The House of a Thousand Candles
I EXPLORE A PASSAGE
“Bates!”—I found him busy replenishing the candlesticks in the library,—it seemed to me that he was always poking about with an armful of candles,—“there are a good many queer things in this world, but I guess you’re one of the queerest. I don’t mind telling you that there are times when I think you a thoroughly bad lot, and then again I question my judgment and don’t give you credit for being much more than a doddering fool.”
He was standing on a ladder beneath the great crystal chandelier that hung from the center of the ceiling, and looked down upon me with that patient injury that is so appealing in a dog—in, say, the eyes of an Irish setter, when you accidentally step on his tail. That look is heartbreaking in a setter, but, seen in a man, it arouses the direst homicidal feelings of which I am capable.
“Yes, Mr. Glenarm,” he replied humbly.
“Now, I want you to grasp this idea that I’m going to dig into this old shell top and bottom; I’m going to blow it up with dynamite, if I please; and if I catch you spying on me or reporting my doings to my enemies, or engaging in any questionable performances whatever, I’ll hang you between the posts out there in the school-wall—do you understand?—so that the sweet Sisters of St. Agatha and the dear little school-girls and the chaplain and all the rest will shudder through all their lives at the very thought of you.”
“Certainly, Mr. Glenarm,”—and his tone was the same he would have used if I had asked him to pass me the matches, and under my breath I consigned him to the harshest tortures of the fiery pit.
“Now, as to Morgan—”
“What possible business do you suppose he has with Mr. Pickering?” I demanded.
“Why, sir, that’s clear enough. Mr. Pickering owns a house up the lake,—he got it through your grandfather. Morgan has the care of it, sir.”
“Very plausible, indeed!”—and I sent him off to his work.
After luncheon I went below and directly to the end of the corridor, and began to sound the walls. To the eye they were all alike, being of cement, and substantial enough. Through the area window I saw the solid earth and snow; surely there was little here to base hope upon, and my wonder grew at the ease with which Morgan had vanished through a barred window and into frozen ground.
The walls at the end of the passage were as solid as rock, and they responded dully to the stroke of the hammer. I sounded them on both sides, retracing my steps to the stairway, becoming more and more impatient at my ill-luck or stupidity. There was every reason why I should know my own house, and yet a stranger and an outlaw ran through it with amazing daring.
After an hour’s idle search I returned to the end of the corridor, repeated all my previous soundings, and, I fear, indulged in language unbecoming a gentleman. Then, in my blind anger, I found what patient search had not disclosed.
I threw the hammer from me in a fit of temper; it struck upon a large square in the cement floor which gave forth a hollow sound. I was on my knees in an instant, my fingers searching the cracks, and drawing down close I could feel a current of air, slight but unmistakable, against my face.
The cement square, though exactly like the others in the cellar floor, was evidently only a wooden imitation, covering an opening beneath.
The block was fitted into its place with a nicety that certified to the skill of the hand that had adjusted it. I broke a blade of my pocket-knife trying to pry it up, but in a moment I succeeded, and found it to be in reality a trap-door, hinged to the substantial part of the floor.
A current of cool fresh air, the same that had surprised me in the night, struck my face as I lay flat and peered into the opening. The lower passage was as black as pitch, and I lighted a lantern I had brought with me, found that wooden steps gave safe conduct below and went down.
I stood erect in the passage and had several inches to spare. It extended both ways, running back under the foundations of the house. This lower passage cut squarely under the park before the house and toward the school wall. No wonder my grandfather had brought foreign laborers who could speak no English to work on his house! There was something delightful in the largeness of his scheme, and I hurried through the tunnel with a hundred questions tormenting my brain.
The air grew steadily fresher, until, after I had gone about two hundred yards, I reached a point where the wind seemed to beat down on me from above. I put up my hands and found two openings about two yards apart, through which the air sucked steadily. I moved out of the current with a chuckle in my throat and a grin on my face. I had passed under the gate in the school-wall, and I knew now why the piers that held it had been built so high,—they were hollow and were the means of sending fresh air into the tunnel.
I had traversed about twenty yards more when I felt a slight vibration accompanied by a muffled roar, and almost immediately came to a short wooden stair that marked the end of the passage. I had no means of judging directions, but I assumed I was somewhere near the chapel in the school-grounds.
I climbed the steps, noting still the vibration, and found a door that yielded readily to pressure. In a moment I stood blinking, lantern in hand, in a well-lighted, floored room. Overhead the tumult and thunder of an organ explained the tremor and roar I had heard below. I was in the crypt of St. Agatha’s chapel. The inside of the door by which I had entered was a part of the wainscoting of the room, and the opening was wholly covered with a map of the Holy Land.
In my absorption I had lost the sense of time, and I was amazed to find that it was five o’clock, but I resolved to go into the chapel before going home.
The way up was clear enough, and I was soon in the vestibule. I opened the door, expecting to find a service in progress; but the little church was empty save where, at the right of the chancel, an organist was filling the church with the notes of a triumphant march. Cap in hand I stole forward and sank down in one of the pews.
A lamp over the organ keyboard gave the only light in the chapel, and made an aureole about her head,— about the uncovered head of Olivia Gladys Armstrong! I smiled as I recognized her and smiled, too, as I remembered her name. But the joy she brought to the music, the happiness in her face as she raised it in the minor harmonies, her isolation, marked by the little isle of light against the dark background of the choir,— these things touched and moved me, and I bent forward, my arms upon the pew in front of me, watching and listening with a kind of awed wonder. Here was a refuge of peace and lulling harmony after the disturbed life at Glenarm, and I yielded myself to its solace with an inclination my life had rarely known.
There was no pause in the outpouring of the melody. She changed stops and manuals with swift fingers and passed from one composition to another; now it was an august hymn, now a theme from Wagner, and finally Mendelssohn’s Spring Song leaped forth exultant in the dark chapel.
She ceased suddenly with a little sigh and struck her hands together, for the place was cold. As she reached up to put out the lights I stepped forward to the chancel steps.
“Please allow me to do that for you?”
She turned toward me, gathering a cape about her.
“Oh, it’s you, is it?” she asked, looking about quickly. “I don’t remember—I don’t seem to remember—that you were invited.”
“I didn’t know I was coming myself,” I remarked truthfully, lifting my hand to the lamp.
“That is my opinion of you,—that you’re a rather unexpected person. But thank you, very much.”
She showed no disposition to prolong the interview, but hurried toward the door, and reached the vestibule before I came up with her.
“You can’t go any further, Mr. Glenarm,” she said, and waited as though to make sure I understood. Straight before us through the wood and beyond the school-buildings the sunset faded sullenly. The night was following fast upon the gray twilight and already the bolder planets were aflame in the sky. The path led straight ahead beneath the black boughs.
“I might perhaps walk to the dormitory, or whatever you call it,” I said.
“Thank you, no! I’m late and haven’t time to bother with you. It’s against the rules, you know, for us to receive visitors.”
She stepped out into the path.
“But I’m not a caller. I’m just a neighbor. And I owe you several calls, anyhow.”
She laughed, but did not pause, and I followed a pace behind her.
“I hope you don’t think for a minute that I chased a rabbit on your side of the fence just to meet you; do you, Mr. Glenarm?”
“Be it far from me! I’m glad I came, though, for I liked your music immensely. I’m in earnest; I think it quite wonderful, Miss Armstrong.”
She paid no heed to me.
“And I hope I may promise myself the pleasure of hearing you often.”
“You are positively flattering, Mr. Glenarm; but as I’m going away—”
I felt my heart sink at the thought of her going away. She was the only amusing person I had met at Glenarm, and the idea of losing her gave a darker note to the bleak landscape.
“That’s really too bad! And just when we were getting acquainted! And I was coming to church every Sunday to hear you play and to pray for snow, so you’d come over often to chase rabbits!”
This, I thought, softened her heart. At any rate her tone changed.
“I don’t play for services; they’re afraid to let me for fear I’d run comic-opera tunes into the Te Deum!”
“Do you know, Mr. Glenarm,”—her tone became confidential and her pace slackened,—“we call you the squire, at St. Agatha’s, and the lord of the manor, and names like that! All the girls are perfectly crazy about you. They’d be wild if they thought I talked with you, clandestinely,—is that the way you pronounce it?”
“Anything you say and any way you say it satisfies me,” I replied.
“That’s ever so nice of you,” she said, mockingly 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.
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.