Copyright
Meredith Nicholson.

The House of a Thousand Candles online

. (page 5 of 19)
Online LibraryMeredith NicholsonThe House of a Thousand Candles → online text (page 5 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


was very fond of the fruit.”

I had never seen a persimmon before, but I was in a
mood for experiment. The frost-broken rind was certainly
forbidding, but the rich pulp brought a surprise
of joy to my palate. Bates watched me with respectful
satisfaction. His gravity was in no degree diminished
by the presence of a neat strip of flesh-colored court-plaster
over his right eye. A faint suggestion of arnica
hung in the air.

“This is a quiet life,” I remarked, wishing to give
him an opportunity to explain his encounter of the
morning.

“You are quite right, sir. As your grandfather used
to say, it’s a place of peace.”

“When nobody shoots at you through a window,” I
suggested.

“Such a thing is likely to happen to any gentleman,”
he replied, “but not likely to happen more than once, if
you’ll allow the philosophy.”

He did not refer to his encounter with the caretaker,
and I resolved to keep my knowledge of it to myself. I
always prefer to let a rascal hang himself, and here was
a case, I reasoned, where, if Bates were disloyal to the
duties Pickering had imposed upon him, the fact of his
perfidy was bound to disclose itself eventually. Glancing
around at him when he was off guard I surprised
a look of utter dejection upon his face as he stood with
folded arms behind my chair.

He flushed and started, then put his hand to his forehead.

“I met with a slight accident this morning, sir. The
hickory’s very tough, sir. A piece of wood flew up and
struck me.”

“Too bad!” I said with sympathy. “You’d better
rest a bit this afternoon.”

“Thank you, sir; but it’s a small matter,—only, you
might think it a trifle disfiguring.”

He struck a match for my cigarette, and I left without
looking at him again. But as I crossed the threshold
of the library I formulated this note: “Bates is a
liar, for one thing, and a person with active enemies for
another; watch him.”

All things considered, the day was passing well
enough. I picked up a book, and threw myself on a comfortable
divan to smoke and reflect before continuing my
explorations. As I lay there, Bates brought me a telegram,
a reply to my message to Pickering. It read:

“Yours announcing arrival received and filed.”

It was certainly a queer business, my errand to Glenarm.
I lay for a couple of hours dreaming, and counted
the candles in the great crystal chandelier until my eyes
ached. Then I rose, took my cap, and was soon tramping
off toward the lake.

There were several small boats and a naphtha launch
in the boat-house. I dropped a canoe into the water and
paddled off toward the summer colony, whose gables and
chimneys were plainly visible from the Glenarm shore.

I landed and roamed idly over leaf-strewn walks past
nearly a hundred cottages, to whose windows and verandas
the winter blinds gave a dreary and inhospitable
air. There was, at one point, a casino, whose broad veranda
hung over the edge of the lake, while beneath, on
the water-side, was a boat-house. I had from this point
a fine view of the lake, and I took advantage of it to
fix in my mind the topography of the region. I could
see the bold outlines of Glenarm House and its red-tile
roofs; and the gray tower of the little chapel beyond
the wall rose above the wood with a placid dignity.
Above the trees everywhere hung the shadowy smoke of
autumn.

I walked back to the wharf, where I had left my
canoe, and was about to step into it when I saw, rocking
at a similar landing-place near-by, another slight
craft of the same type as my own, but painted dark
maroon. I was sure the canoe had not been there when
I landed. Possibly it belonged to Morgan, the caretaker.
I walked over and examined it. I even lifted it
slightly in the water to test its weight. The paddle lay
on the dock beside me and it, too, I weighed critically,
deciding that it was a trifle light for my own taste.

“Please—if you don’t mind—”

I turned to stand face to face with the girl in the red
tam-o’-shanter.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, stepping away from the
canoe.

She did not wear the covert coat of the morning, but
a red knit jacket, buttoned tight about her. She was
young with every emphasis of youth. A pair of dark
blue eyes examined me with good-humored curiosity.
She was on good terms with the sun—I rejoiced in the
brown of her cheeks, so eloquent of companionship with
the outdoor world—a certificate indeed of the favor of
Heaven. Show me, in October, a girl with a face of
tan, whose hands have plied a paddle or driven a golf-ball
or cast a fly beneath the blue arches of summer,
and I will suffer her scorn in joy. She may vote me
dull and refute my wisest word with laughter, for hers
are the privileges of the sisterhood of Diana; and that
soft bronze, those daring fugitive freckles beneath her
eyes, link her to times when Pan whistled upon his reed
and all the days were long.

She had approached silently and was enjoying, I felt
sure, my discomfiture at being taken unawares.

I had snatched off my cap and stood waiting beside
the canoe, feeling, I must admit, a trifle guilty at being
caught in the unwarrantable inspection of another person’s
property—particularly a person so wholly pleasing
to the eye.

“Really, if you don’t need that paddle any more—”

I looked down and found to my annoyance that I held
it in my hand,—was in fact leaning upon it with a cool
air of proprietorship.

“Again, I beg your pardon,” I said. “I hadn’t expected—”

She eyed me calmly with the stare of the child that
arrives at a drawing-room door by mistake and scrutinizes
the guests without awe. I didn’t know what I had
expected or had not expected, and she manifested no
intention of helping me to explain. Her short skirt
suggested fifteen or sixteen—not more—and such being
the case there was no reason why I should not be master
of the situation. As I fumbled my pipe the hot coals
of tobacco burned my hand and I cast the thing from
me.

She laughed a little and watched the pipe bound from
the dock into the water.

“Too bad!” she said, her eyes upon it; “but if you
hurry you may get it before it floats away.”

“Thank you for the suggestion,” I said. But I did
not relish the idea of kneeling on the dock to fish for a
pipe before a strange school-girl who was, I felt sure,
anxious to laugh at me.

She took a step toward the line by which her boat was
fastened.

“Allow me.”

“If you think you can,—safely,” she said; and the
laughter that lurked in her eyes annoyed me.

“The feminine knot is designed for the confusion of
man,” I observed, twitching vainly at the rope, which
was tied securely in unfamiliar loops.

She was singularly unresponsive. The thought that
she was probably laughing at my clumsiness did not
make my fingers more nimble.

“The nautical instructor at St. Agatha’s is undoubtedly
a woman. This knot must come in the post-graduate
course. But my gallantry is equal, I trust, to your
patience.”

The maid in the red tam-o’-shanter continued silent.
The wet rope was obdurate, the knot more and more
hopeless, and my efforts to make light of the situation
awakened no response in the girl. I tugged away at the
rope, attacking its tangle on various theories.

“A case for surgery, I’m afraid. A truly Gordian knot,
but I haven’t my knife.”

“Oh, but you wouldn’t!” she exclaimed. “I think I
can manage.”

She bent down—I was aware that the sleeve of her
jacket brushed my shoulder—seized an end that I had
ignored, gave it a sharp tug with a slim brown hand and
pulled the knot free.

“There!” she exclaimed with a little laugh; “I might
have saved you all the bother.”

“How dull of me! But I didn’t have the combination,”
I said, steadying the canoe carefully to mitigate the
ignominy of my failure.

She scorned the hand I extended, but embarked with
light confident step and took the paddle. It was growing
late. The shadows in the wood were deepening; a
chill crept over the water, and, beyond the tower of the
chapel, the sky was bright with the splendor of sunset.

With a few skilful strokes she brought her little craft
beside my pipe, picked it up and tossed it to the wharf.

“Perhaps you can pipe a tune upon it,” she said, dipping
the paddle tentatively.

“You put me under great obligations,” I declared.
“Are all the girls at St. Agatha’s as amiable?”

“I should say not! I’m a great exception,—and—I
really shouldn’t be talking to you at all! It’s against
the rules! And we don’t encourage smoking.”

“The chaplain doesn’t smoke, I suppose.”

“Not in chapel; I believe it isn’t done! And we
rarely see him elsewhere.”

She had idled with the paddle so far, but now lifted
her eyes and drew back the blade for a long stroke.

“But in the wood—this morning—by the wall!”

I hate myself to this day for having so startled her.
The poised blade dropped into the water with a splash;
she brought the canoe a trifle nearer to the wharf with
an almost imperceptible stroke, and turned toward me
with wonder and dismay in her eyes.

“So you are an eavesdropper and detective, are you?
I beg that you will give your master my compliments!
I really owe you an apology; I thought you were a gentleman!”
she exclaimed with withering emphasis, and
dipped her blade deep in flight.

I called, stammering incoherently, after her, but her
light argosy skimmed the water steadily. The paddle
rose and fell with trained precision, making scarcely a
ripple as she stole softly away toward the fairy towers
of the sunset. I stood looking after her, goaded with
self-contempt. A glory of yellow and red filled the west.
Suddenly the wind moaned in the wood behind the line
of cottages, swept over me and rippled the surface of the
lake. I watched its flight until it caught her canoe and
I marked the flimsy craft’s quick response, as the shaken
waters bore her alert figure upward on the swell, her
blade still maintaining its regular dip, until she disappeared
behind a little peninsula that made a harbor near
the school grounds.

The red tam-o’-shanter seemed at last to merge in the
red sky, and I turned to my canoe and paddled cheerlessly
home.


CHAPTER VII

THE MAN ON THE WALL


I was so thoroughly angry with myself that after
idling along the shores for an hour I lost my way in the
dark wood when I landed and brought up at the rear
door used by Bates for communication with the villagers
who supplied us with provender. I readily found
my way to the kitchen and to a flight of stairs beyond,
which connected the first and second floors. The house
was dark, and my good spirits were not increased as I
stumbled up the unfamiliar way in the dark, with, I
fear, a malediction upon my grandfather, who had built
and left incomplete a house so utterly preposterous. My
unpardonable fling at the girl still rankled; and I was
cold from the quick descent of the night chill on the
water and anxious to get into more comfortable clothes.
Once on the second floor I felt that I knew the way to
my room, and I was feeling my way toward it over the
rough floor when I heard low voices rising apparently
from my sitting-room.

It was pitch dark in the hall. I stopped short and
listened. The door of my room was open and a faint
light flashed once into the hall and disappeared. I heard
now a sound as of a hammer tapping upon wood-work.

Then it ceased, and a voice whispered:

“He’ll kill me if he finds me here. I’ll try again to-morrow.
I swear to God I’ll help you, but no more
now—”

Then the sound of a scuffle and again the tapping of
the hammer. After several minutes more of this there
was a whispered dialogue which I could not hear.

Whatever was occurring, two or three points struck
me on the instant. One of the conspirators was an unwilling
party to an act as yet unknown; second, they
had been unsuccessful and must wait for another opportunity;
and third, the business, whatever it was, was
clearly of some importance to myself, as my own apartments
in my grandfather’s strange house had been
chosen for the investigation.

Clearly, I was not prepared to close the incident, but
the idea of frightening my visitors appealed to my sense
of humor. I tiptoed to the front stairway, ran lightly
down, found the front door, and, from the inside,
opened and slammed it. I heard instantly a hurried
scamper above, and the heavy fall of one who had stumbled
in the dark. I grinned with real pleasure at the
sound of this mishap, hurried into the great library,
which was as dark as a well, and, opening one of the long
windows, stepped out on the balcony. At once from the
rear of the house came the sound of a stealthy step,
which increased to a run at the ravine bridge. I listened
to the flight of the fugitive through the wood until the
sounds died away toward the lake.

Then, turning to the library windows, I saw Bates,
with a candle held above his head, peering about.

“Hello, Bates,” I called cheerfully. “I just got home
and stepped out to see if the moon had risen. I don’t
believe I know where to look for it in this country.”

He began lighting the tapers with his usual deliberation.

“It’s a trifle early, I think, sir. About seven o’clock,
I should say, was the hour, Mr. Glenarm.”

There was, of course, no doubt whatever that Bates
had been one of the men I heard in my room. It was
wholly possible that he had been compelled to assist in
some lawless act against his will; but why, if he had
been forced into aiding a criminal, should he not invoke
my own aid to protect himself? I kicked the logs in the
fireplace impatiently in my uncertainty. The man slowly
lighted the many candles in the great apartment.
He was certainly a deep one, and his case grew more
puzzling as I studied it in relation to the rifle-shot of
the night before, his collision with Morgan in the wood,
which I had witnessed; and now the house itself had
been invaded by some one with his connivance. The
shot through the refectory window might have been innocent
enough; but these other matters in connection
with it could hardly be brushed aside.

Bates lighted me to the stairway, and said as I passed
him:

“There’s a baked ham for dinner. I should call it extra
delicate, Mr. Glenarm. I suppose there’s no change
in the dinner hour, sir?”

“Certainly not,” I said with asperity; for I am not a
person to inaugurate a dinner hour one day and change
it the next. Bates wished to make conversation,—the
sure sign of a guilty conscience in a servant,—and I was
not disposed to encourage him.

I closed the doors carefully and began a thorough
examination of both the sitting-room and the little bed-chamber.
I was quite sure that my own effects could
not have attracted the two men who had taken advantage
of my absence to visit my quarters. Bates had
helped unpack my trunk and undoubtedly knew every
item of my simple wardrobe. I threw open the doors
of the three closets in the rooms and found them all in
the good order established by Bates. He had carried my
trunks and bags to a store-room, so that everything I
owned must have passed under his eye. My money even,
the remnant of my fortune that I had drawn from the
New York bank, I had placed carelessly enough in the
drawer of a chiffonnier otherwise piled with collars. It
took but a moment to satisfy myself that this had not
been touched. And, to be sure, a hammer was not necessary
to open a drawer that had, from its appearance,
never been locked. The game was deeper than I had
imagined; I had scratched the crust without result, and
my wits were busy with speculations as I changed my
clothes, pausing frequently to examine the furniture,
even the bricks on the hearth.

One thing only I found—the slight scar of a hammer-head
on the oak paneling that ran around the bedroom.
The wood had been struck near the base and at the top
of every panel, for though the mark was not perceptible
on all, a test had evidently been made systematically.
With this as a beginning, I found a moment later a spot
of tallow under a heavy table in one corner. Evidently
the furniture had been moved to permit of the closest
scrutiny of the paneling. Even behind the bed I found
the same impress of the hammer-head; the test had undoubtedly
been thorough, for a pretty smart tap on oak
is necessary to leave an impression. My visitors had
undoubtedly been making soundings in search of a recess
of some kind in the wall, and as they had failed of
their purpose they were likely, I assumed, to pursue
their researches further.

I pondered these things with a thoroughly-awakened
interest in life. Glenarm House really promised to prove
exciting. I took from a drawer a small revolver, filled
its chambers with cartridges and thrust it into my hip
pocket, whistling meanwhile Larry Donovan’s favorite
air, the Marche Funèbre d’une Marionnette. My heart
went out to Larry as I scented adventure, and I wished
him with me; but speculations as to Larry’s whereabouts
were always profitless, and quite likely he was in jail
somewhere.

The ham of whose excellence Bates had hinted was no
disappointment. There is, I have always held, nothing
better in this world than a baked ham, and the specimen
Bates placed before me was a delight to the eye,—so
adorned was it with spices, so crisply brown its outer
coat; and a taste—that first tentative taste, before the
sauce was added—was like a dream of Lucullus come
true. I could forgive a good deal in a cook with that
touch,—anything short of arson and assassination!

“Bates,” I said, as he stood forth where I could see
him, “you cook amazingly well. Where did you learn
the business?”

“Your grandfather grew very captious, Mr. Glenarm.
I had to learn to satisfy him, and I believe I did it, sir,
if you’ll pardon the conceit.”

“He didn’t die of gout, did he? I can readily imagine
it.”

“No, Mr. Glenarm. It was his heart. He had his
warning of it.”

“Ah, yes; to be sure. The heart or the stomach,—one
may as well fail as the other. I believe I prefer to keep
my digestion going as long as possible. Those grilled
sweet potatoes again, if you please, Bates.”

The game that he and I were playing appealed to me
strongly. It was altogether worth while, and as I ate
guava jelly with cheese and toasted crackers, and then
lighted one of my own cigars over a cup of Bates’ unfailing
coffee, my spirit was livelier than at any time
since a certain evening on which Larry and I had
escaped from Tangier with our lives and the curses of
the police. It is a melancholy commentary on life that
contentment comes more easily through the stomach
than along any other avenue. In the great library, with
its rich store of books and its eternal candles, I sprawled
upon a divan before the fire and smoked and indulged
in pleasant speculations. The day had offered much
material for fireside reflection, and I reviewed its history
calmly.

There was, however, one incident that I found unpleasant
in the retrospect. I had been guilty of most
unchivalrous conduct toward one of the girls of St.
Agatha’s. It had certainly been unbecoming in me to
sit on the wall, however unwillingly, and listen to the
words—few though they were—that passed between her
and the chaplain. I forgot the shot through the window;
I forgot Bates and the interest my room possessed for
him and his unknown accomplice; but the sudden distrust
and contempt I had awakened in the girl by my
clownish behavior annoyed me increasingly.

I rose presently, found my cap in a closet under the
stairs, and went out into the moon-flooded wood toward
the lake. The tangle was not so great when you knew
the way, and there was indeed, as I had found, the faint
suggestion of a path. The moon glorified a broad highway
across the water; the air was sharp and still. The
houses in the summer colony were vaguely defined, but
the sight of them gave me no cheer. The tilt of her
tam-o’-shanter as she paddled away into the sunset had
conveyed an impression of spirit and dignity that I could
not adjust to any imaginable expiation.

These reflections carried me to the borders of St.
Agatha’s, and I followed the wall to the gate, climbed
up, and sat down in the shadow of the pillar farthest
from the lake. Lights shone scatteringly in the buildings
of St. Agatha’s, but the place was wholly silent.
I drew out a cigarette and was about to light it when
I heard a sound as of a tread on stone. There was, I
knew, no stone pavement at hand, but peering toward
the lake I saw a man walking boldly along the top of the
wall toward me. The moonlight threw his figure into
clear relief. Several times he paused, bent down and
rapped upon the wall with an object he carried in his
hand.

Only a few hours before I had heard a similar sound
rising from the wainscoting of my own room in Glenarm
House. Evidently the stone wall, too, was under
suspicion!

Tap, tap, tap! The man with the hammer was examining
the farther side of the gate, and very likely he
would carry his investigations beyond it. I drew up my
legs and crouched in the shadow of the pillar, revolver
in hand. I was not anxious for an encounter; I much
preferred to wait for a disclosure of the purpose that lay
behind this mysterious tapping upon walls on my grandfather’s
estate.

But the matter was taken out of my own hands before
I had a chance to debate it. The man dropped to the
ground, sounded the stone base under the gate, likewise
the pillars, evidently without results, struck a spiteful
crack upon the iron bars, then stood up abruptly and
looked me straight in the eyes. It was Morgan, the
caretaker of the summer colony.

“Good evening, Mr. Morgan,” I said, settling the revolver
into my hand.

There was no doubt about his surprise; he fell back,
staring at me hard, and instinctively drawing the hammer
over his shoulder as though to fling it at me.

“Just stay where you are a moment, Morgan,” I said
pleasantly, and dropped to a sitting position on the wall
for greater ease in talking to him.

He stood sullenly, the hammer dangling at arm’s
length, while my revolver covered his head.

“Now, if you please, I’d like to know what you mean
by prowling about here and rummaging my house!”

“Oh, it’s you, is it, Mr. Glenarm? Well, you certainly
gave me a bad scare.”

His air was one of relief and his teeth showed pleasantly
through his beard.

“It certainly is I. But you haven’t answered my question.
What were you doing in my house to-day?”

He smiled again, shaking his head.

“You’re really fooling, Mr. Glenarm. I wasn’t in
your house to-day; I never was in it in my life!”

His white teeth gleamed in his light beard; his hat
was pushed back from his forehead so that I saw his
eyes, and he wore unmistakably the air of a man whose
conscience is perfectly clear. I was confident that he
lied, but without appealing to Bates I was not prepared
to prove it.

“But you can’t deny that you’re on my grounds now,
can you?” I had dropped the revolver to my knee, but
I raised it again.

“Certainly not, Mr. Glenarm. If you’ll allow me to
explain—”

“That’s precisely what I want you to do.”

“Well, it may seem strange,”—he laughed, and I felt
the least bit foolish to be pointing a pistol at the head
of a fellow of so amiable a spirit.

“Hurry,” I commanded.

“Well, as I was saying, it may seem strange; but I
was just examining the wall to determine the character
of the work. One of the cottagers on the lake left me
with the job of building a fence on his place, and I’ve
been expecting to come over to look at this all fall.
You see, Mr. Glenarm, your honored grandfather was
a master in such matters, as you may know, and I didn’t
see any harm in getting the benefit—to put it so—of his
experience.”

I laughed. He had denied having entered the house
with so much assurance that I had been prepared for
some really plausible explanation of his interest in the
wall.

“Morgan—you said it was Morgan, didn’t you?—you
are undoubtedly a scoundrel of the first water. I make
the remark with pleasure.”

“Men have been killed for saying less,” he said.

“And for doing less than firing through windows at a
man’s head. It wasn’t friendly of you.”


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryMeredith NicholsonThe House of a Thousand Candles → online text (page 5 of 19)