The House of a Thousand Candles
THE GIRL AND THE CANOE
“The persimmons are off the place, sir. Mr. Glenarm 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.
“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.