BY ETHEL WATTS MUMFORD
THE bride gave a sudden exclamation as the automobile surmounted the crest of the hill, disclosing an embowered glimpse of the house and the riot of its neglected gardens. Only the wildly yawing wheel of the little car prevented her laying an arresting hand upon that of her husband.
"My goodness!" she gasped. "How could that ever have been a workhouse? Why, it's a playhouse—a sublime, adorable playhouse! No wonder the town gave it up. It's too ridiculous—everybody would want to be a pauper!"
The words were jerked from her spasmodically as their car bucked over the ruts that had once been a road.
"It 'll cost something to put this confounded boulevard into navigable shape," said her husband, trying hard to be practical in the face of the allurement of the just-glimpsed residence.
"It's only a short quarter-mile," said the lady of his heart.
They halted before the entrance, and she jumped out. With clasped hands and shining eyes she stood admiring the gate—a wrought-iron delight, swinging invitingly ajar between two columns of brick surmounted by somewhat tipsy urns. To right and left the ornate fence swept gracefully, half lost in creepers, vines, and waves of pink climbing roses, which, unrestrained by the pruning-shears, inundated the road and paths with a spraying foam of petals. What had once been a brick walk was now a mottled bed of moss and hardy pinks. Larkspurs, with blue spikes five feet high, pushed back the advancing hollyhock armies. All the old-fashioned flowers of a hardy garden had made the lawns a battle-ground for floral supremacy, surging about the house, swarming at the windows, meeting the hosts of roses and honeysuckle that fell from roof and balcony.
The bride and the groom stood hand in hand, gazing wide-eyed at the scene before them. It was almost too wonderful, too perfect. A house of dreams—the painted back-drop of a fairy play that might at any moment roll up into the heavens and be lost to reality.
"I don't care what it's like inside," she whispered, as if afraid to break the spell. "We've got to have it!"
A breeze swept through the garden. The flowers bent in unison, as if in obeisance to a new mistress.
"See!" she laughed. "They are bowing to me."
"It 'll take two gardeners," said her spouse dryly.
"Oh, well," said the bride, "we'll economize on cut flowers."
"It isn't always June," he retorted.
They relapsed into silence as they walked on and paused before the front door. He fumbled in his pocket for the key that the selectman had given him; but the bride pressed a slender hand on the panels and it swung softly, almost gaily, open. The sunlight, running ahead of them, gold-flecked the dust that the incoming breeze tossed from the inlaid floor.
"They really ought to keep a caretaker here," she said. "Just think, the house all open like that! Why, tramps might be living here and set the place on fire."
"Nonsense! The place is too far out of the way. Why, we'd never have heard of it if it hadn't been for the Follensbees losing their way and blundering over it."
"I don't care," she repeated. "There ought to be a caretaker. It's a shame to leave a house like this all alone. I'm sure all the hardware's been stolen and the plumbing."
"Knobs are on the doors, anyway," he answered, and turned the nearest one.
Even with closed blinds and bare walls, the room they entered was merry. A great colonial fireplace still sheltered a pair of brass andirons, and the half-burned remains of a back-log suggested the glow of fire.
"It's perfectly ducky!" cried the bride, dancing on happy feet across the polished floor. "Just think of this with dove-colored taffeta curtains with little yellow fringes, old settees between the windows, a pair of powder-blue Chinese vases on the mantel, a big chaise-longue in front, and a refectory table back—"
"Hold on there, girly!" objected the groom. "You didn't marry a millionaire, you know."
"Oh, well," she pouted, "we'll do it a little at a time. Of course, with the whole house to furnish, we couldn't expect to go so fast; but with two gardeners, as you said, and a chauffeur who'd help generally, and a couple—Japanese, I think—a man and wife, and they'll wear their own kimono clothes—they'll look so picturesque, you know! And then we'll put a truck body on Lizette de Fer Blanc, and use her for service, and get a new little car for just us two, and fix up the road for a half-mile or so as you suggested. Don't you think we ought to be able to take possession in two or three weeks?"
She stopped, breathless. He was gravely considering.
"If the rent wasn't so small, it would be out of the question; and we ought to take it on a long lease, anyhow, to make it worth our while. It isn't of any use to the township. Somebody gave it to them for a workhouse, and they got into it before they saw how unpractical it was. They were awfully out of pocket trying to run it. The matron and the supervisor simply threw money away. But as a renting proposition it isn't any good, either—too far from the station, and no neighbors. Lots of people don't like that."
"Ah, but we do!" said the bride, slipping her arm through his and rubbing her cheek on his shoulder.
He kissed her enthusiastically, then dutifully dug into his wallet for the typewritten description of the premises.
"Let's see—six master's bedrooms, three baths, three servants' bedrooms and bath, chauffeur's apartment over garage, room for three cars, two box-stalls—"
"Splendid!" she interrupted. "We can keep a couple of ponies, and ride."
"Wouldn't you like kennels, too?" he inquired scathingly.
"Oh, no," she regretfully declined. "I'll just bring my two Pekingese. We couldn't afford a kennel-maid—yet."
She had raised a window and was busy with the catch of the shutters. A moment later the casement framed a picture of garden beauty. The fresh morning light, as if glad of the chance, flashed into the long-darkened room, bringing out the details of moldings and pilasters, delicately carved with sumptuous simplicity.
"I don't feel," she cried rapturously, "that I ever want to go anywhere again! I want to stay here—right now. I don't want to leave. I think I'll take the cushions out of Lizette's back and let you go to the village and sign the lease, and bring back a pound of coffee, a loaf of bread, one dozen eggs, some sugar—there's pepper and salt and tea in the motor kit—and two pillows and a couple of blankets."
"Let's get the water turned on first, my dear," he suggested; "and let's look over the lighting system. The telephone is in, but it's disconnected. And don't you think that you, as the lady of the house, ought to investigate the kitchen?"
"This house couldn't have just a kitchen—a mere kitchen!" exclaimed the bride. "A cooking parlor it shall be, with lovely copper and aluminum, all glass and enamel and tile, shiny and clean. Won't it be fun? And I'll put the cook out and get your early breakfast for you myself—oh, yes, I will," she insisted, anticipating her husband's refusal of such menial service.
He only smiled, but with undisconcerted ardor she continued:
"Dearest angel, do you realize that we've been standing here hours, and we've been in just one room? We've got to visit it all. Let's see, the plan said, 'A drawing-room, a dining-room, a music-room'—"
"I know this is the music-room. I can hear dance-music, and just feel this floor! Tra-la-la!" she trilled, and, thrusting her husband's arm around her waist, she urged him off down the room.
She was right; the room responded to its appointed destiny. The whole house seemed to hum with music, as a shell holds the sound of the sea. The floor sent back a spring of living wood to the quick young tread of the lovers who glided over it. At the door she stopped.
"The dining-room now," she whispered in his ear. "I'm sure we shall find a banquet. There'll be the ghost of a sideboard—and cold chicken, stuffed mangoes, and a decanter of sherry; and there'll be little biscuits and a big Virginia ham—"
"If you don't stop," said the groom, his mouth watering, "I sha'n't be satisfied with your imaginary lunch, and we've only got tongue sandwiches, so let's take in the sitting-room instead."
They turned around, their arms still about each other, and faced the wraith of a little worn, gray man. He came noiselessly from the door opposite, and his wistful, washed-out eyes sought their faces with compassion, and yet with a certain glittering hardness.
THE bride and the groom stood speechless, like children caught trespassing. Anything more out of key with the joyousness of the place it would be hard to imagine. If this was its familiar spirit, its manifestation was strangely at variance with the surroundings. No wreck of humanity stranded on a park bench in some livid dawn could be more worn, more hopeless-looking, more dreary-eyed.
Panic seized them both. The bride gripped her husband's shoulder convulsively, and with a sense of protection totally uncalled for he swiftly drew her behind him. In a flash the instinctive fear passed. Of what had they been afraid? Of a little old man, diffident, deprecating, and compassionate?
"You came to see the house?"
The voice was broken and old, deprecating and diffident, the perfect expression of the dejected little figure. The intruders found footing on the instant, and the groom's reply sounded loud and important in the echoing hall.
"Yes, Selectman Williams gave me the key and a plan of the house. We were talking of leasing it for a term of years. Who are you?" He added as an afterthought, "the caretaker?"
"I thought," observed the bride wisely, thrusting back a copper-colored curl under her lavender motor-veil, "that they really couldn't have left the place with no one in charge. My husband was just wondering about the water-supply—perhaps you could tell him about it?"
A grim smile drew up the corners of the old man's withered mouth.
"I could, of course," he replied. "There isn't a thing about the place that I don't know; but it isn't worth while to go into all that. You aren't going to take it."
It was said with such finality that the young people stared at him, for the moment dumb. Then the husband flushed angrily.
"The caretaker's job must be a soft one for you to be so high-handed," he remarked with a sneer. "However, we needn't involve you in our plans. Come, Trudy, we'll investigate the rest of the house."
"You will find it all charming, literally charming," said the soft, gray voice. "There isn't a room that won't attract you; there isn't an outlook that won't appeal to you. But, just the same, you can't stay here."
The sheer impertinence shocked the home-seekers into silence. The groom reddened, but the bride went pale. Something like the distant warning tinkle of a spirit-bell thrilled through her sensitive being.
"You aren't the caretaker!" she said suddenly. "Why do you say we mustn't stay? Who are you?"
The derelict met her gaze with tragic earnestness.
"I'm Morton Ford, if that means anything to you."
She looked blank, but her husband swung around, astonishment written large on his handsome face.
"Morton Ford! " he exclaimed. "That's the name of the donor. I saw it in the selectman's office—the man who gave the town this property for a poorhouse."
"Yes," said Morton Ford quietly.
"Why," the young man continued as one bewildered, "I thought, of course, you were dead! Who would give away such a place as this—and for such a purpose? It—it's incredible!"
"In a sense, I am dead." Ford addressed the bride directly, as if of the two she were the more likely to understand him. "And, as you say, I gave the house for a purpose. The town has not seen fit to continue to use the house as I intended. I did not give it to them to augment the town revenues; it is expressly stated so in my deed of gift. Therefore, if you make it necessary, I shall have to contest the lease."
"But why be a dog in the manger?" the would-be tenant objected. "They can't afford to run it as a workhouse. They told me so. The place involved the whole township in debt. If they can make something on it, why not let them? They're badly in the hole as it is."
"In the first place," said the former owner grimly, "I intend to punish this house. I intend to cripple it utterly; but, beyond that, I will not expose you or any other honest people to its cunning. I tell you this house is a devil—a living devil. It's a siren, a vampire, a blood-sucking, soul-destroying thing. Oh, I know her! She's not a thing of stones and mortar, wood and plaster. She's got a sort of evil life. She'd wreck you, as she wrecked me and my happiness, as she destroyed the man who made her."
He was shaking with excitement. His pale face was streaked with sudden red, his bony hands were clenched.
"He's mad," thought the husband, and again sought to draw his wife behind him. He had not spoken, but his wife read his thoughts.
"No," she said steadily, "he isn't. Please, Mr. Ford, explain it, will you? We just don't seem to understand. It's strange, you see. We thought the house so lovely. It's so sunny, so gay. Why, any one should be happy here. It's—it's heavenly!"
"Will you come?" With a quivering finger Morton Ford pointed up the graceful stairway to the wide landing above. "Perhaps, if I show you the place, you will understand."
He led the way to the floor above, and steadied himself for a moment with his palm against the yellow-paneled wall. Then, with a quick gesture of determination, he threw open the door of a large, cheerful bedroom. A long mirror was set in the bath-room door, and reflected the tracery of climbing roses at the unshuttered window. A heavy four-poster bed stood facing them. There was no other furniture.
"What a beautiful room!" ejaculated the bride.
"Of course you'd think so," their guide muttered grimly; "but it was there, right in front of that looking-glass, that he shot himself."
"Shot himself? Who shot himself?" demanded the groom.
"Madison, the man who built the house."
"But why?" gasped the bride.
"He was a bank cashier," Ford answered, his voice again colorless. "A bank cashier, and married to a dear little woman—it wasn't her fault. She loved him, she'd have been happy with him anywhere; but he would come here, he would build. Some one—his bitterest enemy, I guess—had given him a set of plans. He had a little money. It seemed all right at first; but then the house developed its soul. It's the soul of a courtezan. She is the three daughters of the horse-leech in one. She cries: 'Give, give!' Oh, you don't know! Poor Madison! He became infatuated with the house—infatuated utterly, his wife told me. It was like a madness. He couldn't resist its demands. Nothing was good enough for its beauty; nothing was rare enough. Everything that belonged to the house must be cared for and pampered—yes, pampered. Its gardens, its stables, everything—like a king's mistress, groomed and perfumed and bedecked, bejeweled and garlanded. Oh, yes, I know; but it wasn't until the malady had fallen upon me that I hunted her out—little Mrs. Madison—and found her stunned and prematurely old, living in poverty and under another name, because of her husband's theft. For he stole—of course he stole—who wouldn't? He robbed the bank for his mistress—this shameless, laughing, merry house—and then he shot himself before that mirror. And does the house care? Not at all! She was looking for her next victim before her lover's body was cold. She drank his blood into her very self, and she gives no hint of tragedy. And so I found her."
"You bought it—after that?" whispered the bride.
The old man nodded.
"Yes, and I thought I was lucky. I knew what had happened; but, like everybody else, I didn't take it to myself. Somebody else's martyrdom, somebody else's tragedy—and for that reason I could buy it cheap, just as it stood, with all its furniture. Yes, I bought the trollop, with all her gauds and her trappings and her frills and laces. I bought it for the woman I loved—for my wife. She'd had so little in her life. I was older than she, and I loved her so much that I wanted to give her the best, the loveliest, the happiest things. The house laughed and made us welcome—oh, it knows how to welcome you and envelop you in a sense of well-being. Charm, charm—that's the very corner-stone and rooftree.
"And then the creature, that is this house, cried: 'Give, give!' and I gave and gave; but it wasn't for me alone that she spread her net—oh, no! My wife was young, my wife was pretty, my wife was gay. She filled the house with music, and the house loved her. Come, I will show you her room, the lovely room that looks out on the water-garden—it is only a pond now, but it was a water-garden then. I'll show you the little boudoir she had done in saffron and rose, like the inside of a shell. I had them put the most pestilential pauper of all in that room!"
Obediently the young people followed the halting steps. Something of the enchantment of the Ancient Mariner held them attentive and breathless.
Throwing open a double door a few paces farther down the hall, Morton Ford ushered them into a long, low-ceilinged apartment. The whole of one side was composed of casement windows that went clear to the floor. Beyond was a balcony of lacy wrought-iron, and below was the lily-covered surface of a pond. Irises bloomed beside it, and azaleas crowded toward it. A willow-tree hung above, and stroked its silver surface with long, silken fingers. On the ceiling of the room the reflection of the ripples ran in sequences of shadowy gold. A breath of perfume seemed still to cling to its rosy walls.
The bath-room beyond glittered. Small squares of inlaid glass made a diamond light above the creamy luster of the tiles. On the other side, the open door gave a glimpse of another room—doubtless the boudoir, "like a shell."
There was silence. The three visitors stood motionless. The old man's head was bent. He did not try to hide his pain; like a child he wept. The bride put out her hand and touched his sleeve.
"What happened?" she asked softly. "The house loved her, you say. Then it wouldn't harm her, it wouldn't let her destroy herself for it. What happened?"
"The house, the—why do I call it a house? It is not a house. It is an evil, living thing! It taught her all its cunning, all its ways to win, to cajole, to beg, to demand. Oh, she was an apt pupil! But I was to blame, for I should not have placed her where her soul could be poisoned, Yet how could I know?"
After a momentary pause he went on.
"Together they grew in extravagance. They must be matched in perfection. And I was blind. I thought my wife the wonder of the world. Who but she could make such marvels out of a bit of lace and a scrap of linen, and hang the windows with such curtains and such draperies? The house taught her. For nothing—so I thought—she picked up priceless things, and I was proud of her cleverness and her knowledge. And all the while the devilish house was teaching her luxury, extravagance, display, opulence. At last she outdid her teacher. She wanted to put her two hands into the world's coffers and scatter its gold profligately.
"As the house increased in beauty, it made her more beautiful. As the house grew more charming, she learned the charm, of Satan himself. Now, as I look back, I seem to see them vie with each other—the beautiful house and the lovely woman. And then—the world of the house, my house, grew too small, and just as heartlessly, just as lightly as the house had slain, she deserted it—and me—for greater extravagance, greater luxury, greater display. In my hour of despair the house would have taken vengeance on me because she had deserted it. The house would have made me follow in the footsteps of poor Madison; but I was not to be deceived. It tried to make me go into that room and kill myself, as the other had. The house would have sucked my blood and cast me aside, and then it would have waited, treacherously smiling and welcoming, for the next victim; but I knew its devilish soul too well.
"I determined to be revenged; so I thought of the thing most likely to infuriate the house. Poverty, age, illness, all the things the house hated—these the house should have. You begin to understand now, don't you, why I gave the property to the town for a poorhouse, for a workhouse, where day after day, year after year these walls would have to shelter the lame and the halt and the blind, the creatures of poverty, clad in ugliness, eating the mean fare of charity, lorded over by others little better than themselves? Oh, I can feel the loathing in every stick and stone, the repugnance in every minutest detail of refinement!
"Can't you imagine the stairs creaking with shame at the lumbering and shuffling? Can't you feel the paneling drawing away from such a company? Can't you fancy how this room—this room, most of all—felt when they installed here old John Broad, the palsied, foul-mouthed drunkard? Can't you imagine the immaculate kitchen blowing back the fumes of cabbage and cheap stews? Can't you understand the hatred of the gardens as wheel-chairs plowed through them, and the weeds invaded them without let or hindrance?
"Oh, I had my vengeance on the house; but she was too clever for me. I couldn't be here to watch her, to checkmate her cunning. She even drove these cattle to extravagance—at least, to what was extravagance for them.
"A year, two, three, five, and the house expelled the inmates she loathed. She spewed them out at last, and then smoothed herself, and smiled and furbished up again each tarnished wile. She called to her charm, to her gaiety and her flowers, to the breezes and the sunlight, to the whispering, suggestive silence of her rooms, to the promise of her wide hearths, to the resonance of laughter and music that she holds in the hollow of her heart. She cast out the memories of the sounds and scents of the poor she hated, and she waited—waited for you. She would have welcomed you and infolded you and drawn you in, and you would have gone down her ruinous way of extravagance and luxury; but she reckoned without me.
"When I heard what had happened, I came back. When I caught the house smiling and beckoning through her desertion, I watched and waited, too. I wondered whether she was strong enough to draw fresh victims to her cruel embrace. And she is, for you came. And now you know. You think she's nothing but a house; but I know she is a devil, a vampire, a destroyer of body and soul!"
The bride shuddered, and her husband looked down at her, amused. He felt it incumbent upon him to be amused, for he was shaken.
"Well," he said, "that's very interesting, and in a way I think you're right. The house is far too large for us."
The old man smiled. They did not speak again for many minutes.
On the veranda, as they took their leave, the groom condescended to speak more graciously to the old man.
"Of course, sir, I'm greatly obliged for your warning, but really, you know, there wasn't any danger of our taking the place. It's charming, as you say, but—well, quite beyond our means."
The bride looked up gravely and held out her hand.
"Thank you ever so much," she said simply. "You're quite right, and I'm very grateful. We must be going. Can we give you a lift—take you anywhere?"
Ford shook his head.
"No, I thank you. I'm not the caretaker, you see, though I am a watchman. Good-by, my dear. God keep you!"
The bride looked over her shoulder as they topped the hill. Below them lay the tangled garden, the shimmer of the pond, the inviting expanse of the house, cream-white in its setting of green. On the steps was a splotch of gray—the huddled figure of the watcher.
"Bughouse, poor old boy!" said the groom. "But, after all, there's something in what he says about biting off more than one can chew. Considerable of a yarn, that. Wonder if there's any basis of truth for it—all that about the suicide, and his wife eloping, I mean."
The bride did not answer. For the first time since the all-important ceremony she was totally oblivious of the words of her lord and master. To her eyes the vision of home had suddenly shown itself a whited sepulcher, and more—a vampire, reaching out to seize her. And because she was a woman, and, therefore, subconsciously aware of many things, she shuddered as with cold and drew her veil more closely about her.
"Oh, what an escape!" she murmured, "what an escape!"
Her husband laughed. "You weren't afraid of him, were you? Why, the poor old chap was perfectly harmless."