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The Two White Houses

A MEMORY


There's no connection--not the slightest--between this two and the
other twos; it was nevertheless the telling of the stories of the
brothers which brought back to me this ancient memory of two houses.
Nor were the two houses connected in any way, except that they were
both white, situated on the same road, on the same side of it; also
both stood a little way back from the road in grounds beautifully
shaded with old trees. It was the great southern road which leads from
the city of Buenos Ayres, the Argentine capital, to the vast level
cattle-country of the pampas, where I was born and bred. Naturally it
was a tremendously exciting adventure to a child's mind to come from
these immense open plains, where one lived in rude surroundings with
the semi-barbarous gauchos for only neighbours, to a great civilised
town full of people and of things strange and beautiful to see. And to
touch and taste.

Thus it happened that when I, a child, with my brothers and sisters,
were taken to visit the town we would become more and more excited as
we approached it at the end of a long journey, which usually took us
two days, at all we saw--ox-carts and carriages and men on horseback on
the wide hot dusty road, and the houses and groves and gardens on
either side.... It was thus that we became acquainted with the two
white houses, and were attracted to them because in their whiteness and
green shade they looked beautiful to us and cool and restful, and we
wished we could live in them.

They were well outside of the town, the nearest being about two miles
from its old south wall and fortifications, the other one a little over
two miles further out. The last being the farthest out was the first
one we came to on our journeys to the city; it was a somewhat singular-
looking building with a verandah supported by pillars painted green,
and it had a high turret. And near it was a large dovecot with a cloud
of pigeons usually flying about it, and we came to calling it Dovecot
House. The second house was plainer in form but was not without a
peculiar distinction in its large wrought-iron front gate with white
pillars on each side, and in front of each pillar a large cannon
planted postwise in the earth.

This we called Cannon House, but who lived in these two houses none
could tell us.

When I was old enough to ride as well as any grown-up, and my
occasional visits to town were made on horseback, I once had three
young men for my companions, the oldest about twenty-eight, the two not
more than nineteen and twenty-one respectively. I was eagerly looking
out for the first white house, and when we were coming to it I cried
out, "Now we are coming to Dovecot House, let's go slow and look at
it."

Without a word they all pulled up, and for some minutes we sat silently
gazing at the house. Then the eldest of the three said that if he was a
rich man he would buy the house and pass the rest of his life very
happily in it and in the shade of its old trees.

In what, the others asked, would his happiness consist, since a
rational being must have something besides a mere shelter from the
storm and a tree to shade him from the sun to be happy?

He answered that after securing the house he would range the whole
country in search of the most beautiful woman in it, and that when he
had found and made her his wife he would spend his days and years in
adoring her for her beauty and charm.

His two young companions laughed scornfully. Then one of them--the
younger--said that he too if wealthy would buy the house, as he had not
seen another so well suited for the life he would like to live. A life
spent with books! He would send to Europe for all the books he desired
to read and would fill the house with them; and he would spend his days
in the house or in the shade of the trees, reading every day from
morning to night undisturbed by traffic and politics and revolutions in
the land, and by happenings all the world over.

He too was well laughed at; then the last of the three said he didn't
care for either of their ideals. He liked wine best, and if he had
great wealth he would buy the house and send to Europe--O not for books
nor for a beautiful wife! but for wine--wines of all the choicest kinds
in bottle and casks--and fill the cellars with it. And his choice wines
would bring choice spirits to help him drink them; and then in the
shade of the old trees they would have their table and sit over their
wine--the merriest, wittiest, wisest, most eloquent gathering in all
the land.

The others in their turn laughed at him, despising his ideal, and then
we set off once more.

They had not thought to put the question to me, because I was only a
boy while they were grown men; but I had listened with such intense
interest to that colloquy that when I recall the scene now I can see
the very expressions of their sun-burnt faces and listen to the very
sound of their speech and laughter. For they were all intimately known
to me and I knew they were telling openly just what their several
notions of a happy life were, caring nothing for the laughter of the
others. I was mightily pleased that they, too, had felt the attractions
of my Dovecot House as a place where a man, whatsoever his individual
taste, might find a happy abiding-place.

Time rolled on, as the slow-going old storybooks written before we were
born used to say, and I still preserved the old habit of pulling up my
horse on coming abreast of each one of the two houses on every journey
to and from town. Then one afternoon when walking my horse past the
Cannon House I saw an old man dressed in black with snow-white hair and
side-whiskers in the old, old style, and an ashen grey face, standing
motionless by the side of one of the guns and gazing out at the
distance. His eyes were blue--the dim weary blue of a tired old man's
eyes, and he appeared not to see me as I walked slowly by him within a
few yards, but to be gazing at something beyond, very far away. I took
him to be a resident, perhaps the owner of the house, and this was the
first time I had seen any person there. So strongly did the sight of
that old man impress me that I could not get his image out of my mind,
and I spoke to those I knew in the city, and before long I met with one
who was able to satisfy my curiosity about him. The old man I had seen,
he told me, was Admiral Brown, an Englishman who many years before had
taken service with the Dictator Rosas at the time when Rosas was at war
with the neighbouring Republic of Uruguay, and had laid siege to the
city of Montevideo. Garibaldi, who was spending the years of his exile
from Italy in South America, fighting as usual wherever there was any
fighting to be had, flew to the help of Uruguay, and having acquired
great fame as a sea-fighter was placed in command of the naval forces,
such as they were, of the little Republic. But Brown was a better
fighter, and he soon captured and destroyed his enemies' ships,
Garibaldi himself escaping shortly afterwards to come back to the old
world to renew the old fight against Austria.

When old Admiral Brown retired he built this house, or had it given to
him by Rosas who, I was told, had a great affection for him, and he
then had the two cannons he had taken from one of the captured ships
planted at his front gate.

Shortly after that one glimpse I had had of the old Admiral, he died.
And I think that when I saw him standing at his gate gazing past me at
the distance, he was looking out for an expected messenger--a figure in
black moving swiftly towards him with a drawn sword in his hand.

Oddly enough it was but a short time after seeing the old man at his
gate that I had my first sight of an inmate of Dovecot House. While
slowly riding by it I saw a lady come out from the front door--young,
good-looking, very pale and dressed in the deepest mourning. She had a
bowl in her hand, and going a little distance from the house she called
the pigeons and down they flew in a crowd to her feet to be fed.

A few months later when passing I saw this same lady once more, and on
this occasion she was coming to the gate as I rode by, and I saw her
closely, for she turned and looked at me, not unseeingly like the old
man, and her face was perfectly colourless and her large dark eyes the
most sorrowful I had ever seen.

That was my last sight of her, nor did I see any human creature about
the house after that for about two years. Then one hot summer day I
caught sight of three persons who looked like servants or caretakers,
sitting in the shade some distance from the house and drinking maté,
the tea of the country.

Here, thought I, is an opportunity not to be lost--one long waited for!
Leaving my horse at the gate I went to them, and addressing a large
woman, the most important-looking person of the three, as politely as I
could, I said I was not, as they perhaps imagined, a long absent friend
or relation returned from the wars, but a perfect stranger, a traveller
on the great south road; that I was hot and thirsty, and the sight of
them refreshing themselves in that pleasant shade had tempted me to
intrude myself upon them.

She received me with smiles and a torrent of welcoming words, and the
expected invitation to sit down and drink maté with them. She was a
very large woman, very fat and very dark, of that reddish or mahogany
colour which, taken with the black eyes and coarse black hair, is
commonly seen in persons of mixed blood--Iberian with aboriginal. I
took her age to be about fifty years. And she was as voluble as she was
fat and dark, and poured out such a stream of talk on or rather over me
like warm greasy water, and so forcing me to keep my eyes on her, that
it was almost impossible to give any attention to the other two. One
was her husband, Spanish and dark too, but with a different sort of
darkness; a skeleton of a man with a bony ghastly face, in old frayed
workman's clothes and dust-covered boots; his hands very grimy. And the
third person was their daughter, as they called her, a girl of fifteen
with a clear white and pink skin, regular features, beautiful grey eyes
and light brown hair. A perfect type of a nice looking English girl
such as one finds in any village, in almost any cottage, in the
Midlands or anywhere else in this island.

These two were silent, but at length, in one of the fat woman's brief
pauses, the girl spoke, in a Spanish in which one could detect no trace
of a foreign accent, in a low and pleasing voice, only to say something
about the garden. She was strangely earnest and appeared anxious to
impress on them that it was necessary to have certain beds of
vegetables they cultivated watered that very day lest they should be
lost owing to the heat and dryness. The man grunted and the woman said
yes, yes, yes, a dozen times. Then the girl left us, going back to her
garden, and the fat woman went on talking to me. I tried once or twice
to get her to tell me about her daughter, as she called her, but she
would not respond--she would at once go off into other subjects. Then I
tried something else and told her of my sight of a handsome young lady
in mourning I had once seen there feeding the pigeons. And now she
responded readily enough and told me the whole story of the lady.

She belonged to a good and very wealthy family of the city and was an
only child, and lost both parents when very young. She was a very
pretty girl of a joyous nature and a great favourite in society. At the
age of sixteen she became engaged to a young man who was also of a good
and wealthy family. After becoming engaged to her he went to the war in
Paraguay, and after an absence of two years, during which he had
distinguished himself in the field and won his captaincy, he returned
to marry her. She was at her own house waiting in joyful excitement to
receive him when his carriage arrived, and she flew to the door to
welcome him. He, seeing her, jumped out and came running to her with
his arms out to embrace her, but when still three or four yards distant
suddenly stopped short and throwing up his arms fell to the earth a
dead man. The shock of his death at this moment of supreme bliss for
both of them was more than she could bear; it brought on a fever of the
brain and it was feared that if she ever recovered it would be with a
shattered mind. But it was not so: she got well and her reason was not
lost, but she was changed into a different being from the happy girl of
other days--fond of society, of dress, of pleasures; full of life and
laughter. "Now she is sadness itself and will continue to wear mourning
for the rest of her life, and prefers always to be alone. This old
house, built by her grandfather when there were few houses in this
suburb, she once liked to visit, but since her loss she has been but
once in it. That was when you saw her, when she came to spend a few
months in solitude. She would not even allow me to come and sit and
talk to her! Think of that! She thinks nothing of her possessions and
allows us to live here rent free, to grow vegetables and raise poultry
for the market. That is what we do for a living; my husband and our
little daughter attend to these things out of doors, and I look after
the house."

When she got to the end of this long relation I rose and thanked her
for her hospitality and made my escape. But the mystery of the white,
gentle-voiced, grey-eyed girl haunted me, and from that time I made it
my custom to call at Dovecot House on every journey to town, always to
be received with open arms, so to speak, by the great fat woman. But
she always baffled me. The girl was usually to be seen, always the
same, quiet, unsmiling, silent, or else speaking in Spanish in that
gentle un-Spanish voice of some practical matter about the garden, the
poultry, and so on. I was not in love with her, but extremely curious
to know who she really was and how she came to be a "daughter," or in
the hands of these unlikely people. For it was really one of the
strangest things I had ever come across up to that early period of my
life. Since then I have met with even more curious things; but being
then of an age when strange things have a great fascination I was bent
on getting to the bottom of the mystery. However, it was in vain;
doubtless the fat woman suspected my motives in calling on her and
sipping maté and listening to her talk, for whenever I mentioned her
daughter in a tentative way, hoping it would lead to talk on that
subject, she quickly and skilfully changed it for some other subject.
And at last seeing that I was wasting my time, I dropped calling, but
to this day I am rather sorry I allowed myself to be defeated.

And now once more I must return for the space of two or three pages to
the _brother_ white house before saying good-bye to both.

For it had come to pass that while my investigations into the mystery
of Dovecot House were in progress I had by chance got my foot in Cannon
House. And this is how it happened. When the old Admiral whose ghostly
image haunted me had received his message and vanished from this scene,
the house was sold and was bought by an Englishman, an old resident in
the town, who for thirty years had been toiling and moiling in a
business of some kind until he had built a small fortune. It then
occurred to him, or more likely his wife and daughters suggested it,
that it was time to get a little way out of the hurly-burly, and they
accordingly came to live at the house. There were two daughters, tall,
slim, graceful girls, one, the elder, dark and pale like her old
Cornish father, with black hair; the other a blonde with a rose colour
and of a lively merry disposition. These girls happened to be friends
of my sisters, and so it fell out that I too became an occasional
visitor to Cannon House.

Then a strange thing happened, which made it a sad and anxious home to
the inmates for many long months, running to nigh on two years. They
were fond of riding, and one afternoon when there was no visitor or any
person to accompany them, the youngest girl said she would have her
ride and ordered her horse to be brought from the paddock and saddled.
Her elder sister, who was of a somewhat timid disposition, tried to
dissuade her from riding out alone on the highway. She replied that she
would just have one little gallop--a mile or so--and then come back.
Her sister, still anxious, followed her out of the gate and said she
would wait there for her return. Half a mile or so from the gate the
horse, a high-spirited animal, took fright at something and bolted with
its rider. The sister waiting and looking out saw them coming, the
horse at a furious pace, the rider clinging for dear life to the pummel
of the saddle. It flashed on her mind that unless the horse could be
stopped before he came crashing through the gate her sister would be
killed, and running out to a distance of thirty yards from the gate she
jumped at the horse's head as it came rushing by and succeeded in
grasping the reins, and holding fast to them she was dragged to within
two or three yards of the gate, when the horse was brought to a
standstill, whereupon her grasp relaxed and she fell to the ground in a
dead faint.

She had done a marvellous thing--almost incredible. I have had horses
bolt with me and have seen horses bolt with others many times; and
every person who has seen such a thing and who knows a horse--its power
and the blind mad terror it is seized with on occasions--will agree
with me that it is only at the risk of his life that even a strong and
agile man can attempt to stop a bolting horse. We all said that she had
saved her sister's life and were lost in admiration of her deed, but
presently it seemed that she would pay for it with her own life. She
recovered from the faint, but from that day began a decline, until in
about three months' time she appeared to me more like a ghost than a
being of flesh and blood. She had not strength to cross the rooms--all
her strength and life were dying out of her because of that one
unnatural, almost supernatural, act. She passed the days lying on a
couch, speaking, when obliged to speak, in a whisper, her eyes sunk,
her face white even to the lips, seeming the whiter for the mass of
loose raven-black hair in which it was set. There were few doctors,
English and native, who were not first and last called into
consultation over the case, and still no benefit, no return to life,
but ever the slow drifting towards the end. And at the last
consultation of all this happened. When it was over and the doctors
were asked into a room where refreshments were placed for them, the
father of the girl spoke aside to a young doctor, a stranger to him,
and begged him to tell him truly if there was no hope. The other
replied that he should not lose all hope if--then he paused, and when
he spoke again it was to say, "I am, you see, a very young man, a
beginner in the profession, with little experience, and hardly know why
I am called here to consult with these older and wiser men; and
naturally my small voice received but little attention."

By-and-by, when they had all gone except the family doctor, he informed
the distracted parents that it was impossible to save their daughter's
life. The father cried out that he would not lose all hope and would
call in another man, whereupon old Dr. Wormwood seized his brass-headed
cane and took himself off in a huff. The young stranger was then called
in. The patient had been given arsenic with other drugs; he gave her
arsenic only, increasing the doses enormously, until she was given as
much in a day or two as would have killed a healthy person; with milk
for only nourishment. As a result, in a week or so the decline was
stayed, and in that condition, very near to dissolution, she continued
some weeks, and then slowly, imperceptibly, began to mend. But so slow
was the improvement that it went on for months before she was well. It
was a complete recovery; she had got back all her old strength and joy
in life, and went again for a ride every day with her sister.

Not very long afterwards both sisters were married, and my visits to
Cannon House ceased automatically.

Now the two White Houses are but a memory, revived for a brief period
to vanish quickly again into oblivion, a something seen long ago and
far away in another hemisphere; and they are like two white cliffs seen
in passing from the ship at the beginning of its voyage--gazed at with
a strange interest as I passed them, and as they receded from me, until
they faded from sight in the distance.


W. H. Hudson