Copyright
Meredith Nicholson.

The House of a Thousand Candles online

. (page 9 of 19)
Online LibraryMeredith NicholsonThe House of a Thousand Candles → online text (page 9 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


again.

I felt foolish and guilty. She would probably get
roundly scolded if the grave Sisters learned of her talks
with me, and very likely I should win their hearty contempt.
But I did not turn back.

“I hope the reason you’re leaving isn’t—” I hesitated.

“Ill conduct? Oh, yes; I’m terribly wicked, Squire
Glenarm! They’re sending me off.”

“But I suppose they’re awfully strict, the Sisters.”

“They’re hideous,—perfectly hideous.”

“Where is your home?” I demanded. “Chicago, Indianapolis,
Cincinnati, perhaps?”

“Humph, you are dull! You ought to know from my
accent that I’m not from Chicago. And I hope I haven’t
a Kentucky girl’s air of waiting to be flattered to death.
And no Indianapolis girl would talk to a strange man at
the edge of a deep wood in the gray twilight of a winter
day,—that’s from a book; and the Cincinnati girl is
without my élan, esprit,—whatever you please to call it.
She has more Teutonic repose,—more of Gretchen-of-the-Rhine-Valley
about her. Don’t you adore French,
Squire Glenarm?” she concluded breathlessly, and with
no pause in her quick step.

“I adore yours, Miss Armstrong,” I asserted, yielding
myself further to the joy of idiocy, and delighting in
the mockery and changing moods of her talk. I did
not make her out; indeed, I preferred not to! I was
not then,—and I am not now, thank God,—of an analytical
turn of mind. And as I grow older I prefer,
even after many a blow, to take my fellow human beings
a good deal as I find them. And as for women, old
or young, I envy no man his gift of resolving them into
elements. As well carry a spray of arbutus to the laboratory
or subject the enchantment of moonlight upon
running water to the flame and blow-pipe as try to
analyze the heart of a girl,—particularly a girl who
paddles a canoe with a sure stroke and puts up a good
race with a rabbit.

A lamp shone ahead of us at the entrance of one of
the houses, and lights appeared in all the buildings.

“If I knew your window I should certainly sing under
it,—except that you’re going home! You didn’t tell
me why they were deporting you.”

“I’m really ashamed to! You would never—”

“Oh, yes, I would; I’m really an old friend!” I insisted,
feeling more like an idiot every minute.

“Well, don’t tell! But they caught me flirting—with
the grocery boy! Now aren’t you disgusted?”

“Thoroughly! I can’t believe it! Why, you’d a lot
better flirt with me,” I suggested boldly.

“Well, I’m to be sent away for good at Christmas. I
may come back then if I can square myself. My!
That’s slang,—isn’t it horrid?”

“The Sisters don’t like slang, I suppose?”

“They loathe it! Miss Devereux—you know who she
is!—she spies on us and tells.”

“You don’t say so; but I’m not surprised at her. I’ve
heard about her!” I declared bitterly.

We had reached the door, and I expected her to fly;
but she lingered a moment.

“Oh, if you know her! Perhaps you’re a spy, too!
It’s just as well we should never meet again, Mr. Glenarm,”
she declared haughtily.

“The memory of these few meetings will always linger
with me, Miss Armstrong,” I returned in an imitation
of her own tone.

“I shall scorn to remember you!”—and she folded
her arms under the cloak tragically.

“Our meetings have been all too few, Miss Armstrong.
Three, exactly, I believe!”

“I see you prefer to ignore the first time I ever saw
you,” she said, her hand on the door.

“Out there in your canoe? Never! And you’ve forgiven
me for overhearing you and the chaplain on the
wall—please!”

She grasped the knob of the door and paused an instant
as though pondering.

“I make it four times, not counting once in the road
and other times when you didn’t know, Squire Glenarm!
I’m a foolish little girl to have remembered the first. I
see now how b-l-i-n-d I have been.”

She opened and closed the door softly, and I heard
her running up the steps within.

I ran back to the chapel, roundly abusing myself for
having neglected my more serious affairs for a bit of
silly talk with a school-girl, fearful lest the openings
I had left at both ends of the passage should have been
discovered. The tunnel added a new and puzzling factor
to the problem already before me, and I was eager
for an opportunity to sit down in peace and comfort to
study the situation.

[Illustration: “I shall scorn to remember you!”—and she folded her arms under
the cloak tragically.]

At the chapel I narrowly escaped running into Stoddard,
but I slipped past him, pulled the hidden door
into place, traversed the tunnel without incident, and
soon climbed through the hatchway and slammed the
false block securely into the opening.


CHAPTER XIII

A PAIR OF EAVESDROPPERS


When I came down after dressing for dinner, Bates
called my attention to a belated mail. I pounced eagerly
upon a letter in Laurance Donovan’s well-known
hand, bearing, to my surprise, an American stamp and
postmarked New Orleans. It was dated, however, at
Vera Cruz, Mexico, December fifteenth, 1901.

DEAR OLD MAN: I have had a merry time since I saw you
in New York. Couldn’t get away for a European port
as I hoped when I left you, as the authorities seemed to
be taking my case seriously, and I was lucky to get off
as a deck-hand on a south-bound boat. I expected to get a
slice of English prodigal veal at Christmas, but as things
stand now, I am grateful to be loose even in this God-forsaken
hole. The British bulldog is eager to insert its
teeth in my trousers, and I was flattered to see my picture
bulletined in a conspicuous place the day I struck Vera
Cruz. You see, they’re badgering the Government at
home because I’m not apprehended, and they’ve got to
catch and hang me to show that they’ve really got their
hands on the Irish situation. I am not afraid of the
Greasers—no people who gorge themselves with bananas
and red peppers can be dangerous—but the British consul
here has a bad eye and even as I write I am dimly conscious
that a sleek person, who is ostensibly engaged in
literary work at the next table, is really killing time while
he waits for me to finish this screed.

No doubt you are peacefully settled on your ancestral
estate with only a few months and a little patience between
you and your grandfather’s shier. You always were
a lucky brute. People die just to leave you money, whereas
I’ll have to die to get out of jail.

I hope to land under the Stars and Stripes within a few
days, either across country through El Paso or via New
Orleans—preferably the former, as a man’s social position
is rated high in Texas in proportion to the amount of reward
that’s out for him. They’d probably give me the
freedom of the state if they knew my crimes had been the
subject of debate in the House of Commons.

But the man across the table is casually looking over
here for a glimpse of my signature, so I must give him
a good one just for fun. With best wishes always,
Faithfully yours,
GEORGE WASHINGTON SMITH.

P. S—I shan’t mail this here, but give it to a red-haired
Irishman on a steamer that sails north to-night. Pleasant,
I must say, this eternal dodging! Wish I could share your
rural paradise for the length of a pipe and a bottle! Have
forgotten whether you said Indian Territory or Indiana,
but will take chances on the latter as more remotely suggesting
the aborigines.

Bates gave me my coffee in the library, as I wished
to settle down to an evening of reflection without delay.
Larry’s report of himself was not reassuring. I knew
that if he had any idea of trying to reach me he would
not mention it in a letter which might fall into the
hands of the authorities, and the hope that he might
join me grew. I was not, perhaps, entitled to a companion
at Glenarm under the terms of my exile, but as
a matter of protection in the existing condition of affairs
there could be no legal or moral reason why I
should not defend myself against my foes, and Larry
was an ally worth having.

In all my hours of questioning and anxiety at Glenarm
I never doubted the amiable intentions of my
grandfather. His device for compelling my residence
at his absurd house was in keeping with his character,
and it was all equitable enough. But his dead hand had
no control over the strange issue, and I felt justified in
interpreting the will in the light of my experiences. I
certainly did not intend to appeal to the local police authorities,
at least not until the animus of the attack on
me was determined.

My neighbor, the chaplain, had inadvertently given
me a bit of important news; and my mind kept reverting
to the fact that Morgan was reporting his injury to
the executor of my grandfather’s estate in New York.
Everything else that had happened was tame and unimportant
compared with this. Why had John Marshall
Glenarm made Arthur Pickering the executor of his
estate? He knew that I detested him, that Pickering’s
noble aims and high ambitions had been praised by my
family until his very name sickened me; and yet my
own grandfather had thought it wise to intrust his fortune
and my future to the man of all men who was
most repugnant to me. I rose and paced the floor in
anger.

Instead of accepting Pickering’s word for it that the
will was all straight, I should have employed counsel
and taken legal advice before suffering myself to be
rushed away into a part of the world I had never visited
before, and cooped up in a dreary house under the eye
of a somber scoundrel who might poison me any day, if
he did not prefer to shoot me in my sleep. My rage
must fasten upon some one, and Bates was the nearest
target for it. I went to the kitchen, where he usually
spent his evenings, to vent my feelings upon him, only
to find him gone. I climbed to his room and found it
empty. Very likely he was off condoling with his friend
and fellow conspirator, the caretaker, and I fumed with
rage and disappointment. I was thoroughly tired, as
tired as on days when I had beaten my way through
tropical jungles without food or water; but I wished,
in my impotent anger against I knew not what agencies,
to punish myself, to induce an utter weariness that
would drag me exhausted to bed.

The snow in the highway was well beaten down and
I swung off countryward past St. Agatha’s. A gray
mist hung over the fields in whirling clouds, breaking
away occasionally and showing the throbbing winter
stars. The walk, and my interest in the alternation of
star-lighted and mist-wrapped landscape won me to a
better state of mind, and after tramping a couple of
miles, I set out for home. Several times on my tramp
I had caught myself whistling the air of a majestic
old hymn, and smiled, remembering my young friend
Olivia, and her playing in the chapel. She was an
amusing child; the thought of her further lifted my
spirit; and I turned into the school park as I passed
the outer gate with a half-recognized wish to pass near
the barracks where she spent her days.

At the school-gate the lamps of a carriage suddenly
blurred in the mist. Carriages were not common in this
region, and I was not surprised to find that this was the
familiar village hack that met trains day and night at
Glenarm station. Some parent, I conjectured, paying a
visit to St. Agatha’s; perhaps the father of Miss Olivia
Gladys Armstrong had come to carry her home for a
stricter discipline than Sister Theresa’s school afforded.

The driver sat asleep on his box, and I passed him
and went on into the grounds. A whim seized me to
visit the crypt of the chapel and examine the opening
to the tunnel. As I passed the little group of school-buildings
a man came hurriedly from one of them and
turned toward the chapel.

I first thought it was Stoddard, but I could not make
him out in the mist and I waited for him to put twenty
paces between us before I followed along the path that
led from the school to the chapel.

He strode into the chapel porch with an air of assurance,
and I heard him address some one who had been
waiting. The mist was now so heavy that I could not
see my hand before my face, and I stole forward until
I could hear the voices of the two men distinctly.

“Bates!”

“Yes, sir.”

I heard feet scraping on the stone floor of the porch.

“This is a devil of a place to talk in but it’s the best
we can do. Did the young man know I sent for you?”

“No, sir. He was quite busy with his books and papers.”

“Humph! We can never be sure of him.”

“I suppose that is correct, sir.”

“Well, you and Morgan are a fine pair, I must say!
I thought he had some sense, and that you’d see to it
that he didn’t make a mess of this thing. He’s in bed
now with a hole in his arm and you’ve got to go on
alone.”

“I’ll do my best, Mr. Pickering.”

“Don’t call me by name, you idiot. We’re not advertising
our business from the housetops.”

“Certainly not,” replied Bates humbly.

The blood was roaring through my head, and my
hands were clenched as I stood there listening to this
colloquy.

Pickering’s voice was—and is—unmistakable. There
was always a purring softness in it. He used to remind
me at school of a sleek, complacent cat, and I hate cats
with particular loathing.

“Is Morgan lying or not when he says he shot himself
accidentally?” demanded Pickering petulantly.

“I only know what I heard from the gardener here at
the school. You’ll understand, I hope, that I can’t be
seen going to Morgan’s house.”

“Of course not. But he says you haven’t played fair
with him, that you even attacked him a few days after
Glenarm came.”

“Yes, and he hit me over the head with a club. It
was his indiscretion, sir. He wanted to go through the
library in broad daylight, and it wasn’t any use, anyhow.
There’s nothing there.”

“But I don’t like the looks of this shooting. Morgan’s
sick and out of his head. But a fellow like Morgan
isn’t likely to shoot himself accidentally, and now
that it’s done the work’s stopped and the time is running
on. What do you think Glenarm suspects?”

“I can’t tell, sir, but mighty little, I should say. The
shot through the window the first night he was here
seemed to shake him a trifle, but he’s quite settled down
now, I should say, sir.”

“He probably doesn’t spend much time on this side
of the fence—doesn’t haunt the chapel, I fancy?”

“Lord, no, sir! I hardly suspect the young gentleman
of being a praying man.”

“You haven’t seen him prowling about analyzing the
architecture—”

“Not a bit of it, sir. He hasn’t, I should say, what
his revered grandfather called the analytical mind.”

Hearing yourself discussed in this frank fashion by
your own servant is, I suppose, a wholesome thing for
the spirit. The man who stands behind your chair may
acquire, in time, some special knowledge of your mental
processes by a diligent study of the back of your
head. But I was not half so angry with these conspirators
as with myself, for ever having entertained a single
generous thought toward Bates. It was, however, consoling
to know that Morgan was lying to Pickering, and
that my own exploits in the house were unknown to the
executor.

Pickering stamped his feet upon the paved porch
floor in a way that I remembered of old. It marked a
conclusion, and preluded serious statements.

“Now, Bates,” he said, with a ring of authority and
speaking in a louder key than he had yet used, “it’s
your duty under all the circumstances to help discover
the hidden assets of the estate. We’ve got to pluck the
mystery from that architectural monster over there, and
the time for doing it is short enough. Mr. Glenarm was
a rich man. To my own knowledge he had a couple of
millions, and he couldn’t have spent it all on that house.
He reduced his bank account to a few thousand dollars
and swept out his safety-vault boxes with a broom before
his last trip into Vermont. He didn’t die with the
stuff in his clothes, did he?”

“Lord bless me, no, sir! There was little enough
cash to bury him, with you out of the country and me
alone with him.”

“He was a crank and I suppose he got a lot of satisfaction
out of concealing his money. But this hunt for it
isn’t funny. I supposed, of course, we’d dig it up before
Glenarm got here or I shouldn’t have been in such
a hurry to send for him. But it’s over there somewhere,
or in the grounds. There must he a plan of the house
that would help. I’ll give you a thousand dollars the
day you wire me you have found any sort of clue.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I don’t want thanks, I want the money or securities
or whatever it is. I’ve got to go back to my car now,
and you’d better skip home. You needn’t tell your
young master that I’ve been here.”

I was trying hard to believe, as I stood there with
clenched hands outside the chapel porch, that Arthur
Pickering’s name was written in the list of directors of
one of the greatest trust companies in America, and
that he belonged to the most exclusive clubs in New
York. I had run out for a walk with only an inverness
over my dinner-jacket, and I was thoroughly chilled by
the cold mist. I was experiencing, too, an inner cold as
I reflected upon the greed and perfidy of man.

“Keep an eye on Morgan,” said Pickering.

“Certainly, sir.”

“And be careful what you write or wire.”

“I’ll mind those points, sir. But I’d suggest, if you
please, sir—”

“Well?” demanded Pickering impatiently.

“That you should call at the house. It would look
rather strange to the young gentleman if you’d come
here and not see him.”

“I haven’t the slightest errand with him. And besides,
I haven’t time. If he learns that I’ve been here
you may say that my business was with Sister Theresa
and that I regretted very much not having an opportunity
to call on him.”

The irony of this was not lost on Bates, who chuckled
softly. He came out into the open and turned away toward
the Glenarm gate. Pickering passed me, so near
that I might have put out my hand and touched him,
and in a moment I heard the carriage drive off rapidly
toward the village.

I heard Bates running home over the snow and listened
to the clatter of the village hack as it bore Pickering
back to Annandale.

Then out of the depths of the chapel porch—out of
the depths of time and space, it seemed, so dazed I stood
—some one came swiftly toward me, some one, light of
foot like a woman, ran down the walk a little way into
the fog and paused.

An exclamation broke from me.

“Eavesdropping for two!”—it was the voice of Olivia.
“I’d take pretty good care of myself if I were you,
Squire Glenarm. Good night!”

“Good-by!” I faltered, as she sped away into the mist
toward the school.


CHAPTER XIV

THE GIRL IN GRAY

My first thought was to find the crypt door and return
through the tunnel before Bates reached the house.
The chapel was open, and by lighting matches I found
my way to the map and panel. I slipped through and
closed the opening; then ran through the passage with
gratitude for the generous builder who had given it a
clear floor and an ample roof. In my haste I miscalculated
its length and pitched into the steps under the
trap at a speed that sent me sprawling. In a moment
more I had jammed the trap into place and was running
up the cellar steps, breathless, with my cap
smashed down over my eyes.

I heard Bates at the rear of the house and knew I had
won the race by a scratch. There was but a moment in
which to throw my coat and cap under the divan, slap
the dust from my clothes and seat myself at the great
table, where the candles blazed tranquilly.

Bates’ step was as steady as ever—there was not the
slightest hint of excitement in it—as he came and stood
within the door.

“Beg pardon, Mr. Glenarm, did you wish anything,
sir?”

“Oh, no, thank you, Bates.”

“I had stepped down to the village, sir, to speak to
the grocer. The eggs he sent this morning were not
quite up to the mark. I have warned him not to send
any of the storage article to this house.”

“That’s right, Bates.” I folded my arms to hide my
hands, which were black from contact with the passage,
and faced my man servant. My respect for his rascally
powers had increased immensely since he gave me my
coffee. A contest with so clever a rogue was worth
while.

“I’m grateful for your good care of me, Bates. I had
expected to perish of discomfort out here, but you are
treating me like a lord.”

“Thank you, Mr. Glenarm. I do what I can, sir.”

He brought fresh candles for the table candelabra,
going about with his accustomed noiseless step. I felt
a cold chill creep down my spine as he passed behind
me on these errands. His transition from the rôle of
conspirator to that of my flawless servant was almost
too abrupt.

I dismissed him as quickly as possible, and listened
to his step through the halls as he went about locking
the doors. This was a regular incident, but I was aware
to-night that he exercised what seemed to me a particular
care in settling the bolts. The locking-up process
had rather bored me before; to-night the snapping of
bolts was particularly trying.

When I heard Bates climbing to his own quarters I
quietly went the rounds on my own account and found
everything as tight as a drum.

In the cellar I took occasion to roll some barrels of
cement into the end of the corridor, to cover and block
the trap door. Bates had no manner of business in that
part of the house, as the heating apparatus was under
the kitchen and accessible by an independent stairway.
I had no immediate use for the hidden passage to the
chapel—and I did not intend that my enemies should
avail themselves of it. Morgan, at least, knew of it and,
while he was not likely to trouble me at once, I had resolved
to guard every point in our pleasant game.

I was tired enough to sleep when I went to my room,
and after an eventless night, woke to a clear day and
keener air.

“I’m going to take a little run into the village, Bates,”
I remarked at breakfast.

“Very good, sir. The weather’s quite cleared.”

“If any one should call I’ll be back in an hour or so.”

“Yes, sir.”

He turned his impenetrable face toward me as I rose.
There was, of course, no chance whatever that any one
would call to see me; the Reverend Paul Stoddard was
the only human being, except Bates, Morgan and the
man who brought up my baggage, who had crossed the
threshold since my arrival.

I really had an errand in the village. I wished to
visit the hardware store and buy some cartridges, but
Pickering’s presence in the community was a disturbing
factor in my mind. I wished to get sight of him,—
to meet him, if possible, and see how a man, whose
schemes were so deep, looked in the light of day.

As I left the grounds and gained the highway Stoddard
fell in with me.

“Well, Mr. Glenarm, I’m glad to see you abroad so
early. With that library of yours the temptation must
be strong to stay within doors. But a man’s got to subject
himself to the sun and wind. Even a good wetting
now and then is salutary.”

“I try to get out every day,” I answered. “But I’ve
chiefly limited myself to the grounds.”

“Well, it’s a fine estate. The lake is altogether
charming in summer. I quite envy you your fortune.”

He walked with a long swinging stride, his hands
thrust deep into his overcoat pockets. It was difficult
to accept the idea of so much physical strength being
wasted in the mere business of saying prayers in a girls’
school. Here was a fellow who should have been captain
of a ship or a soldier, a leader of forlorn hopes. I
felt sure there must be a weakness of some sort in him.
Quite possibly it would prove to be a mild estheticism
that delighted in the savor of incense and the mournful
cadence of choral vespers. He declined a cigar and this
rather increased my suspicions.

The village hack, filled with young women, passed at
a gallop, bound for the station, and we took off our hats.

“Christmas holidays,” explained the chaplain. “Practically
all the students go home.”

“Lucky kids, to have a Christmas to go home to!”


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryMeredith NicholsonThe House of a Thousand Candles → online text (page 9 of 19)