CHAPTER II NORTH DOOR AND SOUTH DOOR
For Samuel Appleby to pay a visit to Daniel Wheeler was of itself an astounding occurrence. The two men had not seen each other since the day, fifteen years ago, when Governor Appleby had pardoned the convicted Wheeler, with a condition, which, though harsh, had been strictly adhered to.
They had never been friends at heart, for they were diametrically opposed in their political views, and were not of similar tastes or pursuits. But they had been thrown much together, and when the time came for Wheeler to be tried for forgery, Appleby lent no assistance to the case. However, through certain influences brought to bear, in connection with the fact that Mrs. Wheeler was related to the Applebys, the governor pardoned the condemned man, with a conditional pardon.
Separated ever since, a few letters had passed between the two men, but they resulted in no change of conditions.
As the big car ran southward through the Berkshire Hills, Appleby's thoughts were all on the coming meeting, and the scenery of autumn foliage that provoked wild exclamations of delight from Genevieve and assenting enthusiasm from Keefe left the other unmoved.
An appreciative nod and grunt were all he vouchsafed to the girl's gushing praises, and when at last they neared their destination he called her attention to a tall old sycamore tree standing alone on a ridge not far away.
"That's the tree that gives the Wheeler place its name," he informed. "Sycamore Ridge is one of the most beautiful places in Connecticut."
"Oh, are we in Connecticut?" asked Miss Lane. "I didn't know we had crossed the border. What a great old tree! Surely one of the historic trees of New England, isn't it?"
"Historic to the Wheelers," was the grim reply, and then Mr. Appleby again relapsed into silence and spoke no further word until they reached the Wheeler home.
A finely curved sweep of driveway brought them to the house, and the car stopped at the south entrance.
The door did not swing open in welcome, and Mr. Appleby ordered his chauffeur to ring the bell.
This brought a servant in response, and the visiting trio entered the house.
It was long and low, with many rooms on either side of the wide hall that went straight through from south to north. The first room to the right was a large living-room, and into this the guests were shown and were met by a grave-looking man, who neither smiled nor offered a hand as his calm gaze rested on Samuel Appleby.
Indeed, the two men stared at one another, in undisguised curiosity. Each seemed to search the other's face for information as to his attitude and intent.
"Well, Dan," Appleby said, after the silent scrutiny, "you've changed some, but you're the same good-looking chap you always were."
Wheeler gave a start and pulled himself together.
"Thank you. I suppose I should return the compliment."
"But you can't conscientiously do it, eh?" Appleby laughed. "Never mind. Personal vanity is not my besetting sin. This is my secretary, Mr. Keefe, and my assistant, Miss Lane."
"Ah, yes, yes. How are you? How do you do? My wife and daughter will look after the young lady. Maida!"
As if awaiting the call, a girl came quickly in from the hall followed by an older woman. Introductions followed, and if there was an air of constraint on the part of the host the ladies of the family showed none. Sunny-faced Maida Wheeler, with her laughing brown eyes and gold brown hair, greeted the visitors with charming cordiality, and her mother was equally kind and courteous.
Genevieve Lane's wise and appraising eyes missed no point of appearance or behavior.
"Perfect darlings, both of them!" she commented to herself. "Whatever ails the old guy, it hasn't bitten them. Or else-wait a minute--" Genevieve was very observant-"perhaps they're putting on a little. Is their welcome a bit extra, to help things along?"
Yet only a most meticulous critic could discern anything more than true hospitality in the attitude of Mrs. Wheeler or Maida. The latter took Genevieve to the room prepared for her and chatted away in girlish fashion.
"The place is so wonderful!" Genevieve exclaimed, carefully avoiding personal talk. "Don't you just adore it?"
"Oh, yes. I've loved Sycamore Ridge for nearly fifteen years."
"Have you lived here so long?" Genevieve was alert for information. It was fifteen years ago that the pardon had been granted.
But as Maida merely assented and then changed the subject, Miss Lane was far too canny to ask further questions.
With a promptness not entirely due to chance, the stenographer came downstairs dressed for dinner some several minutes before the appointed hour. Assuming her right as a guest, she wandered about the rooms.
The south door, by which they had entered, was evidently the main entrance, but the opposite, or north door, gave on to an even more beautiful view, and she stepped out on the wide veranda and gazed admiringly about. The low ridge nearby formed the western horizon, and the giant sycamore, its straight branches outlined against the fading sunset, was impressive and a little weird. She strolled on, and turned the corner the better to see the ridge. The veranda ran all round the house, and as she went on along the western side, she suddenly became aware of a silent figure leaning against a pillar at the southwest corner.
"It is so quiet it frightens me," she said to Daniel Wheeler, as she neared him.
"Do you feel that way, too?" he asked, looking at her a little absently. "It is the lull before the storm."
"Oh, that sunset doesn't mean rain," Genevieve exclaimed, smiling, "unless your Connecticut blue laws interpret weather signs differently from our Massachusetts prophets. We are in Connecticut, aren't we?"
"Yes," and Wheeler sighed unaccountably. "Yes, Miss Lane, we are. That sycamore is the finest tree in the state."
"I can well believe it. I never saw such a grandfather of a tree! It's all full of little balls."
"Yes, buttonballs, they are called. But note its wonderful symmetry, its majestic appearance--"
"And strength! It looks as if it would stand, there forever!"
"Do you think so?" and the unmistakable note of disappointment in the man's tone caused Genevieve to look up in astonishment. "Well, perhaps it will," he added quickly.
"Oh, no, of course it won't really! No tree stands forever. But it will be here long after you and I are gone."
"Are you an authority on trees?" Wheeler spoke without a smile.
"Hardly that; but I was brought up in the country, and I know something of them. Your daughter loves the country, too."
"Oh, yes-we all do."
The tone was courteous, but the whole air of the man was so melancholy, his cheerfulness so palpably assumed, that Genevieve felt sorry for him, as well as inordinately curious to know what was the matter.
But her sympathy was the stronger impulse, and with a desire to entertain him, she said, "Come for a few steps in the garden, Mr. Wheeler, won't you? Come and show me that quaint little summer-house near the front door. It is the front door, isn't it? It's hard to tell."
"Yes, the north door is the front door," Wheeler said slowly, as if repeating a lesson. "The summer-house you mention is near the front door. But we won't visit that now. Come this other way, and I'll show you a Japanese tea-house, much more attractive."
But Genevieve Lane was sometimes under the spell of the Imp of the Perverse.
"No, no," she begged, smilingly, "let the Japanese contraption wait; please go to the little summer-house now. See, how it fairly twinkles in the last gleams of the setting sun! What is the flower that rambles all over it? Oh, do let's go there now! Come, please!"
With no reason for her foolish insistence save a whim, Genevieve was amazed to see the look of fury that came over her host's face.
"Appleby put you up to that!" he cried, in a voice of intense anger. "He told you to ask me to go to that place!"
"Why, Mr. Wheeler," cried the girl, almost frightened, "Mr. Appleby did nothing of the sort! Why should he! I'm not asking anything wrong, am I? Why is it so dreadful to want to see an arbor instead of a tea-house? You must be crazy!"
When Miss Lane was excited, she was quite apt to lose her head, and speak in thoughtless fashion.
But Mr. Wheeler didn't seem to notice her informality of speech. He only stared at her as if he couldn't quite make her out, and then he suddenly seemed to lose interest in her or her wishes, and with a deep sigh, he turned away, and fell into the same brooding posture as when she had first approached him.
"Come to dinner, people," called Maida's pretty voice, as, with outstretched hands she came toward them. "Why, dads, what are you looking miserable...