The House of a Thousand Candles
If you are one of those captious people who must verify by the calendar every new moon you read of in a book, and if you are pained to discover the historian lifting anchor and spreading sail contrary to the reckonings of the nautical almanac, I beg to call your attention to these items from the time-table of the Mid-Western and Southern Railway for December, 1901.
The south-bound express passed Annandale at exactly fifty-three minutes after four P. M. It was scheduled to reach Cincinnati at eleven o’clock sharp. These items are, I trust, sufficiently explicit.
To the student of morals and motives I will say a further word. I had resolved to practise deception in running away from Glenarm House to keep my promise to Marian Devereux. By leaving I should forfeit my right to any part of my grandfather’s estate; I knew that and accepted the issue without regret; but I had no intention of surrendering Glenarm House to Arthur Pickering, particularly now that I realized how completely I had placed myself in his trap. I felt, moreover, a duty to my dead grandfather; and—not least—the attacks of Morgan and the strange ways of Bates had stirred whatever fighting blood there was in me. Pickering and I were engaged in a sharp contest, and I was beginning to enjoy it to the full, but I did not falter in my determination to visit Cincinnati, hoping to return without my absence being discovered; so the next afternoon I began preparing for my journey.
“Bates, I fear that I’m taking a severe cold and I’m going to dose myself with whisky and quinine and go to bed. I shan’t want any dinner,—nothing until you see me again.”
I yawned and stretched myself with a groan.
“I’m very sorry, sir. Shan’t I call a doctor?”
“Not a bit of it. I’ll sleep it off and be as lively as a cricket in the morning.”
At four o’clock I told him to carry some hot water and lemons to my room; bade him an emphatic good night and locked the door as he left. Then I packed my evening clothes in a suit-case. I threw the bag and a heavy ulster from a window, swung myself out upon the limb of a big maple and let it bend under me to its sharpest curve and then dropped lightly to the ground.
I passed the gate and struck off toward the village with a joyful sense of freedom. When I reached the station I sought at once the south-bound platform, not wishing to be seen buying a ticket. A few other passengers were assembling, but I saw no one I recognized. Number six, I heard the agent say, was on time; and in a few minutes it came roaring up. I bought a seat in the Washington sleeper and went into the dining-car for supper. The train was full of people hurrying to various ports for the holidays, but they had, I reflected, no advantage over me. I, too, was bound on a definite errand, though my journey was, I imagined, less commonplace in its character than the homing flight of most of my fellow travelers.
I made myself comfortable and dozed and dreamed as the train plunged through the dark. There was a wait, with much shifting of cars, where we crossed the Wabash, then we sped on. It grew warmer as we drew southward, and the conductor was confident we should reach Cincinnati on time. The through passengers about me went to bed, and I was left sprawled out in my open section, lurking on the shadowy frontier between the known world and dreamland.
“We’re running into Cincinnati—ten minutes late,” said the porter’s voice; and in a moment I was in the vestibule and out, hurrying to a hotel. At the St. Botolph I ordered a carriage and broke all records changing my clothes. The time-table informed me that the Northern express left at half-past one. There was no reason why I should not be safe at Glenarm House by my usual breakfast hour if all went well. To avoid loss of time in returning to the station I paid the hotel charge and carried my bag away with me.
“Doctor Armstrong’s residence? Yes, sir; I’ve already taken one load there”
The carriage was soon climbing what seemed to be a mountain to the heights above Cincinnati. To this day I associate Ohio’s most interesting city with a lonely carriage ride that seemed to be chiefly uphill, through a region that was as strange to me as a trackless jungle in the wilds of Africa. And my heart began to perform strange tattoos on my ribs I was going to the house of a gentleman who did not know of my existence, to see a girl who was his guest, to whom I had never, as the conventions go, been presented. It did not seem half so easy, now that I was well launched upon the adventure.
I stopped the cabman just as he was about to enter an iron gateway whose posts bore two great lamps.
“That is all right, sir. I can drive right in.”
“But you needn’t,” I said, jumping out. “Wait here.”
Doctor Armstrong’s residence was brilliantly lighted, and the strains of a waltz stole across the lawn cheerily. Several carriages swept past me as I followed the walk. I was arriving at a fashionable hour—it was nearly twelve—and just how to effect an entrance without being thrown out as an interloper was a formidable problem, now that I had reached the house. I must catch my train home, and this left no margin for explanation to an outraged host whose first impulse would very likely be to turn me over to the police.
I made a detour and studied the house, seeking a door by which I could enter without passing the unfriendly Gibraltar of a host and hostess on guard to welcome belated guests.
A long conservatory filled with tropical plants gave me my opportunity. Promenaders went idly through and out into another part of the house by an exit I could not see. A handsome, spectacled gentleman opened a glass door within a yard of where I stood, sniffed the air, and said to his companion, as he turned back with a shrug into the conservatory:
“There’s no sign of snow. It isn’t Christmas weather at all.”
He strolled away through the palms, and I instantly threw off my ulster and hat, cast them behind some bushes, and boldly opened the door and entered.
The ball-room was on the third floor, but the guests were straggling down to supper, and I took my stand at the foot of the broad stairway and glanced up carelessly, as though waiting for some one. It was a large and brilliant company and many a lovely face passed me as I stood waiting. The very size of the gathering gave me security, and I smoothed my gloves complacently.
The spectacled gentleman whose breath of night air had given me a valued hint of the open conservatory door came now and stood beside me. He even put his hand on my arm with intimate friendliness.
There was a sound of mirth and scampering feet in the hall above and then down the steps, between the lines of guests arrested in their descent, came a dark laughing girl in the garb of Little Red Riding Hood, amid general applause and laughter.
“It’s Olivia! She’s won the wager!” exclaimed the spectacled gentleman, and the girl, whose dark curls were shaken about her face, ran up to us and threw her arms about him and kissed him. It was a charming picture,—the figures on the stairway, the pretty graceful child, the eager, happy faces all about. I was too much interested by this scene of the comedy to be uncomfortable.
Then, at the top of the stair, her height accented by her gown of white, stood Marian Devereux, hesitating an instant, as a bird pauses before taking wing, and then laughingly running between the lines to where Olivia faced her in mock abjection. To the charm of the girl in the woodland was added now the dignity of beautiful womanhood, and my heart leaped at the thought that I had ever spoken to her, that I was there because she had taunted me with the risk of coming.
Above, on the stair landing, a deep-toned clock began to strike midnight and every one cried “Merry Christmas!” and “Olivia’s won!” and there was more hand-clapping, in which I joined with good will.
Some one behind me was explaining what had just occurred. Olivia, the youngest daughter of the house, had been denied a glimpse of the ball; Miss Devereux had made a wager with her host that Olivia would appear before midnight; and Olivia had defeated the plot against her, and gained the main hall at the stroke of Christmas.
“Good night! Good night!” called Olivia—the real Olivia—in derision to the company, and turned and ran back through the applauding, laughing throng.
The spectacled gentleman was Olivia’s father, and he mockingly rebuked Marian Devereux for having encouraged an infraction of parental discipline, while she was twitting him upon the loss of his wager. Then her eyes rested upon me for the first time. She smiled slightly, but continued talking placidly to her host. The situation did not please me; I had not traveled so far and burglariously entered Doctor Armstrong’s house in quest of a girl with blue eyes merely to stand by while she talked to another man.
I drew nearer, impatiently; and was conscious that four other young men in white waistcoats and gloves quite as irreproachable as my own stood ready to claim her the instant she was free. I did not propose to be thwarted by the beaux of Cincinnati, so I stepped toward Doctor Armstrong.
“I beg your pardon, Doctor—,” I said with an assurance for which I blush to this hour.
“All right, my boy; I, too, have been in Arcady!” he exclaimed in cheerful apology, and she put her hand on my arm and I led her away.
“He called me ‘my boy,’ so I must be passing muster,” I remarked, not daring to look at her.
“He’s afraid not to recognize you. His inability to remember faces is a town joke.”
We reached a quiet corner of the great hall and I found a seat for her.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,—you knew I would come. I should have come across the world for this,—for just this.”
Her eyes were grave at once.
“Why did you come? I did not think you were so foolish. This is all—so wretched,—so unfortunate. You didn’t know that Mr. Pickering—Mr. Pickering—”
She was greatly distressed and this name came from her chokingly.
“Yes; what of him?” I laughed. “He is well on his way to California,—and without you!”
She spoke hurriedly, eagerly, bending toward me.
“No—you don’t know—you don’t understand—he’s here; he abandoned his California trip at Chicago; he telegraphed me to expect him—here—to-night! You must go at once,—at once!”
“Ah, but you can’t frighten me,” I said, trying to realize just what a meeting with Pickering in that house might mean.
“No,”—she looked anxiously about,—”they were to arrive late, he and the Taylors; they know the Armstrongs quite well. They may come at any moment now. Please go!”
“But I have only a few minutes myself,—you wouldn’t have me sit them out in the station down town? There are some things I have come to say, and Arthur Pickering and I are not afraid of each other!”
“But you must not meet him here! Think what that would mean to me! You are very foolhardy, Mr. Glenarm. I had no idea you would come—”
“But you wished to try me,—you challenged me.”
“That wasn’t me,—it was Olivia,” she laughed, more at ease, “I thought—”
“Yes, what did you think?” I asked. “That I was tied hand and foot by a dead man’s money?”
“No, it wasn’t that wretched fortune; but I enjoyed playing the child before you—I really love Olivia—and it seemed that the fairies were protecting me and that I could play being a child to the very end of the chapter without any real mischief coming of it. I wish I were Olivia!” she declared, her eyes away from me.
“That’s rather idle. I’m not really sure yet what your name is, and I don’t care. Let’s imagine that we haven’t any names,—I’m sure my name isn’t of any use, and I’ll be glad to go nameless all my days if only—”
“If only—” she repeated idly, opening and closing her fan. It was a frail blue trifle, painted in golden butterflies.
“There are so many ‘if onlies’ that I hesitate to choose; but I will venture one. If only you will come back to St. Agatha’s! Not to-morrow, or the next day, but, say, with the first bluebirds. I believe they are the harbingers up there.”
Her very ease was a balm to my spirit; she was now a veritable daughter of repose. One arm in its long white sheath lay quiet in her lap; her right hand held the golden butterflies against the soft curve of her cheek. A collar of pearls clasped her throat and accented the clear girlish lines of her profile. I felt the appeal of her youth and purity. It was like a cry in my heart, and I forgot the dreary house by the lake, and Pickering and the weeks within the stone walls of my prison.
“The friends who know me best never expect me to promise to be anywhere at a given time. I can’t tell; perhaps I shall follow the bluebirds to Indiana; but why should I, when I can’t play being Olivia any more?”
“No! I am very dull. That note of apology you wrote from the school really fooled me. But I have seen the real Olivia now. I don’t want you to go too far—not where I can’t follow—this flight I shall hardly dare repeat.”
Her lips closed—like a rose that had gone back to be a bud again—and she pondered a moment, slowly freeing and imprisoning the golden butterflies.
“You have risked a fortune, Mr. Glenarm, very, very foolishly,—and more—if you are found here. Why, Olivia must have recognized you! She must have seen you often across the wall.”
“But I don’t care—I’m not staying at that ruin up there for money. My grandfather meant more to me than that—”
“Yes; I believe that is so. He was a dear old gentleman; and he liked me because I thought his jokes adorable. My father and he had known each other. But there was—no expectation—no wish to profit by his friendship. My name in his will is a great embarrassment, a source of real annoyance. The newspapers have printed dreadful pictures of me. That is why I say to you, quite frankly, that I wouldn’t accept a cent of Mr. Glenarm’s money if it were offered me; and that is why,”—and her smile was a flash of spring,—“I want you to obey the terms of the will and earn your fortune.”
She closed the fan sharply and lifted her eyes to mine.
“But there isn’t any fortune! It’s all a myth, a joke,” I declared.
“Mr. Pickering doesn’t seem to think so. He had every reason for believing that Mr. Glenarm was a very rich man. The property can’t be found in the usual places,—banks, safety vaults, and the like. Then where do you think it is,—or better, where do you think Mr. Pickering thinks it is?”
“But assuming that it’s buried up there by the lake like a pirate’s treasure, it isn’t Pickering’s if he finds it. There are laws to protect even the dead from robbery!” I concluded hotly.
“How difficult you are! Suppose you should fall from a boat, or be shot—accidentally—then I might have to take the fortune after all; and Mr. Pickering might think of an easier way of getting it than by—”
“Stealing it! Yes, but you wouldn’t—!”
Half-past twelve struck on the stairway and I started to my feet.
“You wouldn’t—” I repeated.
“I might, you know!”
“I must go,—but not with that, not with any hint of that,—please!”
“If you let him defeat you, if you fail to spend your year there,—we’ll overlook this one lapse,”—she looked me steadily in the eyes, wholly guiltless of coquetry but infinitely kind,—“then,—”
She paused, opened the fan, held it up to the light and studied the golden butterflies.
“Then—let me see—oh, I shall never chase another rabbit as long as I live! Now go—quickly—quickly!”
“But you haven’t told me when and where it was we met the first time. Please!”
She laughed, but urged me away with her eyes.
“I shan’t do it! It isn’t proper for me to remember, if your memory is so poor. I wonder how it would seem for us to meet just once—and be introduced! Good night! You really came. You are a gentleman of your word, Squire Glenarm!”
She gave me the tips of her fingers without looking at me.
A servant came in hurriedly.
“Miss Devereux, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor and Mr. Pickering are in the drawing-room.”
“Yes; very well; I will come at once.”
Then to me:
“They must not see you—there, that way!” and she stood in the door, facing me, her hands lightly touching the frame as though to secure my way.
I turned for a last look and saw her waiting—her eyes bent gravely upon me, her arms still half-raised, barring the door; then she turned swiftly away into the hall.
Outside I found my hat and coat, and wakened my sleeping driver. He drove like mad into the city, and I swung upon the north-bound sleeper just as it was drawing out of the station.