Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The East Wing: Archibald is a Changeling
By Julian Hawthorne (1846–1934)
From ‘Archibald Malmaison’

THE ROOM itself was long, narrow, and comparatively low; the latticed windows were sunk several feet into the massive walls; lengths of brownish-green and yellow tapestry, none the fresher for its two centuries and more of existence, still protested against the modern heresy of wall-paper; and in a panel frame over the fireplace was seen the portrait, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, of the Jacobite baronet. It was a half-length, in officer’s uniform: one hand holding the hilt of a sword against the breast, while the forefinger of the other hand pointed diagonally downward, as much as to say, “I vanished in that direction!”  1
  The fireplace, it should be noted, was built on the side of the room opposite to the windows; that is to say, in one of the partition walls. And what was on the other side of this partition? Not the large chamber opening into the corridor—that lay at right angles to the east chamber, along the southern front of the wing. Not the corridor either, though it ran for some distance parallel to the east chamber, and had a door on the east side. But this door led into a great dark closet, as big as an ordinary room, and used as a receptacle for rubbish. Was it the dark closet, then, that adjoined the east chamber on the other side of the partition? No, once more. Had a window been opened through the closet wall, it would have looked, not into Archibald’s room, but into a narrow blind court or well, entirely inclosed between four stone walls, and of no apparent use save as a somewhat clumsy architectural expedient. There was no present way of getting into this well, or even of looking into it, unless one had been at the pains to mount on the roof of the house and peer down. As a matter of fact, its existence was only made known by the reports of an occasional workman engaged in renewing the tiles, or mending a decayed chimney. An accurate survey of the building would of course have revealed it at once; but nothing of the kind had been thought of within the memory of man. Such a survey would also have revealed what no one in the least suspected, but which was nevertheless a fact of startling significance; namely, that the blind court was at least fifteen feet shorter and twenty-five feet narrower than it ought to have been!  2
  Archibald was as far from suspecting it as anybody; indeed, he most likely never troubled his head about builders’ plans in his life. But he thought a great deal of his great-grandfather’s portrait; and since it was so placed as to be in view of the most comfortable chair before the fire, he spent many hours of every week gazing at it. What was Sir Charles pointing at with that left forefinger? And what meant that peculiarly intent and slightly frowning glance which the painted eyes forever bent upon his own? Archibald probably had a few of Mrs. Radcliffe’s romances along with the other valuable books on his shelves, and he may have cherished a notion that a treasure or an important secret of some sort was concealed in the vicinity. Following down the direction of the pointing finger, he found that it intersected the floor at a spot about five feet to the right of the side of the fireplace. The floor of the chamber was of solid oak planking, blackened by age; and it appeared to be no less solid at this point than at any other. Nevertheless, he thought it would be good fun, and at all events would do no harm, to cut a hole there and see what was underneath. Accordingly he quietly procured a saw and a hammer and chisel, and one day, when the family were away from home, he locked himself into his room and went to work. The job was not an easy one, the tough oak wood being almost enough to turn the edge of his chisel, and there being no purchase at all for the saw. After a quarter of an hour’s chipping and hammering with very little result, he paused to rest. The board at which he had been working, and which met the wall at right angles, was very short, not more than eighteen inches long, indeed; being inserted merely to fill up the gap caused by a deficiency in length of the plank of which it was the continuation. Between the two adjoining ends was a crack of some width, and into that crack did Archibald idly stick his chisel. It seemed to him that the crack widened, so that he was able to press the blade of the chisel down to its thickest part. He now worked it eagerly backward and forward, and to his delight, the crack rapidly widened still further; in fact, the short board was sliding back underneath the wainscot. A small oblong cavity was thus revealed, into which the young discoverer glowered with beating heart and vast anticipations.  3
  What he found could scarcely be said to do those anticipations justice; it was neither a casket of precious stones, nor a document establishing the family right of ownership of the whole county of Sussex. It was nothing more than a tarnished rod of silver, about nine inches in length, and twisted into an irregular sort of corkscrew shape. One end terminated in a broad flat button; the other in a blunted point. There was nothing else in the hole—nothing to show what the rod was meant for, or why it was so ingeniously hidden there. And yet, reflected Archibald, could it have been so hidden, and its place of concealment so mysteriously indicated, without any ulterior purpose whatever? It was incredible! Why, the whole portrait was evidently painted with no other object than that of indicating the rod’s whereabouts. Either, then, there was or had been something else in the cavity in addition to the rod, or the rod was intended to be used in some way still unexplained. So much was beyond question.  4
  Thus cogitated Archibald; that is to say, thus he might have cogitated, for there is no direct evidence of what passed through his mind. And in the first place, he made an exhaustive examination of the cavity, and convinced himself not only that there was nothing else except dust to be got out of it, but also that it opened into no other cavity which might prove more fruitful. His next step was to study the silver rod, in the hope that scrutiny or inspiration might suggest to him what it was good for. His pains were rewarded by finding on the flat head the nearly obliterated figures 3 and 5, inscribed one above the other in the manner of a vulgar fraction,—thus, 3/5; and by the conviction that the spiral conformation of the rod was not the result of accident, as he had at first supposed, but had been communicated to it intentionally, for some purpose unknown. These conclusions naturally stimulated his curiosity more than ever, but nothing came of it. The boy was a clever boy, but he was not a detective trained in this species of research, and the problem was beyond his ingenuity. He made every application of the figures 3 and 5 that imagination could suggest; he took them in feet, in inches, in yards; he added them together, and he subtracted one from the other: all in vain. The only thing he did not do was to take any one else into his confidence; he said not a word about the affair even to Kate, being resolved that if there were a mystery it should be revealed, at least in the first instance, to no one else besides himself. At length, after several days spent in fruitless experiments and loss of temper, he returned the rod to its hiding-place, with the determination to give himself a rest for a while and see what time and accident would do for him. This plan, though undoubtedly prudent, seemed likely to effect no more than the others; and over a year passed away without the rod’s being again disturbed. By degrees his thoughts ceased to dwell so persistently upon the unsolved puzzle, and other interests took possession of his mind. The tragedy of his aunt’s death, his love for Kate, his studies, his prospects—a hundred things gave him occupation, until the silver rod was half forgotten.  5
  In the latter part of 1813, however, he accidentally made a rather remarkable discovery.  6
  He had for the first time been out hunting with his father and the neighboring country gentlemen in the autumn of this year, and it appears that on two occasions he had the brush awarded to him. At his request the heads of the two foxes were mounted for him, and he proposed to put them up on either side his fireplace.  7
  The wall, above and for a few inches to the right and left of the mantelpiece, was bare of tapestry; the first-named place being occupied by the portrait, while the sides were four feet up the oaken wainscot which surrounded the whole room behind the tapestry, and from thence to the ceiling, plaster. The mantelpiece and fireplace were of a dark slaty stone and of brick, respectively.  8
  Archibald fixed upon what he considered the most effective positions for his heads—just above the level of the wainscot, and near enough to the mantelpiece not to be interfered with by the tapestry. He nailed up one of them on the left-hand side, the nails penetrating with just sufficient resistance in the firm plaster; and then, measuring carefully to the corresponding point on the right-hand side, he proceeded to affix the other head there. But the nail on this occasion could not be made to go in; and on his attempting to force it with a heavier stroke of the hammer, it bent beneath the blow and the hammer came sharply into contact with the white surface of the wall, producing a clinking sound as from an impact on metal.  9
  A brief investigation now revealed the fact that a circular disk of iron, about three inches in diameter, and painted white to match the plaster, was here let into the wall. What could be the object of it? With a fresh nail the boy began to scratch off the paint from the surface of the disk, in order to determine whether it were actually iron, or some other metal; in so doing a small movable lid like the screen of a keyhole was pushed aside, disclosing a little round aperture underneath. Archibald pushed the nail into it, thereby informing himself that the hole went straight into the wall, for a distance greater than the length of the nail; but how much greater, and what was at the end of it, he could only conjecture.  10
  We must imagine him now standing upon a chair with the nail in his hand, casting about in his mind for some means of probing this mysterious and unexpected hole to the bottom. At this juncture he happens to glance upward, and meets the intent regard of his pictured ancestor, who seems to have been silently watching him all this time, and only to be prevented by unavoidable circumstances from speaking out and telling him what to do next. And there is that constant forefinger pointing—at what? At the cavity in the floor, of course, but not at that alone; for if you observe, this same new-found hole in the wall is a third point in the straight line between the end of the forefinger and the hiding-place of the silver rod; furthermore, the hole is, as nearly as can be estimated without actual measurement, three feet distant from the forefinger and five feet from the rod: the problem of three above and five below has solved itself in the twinkling of an eye, and it only remains to act accordingly!  11
  Archibald sprang to the floor in no small excitement; but the first thing that he did was to see that both his doors were securely fastened. Then he advanced upon the mystery with heightened color and beating heart, his imagination reveling in the wildest forecasts of what might be in store; and anon turning him cold with sickening apprehension lest it should prove to be nothing after all! But no: something there must be, some buried secret, now to live once more for him, and for him only; the secret whereof dim legends had come down through the obscurity of two hundred years; the secret too of old Sir Charles in the frame yonder, the man of magic repute. What could it be? Some talisman, some volume of the Black Art, perhaps, which would enable him to vanish at will into thin air, and to travel with the speed of a wish from place to place; to become a veritable enchanter, endowed with all supernatural powers. With hands slightly tremulous from eagerness he pushed back the bit of plank and drew forth the silver rod; then mounted on the chair and applied it to the hole, which it fitted accurately. Before pushing it home he paused a moment.  12
  In all the stories he had read, the possessors of magic secrets had acquired the same only in exchange for something supposed to be equally valuable; namely, their own souls. It was not to be expected that Archibald would be able to modify the terms of the bargain in his own case: was he then prepared to pay the price? Every human being, probably, is called upon to give a more or less direct answer to this question at some epoch of their lives; and were it not for curiosity and skepticism, and an unwillingness to profit by the experience of others, very likely that answer might be more often favorable to virtue than it actually is. Archibald did not hesitate long. Whether he decided to disbelieve in any danger; whether he resolved to brave it whatever it might be; or whether, having got thus far, he had not sufficient control over his inclinations to resist going further,—at all events he drew in his breath, set his boyish lips, and drove the silver rod into the aperture with right good will.  13
  It turned slowly as it entered, the curve of its spiral evidently following the corresponding windings of the hole. Inward it twisted like a snake, until only some two inches still projected. As the searcher after forbidden mysteries continued to press, something seemed to give way within; and at the same instant an odd shuffling sound caused him to glance sharply over his left shoulder.  14
  What was the matter with the mantelpiece? The whole of the right jamb seemed to have started forward nearly a foot, while the left jamb had retired by a corresponding distance into the wall; the hearth, with the fire burning upon it, remained meanwhile undisturbed. At first Archibald imagined that the mantelpiece was going to fall, perhaps bringing down the whole partition with it; but when he had got over the first shock of surprise sufficiently to make an examination, he found that the entire structure of massive gray stone was swung upon a concealed pivot, round which it turned independently of the brickwork of the fireplace. The silver rod had released the spring by which the mechanism was held in check, and an unsuspected doorway was thus revealed, opening into the very substance of the apparently solid wall. On getting down from his chair, he had no difficulty in pulling forward the jamb far enough to satisfy himself that there was a cavity of unknown extent behind. And from out of this cavity breathed a strange dry air, like the sigh of a mummy. As for the darkness in there, it was almost substantial, as of the central chamber in the great Pyramid.  15
  Archibald may well have had some misgivings, for he was only a boy, and this happened more than sixty years ago, when ghosts and goblins had not come to be considered such indefensible humbugs as they are now. Nevertheless, he was of a singularly intrepid temperament, and besides, he had passed the turning-point in this adventure a few minutes ago. Nothing, therefore, would have turned him back now. Come what might of it, he would see this business to an end.  16
  It was however impossible to see anything without a light; it would be necessary to fetch one of the rush candles from the table in the corridor. It was a matter of half a minute for the boy to go and return; then he edged himself through the opening, and was standing in a kind of vaulted tunnel directly behind the fireplace, the warmth of which he could feel when he laid his hand on the bricks on that side. The tunnel, which extended along the interior of the wall toward the left, was about six feet in height by two and a half in width. Archibald could walk in it quite easily.  17
  But in the first place he scrutinized the mechanism of the revolving mantelpiece. It was an extremely ingenious and yet simple device, and so accurately fitted in all its parts that after so many years, they still worked together almost as smoothly as when new. After Archibald had poured a little of his gun-oil into the joints of the hinges, and along the grooves, he found that the heavy stone structure would open and close as noiselessly and easily as his own jaws. It could be opened from the inside by using the silver rod in a hole corresponding to that on the outside: and having practiced this opening and shutting until he was satisfied that he was thoroughly master of the process, he put the rod in his pocket, pulled the jamb gently together behind him, and candle in hand set forth along the tunnel.  18
  After walking ten paces, he came face-up against a wall lying at right angles to the direction in which he had been moving. Peering cautiously round the corner, he saw at the end of a shallow embrasure a ponderous door of dark wood braced with iron, standing partly open with a key in the keyhole, as if some one had just come out, and in his haste had forgotten to shut and lock the door behind him. Archibald now slowly opened it to its full extent; it creaked as it moved, and the draught of air made his candle flicker, and caused strange shadows to dance for a moment in the unexplored void beyond. In another breath Archibald had crossed the threshold and arrived at the goal of his pilgrimage.  19
  At first he could see very little; but there could be no doubt that he was in a room which seemed to be of large extent, and for the existence of which he could by no means account. The reader, who has been better informed, will already have assigned it its true place in that unexplained region mentioned some pages back, between the blind court and the east chamber. Groping his way cautiously about, Archibald presently discerned a burnished sconce affixed to the wall, in which having placed his candle, the light was reflected over the room, so that the objects it contained stood dimly forth. It was a room of fair extent and considerable height, and was apparently furnished in a style of quaint and sombre magnificence, such as no other apartment in Malmaison could show. The arched ceiling was supported by vast oaken beams; the floor was inlaid with polished marbles. The walls, instead of being hung with tapestry, were painted in distemper with life-size figure subjects, representing, as far as the boy could make out, some weird incantation scene. At one end of the room stood a heavy cabinet, the shelves of which were piled with gold and silver plate, richly chased, and evidently of great value. Here in fact seemed to have been deposited many of the precious heirlooms of the family, which had disappeared during the Jacobite rebellions, and were supposed to have been lost. The cabinet was made of ebony inlaid with ivory, as was also a broad round table in the centre of the room. In a niche opposite the cabinet gleamed a complete suit of sixteenth-century armor; and so dry was the atmosphere of the apartment that scarce a spot of rust appeared upon the polished surface, which however, like every other object in the room, was overlaid with fine dust. A bed, with embroidered coverlet and heavy silken curtains, stood in a deep recess to the left of the cabinet. Upon the table lay a number of papers and parchments, some tied up in bundles, others lying about in disorder. One was spread open, with a pen thrown down upon it, and an antique ink-horn standing near; and upon a stand beside the bed was a gold-enameled snuff-box, with its lid up, and containing, doubtless, the dusty remnant of some George II. rappee.  20
  At all these things Archibald gazed in thoughtful silence. This room had been left, at a moment’s warning, generations ago; since then this strange dry air had been breathed by no human nostrils, these various objects had remained untouched and motionless; nothing but time had dwelt in the chamber: and yet what a change, subtle but mighty, had been wrought! Mere stillness, mere absence of life, was an appalling thing, the boy thought. And why had this secret been suffered to pass into oblivion? and why had fate selected him to discover it? and now, what use would he make of it? “At all events,” said the boy to himself, “it has become my secret, and shall remain mine; and no fear but the occasion will come when I shall know what use to make of it.” He felt that meanwhile it would give him power, security, wealth also, if he should ever have occasion for it; and with a curious sentiment of pride he saw himself thus mystically designated as the true heir of Malmaison,—the only one of his age and generation who had been permitted to stand on an equality with those historic and legendary ancestors to whom the secret of this chamber had given the name and fame of wizards. Henceforth Archibald was as much a wizard as they.  21
  Or—might there after all be a power in necromancy that he yet dreamed not of? Was it possible that even now those old enchanters held their meetings here, and would question his right to force his way among them?  22
  As this thought passed through the boy’s mind, he was moving slowly forward, his eyes glancing now here, now there, when all at once the roots of his hair were stirred with an emotion which, if not fear, was certainly far removed from tranquillity. From the darkest corner of the room he had seen a human figure silently and stealthily creeping toward him. Now, as he fixed his eyes upon it, it stopped, and seemed to return his stare. His senses did not deceive him: there it stood, distinctly outlined, though its features were indistinguishable by reason of the shadow that fell upon them. But what living thing—living with mortal life at least—could exist in a room that had been closed for sixty years?  23
  Now certainly this Archibald, who had not yet completed his fourteenth year, possessed a valiant soul. That all his flesh yearned for instant flight does not admit of a doubt; and had he fled, this record would never have been written. Fly however he would not, but would step forward rather, and be resolved what manner of goblin confronted him. Forward therefore he stepped; and behold! the goblin was but the reflection of himself in a tall mirror, which the obscurity and his own agitation had prevented him from discerning. The revulsion of feeling thus occasioned was so strong that for a moment all strength forsook the boy’s knees; he stumbled and fell, and his forehead struck the corner of the ebony cabinet. He was on his feet again in a moment, but his forehead was bleeding, and he felt strangely giddy. The candle too was getting near its end; it was time to bring this first visit to a close. He took the candle from the sconce, passed out through the door, traversed the tunnel, and thrust the silver key into the keyhole. The stone door yielded before him; he dropped what was left of the candle, and slipped through the opening into broad daylight.  24
  The first object his dazzled eyes rested upon was the figure of Miss Kate Battledown. In returning from his visit to the corridor he must have forgotten to lock the room door after him. She was standing with her back toward him, looking out of the window, and was apparently making signs to some one outside.  25
  Noiselessly Archibald pushed the mantelpiece back into place; thanks to the oiling he had given the hinges, no sound betrayed the movement. The next moment Kate turned round, and seeing him, started and cried “Oh!”  26
  “Good-morning, Mistress Kate,” said Archibald.  27
  “Archibald!”  28
  “Well?”  29
  “You were not here a moment ago!”  30
  “Well?”  31
  “Then how did you get here?”  32
  Archibald made a gesture toward the door leading to the covered stairway.  33
  “No—no!” said Kate; “it is locked, and the key is on this side.” She had been coming toward him, but now stopped and regarded him with terror in her looks.  34
  “What is the matter, Kate?”  35
  “You are all over blood, Archibald! What has happened? Are you … oh, what are you?” She was ready to believe him a ghost.  36
  “What am I?” repeated the boy sluggishly. That odd giddiness was increasing, and he scarcely knew whether he were asleep or awake. Who was he, indeed? What had happened? Who was that young woman in front of him? What …  37
  “Archibald! Archie! Speak to me! Why do you look so strangely?”  38
  “Me not know oo!” said Archie, and began to cry.  39
  Mistress Kate turned pale, and began to back toward the door.  40
  “Me want my kittie!” blubbered Archie.  41
  Kate stopped. “You want me?”  42
  “Me want my ’ittle kittie—my ’ittle b’indled kittie! Dey put my kittie in de hole in de darden! Me want her to p’ay wiz!” And with this, and with the tears streaming down his cheeks, poor Archie toddled forward with the uncertain step and outstretched arms of a little child. But Kate had already gained the door, and was running screaming across the next room, and so down the long corridor.  43
  Poor Archie toddled after, his baby heart filled with mourning for the brindled cat that had been buried in the back garden seven years before.—Seven years? or was it only yesterday?  44

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