A Romance of the Line by Bret Harte
As the train moved slowly out of the station, the Writer of Stories looked up wearily from the illustrated pages of the magazines and weeklies on his lap to the illustrated advertisements on the walls of the station sliding past his carriage windows. It was getting to be monotonous. For a while he had been hopefully interested in the bustle of the departing trains, and looked up from his comfortable and early invested position to the later comers with that sense of superiority common to travelers; had watched the conventional leave-takings--always feebly prolonged to the uneasiness of both parties--and contrasted it with the impassive business promptitude of the railway officials; but it was the old experience repeated. Falling back on the illustrated advertisements again, he wondered if their perpetual recurrence at every station would not at last bring to the tired traveler the loathing of satiety; whether the passenger in railway carriages, continually offered Somebody's oats, inks, washing blue, candles, and soap, apparently as a necessary equipment for a few hours' journey, would not there and thereafter forever ignore the use of these articles, or recoil from that particular quality. Or, as an unbiased observer, he wondered if, on the other hand, impressible passengers, after passing three or four stations, had ever leaped from the train and refused to proceed further until they were supplied with one or more of those articles. Had he ever known any one who confided to him in a moment of expansiveness that he had dated his use of Somebody's soap to an advertisement persistently borne upon him through the medium of a railway carriage window? No! Would he not have connected that man with that other certifying individual who always appends a name and address singularly obscure and unconvincing, yet who, at some supreme moment, recommends Somebody's pills to a dying friend,--afflicted with a similar address,--which restore him to life and undying obscurity. Yet these pictorial and literary appeals must have a potency independent of the wares they advertise, or they wouldn't be there.
Perhaps he was the more sensitive to this monotony as he was just then seeking change and novelty in order to write a new story. He was not looking for material,--his subjects were usually the same,-- he was merely hoping for that relaxation and diversion which should freshen and fit him for later concentration. Still, he had often heard of the odd circumstances to which his craft were sometimes indebted for suggestion. The invasion of an eccentric- looking individual--probably an innocent tradesman into a railway carriage had given the hint for "A Night with a Lunatic;" a nervously excited and belated passenger had once unconsciously sat for an escaped forger; the picking up of a forgotten novel in the rack, with passages marked in pencil, had afforded the plot of a love story; or the germ of a romance had been found in an obscure news paragraph which, under less listless moments, would have passed unread. On the other hand, he recalled these inconvenient and inconsistent moments from which the so-called "inspiration" sprang, the utter incongruity of time and place in some brilliant conception, and wondered if sheer vacuity of mind were really so favorable.
Going back to his magazine again, he began to get mildly interested in a story. Turning the page, however, he was confronted by a pictorial advertising leaflet inserted between the pages, yet so artistic in character that it might have been easily mistaken for an illustration of the story he was reading, and perhaps was not more remote or obscure in reference than many he had known. But the next moment he recognized with despair that it was only a smaller copy of one he had seen on the hoarding at the last station. He threw the leaflet aside, but the flavor of the story was gone. The peerless detergent of the advertisement had erased it from the tablets of his memory. He leaned back in his seat again, and lazily watched the flying suburbs. Here were the usual promising open spaces and patches of green, quickly succeeded again by solid blocks of houses whose rear windows gave directly upon the line, yet seldom showed an inquisitive face--even of a wondering child. It was a strange revelation of the depressing effects of familiarity. Expresses might thunder by, goods trains drag their slow length along, shunting trains pipe all day beneath their windows, but the tenants heeded them not. Here, too, was the junction, with its labyrinthine interlacing of tracks that dazed the tired brain; the overburdened telegraph posts, that looked as if they really could not stand another wire; the long lines of empty, homeless, and deserted trains in sidings that had seen better days; the idle trains, with staring vacant windows, which were eventually seized by a pert engine hissing, "Come along, will you?" and departed with a discontented grunt from every individual carriage coupling; the racing trains, that suddenly appeared parallel with one's carriage windows, begot false hopes of a challenge of speed, and then, without warning, drew contemptuously and, superciliously away; the swift eclipse of everything in a tunneled bridge; the long, slithering passage of an "up" express, and then the flash of a station, incoherent and unintelligible with pictorial advertisements again.
He closed his eyes to concentrate his thought, and by degrees a pleasant languor stole over him. The train had by this time attained that rate of speed which gave it a slight swing and roll on curves and switches not unlike the rocking of a cradle. Once or twice he opened his eyes sleepily upon the waltzing trees in the double planes of distance, and again closed them. Then, in one of these slight oscillations, he felt himself ridiculously slipping into slumber, and awoke with some indignation. Another station was passed, in which process the pictorial advertisements on the hoardings and the pictures in his lap seemed to have become jumbled up, confused, and to dance before him, and then suddenly and strangely, without warning, the train stopped short--at another station. And then he arose, and--what five minutes before he never conceived of doing--gathered his papers and slipped from the carriage to the platform. When I say "he" I mean, of course, the Writer of Stories; yet the man who slipped out was half his age and a different-looking person.
. . . . . .
The change from the motion of the train--for it seemed that he had been traveling several hours--to the firmer platform for a moment bewildered him. The station looked strange, and he fancied it lacked a certain kind of distinctness. But that quality was also noticeable in the porters and loungers on the platform. He thought it singular, until it seemed to him that they were not characteristic, nor in any way important or necessary to the business he had in hand. Then, with an effort, he tried to remember himself and his purpose, and made his way through the station to the open road beyond. A van, bearing the inscription, "Removals to Town and Country," stood before him and blocked his way, but a dogcart was in waiting, and a grizzled groom, who held the reins, touched his hat respectfully. Although still dazed by his journey and uncertain of himself, he seemed to recognize in the man that distinctive character which was wanting in the others. The correctness of his surmise was revealed a few moments later, when, after he had taken his seat beside him, and they were rattling out of the village street, the man turned towards him and said:--
"Tha'll know Sir Jarge?"
"I do not," said the young man.
"Ay! but theer's many as cooms here as doan't, for all they cooms. Tha'll say it ill becooms mea as war man and boy in Sir Jarge's sarvice for fifty year, to say owt agen him, but I'm here to do it, or they couldn't foolfil their business. Tha wast to ax me questions about Sir Jarge and the Grange, and I wor to answer soa as to make tha think thar was suthing wrong wi' un. Howbut I may save tha time and tell thea downroight that Sir Jarge forged his uncle's will, and so gotten the Grange. That 'ee keeps his niece in mortal fear o' he. That tha'll be put in haunted chamber wi' a boggle."
"I think," said the young man hesitatingly, "that there must be some mistake. I do not know any Sir George, and I am not going to the Grange."
"Eay! Then thee aren't the 'ero sent down from London by the story writer?"
"Not by that one," said the young man diffidently.
The old man's face changed. It was no mere figure of speech: it actually was another face that looked down upon the traveler.
"Then mayhap your honor will be bespoken at the Angel's Inn," he said, with an entirely distinct and older dialect, "and a finer hostel for a young gentleman of your condition ye'll not find on this side of Oxford. A fair chamber, looking to the sun; sheets smelling of lavender from Dame Margery's own store, and, for the matter of that, spread by the fair hands of Maudlin, her daughter-- the best favored lass that ever danced under a Maypole. Ha! have at ye there, young sir! Not to speak of the October ale of old Gregory, her father--ay, nor the rare Hollands, that never paid excise duties to the king."
"I'm afraid," said the young traveler timidly, "there's over a century between us. There's really some mistake."
"What?" said the groom, "ye are not the young spark who is to marry Mistress Amy at the Hall, yet makes a pother and mess of it all by a duel with Sir Roger de Cadgerly, the wicked baronet, for his over-free discourse with our fair Maudlin this very eve? Ye are not the traveler whose post-chaise is now at the Falcon? Ye are not he that was bespoken by the story writer in London?"
"I don't think I am," said the young man apologetically. "Indeed, as I am feeling far from well, I think I'll get out and walk."
He got down--the vehicle and driver vanished in the distance. It did not surprise him. "I must collect my thoughts," he said. He did so. Possibly the collection was not large, for presently he said, with a sigh of relief:--
"I see it all now! My name is Paul Bunker. I am of the young branch of an old Quaker family, rich and respected in the country, and I am on a visit to my ancestral home. But I have lived since a child in America, and am alien to the traditions and customs of the old country, and even of the seat to which my fathers belong. I have brought with me from the far West many peculiarities of speech and thought that may startle my kinsfolk. But I certainly shall not address my uncle as 'Hoss!' nor shall I say 'guess' oftener than is necessary."
Much brightened and refreshed by his settled identity, he had time, as he walked briskly along, to notice the scenery, which was certainly varied and conflicting in character, and quite inconsistent with his preconceived notions of an English landscape. On his right, a lake of the brightest cobalt blue stretched before a many-towered and terraced town, which was relieved by a background of luxuriant foliage and emerald-green mountains; on his left arose a rugged mountain, which he was surprised to see was snow-capped, albeit a tunnel was observable midway of its height, and a train just issuing from it. Almost regretting that he had not continued on his journey, as he was fully sensible that it was in some way connected with the railway he had quitted, presently his attention was directed to the gateway of a handsome park, whose mansion was faintly seen in the distance. Hurrying towards him, down the avenue of limes, was a strange figure. It was that of a man of middle age; clad in Quaker garb, yet with an extravagance of cut and detail which seemed antiquated even for England. He had evidently seen the young man approaching, and his face was beaming with welcome. If Paul had doubted that it was his uncle, the first words he spoke would have reassured him.
"Welcome to Hawthorn Hall," said the figure, grasping his hand heartily, "but thee will excuse me if I do not tarry with thee long at present, for I am hastening, even now, with some nourishing and sustaining food for Giles Hayward, a farm laborer." He pointed to a package he was carrying. "But thee will find thy cousins Jane and Dorcas Bunker taking tea in the summer-house. Go to them! Nay--positively--I may not linger, but will return to thee quickly." And, to Paul's astonishment, he trotted away on his sturdy, respectable legs, still beaming and carrying his package in his hand.
"Well, I'll be dog-goned! but the old man ain't going to be left, you bet!" he ejaculated, suddenly remembering his dialect. "He'll get there, whether school keeps or not!" Then, reflecting that no one heard him, he added simply, "He certainly was not over civil towards the nephew he has never seen before. And those girls--whom I don't know! How very awkward!"
Nevertheless, he continued his way up the avenue towards the mansion. The park was beautifully kept. Remembering the native wildness and virgin seclusion of the Western forest, he could not help contrasting it with the conservative gardening of this pretty woodland, every rood of which had been patrolled by keepers and rangers, and preserved and fostered hundreds of years before he was born, until warmed for human occupancy. At times the avenue was crossed by grass drives, where the original woodland had been displaced, not by the exigency of a "clearing" for tillage, as in his own West, but for the leisurely pleasure of the owner. Then, a few hundred yards from the house itself,--a quaint Jacobean mansion,--he came to an open space where the sylvan landscape had yielded to floral cultivation, and so fell upon a charming summer- house, or arbor, embowered with roses. It must have been the one of which his uncle had spoken, for there, to his wondering admiration, sat two little maids before a rustic table, drinking tea demurely, yes, with all the evident delight of a childish escapade from their elders. While in the picturesque quaintness of their attire there was still a formal suggestion of the sect to which their father belonged, their summer frocks--differing in color, yet each of the same subdued tint--were alike in cut and fashion, and short enough to show their dainty feet in prim slippers and silken hose that matched their frocks. As the afternoon sun glanced through the leaves upon their pink cheeks, tied up in quaint hats by ribbons under their chins, they made a charming picture. At least Paul thought so as he advanced towards them, hat in hand. They looked up at his approach, but again cast down their eyes with demure shyness; yet he fancied that they first exchanged glances with each other, full of mischievous intelligence.
"I am your cousin Paul," he said smilingly, "though I am afraid I am introducing myself almost as briefly as your father just now excused himself to me. He told me I would find you here, but he himself was hastening on a Samaritan mission."
"With a box in his hand?" said the girls simultaneously, exchanging glances with each other again.
"With a box containing some restorative, I think," responded Paul, a little wonderingly.
"Restorative! So that's what he calls it now, is it?" said one of the girls saucily. "Well, no one knows what's in the box, though he always carries it with him. Thee never sees him without it"--
"And a roll of paper," suggested the other girl.
"Yes, a roll of paper--but one never knows what it is!" said the first speaker. "It's very strange. But no matter now, Paul. Welcome to Hawthorn Hall. I am Jane Bunker, and this is Dorcas." She stopped, and then, looking down demurely, added, "Thee may kiss us both, cousin Paul."
The young man did not wait for a second invitation, but gently touched his lips to their soft young cheeks.
"Thee does not speak like an American, Paul. Is thee really and truly one?" continued Jane.
Paul remembered that he had forgotten his dialect, but it was too late now.
"I am really and truly one, and your own cousin, and I hope you will find me a very dear"--
"Oh!" said Dorcas, starting up primly. "You must really allow me to withdraw." To the young man's astonishment, she seized her parasol, and, with a youthful affectation of dignity, glided from the summer-house and was lost among the trees.
"Thy declaration to me was rather sudden," said Jane quietly, in answer to his look of surprise, "and Dorcas is peculiarly sensitive and less like the 'world's people' than I am. And it was just a little cruel, considering that she has loved thee secretly all these years, followed thy fortunes in America with breathless eagerness, thrilled at thy narrow escapes, and wept at thy privations."
"But she has never seen me before!" said the astounded Paul.
"And thee had never seen me before, and yet thee has dared to propose to me five minutes after thee arrived, and in her presence."
"But, my dear girl!" expostulated Paul.
"Stand off!" she said, rapidly opening her parasol and interposing it between them. "Another step nearer--ay, even another word of endearment--and I shall be compelled--nay, forced," she added in a lower voice, "to remove this parasol, lest it should be crushed and ruined!"
"I see," he said gloomily, "you have been reading novels; but so have I, and the same ones! Nevertheless, I intended only to tell you that I hoped you would always find me a kind friend."
She shut her parasol up with a snap. "And I only intended to tell thee that my heart was given to another."
"You intended--and now?"
"Is it the 'kind friend' who asks?"
"If it were not?"
"But thee loves another?" she said, toying with her cup.
He attempted to toy with his, but broke it. A man lacks delicacy in this kind of persiflage. "You mean I am loved by another," he said bluntly.
"You dare to say that!" she said, flashing, in spite of her prim demeanor.
"No, but you did just now! You said your sister loved me!"
"Did I?" she said dreamily. "Dear! dear! That's the trouble of trying to talk like Mr. Blank's delightful dialogues. One gets so mixed!"
"Yet you will be a sister to me?" he said. "'Tis an old American joke, but 'twill serve."
There was a long silence.
"Had thee not better go to sister Dorcas? She is playing with the cows," said Jane plaintively.
"You forget," he returned gravely, "that, on page 27 of the novel we have both read, at this point he is supposed to kiss her."
She had forgotten, but they both remembered in time. At this moment a scream came faintly from the distance. They both started, and rose.
"It is sister Dorcas," said Jane, sitting down again and pouring out another cup of tea. "I have always told her that one of those Swiss cows would hook her."
Paul stared at her with a strange revulsion of feeling. "I could save Dorcas," he muttered to himself, "in less time than it takes to describe." He paused, however, as he reflected that this would depend entirely upon the methods of the writer of this description. "I could rescue her! I have only to take the first clothes-line that I find, and with that knowledge and skill with the lasso which I learned in the wilds of America, I could stop the charge of the most furious ruminant. I will!" and without another word he turned and rushed off in the direction of the sound.
. . . . . .
He had not gone a hundred yards before he paused, a little bewildered. To the left could still be seen the cobalt lake with the terraced background; to the right the rugged mountains. He chose the latter. Luckily for him a cottager's garden lay in his path, and from a line supported by a single pole depended the homely linen of the cottager. To tear these garments from the line was the work of a moment (although it represented the whole week's washing), and hastily coiling the rope dexterously in his hand, he sped onward. Already panting with exertion and excitement, a few roods farther he was confronted with a spectacle that left him breathless.
A woman--young, robust, yet gracefully formed--was running ahead of him, driving before her with an open parasol an animal which he instantly recognized as one of that simple yet treacherous species most feared by the sex--known as the "Moo Cow."
For a moment he was appalled by the spectacle. But it was only for a moment! Recalling his manhood and her weakness, he stopped, and bracing his foot against a stone, with a graceful flourish of his lasso around his head, threw it in the air. It uncoiled slowly, sped forward with unerring precision, and missed! With the single cry of "Saved!" the fair stranger sank fainting in his arms! He held her closely until the color came back to her pale face. Then he quietly disentangled the lasso from his legs.
"Where am I?" she said faintly.
"In the same place," he replied, slowly but firmly. "But," he added, "you have changed!"
She had, indeed, even to her dress. It was now of a vivid brick red, and so much longer in the skirt that it seemed to make her taller. Only her hat remained the same.
"Yes," she said, in a low, reflective voice and a disregard of her previous dialect, as she gazed up in his eyes with an eloquent lucidity, "I have changed, Paul! I feel myself changing at those words you uttered to Jane. There are moments in a woman's life that man knows nothing of; moments bitter and cruel, sweet and merciful, that change her whole being; moments in which the simple girl becomes a worldly woman; moments in which the slow procession of her years is never noted--except by another woman! Moments that change her outlook on the world and her relations to it--and her husband's relations! Moments when the maid becomes a wife, the wife a widow, the widow a re-married woman, by a simple, swift illumination of the fancy. Moments when, wrought upon by a single word--a look--an emphasis and rising inflection, all logical sequence is cast away, processes are lost--inductions lead nowhere. Moments when the inharmonious becomes harmonious, the indiscreet discreet, the inefficient efficient, and the inevitable evitable. I mean," she corrected herself hurriedly--"You know what I mean! If you have not felt it you have read it!"
"I have," he said thoughtfully. "We have both read it in the same novel. She is a fine writer."
"Ye-e-s." She hesitated with that slight resentment of praise of another woman so delightful in her sex. "But you have forgotten the Moo Cow!" and she pointed to where the distracted animal was careering across the lawn towards the garden.
"You are right," he said, "the incident is not yet closed. Let us pursue it."
They both pursued it. Discarding the useless lasso, he had recourse to a few well-aimed epithets. The infuriated animal swerved and made directly towards a small fountain in the centre of the garden. In attempting to clear it, it fell directly into the deep cup-like basin and remained helplessly fixed, with its fore- legs projecting uneasily beyond the rim.
"Let us leave it there," she said, "and forget it--and all that has gone before. Believe me," she added, with a faint sigh, "it is best. Our paths diverge from this moment. I go to the summer- house, and you go to the Hall, where my father is expecting you." He would have detained her a moment longer, but she glided away and was gone.
Left to himself again, that slight sense of bewilderment which had clouded his mind for the last hour began to clear away; his singular encounter with the girls strangely enough affected him less strongly than his brief and unsatisfactory interview with his uncle. For, after all, he was his host, and upon him depended his stay at Hawthorn Hall. The mysterious and slighting allusions of his cousins to the old man's eccentricities also piqued his curiosity. Why had they sneered at his description of the contents of the package he carried--and what did it really contain? He did not reflect that it was none of his business,--people in his situation seldom do,--and he eagerly hurried towards the Hall. But he found in his preoccupation he had taken the wrong turning in the path, and that he was now close to the wall which bounded and overlooked the highway. Here a singular spectacle presented itself. A cyclist covered with dust was seated in the middle of the road, trying to restore circulation to his bruised and injured leg by chafing it with his hands, while beside him lay his damaged bicycle. He had evidently met with an accident. In an instant Paul had climbed the wall and was at his side.
"Can I offer you any assistance?" he asked eagerly.
"Thanks--no! I've come a beastly cropper over something or other on this road, and I'm only bruised, though the machine has suffered worse," replied the stranger, in a fresh, cheery voice. He was a good-looking fellow of about Paul's own age, and the young American's heart went out towards him.
"How did it happen?" asked Paul.
"That's what puzzles me," said the stranger. "I was getting out of the way of a queer old chap in the road, and I ran over something that seemed only an old scroll of paper; but the shock was so great that I was thrown, and I fancy I was for a few moments unconscious. Yet I cannot see any other obstruction in the road, and there's only that bit of paper." He pointed to the paper,--a half-crushed roll of ordinary foolscap, showing the mark of the bicycle upon it.
A strange idea came into Paul's mind. He picked up the paper and examined it closely. Besides the mark already indicated, it showed two sharp creases about nine inches long, and another exactly at the point of the impact of the bicycle. Taking a folded two-foot rule from his pocket, he carefully measured these parallel creases and made an exhaustive geometrical calculation with his pencil on the paper. The stranger watched him with awed and admiring interest. Rising, he again carefully examined the road, and was finally rewarded by the discovery of a sharp indentation in the dust, which, on measurement and comparison with the creases in the paper and the calculations he had just made, proved to be identical.
"There was a solid body in that paper," said Paul quietly; "a parallelogram exactly nine inches long and three wide."
"I say! you're wonderfully clever, don't you know," said the stranger, with unaffected wonder. "I see it all--a brick."
Paul smiled gently and shook his head. "That is the hasty inference of an inexperienced observer. You will observe at the point of impact of your wheel the parallel crease is curved, as from the yielding of the resisting substances, and not broken, as it would be by the crumbling of a brick."
"I say, you're awfully detective, don't you know! just like that fellow--what's his name?" said the stranger admiringly.
The words recalled Paul to himself. Why was he acting like a detective? and what was he seeking to discover? Nevertheless, he felt impelled to continue. "And that queer old chap whom you met-- why didn't he help you?"
"Because I passed him before I ran into the--the parallelogram, and I suppose he didn't know what happened behind him?"
"Did he have anything in his hand?"
"And you say you were unconscious afterwards?"
"Long enough for the culprit to remove the principal evidence of his crime?"
"Come! I say, really you are--you know you are!"
"Have you any secret enemy?"
"And you don't know Mr. Bunker, the man who owns this vast estate?"
"Not at all. I'm from Upper Tooting."
"Good afternoon," said Paul abruptly, and turned away.
It struck him afterwards that his action might have seemed uncivil, and even inhuman, to the bruised cyclist, who could hardly walk. But it was getting late, and he was still far from the Hall, which, oddly enough, seemed to be no longer visible from the road. He wandered on for some time, half convinced that he had passed the lodge gates, yet hoping to find some other entrance to the domain. Dusk was falling; the rounded outlines of the park trees beyond the wall were solid masses of shadow. The full moon, presently rising, restored them again to symmetry, and at last he, to his relief, came upon the massive gateway. Two lions ramped in stone on the side pillars. He thought it strange that he had not noticed the gateway on his previous entrance, but he remembered that he was fully preoccupied with the advancing figure of his uncle. In a few minutes the Hall itself appeared, and here again he was surprised that he had overlooked before its noble proportions and picturesque outline. Its broad terraces, dazzlingly white in the moonlight; its long line of mullioned windows, suffused with a warm red glow from within, made it look like part of a wintry landscape--and suggested a Christmas card. The venerable ivy that hid the ravages time had made in its walls looked like black carving. His heart swelled with strange emotions as he gazed at his ancestral hall. How many of his blood had lived and died there; how many had gone forth from that great porch to distant lands! He tried to think of his father--a little child--peeping between the balustrades of that terrace. He tried to think of it, and perhaps would have succeeded had it not occurred to him that it was a known fact that his uncle had bought the estate and house of an impoverished nobleman only the year before. Yet--he could not tell why--he seemed to feel higher and nobler for that trial.
The terrace was deserted, and so quiet that as he ascended to it his footsteps seemed to echo from the walls. When he reached the portals, the great oaken door swung noiselessly on its hinges-- opened by some unseen but waiting servitor--and admitted him to a lofty hall, dark with hangings and family portraits, but warmed by a red carpet the whole length of its stone floor. For a moment he waited for the servant to show him to the drawing-room or his uncle's study. But no one appeared. Believing this to be a part of the characteristic simplicity of the Quaker household, he boldly entered the first door, and found himself in a brilliantly lit and perfectly empty drawing-room. The same experience met him with the other rooms on that floor--the dining-room displaying an already set, exquisitely furnished and decorated table, with chairs for twenty guests! He mechanically ascended the wide oaken staircase that led to the corridor of bedrooms above a central salon. Here he found only the same solitude. Bedroom doors yielded to his touch, only to show the same brilliantly lit vacancy. He presently came upon one room which seemed to give unmistakable signs of his own occupancy. Surely there stood his own dressing-case on the table! and his own evening clothes carefully laid out on another, as if fresh from a valet's hands. He stepped hastily into the corridor--there was no one there; he rang the bell--there was no response! But he noticed that there was a jug of hot water in his basin, and he began dressing mechanically.
There was little doubt that he was in a haunted house, but this did not particularly disturb him. Indeed, he found himself wondering if it could be logically called a haunted house--unless he himself was haunting it, for there seemed to be no other there. Perhaps the apparitions would come later, when he was dressed. Clearly it was not his uncle's house--and yet, as he had never been inside his uncle's house, he reflected that he ought not to be positive.
He finished dressing and sat down in an armchair with a kind of thoughtful expectancy. But presently his curiosity became impatient of the silence and mystery, and he ventured once more to explore the house. Opening his bedroom door, he found himself again upon the deserted corridor, but this time he could distinctly hear a buzz of voices from the drawing-room below. Assured that he was near a solution of the mystery, he rapidly descended the broad staircase and made his way to the open door of the drawing-room. But although the sound of voices increased as he advanced, when he entered the room, to his utter astonishment, it was as empty as before.
Yet, in spite of his bewilderment and confusion, he was able to follow one of the voices, which, in its peculiar distinctness and half-perfunctory tone, he concluded must belong to the host of the invisible assembly.
"Ah," said the voice, greeting some unseen visitor, "so glad you have come. Afraid your engagements just now would keep you away." Then the voice dropped to a lower and more confidential tone. "You must take down Lady Dartman, but you will have Miss Morecamp--a clever girl--on the other side of you. Ah, Sir George! So good of you to come. All well at the Priory? So glad to hear it." (Lower and more confidentially.) "You know Mrs. Monkston. You'll sit by her. A little cut up by her husband losing his seat. Try to amuse her."
Emboldened by desperation, Paul turned in the direction of the voice. "I am Paul Bunker," he said hesitatingly. "I'm afraid you'll think me intrusive, but I was looking for my uncle, and"--
"Intrusive, my dear boy! The son of my near neighbor in the country intrusive? Really, now, I like that! Grace!" (the voice turned in another direction) "here is the American nephew of our neighbor Bunker at Widdlestone, who thinks he is 'a stranger.'"
"We all knew of your expected arrival at Widdlestone--it was so good of you to waive ceremony and join us," said a well-bred feminine voice, which Paul at once assumed to belong to the hostess. "But I must find some one for your dinner partner. Mary" (here her voice was likewise turned away), "this is Mr. Bunker, the nephew of an old friend and neighbor in Upshire;" (the voice again turned to him), "you will take Miss Morecamp in. My dear" (once again averted), "I must find some one else to console poor dear Lord Billingtree with." Here the hostess's voice was drowned by fresh arrivals.
Bewildered and confused as he was, standing in this empty desert of a drawing-room, yet encompassed on every side by human voices, so marvelous was the power of suggestion, he seemed to almost feel the impact of the invisible crowd. He was trying desperately to realize his situation when a singularly fascinating voice at his elbow unexpectedly assisted him. It was evidently his dinner partner.
"I suppose you must be tired after your journey. When did you arrive?"
"Only a few hours ago," said Paul.
"And I dare say you haven't slept since you arrived. One doesn't on the passage, you know; the twenty hours pass so quickly, and the experience is so exciting--to us at least. But I suppose as an American you are used to it."
Paul gasped. He had passively accepted the bodiless conversation, because it was at least intelligible! But now! Was he going mad?
She evidently noticed his silence. "Never mind," she continued, "you can tell me all about it at dinner. Do you know I always think that this sort of thing--what we're doing now,--this ridiculous formality of reception,--which I suppose is after all only a concession to our English force of habit,--is absurd! We ought to pass, as it were, directly from our houses to the dinner- table. It saves time."
"Yes--no--that is--I'm afraid I don't follow you," stammered Paul.
There was a slight pout in her voice as she replied: "No matter now--we must follow them--for our host is moving off with Lady Billingtree, and it's our turn now."
So great was the illusion that he found himself mechanically offering his arm as he moved through the empty room towards the door. Then he descended the staircase without another word, preceded, however, by the sound of his host's voice. Following this as a blind man might, he entered the dining-room, which to his discomfiture was as empty as the salon above. Still following the host's voice, he dropped into a chair before the empty table, wondering what variation of the Barmecide feast was in store for him. Yet the hum of voices from the vacant chairs around the board so strongly impressed him that he could almost believe that he was actually at dinner.
"Are you seated?" asked the charming voice at his side.
"Yes," a little wonderingly, as his was the only seat visibly occupied.
"I am so glad that this silly ceremony is over. By the way, where are you?"
Paul would have liked to answer, "Lord only knows!" but he reflected that it might not sound polite. "Where am I?" he feebly repeated.
"Yes; where are you dining?"
It seemed a cool question under the circumstances, but he answered promptly,--
"Of course," said the charming voice; "but where are you eating your dinner?"
Considering that he was not eating anything, Paul thought this cooler still. But he answered briefly, "In Upshire."
"Oh! At your uncle's?"
"No," said Paul bluntly; "in the next house."
"Why, that's Sir William's--our host's--and he and his family are here in London. You are joking."
"Listen!" said Paul desperately. Then in a voice unconsciously lowered he hurriedly told her where he was--how he came there--the empty house--the viewless company! To his surprise the only response was a musical little laugh. But the next moment her voice rose higher with an unmistakable concern in it, apparently addressing their invisible host.
"Oh, Sir William, only think how dreadful. Here's poor Mr. Bunker, alone in an empty house, which he has mistaken for his uncle's--and without any dinner!"
"Really; dear, dear! How provoking! But how does he happen to be with us? James, how is this?"
"If you please, Sir William," said a servant's respectful voice, "Widdlestone is in the circuit and is switched on with the others. We heard that a gentleman's luggage had arrived at Widdlestone, and we telegraphed for the rooms to be made ready, thinking we'd have her ladyship's orders later."
A single gleam of intelligence flashed upon Paul. His luggage-- yes, had been sent from the station to the wrong house, and he had unwittingly followed. But these voices! whence did they come? And where was the actual dinner at which his host was presiding? It clearly was not at this empty table.
"See that he has everything he wants at once," said Sir William; "there must be some one there." Then his voice turned in the direction of Paul again, and he said laughingly, "Possess your soul and appetite in patience for a moment, Mr. Bunker; you will be only a course behind us. But we are lucky in having your company--even at your own discomfort."
Still more bewildered, Paul turned to his invisible partner. "May I ask where you are dining?"
"Certainly; at home in Curzon Street," returned the pretty voice. "It was raining so, I did not go out."
"And--Lord Billington?" faltered Paul.
"Oh, he's in Scotland--at his own place."
"Then, in fact, nobody is dining here at all," said Paul desperately.
There was a slight pause, and then the voice responded, with a touch of startled suggestion in it: "Good heavens, Mr. Bunker! Is it possible you don't know we're dining by telephone?"
"Telephone. Yes. We're a telephonic dinner-party. We are dining in our own houses; but, being all friends, we're switched on to each other, and converse exactly as we would at table. It saves a great trouble and expense, for any one of us can give the party, and the poorest can equal the most extravagant. People who are obliged to diet can partake of their own slops at home, and yet mingle with the gourmets without awkwardness or the necessity of apology. We are spared the spectacle, at least, of those who eat and drink too much. We can switch off a bore at once. We can retire when we are fatigued, without leaving a blank space before the others. And all this without saying anything of the higher spiritual and intellectual effect--freed from material grossness of appetite and show--which the dinner party thus attains. But you are surely joking! You, an American, and not know it! Why, it comes from Boston. Haven't you read that book, 'Jumping a Century'? It's by an American."
A strange illumination came upon Paul. Where had he heard something like this before? But at the same moment his thoughts were diverted by the material entrance of a footman, bearing a silver salver with his dinner. It was part of his singular experience that the visible entrance of this real, commonplace mortal--the only one he had seen--in the midst of this voiceless solitude was distinctly unreal, and had all the effect of an apparition. He distrusted it and the dishes before him. But his lively partner's voice was now addressing an unseen occupant of the next chair. Had she got tired of his ignorance, or was it feminine tact to enable him to eat something? He accepted the latter hypothesis, and tried to eat. But he felt himself following the fascinating voice in all the charm of its youthful and spiritual inflections. Taking advantage of its momentary silence, he said gently,--
"I confess my ignorance, and am willing to admit all you claim for this wonderful invention. But do you think it compensates for the loss of the individual person? Take my own case--if you will not think me personal. I have never had the pleasure of seeing you; do you believe that I am content with only that suggestion of your personality which the satisfaction of hearing your voice affords me?"
There was a pause, and then a very mischievous ring in the voice that replied: "It certainly is a personal question, and it is another blessing of this invention that you'll never know whether I am blushing or not; but I forgive you, for I never before spoke to any one I had never seen--and I suppose it's confusion. But do you really think you would know me--the real one--any better? It is the real person who thinks and speaks, not the outward semblance that we see, which very often unfairly either attracts or repels us? We can always show ourselves at our best, but we must, at last, reveal our true colors through our thoughts and speech. Isn't it better to begin with the real thing first?"
"I hope, at least, to have the privilege of judging by myself," said Paul gallantly. "You will not be so cruel as not to let me see you elsewhere, otherwise I shall feel as if I were in some dream, and will certainly be opposed to your preference for realities."
"I am not certain if the dream would not be more interesting to you," said the voice laughingly. "But I think your hostess is already saying 'good-by.' You know everybody goes at once at this kind of party; the ladies don't retire first, and the gentlemen join them afterwards. In another moment we'll all be switched off; but Sir William wants me to tell you that his coachman will drive you to your uncle's, unless you prefer to try and make yourself comfortable for the night here. Good-by!"
The voices around him seemed to grow fainter, and then utterly cease. The lights suddenly leaped up, went out, and left him in complete darkness. He attempted to rise, but in doing so overset the dishes before him, which slid to the floor. A cold air seemed to blow across his feet. The "good-by" was still ringing in his ears as he straightened himself to find he was in his railway carriage, whose door had just been opened for a young lady who was entering the compartment from a wayside station. "Good-by," she repeated to the friend who was seeing her off. The Writer of Stories hurriedly straightened himself, gathered up the magazines and papers that had fallen from his lap, and glanced at the station walls. The old illustrations glanced back at him! He looked at his watch; he had been asleep just ten minutes!