Chapter XXIII. . The Northern Fire-box and Dead Men’s Tales

That night Hazel could not get to sleep. Perhaps this was due to having noticed something that afternoon that made her vaguely uneasy. The evenings were beginning to be chilly, and, shortly before supper, she had gone up to Master Nathaniel’s room to light his fire. She found the widow and one of the maidservants there before her, and, to her surprise, they had brought down from the attic an old charcoal stove that had lain there unused for years, for Dorimare was a land of open fires, and stoves were practically unknown. The widow had brought the stove to the farm on her marriage, for, one her mother’s side, she had belonged to a race from the far North.

On Hazel’s look of surprise, she had said casually, “The logs are dampish to-day, and I thought this would make our guest cozier.”

Now Hazel knew that the wood was not in the least damp; how could it be, as it had not rained for days? But that this should have made her uneasy was a sign of her deep instinctive distrust of her grandfather’s widow.

Perhaps the strongest instinct in Hazel was that of hospitality – that all should be well, physically and morally, with the guests under the roof that she never forgot was hers, was a need in her much more pressing than any welfare of her own.

Meanwhile, Master Nathaniel, somewhat puzzled by the outlandish apparatus that was warming his room, had got into bed. He did not immediately put out his candle; he wished to think. For being much given to reverie, when he wanted to follow the sterner path of consecutive thought, he liked to have some tangible object on which to focus his eye, a visible goal, as it were, to keep his feet from straying down the shadowy paths that he so much preferred.

To-night it was the fine embossed ceiling on which he fixed his eye – the same ceiling at which Ranulph used to gaze when he had slept in this room. On a ground of a rich claret colour patterned with azure arabesques, knobs of a dull gold were embossed, and at the four corners clustered bunches of grapes and scarlet berries in stucco. And though time had dulled their colour and robbed the clusters of many of their berries, they remained, nevertheless, pretty and realistic objects.

But, in spite of the light, the focus, and his desire for hard thinking, Master Nathaniel found his thoughts drifting down the most fantastic paths. And, besides, he was so drowsy and his limbs felt so strangely heavy. The colours on the ceiling were getting all blurred, and the old knobs were detaching themselves from their background and shining in space like suns, moons, and stars – or was it like apples – the golden apples of the West? And now the claret-coloured background was turning into a red field – a field of red flowers, from which leered Portunus, and among which wept Ranulph. But the straight road, which for the last few months had been the projection of his unknown, buried purpose, even through this confused landscape glimmered white