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Amusing mystery story, its melodramatic plot unwinding against the charming background of a South Carolina townlet stirred to its depths by the passing of an historic mansion, through a spite will, to the possession of "a Yankee woman named Smith."
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A WOMAN NAMED SMITH
MARIE CONWAY OEMLER
First digital edition 2017 by Gianluca Ruffini
CHAPTER I: THE SCARLET WITCH DEPARTS
CHAPTER II: AND ARIEL MAKES MUSIC
CHAPTER III: THE DEAR LITTLE GOD!
CHAPTER IV: THE HYNDSES OF HYNDS HOUSE
CHAPTER V: "THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF"
CHAPTER VI: GLAMOURY
CHAPTER VII: A BRIGHT PARTICULAR STAR
CHAPTER VIII: PEACOCKS AND IVORY
CHAPTER IX: THE JUDGMENT OF SPRING
CHAPTER X: THE FOREST OF ARDEN
CHAPTER XI: THE JINNEE INTERVENES
CHAPTER XII: MAN PROPOSES
CHAPTER XIII: FIRES OF YESTERDAY
CHAPTER XIV: THE TALISMAN
CHAPTER XV: THE HEART OF HYNDS HOUSE
CHAPTER XVI: THE DEVILL HIS RAINBOW
CHAPTER XVII: ON THE KNEES OF THE GODS
CHAPTER XVIII: THE GREATEST GIFT
CHAPTER XIX: DEEP WATERS
CHAPTER XX: HARBOR
CHAPTER I: THE SCARLETT WITCH DEPARTS
If it had been humanly possible for Great-Aunt Sophronisba Scarlett to lug her place in Hyndsville, South Carolina, along with her into the next world, plump it squarely in the middle of the Elysian Fields, plaster it over with "No Trespassing" signs, and then settle herself down to a blissful eternity of serving writs upon the angels for flying over her fenceswithout permission, and setting the saved by the ears in general, she would have done so and felt that heaven was almost as desirable a place as South Carolina. But as even she couldn't impose her will upon the next world, and there was nobody in this oneshe hated less than she did me--possibly because she had never laid eyes on me, she willed me Hynds House and what was left of the Hynds fortune; tying this string to her bequest: I must occupy Hynds House within six months, and I couldn't rent it, or attempt to sell it, without forfeiture of the entire estate.
I can fancy the ancient beldam sniggering sardonically the while she figured to herself the chagrined astonishment, the helpless wrath, of her watchfully waiting neighbors, when they should discoverthat historic Hynds House, dating from the beginning of things Carolinian, had passed into the unpedigreed hands of a woman named Smith. I can fancy her balefully exact perception of the attitude so radically conservative a community must needs assume toward such an intruder as myself, foisted upon it, so to speak, by an enemy who never failed to turn the trick.
Because I'm not a Hynds, at all. Great Aunt Sophronisba was my aunt not by blood but by marriage; she having, when she was no longer what is knownas a spring chicken, met my Great-Uncle Johnny Scarlett and scandalized all Hyndsville by marrying him out of hand.
I have heard that she was insanely in love with him, and I believe it; nothing short of an over-mastering passion could have induced one ofthe haughty Hyndses to marry a person with such family connections as his. For my father, George Smith, was a ruddy English ship-chandler who pitched upon Boston for a home, and lived with his family in the rooms above his shop; and my grandmother Smith dropped her "aitches" with the cheerful ease of one to the manner born, bless her stout old Cockney heart! I can remember her hearing me my spelling-lesson of a night, her spectacles far down on her old button of a nose, her white curls bobbing from under her cap.
"What! Carn't spell 'saloon'? Listen, then, Miss: There's a hess and a hay and a hell and two hoes and a henn! Now, then, d 'ye spell it!"
Not that Mrs. Johnny ever accepted us. It was borne in upon the Smiths that undesirable in-laws are outlaws. This despite the fact that my mother's pink-and-white English face was a gentler copy of what her uncle's had been in his youth; and that when I came along, some years after the dear old man's death, I was named Sophronisba at Mrs. Johnny's urgent request.
After Great-Uncle Johnny died, as if the last tie which bound her to ordinary humanity had snapped, his widow retired into a seclusion from which she emerged only to sue somebody. She said the world was being turned topsyturvy by people who were allowed tomisbehave to their betters, and who needed to be taught a lesson and their proper place; and that so long as she retained her faculties, she would do her duty in that respect, please God!
She did her duty so well in that respect that the Hynds fortune, which even civil war and reconstruction hadn't been able altogether to wreck, dwindled to a mere fifteen thousand dollars; and she wasn't on speaking terms with anybody but Judge Gatchell, her lawyer. She would have quarreled with him, too, had she dared.
Tothe minister, who bearded her for her soul's sake every now and then, she spoke in words brief and curt:
"You here again? Wanted to see me, hey? Well, you've done it. Now get out!"
And in the meantime the years passed and my own immediate family passed with them; but still the gaunt old woman lived on in her gaunt old house, becoming in time a myth to me, and to Hyndsville as well; where they referred to her, succinctly, as "the Scarlet Witch." I heard from her directly only once, and that was the year shesent me a red flannel petticoat for a Christmas present. After that, as if she'd done her worst, she ignored me altogether.
My mother had wanted me to be a school-teacher, in her eyes the acme of respectability. But as it happens, there are two things I wouldn't be: one's a school-teacher, the other a minister's wife. If I had to marry the average minister, I should infallibly hate all church-goers; if I had to teach the average school-child and wrestle with the average school-board, I should end by burning joss-sticks to Herod.
So I disappointed my mother by becoming a typist. After her death I secured a foothold in a New York house, I'd always wanted to live in New York and went up, step by step, from what may be called a rookie in the outside office, toprivate secretary to the Head. And I'd been a business womanfor all of seventeen years when Great-Aunt Sophronisba Scarlett departed at the age of ninety-eight years and eleven months, and willed that I should take up my life in the house where she had dropped hers.
"Oh, Sophy!" cried Alicia Gaines, the one person in the world who didn't call me Miss Smith. "Oh, Sophy, it's like a fairy-story come true! Think of falling heir to an old, old, old lady's old, old, old house, in South Carolina! I hope there'sa big old door with a fan-light, and a Greeky front with white pillars, and a big old hall, and a big old garden"
"And an old stove that smokes and old windows that rattle and an old roof that leaks, and maybe big, big old rats that squeak o' nights," Isaid darkly. For the first rapture of the astonishing news was beginning to wear thin, and doubt was appearing in spots.
"Sophy Smith! Why, if such a wonderful, beautiful, unexpected thing had happened tome" Alicia's blue eyes misted. I have known hersince the day she was born, next door to us in Boston, and she is the only person I have ever seen who can cry and look pretty while she's doing it; also, she can cry and laugh at the same time, being Irish. Some foolish people, who have been deceived by Alicia Gaines's baby stare and complexion, have said she hasn't sense enough to get in out of a shower of rain. This is, of course, a libel. But what's the odds, when every male being in sight would rush to her aid with an umbrella?
After her mother's deathI fell heir to Alicia, who, like me, was an only child, and without relatives. Lately, I'd gotten her into our filing-department. She didn't belong in a business office, she whose proper background should have been an adoring husband and the latest thingin pink-and-white babies.
"But somebody's got to think of stoves and roofs and rats and such, or there'd be no living in any old house," I reminded her, practically. "My dear girl, don't you realize that this thing isn't all beer and skittles?"
Alicia wrinkled her white forehead.
"Consider me, a hardy late-summer plant forced to uproot and transplant myself to a soil which may not in the least agree with me. Why, this means changing all my fixed habits, to trot off to live in an old house that is probably haunted by the cross-grained ghost of a lady of ninety-nine!"
"If I were a ghost, you'd be the very last person on earth I'd want to tackle, Sophy," remarked Alicia, dimpling. "And as for that new soil, why, you'll bloom in it! You well, Sophy dear, up tonow you have been root-bound; you've never had a chance to grow, much less to blossom. Now you can do both."
I who was confidential secretary to the Head, looked at the girl who was admittedly the worst file-clerk on record; and she looked back at me, nodding her bright head with young wisdom.
"I hope," she said, wistfully, "that there'll be all sorts of lovely things in your house, Sophy, old mirrors, old books, old pictures, old furniture, old china. Lord send you'll find an attic! All my life I'veday-dreamed of finding an attic that's been shut up and forgotten for ages and ages, and discovering all sorts of lovely things in all sorts of hiding-places. When I think my day-dream may come true for you, Sophy, it almost reconciles me to the pain of partingfrom you; though what on earth I'm to do without you, goodness only knows!" She was sitting on my bed, kimonoed, slippered, and braided. And now she looked at me with a suddenly quivering chin.
"Alicia," said I, "ever since I discovered that there's no mistake about that lawyer's letter that Hynds House is unaccountably, but undoubtedly mine and I've got to live in it if I want to keep it, it has been borne in upon me that you are just about the worst file-clerk on earth. You're a navy-blue failure in a business office. Business isn't yourmotif. Now, will you resign the job you fill execrably, and accept one you can fill beyond all praise, come South with me, share half-and-half whatever comes, and help make that old house a happy home for us both?"
"Don't joke." Her lips went white. "Please, please, Sophy dear, don't joke like that! I well, I just couldn't bear it."
"I never joke," I said indignantly. "You little goose, did you imagine for one minute that I contemplated leaving you here by yourself, anymore than I contemplate going down there by myself, if I can help it? Stop to think for a moment, Alicia. You have been like a little sister to me, ever since you were born. And I'm alone, except for you, and not in my first youth, and not beautiful andnot gifted."
At that she hurled herself off my bed and cried upon my shoulder, with her slim arms around my neck. Those young arms were beginning to make me feel wistful. If things had been different if I had been lovely like the Scarletts, instead of looking like the Smiths there might have been.
Well, I don't look like the Scarletts; so there wasn't. The best I could do was to drop a kiss on Alicia's forehead, where the bright young hair begins to break into curls.
And that is how, neither of us havingthe faintest notion of what was in store for us, Alicia Gaines and I turned our backs upon New York and set our faces toward Hynds House.
CHAPTER II: AND ARIEL MAKES MUSIC
We had wired Judge Gatchell when to expect us, but the venerable negro hackman whowas on the lookout for us explained that the judge had a "misery in the laigs" which confined him to his room, and that he advised us to go to the hotel for a while.
We couldn't, for wasn't our own house waiting for us? A minute later we had bundled into the ancient hack and were bumping and splashing through unpaved streets, getting wet, gray glimpses of old houses in old gardens, and every now and then a pink crape-myrtle blushing in the pouring rain. Hyndsville was, it seemed, one of those sprawling, easy-going old Carolina towns that liked plenty of elbow-room and wasn't particular about architectural order. Hynds House itself was on the extreme edge of things.
The hack presently stopped before a high iron gate in a waist-high brick wall with a spiked iron railing on top of it, the whole overrun with weeds and creepers. Of Hynds House itself one couldn't see anything but a stack of chimneys above a forest of trees.
The gate creaked and groaned on its rusty hinges; then we were walking up a weedy, rain-soaked path where untrimmed branches slapped viciously at our faces, and tough brambles, like snares and gins, tried to catch our feet. On each side was a jungle. Of a sudden the path turned, widened into a fairly cleared space; and Hynds House was before us.
We had expected a fair-sized dwelling-house in its garden. And there confronted us, glooming under the gray and threatening sky that seemed the only proper and fitting canopy for it, what looked like a pile reared in medieval Europe rather than a home inAmerica. Its stained brick walls, partly covered with ivy and lichens; its smokeless chimneys; its barred doors; its many shuttered windows, like blind eyes, all appeared deliberately to thrust aside human habitancy.
A residence for woman, child, and man,A dwelling-place, and yet no habitation; A House,but under some prodigious ban Of Excommunication.
Yet there was nothing ruinous about it, for the Hyndses had sought to build it as the old Egyptians sought to build their temples to last forever, to defy time and decay. It was not only meant to be a place for Hyndses to be born and live and die in: it was a monument to Family Pride, a brick-and-granite symbol of place and power.
The walls were of an immense thickness, the corners further strengthened with great blocks of granite. The house had but two stories, with an attic under its sloping roofs, but it gave an effect of height as well as of solidity. Behind it was another brick building, the lower part of which had been used for stables and carriage house, and the upper portion as quarters for the house slaves, in the old days. Another smaller building, slate-roofed and ivy covered, was the spring-house, with a clear, cold little spring still bubbling away as merrily in its granite basin, as if all theHyndses were not dead and gone. And there was a deep well, protected by a round stone wall, with a cupola-like roof supported by four slender pillars. And everything was dank and weedy and splotched with mildew and with mold.
O'er all there hung a shadow and a fear A sense of mystery the spirit daunted And said, as plain as whisper in the ear, The place is Haunted!
When we opened the great front door, above which was the fan-light of Alicia's hope, just as the round front porch had the big pillars, a damp and moldy air met us. The house had not been opened since Sophronisba's funeral, and everything stairs, settles, tables, cabinets, pictures, the chairs backed inhospitably against the wall as if to prevent anybody from sitting in them was covered with a shrouding pall of dust.
The hall was cross-shaped, the side passage running between the back drawing-room and library on one side, and the dining-room and two locked rooms on the other. It was a nice place, that side passage, with a fireplace and settles; and beautiful windows opening upon the tangled garden. All the down-stairs walls were paneled: precious woods were not so hard to come by when Hynds House was built. It was lovely, of course, but depressingly dark.
We got one of the big windows open, and let some stale damp air out and some fresh damp air in. Then, having despatched our hackman for certain necessities, Alicia and I turned and stared at each other, another Alicia and Sophy staring back at us from a dim and dusty mirror opposite. If, at that moment, I could have heard the familiar buzzer at my elbow! If I could have heard the good everyday New York "Miss Smith, attend to this, please"! God wot, if I had not literally burned my bridges behind me: Oh, oh, I had!
"The garden around this house,"Alicia spoke in a whisper" stretches to the end of the world and then laps over. It hasn't been trimmed since Adam and Eve moved out. But those crape-myrtle trees are quite the loveliest things left over from Paradise, and I'm glad we came here to see themwith our own eyes! Brace up, Sophy! We'll feel heaps better when we've had something to eat. Aren't you frightfully hungry, and doesn't a chill suspicion strike you, somewhere around the wishbone, that if that Ancient Mariner of a hackman doesn't get backsoon we shall starve?"
At that moment, from somewhere, it seemed to us from up-stairs a sudden flood of sweetest sound poured goldenly through that sad, dim, dusty house, as if a blithe spirit had slipped in unawares and was bidding us welcome. For a fewwonderful moments the exquisite music filled the dark old place and banished gloom and neglect and decay; then, with a pattering scamper, as of the bare, rosy feet of a beloved and mischievous child making a rush for his crib, it went as suddenly as it had come. There was nothing to break the silence but the swishing downpour of the outside rain.
When I could speak: "It came from up-stairs! Somebody's playing a violin up-stairs. I'm going up-stairs to find out who it is."
Alicia demurred: "It may be a realperson, Sophy! a real person with a real violin. But I'd rather believe it's Ariel's self, come out of those pink crape-myrtles. Don't go up-stairs, please, Sophy!"
"Nonsense!" said I. "Somebody's played a violin and I mean to know who he is!"
And up-stairs I went, into a huge dark hall, with the cross-passage cutting it, and closed doors everywhere. At the front end was a most beautiful window, opening doorlike upon a tiny iron bird-cage of a balcony, hung up Southern fashion under the roof of the pillared front porch. At the rear a more ordinary door opened upon the broad veranda that ran the full width of the house. Both door and window were closed, and bolted on the inside, and the big, dark, dusty rooms which I resolutely entered were quite empty, their fireplaces boarded up, their windows close-shuttered. There was no sign anywhere of violin or player. I went down-stairs just as wise as I had gone up.
"I told you it was Ariel!" Alicia stood by the open window, our windows are sunk into the walls, andcased with solid black walnut as Impervious to decay as the granite itself, and leaned out to the wet and dripping garden.
"Sophy," said she, in her high, sweet voice that carries like a thrush's. "Sophy, the best thing about this world is, that the best things in it aren't reallyreal. This is one of its enchanted places. Sycorax used to live in this house: that's what you feel about it yet. But now she's gone, her spell is lifting, and Hynds House is going to come alive and be young again!"
"At least," Igrumbled, "admit that the dust inside and the rain outside and the weeds and mud are real; and I'm really hungry!"
"Me too!" Alicia assented instantly and ungrammatically. "Oh, for a square meal!" She thrust her charming head out far enough for the rain tosplatter on her bright hair and whip it into curls, and bring a deeper shade of pink to her cheeks, and a deeper blue to her eyes. "Ariel!" she fluted, "Spirit of the Violin, I'm hungry earthily, worm-of-the-dustly, unromantically hungry! Send us something to eat."
"Why don't you rap on one of the tables," I suggested ironically, "and call up your high spirits to do your bidding?"
"My high spirits won't be above making you a soothing cup of coffee just as soon as that ancient African returns. In the meantime, let's look around us."
People had forests to draw from when they built rooms like those in Hynds House. There were eight of them on the first floor. On one side the two drawing-rooms, the library, and behind that a room evidently used for an office. We didn't know it then, of course, but that library was treasure trove. Almost every book and pamphlet covering the early American settlements, that is of any value at all, is in Hynds House library; we have some pamphlets that even the British Museum lacks.
The rooms had enough furniture to stock half a dozen antique-shops, all of it in a shocking state, the brocades in tatters, the carvings caked with dust. You couldn't see yourself in the tarnished mirrors, the portraits were black with dirt, and most ofthe prints were badly stained. Alicia swooped upon a pair of china dogs with mauve eyes and black spots and sloppy red tongues, on a what-not in a corner. She said she had been aching for a china dog ever since she was born.
"Oh, Sophy!" cried she, dancing, "wasn't it heavenly of that old soul to die and leave you two whole china dogs! I wouldn't want sure-enough dogs that looked like these, but as china dogs they're perfect! And cast your eyes about you, Sophy! Have you ever in all your life seen a house that needed so much done to it as this house does?
"'If seven maids with seven mops, Swept it for half a year, Do you suppose,' the Walrus said, 'That that would make it clear?' 'I doubt it,' said the Carpenter, 'And'
"Sophy! I shall clean some of these windows myself. Did you know that Queen Victoria, when she was a child, had the same virtuous inclination? Well, she had, and you see how she turned out!"
"I don't believe it!"
"Don't be skeptical! Look at that pink mustache-cup over there on that little table! Who do you suppose had a mustache and drank out of that cup? It couldn't have been Sophronisba herself?Iinsist that it was a black-mustached Confederate with a red sash around his waist. I adore Confederates! They're the most glamorous, romantic figures in American history. I wish a black mustache went along with the cup and the house; don't you? It would make things so much more interesting!" And shebegan to sing, at the top of her voice, in the sad and faded room that hadn't heard a singing voicethese many, many years:
"'Arrah, Missis McGraw,' the Captain said, 'Will ye make a sojer av your son Ted? Wid a g-r-rand mus-tache, an' a three-cocked hat, Wisha, Missis McGraw, wouldn't you like that!You like that tooroo looroo loo!Wisha, Missis McGraw, wouldn't you like that!'"
If Great-Aunt Sophronisba's ghost, and the scandalized ghosts of all the haughy Hyndses ever intended to walk, now was the accepted time! And as if that graceless ballad were the signal for something to happen, upon the hall window-shutter sounded three loud, imperative knocks.
Alicia dashed down the hall.
"Sophy!" she called, breathlessly, "Sophy!"
Framed in the open window, with the dripping trees and the slanting rain behind him, was the bizarre, the astounding figure of agnomelike negro in a terra-cotta robe fastened about the waist with a girdle made of a twisted black shawl with the most beautiful Persian border and fringe. A striped silk scarf was bound turban-wise about his head, from which tufts of snowy wool protruded. From his ears hung crescent-shaped silver ear-rings studded with coral and turquoise; a necklace of the same barbaric magnificence was about his neck, and his arms were covered with bracelets. His deep-set eyes, his flat nose, his mouth set in a thousand fine wrinkles, the whole aspect of him, breathed a sly and impish drollery. He glanced from Alicia to me with the smiling malice of a jinnee delighted to mystify mortals. Then with a rapid movement he shifted the umbrella he carried over a large linen-covered tray, eased the latter upon the deep window-ledge, and beckoned with a very black and beringed hand.
"Forus?" breathed Alicia.
With a fine flourish he swept aside the linen covering. And there was golden-brown chicken, white rice, cream gravy, hot biscuit, cool sliced tomatoes with sprigs of green parsley, fresh butter, fresh cream, a great slab of heavenly cake, a wicker basket of Elberta peaches, rain-cooled, odorous, delicious, and a pot of steaming coffee. On the edge of the tray was a cluster ofrain-washed roses.
"No," Alicia doubted, "this is not true: it can't be! Sophy, do you see it, too?"
He motioned her to take the tray; and his ear-rings swung, and all his bracelets set up a silver tinkling. An automobile honked outside in the street shut off by our garden trees, and a dog barked. Our jinnee cocked a cautious head and a listening ear, thrust the tray upon Alicia, and with inconceivable swiftness vanished around a corner.
"Let's hurry and eat it before it, too, takes to its heels," said Alicia, practically. Without further ado we dragged forward a small table, and fell to. Aladdin probably tasted fare like that, the first time he rubbed the magic lamp.
When we had polished the last chicken bone, and had that comfortable feeling that nothingcan give so thoroughly as a good meal, Alicia carefully examined the china and silver.
"Old blue-and-white English china; English silver initialed 'R.H.G.' Sophy, handle this prayerfully: it's an apostle spoon. Think of having a jinnee fetch you your coffee, and of stirring it with an apostle spoon."
She spoke reverently. Alicia is the sort who flattens her nose against antique-shop windows, and would go without dessert for a month of Sundays and trudge afoot to save carfare, if thereby she might buy an old print, or a bit of pottery; just as I am content to admire the print or the pottery in the shop window, feeling sure that when they are finally sold to somebody better able to buy them, something else I can admire just as much will take their place. Mineis a philosophy not altogether to be despised, though Alicia rejects it. She handled the blue-and-white ware with tender hands, laid the silver together, and set the tray upon the window-ledge. Then, on a leaf of my pocket memorandum--she never carries one of her own--she scribbled the following absurdity and pinned it to the linen cover:
Ariel, accept the gratitude of mortals set down hungry in the house of Sycorax. Gay and kind spirit, when we broke your bread you broke her spell: the wishbone of your chicken has cooked her goose! Maker of Music, Donator of Dinners, thanks!
"And now," said she, "having been serenaded, and satisfied with nothing short of perfection, let's go up-stairs, Sophy, and decide where we shall sleep to-night."
We chose the front room because of a gate-legged table that Alicia wanted to say her prayers beside, and because of the particularly fine portrait of a colonial gentleman above the mantel, a very handsome man in claret-colored satin, with a vest of flowered gold brocade, a gold-hilted sword upon which his fine fingers rested, and a pair of silk-stockinged legs of which he seemed complacently aware.
"I wish you weren't dead," Alicia told him regretfully. "Your taste in clothes is above all praise, though I fancy you were somewhat too vain of your legs, sir. I never knew before that men had legs like that, did you, Sophy?"
"I take no pleasure in the legs of a man." I quoted the Psalmist acridly enough.
"Don't pay any attention to Sophy," Alicia advised the portrait, naughtily."Just to prove how much we both admire you, you shall have Ariel's roses." She had brought them up-stairs with us, and now she walked over to the mantel to place them beneath the picture.
"Why!" exclaimed Alicia, "why!" and she held up nothing more remarkable than a package of cigarettes, evidently left there recently, for it was not dusty.
"I dare say Judge Gatchell forgot it, when he was looking over the house. That reminds me: the silver you admired so much was marked 'G.' Then, in all probability, JudgeGatchell sent us that spread, and very thoughtful it was of him, I must say."
"Rheumatic old judges don't smoke superfine cigarettes, Sophy, nor send black tray-bearers in terra-cotta robes out on rainy days for the entertainment of strange ladies. No: this is something, or somebody,young. But since when did Ariel take to tobacco?"
"Let's go down-stairs," I suggested, "and wait for that old darky, if he is a real darky and ever means to return." I did not fancy those big forlorn rooms, with their great beds that didn't seem made for people to sleep and dream in, but to stay awake and worry over their sins--and then die in.
The down-stairs halls had grown darker, and the rain came down in a gray sheet, so that the open window seemed a hole cut into it. Thetray we had left on the window-ledge was gone. In its place was nothing more romantic than a freshly filled and trimmed kerosene lamp, two candles, and a box of matches.
When our Jehu finally returned he rummaged out some firewood from the sooty kitchen and built us a fire in the hall. He was a pleasant old negro, garrulous and kindly, by name Adam King, or, as he informed us, "Unc' Adam" to all Hyndsville folks.
"Uncle Adam," Alicia asked, while he was drying himself before the blazing logs, "Uncle Adam, who's the violinist around here?"
Uncle Adam looked at the Yankee lady a bit doubtfully. The old fellow was slightly deaf, but he would have died rather than admit it.
"Wellum," he told us, "since ol' Mis' Scarlett's gone, folks does say de doctor is. Dat's'cause ob de Hynds' blood in 'im. All dem Hyndses was natchelly de violentest kind o' pussons, an' Doctor, he ain't behin' de do'." He rubbed his hands and chuckled. "Lawd, yes! I know de Doctor, man an' boy, an' he suttinly rips an' ta'hs when he's riled! You ought ter seen 'im de day ol' Mis' Scarlett let fly wid 'er shot-gun an' blowed de tails spang off'n two of 'is hens an' de haid off'n 'is prize rooster! De fowls come thoo' de haidge, an' ol' Mis' grab 'er gun an' blaze away. De Doctor hear de squallation, an' come flyin' outer de office an' right ovah de haidge. I 'uz totin' fiahwood fo' ol' Mis' dat day, an' I drap een de bushes; it ain't no place fo' sensible niggahs when white folks grab shot-guns. Doctor see me an' holler: 'Adam! git outer dem bushes, you ol' fool! You my witness what dis hellion's done to my fowls!'
"Ol' Mis' Scarlett she s'anter ter de winder wid 'er gun sort o' hangin' loose, an' holler: 'Adam! Come outer dem bushes 'fo' I pickle yo' hide! You my witness ob dis ruffian trispassin' on my prop'ty an' cussin' an' seducin' a ol' woman widout 'er consent,' she says. 'Has I retched my age,' says ol' Mis' Scarlett, 'to have his fowls ruinin' my gyardin', an' him whut's a dunghill rooster himself flyin' ovah my fences unbeknownst?'
"'If there evah was a leather-hided ol' hen ripe foh roastin' on Beelzebub's own griddle, it's you, you gallows ol' witch!' says Doctor, shakin' 'is fist up at her.
"'Aha! I got a plain case!' says ol' Mis', grim-like. 'I'll have a warrant out foh you dis day, Geddes, you owdacious villyum!'
"And she done it. Yas'm. An' dey done sont de shariff atter me for witness, all two bofe o' dem."
"Well, and what did you do?" I asked, curiously. I was getting a side-light on Great-Aunt Sophronisba.
"Me? I got on muhknees an' wrastled wid de speret," said Uncle Adam. "I done tuck mah troubles to de Lawd, whichin He'bleegedter know I cyant deal wid ol' Mis' Scarlett an' de Doctor. Missis, I prayed!"
"Oh! And what happened then?"
The old man looked around him, cautiously, and lowered his voice: "Wellum, Mis' Scarlett she tuck an' went an' up an' died. Yessum! She done daid. An' next thing we-all heah, she 'd went an' lef de Hynds place to youna, 'stead ob de Doctor, or dat furriner."
"She had Hynds relatives, then? I didn't know."
"Wellum, de Doctor an' ol' Mis' Scarlett wuz cousins. Dat's how come dey could fight so powerful. Ain't you nevah had no relations to fight wid, ma'ams?"
We explained, regretfully, that we hadn't.
"Den you ain't nevah knowed, an' you ain't nevah gwine ter knew, whut real, sho-nough fightin'is," said Unc' Adam, with conviction.
"You mentioned a foreigner," hinted Alicia.
The old man shook his head deprecatingly. "Don't seem lak I evah able to rickermembah dat boy's name, nohow. His grampa' 'uza Hynds, likewise his ma, but she 'sisted on marryin' er furriner, an' de boy takes atter de furriners 'stead er we-all. 'Taint de po' boy's fault, but ol' Mis' Scarlett hated 'im wuss 'n pizen. De only notice she take er de boy is ter warrant 'im fo' trispassin'. Dat 's how come folkses ter say--" he paused suddenly.
"Well, what do folks say?" I wanted to know.
"Well, Missis," he admitted, "dey say it's natchel to fight wid yo' kin whilst you 're livin', but 'taint natchel ter carry de fight inter de grave-yahd. Dat's whut she done, ma'ams. An' folks is outdone wid 'er, whichin' she ain't lef de Hynds place to de Hyndses, but done tuhn it ovah ter--uh--ah--"
"To a Yankee woman named Smith?"
"Yessum, dat's it."
"Had either the Doctor or the foreigner any real claim or right to this property, do you know?"
"No, ma'am, we-all 'lows dey ain't got no mo' law-right dan whut you's got. Ol' Mis' Scarlett ain't'bleegedter lef it to de Hyndses, but folks thinks she oughter done it, an' dey's powerful riled 'cause she ain't. Dey minds dis wuss'n all de warrantin' an' rampagin' an' rucusses she cut up whilst she wuz wid us."
"I see," said I, thoughtfully.
"Missises," said the old man, anxiously, "you-all ain't meanin' ter stay hyuh to-night, is you?" He seemed really distressed at the notion. "Lemme take you-all to de hotel, please, Missises! Don't stay hyuh to-night!"
"Why not? What's the matter with this house?"
Again he looked around him, stealthily.
"It's h'anted!" said he, desperately. "Missis, listen: I 'uz comin'home from prayer-meetin', 'bout two weeks ago, walkin' back er dis same place in de dark ob de moon. An' all ob a suddin I hyuh de pianner in de pahlor,ting-a-ling-a-ling! ting-a-ling-a-ling!I say, 'Who de name er Gawd in ol' Mis' Scarlett's pahlor, when dey ain't nobody in it?' I look thoo de haidge, an' dey's one weenchy light in de room, an' whilst I'm lookin', it goes out! An' de pianner, she's a-playin' right along! Yessum, de pianner, she's er tingalingin' by 'erself in de middle o' de night!"
"Andwho was playing it, Uncle Adam?"
"Dat's what I axin yit: who playin' Mis' Scarlett's pianner when dey wasn't nobody in de house?"
"Why didn't you find out?"
"Who, me?" cried the old man, with horror. "If I could er borried a extra pahr er laigs from er yaller dawg, I'd a did it right den, so 's I could run twict faster 'n I done!--Whichin' please, ma'ams, lemme take you-all ter de hotel."
When he saw that he couldn't prevail upon us to do so, he left us regretfully, shaking his head. He would come back early in the morning to do anything we might require. But he wouldn't stay overnight in Hynds House for any consideration. No negro in the county would.
"Alicia," said I, when we had had a cup of tea made over our spirit lamp, and firelight and lamplight madethe place less depressing and eerie, "Alicia, that terrible old woman has played me, like an ace up her sleeve, against her neighbors and her family. She has left me a house that needs everything done to it except to burn it down and rebuild it, and a garden that will have to be cleared out with dynamite. And she has seen to it that I have the preconceived prejudice of all Hyndsville."
Alicia's pretty, soft lips closed firmly.
"Here we are and here we stay!" she said determinedly. "Nobody's beendisinherited to make room for us. Sophy, in all our lives we have never had a chance to make a real home. Well, then, Hynds House is our chance, and I'd just like to see anybody take it away from us!"
"Up, Guards, and at 'em!" said I, smiling at her tone.I am slower than she, but even more stubborn, as the English are.
"Tell your admiral that if he gets in my way I will blow his ships out of the water!" said Alicia, gallantly.
But when we went up-stairs, we took good care to lock our door, and bolt it, too. Alicia said her prayers kneeling by the gate-legged table, snuggled into bed between the clean sheets we had brought with us, tucked a china dog under her chin, and went to sleep like the child that she was. I said the Shepherd's Psalm and went to sleep,too.
I was awakened suddenly, and found myself sitting up in bed, staring wildly about the strange room. The house was breathlessly still. My heart pounded against my ribs, the blood beat in my ears. I was oppressed with a nameless terror, an anguished sense that something had happened, something irremediable. The feeling was so strong that my throat closed chokingly.
I am particular in thus setting it down, because it was an experience that all of us under that roof had to undergo. You had to fight it, shut your mind against it, oppose your will to it like a stone wall, refuse to let it master you. Then, as if defeated, it would go as suddenly, as inexplicably, as it had come.
That's what I did then, more by instinct than reason. But I was exhausted when Ifinally got back to sleep.
CHAPTER III: THE DEAR LITTLE GOD!
When we went over Hynds House the next morning and took stock, I began to entertain very, very peculiar feelings toward Great-Aunt Sophronisba Scarlett, who, it would appear, had given me a white elephant which I could neither hire out for its keep, nor yet sell out of hand. I had to live in Hynds House, and Hynds House as it stood wasn't to be lived in.
The rain had ceased, and from the outside jungle came innumerable calls of birds, and fresh and woodsy odors; but the whole aspect of the place was grim and forbidding. At the back, where there wasn't such an overgrowth, the lane had been closed, barricaded with barbed-wire entanglements, and fairly bristled with thistles and "No Trespassing" signs.
"All this house needs is a mortuary tablet set up over the front door."
But Alicia demurred.
"I'm not a bit disheartened," she declared stoutly. "There's just one thing to be done to this house first make it beautiful, and then make it pay. It can be done. It's going to be done. It'sgotto be done. And when it's done,we'll have a home. Vision it as it's going to be, Sophy rosewood and mahogany and walnut, old brass and china and prints and portraits, the sort of things we've only been able to dream of up to now. Why, this house has been waiting for us! We were born to come here and make it over: it'sourhouse!" Alicia, has the gay courage of the Irish.
The heavy iron knocker on the front door resounded clamorously.
"Uncle Adam thinks we've been ha'nted out of existence, and he's hammering to wake the dead," said I.
But it wasn't Uncle Adam to whom we opened the door. An enormous, square-shouldered man stood there, looking from me to Alicia with bright, keen blue eyes behind glasses. He was so big, somagnificently proportioned, that he held one's attention, at first, by mere size. Then one had time to observe that although he hadn't the sleek and careful grooming of successful New Yorkers, he wore his clothes as, say, Coeur de Lion must have worn mail.He hadn't the brisk business manner, either; but there radiated from him an assured authority, as of one used to having his orders obeyed without question. No one could pass him over with a casual eye. I have known people who hated him frankly and heartily; I have known people who adored him. I have never known any one who was lukewarm where he was concerned.
"Which of you is Miss Smith?" he asked, in a very pleasant voice. "Miss Smith, I'm your next-door neighbor, house to the right: Doctor Richard Geddes, at your service."
We gave him to understand, with the usual polite commonplaces, that we were pleased to make his acquaintance, and ushered him into the dilapidated drawing-room.
"I'd have come over yesterday, when I learned you'd arrived, except that mycook was suddenly seized with the notion she'd been conjured, and I had to--er--stand by and persuade her she wasn't. Swore she had my lunch ready, as usual; swore she'd placed it on a tray, left it on the kitchen table for a few minutes, and when she came back from the pantry, not ten feet away, the tray was gone. Vanished. Disappeared. Nowhere to be found. She flopped on the floor and howled. She weighs two hundred and forty pounds and I hadn't a derrick handy. I had to roll her up on bed-slats. You've never had a conjured two-hundred-and-forty-pounder on your hands, have you? No? Well, then, don't.Butif you ever do, try a bed-slat. This morning she discovered the tray in its usual place, dishes and silver intact, nothing missing. She's looking for theend of the world."
"O-o-h!" quavered Alicia, while I could feel my knees knocking together. "O-o-o-h! How very, very singular! And, and was that all?"
"All! Wasn't that enough? I've had burned biscuit and muddy coffee, because my cook's got liver and nerves, and insists it's her soul," said the doctor, grimly. "I've given her to understand that if she hasn't got her soul saved before to-night, I'll physic it out of her and hang her hide on the bushes, inside out,salted." He added, hastily: "In the meantime, I hope you haven't fared too badly in this mildewed jail?"
"Thank you, no," Alicia said demurely. "We have fared very well."
"Glad to hear it." The big man looked at her with the frank pleasure all masculinity evinces at sight of Alicia. And then he asked, abruptly:
"Has Jelnik called yet? gray house on the other side of you. No? I dare say he's off on one of his prowls then. A bit of a lunatic, but a very charming fellow, Jelnik, though your amiable predecessor, Miss Smith, chose to consider him a sortof outlawed tom-cat, and warned him off with a shot-gun." The doctor paused, stroked his beard, and regarded me earnestly.
"Having heired the old girl's domain, I hope you won't consider it necessary to heir her, er, prejudices," he remarked hopefully. "Bad lot, Sophronisba. Very bad!"
"Mrs. Scarlett," I reminded him gently, "was my relative only by marriage."
"Cousin of mine; mother's relative. Not on speaking-, only on fighting-terms," he interjected.
I remembered what Uncle Adam had told us; and I'mafraid I eyed him a bit harder than politeness warranted.
"I discern by your eye, Miss Smith," said the doctor, "that you think a blood relation is more likely to walk in that old demon's footsteps than an outsider is. My dear lady, under ordinary circumstances and withhumanneighbors, I'm as meek as Moses; I am a lamb, a veritable lamb! As for your aunt, she was a man-eating, saber-toothed tigress!"
"Not my aunt, Doctor Geddes; your cousin."
"Your aunt-by-marriage. It's just as bad. Anyhow, she preferredyou to any of us, didn't she?"
"Perhaps because she didn't knowme."
"Have it so.Butshe did whatever she did because she was an old devil of a woman, and an old devil of a woman can give points to Satan. If," cried the doctor, vehemently, "there is one great reason why a man should be glad he's a man, it is because he will never live to be an old woman!"
"That depends upon one's point of view," I told him firmly. "Now, I'm glad I'm a woman because I shall never live to be an old man. Old ladies are far, far nicer. Have you ever known an old lady who thought herself captivating? Have you ever known any old man who didn't think he could be if he wished?"
"Yes," shouted the doctor, "and no! in both cases! There is no sex in fools. There is no age limit, either."
"The Talmud says: 'An old woman in the house is a blessing; but an old man is a nuisance.'"
"I don't give a bobtailed scat what the Talmud says. I know what I know. Miss Gaines, I leave it to you."
"Why, I like them both, when they're nice; and I'm sorry for them both when they're not." And she added, with a naïve air of confidence: "But I think I like young men better than either, as a rule."
The doctor removed his hat again, and sat down. His eyebrows went up, his eyes crinkled.
"Miss Alicia Gaines," he said genially, "I perceive you are a girl-child of fine promise. As for us, Miss Smith, what have we to do with age and foolishness, who, as yet, have neither? Let's get down to business. What are you going to do about the lane behind Hynds House? Wehad the use of that lane this hundred years and more, until the devil got too strong in Sophronisba and she shut it up. Now, shall you keep the lane closed, or shall you dismiss the injunctions?"
"I shall have to consult Judge Gatchell."
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