Durand said:
"Oh, how—how sudden! He can't be dead! We saw him!' And Mrs. Collingwood answered:
"'He is dead to me!' And for the longest time, Mrs. Durand couldn't get another word from her, except that she had shut up the house and was going home South, to live for good. Well, Mrs. Durand put her right to bed,—she was fairly sick with nervousness and exhaustion. And late that night, she broke down and cried and cried, and told Mrs. Durand everything.
"And, oh, Cynthia! What do you think it was? You'd never guess!—You know, the Civil War had just broken out,—Fort Sumter had surrendered and Mrs. Collingwood was a South Carolina woman, and was heart and soul with the Confederacy. She had married a Northern man, and had lived ever since up here, but that didn't make any difference. And all the time war had been threatening, she had been planning to raise a company in South Carolina for her son Fairfax, and put him in command of it. They did those things at that time. Her son didn't know about it, however. She was keeping the news to surprise him.
"And then, that day at luncheon, she received a telegram from him saying he had left college and enlisted—in the Union army—and was coming home at once to bid her good-bye before going to the front! The shock of it almost killed her! But later she thought that surely, when he came, she could persuade him out of it.
"And he came that very afternoon. The ladies had met him walking up from the train. She would not tell Mrs. Durand just what happened, but intimated that they had had a dreadful scene. You see, the young fellow had been born and brought up in the North, and his sympathies were all with that side, and he was just as enthusiastic about it as his mother was about the other. And besides, she'd never talked to him much about the Southern cause, so he didn't realize how she felt. At last, when he wouldn't give in, she admitted to Mrs. Durand that she disowned him, and told him never to see her face again.
"When he had gone to his room to pack his things, she went and dismissed her servants, and told them to go at once. Then she locked herself in her room till her boy went away. She never saw him again! After he had gone, that night, she collected all her silver and hid it, and partially packed her own things, and then decided she wouldn't take them with her. And when she had gone around shutting up the house, it was morning. As soon as it was daylight, she went out and got an old colored carpenter who lived nearby to come and board up the windows and doors. She had the boarding all in the cellar, for it had been made two years before when she went to Europe for six months. It took him nearly all day to finish the work, while she stood around and gave directions. I don't see how she had the strength to do it! When it was all done, she locked the door, walked to the station, took the train for New York, and came to Mrs. Durand." Joyce paused in her recital, from sheer lack of breath, and Cynthia took advantage of the silence.
"So that was the way of it! And we thought it was her brother, and that he'd done something awful,—committed a robbery or forged something! I don't see why that young Fairfax should have been treated so! I think what he did was fine!"
"You must remember," said Joyce, "that people felt so differently about such things in those days. We can't quite realize it now, and shouldn't judge them for the way they acted. I suppose Mrs. Collingwood could have forgiven him more easily if he'd committed a burglary instead! And Great-aunt Lucia says she was terribly high-tempered, too.
"I can't understand it, even so!" insisted Cynthia. "But did your great-aunt say anything about those pictures?"
"No, but I asked her if Mrs. Collingwood had any other children, and she said she understood that Fairfax had been a twin, but his little sister had died when she wasn't much more than three years old. So that's the explanation of the two babies in the other room. I suppose Mrs. Collingwood didn't tell all,—in fact I said she didn't tell any details about what happened that night. Probably she turned the portrait around and tore out the miniature when she was alone. But I haven't finished my story yet!"
"Oh, do go on then!" implored Cynthia.
"Mrs. Collingwood stayed at her friend's house two days," continued Joyce, "and then left for her old home in a little town in South Carolina and never came North again. Mrs. Durand never saw her again, either, but used to hear from her at very long intervals. But here's where the awful thing comes in. After the battle of Shiloh, a year later, when the papers published the list of killed—Fairfax Collingwood's name was among the first! So he did not live very long, you see. But what a terrible thing for the poor mother to think that she and her son had parted in anger, and now were never, never to meet again, and make it all up! Oh, I can hardly bear to think of it!" Joyce's eyes were full of tears, as she gazed up at the proud, beautiful face above them.
"Well, that's the end of the story, and that's the tragedy and mystery about this Boarded-up House. Oh!—there's one other thing,—Great-aunt Lucia says she thinks Mrs. Collingwood is still alive,—a very old lady, living down in the little old South Carolina town of Chesterton. She will never allow this old house to be touched nor let any one enter it. But she has made a will, leaving it to the Southern Society when she dies. That's positively all, and you see everything is explained."
"No, it isn't!" retorted Cynthia. "You haven't explained one thing, at all!"
"What's that?" asked Joyce.
"The mystery of the locked-up room!" replied Cynthia.