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In Jeopardy, Page 2

Van Tassel Sutphen

  Chapter II

  _The Setting of the Stage_

  S. Saviour's, with its tiny portico and steeple of distinctlyChristopher Wren design, presented an interesting study in colonialarchitecture. It was built of brick, with solid, white wooden shutters,and the side walls were mantled by a wonderful growth of true Englishivy. There was no central entrance, access to the interior beingafforded by two side doors at the extreme ends of the portico. Thereason for this unusual arrangement became apparent upon entering thechurch, the shallow chancel, together with the pulpit and lectern, beingsituated at the front end of the edifice, with the pews facing towardthe entrance doors. This made it rather awkward for the late comers, asthe laggards were obliged to meet the united gaze of the congregationalready seated; also the ladies of S. Saviour's enjoyed exceptionalopportunities for appraising the interesting features of theirneighbors' costumes. Doubtless this singular reversal of the ordinaryecclesiastical plan had been adopted purposely, so as to carry out theprinciple of orientation. The church happened to face directly east, andconsequently the chancel and sanctuary had to be placed opposite theirusual positions, a curious survival of mediaevalism.

  Under the trees two or three ancient surreys had been parked, and aglance through the side windows disclosed an audience of perhaps a dozenpersons, small farmers of the neighborhood and their wives, people towhom a public function of any nature offered acceptable diversion fromthe routine of daily life. Of the old-time gentry of the countrysidethere was not a single representative present; then I literally lost mybreath in amazement as John Thaneford brushed past me without a word,strode into the church, and seated himself in a large, square pew,furnished, after the manorial fashion, with carpet, table and chairs;evidently the ecclesiastical freehold of the Thaneford family. Yet whyshould I feel any particular degree of surprise? The Graemes and theThanefords were "kin," and it was simple decency that John Thanefordshould show his cousin the last tribute of respect; his presence wasperfectly natural and proper, and assuredly it was none of my businessto either question or resent it. At this moment I became aware that thefuneral procession had arrived at the gate, and I took up a convenientposition for presenting myself to the attention of Mr. Eldon; I fanciedthat it would not be a difficult task to identify him.

  There were but three coaches in the queue, the first containing theundertaker and his assistants, the second conveying two heavily veiledladies, presumably the daughter and niece of Francis Graeme; and thethird occupied by an elderly couple who could be none other than Mr. andMrs. Eldon. I stepped forward as the latter party alighted.

  "Mr. Eldon?" I inquired. "I am Hugh Hildebrand."

  Mr. Eldon extended a plump, warm hand. "So glad you were able to gethere," he whispered. "This is Mrs. Eldon. You must sit with Miss Trevorand Betty; wait, and I'll explain it to them."

  The clergyman in his robes was standing at the door, and the service wasabout to begin. I took my designated position, walking immediatelybehind the two chief mourners; and we followed the great, blackcloth-covered coffin into the stillness of the sacred edifice.

  The committal office was said at the graveside in the Hildebrand familyplot, a walled enclosure set off from the general churchyard andentered through a lych-gate beautifully fashioned from black bog oakthat resembled ebony in color and closeness of grain. Strange, how theattention strays even upon occasions such as this; for I found myselfcontemplating the lych-gate with absorbed interest, trying to thinkwhere I had seen its prototype; doubtless in some English parishchurchyard. Then, as I heard the symbolic clod falling from the hand ofthe officiating minister, I recalled myself to reality--earth to earth,dust to dust. The slender, black-garbed figure on my right shookslightly and swayed against my shoulder; instantly I put out my hand tosteady her. Up to this moment my participation in the ceremony had beenof a purely formal nature, but now some underlying and compelling forcewas drawing me into the circle of sorrow; the dead man was of my blood,and this was the passing of something in the universe that was akin tomy very self.

  John Thaneford had not been present at the interment. After the churchservice he had met and engaged Mr. Eldon in earnest conversation forperhaps half a minute; then he had taken a visibly hurried departure.

  The funeral party returned to the church, and the coaches drove up tothe carriage-block. "This is Mr. Hugh Hildebrand," announced Mr. Eldon,as he presented me to the two ladies. "Miss Graeme and Miss Trevor," hecontinued with a touch of old-time courtliness, his top-hat held at astrictly ceremonious angle, "Mr. Hildebrand."

  Miss Trevor merely bowed, but Miss Graeme smiled--such a frank, friendlysmile--and held out her hand. There are people who greet you with areserve which at least temporarily chills, and there are others who makeyou feel that this particular meeting is the one they have beenpleasurably anticipating from the very beginning of created things. Andso, when I felt the strong, warm pressure of Betty Graeme's palm, howcould I help being flattered, even intrigued. I concluded that my newcousin must have liked me on sight, and I was quite ready to return thecompliment in kind. Under the heavy, black veil I could discern asymmetrical oval of countenance, and imagination easily supplied thecustomary accessories of vermilion lips, challenging eyes, and perfumedtresses. In reality, I should never in the world have been able torecognize Betty Graeme by the sense of sight alone, but I should knowthat handclasp anywhere; and that was enough.

  "Of course you are coming back to the house," said Miss Graeme. "Willyou ride with us--but I see that Mr. Eldon has arranged to take you withhim. Are you ready, Eunice?"

  Sitting opposite Mr. and Mrs. Eldon in the big, lumbering landau of_ante-bellum_ days I began my explanations and apologies.

  "That doesn't matter in the least," interrupted Mr. Eldon. "We'll sendover to Crown Ferry for your bag, and after you get the railroad dustwashed away you can make your peace with Betty. The important thing isthat you are here now."

  "I hadn't expected to remain at the 'Hundred' for more than an hour ortwo," I continued. "There is an up train through at six o'clock, and Ihad arranged to stay over at Baltimore."

  "I'm afraid that you'll have to put up with us for this particularnight," rejoined Mr. Eldon. "Perhaps longer," and the shadow of anenigmatical smile passed over his pleasantly curved lips.

  "But at a time like this!" I protested. "Remember that I met Mr. Graemeonly once, and that I am an entire stranger to his niece and daughter.Even Southern hospitality has its limits, and I don't want to overstepthem."

  Mr. Eldon brushed my objections away with a commanding wave of his hand."Not much danger of that," he said. "You are one of the family, dulyaccredited and acknowledged. So unless there is some pressing--I shouldsay imperative--necessity for your going North to-night----"

  "Oh, not at all," I interrupted. "Not the least necessity, if that iswhat you mean."

  "Of course you must stay," put in Mrs. Eldon. "Betty expects it, and shewould never understand any conventional excuse."

  Another carriage, driven at a much faster pace than the ancient Eldonbays were capable of achieving, had drawn up from behind, and was nowpassing us. To my surprise, I saw that the back seat was occupied byJohn Thaneford and his father; no salutations were exchanged, and theThaneford equipage rolled onward in a cloud of dust. Mr. Eldon noticedmy evident astonishment, and proceeded to enlighten me. "Yes, they aregoing to the 'Hundred.' You know that the will is to be read immediatelyfollowing the return of the funeral party from the church."

  "As they always do in English novels of the Trollope period."

  "I dare say it is one of our imported Maryland customs. The Thanefordsare blood relations, and, _ipso facto_, that gives them a right to bepresent at the reading of the testament."

  "Relations, but not necessarily friends," I hazarded, and Mr. Eldonlooked surprised.

  "I should have explained that I have already made the acquaintance ofMr. Fielding Thaneford and his son," I went on, and Mr. Eldonregistered, in movie parlance, still greater astonishment. I proceed
edto tell of my chance encounter.

  "Fielding Thaneford never misses a Hildebrand funeral," remarked Mr.Eldon, and there was a peculiar sense of dryness in his tone. "Moreover,this is the second occasion of the sort within a twelvemonth."

  "Mr. Graeme succeeded his maternal great uncle, I believe."

  "Yes, that was old Richard Hildebrand who reigned at the 'Hundred' forover half a century. Fielding Thaneford married his much younger sister,Jocelyn, and consequently young John really stood closer in the line ofinheritance than did Francis Graeme, the latter being one step furtherremoved. But there was no entail and old Richard could devise theproperty as he saw fit."

  "A disappointment then to the Thanefords?"

  "Well, there's the 'Hundred'; you can judge for yourself."

  We had turned out of the main road, and, having passed through a pair offinely wrought iron entrance gates, we were now proceeding along anavenue of noble lindens. Across the stretch of ornamental water on ourright appeared the really imposing facade of "Hildebrand Hundred"; Iscanned the edifice with a keen and growing interest; this was theancestral home of all the Hildebrands, and a sudden emotion held me ingrip.

  The house was built of yellow brick imported, so Mr. Eldon informed me,from Holland. The entrance porch, two stories in height, was ofsemi-circular design with columns of limestone, and the fenestrationabove the principal entrance embodied the familiar Palladian motive. Themain part of the building was almost a square, but it was balanced bywings on either side. At the extreme rear was another rectangularextension, one story and a half in height, oblong in shape, andsurmounted by a squat dome. "The library," explained Mr. Eldon, as thecurving driveway carried us past the terrace commanded by the loftywindows of this subsidiary structure. "That stained glass is English,and the experts pronounce it to be of unusually fine quality."

  "Rather surprising when one thinks of all the bad glazing in ourchurches," I remarked interestedly.

  "Well, if you know or care much about such things you'll find the'Hundred' glass worth your attention." He turned to his wife: "Ellen, mydear, if you will take charge of our guest, I'll get my papers togetherand meet you in the library. The sooner the formality is over the betterfor Eunice and Betty."

  Alighting, in our turn, at the entrance porch I followed Mrs. Eldonthrough the great doors and into a handsome octagonal hall, paved withblack and white marble squares, with its well open to the roof beams. Onthe right, splendid mahogany folding-doors gave into the dining room,and the corresponding room on the left was evidently the drawing room.At the back of the hall the principal staircase rose in twosemi-circular sweeps, meeting at a landing place on the first floorlevel and connecting with longitudinal galleries on either side of thehall. Of the two wings, the one on the left contained the ballroom andpicture gallery, while that on the right was taken up with the kitchen,pantries, and other offices. Passing under the staircase landing andproceeding along a comparatively narrow corridor, lined on either sideby glazed bookcases, one entered the library extension at the extremeend of the house.

  "Will you go in and wait for a few minutes," whispered Mrs. Eldon. "Johnnever knows where all his papers are, and I must help him sort themout." I bowed and walked on.

  At the library door an imposing figure of a negro butler relieved me ofmy hat, gloves and stick; I slipped into a seat near the entrance andlooked about me with no small degree of curiosity. The Thanefords,father and son, were established near the fireplace, directly oppositethe entrance door, but since they did not look up at my appearance norpay the smallest attention to my half bow of salutation I was perfectlycontent to maintain the _status quo_ of non-intercourse.

  The apartment was assuredly one of noble proportions, being full fortyfeet in length by perhaps twenty-five in width. The ceiling of thisstory and a half extension must have been at least sixteen feet inheight. The shallow dome had a diameter of fourteen feet or so; it wasunpierced by windows and the painting in distemper which ornamented itssmooth convexity represented the classic adventure of Jason and theGolden Fleece.

  The fireplace was of Caen stone with the family arms of the Hildebrandssculptured in the central panel. Not being versed in heraldic lore I maysay briefly that the shield bore checkerboards and conventionalizedlilies in alternate quarterings, while the crest was a mailed armholding a burning torch or cresset. This last was interesting to me, forwe Northern Hildebrands have always used as our crest a battlementedtower with flames issuing from its summit. But the motto: "Hildebrande amoy," is shared in common by both branches of the family.

  The side walls had no openings and were lined from top to bottom withbook shelves. The unusual height of the ceiling made narrow ironbalconies necessary in order to give access to the upper shelves, andthese galleries were reached by spiral staircases placed behind grillesin the dark corners on the entrance side. The end wall was pierced byfour immense windows, two on either side of the fireplace, and thesewere filled with the English stained glass of which Mr. Eldon hadspoken. They really seemed to be excellent examples of the art, and Iproceeded to examine them with interest.

  The designs were of Scriptural origin, Old Testament scenes to be exact,and I note them in order from left to right.

  The window at the extreme left depicted the youthful Joseph journeyingto Dothan and wearing his coat of many colors; in the background hisjealous brethren are awaiting his coming and fomenting their unfraternalconspiracy.

  The window adjoining the fireplace on the left represented the rebellionof the sons of Korah and their terrible fate in being swallowed up aliveby the gaping earth; the black and menacing sky, shot through with thered zigzag of the lightning, seemed exceedingly realistic.

  In the companion window on the right was shown the return of theIsraelitish spies from the coveted land of Canaan, bearing greatclusters of purple grapes from the valley of Eschol; in the distance,Jericho, with Rahab's house perched high upon the city wall anddistinguished by its hanging cord of scarlet.

  The fourth window, the one at the extreme right, reproduced the conteston Mount Carmel between Elijah and the pagan prophets, the fire fromheaven consuming the burnt offering of Jehovah, the terror-strickenflight of the hierophants of Baal, and the little cloud, like to a man'shand, arising from the sea. Of the four windows this last one wasperhaps the most interesting, although all of them were excellent incomposition, substantially and skilfully leaded, and gorgeously rich incolor. I don't know why we can't make such reds and blues in thiscountry, but of course the old established English firms have beenperfecting their formulas and processes throughout the centuries.

  Since three of the four walls were lined with bookcases, and theremaining one had to provide for the windows and fireplace there was noavailable space for pictures, but on the blank wall above the centralentrance door hung a magnificent tapestry depicting the tragic fate ofActaeon devoured by his own hounds. The polished black oak floor wascovered with Eastern rugs, and a fine silver-tip grizzly bearskin lay onthe hearthstone. The couches and big, comfortable reading chairs wereupholstered in dark green leather, very handsome and substantial, whiledirectly under the dome stood a massive, flat-topped library desk madeof teakwood. The accompanying swivel-chair was mounted on a bronzemushroom foot firmly secured to the floor by means of bolts; it was soplaced that the occupant had his back to the windows, with the lightcoming over his shoulder after the proper fashion for comfort.

  I have been particular in thus describing the furnishings and internaleconomy of the library, for in this room lay the very heart of themystery so soon to present itself; later on I was destined to makemyself acquainted with every square inch of its large area, only to failin my attempt to discover its menacing secret. Fortunate indeed thatBetty's feminine intuition asserted itself in the nick of time. But Imust not anticipate the solution of the problem while the prime factorsin the equation still remain unstated. Enough then to acquaint thereader with the general disposition of the stage upon which the dramawas shortly to unfold itself.

  The great room was very quiet, the evening shadows were beginning tolengthen, and still we waited.