As they made their way through scattered timber and the litter of fresh carpentry-work, the man who was busy there and who certainly had outstayed his time took up his kit and disappeared around the corner of the house. Neither noted him. The cuckoo-clock was chirping out its five small notes from the cheerful interior, and the Curator was remarking upon it.
“That’s a merry sound both sweet and stimulating; and what is still better, I can hear it without effort. I believe I should like to have a clock of that kind.”
“It goes where I go,” muttered its strange owner with what seemed an involuntary emphasis. Then as the Curator turned upon him in some surprise, he added with studied indifference: “I brought it from Switzerland when I was younger than I am now — a silly memento, but I fancy it.”
A commonplace explanation surely; why, then, did that same workman, who had stopped short after rounding the corner to pick up something which he as quickly threw down, turn a quick head and listen eagerly for what might be said next. Nothing came of it, for the veranda door was near and the two gentlemen had stepped in; but to one who knew Sweetwater, the smile with which he resumed his work had an element in it which, if seen, would have darkened still further the gloom in the troubled eye of the speaker.
Switzerland! He had said Switzerland.
It was not long after this that the Curator and his host left for New York.
The house was not quite ready for occupancy, but was in the process of being made so by the woman who had done duty as housekeeper for Mr. Roberts both before his marriage and since his wife’s death. During the fifteen years which had intervened, she had been simply the cook.
This woman, Huldah Weston by name, did not accompany them. She was in Belport to stay, and as it behooves us to remain there for a while longer ourselves, we will join her in the quiet rest she is taking on the kitchen steps before shutting up the house for the night.
She is not alone. A young man is with her — one to whom she is giving temporary board and lodging in exchange for the protection of his presence and such slight help as he can afford her in the heavy task of distributing and arranging the furniture.
We know this man. It is the one we have just seen halting at the corner of the house, on quitting his work on the new veranda — Sweetwater.
He is a genial soul; she, though very old for the responsibilities she still insists upon carrying, enjoys a good laugh. Nor is she averse to the numberless little kindly attentions with which he shows his respect for her age if not a personal liking for herself. In short, they are almost friends, and she trusts him as she has never trusted any young man yet, save the boy she lost when she was still a comely widow.
Perhaps this is why, on this night when we find the two together, he ventures to turn the talk upon the man she had so devotedly served during the better part of her life.
He began with the cuckoo-clock. Where did it come from? How long had they had it? What a jolly little customer the wee bird was, darting out and darting in with his hurry-call to anyone who would listen! It made a fellow feel ashamed to dawdle at his work. It wouldn’t do to let any mere bird get ahead of him — a wooden bird at that!
He got her talking. She had known Mr. Roberts’ mother, and she had been in the house (a young girl then) when he went away to Europe. He had not wanted to go. He was in love, or thought he was, with a woman older than himself. But the mother did not approve of the match, though the lady had a mint of money and everything in her favor but those seven years. She afterward became his wife and for all his mother’s fears they lived together very happily. Since her death which occurred about a year ago he’s been a different man; very sad and much given to sitting alone. Anyone can see the effect it has had upon him if they look at him closely.
“She was a good woman, then?”
“Well, life must be lonesome for a widower, especially if he has no children. But perhaps he has some married or at school?”
“No, he has no children, and no relations, to speak of.”
“And he brought that clock from Switzerland? Did he ever say from what part of Switzerland?”
“If he did, I don’t remember; I’ve no memory for foreign names.”
This sent Sweetwater off on another tack. He knew such a good story, which, having told, he seemed to have forgotten all about the clock, for he said nothing more about it, and not much more about Mr. Roberts.
But when, a little later, he followed her into that gentleman’s room for the purpose of unlocking a trunk which had been delivered that day, he took advantage of her momentary absence in search of the key to pull out that cuckoo-clock from the wall where it hung and read the small slip of paper pasted across its back. As he hoped, it gave both the name and address of the merchant from whom it had been bought. But that was not all. Running in diagonal lines across this label, he saw some faded lines in fine handwriting, which proved to be a couplet signed with five initials. The latter were not quite legible, but the couplet he could read without the least difficulty. It was highly sentimental, and might mean much and might mean nothing. If the handwriting should prove to be Mr. Roberts’, the probabilities were in favor of the former supposition — or so he said to himself, as he swung the clock back into place.
When Mrs. Weston returned, he was standing as patiently as possible in the middle of the room, saying over and over to himself to insure remembrance till he could jot the lines down in his notebook: Bossberg, Lucerne. . . . I love but thee — and thee will I love to eternity.
His interest in this slight and doubtful clue, however, sank into insignificance when, having unlocked and unstrapped the trunk which Mrs. Weston pointed out, he saw to his infinite satisfaction that it held Mr. Roberts’ clothing — the one thing in the world toward which at this exact moment his curiosity mainly pointed. If only he might help her handle the heavy coats which lay so temptingly on top! Should he propose to do so? Looking at her firm chin and steady eye, he felt that he did not dare. To rouse the faintest suspicion in this woman’s intelligent mind would be fatal to all further procedure, and so he stood indifferent, while she lifted garment after garment and laid them carefully on the bed. He counted five coats and as many vests — and was racking his brains for some plausible excuse for a nearer inspection, when she stopped in the midst of her work, with the cheery remark:
“That will do for to-night. To-morrow I will look them all over for moths before hanging them away in the closet.”
And he had to go, leaving them lying there within reach of his hand, when one glance at the lining of a certain coat which had especially attracted his eye might have given him the one clue he most needed.
The room which had been allotted to him in this house was in the rear and at the top of a steep flight of stairs. As he sought it that night, he cast a quick glance through the narrow passageway opening just beyond his own door. Would it be possible for him to thread those devious ways and reach Mr. Roberts’ room without rousing Mrs. Weston, who in spite of her years had the alertness of a watchdog with eye and ear ever open? To be found strolling through quarters where he had no business would be worse than being suspected of taking a personal interest in the owner’s garments. He was of an adventurous turn, and ever ready to risk something on the turn of a die, but not too much. A false move might hazard all; besides, he remembered the airing these clothes were to get and the nearness of the clothes-yard to the pump he so frequently patronized, and all the chances which this gave for an inspection which would carry little danger to one of his ready wit.
So he gave up the midnight search he might have attempted under other circumstances, and shut his room from the moon and his eyes to sleep, and dreamed. Was it of the great museum, with its hidden mystery enshrouding its many wonders of high art, or of a far-off time and a far-off scene, where in the stress of some great emotion the trembling hand of Carleton Roberts had written on the back of this foolish clock for which he still retained so great a fancy the couplet which he himself had so faithfully memorized:
I love but thee,
And thee will I love to eternity.
At eight o’clock on the following morning the quick strokes of the workman’s hammer reawakened the echoes at the end of the building where the big enclosed veranda was going up.
As the clock struck nine Mrs. Weston could be seen hanging up her master’s coats and trousers on a long line stretched across the clothes-yard. They remained there two hours, viewed from afar by Sweetwater, but not approached till he saw the old woman disappear from one of the gates with a basket on her arm. Then he developed thirst and went rearward to the pump. While there, he took a look at the sea. A brisk wind was springing up. It gave him an idea.
Making sure that his fellow workmen were all busy, he loosened one end of the line holding the fluttering garments and then went back to his work. As the wind increased, the strain on the line became too great, and soon he had the satisfaction of seeing the whole thing fall in one wild flap to the ground. With an exclamation calculated to draw the attention of the men about him to what had happened, he rushed to the rescue, lifted the line and rearranged the clothes. Then refastening — this time securely — the end of the line which had slipped loose, he returned to his post, with just one quick and disappointed look thrown back at the now safe if wildly fluttering garments.
He had improved his opportunity to examine the inside of every coat and had found nothing to reward his scrutiny. But it was not this which had given him his chief annoyance. It was the fact that the one coat from which he had expected the anticipated clue — the coat which Mr. Roberts had certainly worn on that tragic day at the museum — was not there. A summer overcoat had filled out the number, and his investigation was incomplete.
Why was that one coat lacking? He was sure he had seen it the night before lying on the bed with the others. Was it still there, or had it been stowed away in drawer or closet, irrespective of its danger from moths, for a reason he would give his eyeteeth to know but dared not inquire into till he had clinched his friendship with this old woman so thoroughly that he could ask her anything — which certainly was not the case as yet.
The absence of the one coat he wanted most to see afflicted him sorely. He told Mrs. Weston, on her return, how the line had fallen and how he had replaced it, but for all his wits, he could not get any further. With the close of the day’s work and the reappearance of Mr. Roberts, he slipped away to the village, to avoid an encounter of the results of which he felt very doubtful. His dinner would not be ready till after Mr. Roberts had been served, and the three hours which must necessarily elapse before that happy moment looked very long and very unproductive to him, especially as he had found no answer as yet to the question which so grievously perplexed him.
He had paced the main street twice and had turned into a narrow lane ending in the smallest of gardens and the most infinitesimal of houses, when the door of this same house opened and a man came out whose appearance held him speechless for a moment — then sent him forward with a quickly beating heart. It was not the man himself that produced this somewhat startling effect; it was his clothes. So far as his hat and nether garments went, they were, if not tattered, not very far from it; but the coat he wore was not only trim but made of the finest cloth and without the smallest sign of wear. It was so conspicuously fine, and looked so grotesquely out of place on the man wearing it, that he could pass no one without rousing curiosity, and he probably had all he wanted to do for the next few days in explaining how a fine gentleman’s coat had fallen to his lot.
But to Sweetwater its interest lay in something more important than the amusing incongruity it offered to the eye. It looked exactly like the one belonging to Mr. Roberts which had escaped his scrutiny in so remarkable a way. Should it prove to be that same, how fortunate he was to have it brought thus easily within his reach and under circumstances so natural it was not necessary for him to think twice how best to take advantage of them.
Father Dobbins — for that is the name by which this old codger was known to the boys — was, as might be expected, very proud of his new acquisition and quite blind to the contrast it offered to his fringed-out trouser-legs. He had a smile on his face which broadened as he caught Sweetwater’s sympathetic glance.
“Fine day,” he mumbled. “Are ye wantin’ somethin’ of me that ye’re comin’ this way?”
“Perhaps and perhaps,” answered Sweetwater, “— if that fine coat I see you wearing is the one given you by Mrs. Weston up the road.”
“‘Deed, sir, and what’s amiss? She gave it to me, yes. Came all the way into the village to find me and give it to me. Too small for her master, she said; and would I take it to oblige him. Does she want it back?”
“Oh, no — not she. She’s not that kind. It’s only that she has since remembered that one of the pockets has a hole in it — an inside one, I believe. She’s afraid it might lose you a dime some day. Will you let me see if she is right? If so, I was to take you to the tailor’s and have it fixed immediately. I am to pay for it.”
The old man stared in slow comprehension; then with the deliberation which evidently marked all his movements, he slowly put down his basket.
“I warrant ye it’s all right,” he said. “But look, an ye will. I don’t want to lose no dimes.”
Sweetwater threw back one side of the coat, then the other, felt in the pockets and smiled. But Gryce, and not ignorant Father Dobbins, should have seen that smile. There was comedy in it, and there was the deepest tragedy also; for the marks of stitches forcibly cut were to be seen under one of the pockets — stitches which must have held something as narrow as an umbrella-band and no longer than the little strip at which Mr. Gryce had been looking one night in a melancholy little short of prophetic.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55