The uniform newness of a new country gives peculiar relief to its few relics of antiquity — a term which, in America, may fairly enough be applied to any building already above ground when the colony became a republic.
Groups of such buildings, little settlements almost unmarred by later accretions, are still to be found here and there in the Eastern states; and they are always productive of inordinate pride in those who discover and live in them. A place of the sort, twenty years ago, was Harpledon, on the New England coast, somewhere between Salem and Newburyport. How intolerantly proud we all were of inhabiting it! How we resisted modern improvements, ridiculed fashionable “summer resorts,” fought trolley-lines, overhead wires and telephones, wrote to the papers denouncing municipal vandalism, and bought up (those of us who could afford it) one little heavy-roofed house after another, as the land-speculator threatened them! All this, of course, was on a very small scale: Harpledon was, and is still, the smallest of towns, hardly more than a village, happily unmenaced by industry, and almost too remote for the week-end “flivver.” And now that civic pride has taught Americans to preserve and adorn their modest monuments, setting them in smooth stretches of turf and nursing the elms of the village green, the place has become far more attractive, and far worthier of its romantic reputation, than when we artists and writers first knew it. Nevertheless, I hope I shall never see it again; certainly I shall not if I can help it . . .
The elders of the tribe of summer visitors nearly all professed to have “discovered” Harpledon. The only one of the number who never, to my knowledge, put forth this claim was Waldo Cranch; and he had lived there longer than any of us.
The one person in the village who could remember his coming to Harpledon, and opening and repairing the old Cranch house (for his family had been India merchants when Harpledon was a thriving sea-port) — the only person who went back far enough to antedate Waldo Cranch was an aunt of mine, old Miss Lucilla Selwick, who lived in the Selwick house, itself a stout relic of India merchant days, and who had been sitting at the same window, watching the main street of Harpledon, for seventy years and more to my knowledge. But unfortunately the long range of Aunt Lucilla’s memory often made it hit rather wide of the mark. She remembered heaps and heaps of far-off things; but she almost always remembered them wrongly. For instance, she used to say: “Poor Polly Everitt! How well I remember her, coming up from the beach one day screaming, and saying she’d seen her husband drowning before her eyes” — whereas every one knew that Mrs. Everitt was on a picnic when her husband was drowned at the other end of the world, and that no ghostly premonition of her loss had reached her. And whenever Aunt Lucilla mentioned Mr. Cranch’s coming to live at Harpledon she used to say: “Dear me, I can see him now, driving by on that rainy afternoon in Denny Brine’s old carry-all, with a great pile of bags and bundles, and on top of them a black and white hobby-horse with a real mane — the very handsomest hobby-horse I ever saw.” No persuasion could induce her to dissociate the image of this prodigious toy from her first sight of Waldo Cranch, most incurable of bachelors, and least concerned with the amusing of other people’s children, even those of his best friends. In this case, to be sure, her power of evocation had a certain success. Some one told Cranch — Mrs. Durant I think it must have been — and I can still hear his hearty laugh.
“What could it have been that she saw?” Mrs. Durant questioned; and he responded gaily: “Why not simply the symbol of my numerous tastes?” Which — as Cranch painted and gardened and made music (even composed it) — seemed so happy an explanation that for long afterward the Cranch house was known to us as Hobby–Horse Hall.
It will be seen that Aunt Lucilla’s reminiscences, though they sometimes provoked a passing amusement, were neither accurate nor illuminating. Naturally, nobody paid much attention to them, and we had to content ourselves with regarding Waldo Cranch, hale and hearty and social as he still was, as an Institution already venerable when the rest of us had first apprehended Harpledon. We knew, of course, the chief points in the family history: that the Cranches had been prosperous merchants for three centuries, and had intermarried with other prosperous families; that one of them, serving his business apprenticeship at Malaga in colonial days, had brought back a Spanish bride, to the bewilderment of Harpledon; and that Waldo Cranch himself had spent a studious and wandering youth in Europe. His Spanish great-grandmother’s portrait still hung in the old house; and it was a long-standing joke at Harpledon that the young Cranch who went to Malaga, where he presumably had his pick of Spanish beauties, should have chosen so dour a specimen. The lady was a forbidding character on the canvas: very short and thickset, with a huge wig of black ringlets, a long harsh nose, and one shoulder perceptibly above the other. It was characteristic of Aunt Lucilla Selwick that in mentioning this swart virago she always took the tone of elegy. “Ah, poor thing, they say she never forgot the sunshine and orange blossoms, and pined off early, when her queer son Calvert was hardly out of petticoats. A strange man Calvert Cranch was; but he married Euphemia Waldo of Wood’s Hole, the beauty, and had two sons, one exactly like Euphemia, the other made in his own image. And they do say that one was so afraid of his own face that he went back to Spain and died a monk — if you’ll believe it,” she always concluded with a Puritan shudder.
This was all we knew of Waldo Cranch’s past; and he had been so long a part of Harpledon that our curiosity seldom ranged beyond his coming there. He was our local ancestor; but it was a mark of his studied cordiality and his native tact that he never made us feel his priority. It was never he who embittered us with allusions to the picturesqueness of the old light-house before it was rebuilt, or the paintability of the vanished water-mill; he carried his distinction so far as to take Harpledon itself for granted, carelessly, almost condescendingly — as if there had been rows and rows of them strung along the Atlantic coast.
Yet the Cranch house was really something to brag about. Architects and photographers had come in pursuit of it long before the diffused quaintness of Harpledon made it the prey of the magazine illustrator. The Cranch house was not quaint; it owed little to the happy irregularities of later additions, and needed no such help. Foursquare and stern, built of a dark mountain granite (though all the other old houses in the place were of brick or wood), it stood at the far end of the green, where the elms were densest and the village street faded away between blueberry pastures and oakwoods.
A door with a white classical portico was the only eighteenth century addition. The house kept untouched its heavy slate roof, its low windows, its sober cornice and plain interior panelling — even the old box garden at the back, and the pagoda-roofed summer house, could not have been much later than the house. I have said that the latter owed little to later additions; yet some people thought the wing on the garden side was of more recent construction. If it was, its architect had respected the dimensions and detail of the original house, simply giving the wing one less story, and covering it with a lower-pitched roof. The learned thought that the kitchen and offices, and perhaps the slaves’ quarters, had originally been in this wing; they based their argument on the fact of there being no windows, but only blind arches, on the side toward the garden, Waldo Cranch said he didn’t know; he had found the wing just as it was now, with a big empty room on the ground floor, that he used for storing things, and a few low-studded bedchambers above. The house was so big that he didn’t need any of these rooms, and had never bothered about them. Once, I remember, I thought him a little short with a fashionable Boston architect who had insisted on Mrs. Durant’s bringing him to see the house, and who wanted to examine the windows on the farther, the invisible, side of the wing.
“Certainly,” Cranch had agreed. “But you see those windows look on the kitchen-court and the drying-ground. My old housekeeper and the faithful retainers generally sit there in the afternoons in hot weather, when their work is done, and they’ve been with me so long that I respect their habits. At some other hour, if you’ll come again — . You’re going back to Boston tomorrow? So sorry! Yes, of course, you can photograph the front as much as you like. It’s used to it.” And he showed out Mrs. Durant and her protege.
When he came back a frown still lingered on his handsome brows. “I’m getting sick of having this poor old house lionized. No one bothered about it or me when I first came back to live here,” he said. But a moment later he added, in his usual kindly tone: “After all, I suppose I ought to be pleased.”
If anyone could have soothed his annoyance, and even made it appear unreasonable, it was Mrs. Durant. The fact that it was to her he had betrayed his impatience struck us all, and caused me to remark, for the first time, that she was the only person at Harpledon who was not afraid of him. Yes; we all were, though he came and went among us with such a show of good-fellowship that it took this trifling incident to remind me of his real aloofness. Not one of us but would have felt a slight chill at his tone to the Boston architect; but then I doubt if any of us but Mrs. Durant would have dared to bring a stranger to the house.
Mrs. Durant was a widow who combined gray hair with a still-youthful face at a time when this happy union was less generally fashionable than now. She had come to Harpledon among the earliest summer colonists, and had soon struck up a friendship with Waldo Cranch. At first Harpledon was sure they would marry; then it became sure they wouldn’t; for a number of years now it had wondered why they hadn’t. These conjectures, of which the two themselves could hardly have been unaware, did not seem to trouble the even tenor of their friendship. They continued to meet as often as before, and Mrs. Durant continued to be the channel for transmitting any request or inquiry that the rest of us hesitated to put to Cranch. “We know he won’t refuse you,” I once said to her; and I recall the half-lift of her dark brows above a pinched little smile. “Perhaps,” I thought, “he has refused her — once.” If so, she had taken her failure gallantly, and Cranch appeared to find an undiminished pleasure in her company. Indeed, as the years went on their friendship grew closer; one would have said he was dependent on her if one could have pictured Cranch as dependent on anybody. But whenever I tried to do this I was driven back to the fundamental fact of his isolation.
“He could get on well enough without any of us,” I thought to myself, wondering if this remoteness were inherited from the homesick Spanish ancestress. Yet I have seldom known a more superficially sociable man than Cranch. He had many talents, none of which perhaps went as far as he had once confidently hoped; but at least he used them as links with his kind instead of letting them seclude him in their jealous hold. He was always eager to show his sketches, to read aloud his occasional articles in the lesser literary reviews, and above all to play his new compositions to the musically-minded among us; or rather, since “eager” is hardly the term to apply to his calm balanced manner, I should say that he was affably ready to show off his accomplishments. But then he may have regarded doing so as one of the social obligations: I had felt from the first that, whatever Cranch did, he was always living up to some self-imposed and complicated standard. Even his way of taking off his hat struck me as the result of more thought than most people give to the act; his very absence of flourish lent it an odd importance.
It was the year of Harpledon’s first “jumble sale” that all these odds and ends of observation first began to connect themselves in my mind.
Harpledon had decided that it ought to have a village hospital and dispensary, and Cranch was among the first to promise a subscription and to join the committee. A meeting was called at Mrs. Durant’s and after much deliberation it was decided to hold a village fair and jumble sale in somebody’s grounds; but whose? We all hoped Cranch would lend his garden; but no one dared to ask him. We sounded each other cautiously, before he arrived, and each tried to shift the enterprise to his neighbour; till at last Homer Davids, our chief celebrity as a painter, and one of the shrewdest heads in the community, said drily: “Oh, Cranch wouldn’t care about it.”
“How do you know he wouldn’t?” some one queried.
“Just as you all do; if not, why is it that you all want some one else to ask him?”
Mrs. Durant hesitated. “I’m sure — ” she began.
“Oh, well, all right, then! You ask him,” rejoined Davids cheerfully.
“I can’t always be the one — ”
I saw her embarrassment, and volunteered: “If you think there’s enough shade in my garden . . . ”
By the way their faces lit up I saw the relief it was to them all not to have to tackle Cranch. Yet why, having a garden he was proud of, need he have been displeased at the request?
“Men don’t like the bother,” said one of our married ladies; which occasioned the proper outburst of praise for my unselfishness, and the observation that Cranch’s maids, who had all been for years in his service, were probably set in their ways, and wouldn’t care for the confusion and extra work. “Yes, old Catherine especially; she guards the place like a dragon,” one of the ladies remarked; and at that moment Cranch appeared. Having been told what had been settled he joined with the others in complimenting me; and we began to plan for the jumble sale.
The men needed enlightenment on this point, I as much as the rest, but the prime mover immediately explained: “Oh, you just send any old rubbish you’ve got in the house.”
We all welcomed this novel way of clearing out our cupboards, except Cranch who, after a moment, and with a whimsical wrinkling of his brows, said: “But I haven’t got any old rubbish.”
“Oh, well, children’s cast-off toys for instance,” a newcomer threw out at random.
There was a general smile, to which Cranch responded with one of his rare expressive gestures, as who should say: “Toys — in my house? But whose?”
I laughed, and one of the ladies, remembering our old joke, cried out: “Why, but the hobby-horse!”
Cranch’s face became a well-bred blank. Long-suffering courtesy was the note of the voice in which he echoed: “Hobbyhorse —?”
“Don’t you remember?” It was Mrs. Durant who prompted him. “Our old joke? The wonderful black-and-white hobby-horse that Miss Lucilla Selwick said she saw you driving home with when you first arrived here? It had a real mane.” Her colour rose a little as she spoke.
There was a moment’s pause, while Cranch’s brow remained puzzled; then a smile slowly cleared his face. “Of course!” he said. “I’d forgotten. Well, I feel now that I was young enough for toys thirty years ago; but I didn’t feel so then. And we should have to apply to Miss Selwick to know what became of that hobby-horse. Meanwhile,” he added, putting his hand in his pocket, “here’s a small offering to supply some new ones for the fair.”
The offering was not small: Cranch always gave liberally, yet always produced the impression of giving indifferently. Well, one couldn’t have it both ways; some of our most gushing givers were the least lavish. The committee was delighted . . .
“It was queer,” I said afterward to Mrs. Durant. “Why did the hobby-horse joke annoy Cranch? He used to like it.”
She smiled. “He may think it’s lasted long enough. Harpledon jokes do last, you know.”
Yes; perhaps they did, though I had never thought of it before.
“There’s one thing that puzzles me,” I went on; “I never know beforehand what is going to annoy him.”
She pondered. “I’ll tell you, then,” she said suddenly. “It has annoyed him that no one thought of asking him to give one of his water-colours to the sale.”
“No. Homer Davids was asked, and that made it . . . rather more marked . . . ”
“Oh, of course! I suppose we all forgot — ”
She looked away. “Well,” she said, “I don’t suppose he likes to be forgotten.”
“You mean: to have his accomplishments forgotten?”
“Isn’t that a little condescending? I should say, his gifts,” she corrected a trifle sharply. Sharpness was so unusual in her that she may have seen my surprise, for she added, in her usual tone: “After all, I suppose he’s our most brilliant man, isn’t he?” She smiled a little, as if to take the sting from my doing so.
“Of course he is,” I rejoined. “But all the more reason — how could a man of his kind resent such a trifling oversight? I’ll write at once — ”
“Oh, don’t!” she cut me short, almost pleadingly.
Mrs. Durant’s word was law: Cranch was not asked for a water-colour. Homer Davids’s, I may add, sold for two thousand dollars, and paid for a heating-system for our hospital. A Boston millionaire came down on purpose to buy the picture. It was a great day for Harpledon.
About a week after the fair I went one afternoon to call on Mrs. Durant, and found Cranch just leaving. His greeting, as he hurried by, was curt and almost hostile, and his handsome countenance so disturbed and pale that I hardly recognized him. I was sure there could be nothing personal in his manner; we had always been on good terms, and, next to Mrs. Durant, I suppose I was his nearest friend at Harpledon — if ever one could be said to get near Waldo Cranch! After he had passed me I stood hesitating at Mrs. Durant’s open door — front doors at Harpledon were always open in those friendly days, except, by the way, Cranch’s own, which the stern Catherine kept chained and bolted. Since meeting me could not have been the cause of his anger, it might have been excited by something which had passed between Mrs. Durant and himself; and if that were so, my call was probably inopportune. I decided not to go in, and was turning away when I heard hurried steps, and Mrs. Durant’s voice. “Waldo!” she said.
I suppose I had always assumed that she called him so; yet the familiar appellation startled me, and made me feel more than ever in the way. None of us had ever given Cranch his Christian name.
Mrs. Durant checked her steps, perceiving that the back in the doorway was not Cranch’s but mine. “Oh, do come in,” she murmured, with an attempt at ease.
In the little drawing-room I turned and looked at her. She, too, was visibly disturbed; not angry, as he had been, but showing, on her white face and reddened lids, the pained reflection of his anger. Was it against her, then, that he had manifested it? Probably she guessed my thought, or felt her appearance needed to be explained, for she added quickly: “Mr. Cranch has just gone. Did he speak to you?”
“No. He seemed in a great hurry.”
“Yes . . . I wanted to beg him to come back . . . to try to quiet him . . . ”
She saw my bewilderment, and picked up a copy of an illustrated magazine which had been tossed on the sofa. “It’s that — ” she said.
The pages fell apart at an article entitled: “Colonial Harpledon,” the greater part of which was taken up by a series of clever sketches signed by the Boston architect whom she had brought to Cranch’s a few months earlier.
Of the six or seven drawings, four were devoted to the Cranch house. One represented the facade and its pillared gates, a second the garden front with the windowless side of the wing, the third a corner of the box garden surrounding the Chinese summer-house; while the fourth, a full-page drawing, was entitled: “The back of the slaves’ quarters and service-court: quaint window-grouping.”
On that picture the magazine had opened; it was evidently the one which had been the subject of discussion between my hostess and her visitor.
“You see . . . you see . . . ” she cried.
“This picture? Well, what of it? I suppose it’s the far side of the wing — the side we’ve never any of us seen.”
“Yes; that’s just it. He’s horribly upset . . . ”
“Upset about what? I heard him tell the architect he could come back some other day and see the wing . . . some day when the maids were not sitting in the court; wasn’t that it?”
She shook her head tragically. “He didn’t mean it. Couldn’t you tell by the sound of his voice that he didn’t?”
Her tragedy airs were beginning to irritate me. “I don’t know that I pay as much attention as all that to the sound of his voice.”
She coloured, and choked back her tears. “I know him so well; I’m always sorry to see him lose his self-control. And then he considers me responsible.”
“It was I who took the wretched man there. And of course it was an indiscretion to do that drawing; he was never really authorized to come back. In fact, Mr. Cranch gave orders to Catherine and all the other servants not to let him in if he did.”
“One of the maids seems to have disobeyed the order; Mr. Cranch imagines she was bribed. He has been staying in Boston, and this morning, on the way back, he saw this magazine at the book-stall at the station. He was so horrified that he brought it to me. He came straight from the train without going home, so he doesn’t yet know how the thing happened.”
“It doesn’t take much to horrify him,” I said, again unable to restrain a faint sneer.
“What’s the harm in the man’s having made that sketch?”
“Harm?” She looked surprised at my lack of insight. “No actual harm, I suppose; but it was very impertinent; and Mr. Cranch resents such liberties intensely. He’s so punctilious.”
“Well, we Americans are not punctilious, and being one himself, he ought to know it by this time.”
She pondered again. “It’s his Spanish blood, I suppose . . . he’s frightfully proud.” As if this were a misfortune, she added: “I’m very sorry for him.”
“So am I, if such trifles upset him.”
Her brows lightened. “Ah, that’s what I tell him — such things are trifles, aren’t they? As I said just now: ‘Your life’s been too fortunate, too prosperous. That’s why you’re so easily put out.’”
“And what did he answer?”
“Oh, it only made him angrier. He said: ‘I never expected that from you’ — that was when he rushed out of the house.” Her tears flowed over, and seeing her so genuinely perturbed I restrained my impatience, and took leave after a few words of sympathy.
Never had Harpledon seemed to me more like a tea-cup than with that silly tempest convulsing it. That there should be grownup men who could lose their self-command over such rubbish, and women to tremble and weep with them! For a moment I felt the instinctive irritation of normal man at such foolishness; yet before I reached my own door I was as mysteriously perturbed as Mrs. Durant.
The truth was, I had never thought of Cranch as likely to lose his balance over trifles. He had never struck me as unmanly; his quiet manner, his even temper, showed a sound sense of the relative importance of things. How then could so petty an annoyance have thrown him into such disorder?
I stopped short on my threshold, remembering his face as he brushed past me. “Something is wrong; really wrong,” I thought. But what? Could it be jealousy of Mrs. Durant and the Boston architect? The idea would not bear a moment’s consideration, for I remembered her face too.
“Oh, well, if it’s his silly punctilio,” I grumbled, trying to reassure myself, and remaining, after all, as much perplexed as before.
All the next day it poured, and I sat at home among my books. It must have been after ten in the evening when I was startled by a ring. The maids had gone to bed, and I went to the door, and opened it to Mrs. Durant. Surprised at the lateness of her visit, I drew her in out of the storm. She had flung a cloak over her light dress, and the lace scarf on her head dripped with rain. Our houses were only a few hundred yards apart, and she had brought no umbrella, nor even exchanged her evening slippers for heavier shoes.
I took her wet cloak and scarf and led her into the library. She stood trembling and staring at me, her face like a marble mask in which the lips were too rigid for speech; then she laid a sheet of note-paper on the table between us. On it was written, in Waldo Cranch’s beautiful hand: “My dear friend, I am going away on a journey. You will hear from me,” with his initials beneath. Nothing more. The letter bore no date.
I looked at her, waiting for an explanation. None came. The first word she said was: “Will you come with me — now, at once?”
“Come with you — where?”
“To his house — before he leaves. I’ve only just got the letter, and I daren’t go alone . . . ”
“Go to Cranch’s house? But I . . . at this hour . . . What is it you are afraid of?” I broke out, suddenly looking into her eyes.
She gave me back my look, and her rigid face melted. “I don’t know — any more than you do — That’s why I’m afraid.”
“But I know nothing. What on earth has happened since I saw you yesterday?”
“Nothing till I got this letter.”
“You haven’t seen him?”
“Not since you saw him leave my house yesterday.”
“Or had any message — any news of him?”
“Absolutely nothing. I’ve just sat and remembered his face.”
My perplexity grew. “But surely you can’t imagine . . . If you’re as frightened as that you must have some other reason for it,” I insisted.
She shook her head wearily. “It’s the having none that frightens me. Oh, do come!”
“You think his leaving in this way means that he’s in some kind of trouble?”
“In dreadful trouble.”
“And you don’t know why?”
“No more than you do!” she repeated.
I pondered, trying to avoid her entreating eyes. “But at this hour — come, do consider! I don’t know Cranch so awfully well. How will he take it? You say he made a scene yesterday about that silly business of the architect’s going to his house without leave . . . ”
“That’s just it. I feel as if his going away might be connected with that.”
“But then he’s mad!” I exclaimed. “No; not mad. Only — desperate.”
I stood irresolute. It was evident that I had to do with a woman whose nerves were in fiddle-strings. What had reduced them to that state I could not conjecture, unless, indeed, she were keeping back the vital part of her confession. But that, queerly enough, was not what I suspected. For some reason I felt her to be as much in the dark over the whole business as I was; and that added to the strangeness of my dilemma.
“Do you know in the least what you’re going for?” I asked at length.
“No, no, no — but come!”
“If he’s there, he’ll kick us out, most likely; kick me out, at any rate.”
She did not answer; I saw that in her anguish she was past speaking. “Wait till I get my coat,” I said.
She took my arm, and side by side we hurried in the rain through the shuttered village. As we passed the Selwick house I saw a light burning in old Miss Selwick’s bedroom window. It was on the tip of my tongue to say: “Hadn’t we better stop and ask Aunt Lucilla what’s wrong? She knows more about Cranch than any of us!”
Then I remembered Cranch’s expression the last time Aunt Lucilla’s legend of the hobby-horse had been mentioned before him — the day we were planning the jumble sale — and a sudden shiver checked my pleasantry. “He looked then as he did when he passed me in the doorway yesterday,” I thought; and I had a vision of my ancient relative, sitting there propped up in her bed and looking quietly into the unknown while all the village slept. Was she aware, I wondered, that we were passing under her window at that moment, and did she know what would await us when we reached our destination?
Mrs. Durant, in her thin slippers, splashed on beside me through the mud.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, stopping short with a gasp, “look at the lights!”
We had crossed the green, and were groping our way under the dense elm-shadows, and there before us stood the Cranch house, all its windows illuminated. It was the only house in the village except Miss Selwick’s that was not darkened and shuttered.
“Well, he can’t be gone; he’s giving a party, you see,” I said derisively.
My companion made no answer. She only pulled me forward, and yielding once more I pushed open the tall entrance gates. In the brick path I paused. “Do you still want to go in?” I asked.
“More than ever!” She kept her tight clutch on my arm, and I walked up the path at her side and rang the bell.
The sound went on jangling for a long time through the stillness; but no one came to the door. At length Mrs. Durant laid an impatient hand on the door-panel. “But it’s open!” she exclaimed.
It was probably the first time since Waldo Cranch had come back to live in the house that unbidden visitors had been free to enter it. We looked at each other in surprise and I followed Mrs. Durant into the lamplit hall. It was empty.
With a common accord we stood for a moment listening; but not a sound came to us, though the doors of library and drawing-room stood open, and there were lighted lamps in both rooms.
“It’s queer,” I said, “all these lights, and no one about.”
My companion had walked impulsively into the drawing-room and stood looking about at its familiar furniture. From the panelled wall, distorted by the wavering lamp-light, the old Spanish ancestress glared down duskily at us out of the shadows. Mrs. Durant had stopped short — a sound of voices, agitated, discordant, a strange man’s voice among them, came to us from across the hall. Silently we retraced our steps, opened the dining-room door, and went in. But here also we found emptiness; the talking came from beyond, came, as we now perceived, from the wing which none of us had ever entered. Again we hesitated and looked at each other. Then “Come!” said Mrs. Durant in a resolute tone; and again I followed her.
She led the way into a large pantry, airy, orderly, well-stocked with china and glass. That too was empty; and two doors opened from it. Mrs. Durant passed through the one on the right, and we found ourselves, not, as I had expected, in the kitchen, but in a kind of vague unfurnished anteroom. The quarrelling voices had meanwhile died out; we seemed once more to have the mysterious place to ourselves. Suddenly, beyond another closed door, we heard a shrill crowing laugh. Mrs. Durant dashed at this last door and it let us into a large high-studded room. We paused and looked about us. Evidently we were in what Cranch had always described as the lumber-room on the ground floor of the wing. But there was no lumber in it now. It was scrupulously neat, and fitted up like a big and rather bare nursery; and in the middle of the floor, on a square of drugget, stood a great rearing black and white animal: my Aunt Lucilla’s hobby-horse . . .
I gasped at the sight; but in spite of its strangeness it did not detain me long, for at the farther end of the room, before a fire protected by a tall nursery fender, I had seen something stranger still. Two little boys in old-fashioned round jackets and knickerbockers knelt by the hearth, absorbed in the building of a house of blocks. Mrs. Durant saw them at the same moment. She caught my arm as if she were about to fall, and uttered a faint cry.
The sound, low as it was, produced a terrifying effect on the two children. Both of them dropped their blocks, turned around as if to dart at us, and then stopped short, holding each other by the hand, and staring and trembling as if we had been ghosts.
At the opposite end of the room, we stood staring and trembling also; for it was they who were the ghosts to our terrified eyes. It must have been Mrs. Durant who spoke first.
“Oh . . . the poor things . . . ” she said in a low choking voice.
The little boys stood there, motionless and far off, among the ruins of their house of blocks. But, as my eyes grew used to the faint light — there was only one lamp in the big room — and as my shaken nerves adjusted themselves to the strangeness of the scene, I perceived the meaning of Mrs. Durant’s cry.
The children before us were not children; they were two tiny withered men, with frowning foreheads under their baby curls, and heavy-shouldered middle-aged bodies. The sight was horrible, and rendered more so by the sameness of their size and by their old-fashioned childish dress. I recoiled; but Mrs. Durant had let my arm go, and was moving softly forward. Her own arms outstretched, she advanced toward the two strange beings. “You poor poor things, you,” she repeated, the tears running down her face.
I thought her tender tone must have drawn the little creatures; but as she advanced they continued to stand motionless, and then suddenly — each with the same small falsetto scream — turned and dashed toward the door. As they reached it, old Catherine appeared and held out her arms to them.
“Oh, my God — how dare you, madam? My young gentlemen!” she cried.
They hid their dreadful little faces in the folds of her skirt, and kneeling down she put her arms about them and received them on her bosom. Then, slowly, she lifted up her head and looked at us.
I had always, like the rest of Harpledon, thought of Catherine as a morose old Englishwoman, civil enough in her cold way, but yet forbidding. Now it seemed to me that her worn brown face, in its harsh folds of gray hair, was the saddest I had ever looked upon.
“How could you, madam; oh, how could you? Haven’t we got enough else to bear?” she asked, speaking low above the cowering heads on her breast. Her eyes were on Mrs. Durant.
The latter, white and trembling, gave back the look. “Enough else? Is there more, then?”
“There’s everything — .” The old servant got to her feet, keeping her two charges by the hand. She put her finger to her lips, and stooped again to the dwarfs. “Master Waldo, Master Donald, you’ll come away now with your old Catherine. No one’s going to harm us, my dears; you’ll just go upstairs and let Janey Sampson put you to bed, for it’s very late; and presently Catherine’ll come up and hear your prayers like every night.” She moved to the door; but one of the dwarfs hung back, his forehead puckering, his eyes still fixed on Mrs. Durant in indescribable horror.
“Good Dobbin,” cried he abruptly, in a piercing pipe.
“No, dear, no; the lady won’t touch good Dobbin,” said Catherine. “It’s the young gentlemen’s great pet,” she added, glancing at the Roman steed in the middle of the floor. She led the changelings away, and a moment later returned. Her face was ashen-white under its swarthiness, and she stood looking at us like a figure of doom.
“And now, perhaps,” she said, “you’ll be good enough to go away too.”
“Go away?” Mrs. Durant, instead, came closer to her. “How can I— when I’ve just had this from your master?” She held out the letter she had brought to my house.
Catherine glanced coldly at the page and returned it to her.
“He says he’s going on a journey. Well, he’s been, madam; been and come back,” she said.
“Come back? Already? He’s in the house, then? Oh, do let me — ” Mrs. Durant dropped back before the old woman’s frozen gaze.
“He’s lying overhead, dead on his bed, madam — just as they carried him up from the beach. Do you suppose, else, you’d have ever got in here and seen the young gentlemen? He rushed out and died sooner than have them seen, the poor lambs; him that was their father, madam. And here you and this gentleman come thrusting yourselves in . . . ”
I thought Mrs. Durant would reel under the shock; but she stood quiet, very quiet — it was almost as if the blow had mysteriously strengthened her.
“He’s dead? He’s killed himself?” She looked slowly about the trivial tragic room. “Oh, now I understand,” she said.
Old Catherine faced her with grim lips. “It’s a pity you didn’t understand sooner, then; you and the others, whoever they was, forever poking and prying; till at last that miserable girl brought in the police on us — ”
“They was here, madam, in this house, not an hour ago, frightening my young gentlemen out of their senses. When word came that my master had been found on the beach they went down there to bring him back. Now they’ve gone to Hingham to report his death to the coroner. But there’s one of them in the kitchen, mounting guard. Over what, I wonder? As if my young gentlemen could run away! Where in God’s pity would they go? Wherever it is, I’ll go with them; I’ll never leave them . . . And here we were at peace for thirty years, till you brought that man to draw the pictures of the house . . . ”
For the first time Mrs. Durant’s strength seemed to fail her; her body drooped, and she leaned her weight against the door. She and the housekeeper stood confronted, two stricken old women staring at each other; then Mrs. Durant’s agony broke from her. “Don’t say I did it — don’t say that!”
But the other was relentless. As she faced us, her arms outstretched, she seemed still to be defending her two charges. “What else would you have me say, madam? You brought that man here, didn’t you? And he was determined to see the other side of the wing, and my poor master was determined he shouldn’t.” She turned to me for the first time. “It was plain enough to you, sir, wasn’t it? To me it was, just coming and going with the tea-things. And the minute your backs was turned, Mr. Cranch rang, and gave me the order: ‘That man’s never to set foot here again, you understand.’ And I went out and told the other three; the cook, and Janey, and Hannah Oast, the parlour-maid. I was as sure of the cook and Janey as I was of myself; but Hannah was new, she hadn’t been with us not above a year, and though I knew all about her, and had made sure before she came that she was a decent close-mouthed girl, and one that would respect our . . . our misfortune . . . yet I couldn’t feel as safe about her as the others, and of her temper I wasn’t sure from the first. I told Mr. Cranch so, often enough; I said: ‘Remember, now, sir, not to put her pride up, won’t you?’ For she was jealous, and angry, I think, at never being allowed to see the young gentlemen, yet knowing they were there, as she had to know. But their father would never have any but me and Janey Sampson about them.
“Well — and then, in he came yesterday with those accursed pictures. And however had the man got in? And where was Hannah? And it must have been her doing . . . and swearing and cursing at her . . . and me crying to him and saying: ‘For God’s sake, sir, let be, let be . . . don’t stir the matter up . . . just let me talk to her . . . And I went in to my little boys, to see about their supper; and before I was back, I heard a trunk bumping down the stairs, and the gardener’s lad outside with a wheel-barrow, and Hannah Oast walking away out of the gate like a ramrod. ‘Oh, sir, what have you done? Let me go after her!’ I begged and besought him; but my master, very pale, but as calm as possible, held me back by the arm, and said: ‘Don’t you worry, Catherine. It passed off very quietly. We’ll have no trouble from her.’ ‘No trouble, sir, from Hannah Oast? Oh, for pity’s sake, call her back and let me smooth it over, sir!’ But the girl was gone, and he wouldn’t leave go of my arm nor yet listen to me, but stood there like a marble stone and saw her drive away, and wouldn’t stop her. ‘I’d die first, Catherine,’ he said, his kind face all changed to me, and looking like that old Spanish she-devil on the parlour wall, that brought the curse on us . . . And this morning the police came. The gardener got wind of it, and let us know they was on the way; and my master sat and wrote a long time in his room, and then walked out, looking very quiet, and saying to me he was going to the post office, and would be back before they got here. And the next we knew of him was when they carried him up to his bed just now . . . And perhaps we’d best give thanks that he’s at rest in it. But, oh, my young gentlemen . . . my young gentlemen!”
I never saw the “young gentlemen” again. I suppose most men are cowards about calamities of that sort, the irremediable kind that have to be faced anew every morning. It takes a woman to shoulder such a lasting tragedy, and hug it to her . . . as I had seen Catherine doing; as I saw Mrs. Durant yearning to do . . .
It was about that very matter that I interviewed the old housekeeper the day after the funeral. Among the papers which the police found on poor Cranch’s desk was a letter addressed to me. Like his message to Mrs. Durant it was of the briefest. “I have appointed no one to care for my sons; I expected to outlive them. Their mother would have wished Catherine to stay with them. Will you try to settle all this mercifully? There is plenty of money, but my brain won’t work. Good-bye.”
It was a matter, first of all, for the law; but before we entered on that phase I wanted to have a talk with old Catherine. She came to me, very decent in her new black; I hadn’t the heart to go to that dreadful house again, and I think perhaps it was easier for her to speak out under another roof. At any rate, I soon saw that, after all the years of silence, speech was a relief; as it might have been to him too, poor fellow, if only he had dared! But he couldn’t; there was that pride of his, his “Spanish pride” as she called it.
“Not but what he would have hated me to say so, sir; for the Spanish blood in him, and all that went with it, was what he most abominated . . . But there it was, closer to him than his marrow . . . Oh, what that old woman done to us! He told me why, once, long ago — it was about the time when he began to understand that our little boys were never going to grow up like other young gentlemen. ‘It’s her doing, the devil,’ he said to me; and then he told me how she’d been a great Spanish heiress, a rich merchant’s daughter, and had been promised, in that foreign way they have, to a young nobleman who’d never set eyes on her; and when the bridegroom came to the city where she lived, and saw her sitting in her father’s box across the theatre, he turned about and mounted his horse and rode off the same night; and never a word came from him — the shame of it! It nigh killed her, I believe, and she swore then and there she’d marry a foreigner and leave Spain; and that was how she took up with young Mr. Cranch that was in her father’s bank; and the old gentleman put a big sum into the Cranch shipping business, and packed off the young couple to Harpledon . . . But the poor misbuilt thing, it seems, couldn’t ever rightly get over the hurt to her pride, nor get used to the cold climate, and the snow and the strange faces; she would go about pining for the orange-flowers and the sunshine; and though she brought her husband a son, I do believe she hated him, and was glad to die and get out of Harpledon . . . That was my Mr. Cranch’s story . . .
“Well, sir, he despised his great-grandfather more than he hated the Spanish woman. ‘Marry that twisted stick for her money, and put her poisoned blood in us I’ He used to put it that way, sir, in his bad moments. And when he was twenty-one, and travelling abroad, he met the young English lady I was maid to, the loveliest soundest young creature you ever set eyes on. They loved and married, and the next year — oh, the pity — the next year she brought him our young gentlemen . . . twins, they were . . . When she died, a few weeks after, he was desperate . . . more desperate than I’ve ever seen him till the other day. But as the years passed, and he began to understand about our little boys — well, then he was thankful she was gone. And that thankfulness was the bitterest part of his grief.
“It was when they was about nine or ten that he first saw it; though I’d been certain long before that. We were living in Italy then. And one day — oh, what a day, sir! — he got a letter, Mr. Cranch did, from a circus-man who’d heard somehow of our poor little children . . . Oh, sir! . . . Then it was that he decided to leave Europe, and come back to Harpledon to live. It was a lonely lost place at that time; and there was all the big wing for our little gentlemen. We were happy in the old house, in our way; but it was a solitary life for so young a man as Mr. Cranch was then, and when the summer folk began to settle here I was glad of it, and I said to him: ‘You go out, sir, now, and make friends, and invite your friends here. I’ll see to it that our secret is kept.’ And so I did, sir, so I did . . . and he always trusted me. He needed life and company himself; but he would never separate himself from the little boys. He was so proud — and yet so soft-hearted! And where could he have put the little things? They never grew past their toys — there’s the worst of it. Heaps and heaps of them he brought home to them, year after year. Pets he tried too . . . but animals were afraid of them — just as I expect you were, sir, when you saw them,” she added suddenly, “but with no reason; there were never gentler beings. Little Waldo especially — it’s as if they were trying to make up for being a burden . . . Oh, for pity’s sake, let them stay on in their father’s house, and me with them, won’t you, sir?”
As she wished it, so it was. The legal side of the matter did not take long to settle, for the Cranches were almost extinct; there were only some distant cousins, long since gone from Harpledon. Old Catherine was suffered to remain on with her charges in the Cranch house, and one of the guardians appointed by the courts was Mrs. Durant.
Would you have believed it? She wanted it — the horror, the responsibility and all. After that she lived all the year round at Harpledon; I believe she saw Cranch’s sons every day. I never went back there; but she used sometimes to come up and see me in Boston. The first time she appeared — it must have been about a year after the events I have related — I scarcely knew her when she walked into my library. She was an old bent woman; her white hair now seemed an attribute of age, not a form of coquetry. After that, each time I saw her she seemed older and more bowed. But she told me once she was not unhappy — “not as unhappy as I used to be,” she added, qualifying the phrase.
On the same occasion — it was only a few months ago — she also told me that one of the twins was ill. She did not think he would last long, she said; and old Catherine did not think so either. “It’s little Waldo; he was the one who felt his father’s death the most; the dark one; I really think he understands. And when he goes, Donald won’t last long either.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Presently I shall be alone again,” she added.
I asked her then how old they were; and she thought for a moment, murmuring the years over slowly under her breath. “Only forty-one,” she said at length — as if she had said “Only four.”
Women are strange. I am their other guardian; and I have never yet had the courage to go down to Harpledon and see them.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02