THE INN AT THE RED OAK
BY LATTA GRISWOLD
PART I THE OLD MARQUIS
I THE MARQUIS ARRIVES AT THE INN
II THE LION'S EYE
III THE MARQUIS AT NIGHT
IV THE OAK PARLOUR
V THE WALK THROUGH THE WOODS
PART II THE TORN SCRAP OF PAPER
VI THE HALF OF AN OLD SCRAP OF PAPER
VII A DISAPPEARANCE
VIII GREEN LIGHTS
IX RECOLLECTIONS OF A FRENCH EXILE
X MIDNIGHT VIGILS
PART III THE SCHOONER IN THE COVE
XI THE SOUTHERN CROSS
XII TOM TURNS THE TABLES
XIII MADAME DE LA FONTAINE
XIV IN THE FOG
XVI MADAME AT THE INN
XVII THE MARQUIS LEAVES THE INN
PART IV THE ATTACK ON THE INN
XVIII THE AVENUE OF MAPLES
XIX THE ATTACK
XX THE OAK PARLOUR
XXI THE TREASURE
The Inn at the Red Oak
THE OLD MARQUIS
THE MARQUIS ARRIVES AT THE INN
By the end of the second decade of the last century Monday Port had passed the height of prosperity as one of the principal depots for the West Indian trade. The shipping was rapidly being transferred to New York and Boston, and the old families of the Port, having made their fortunes, in rum and tobacco as often as not, were either moving away to follow the trade or had acquiesced in the changed conditions and were settling down to enjoy the fruit of their labours. The harbour now was frequently deserted, except for an occasional coastwise trader; the streets began to wear that melancholy aspect of a town whose good days are more a memory than a present reality; and the old stage roads to Coventry and Perth Anhault were no longer the arteries of travel they once had been.
To the east of Monday Port, across Deal Great Water, an estuary of the sea that expanded almost to the dignity of a lake, lay a pleasant rolling wooded country known in Caesarea as Deal. It boasted no village, scarcely a hamlet. Dr. Jeremiah Watson, a famous pedagogue and a graduate of Kingsbridge, had started his modest establishment for "the education of the sons of gentlemen" on Deal Hill; there were half-a-dozen prospering farms, Squire Pembroke's Red Farm and Judge Meath's curiously lonely but beautiful House on the Dunes among them; a little Episcopalian chapel on the shores of the Strathsey river, a group of houses at the cross roads north of Level's Woods, and the Inn at the Red Oak,—and that was all.
In its day this inn had been a famous hostelry, much more popular with travellers than the ill-kept provincial hotels in Monday Port; but now for a long time it had scarcely provided a livelihood for old Mrs. Frost, widow of the famous Peter who for so many years had been its popular host. No one knew when the house had been built; though there was an old corner stone on which local antiquarians professed to decipher the figures "1693," and that year was assigned by tradition as the date of its foundation.
It was a long crazy building, with a great sloping roof, a wide porch running its entire length, and attached to its sides and rear in all sorts of unexpected ways and places were numerous out houses and offices. Behind its high brick chimneys rose the thick growth of Lovel's Woods, crowning the ridge that ran between Beaver Pond and the Strathsey river to the sea. The house faced southwards, and from the cobbled court before it meadow and woodland sloped to the beaches and the long line of sand dunes that straggled out and lost themselves in Strathsey Neck. To the east lay marshes and the dunes and beyond them the Strathsey, two miles wide where its waters met those of the Atlantic; west lay the great curve, known as the Second Beach, the blue surface of Deal Bay, and a line of rocky shore, three miles in length, terminated by Rough Point, near which began the out-lying houses of Monday Port.
The old hostelry took its name from a giant oak which grew at its doorstep just to one side of the maple-lined driveway that led down to the Port Road, a hundred yards or so beyond. This enormous tree spread its branches over the entire width and half the length of the roof. Ordinarily, of course, its foliage was as green as the leaves on the maples of the avenue or on the neighbouring elms, and the name of the Inn might have seemed to the summer or winter traveller an odd misnomer; but in autumn when the frost came early and the great mass of green flushed to a deep crimson it could not have been known more appropriately than as the Inn at the Red Oak.
It was a solidly-built house, such as even in the early part of the nineteenth century men were complaining they could no longer obtain; built to weather centuries of biting southeasters, and—the legend ran—to afford protection in its early days against Indians. At the time of the Revolution it had been barricaded, pierced with portholes, and had served, like innumerable other houses from Virginia to Massachusetts, as Washington's headquarters. When Tom Pembroke knew it best, its old age and decay had well set in.
Pembroke was the son of the neighbouring squire, whose house, known as the Red Farm, lay In the little valley on the other side of the Woods at the head of Beaver Pond. From the time he had been able to thread his way across the woodland by its devious paths—Tom had been at the Inn almost every day to play with Dan Frost, the landlord's son. They had played in the stables, then stocked with a score of horses, where now there were only two or three; in the great haymows of the old barn in the clearing back of the Inn; in the ramshackle garret under that amazing roof; or, best of all, in the abandoned bowling-alley, where they rolled dilapidated balls at rickety ten-pins.
When Tom and Dan were eighteen—they were born within a day of each other one bitter February—old Peter died, leaving the Inn to his wife. Mrs. Frost pretended to carry on the business, but the actual task of doing so soon devolved upon her son. And in this he was subjected to little interference; for the poor lady, kindly inefficient soul that she was, became almost helpless with rheumatism. But indeed it was rather on the farm than to the Inn that more and more they depended for their living. In the social hierarchy of Caesarea the Pembrokes held themselves as vastly superior to the Frosts; but thanks to the easy-going democratic customs of the young republic, more was made of this by the women than the men.
The two boys loved each other devotedly, though love is doubtless the last word they would have chosen to express their relation. Dan was tall, dark, muscular; he had a well-shaped head on his square shoulders; strong well-cut features; a face that the sun had deeply tanned and dark hair that it had burnished with gold. Altogether he was a prepossessing lad, though he looked several years older than he was, and he was commonly treated by his neighbours with a consideration that his years did not merit. Tom Pembroke was fairer; more attractive, perhaps, on first acquaintance; certainly more boyish in appearance and behaviour. He was quicker in his movements and in his mental processes; more aristocratic in his bearing. His blue eyes were more intelligent than Dan's, but no less frank and kindly. Young Frost admired his friend almost as much as he cared for him; for Dan, deprived of schooling, had a reverence for learning, of which Tom had got a smattering at Dr. Watson's establishment for "the sons of gentlemen" on the nearby hill.
One stormy night in early January, the eve of Dan Frost's twenty-second birthday, the two young men had their supper together at the Inn, and afterwards sat for half-an-hour in the hot, stove-heated parlour until Mrs. Frost began to nod over her knitting.
"Off with you, boys," she said at length; "you will be wanting to smoke your dreadful pipes. Nancy will keep me company."
They took instant advantage of this permission and went into the deserted bar, where they made a roaring fire on the great hearth, drew their chairs near, filled their long clay pipes with Virginia tobacco, and fell to talking.
"Think of it!" exclaimed young Frost, as he took a great whiff at his pipe; "here we are—the middle of the winter—and not a guest in the house. Why we used to have a dozen travellers round the bar here, and the whole house bustling. I've known my father to serve a hundred and more with rum on a night like this. Now we do a fine business if we serve as many in a winter. Times have changed since we were boys."
"Aye," Tom agreed, "and it isn't so long ago, either. It seemed to me as if the whole county used to be here on a Saturday night."
"I'm thinking," resumed Dan musingly, "of throwing up the business, what's the use of pretending to keep an inn? If it wasn't for mother and for Nancy, I'd clear out, boy; go off and hunt my fortune. As it is, with what I make on the farm and lose on the house, I just pull through the year."
"By gad," exclaimed Tom, "I'd go with you, Dan. I'm tired to my soul with reading law in father's office. Why, you and I haven't been farther than Coventry to the county fair, or to Perth Anhault to make a horse trade. I'd like to see the world, go to London and Paris. I've wanted to go to France ever since that queer Frenchman was here—remember?—and told us those jolly tales about the Revolution and the great Napoleon. We were hardly more than seven or eight then, I guess."
"I would like to go, hanged if I wouldn't," said Dan. "I'm getting more and more discontented. But there's not much use crying for the moon, and France might as well be the moon, for all of me." He relapsed then into a brooding silence. It was hard for an inn-keeper to be cheerful in midwinter with an empty house. Tom too was silent, dreaming vividly, if vaguely, of the France he longed to see.
"Hark!" exclaimed Dan presently. "How it blows! There must be a big sea outside to-night."
He strode to the window, pushed back the curtains of faded chintz, and stared out into the darkness. The wind was howling in the trees and about the eaves of the old inn, the harsh roar of the surf mingled with the noise of the storm, and the sleet lashed the window-panes in fury.
"You will not be thinking of going home tonight, Tom?"
"Not I," Pembroke answered, for he was as much at home in Dan's enormous chamber as he was in his own little room under the roof at the Red Farm.
As he turned from the window, the door into the parlour opened, and a young girl quietly slipped in and seated herself in the chimney-corner.
"Hello, Nance," Dan exclaimed, as she entered; "come close, child; you need to be near the fire on a night like this."
"Mother is asleep," the girl answered briefly, and then, resting her chin upon her hands, she fixed her great dark eyes upon the glowing logs. She was Dan's foster-sister, eighteen years of age, though she looked hardly more than sixteen; a shy, slender, girl, lovely with a wild, unusual charm. To Tom she had always been a silent elfin creature, delightful as their playmate when a child, but now though still so familiar, she seemed in an odd way, to grow more remote. Apparently she liked to sit with them on these winter evenings in the deserted bar, when Mrs. Frost had gone to bed; and to listen to their conversation, though she took little part in it.
As Dan resumed his seat, he looked at her with evident concern, for she was shivering as she sat so quietly by the fireside.
"Are you cold, Nance?" he asked.
"A little," she replied. "I was afraid in the parlour with Mother asleep, and the wind and the waves roaring so horribly."
"Afraid?" exclaimed Tom, with an incredulous laugh. "I never knew you to be really afraid of anything in the world, Nancy."
She turned her dark eyes upon him for the moment, with a sharp inquisitive glance which caused him to flush unaccountably. An answering crimson showed in her cheeks, and she turned back to the fire. The colour fled almost as quickly as it had come, and left her pale, despite the glow of firelight.
"I was afraid—to-night," she said, after a moment's silence.
Suddenly there came the sound of a tremendous knocking on the door which opened from the bar into the outer porch, and all three started in momentary alarm.
Dan jumped to his feet. "Who's that?" he cried.
Again came the vigorous knocking. He ran across the room, let down the great oaken beam, and opened the door to the night and storm.
"Come in, travellers." A gust of wind and sleet rushed through the opening and stung their faces. With the gust there seemed to blow in the figure of a little old man wrapped in a great black coat, bouncing into their midst as if he were an India rubber ball thrown by a gigantic hand. Behind him strode in Manners, the liveryman of Monday Port.
"Here's a guest for you, Mr. Frost. I confess I did my best to keep him in town till morning, but nothing 'd do; he must get to the Inn at the Red Oak to-night. We had a hellish time getting here too, begging the lady's pardon; but here we are."
Good-naturedly he had taken hold of his fare and, as he spoke, was helping the stranger unwrap himself from the enveloping cloak.
"He's welcome," said Dan. "Here, sir, let me help you." He put out his hand to steady the curious old gentleman, who, at last, gasping for breath and blinking the sleet out of his eyes, had been unrolled by Manners from the dripping cloak.
He was a strange figure of a man, they thought, as Dan led him to the fire to thaw himself out. He was scarcely more than five and a half feet in height, with tiny hands and feet almost out of proportion even to his diminutive size. He was an old man, they would have said, though his movements were quick and agile as if he were set up on springs. His face, small, sharp-featured and weazened, was seamed with a thousand wrinkles. His wig was awry, its powder, washed out by the melting sleet, was dripping on his face in pasty streaks; and from beneath it had fallen wisps of thin grey hair, which plastered themselves against his temples and forehead. This last feature was also out of proportion to the rest of his physiognomy, for it was of extraordinary height, and of a polished smoothness, in strange contrast to his wrinkled cheeks. Beneath shone two flashing black eyes, with the fire of youth in them, for all he seemed so old. The lower part of his face was less distinctive. He had a small, Suddenly there came the sound of a tremendous knocking on the door which opened from the bar into the outer porch, and all three started in momentary alarm.
Dan jumped to his feet. "Who's that?" he cried.
Again came the vigorous knocking. He ran across the room, let down the great oaken beam, and opened the door to the night and storm.
"Come in, travellers." A gust of wind and sleet rushed through the opening and stung their faces. With the gust there seemed to blow in the figure of a little old man wrapped in a great black coat, bouncing into their midst as if he were an India rubber ball thrown by a gigantic hand. Behind him strode in Manners, the liveryman of Monday Port.
"Here's a guest for you, Mr. Frost. I confess I did my best to keep him in town till morning, but nothing'd do; he must get to the Inn at the Red Oak to-night. We had a hellish time getting here too, begging the lady's pardon; but here we are."
Good-naturedly he had taken hold of his fare and, as he spoke, was helping the stranger unwrap himself from the enveloping cloak.
"He's welcome," said Dan. "Here, sir, let me sharply-pointed nose; a weak mouth, half-hidden by drooping white moustaches; and a small sharp chin, accentuated by a white beard nattily trimmed to a point. He was dressed entirely in black; a flowing coat of French cut, black small clothes, black stockings and boots that reached to the calves of his little legs. These boots were ornamented with great silver buckles, and about his neck and wrists showed bedraggled bits of yellowed lace."
He stood before the fire, speechless still; standing first on one foot then on the other; rubbing his hands the while as he held them to the grateful warmth.
Nancy had in the meanwhile drawn a glass of rum, and now advancing held it toward him a little gingerly. He took it eagerly and drained it at a gulp.
"Merci, ma petite ange; merci, messieurs" he exclaimed at last; and then added in distinct, though somewhat strongly accented English, "I ask your pardon. I forget you may not know my language. But now that this good liquor has put new life in my poor old bones, I explain myself. I am arrived, I infer, at the Inn at the Red Oak; and you, monsieur, though so young, I take to be my host. I have your description, you perceive, from the good postilion. You will do me the kindness to provide me with supper and a bed?"
"Certainly, sir," said Dan. "It is late and we are unprepared, but we will put you up somehow. You too, Manners, had best let me bunk you till morning; you'll not be going back to the Port tonight? Nancy a fresh bumper for Mr. Manners."
"Thankee, sir; I managed to get out with the gentleman yonder, and I guess I'll manage to get back. But it's a rare night, masters. Just a minute, sir, and I'll be getting his honour's bags.... Thank ye kindly, Miss Nancy."
He drained the tumbler of raw spirit that Nancy held out. Then he opened the door again and went out into the storm, returning almost at once with the stranger's bags.
Dan turned to his sister. "Nancy dear, go stir up Susan and Deborah. We must have a fire made in the south chamber and some hot supper got ready. Tell Susan to rout out Jesse to help her. Say nothing to Mother; no need to disturb her. And now, sir," he continued, turning again to the stranger, "may I ask your name?"
The old gentleman ceased his springing seesaw for a moment, and fixed his keen black eyes on the questioner.
"Certainment, monsieur—certainly, I should say," he replied in a high, but not unpleasant, voice. "I am the Marquis de Boisdhyver, at your service. I am to travel in the United States—oh! for a long time. I stay here, if you are so good as to accommodate me, perhaps till you are weary and wish me to go elsewhere. You have been greatly recommended to me by my friend,—quiet, remote, secluded, an auberge—what you call it?—an inn, well-suited to my habits, my tastes, my desire for rest. I am very fatigue, monsieur."
"Yes," said Dan, with a grim smile, "we are remote and quiet and secluded. You are welcome, sir, to what we have. Tom, see that Manners has another drink before he goes, will you? and do the honours for our guest, while Nance and I get things ready."
As he disappeared into the kitchen, following Nancy, the Marquis looking after him with a comical expression of gratitude upon his face. Tom drew another glass of rum, which Manners eagerly, if rashly, devoured. Then the liveryman wrapped himself in his furs, bade them good-night, and started out again into the storm for his drive back to Monday Port.
All this time the old gentleman stood warming his feet and hands at the fire, watching his two companions with quickly-shifting eyes, or glancing curiously over the great bar which the light of the fire and the few candles but faintly illuminated.
Having barred the door, Tom turned back to the hearth. "It is a bad night, sir."
"But yes," exclaimed the Marquis. "I think I perish. Oh! that dreary tavern at your Monday Port. I think when I arrive there I prefer to perish. But this, this is the old Inn at the Red Oak, is it not? And it dates, yes,—from the year 1693? The old inn, eh, by the great tree?"
"Yes, certainly," Pembroke answered; "at least, that is the date that some people claim is on the old cornerstone. You have been here before then, sir?"
"I?" exclaimed Monsieur de Boisdhyver. "Oh, no! not I. I have heard from my friend who was here some years ago."
"Oh, I see. And you have come far to-day?"
"From Coventry, monsieur—Monsieur—?"
"Pembroke," Tom replied, with a little start.
"Ah! yes, Monsieur Pembroke. A member of the household?"
"I make a mistake," quickly interposed the traveller, "Pardon. I am come from Coventry, Monsieur Pembroke, in an everlasting an eternal stage, a monster of a carriage, monsieur. It is only a few days since that I arrive from France."
"Ah, France!" exclaimed Tom, recalling that only a little while before he and Dan had been dreaming of that magic country. And here was a person who actually lived in France, who had just come from there, who extraordinarily chose to leave that delightful land for the Inn at the Red Oak in mid-winter.
"France," he repeated; "all my life, sir, I have been longing to go there."
"So?" said the Marquis, raising his white eyebrows with interest. "You love ma belle patrie, eh? Qui Sait?—you will perhaps some day go there. You have interests, friends in my country?"
"No, none," Tom answered. "I wish I had. You come from Paris, sir?"
For some time they chatted in such fashion, the Marquis answering Tom's many questions with characteristic French politeness, but turning ever and anon a pathetic glance toward the door through which Dan and Nancy had disappeared. It was with undisguised satisfaction that he greeted young Frost when he returned to announce that supper was ready.
"I famish!" the old gentleman exclaimed. "I have dined to-day on a biscuit and a glass of water."
They found the kitchen table amply spread with food,—cold meats, hot eggs and coffee, and a bottle of port. Monsieur de Boisdhyver ate heartily and drank his wine with relish, gracefully toasting Nancy as he did so. When his meal was finished, he begged with many excuses to be shown to his bedroom; and indeed his fatigue was evident. Dan saw him to the great south chamber, carrying a pair of lighted candles before. He made sure that all had been done that sulky sleepy maids could be induced to do, and then left him to make ready for the night.
Lights were extinguished in the parlour and the bar, the fires were banked, and the two young men went up to Dan's own room. There on either side of the warm hearth, had been drawn two great four-posted beds, and it took the lads but a moment to tumble into them.
"It's queer," said Dan, as he pulled the comfort snugly about his shoulders, calling to Tom across the way; "it's queer—the old chap evidently means to stay awhile. What does a French marquis want in a deserted hole like this, I'd like to know? But if he pays, why the longer he stays the better."
"I hope he does," said Tom sleepily. "He has a reason, I fancy, for he asked questions enough while you were out seeing to his supper. He seems to know the place almost as well as if he had been here before, though he said he hadn't. But, by gad, I wish you and I were snug in a little hotel on the banks of the Seine to-night and not bothering our heads about a doddering old marquis who hadn't sense enough to stay there."
"Wish we were," Dan replied. "Good-night," he called, realizing that his friend was too sleepy to lie awake and discuss any longer their unexpected guest.
"Good-night," murmured Tom, and promptly drifted away into dreams of the wonderful land he had never seen. As for Dan he lay awake a long time, wondering what could possibly have brought the old Marquis to the deserted inn at such a time of the year and on such a night.
THE LIONS EYE
Toward daylight the storm blew itself out, the wind swung round to the northwest, and the morning dawned clear and cold, with a sharp breeze blowing and a bright sun shining upon a snow-clad, ice-crusted world and a sparkling sapphire sea.
Dan had risen early and had set Jesse to clear a way across the court and down the avenue to the road. The maids, astir by dawn, were no longer sulky but bustled about at the preparation of an unusually good breakfast in honour of the new guest.
Mrs. Frost, who habitually lay till nine or ten o'clock behind the crimson curtains of her great bed, had caught wind of something out of the ordinary, demanded Nancy's early assistance, and announced her intention of breakfasting with the household.
She was fretful during the complicated process of her toilette and so hurt the feelings of her foster-daughter, that when Dan came to take her into the breakfast room, Nancy found an excuse for not accompanying them.
The Marquis was awaiting their appearance. He stood with his back-to the fire, a spruce and carefully-dressed little figure, passing remarks upon the weather with young Pembroke, who leaned his graceful length against the mantelpiece.
The noble traveller was presented with due ceremony to Mrs. Frost, who greeted him with old-world courtesy. She had had, indeed, considerably more association with distinguished personages than had most of the dames of the neighbouring farms who considered themselves her social superiors. She welcomed Monsieur de Boisdhyver graciously, enquiring with interest of his journey and with solicitude as to his rest during the night. She received with satisfaction his rapturous compliments on the comforts that had been provided him, on the beauty of the surrounding country upon which he had looked from the windows of his chamber, and on her own condescension in vouchsafing to breakfast with them. She was delighted that he should find the Inn at the Red Oak so much to his taste that he proposed to stay with them indefinitely.
They were soon seated at the breakfast-table and had addressed themselves to the various good things that black Deborah had provided. The native Johnny cakes, made of meal ground by their own windmill, the Marquis professed to find particularly tempting.
Despite Mrs. Frost's questions, despite his own voluble replies, Monsieur de Boisdhyver gave no hint, that there was any deeper reason for his seeking exile at the Inn of the Red Oak than that he desired rest and quiet and had been assured that he would find them there. And who had so complimented their simple abode of hospitality?
"Ah, madame," he murmured, lifting his tiny hands, "so many!"
"But I fear, monsieur," replied his hostess, "that you, who are accustomed to the luxuries of a splendid city like Paris, to so many things of which we read, will find little to interest and amuse you in our remote countryside."
"As for interest, madame," the Marquis protested, "there are the beauties of nature, your so delightful household, my few books, my writing; and for amusement, I have my violin;—I so love to play. You will not mind?—perhaps, enjoy it?"
"Indeed yes," said Mrs. Frost. "Dan, too, is a fiddler after a fashion; and as for Nancy, she has a passion for music, and dreams away many an evening while my son plays his old tunes."
"Ah, yes," said the Marquis, "Mademoiselle Nancy, I have not the pleasure to see her this morning?"
"No," replied Mrs. Frost, flushing a trifle at the recollection of why Nancy was not present, "she is somewhat indisposed—a mere trifle. You will see her later in the day. But, monsieur, you should have come to us in the spring or the summer, for then the country is truly beautiful; now, with these snow-bound roads, when not even the stagecoach passes, we are indeed lonely and remote."
"It is that," insisted the Marquis, "which so charms me. When one is old and when one has lived a life too occupied, it is this peace, this quiet, this remoteness one desires. To walk a little, to sit by your so marvellously warm fires, to look upon your beautiful country, cest bou!"
He held her for a moment with his piercing little eyes, a faint smile upon his lips, as though to say that it was impossible he should be convinced that he had not found precisely what he was seeking, and insisting, as it were, that his hostess take his words as the compliment they were designed to be.
Before she had time to reply, he had turned to Dan. "What a fine harbour you have, Monsieur Frost," he said, pointing through the window toward the Cove, separated from the river and the sea by the great curve of Strathsey Neck, its blue waters sparkling now in the light of the morning sun.
"Yes," replied Dan, glancing out upon the well-known shoreline, "it is a good harbour, though nothing, of course, to compare with a Port. But it's seldom that we see a ship at anchor here, now."
"There is, however," inquired the Marquis with interest, "anchorage for a vessel, a large vessel?"
"Yes, indeed," Tom interrupted, "in the old days when my father had his ships plying between Havana and the Port, he would often have them anchor in the Cove for convenience in lading them with corn from the farm."
"And they were large ships?"
"Full-rigged, sir; many of 'em, and drawing eight feet at least."
"Eh bien! And the old Inn, madame, it dates, your son tells me, from 1693?"
"We think so, sir, though I have no positive knowledge of its existence before 1750. My husband purchased the place in '94, and it had then been a hostelry for some years, certainly from the middle of the century. But we have made many additions. Danny dear, perhaps it will interest the Marquis if you should take him over the house. We are proud of our old inn, sir."
"And with reason, madame. If monsieur will, I shall be charmed."
"I will leave you then with my son. Give me your arm, Dan, to the parlour. Unfortunately, Monsieur le Marquis, affliction has crippled me and I spend the day in my chair in the blue parlour. I shall be so pleased, if you will come and chat with me. Tommy, you will be staying to dinner with us?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Frost, but I must get to the Port for the day. Mother and Father are leaving by the afternoon stage, if it gets through. They are going to spend the winter in Coventry. But I shall be back to-night as I have promised Dan to spend that time with him."
"We shall be glad to have you, as you know."
Soon after Mrs. Frost had left the breakfast-room and Tom had started forth with horse and sleigh, Dan returned. The Marquis promptly reminded him of the suggestion that he should be taken over the Inn. It seemed to Dan an uninteresting way to entertain his guest and the morning was a busy one. However, he promised to be ready at eleven o'clock to show the Marquis all there was in the old house.
As Dan went about the offices and stables, performing himself much of the work that in prosperous times fell to grooms and hostlers, he found himself thinking about his new guest. Dan knew enough of French history to be aware there were frequent occasions in France when partisans of the various factions, royalist, imperialist, or republican, found it best to expatriate themselves. He knew that in times past many of the most distinguished exiles had found asylum in America. But at the present, he understood, King Louis Philippe, was reigning quietly at the Tuileries and, moreover, the Marquis de Boisdhyver, mysterious as he was, did not suggest the political adventurer of whom Dan as a boy had heard his parents tell such extraordinary tales. In the few years immediately after the final fall of the great Bonaparte there had been an influx of imperialistic supporters in America, some of whom had even found their way to Monday Port and Deal. One of these, Dan remembered, had stayed for some months in '14 or '15 at the Inn at the Red Oak, and it was he whom Tom had recalled the night before as having told them stories of his adventurous exploits in the wars of the Little Corporal. But it was too long after Napoleon's fall to connect his present guest with the imperial exiles. He could imagine no ulterior reason for the Marquis's coming and was inclined to put it down as the caprice of an old restless gentleman who had a genuine mania for solitude. Of solitude, certainly, he was apt to get his fill at the Inn at the Red Oak.
At eleven o'clock he returned to keep his appointment. He found the Marquis established at a small table in the bar by an east window, from which was obtained a view of the Cove, of the sand-dunes along the Neck, and of the open sea beyond. A writing-desk was on the table, ink and quills had been provided, a number of books and papers were strewn about, and Monsieur de Boisdhyver was apparently busy with his correspondence.
"Enchanted" he exclaimed, as he pulled out a great gold watch. "Punctual. I find another virtue, monsieur, in a character to which I have already had so much reason to pay my compliments. I trust I do not trespass upon your more important duties." As he spoke, he rapidly swept the papers into the writing-desk, closed and locked it, and carefully placed the tiny golden key into the pocket of his gayly-embroidered waistcoat.
"Not at all," Dan replied courteously, "I shall be glad to show you about. But I fear you will find it cold and dismal, for the greater part of the house is seldom used or even entered."
"I bring my cloak," said the Marquis. "Interest will give me warmth. What I have already seen of the Inn at the Red Oak is so charming, that I doubt not there is much more to delight one. I imagine, monsieur, how gay must have been this place once."
He took his great cloak from the peg near the fire where it had been hung the night before to dry wrapped himself snugly in it; and then, with a little bow, preceded Dan into the cold and draughty corridor that opened from the bar into the older part of the house.
This hallway extended fifty or sixty feet to the north wall of the main part of the inn whence a large window at the turn of a flight of stairs gave light. On the right, extending the same distance as the hall itself, was a great room known as the Red Drawing-room, into which Dan first showed the Marquis. This room had not been used since father's death four or five years before, and for a long time previous to that only on the rare occasions when a county gathering of some sort was held at the inn. It had been furnished in good taste and style in colonial days, but was now dilapidated and musty. The heavy red damask curtains were drawn before the windows, and the room was dark and cheerless. Dan admitted the dazzling light of the sun; but the Marquis only shivered and seemed anxious to pass quickly on.
"You see, sir," observed the young landlord, "it is dismal enough."
"Mais oui—mais oui," exclaimed the Marquis.
At the foot of the stairway the corridor turned at right angles and ran north. On either side opened a number of chambers in like conditions of disrepair, which had been used as bedrooms in the palmy days of the hostelry. This corridor ended at the bowling-alley, where as children Tom and Dan had loved to play. Half-way to the entrance to the bowling-alley a third hallway branched off to the right, leading to a similar set of chambers. Into all these they entered, the Marquis examining each with quick glances, dismissing them with the briefest interest and the most obvious comment.
Dan saved the piece-de-resistance till last. This was a little room entered from the second corridor just at the turn—the only room indeed, as he truthfully said, that merited a visit.
"This," he explained, "we call the Oak Parlour. It is the only room on this floor worth showing you. My father brought the wainscoting from an old English country-house in Dorsetshire. My father's people were Torries, sir, and kept up their connection with the old country."
It was a delightful room into which Dan now admitted the light of day, drawing aside the heavy green curtains from the eastern windows. It was wainscoted from floor to cornice in old black English oak, curiously and elaborately carved, and divided into long narrow panels. The ceiling, of similar materials and alike elaborately decorated, was supported by heavy transverse beams that seemed solid and strong enough to support the roof of a cathedral. On one side two windows opened upon the gallery and court and looked out upon the Cove, on the other side stood a cabinet. It was the most striking piece of furniture in the room, of enormous dimensions and beautifully carved on the doors of the cupboards below and on the top-pieces between the mirrors were lion's heads of almost life-size. Opposite the heavy door, by which they had entered, was a large fireplace, containing a pair of elaborately ornamented brass and irons. There was not otherwise a great deal of furniture,—two or three tables, some chairs, a deep window-seat, a writing-desk of French design; but all, except this last, in keeping with the character of the room, and all brought across the seas from the old Dorsetshire mansion, from which Peter Frost had obtained the interior.
"Charmant!" exclaimed the Marquis. "You have a jewel, mon ami; a bit of old England or of old France in the heart of America; a room one finds not elsewhere in the States. It is a creation superbe."
With enthusiastic interest he moved about, touching each article of furniture, examining with care the two of three old English landscapes that had been let into panels on the west side of the room, pausing in ecstacies before the great cabinet and standing before the fireplace as if he were warming his hands at that generous hearth.
"Ah, Monsieur Frost, could I but write, read, dream here...!"
"I fear that would be impossible, sir," replied Dan. "It is difficult to heat this portion of the house; and in fact, we never use it."
"Helas!" exclaimed the Marquis, "those things which allure us in this world are so often impossible. Perhaps in the spring, in the summer, when there is no longer the necessity of the fire, you will permit me."
"It may be, monsieur," Dan replied, "that long before the summer comes you will have left us."
"Mais non!" cried M. de Boisdhyver. "Every hour that I stay but proves to me how long you will have to endure my company."
Somewhat ungraciously, it seemed, young Frost made no reply to this pleasantry; for already he was impatient to be gone. Although the room was intensely cold and uncomfortable, still his guest lingered, standing before the massive cabinet, exclaiming upon the exquisiteness of the workmanship, and every now and then running his dainty fingers along the carving of its front. As Dan stood waiting for the Marquis to leave, he chanced to glance through the window to the court without, and saw Jesse starting out in the sleigh. As he had given him no such order he ran quickly to the window, rapped vigourously and then, excusing himself to the Marquis, hurried out to ask Jesse to explain his errand.
The Marquis de Boisdhyver stood for a moment, as Dan left him, motionless in front of the cabinet. His face was bright with surprise and delight, his eyes alert with interest and cunning. After a moment's hesitation he stole cautiously to the window, and seeing Frost was engaged in conversation with Jesse, he sprang back with quick steps to the cabinet. He hastily ran the tips of his fingers along the beveled edges of the wide shelf from end to end several times, each time the expression of alertness deepening into one of disappointment. He stopped for a moment and listened. All was quiet. Again with quick motions he felt beneath the edges. Suddenly his eyes brightened and he breathed quickly; his sensitive fingers had detected a slight unevenness in the smooth woodwork. Again he paused and listened, and then pressed heavily until he heard a slight click. He glanced up, as directly in front of him the eye of one of the carved wooden lion's heads on the front of the board winked and slowly raised, revealing a small aperture. With a look of satisfaction, the Marquis thrust his fingers into the tiny opening and drew forth a bit of tightly folded yellow paper; he glanced at it for an instant and thrust it quickly into the pocket of his waistcoat. Then he lowered the lid of the lion's eye. There was a slight click again; and he turned, just as Dan reappeared in the doorway.
"Excuse my leaving you so abruptly," said Frost, "but I saw Jesse going off with the sleigh, and as I had given him no orders, I wanted to know where he was going. But it was all right. Are you ready, sir? I am afraid if we stay much longer you will catch cold." This last remark was added as the Marquis politely smothered a sneeze with his flimsy lace handkerchief.
"C'est bien, monsieur. I fear I have taken a little cold. Perhaps it would be just as well if we explore no further to-day."
"If you prefer, sir," answered Dan, holding the door open for his guest to go out. Monsieur de Boisdhyver turned and surveyed the Oak Parlour once more before he left it. "Ah!" he exclaimed, "this so charming room—it is of a perfection! Dorsetshire, you say? ... To me it would seem French." They walked back rapidly along the dark cold corridors to the bar. All the way the Marquis, wrapped tightly in his great cloak, kept the thumb of his left hand in his waistcoat pocket, pressing securely against the paper he had taken from the old cabinet in the Oak Parlour.
THE MARQUIS AT NIGHT
The household of the Inn at the Red Oak soon became accustomed to the presence of their new member; indeed, he seemed to them during those bleak winter months a most welcome addition. Except for an occasional traveller who spent a night or a Sunday at the Inn, he was the only guest. He was gregarious and talkative, and would frequently keep them for an hour or so at table as he talked to them of his life in France, and of his adventures in the exciting times through which his country had passed during the last fifty years. He was the cadet, he told them, of a noble family of the Vendee, the head of which, though long faithful to the exiled Bourbons, had gone over to Napoleon upon the establishment of the Empire. But as for himself—Marie-Anne-Timelon-Armand de Boisdhyver—he still clung to the Imperial cause, and though now for many years his age and infirmities had forced him to withdraw from any part in intrigues aiming at the restoration of the Empire, his sympathies were still keen.
When he talked in this strain, of his thrilling memories of the Terror and of the extraordinary days when Bonaparte was Emperor, Dan and Tom would listen to him by the hour. But Mrs. Frost preferred to hear the Marquis's reminiscences of the ancien regime and of the old court life at Versailles. He had been a page, he said, to the unfortunate Marie Antoinette; he would cross himself piously at the mention of the magic name, and digress rapturously upon her beauty and grace, and bemoan, with tears, her unhappy fate. She liked also to hear of the court of Napoleon and of the life of the faubourgs in the Paris of the day. On these occasions the young men were apt to slip away and leave the Marquis alone with Mrs. Frost and Nancy.
For Nancy Monsieur de Boisdhyver seemed to have a fascination. She would listen absorbed to his voluble tales, her bright eyes fixed on his fantastic countenance, her head usually resting upon her hand, and her body bent forward in an attitude of eager attention. She rarely spoke even to ask a question; indeed, her only words would be an occasional exclamation of interest, or the briefest reply.
During the day their noble guest would potter about the house or, when the weather was fine, stroll down to the shore, where he would walk up and down the strip of sandy beach in the lee of the wind hour after hour. Now and then he wandered out upon the dunes that stretched along the Neck; and once, Dan afterwards learned, he paid a call upon old Mrs. Meath who lived by herself in the lonely farmhouse on Strathsey Neck, that was known as the House of the Dunes.
After supper they were wont to gather in Mrs. Frost's parlour or in the old bar before the great hearth on which a splendid fire always blazed; and when the Marquis had had his special cup of black coffee, he would get out his violin and play to them the long evening through. He played well, with the skill of a master of the art, and with feeling. He seemed at such times to forget himself and his surroundings; his bright eyes would grow soft, a dreamy look would steal into them, and a happy little smile play about the corners of his thin pale lips. Obligingly he gave Dan lessons, and often the young man would accompany him, in the songs his mother had known and loved in her youth, when old Peter had come wooing with fiddle in hand.
But best of all were the evenings when the Marquis chose to improvise. Plaintive, tender melodies for the most part; prolonged trembling, faintly-expiring airs; and sometimes harsh, strident notes that evoked weird echoes from the bare wainscoted walls. Mrs. Frost would sit, tears of sadness and of pleasure in her eyes, the kindly homely features of her face moving with interest and delight. Nancy was usually by the table, her sharp little chin propped up on the palms of her hands, never taking her fascinated gaze from the musician. Sometimes Tom would look at her and wonder of what she could be thinking. For certainly her spirit seemed to be far away wandering in a world of dreams and of strange inexpressible emotions. For Tom the music stirred delicate thoughts bright dreams of beauty and of love; the vivid intangible dreams of awakening youth. He had not had much experience with emotion; the story of his love affairs contained no more dramatic moments than the stealing of occasional kisses from the glowing cheeks of Maria Stonywell, the beauty of the Tinterton road, as he had walked back to the old farm with her on moonlight evenings.
They would all be sorry when Monsieur pleaded weariness and bade them good-night. Sometimes his music so moved the old Frenchman that the tears would gather in his faded blue eyes and steal down his powdered cheeks; and then, like as not, he was apt to break off suddenly, drop violin and bow upon his knees, and exclaim, "Ah! la musique! mon Dieu, mon Dieu! elle me rappelle ma jeunesse. Et maintenant—et maintenant!" And then, brushing away the tears he would rise, make them a courtly bow, and hurry out of the room.
Dan alone did not fall under his spell. He and Tom would often talk of their strange guest after they were gone to bed in the great chamber over the dining-room.
"I don't know what it is," Dan said one night, "but I am sorry he ever came to the Inn; I wish he would go away."
"How absurd, old boy!" protested Tom. "He has saved our lives this frightful winter. I never knew your mother to be so cheerful and contented; Nancy seems to adore him, and you yourself are making the most of his fiddle lessons."
"I know," Dan replied, "all that is true, but it is only half the truth. Mother's cheerfulness is costing me a pretty penny, for I can't keep her from ordering the most expensive things,—wines, and the like,—that we can't afford. Maybe Nance adores him, as you say,—she is such a strange wild child; but I have never known her to be so unlike herself. We used to have good times together—Nance and I. But this winter I see nothing of her at all." For the moment Dan forgot his complaint in the tender thought of his foster-sister. "It probably is absurd," he added presently, "but I don't like it; I don't like him, Tom! He plays the fiddle well, I admit but he is so queer and shifty, nosing about, looking this way and that, never meeting your eyes. It's just as though he were waiting, biding his time, for—I don't know what."
"Nonsense, Dan; you're not an old woman."
"It may be, Tom, but I feel so anyway. The place hasn't seemed the same to me since that Frenchman came. I wish he would go away; and apparently he means to stay on forever."
"I think you would miss him, if he were to go," insisted Pembroke, "for my part I'm glad he is here. To tell the truth, Dan, he's been the life of the house."
"He has fascinated you as he has fascinated Mother and Nance," Dan replied. "But it stands to reason, boy, that he can't be quite all right. What does he want poking about in a deserted old hole like Deal?"
"What he has said a thousand times; just what he so beautifully gets—quiet and seclusion."
"Perhaps you are right and I am wrong; but all the same I shall be glad to see the last of him."
The night was one of bright moonlight at the end of February. The bedroom windows were open to the cold clear air. Tom was not sleepy, and he lay for a long time recalling the dreams and emotions that had so stirred him earlier in the evening, as he had listened to the Marquis's playing. He kept whistling softly to himself such bars of the music as he could remember. Dan's chamber faced west, and Tom's bed was so placed that he could look out, without raising his head from the pillow, over the court in the rear of the Inn and into the misty depths of Lovel's Woods beyond the offices and stables.
As he lay half-consciously musing—it must have been near midnight—his attention was suddenly riveted upon the court below. It seemed to him that he heard footsteps. He was instantly wide awake, and jumped from the bed to the window, whence he peered from behind the curtain into the courtyard. Close to the wall of the Inn, directly beneath the window, a shadow flitted on the moonlight-flooded pavement, and he could hear the crumbling of the snow. Cautiously he thrust his head out of the window. Moving rapidly along near to the house, was a little figure wrapped in a dark cloak, which looked to Tom for all the world like the Marquis de Boisdhyver.
For the moment he had the impulse to call to him by name, but the conversation he had so recently had with Dan flashed into his mind, and he decided to keep still and watch. The figure moved rapidly along the west wall of the Inn almost the entire length of the building, until it arrived at the entrance of the bowling-alley which abutted from the old northern wing. Reaching this it paused for a moment, glancing about; then inserted a key, fumbled for a moment with the latch, opened the door, and disappeared within.
Tom was perplexed. He could not be sure that it was the Marquis; but whether it were or not, he knew that there was no reason for any one entering the old portion of the Inn at midnight. His first thought was to go down alone and investigate; his second was to waken Dan.
He lowered the window gently, drew the curtains across it, and bending over his friend, shook him gently by the shoulder. "Dan, Dan, I say; wake up!"
"What's the matter?" exclaimed Dan with a start of alarm, as he sat up in bed.
"Nothing, nothing; don't make a noise. I happened to be awake, and hearing footsteps under the window, I got up and looked out. I saw some one moving along close to the wall until he got to the bowling alley. He opened the door and disappeared."
"The door's locked," exclaimed Dan. "Who was it?"
"He had a key, whoever he was then. To tell the truth, Dan, it looked like the Marquis; though I couldn't swear to him. I certainly saw some one."
"You have not been asleep and dreaming, have you?" asked his friend, rubbing his eyes.
"I should say not. I'm going down to investigate; thought you'd like to come along."
"So I shall," said Dan, jumping out of bed and beginning to dress. "If you really have seen any one, I'll wager you are right in thinking it's the old marquis. That is just the sort of thing I have imagined him being up to. What he wants though in the old part of the house is more than I can think. He has pestered me to get back there ever since I showed him over the place the day he arrived. Are you ready? Bring a candle, and some matches. Ill just take my gun along on general principles. I don't care how soon we get rid of the Marquis de Boisdhyver, but I shouldn't exactly like to shoot him out with a load of buckshot in his hide."
Tom stood waiting with his boots in hand. Dan went to his bureau and took out his father's old pistol, that had done duty in the West India trade years ago, when pirates were not romantic memories but genuine menaces.
"Sh!" whispered Dan as he opened the door. "Let's blow out the candle. It's moonlight, and we will be safer without it. Be careful as you go down stairs not to wake Mother and Nancy."
Tom blew out the candle and slipped the end into his pocket, as he tiptoed after Dan down the stairs. At every step the old boards seemed to creak as though in pain. As they paused breathless half-way down on the landing, they heard no sound save the loud ticking of the clock in the hall below and the gentle whispering of the breeze without. The moon gave light enough had they needed it, but each of them could have found his way through every nook and corner of the Inn in darkness as well as in broad day-light. They crept down the short flight from the landing, paused and listened at the doors of Mrs. Frost's and Nancy's chambers, and then slipped noiselessly into the bar where the logs still glowed on the hearth.
"Shall we," asked Tom in a low tone, "go down the corridor or around outside?"
"Best outside," Dan whispered. "If we go down the corridor we are like to frighten him if he is the Marquis, or get a bullet in our gizzards if he is not. Should he be inside, he'll have a light and we can find just where he is. I have a notion that it's the Marquis and that he'll be in the Oak Parlour. We'd better creep along the porch."
Very softly he unlocked the door, and stepped outside. Tom was close behind him. They crept stealthily along next the wall well within the shadow of the roof, pausing at every window to peer through the cracks of the shutters. But all were dark. As they turned the corner of the porch at the end of the main portion of the inn from which the north wing extended, Dan suddenly put his hand back and stopped Tom. "Wait," he breathed, "there's a light in the Oak Parlour. Stay here, while I peek in."
With gun in hand he crept up to the nearest window of the Oak Parlour. The heavy shutters were closed, but between the crack made by the warping of the wood, he could distinguish a streak of golden light. He waited a moment; and, then at the risk of alarming the intruder within, carefully tried the shutter. To his great satisfaction it yielded and swung slowly, almost noiselessly, back upon its hinges; the inside curtains were drawn; but a slight gap had been left. Peering in through this, Dan found he could get a view of a small section of the interior,—the end of the great Dorsetshire cabinet on the farther side of the room and a part of the wall. Before the cabinet, bending over its shelf, stood the familiar form of the Marquis de Boisdhyver, apparently absorbed in a minute examination of the carving. But Dan's attention was quickly diverted from the figure of the old Frenchman, for by his side, also engaged in a similar examination of the cabinet, stood Nancy. For a moment he watched them with intent interest, but as he could not discover what so absorbed them he slipped back to Tom, who was waiting at the turn of the porch.
"It's the Marquis," he whispered in his friend's ear.
"What is he up to?"
"I don't know. Apparently he is examining the old cabinet. But, Tom, Nancy is with him and as absorbed in the thing as he is. Look!" he exclaimed suddenly. "They've blown out the light."
As he spoke, he pointed to the window, now dark. "Come," he said, making an instant decision, "let's hide ourselves in the hall and see if they come back."
"No time for talk now. Come along."
They ran back along the porch, slipped into the bar, and thence into the hall. Dan motioned to Tom to conceal himself in a closet beneath the stairway, and he himself slipped behind the clock. Hardly were they safely hidden thus, than they heard a fumble at the latch of the door into the bar. Then the door was pushed open, and the Marquis stepped cautiously in the hall. He paused for a moment, listening intently. Then he held open the door a little wider; and another figure, quite enveloped by a long black coat, entered after him. They silently crossed the hall to the door of Nancy's chamber. This the Marquis opened; then bowed low, as his companion passed within. They were so close to him that Dan could have reached out his hand and touched them. As Nancy entered her room, Dan distinctly heard Monsieur de Boisdhyver whisper, "More success next time, mademoiselle!"
There was no reply.
The Marquis turned, stole softly up the stairs, and in a moment Dan heard the click of the latch as he closed his door. He slipped out from his hiding place, and whispered to Tom.
In a few moments they were back again in their bedroom.
"Heavens! man, what do you make of it?" asked Tom.
"Make of it!" exclaimed Dan, "I don't know what to make of it. It's incomprehensible. What the devil is that old rascal after, and how has he bewitched Nance?"
"Perhaps," suggested Tom, more for Nancy's sake than because he believed what he was saying, "it is simply that he is curious, and knowing that you don't want him in the old part of the Inn, he has persuaded Nancy to take him there at night."
"Nonsense! that couldn't possibly account for such secrecy and caution. No, Tom, he has some deviltry on foot, and we must find out what it is."
"That should be simple enough. Ask Nance."
"Ah!" exclaimed his friend, "you don't know Nance as well as I. You may be sure he has sworn her to secrecy, and Nance would never betray a promise whether she had been wise in making it or not."
"Then go to the old man himself and demand an explanation."
"He'd lie ..."
"Turn him out."
"I could do that, of course. But I think I would rather find out what he is up to. It has something to do with the old cabinet in the Oak Parlour. I'll find out the mystery of that if I have to hack the thing into a thousand pieces. What I hate, is Nance's being mixed up in it."
"We can watch again."
"Yes; we'll do that. In the meanwhile, I am going to investigate that old ark myself. There's something about, something concealed in it, that he wants to get. When I took him in there the day after he came, he couldn't keep his eyes off it. If you can get Nance out of the way tomorrow afternoon, I'll send the Marquis off with Jesse for that long-talked-of visit to Mondy Port; and I'll give Jesse instructions not to get him back before dark. And while they are away, I'll investigate the Oak Parlour myself. Can you get Nance off?"
"I might ask her to go and look over the Red Farm with me. She might like the walk through the woods. I could easily manage to be away for three or four hours."
"Good! You may think it odd, Tom, that I should seem to distrust Nance. I don't distrust her, but there has always been a mystery about her. Mother knows a good deal more than she has even been willing to tell to me, or even to Nance, I guess. I know nothing except that she is of French extraction, and I have sometimes wondered since she has been so often with the old Marquis this winter, if he didn't know something about her. It flashed over me to-night as I saw them in that deserted room. Whatever is a-foot, I am going to get at the bottom of it. We will watch again to-morrow night. I heard him whisper as he left Nance, 'More success next time!' This sort of thing may have been going on for a month."
They undressed again, and Dan put his gun away in his bureau. "We may have use for that yet, Tommy," he said. "It would do me good, after what I have seen to-night, to put a bit of lead into the Marquis de Boisdhyver as a memento of his so delightful sojourn at L'Auberge au Chene Rouge."
THE OAK PARLOUR
The two young men felt self-conscious and ill-at-ease the next morning at the breakfast table, but apparently their embarrassment was neither shared nor observed. Mrs. Frost had kept her room, but Nancy and the Marquis were in their accustomed places; the old gentleman, chattering away in a fashion that demanded few answers and no attention; Nancy, speaking only to ask necessary questions as to their wants at table and meeting the occasional glances of Dan and Tom without suspicion. Tom could scarcely realize in that bright morning light, that only seven or eight hours earlier he and his friend had spied upon their companions prowling about in the abandoned wing of the inn.
Monsieur de Boisdhyver assented readily enough when Dan proposed that Jesse should take him that day to Monday Port. He was curious to see the old town, he said, having heard much of it from his friend; much also from his celebrated compatriot, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Tom took occasion during the discussion to ask Nancy if she would walk across the woods with him after dinner, that he might pay a visit to the Red Farm and see that all was going well in the absence of his parents. He felt that the tones of his voice were charged with unwonted significance; but Nancy accepted the invitation with a simple expression of pleasure. When Mrs. Frost was informed of the plans for the day, she came near thwarting Dan's carefully laid schemes. She had counted upon Jesse to do her bidding and had, she declared, arranged that Nancy should help her put together the silken patches of the quilt upon which she was perennially engaged. Her foster-daughter's glance of displeasure at this was tinder to the old lady's temper, and Dan entered most opportunely.
"So!" she was exclaiming, "I am always the one to be sacrificed when it is a question of some one's else pleasure."
"Mother, Mother," Dan protested good-naturedly, as he bent over to kiss her good-morning, "aren't you ever willing to spend a day alone with me?"
"Danny dear," cried the old lady, as she began to smile again, "you know I'm always willing. Of course, if Tom wants Nancy to go, the quilt can wait; it has waited long enough, in all conscience. There, my dear," she added, turning to the girl, "order an early dinner, and since you are going to the Red Farm, you might as well come back by the dunes and enquire for old Mrs. Meath. We have neglected that poor woman shamefully this winter."
"Yes, Mother,—if we have time."
"Take the time, my dear," added Mrs. Frost sharply.
The Marquis started off with Jesse at eleven o'clock, as eager for the excursion as a boy; and by half-past twelve Nancy and Tom had set out across the woods for the Red Farm. Dan was impatient for them to be gone. As soon as he saw them disappear in the woods back of the Inn, he made excuses to his mother, and hurried to the north wing. He found the door of the bowling alley securely locked, which convinced him that either the Marquis or Nancy had taken the key from the closet of his chamber. Having satisfied himself, he went directly to the Oak Parlour.
It was cold and dark there. He opened the shutters and drew back the curtains, letting in the cheerful midday sun, which revealed all the antique, sombre beauty of the room, of the soft landscapes and the exquisite carving of the Dorsetshire cabinet. But Dan was in no mood to appreciate the old-world beauty of the Oak Parlour. In that cabinet he felt sure there was something concealed which would reveal the mystery of the Marquis's stay at the inn and possibly the nature of his influence over Nancy. Whatever had been the object of the Marquis's search, it had not been found: his parting words to Nancy the night before showed that.
Dan took a long look at the cabinet first, estimating the possibility of its containing secret drawers. Hidden compartments in old cabinets, secret chambers in old houses, subterranean passageways leading to dungeons in romantic castles, had been the material of many a tale that Dan and Tom had told each other as boys. For years their dearest possession had been a forbidden copy of "The Mysteries of Udolpho" which they read in the mow of the barn lying in the dusty hay. However unusual, the situation was real; and he felt himself confronted by as hard a problem as he had ever tried to solve in fiction. He knew something about carpentry, so that his first step, after examining the drawers and cupboards and finding them empty, was to take careful measurements of the entire cabinet, particularly of the thicknesses of its sides, back, and partitions. It proved a piece of furniture of absolutely simple and straightforward construction. After long examination and careful soundings he came to the conclusion that a secret drawer was an impossibility.
Suddenly an idea occurred to him and he returned to the sitting-room. "Mother," he said, "I have been looking over the old cabinet in the Oak Parlour, thinking perhaps that I would have it brought into the dining-room. I wonder, if by chance, there are any secret drawers in it.
"Secret drawers? What an idea!" exclaimed Mrs. Frost.
"You never knew of any did you?"
"No.... Stop, let me think. Upon my word, I think there was something of the sort, but it has been so long ago I have almost forgotten."
"Try to remember, do!" urged Dan, striving to repress his excitement.
"It was not a secret drawer, but there were little hidden cubby-holes—three or four of them. I remember, now, your father once showed me how they opened. They were little places where the Roman Catholics used to hide the pages of their mass-books and such like in the days of persecution in England."
"Yes, yes," said Dan, "that makes it awfully interesting. Did father ever find anything in them?"
"No, I think not; but, dear me, it was over thirty years ago we brought that old cabinet from England,—long before you were born, Dan."
"Can you remember how to open the secret places? I have been looking it over, but I can't see where they can be, much less how to get into them."
"There were four of them, I think; all in the carving on the front, in the eyes of the lions it seems to me, and in the lion's mouth, or in the leaves somewhere. One spring that opened them I recollect, was under the ledge of the shelf, another at the back of the cabinet and,—but no, I really can't remember where the others were."
Dan was impatient to try his luck at finding them, and hurried back to the Oak Parlour. He ran his fingers many times under the ledge of the shelf before he heard the click of a tiny spring, and, looking up, saw the lion's eyelid wink and slowly open. With an exclamation of satisfaction, he thrust his fingers into the tiny aperture, felt carefully about, and was chagrined to find it empty. "More success next time, monsieur le marquis!" he muttered.
At length he found the spring that released the eyelid on the carved lion on the other side of the panel. He glanced into the little opening and, to his delight, saw the end of a bit of paper tucked away there. He dug it out with the blade of his pocket knife and unfolded it. It was yellow and brittle with age, covered with writing in a fine clear hand. But he was annoyed to discover, as he bent closely over to read it, that it was written in French, still worse, part of the paper was missing, for one side of it was ragged as if it had been torn in two.
Remembering with relief, that Pembroke had acquired a smattering of French at Dr. Watson's school for the sons of gentlemen, he put the paper carefully away in his pocket to wait for Tom's assistance in deciphering it. Then he set to work to find the missing half.
He fumbled about at the back of the cabinet for a spring that would release another secret cubby-hole, and was rewarded at last by an unexpected click, and the seemingly solid jaws of the lion fell apart about half-an-inch. But the little aperture which they revealed was empty. Further experiment at last discovered the fourth hiding place, but this also contained nothing.
It occurred to him then that the Marquis had already discovered the other half of the paper, and like himself was searching for a missing portion. As he stood thinking over the problem, he suddenly noticed that the room was in deep shadow, and realized that the sun had set over the ridge of Lovel's Woods. The Marquis would soon be returning. Carefully closing the four openings in the carving he pushed the old cabinet back against the wall, closed the shutters and drew the curtains. Then with a last glance to see that all was as he found it, he went out and closed the door the precious bit of paper in his inside pocket.
He went directly to Mrs. Frost's parlour. "Mother," he said, "please don't tell anyone that I have been in the north wing today. I have good reasons which I will explain to you before long. Now, I shall be deeply offended if you give the slightest hint."
"Gracious! Dan, what is all this mystery about?"
"You will never know, mother, unless you trust me absolutely. Mind! not a word to Tom, Nancy or the Marquis."
"Very well, Danny. You know I am as safe with a secret as though it had been breathed into the grave."
Dan did not quite share his mother's confidence in her own discretion, but he knew he could count on her devotion to him to keep her silent even where curiosity and the love of talk would render her indiscreet. He also knew, and had often deplored it, that fond as she was of Nancy she was not inclined to take the girl into her confidence.
Having said all he dared to his mother, Dan went to his room and carefully locked up the mysterious paper. He returned to the first floor just as the Marquis and Jesse drove up in the sleigh to the door of the inn.
Monsieur de Boisdhyver was enthusiastic about all that he had seen—the headquarters of General Washington, the house in which the Marquis de Lafayette had slept, the old mill in the parade, the fort at the Narrows, the shipping, the quaint old streets.... "But, O Monsieur Frost," he exclaimed, "the weariness that is now so delightful! How soundly shall I sleep to-night!"
Dan smiled grimly as he assured his guest of his sympathy for a good night and a sound sleep; thinking to himself, however, that if the Marquis walked, he would not walk unattended. He had no intention of trusting too implicitly to that loudly proclaimed fatigue.
THE WALK THROUGH THE WOODS
While Dan Frost was hunting for the secret places of the old cabinet, Tom and Nancy were picking their way across the snowcovered paths of Lovel's Woods to the Red Farm. These woods were a striking feature in the landscape of the open coast country around Deal. Rising somewhat precipitously almost out of the sea, three ridges extended far back into the country, with deep ravines between. They were thickly wooded, for the most part with juniper and pine. In some places the descent to the ravines was sheer and massed with rocks heaped there by a primeval glacier; in other parts they dipped more gently to the little valleys, which were threaded with many a path worn smooth by the dwellers on the eastern shore. Nearly two miles might be saved in a walk from the Inn to Squire Pembroke's Farm by going across the Woods rather than by the encircling road.
As they were used to the frozen country Tom and Nancy preferred the shorter if more difficult route. They had often found their way together through the tangled thickets of the Woods or along the shores of the Strathsey River, in season accompanied by dog and gun hunting fox and rabbit or partridge and wild duck. In Tom's company Nancy seemed to forget her shyness and would talk freely enough of her interests and her doings. He had always been fond of her, though until lately she had seemed to him hardly more than a child. This winter, as so frequently he had watched her sitting in the firelight listening to the old Marquis's playing and dreaming perhaps as he also dreamed, he realized that she was growing up. A new beauty had come into her face and slender form, her great dark eyes seemed to hold deeper interests, she was no longer in the world of childhood. The mystery enveloping her origin, which for some reason Mrs. Frost had never chosen to dispel, gave a certain piquancy to the interest and affection Tom felt for her. In the imaginative tales he had been fond of weaving for his own amusement, Nancy would frequently figure, revealed at last as the child of noble parents, as a princess doomed by some strange fate to exile. He thought of these things as from time to time he glanced back at her, holding aside some branch that crossed the path or giving her his hand to help her over a boulder in the way. The red scarf about her neck, red cap on her dark hair, flashing in and out of the tangled pathway against the background of the snow-clad woods, gave a bright note of colour to the scene.
They were obliged for the most part to walk in single file until the last ridge descended over a mass of rocks to the marshes along Beaver Pond. Then having given her his hand to help her down, he kept hold of it as they went along the free path to the open meadows. The feeling of Nancy's cool little hand in his gave Tom an odd and conscious sense of pleasure.
"You have been uncommonly silent, Nance, even for you," he said at last.
"Oh, I'm always silent, Tom," she replied. "It is because I am stupid and have nothing to say."
"Nonsense, my dear, you always have a lot to say to me. But you are forever reading, thinking ... what's it all about?"
"Oh, I think, Tom, because I have little else to do; but my thoughts aren't often worth the telling. In truth there is no one, not even you, who particularly cares to hear them. Tom," she said, "I am restless and discontented. Sometimes I wish I were far away from the Inn at the Red Oak and Deal, from all that I know,—even from you and Dan."
Pembroke suddenly realized that he could not laugh at these fancies, as he had so often done, and dismiss as if they were the vagaries of a child.
"Why are you restless and discontented, Nancy?" he asked seriously.
"Aren't you ever?" she questioned for reply. "Don't you ever get weary with the emptiness of it all, the everlasting round, the dullness? Don't you ever want to get away from Deal, and know people and see things and be somebody?"
"I do that, Nance. I mean to go as soon as I am a lawyer. I won't poke about Deal long after that, nor Monday Port either. I mean to set up in Coventry."
"Coventry!" exclaimed the girl with an accent of disdain. "That is just a provincial town like the Port, only a little more important because it is the capital of the state."
"Being the capital means a lot," protested Tom in defense of his ambitions of which for the first time he felt ashamed. "Men are sent to Congress from there. Nance, girl, ours is a wonderful country; we are making a great nation."
"Some people may be. None of us are, Tom. I wonder at you more than I do at Dan, for you have had more advantages. As for me, I am only a girl; there's nothing for girls but to sit and sew, and prepare meals for men to eat, and wait until some one comes and chooses to marry them. Then they go off and do the same thing some place else."
"But what have you to complain of, Nancy? you have the kindest brother, a good mother, a comfortable home...."
"The kindest brother, yes. But you know Mrs. Frost is not my mother. She doesn't care for me and I can't care for her as if she were. I have never loved any one but Dan."
"You can't help loving Dan," said Tom, thinking of his good friend. "But then, little girl, you love me too." And he pressed the hand in his warmly.
Nancy quickly withdrew her hand. "I am not a little girl. I have been grown up in lots of ways ever so long."
"But you love me?"
"I like you. Oh, Tom, the life we all lead is so futile. If I weren't a girl, I should go away."
They had reached the stile by now that led into the meadow which sloped down from the clump of poplars a hundred rods or so above, in the midst of which the Red Farmhouse stood. Instead of helping his companion over the steps in the wall, Tom stopped and stood with his back to them. "Let's stay here a minute, Nance, and have it out."
"Have what out?" she asked a trifle sharply.
"You haven't any queer wild plan in your head to go away, have you?"
"I don't know—sometimes I think I have. I dare say there are things somewhere a girl could find to do."
"But Mrs. Frost—?"
"Oh, Mother would not miss me long—she'd have Dan."
"But Dan would miss you."
"Yes, Dan might. I couldn't go, if Dan really needed me here. I think sometimes he doesn't. But, Tom, if you were in my position, if you didn't know who your parents were, if all your life you had been living on the charity of others—good and kind as they are, wonderful even as Dan has always been—you couldn't be happy. I'm not happy."
"But, Nance, what has come over you?"
"No—nothing in particular; I have often felt this way."
"But, dear, I couldn't let you go. I'd mind a lot, Nance."
She looked at him with a sudden smile of incredulity. "You, Tommy?"
"You can't go—you musn't go," Tom repeated, as he drew nearer to her.
Suddenly he reached out and seized her hands. "Don't you realize it?—I love you, Nance; I've always loved you!" He drew her close to him. She did not resist nor did she yield, but still with her eyes she questioned him. "Kiss me, Nancy," he whispered. She let him press his lips to hers but without responding to the pressure, as though she still were wondering of the meaning of this sudden unforeseen passion. But at last, caught up in its intensity, she gave him back his kisses. He took her face then between his hands and looked into it with a gaze that in itself was a caress. "Oh my sweetheart!" he said softly.
Slowly she disengaged herself. "Tom, Tom," she said, "this is foolishness. We musn't do this."
"Why not?" demanded Pembroke. "I tell you I love you!"
"No—not that way, not that way. I didn't mean that. Why, you foolish boy, haven't we kissed each other hundreds of times before?"
"No, Nancy, not like that—not like this," he added, as again he put his arm around her and drew her face to his. And again she yielded. "Say it—say it, Nance—you love me."
She drew back from him. "I think I must, Tom. I don't think I could let you kiss me that way if I didn't. But now come ... Tom ... dear Tom ... do come ... don't kiss me again."
"But say it," he insisted, "say you love me."
"Please help me over the stile."
He gave her his hand and she sprang lightly to the top of the steps. In a second he was by her side, both of them balancing somewhat uncertainly on the top of the stone wall. "I won't let you down till you say it."
"No—you love me?"
"Yes—there—I love you—now—".
"No, kiss me again."
"Tom—no." But the negative was weak and Pembroke took it so.
"Now," he said, as they began to cross the meadow, "we must tell Mrs. Frost and Dan."
"Tell them what?"
"Why, that we are in love with each other, and that you are going to marry me. What else?"
"No, no," exclaimed Nancy, "You must say nothing. I am not in love. I don't mean to marry you."
"But why not? You are. You do."
"In love—you do mean to marry me."
"No—Tom, listen—you know your father and mother would hate it. You have at least two years before you can practice. We couldn't marry—we can't marry. Oh, there are things I must do, before I can think of that."
"Not marry me? Good Lord, what does it mean when people are in love with each other, what does it mean when a girl kisses a fellow like that?"
"I don't know! what it means—madness, I guess. Do you think I could marry as I am, not knowing who I am?"
"Oh, what do I care who your parents were! We'll find out. I swear we will. Good Lord, I love you, Nancy; I love you!"
"Please, please don't make me talk about it now."
"Yes, soon—only promise you'll say nothing to Dan or to Mother till we have talked again. I must think; it is all so queer and unexpected; I never dreamed that you cared for me except as a little girl."
"I didn't know I did. But come to think of it, Nance, it has been you as much as Dan that has brought me to the Inn at the Red Oak. Why it was you I wanted to walk and talk and play with."
"Please,—dear Tom—G—ive me time to think what it all means. Now be careful, there's the farmer. You have a lot to do, and we have been lingering too long. Mother wants us to go back by the dunes and enquire for old Mrs. Meath; so we must hurry."
The sun had set before they started on the homeward journey in one of the squire's sleighs. As they turned the bend at the beach and started across the dune road close to the sea, a great yellow moon rose over Strathsey Neck.
Tom had been so preoccupied with his own emotions and the unexpected and absorbing relation in which he found himself with Nancy, that he had altogether forgotten why he had asked her to go off with him that afternoon. As they skimmed along over the snow-packed road across the sands, Tom spied another sleigh on the Port road, the occupants of which he recognized as Jesse and the Marquis. Suddenly the memory of the night before flashed over him. He pointed with his whip in their direction. "There's the old Marquis coming back from Monday Port," he said.
Nancy looked without comment, but Tom thought the colour deepened in her cheeks.
"See here, Nance," he exclaimed impulsively; "has the Marquis anything to do with the mood you were in this afternoon? Has he said anything to make you discontented?"
He was sure that now she paled.
"What makes you ask?"
"Oh—a number of things. I've seen you with him more or less; felt he had some influence over you."—Tom was blundering now and knew it.—
She looked at him coldly. "I have been with the Marquis very little save when others have been about. He has no influence over me. I don't care to discuss such queer ideas."
"Oh, all right ... I dare say I'm mistaken ... I only thought..." He hesitated... "If you care for me, I don't mind what you think of the Marquis."
"Remember, Tom—you promised to say nothing until I gave you leave. You're not fair..."
"But you do love me?"
Nancy was silent.
"There is nothing between you and the old Frenchman—no mystery?"
There was no reply. Nancy sat with compressed lips and drawn brows, gazing fixedly at the distant House on the Dunes at the end of their road. For a long while they drove on in silence.
At the House on the Dunes they chatted for a while with old Mrs. Meath, who lived there alone with a maid-of-all-work. She was a source of much anxiety to Mrs. Frost, who sent several times each week to learn if all was going well. But Mrs. Meath was a Quaker and apparently never gave a thought to loneliness or fear.
"They will never guess," she said to Nancy and Tom as they sat in the tiled kitchen talking with her, "what I am going to do."
"Not going to leave the House on the Dunes, Mrs. Meath?"
"Deary me! no; but I am going to take a boarder."
"Really?—you are setting up to rival the Inn, eh?" said Tom.
"No", Tommy, nothing of the sort. But I am offered good pay for my front room, and as Jane Frost is always nagging me about living here alone, I thought I'd take her."
"And who pray is your new boarder?" asked Nancy.
"That is the funny part of it," replied Mrs. Meath, "I know nothing but her name—Mrs. Fountain. Everything has been arranged by a lawyer man from Coventry, and she is coming in a few days. Tell thy mother, Nancy dear, that she need worry about me no longer."
"I will, Mrs. Meath. I think it is a splendid idea, and I hope you will like the lady. Mother will be so glad that you have some one with you."
Soon they were on their way across the dunes and marshes to Tinterton road and home. Dan was preoccupied, not with the news that was so exciting to Mrs. Meath, but with the recollection of his conversation with Nancy as they had driven toward the house. Despite her implicit denial he knew there was a secret between the Marquis de Boisdhyver and herself. He could not imagine what it might be, and it was evident that she did not mean to tell him at present. But his anxieties on this or kindred subjects were not relieved by his companion during the remainder of the drive. Moreover his attempts to speak again of his newly discovered passion were received coldly—so coldly indeed that he had no heart for pleading for such proofs as she had given him earlier in the afternoon that she shared his emotion. So despite the splendid moon, the bright cold night, the merry jangle of the sleigh bells, the drive back was not the unmixed joy Tom had promised himself; and he felt his role of a declared and practically-accepted lover anything but a satisfactory one.
Finally they reached the Inn and entered the bar where they found the Marquis sitting alone before a cheerful fire. All of Tom's suspicious jealousies returned with fresh force, for Nancy rapidly crossed the room, spoke a few words to the old gentleman in an inaudible tone of voice, and passed quickly on to her own apartments.
THE TORN SCRAP OF PAPER
THE HALF OF AN OLD PAPER
That evening Mrs. Frost made a particular request for music. Poor Dan, impatient to be alone with Tom and show him the torn scrap of paper that he had found that afternoon was forced to bring out his fiddle and accompany the Marquis. Tom, for first part, was more concerned with his own relations with Nancy than with the mysterious possibilities of the previous night. The poignant notes of the violin set his pulses to beating in tune with the throbbing of the music and transported him again into the realms of youthful dreams. They were quaint plaintive songs of old France that the Marquis chose to play that evening, folk tunes of the Vendee, love songs of olden time.
From where he sat in the shadow Tom got a full view of Nancy seated on the oaken setlle near the fire. Her brows were drawn a little in deep thought, her lips for the most part compressed, though ever and anon relaxing at some gentler thought. Her hands were clasped, her head was bent a little, but her body was held straight and tense. Her eyes, dark and lustrous in the light of the flaming logs, always fixed upon the musician, not once wandering in his direction.
What was the influence, the fascination that strange old Frenchman seemed to exert? It seemed to Tom impossible that there could be a secret which she felt necessary to hide from them, her lifelong friends. But apart from what he knew had taken place the night before as he looked back over the past month, he was conscious that there had been a change in Nancy, a change that mystified him. It was the danger in this change, he told himself, that had awakened in him the knowledge of his love.
But then as he looked across at her so lovely, in the firelight, he felt again the thrill as when first he had taken her hand that afternoon. In that moment all the dreams, the vague longings of his boyhood had found their reality.
Suddenly, while he was thinking thus, the Marquis laid his violin upon his knees. "Ah, ma jeunnesse!" he exclaimed in a dramatic whisper, "et maintenant—et maintenant!"
For a moment no one spoke or stirred. They looked at him curiously as they always did when he brought his playing to an end in such fashion. Then he rose. "Bon soir, madame; bon soir, messieurs; bon soir, mademoiselle"
Tom saw his little faded blue eyes meet Nancy's with a look of swift significance. Then he bowed with a flourish that included them all.