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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?"

"Can't say."

"And you say you were unconscious afterwards?"

"Yes!"

"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?"

"No."

"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.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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