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    The Two White Houses

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    Chapter 8
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    There's no connection--not the slightest--between this two and the
    other twos; it was nevertheless the telling of the stories of the
    brothers which brought back to me this ancient memory of two houses.
    Nor were the two houses connected in any way, except that they were
    both white, situated on the same road, on the same side of it; also
    both stood a little way back from the road in grounds beautifully
    shaded with old trees. It was the great southern road which leads from
    the city of Buenos Ayres, the Argentine capital, to the vast level
    cattle-country of the pampas, where I was born and bred. Naturally it
    was a tremendously exciting adventure to a child's mind to come from
    these immense open plains, where one lived in rude surroundings with
    the semi-barbarous gauchos for only neighbours, to a great civilised
    town full of people and of things strange and beautiful to see. And to
    touch and taste.

    Thus it happened that when I, a child, with my brothers and sisters,
    were taken to visit the town we would become more and more excited as
    we approached it at the end of a long journey, which usually took us
    two days, at all we saw--ox-carts and carriages and men on horseback on
    the wide hot dusty road, and the houses and groves and gardens on
    either side.... It was thus that we became acquainted with the two
    white houses, and were attracted to them because in their whiteness and
    green shade they looked beautiful to us and cool and restful, and we
    wished we could live in them.

    They were well outside of the town, the nearest being about two miles
    from its old south wall and fortifications, the other one a little over
    two miles further out. The last being the farthest out was the first
    one we came to on our journeys to the city; it was a somewhat singular-
    looking building with a verandah supported by pillars painted green,
    and it had a high turret. And near it was a large dovecot with a cloud
    of pigeons usually flying about it, and we came to calling it Dovecot
    House. The second house was plainer in form but was not without a
    peculiar distinction in its large wrought-iron front gate with white
    pillars on each side, and in front of each pillar a large cannon
    planted postwise in the earth.

    This we called Cannon House, but who lived in these two houses none
    could tell us.

    When I was old enough to ride as well as any grown-up, and my
    occasional visits to town were made on horseback, I once had three
    young men for my companions, the oldest about twenty-eight, the two not
    more than nineteen and twenty-one respectively. I was eagerly looking
    out for the first white house, and when we were coming to it I cried
    out, "Now we are coming to Dovecot House, let's go slow and look at

    Without a word they all pulled up, and for some minutes we sat silently
    gazing at the house. Then the eldest of the three said that if he was a
    rich man he would buy the house and pass the rest of his life very
    happily in it and in the shade of its old trees.

    In what, the others asked, would his happiness consist, since a
    rational being must have something besides a mere shelter from the
    storm and a tree to shade him from the sun to be happy?

    He answered that after securing the house he would range the whole
    country in search of the most beautiful woman in it, and that when he
    had found and made her his wife he would spend his days and years in
    adoring her for her beauty and charm.

    His two young companions laughed scornfully. Then one of them--the
    younger--said that he too if wealthy would buy the house, as he had not
    seen another so well suited for the life he would like to live. A life
    spent with books! He would send to Europe for all the books he desired
    to read and would fill the house with them; and he would spend his days
    in the house or in the shade of the trees, reading every day from
    morning to night undisturbed by traffic and politics and revolutions in
    the land, and by happenings all the world over.

    He too was well laughed at; then the last of the three said he didn't
    care for either of their ideals. He liked wine best, and if he had
    great wealth he would buy the house and send to Europe--O not for books
    nor for a beautiful wife! but for wine--wines of all the choicest kinds
    in bottle and casks--and fill the cellars with it. And his choice wines
    would bring choice spirits to help him drink them; and then in the
    shade of the old trees they would have their table and sit over their
    wine--the merriest, wittiest, wisest, most eloquent gathering in all
    the land.

    The others in their turn laughed at him, despising his ideal, and then
    we set off once more.

    They had not thought to put the question to me, because I was only a
    boy while they were grown men; but I had listened with such intense
    interest to that colloquy that when I recall the scene now I can see
    the very expressions of their sun-burnt faces and listen to the very
    sound of their speech and laughter. For they were all intimately known
    to me and I knew they were telling openly just what their several
    notions of a happy life were, caring nothing for the laughter of the
    others. I was mightily pleased that they, too, had felt the attractions
    of my Dovecot House as a place where a man, whatsoever his individual
    taste, might find a happy abiding-place.

    Time rolled on, as the slow-going old storybooks written before we were
    born used to say, and I still preserved the old habit of pulling up my
    horse on coming abreast of each one of the two houses on every journey
    to and from town. Then one afternoon when walking my horse past the
    Cannon House I saw an old man dressed in black with snow-white hair and
    side-whiskers in the old, old style, and an ashen grey face, standing
    motionless by the side of one of the guns and gazing out at the
    distance. His eyes were blue--the dim weary blue of a tired old man's
    eyes, and he appeared not to see me as I walked slowly by him within a
    few yards, but to be gazing at something beyond, very far away. I took
    him to be a resident, perhaps the owner of the house, and this was the
    first time I had seen any person there. So strongly did the sight of
    that old man impress me that I could not get his image out of my mind,
    and I spoke to those I knew in the city, and before long I met with one
    who was able to satisfy my curiosity about him. The old man I had seen,
    he told me, was Admiral Brown, an Englishman who many years before had
    taken service with the Dictator Rosas at the time when Rosas was at war
    with the neighbouring Republic of Uruguay, and had laid siege to the
    city of Montevideo. Garibaldi, who was spending the years of his exile
    from Italy in South America, fighting as usual wherever there was any
    fighting to be had, flew to the help of Uruguay, and having acquired
    great fame as a sea-fighter was placed in command of the naval forces,
    such as they were, of the little Republic. But Brown was a better
    fighter, and he soon captured and destroyed his enemies' ships,
    Garibaldi himself escaping shortly afterwards to come back to the old
    world to renew the old fight against Austria.

    When old Admiral Brown retired he built this house, or had it given to
    him by Rosas who, I was told, had a great affection for him, and he
    then had the two cannons he had taken from one of the captured ships
    planted at his front gate.

    Shortly after that one glimpse I had had of the old Admiral, he died.
    And I think that when I saw him standing at his gate gazing past me at
    the distance, he was looking out for an expected messenger--a figure in
    black moving swiftly towards him with a drawn sword in his hand.

    Oddly enough it was but a short time after seeing the old man at his
    gate that I had my first sight of an inmate of Dovecot House. While
    slowly riding by it I saw a lady come out from the front door--young,
    good-looking, very pale and dressed in the deepest mourning. She had a
    bowl in her hand, and going a little distance from the house she called
    the pigeons and down they flew in a crowd to her feet to be fed.

    A few months later when passing I saw this same lady once more, and on
    this occasion she was coming to the gate as I rode by, and I saw her
    closely, for she turned and looked at me, not unseeingly like the old
    man, and her face was perfectly colourless and her large dark eyes the
    most sorrowful I had ever seen.

    That was my last sight of her, nor did I see any human creature about
    the house after that for about two years. Then one hot summer day I
    caught sight of three persons who looked like servants or caretakers,
    sitting in the shade some distance from the house and drinking maté,
    the tea of the country.

    Here, thought I, is an opportunity not to be lost--one long waited for!
    Leaving my horse at the gate I went to them, and addressing a large
    woman, the most important-looking person of the three, as politely as I
    could, I said I was not, as they perhaps imagined, a long absent friend
    or relation returned from the wars, but a perfect stranger, a traveller
    on the great south road; that I was hot and thirsty, and the sight of
    them refreshing themselves in that pleasant shade had tempted me to
    intrude myself upon them.

    She received me with smiles and a torrent of welcoming words, and the
    expected invitation to sit down and drink maté with them. She was a
    very large woman, very fat and very dark, of that reddish or mahogany
    colour which, taken with the black eyes and coarse black hair, is
    commonly seen in persons of mixed blood--Iberian with aboriginal. I
    took her age to be about fifty years. And she was as voluble as she was
    fat and dark, and poured out such a stream of talk on or rather over me
    like warm greasy water, and so forcing me to keep my eyes on her, that
    it was almost impossible to give any attention to the other two. One
    was her husband, Spanish and dark too, but with a different sort of
    darkness; a skeleton of a man with a bony ghastly face, in old frayed
    workman's clothes and dust-covered boots; his hands very grimy. And the
    third person was their daughter, as they called her, a girl of fifteen
    with a clear white and pink skin, regular features, beautiful grey eyes
    and light brown hair. A perfect type of a nice looking English girl
    such as one finds in any village, in almost any cottage, in the
    Midlands or anywhere else in this island.

    These two were silent, but at length, in one of the fat woman's brief
    pauses, the girl spoke, in a Spanish in which one could detect no trace
    of a foreign accent, in a low and pleasing voice, only to say something
    about the garden. She was strangely earnest and appeared anxious to
    impress on them that it was necessary to have certain beds of
    vegetables they cultivated watered that very day lest they should be
    lost owing to the heat and dryness. The man grunted and the woman said
    yes, yes, yes, a dozen times. Then the girl left us, going back to her
    garden, and the fat woman went on talking to me. I tried once or twice
    to get her to tell me about her daughter, as she called her, but she
    would not respond--she would at once go off into other subjects. Then I
    tried something else and told her of my sight of a handsome young lady
    in mourning I had once seen there feeding the pigeons. And now she
    responded readily enough and told me the whole story of the lady.

    She belonged to a good and very wealthy family of the city and was an
    only child, and lost both parents when very young. She was a very
    pretty girl of a joyous nature and a great favourite in society. At the
    age of sixteen she became engaged to a young man who was also of a good
    and wealthy family. After becoming engaged to her he went to the war in
    Paraguay, and after an absence of two years, during which he had
    distinguished himself in the field and won his captaincy, he returned
    to marry her. She was at her own house waiting in joyful excitement to
    receive him when his carriage arrived, and she flew to the door to
    welcome him. He, seeing her, jumped out and came running to her with
    his arms out to embrace her, but when still three or four yards distant
    suddenly stopped short and throwing up his arms fell to the earth a
    dead man. The shock of his death at this moment of supreme bliss for
    both of them was more than she could bear; it brought on a fever of the
    brain and it was feared that if she ever recovered it would be with a
    shattered mind. But it was not so: she got well and her reason was not
    lost, but she was changed into a different being from the happy girl of
    other days--fond of society, of dress, of pleasures; full of life and
    laughter. "Now she is sadness itself and will continue to wear mourning
    for the rest of her life, and prefers always to be alone. This old
    house, built by her grandfather when there were few houses in this
    suburb, she once liked to visit, but since her loss she has been but
    once in it. That was when you saw her, when she came to spend a few
    months in solitude. She would not even allow me to come and sit and
    talk to her! Think of that! She thinks nothing of her possessions and
    allows us to live here rent free, to grow vegetables and raise poultry
    for the market. That is what we do for a living; my husband and our
    little daughter attend to these things out of doors, and I look after
    the house."

    When she got to the end of this long relation I rose and thanked her
    for her hospitality and made my escape. But the mystery of the white,
    gentle-voiced, grey-eyed girl haunted me, and from that time I made it
    my custom to call at Dovecot House on every journey to town, always to
    be received with open arms, so to speak, by the great fat woman. But
    she always baffled me. The girl was usually to be seen, always the
    same, quiet, unsmiling, silent, or else speaking in Spanish in that
    gentle un-Spanish voice of some practical matter about the garden, the
    poultry, and so on. I was not in love with her, but extremely curious
    to know who she really was and how she came to be a "daughter," or in
    the hands of these unlikely people. For it was really one of the
    strangest things I had ever come across up to that early period of my
    life. Since then I have met with even more curious things; but being
    then of an age when strange things have a great fascination I was bent
    on getting to the bottom of the mystery. However, it was in vain;
    doubtless the fat woman suspected my motives in calling on her and
    sipping maté and listening to her talk, for whenever I mentioned her
    daughter in a tentative way, hoping it would lead to talk on that
    subject, she quickly and skilfully changed it for some other subject.
    And at last seeing that I was wasting my time, I dropped calling, but
    to this day I am rather sorry I allowed myself to be defeated.

    And now once more I must return for the space of two or three pages to
    the _brother_ white house before saying good-bye to both.

    For it had come to pass that while my investigations into the mystery
    of Dovecot House were in progress I had by chance got my foot in Cannon
    House. And this is how it happened. When the old Admiral whose ghostly
    image haunted me had received his message and vanished from this scene,
    the house was sold and was bought by an Englishman, an old resident in
    the town, who for thirty years had been toiling and moiling in a
    business of some kind until he had built a small fortune. It then
    occurred to him, or more likely his wife and daughters suggested it,
    that it was time to get a little way out of the hurly-burly, and they
    accordingly came to live at the house. There were two daughters, tall,
    slim, graceful girls, one, the elder, dark and pale like her old
    Cornish father, with black hair; the other a blonde with a rose colour
    and of a lively merry disposition. These girls happened to be friends
    of my sisters, and so it fell out that I too became an occasional
    visitor to Cannon House.

    Then a strange thing happened, which made it a sad and anxious home to
    the inmates for many long months, running to nigh on two years. They
    were fond of riding, and one afternoon when there was no visitor or any
    person to accompany them, the youngest girl said she would have her
    ride and ordered her horse to be brought from the paddock and saddled.
    Her elder sister, who was of a somewhat timid disposition, tried to
    dissuade her from riding out alone on the highway. She replied that she
    would just have one little gallop--a mile or so--and then come back.
    Her sister, still anxious, followed her out of the gate and said she
    would wait there for her return. Half a mile or so from the gate the
    horse, a high-spirited animal, took fright at something and bolted with
    its rider. The sister waiting and looking out saw them coming, the
    horse at a furious pace, the rider clinging for dear life to the pummel
    of the saddle. It flashed on her mind that unless the horse could be
    stopped before he came crashing through the gate her sister would be
    killed, and running out to a distance of thirty yards from the gate she
    jumped at the horse's head as it came rushing by and succeeded in
    grasping the reins, and holding fast to them she was dragged to within
    two or three yards of the gate, when the horse was brought to a
    standstill, whereupon her grasp relaxed and she fell to the ground in a
    dead faint.

    She had done a marvellous thing--almost incredible. I have had horses
    bolt with me and have seen horses bolt with others many times; and
    every person who has seen such a thing and who knows a horse--its power
    and the blind mad terror it is seized with on occasions--will agree
    with me that it is only at the risk of his life that even a strong and
    agile man can attempt to stop a bolting horse. We all said that she had
    saved her sister's life and were lost in admiration of her deed, but
    presently it seemed that she would pay for it with her own life. She
    recovered from the faint, but from that day began a decline, until in
    about three months' time she appeared to me more like a ghost than a
    being of flesh and blood. She had not strength to cross the rooms--all
    her strength and life were dying out of her because of that one
    unnatural, almost supernatural, act. She passed the days lying on a
    couch, speaking, when obliged to speak, in a whisper, her eyes sunk,
    her face white even to the lips, seeming the whiter for the mass of
    loose raven-black hair in which it was set. There were few doctors,
    English and native, who were not first and last called into
    consultation over the case, and still no benefit, no return to life,
    but ever the slow drifting towards the end. And at the last
    consultation of all this happened. When it was over and the doctors
    were asked into a room where refreshments were placed for them, the
    father of the girl spoke aside to a young doctor, a stranger to him,
    and begged him to tell him truly if there was no hope. The other
    replied that he should not lose all hope if--then he paused, and when
    he spoke again it was to say, "I am, you see, a very young man, a
    beginner in the profession, with little experience, and hardly know why
    I am called here to consult with these older and wiser men; and
    naturally my small voice received but little attention."

    By-and-by, when they had all gone except the family doctor, he informed
    the distracted parents that it was impossible to save their daughter's
    life. The father cried out that he would not lose all hope and would
    call in another man, whereupon old Dr. Wormwood seized his brass-headed
    cane and took himself off in a huff. The young stranger was then called
    in. The patient had been given arsenic with other drugs; he gave her
    arsenic only, increasing the doses enormously, until she was given as
    much in a day or two as would have killed a healthy person; with milk
    for only nourishment. As a result, in a week or so the decline was
    stayed, and in that condition, very near to dissolution, she continued
    some weeks, and then slowly, imperceptibly, began to mend. But so slow
    was the improvement that it went on for months before she was well. It
    was a complete recovery; she had got back all her old strength and joy
    in life, and went again for a ride every day with her sister.

    Not very long afterwards both sisters were married, and my visits to
    Cannon House ceased automatically.

    Now the two White Houses are but a memory, revived for a brief period
    to vanish quickly again into oblivion, a something seen long ago and
    far away in another hemisphere; and they are like two white cliffs seen
    in passing from the ship at the beginning of its voyage--gazed at with
    a strange interest as I passed them, and as they receded from me, until
    they faded from sight in the distance.
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