"All day within the dreamy house The doors upon their hinges creak'd, The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked, Or from the crevice peer'd about, Old faces glimmer'd thro' the doors, Old footsteps trod the upper floors, Old voices called her from without."--MARIANA.
My eyes had been occupied with the grey chimneys below, among the Spanish chestnuts, at the very moment when I slipped on the northern face of Skirrid and twisted my ankle. This indeed explains the accident; and the accident explains why my interest in the house with the grey chimneys suddenly became a personal one. Five miles separated me from my inn in Aber town. But the white smoke of a goods train went crawling across the green and cultivated plain at my feet; and I knew, though I carried no map, that somewhere under the slope to my left must hide the country station of Llanfihangel. To reach it I must pass the house, and there, no doubt, would happen on someone to set me on the shortest way.
So I picked up my walking-stick and hobbled down the hillside, albeit with pain. Where the descent eased a little I found and followed a foot-track, which in time turned into a sunk road scored deep with old cart-ruts, and so brought me to a desolate farmstead, slowly dropping to ruin there in the perpetual shadow of the mountain. The slates that had fallen from the roof of byre and stable lay buried already under the growth of nettle and mallow and wild parsnip; and the yard-wall was down in a dozen places. I shuffled through one of these gaps, and almost at once found myself face to face with a park-fence of split oak--in yet worse repair, if that were possible. It stretched away right and left with promise of a noble circumference; but no hand had repaired it for at least twenty years. I counted no less than seven breaches through which a man of common size might step without squeezing; availed myself of the nearest; and having with difficulty dragged my disabled foot up the ha-ha slope beyond, took breath at the top and looked about me.
The edge of the ha-ha stood but fifty paces back from an avenue of the most magnificent Spanish chestnuts I have ever seen in my life. A few of them were withering from the top; and under these many dead boughs lay as they had fallen, in grass that obliterated almost all trace of the broad carriage-road. But nine out of ten stood hale and stout, and apparently good for centuries to come. Northward, the grey facade of the house glimmered and closed their green prospective, and towards it I now made my way.
But, I must own, this avenue daunted me, as a frame altogether too lordly for a mere limping pedestrian. And therefore I was relieved, as I drew near, to catch the sound of voices behind the shrubberies on my right hand. This determined me to take the house in flank, and I diverged and pushed my way between the laurels in search of the speakers.
"A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse! Lobelia, how many horses has your father in stable? Red, white, or grey?"
"One, Miss Wilhelmina; an' that's old Sentry-go, and father says he'll have to go to the knacker's before another winter."
"Then he shall carry me there on his back: with rings on my fingers and bells on my toes"--
She rode unto the knacker's yard, And tirled at the pin: Right glad were then the cat's-meat men To let that lady in!
--especially, Lobelia, when she alighted and sat upon the ground and began to tell them sad stories of the death of kings. But they cut off Sentry-go's head and nailed it over the gate. So he died, and she very imprudently married the master knacker, who had heard she was an heiress in her own right, and wanted to decorate his coat-of-arms with an escutcheon of pretence; and besides, his doctor had recommended a complete change "--
"Law, miss, how you do run on!"
The young lady who had given utterance to this amazing rigmarole stood at the top of a terrace flight (much cracked and broken) between two leaden statuettes (headless)--a willowy child in a large-brimmed hat, with a riding-switch in one hand and the other holding up an old tartan shawl, which she had pinned about her to imitate a horse-woman's habit. As she paced to and fro between the leaden statuettes--
pedes vestis defluxit ad imos Et vera incessu patuit dea,
--and I noted almost at once that two or three butterflies ("red admirals" they were) floated and circled about her in the sunlight. A child of commoner make, and perhaps a year older, dressed in a buff print frock and pink sunbonnet, looked up at her from the foot of the steps. The faces of both were averted, and I stood there for at least a minute on the verge of the laurels, unobserved, considering the picture they made, and the ruinous Jacobean house that formed its background.
Never was house more eloquent of desolation. Unpainted shutters, cracking in the heat, blocked one half of its windows. Weather-stains ran down the slates from the lantern on the main roof. The lantern over the stable had lost its vane, and the stable-clock its minute-hand. The very nails had dropped out of the gable wall, and the wistaria and Gloire de Dijons they should have supported trailed down in tangles, like curtains. Grass choked the rain-pipes, and moss dappled the gravel walk. In the border at my feet someone had attempted a clearance of the weeds; and here lay his hoe, matted with bindweed and ring-streaked with the silvery tracks of snails.
"Very well, Lobelia. We will be sensible house-maid and cook, and talk of business. We came out, I believe, to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie"--
At this point happening to turn her head she caught sight of me, and stopped with a slight, embarrassed laugh. I raised my hat.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but no strangers are admitted here."
"I beg your pardon"--I began; and with that, as I shifted my walking-stick, my foolish ankle gave way, and plump I sat in the very middle of the bindweed.
"You are ill?" She came quickly towards me, but halted a pace or two off. "You look as if you were going to faint."
"I'll try not to," said I. "The fact is, I have just twisted my ankle on the side of Skirrid, and I wished to be told the shortest way to the station."
"I don't believe you can walk; and"--she hesitated a second, then went on defiantly--"we have no carriage to take you."
"I should not think of putting you to any such trouble."
"Also, if you want to reach Aber, there is no train for the next two hours. You must come in and rest."
"But really "--
"I am mistress here. I am Wilhelmina Van der Knoope."
Being by this time on my feet again, I bowed and introduced myself by name. She nodded. The child had a thoughtful face--thoughtful beyond her years--and delicately shaped rather than pretty.
"Lobelia, run in and tell the Admirals that a gentleman has called, with my permission."
Having dismissed the handmaiden, she observed me in silence for a few moments while she unpinned her tartan riding-skirt. Its removal disclosed, not--as I had expected--a short frock, but one of quite womanly length; and she carried it with the air of a grown woman.
"You must make allowances, please. I think," she mused, "yes, I really think you will be able to help. But you must not be surprised, mind. Can you walk alone, or will you lean a hand on my shoulder?"
I could walk alone. Of what she meant I had of course no inkling; but I saw she was as anxious now for me to come indoors as she had been prompt at first to warn me off the premises. So I hobbled after her towards the house. At the steps by the side-door she turned and gave me a hand. We passed across a stone-flagged hall and through a carpetless corridor, which brought us to the foot of the grand staircase: and a magnificent staircase it was, ornate with twisted balusters and hung with fine pictures, mostly by old Dutch masters. But no carpet covered the broad steps, and the pictures were perishing in their frames for lack of varnish. I had halted to stare up at a big Hondecoeter that hung in the sunlight over the first short flight of stairs--an elaborate "Parliament of Fowls"--when the girl turned the handle of a door to my right and entered.
"Uncle Peter, here is the gentleman who has called to see you."
As I crossed the threshold I heard a chair pushed back, and a very old gentleman rose to welcome me at the far end of the cool and shadowy room; a tall white-haired figure in a loose suit of holland. He did not advance, but held out a hand tentatively, as if uncertain from what direction I was advancing. Almost at once I saw that he was stone-blind.
"But where is Uncle Melchior?" exclaimed Wilhelmina.
"I believe he is working at accounts," the old gentleman answered-- addressing himself to vacancy, for she had already run from the room. He shook hands courteously and motioned me to find a chair, while he resumed his seat beside a little table heaped with letters, or rather with bundles of letters neatly tied and docketed. His right hand rested on these bundles, and his fingers tapped upon them idly for a minute before he spoke again.
"You are a friend of Fritz's? of my grandson?"
"I have not the pleasure of knowing him, sir. Your niece's introduction leaves me to explain that I am just a wayfarer who had the misfortune to twist an ankle, an hour ago, on Skirrid, and crawled here to ask his way."
His face fell. "I was hoping that you brought news of Fritz. But you are welcome, sir, to rest your foot here; and I ask your pardon for not perceiving your misfortune. I am blind. But Wilhelmina--my grandniece --will attend to your wants."
"She is a young lady of very large heart," said I. He appeared to consider for a while. "She is with me daily, but I have not seen her since she was a small child, and I always picture her as a child. To you, no doubt, she is almost a woman grown?"
"In feeling, I should say, decidedly more woman than child; and in manner."
"You please me by saying so. She is to marry Fritz, and I wish that to happen before I die."
Receiving no answer to this--for, of course, I had nothing to say--he startled me with a sudden question. "You disapprove of cousins marrying?"
I could only murmur that a great deal depended on circumstances.
"And there are circumstances in this case. Besides, they are second cousins only. And they both look forward to it. I am not one to force their inclinations, you understand--though, of course, they know it to be my wish--the wish of both of us, I may say; for Melchior is at one with me in this. Wilhelmina accepts her future--speaks of it, indeed, with gaiety. And as for Fritz--though they have not seen each other since he was a mere boy and she an infant--as for Fritz, he writes--but you shall judge from his last letter."
He felt among the packets and selected one. "I know one from t'other by the knots," he explained. "I am an old seaman! Now here is his last, written from the South Pacific station. He sends his love to 'Mina, and jokes about her being husband-high: 'but she must grow, if we are to do credit to the Van der Knoopes at the altar.' It seems that he is something below the traditional height of our family; but a thorough seaman, for all his modesty. There, sir: you will find the passage on the fourth page, near the top."
I took the letter; and there, to be sure, read the words the old Admiral had quoted. But it struck me that Fritz Van der Knoope used a very ladylike handwriting, and of a sort not usually taught on H.M.S. Britannia.
"In two years' time the lad will be home, all being well. And then, of course, we shall see."
"Of what rank is he?"
"At present a second lieutenant. His age is but twenty-one. The Van der Knoopes have all followed the sea, as the portraits in this house will tell you. Ay, and we have fought against England in our time. As late as 1672, Adrian Van der Knoope commanded a ship under De Ruyter when he outgeneralled the English in Southwold Bay. But since 1688 our swords have been at the service of our adopted country; and she has used them, sir."
I am afraid I was not listening. My chair faced the window, and as I glanced at the letter in my hands enough light filtered through the transparent "foreign" paper to throw up the watermark, and it bore the name of an English firm.
This small discovery, quite unwillingly made, gave me a sudden sense of shame, as though I had been playing some dishonourable trick. I was hastily folding up the paper, to return it, when the door opened and Wilhelmina came in, with her uncle Melchior.
She seemed to divine in an instant what had happened; threw a swift glance at the blind Admiral, and almost as swiftly took the letter from my hand and restored it to the packet. The next moment, with perfect coolness she was introducing me to her uncle Melchior.
Melchior Van der Knoope was perhaps ten years younger than his brother, and carried his tall figure buttoned up tightly in an old-fashioned frockcoat: a mummy of a man, with a fixed air of mild bewilderment and a trick of running his left hand through his white hair--due, no doubt, to everlasting difficulty with the family accounts. He shook hands as ceremoniously as his brother.
"We have been talking of Fritz," said old Peter.
"Oh yes--of Fritz. To be sure." Melchior answered him vaguely, and looked at me with a puzzled smile. There was silence in the room till his brother spoke again. "I have been showing Mr.--Fritz's last letter."
"Fritz writes entertainingly," murmured Melchior, and seemed to cast about for another word, but repeated, "--entertainingly. If the state of your ankle permits, sir, you will perhaps take an interest in our pictures. I shall be happy to show them to you."
And so, with the occasional support of Melchior's arm, I began a tour of the house. The pictures indeed were a sufficient reward--seascapes by Willem Van der Velde, flower-portraits by Willem Van Aslet, tavern-scenes by Adrian Van Ostade; a notable Cuyp; a small Gerard Dow of peculiar richness; portraits--the Burgomaster Albert Van der Knoope, by Thomas de Keyser--the Admiral Nicholas, by Kneller--the Admiral Peter (grand-uncle of the blind Admiral), by Romney. . . . My guide seemed as honestly proud of them as insensible of their condition, which was in almost every case deplorable. By-and-by, in the library we came upon a modern portrait of a rosy-faced boy in a blue suit, who held (strange combination!) a large ribstone pippin in one hand and a cricket bat in the other--a picture altogether of such glaring demerit that I wondered for a moment why it hung so conspicuously over the fireplace, while worthier paintings were elbowed into obscure corners. Then with a sudden inkling I glanced at Uncle Melchior. He nodded gravely.
"That is Fritz."
I pulled out my watch. "I believe," I said, "it must be time for me to bid your brother good-bye."
"You need be in no hurry," said Miss Wilhelmina's voice behind me. "The last train to Aber has gone at least ten minutes since. You must dine and sleep with us to-night."
I awoke next morning between sheets of sweet-smelling linen in a carved four-post bed, across the head-board of which ran the motto "STEMMATA QVID FACIVNT" in faded letters of gilt. If the appearance of the room, with its tattered hangings and rickety furniture, had counted for anything, my dreams should certainly have been haunted. But, as a matter of fact, I never slept better. Possibly the lightness of the dinner (cooked by the small handmaid Lobelia) had something to do with it; possibly, too, the infectious somnolence of the two Admirals, who spoke but little during the meal, and nodded, without attempt at dissimulation, over the dessert. At any rate, shortly after nine o'clock--when Miss Wilhelmina brought out a heavy Church Service, and Uncle Melchior read the lesson and collect for the day and a few prayers, including the one "For those at Sea"--I had felt quite ready for bed. And now, thanks to a cold compress, my ankle had mended considerably. I descended to breakfast in very cheerful mind, and found Miss Wilhelmina alone at the table.
"Uncle Peter," she explained, "rarely comes down before mid-day; and Uncle Melchior breakfasts in his room. He is busy with the accounts."
She smiled rather sadly. "They take a deal of disentangling."
She asked how my ankle did. When I told her, and added that I must catch an early train back to Aber, she merely said, "I will walk to the station with you, if I may."
And so at ten o'clock--after I had bidden farewell to Uncle Melchior, who wore the air of one interrupted in a long sum of compound addition-- we set forth. I knew the child had something on her mind, and waited. Once, by a ruinous fountain where a stone Triton blew patiently at a conch-shell plugged with turf, she paused and dug at the mortared joints of the basin with the point of her sunshade; and I thought the confidence was coming. But it was by the tumble-down gate at the end of the chestnut avenue that she turned and faced me.
"I knew you yesterday at once," she said. "You write novels."
"I wish," said I feebly, "the public were as quick at discovering me."
"Somebody printed an 'interview' with you in '--'s Magazine a month or two ago."
"There was not the slightest resemblance."
"Please don't be silly. There was a photograph."
"Ah, to be sure."
"You can help me--help us all--if you will."
"Is it about Fritz?"
She bent her head and signed to me to open the gate. Across the high-road a stile faced us, and a little church, with an acre framed in elms and set about with trimmed yews. She led the way to the low and whitewashed porch, and pushed open the iron-studded door. As I followed, the name of Van der Knoope repeated itself on many mural tablets. Almost at the end of the south aisle she paused and lifted a finger and pointed.
SACRED To the Memory of FRITZ OPDAM DE KEYSER VAN DER KNOOPE A Midshipman of the Royal Navy Who was born Oct. 21st MDCCCLXVII. And Drowned By the Capsizing of H.M.S. Viper off the North Coast of Ireland On the 17th of January MDCCCLXXXV. A youth of peculiar promise who lacked but the greater indulgence of an all-wise Providence to earn the distinction of his forefathers (of whom he was the last male representative) in his Country's service in which he laid down his young life ---------- Heu miserande puer! Si qua fata aspera rumpas Tu Marcellus eris.
"Uncle Melchior had it set up. I wonder what Fritz was really like."
"And your Uncle Peter still believes--?"
"Oh yes. I am to marry Fritz in time. That is where you must help us. It would kill Uncle Peter if he knew. But Uncle Melchior gets puzzled whenever it comes to writing; and I am afraid of making mistakes. We've put him down in the South Pacific station at present--that will last for two years more. But we have to invent the gossip, you know. And I thought that you--who wrote stories--"
"My dear young lady," I said, "let me be Fritz, and you shall have a letter duly once a month."
And my promise was kept--until, two years ago, she wrote that there was no further need for letters, for Uncle Peter was dead. For aught I know, by this time Uncle Melchior may be dead also. But regularly, as the monthly date comes round, I am Fritz Opdam de Keyser van der Knoope, a young midshipman of Her Majesty's Navy; and wonder what my affianced bride is doing; and see her on the terrace steps with those butterflies floating about her. In my part of the world it is believed that the souls of the departed pass into these winged creatures. So might the souls of those many pictured Admirals: but some day, before long, I hope to cross Skirrid again and see.