IT WAS bitterly cold. When night fell over Lakeville, Wisconsin, the sunset, which had flickered rather than glowed in the western sky, took upon itself a still more boreal tremulousness, until at last it seemed to fade away in cold blue shivers to the zenith. Nothing else stirred; in the crisp still air the evening smoke of chimneys rose threadlike and vanished. The stars were early, pale, and pitiless; when the later moonlight fell, it appeared only to whiten the stiffened earth like snow, except where it made a dull, pewter-like film over the three frozen lakes which encompassed the town.
The site of the town itself was rarely beautiful, and its pioneers and founders had carried out the suggestions they had found there with loving taste and intelligence.
Themselves old voyageurs, trappers, and traders, they still loved Nature too well to exclude her from the restful homes they had achieved after years of toiling face to face with her. So a strip of primeval forest on the one side, and rolling level prairie on the other, still came up to the base of the hill, whereon they had built certain solid houses, which a second generation had beautified and improved with modern taste, but which still retained their old honesty of foundation and wholesome rustic space. These yet stood among the old trees, military squares, and broad sloping avenues of the town. Seen from the railway by day, the regularity of streets and blocks was hidden by environing trees; there remained only a picturesque lifting of rustic gardens, brown roofs, gables, spires, and cupolas above the mirroring lake: seen from the railway this bitter night, the invisible terraces and streets were now pricked out by symmetrical lines and curves of sparkling lights, which glittered through the leafless boughs and seemed to encircle the hill like a diadem.
Central in the chiefest square, and yet preserving its old lordly isolation in a wooded garden, the homestead of Enoch Lane stood with all its modern additions and improvements. Already these included not only the latest phases of decoration, but various treasures brought by the second generation from Europe, which they were wont to visit, but from which they always contentedly returned to their little provincial town. Whether there was some instinctive yearning, like the stirred sap of great forests, in their wholesome pioneer blood, or whether there was some occult fascination in the pretty town-crested hill itself, it was still certain that the richest inhabitants always preferred to live in Lakeville. Even the young, who left it to seek their fortune elsewhere, came back to enjoy their success under the sylvan vaults of this vast ancestral roof. And that was why, this 22d of December, 1870, the whole household of Gabriel Lane was awaiting the arrival from California of his brother, Sylvester Lane, at the old homestead which he had left twenty years ago.
“And you don’t know how he looks?” said Kitty Lane to her father.
“I do, perfectly; rather chubby, with blue eyes, curly hair, fair skin, and blushes when you speak to him.”
“Eh?—Oh, well, he used to. You see that was twenty-five years ago, when he left here for boarding-school. He ran away from there, as I told you; went to sea, and finally brought up at San Francisco.”
“And you haven’t had any picture, or photograph of him, since?”
“No—that is—I say!—you haven’t, any of you, got a picture of Sylvester, have you?” he turned in a vague parenthetical appeal to the company of relatives and friends collected in the drawing-room after dinner.
“Cousin Jane has; she knows all about him!”
But it appeared that Cousin Jane had only heard Susan Marckland say that Edward Bingham had told her that he was in California when “Uncle Sylvester” had been nearly hanged by a Vigilance Committee for protecting a horse thief or a gambler, or some such person. This was felt to be ineffective as a personal description.
“He’s sure to wear a big beard; they all do when they first come back,” said Amos Gunn, with metropolitan oraculousness.
“He has a big curling mustache, long silken hair, and broad shoulders,” said Marie du Page.
There was such piquant conviction in the manner of the speaker, who was also a very pretty girl, that they all turned towards her, and Kitty quickly said,—
“But you’ve never seen him?”
“No—but—” She stopped, and, lifting one shoulder, threw her spirited head sideways, in a pretty deprecatory way, with elevated eyebrows and an expression intended to show the otherwise untranslatable character of her impression. But it showed quite as pleasantly the other fact, that she was the daughter of a foreigner, an old French military explorer, and that she had retained even in Anglo-Saxon Lakeville some of the Gallic animation.
“Well, how many of you girls are going with me to meet him at the station?” said Gabriel, dismissing with masculine promptness the lesser question. “It’s time to be off.”
“I’d like to go,” said Kitty, “and so would Cousin Jane; but really, papa, you see if you don’t know him, and we don’t either, and you’ve got to satisfy yourself that it’s the right man, and then introduce yourself and then us—and all this on the platform before everybody—it makes it rather embarrassing for us. And then, as he’s your younger brother and we’re supposed to be his affectionate nieces, you know, it would make him feel so ridiculous!”
“And if he were to kiss you,” said Marie tragically, “and then turn out not to be him!”
“So,” continued Kitty, “you’d better take Cousin John, who was more in Uncle Sylvester’s time, to represent the Past of the family, and perhaps Mr. Gunn”—
“To represent the future, I suppose?” interrupted Gabriel in a wicked whisper.
“To represent a name that most men of the world in New York and San Francisco know,” went on Kitty, without a blush. “It would make recognition and introduction easier. And take an extra fur with you, dear—not for him but for yourself. I suppose he’s lived so much in the open air as to laugh at our coddling.”
“I don’t know about that,” said her father thoughtfully; “the last telegram I have from him, en route, says he’s half frozen, and wants a close carriage sent to the station.”
“Of course,” said Marie impatiently, “you forget the poor creature comes from burning canyons and hot golden sands and perpetual sunshine.”
“Very well; but come along, Marie, and see how I’ve prepared his room,” and as her father left the drawing-room Kitty carried off her old schoolfellow upstairs.
The room selected for the coming Sylvester had been one of the elaborate guest-chambers, but was now stripped of its more luxurious furniture and arranged with picturesque yet rural extravagance. A few rare buffalo, bear, and panther skins were disposed over the bare floor, and even displayed gracefully over some elaborately rustic chairs. The handsome French bedstead had been displaced for a small wrought-iron ascetic-looking couch covered with a gorgeously striped Mexican blanket. The fireplace had been dismantled of its steel grate, and the hearth extended so as to allow a pile of symmetrically heaped moss-covered hickory logs to take its place. The walls were covered with trophies of the chase, buck-horns and deer-heads, and a number of Indian arrows stood in a sheaf in the corners beside a few modern guns and rifles.
“Perfectly lovely,” said Marie, “but”—with a slight shiver of her expressive shoulders—“a little cold and outdoorish, eh?”
“Nonsense,” returned Kitty dictatorially, “and if he is cold, he can easily light those logs. They always build their open fires under a tree. Why, even Mr. Gunn used to do that when he was camping out in the Adirondacks last summer. I call it perfectly comfortable and so natural.” Nevertheless, they had both tucked their chilly hands under the fleecy shawls they had snatched from the hall for this hyperborean expedition.
“You have taken much pains for him, Kaitee,” said Marie, with her faintest foreign intonation. “You will like this strange uncle—you?”
“He is a wonderful man, Marie; he’s been everywhere, seen everything, and done everything out there. He’s fought duels, been captured by Indians and tied to a stake to be tortured. He’s been leader of a Vigilance Committee, and they say that he has often shot and killed men himself. I’m afraid he’s been rather wicked, you know. He’s lived alone in the woods like a hermit without seeing a soul, and then, again, he’s been a chief among the Indians, with Heaven knows how many Indian wives! They called him ‘The Pale-faced Thunderbolt,’ my dear, and ‘The Young Man who Swallows the Lightning,’ or something like that.”
“And what can he want here?” asked Marie.
“To see us, my dear,” said Kitty loftily; “and then, too, he has to settle something about his share of the property; for you know grandpa left a share of it to him. Not that he’s ever bothered himself about it, for he’s rich,—a kind of Monte Cristo, you know,—with a gold mine and an island off the coast, to say nothing of a whole county that he owns, that is called after him, and millions of wild cattle that he rides among and lassos! It’s dreadfully hard to do. You know you take a long rope with a slipknot, and you throw it around your head so, and”—
“Hark!” said Marie, with a dramatic start, and her finger on her small mouth, “he comes!”
There was the clear roll of wheels along the smooth, frozen carriage sweep towards the house, the sharp crisp click of hoofs on stone, the opening of heavy doors, the sudden sparkling invasion of frigid air, the uplifting of voices in greeting,—but all familiar! There were Gabriel Lane’s cheery, hopeful tones, the soprano of Cousin Jane and Cousin Emma, the baritone of Mr. Gunn, and the grave measured oratorical utterance of Parson Dexter, who had joined the party at the station; but certainly the accents of no stranger. Had he come? Yes, for his name was just then called, and the quick ear of Marie had detected a light, lounging, alien footstep cross the cold strip of marble vestibule. The two girls exchanged a rapid glance; each looked into the mirror, and then interrogatively at the other, nodded their heads affirmatively, and descended to the drawing-room. A group had already drawn round the fire, and a small central figure, who, with its back turned towards them, was still enwrapped in an enormous overcoat of rich fur, was engaged in presenting an alternate small varnished leather boot to the warmth of the grate. As they entered the room the heavy fur was yielded up with apparent reluctance, and revealed to the astonished girls a man of ordinary stature with a slight and elegant figure set off by a traveling suit of irreproachable cut. His light reddish-yellow hair, mustache, and sunburned cheek, which seemed all of one color and outline, made it impossible to detect the gray of the one or the hollowness of the other, and gave no indication of his age. Yet there was clearly no mistake. Here was Gabriel Lane seizing their nervously cold fingers and presenting them to their “Uncle Sylvester.”
Far from attempting to kiss Kitty, the stranger for an instant seemed oblivious of the little hand she offered him in the half-preoccupied bow he gave her. But Marie was not so easily passed over, and, with her audacious face challenging his, he abstractedly imparted to the shake of her hand something of the fervor that he should have shown his relative. And, then, still warming his feet on the fender, he seemed to have forgotten them both.
“Accustomed as you have been, sir,” said the Reverend Mr. Dexter, seizing upon an awkward silence, and accenting it laboriously, “perhaps I should say inured as you have been to the exciting and stirring incidents of a lawless and adventurous community, you doubtless find in a pastoral, yet cultivated and refined, seclusion like Lakeville a degree of”—
“Oh, several degrees,” said Uncle Sylvester, blandly flicking bits of buffalo hair from his well-fitting trousers; “it’s colder, you know—much colder.”
“I was referring to a less material contrast,” continued Mr. Dexter, with a resigned smile; “yet, as to the mere question of cold, I am told, sir, that in California there are certain severe regions of altitude—although the mean temperature”—
“I suppose out in California you fellows would say our temperature was a darned sight meaner, eh?” broke in Amos Gunn, with a confidential glance at the others, as if offering a humorous diversion suited to the Californian taste. Uncle Sylvester did not, however, smile. Gazing critically at Gunn, he said thoughtfully: “I think not; I’ve even known men killed for saying less than that,” and turned to the clergyman. “You are quite right; some of the higher passes are very cold. I was lost in one of them in ’56 with a small party. We were seventy miles from any settlement, we had had nothing to eat for thirty-six hours; our campfire, melting the snow, sank twelve feet below the surface.” The circle closed eagerly around him, Marie, Kitty, and Cousin Jane pressing forward with excited faces; even the clergyman assumed an expression of profound interest. “A man by the name of Thompson, I think,” continued Uncle Sylvester, thoughtfully gazing at the fire, “was frozen a few yards away. Towards morning, having been fifty-eight hours without food, our last drop of whiskey exhausted, and the fire extinguished, we found”—
“Yes, yes!” said half a dozen voices.
“We found,” continued Uncle Sylvester, rubbing his hands cheerfully, “we found it—exceedingly cold. Yes—exceedingly cold!”
There was a dead silence.
“But you escaped!” said Kitty breathlessly.
“I think so. I think we all escaped—that is, except Thompson, if his name was Thompson; it might have been Parker,” continued Uncle Sylvester, gazing with a certain languid astonishment on the eager faces around him.
“But how did you escape?”
“Oh, somehow! I don’t remember exactly. I don’t think,” he went on reflectively, “that we had to eat Thompson—if it was him—at least not then. No”—with a faint effort of recollection—“that would have been another affair. Yes,” assuringly to the eager, frightened eyes of Cousin Jane, “you are quite right, that was something altogether different. Dear me; one quite mixes up these things. Eh?”
A servant had entered, and after a hurried colloquy with Gabriel, the latter turned to Uncle Sylvester—
“Excuse me, but I think there must be some mistake! We brought up your luggage with you—two trunks—in the station wagon. A man has just arrived with three more, which he says are yours.”
“There should be five in all, I think,” said Uncle Sylvester thoughtfully.
“Maybe there are, sir, I didn’t count exactly,” said the servant.
“All right,” said Uncle Sylvester cheerfully, turning to his brother. “You can put them in my room or on the landing, except two marked ‘L’ in a triangle. They contain some things I picked up for you and the girls. We’ll look them over in the morning. And, if you don’t mind, I’ll excuse myself now and go to bed.”
“But it’s only half past ten,” said Gabriel remonstratingly. “You don’t, surely, go to bed at half past ten?”
“I do when I travel. Travel is so exhausting. Good-night! Don’t let anybody disturb themselves to come with me.”
He bowed languidly to the company, and disappeared with a yawn gracefully disguised into a parting smile.
“Well!” said Cousin Jane, drawing a long breath.
“I don’t believe it’s your Uncle Sylvester at all!” said Marie vivaciously. “It’s some trick that Gabriel is playing upon us. And he’s not even a good actor—he forgets his part.”
“And, then, five trunks for one single man! Heavens! what can he have in them” said Cousin Emma.
“Perhaps his confederates, to spring out upon us at night, after everybody’s asleep.”
“Are you sure you remembered him, papa?” said Kitty sotto voce.
“Certainly. And, my dear child, he knows all the family history as well as you do; and”—continued her father with a slight laugh that did not, however, conceal a certain seriousness that was new to him—“I only wish I understood as much about the property as he does. By the way, Amos,” he broke off suddenly, turning to the young man, “he seemed to know your people.”
“Most men in the financial world do,” said Gunn a little superciliously.
“Yes; but he asked me if you hadn’t a relative of some kind in Southern California or Mexico.”
A slight flush—so slight that only the keen, vivaciously observant eyes of Marie noticed it—passed over the young man’s face.
“I believe it is a known fact that our branch of the family never emigrated from their native town,” he said emphatically. “The Gunns were rather peculiar and particular in that respect.”
“Then there were no offshoots from the old stock,” said Gabriel.
Nevertheless, this pet joke of Gabriel’s did not dissipate the constraint and disappointment left upon the company by Uncle Sylvester’s unsatisfying performance and early withdrawal, and they separated soon after, Kitty and Marie being glad to escape upstairs together. On the landing they met two of the Irish housemaids in a state of agitated exhaustion. It appeared that the “sthrange gintleman” had requested that his bed be remade from bedclothes and bedding always carried with him in his trunks! From their apologetic tone it was evident that he had liberally rewarded them. “Shure, Miss,” protested Norah, in deprecation of Kitty’s flashing eye, “there’s thim that’s lived among shnakes and poysin riptiles and faverous disayses that’s particklar av the beds and sheets they lie on. Hisht! Howly Mother! it’s something else he’s wanting now!”
The door of Uncle Sylvester’s room had slowly opened, and a blue pyjama’d sleeve appeared, carefully depositing the sheaf of bows and arrows outside the door. “I say, Norah, or Bridget there, some of you take those infernal things away. And look out, will you, for the arrowheads are deadly poison. The fool who got ’em didn’t know they were African, and not Indian at all! And hold on!” The hand vanished, and presently reappeared holding two rifles. “And take these away, too! They’re loaded, capped, and not on the half-cock! A jar, a fall, the slightest shock is enough to send them off!”
“I’m dreadfully sorry that you should find it so uncomfortable in our house, Uncle Sylvester,” said Kitty, with a flushed cheek and vibrating voice.
“Oh, it’s you—is it?” said Uncle Sylvester’s voice cheerfully. “I thought it was Bridget out there. No, I don’t intend to find it uncomfortable. That’s why I’m putting these things outside. But, for Heaven’s sake, don’t you touch them. Leave that to the ineffable ass who put them there. Good-night!”
The door closed; the whispering voices of the girls faded from the corridor; the lights were lowered in the central hall, only the red Cyclopean eye of an enormous columnar stove, like a lighthouse, gleamed through the darkness. Outside, the silent night sparkled, glistened, and finally paled. Towards morning, having invested the sturdy wooden outer walls of the house and filmed with delicate tracery every available inch of window pane, it seemed stealthily to invade the house itself, stilling and chilling it as it drew closer around its central heart of warmth and life. Only once the frigid stillness was broken by the opening of a door and steps along the corridor. This was preceded by an acrid smell of burning bark.
It was subtle enough to permeate the upper floor and the bedroom of Marie du Page, who was that night a light and nervous sleeper. Peering from her door, she could see, on the lower corridor, the extraordinary spectacle of Uncle Sylvester, robed in a gorgeous Japanese dressing-gown of quilted satin trimmed with the fur of the blue fox, candle in hand, leisurely examining the wall of the passage. Presently, drawing out a footrule from his pocket, he actually began to measure it! Miss Du Page saw no more. Hurriedly closing her door, she locked and bolted it, firmly convinced that Gabriel Lane was harboring in the guise of Uncle Sylvester a somnambulist, a maniac, or an impostor.