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Title: Lost Man's Lane - A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth
Author: Green, Anna Katharine, 1846-1935
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Lost Man's Lane - A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth" ***

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                           LOST MAN'S LANE

          A SECOND EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF AMELIA BUTTERWORTH

                       BY ANNA KATHARINE GREEN

                        (MRS. CHARLES ROHLFS)

       Author of "That Affair Next Door," "The Leavenworth Case,"
       "The Forsaken Inn," etc.


G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
NEW YORK & LONDON
The Knickerbocker Press
1899

COPYRIGHT, 1898
BY ANNA KATHARINE ROHLFS

Entered at Stationers' Hall, London

Set up and electrotyped March, 1898. Reprinted March, 1898;
April, 1898; July, 1898; Aug., 1898; Oct., 1898; Aug., 1899

The Knickerbocker Press, New York


            To
    ELIZABETH D. SHEPARD
     COUSIN AND FRIEND
         THIS BOOK
IS AFFECTIONATELY INSCRIBED



PREFACE


A word to my readers before they begin these pages.

As a woman of inborn principle and strict Presbyterian training, I hate
deception and cannot abide subterfuge. This is why, after a year or more
of hesitation, I have felt myself constrained to put into words the true
history of the events surrounding the solution of that great mystery
which made Lost Man's Lane the dread of the neighboring country.
Feminine delicacy, and a natural shrinking from revealing to the world
certain weaknesses on my part, inseparable from a true relation of this
tale, led me to consent to the publication of that meagre and decidedly
falsified account of the matter which has appeared in some of our
leading papers.

But conscience has regained its sway in my breast, and with all due
confidence in your forbearance, I herein take my rightful place in these
annals, of whose interest and importance I now leave you to judge.

AMELIA BUTTERWORTH.

GRAMERCY PARK, NEW YORK.



CONTENTS


_BOOK I_ THE KNOLLYS FAMILY

I.--A VISIT FROM MR. GRYCE

II.--I AM TEMPTED

III.--I SUCCUMB

IV.--A GHOSTLY INTERIOR

V.--A STRANGE HOUSEHOLD

VI.--A SOMBRE EVENING

VII.--THE FIRST NIGHT

VIII.--ON THE STAIRS

IX.--A NEW ACQUAINTANCE

X.--SECRET INSTRUCTIONS

XI.--MEN, WOMEN, AND GHOSTS

XII.--THE PHANTOM COACH

XIII.--GOSSIP

XIV.--I FORGET MY AGE, OR, RATHER, REMEMBER IT


_BOOK II_ THE FLOWER PARLOR

XV.--LUCETTA FULFILS MY EXPECTATION OF HER

XVI.--LOREEN

XVII.--THE FLOWER PARLOR

XVIII.--THE SECOND NIGHT

XIX.--A KNOT OF CRAPE

XX.--QUESTIONS

XXI.--MOTHER JANE

XXII.--THE THIRD NIGHT


_BOOK III_ FORWARD AND BACK

XXIII.--ROOM 3, HOTEL CARTER

XXIV.--THE ENIGMA OF NUMBERS

XXV.--TRIFLES, BUT NOT TRIFLING

XXVI.--A POINT GAINED

XXVII.--THE TEXT WITNESSETH

XXVIII.--AN INTRUSION

XXIX.--IN THE CELLAR

XXX.--INVESTIGATION

XXXI.--STRATEGY

XXXII.--RELIEF


_BOOK IV_ THE BIRDS OF THE AIR

XXXIII.--LUCETTA

XXXIV.--CONDITIONS

XXXV--THE DOVE

XXXVI.--AN HOUR OF STARTLING EXPERIENCES

XXXVII.--I ASTONISH MR. GRYCE AND HE ASTONISHES ME

XXXVIII.--A FEW WORDS

XXXIX.--UNDER A CRIMSON SKY

XL.--EXPLANATIONS

EPILOGUE



LOST MAN'S LANE



_BOOK I_

THE KNOLLYS FAMILY



I

A VISIT FROM MR. GRYCE


Ever since my fortunate--or shall I say unfortunate?--connection with
that famous case of murder in Gramercy Park, I have had it intimated to
me by many of my friends--and by some who were not my friends--that no
woman who had met with such success as myself in detective work would
ever be satisfied with a single display of her powers, and that sooner
or later I would find myself again at work upon some other case of
striking peculiarities.

As vanity has never been my foible, and as, moreover, I never have
forsaken and never am likely to forsake the plain path marked out for my
sex, at any other call than that of duty, I invariably responded to
these insinuations by an affable but incredulous smile, striving to
excuse the presumption of my friends by remembering their ignorance of
my nature and the very excellent reasons I had for my one notable
interference in the police affairs of New York City.

Besides, though I appeared to be resting quietly, if not in entire
contentment, on my laurels, I was not so utterly removed from the old
atmosphere of crime and its detection as the world in general considered
me to be. Mr. Gryce still visited me; not on business, of course, but as
a friend, for whom I had some regard; and naturally our conversation was
not always confined to the weather or even to city politics, provocative
as the latter subject is of wholesome controversy.

Not that he ever betrayed any of the secrets of his office--oh no; that
would have been too much to expect--but he did sometimes mention the
outward aspects of some celebrated case, and though I never ventured
upon advice--I know too much for that, I hope--I found my wits more or
less exercised by a conversation in which he gained much without
acknowledging it, and I gave much without appearing conscious of the
fact.

I was therefore finding life pleasant and full of interest, when
suddenly (I had no right to expect it, and I do not blame myself for not
expecting it or for holding my head so high at the prognostications of
my friends) an opportunity came for a direct exercise of my detective
powers in a line seemingly so laid out for me by Providence that I felt
I would be slighting the Powers above if I refused to enter upon it,
though now I see that the line was laid out for me by Mr. Gryce, and
that I was obeying anything but the call of duty in following it.

But this is not explicit. One night Mr. Gryce came to my house looking
older and more feeble than usual. He was engaged in a perplexing case,
he said, and missed his early vigor and persistency. Would I like to
hear about it? It was not in the line of his usual work, yet it had
points--and well!--it would do him good to talk about it to a
non-professional who was capable of sympathizing with its baffling and
worrisome features and yet would never have to be told to hold her
peace.

I ought to have been on my guard. I ought to have known the old fox well
enough to feel certain that when he went so manifestly out of his way to
take me into his confidence he did it for a purpose. But Jove nods now
and then--or so I have been assured on unimpeachable authority,--and if
Jove has ever been caught napping, surely Amelia Butterworth may be
pardoned a like inconsistency.

"It is not a city crime," Mr. Gryce went on to explain, and here he was
base enough to sigh. "At my time of life this is an important
consideration. It is no longer a simple matter for me to pack up a
valise and go off to some distant village, way up in the mountains
perhaps, where comforts are few and secrecy an impossibility. Comforts
have become indispensable to my threescore years and ten, and
secrecy--well, if ever there was an affair where one needs to go softly,
it is this one; as you will see if you will allow me to give you the
facts of the case as known at Headquarters to-day."

I bowed, trying not to show my surprise or my extreme satisfaction. Mr.
Gryce assumed his most benignant aspect (always a dangerous one with
him), and began his story.



II

I AM TEMPTED


"Some ninety miles from here, in a more or less inaccessible region,
there is a small but interesting village, which has been the scene of so
many unaccountable disappearances that the attention of the New York
police has at last been directed to it. The village, which is at least
two miles from any railroad, is one of those quiet, placid little spots
found now and then among the mountains, where life is simple, and crime,
to all appearance, an element so out of accord with every other
characteristic of the place as to seem a complete anomaly. Yet crime, or
some other hideous mystery almost equally revolting, has during the last
five years been accountable for the disappearance in or about this
village of four persons of various ages and occupations. Of these, three
were strangers and one a well-known vagabond accustomed to tramp the
hills and live on the bounty of farmers' wives. All were of the male
sex, and in no case has any clue ever come to light as to their fate.
That is the matter as it stands before the police to-day."

"A serious affair," I remarked. "Seems to me I have read of such things
in novels. Is there a tumbled-down old inn in the vicinity where beds
are made up over trap-doors?"

His smile was a mild protest against my flippancy.

"I have visited the town myself. There is no inn there, but a
comfortable hotel of the most matter-of-fact sort, kept by the frankest
and most open-minded of landlords. Besides, these disappearances, as a
rule, did not take place at night, but in broad daylight. Imagine this
street at noon. It is a short one, and you know every house on it, and
you think you know every lurking-place. You see a man enter it at one
end and you expect him to issue from it at the other. But suppose he
never does. More than that, suppose he is never heard of again, and that
this thing should happen in this one street four times during five
years."

"I should move," I dryly responded.

"Would you? Many good people have moved from the place I speak of, but
that has not helped matters. The disappearances go on just the same and
the mystery continues."

"You interest me," I said. "Come to think of it, if this street were the
scene of such an unexplained series of horrors as you have described, I
do not think I should move."

"I thought not," he curtly rejoined. "But since you are interested in
this matter, let me be more explicit in my statements. The first person
whose disappearance was noted----"

"Wait," I interrupted. "Have you a map of the place?"

He smiled, nodded quite affectionately to a little statuette on the
mantel-piece, which had had the honor of sharing his confidences in days
gone by, but did not produce the map.

"That detail will keep," said he. "Let me go on with my story. As I was
saying, madam, the first person whose disappearance was noted in this
place was a peddler of small wares, accustomed to tramp the mountains.
On this occasion he had been in town longer than usual, and was known to
have sold fully half of his goods. Consequently he must have had quite a
sum of money upon him. One day his pack was found lying under a cluster
of bushes in a wood, but of him nothing was ever again heard. It made an
excitement for a few days while the woods were being searched for his
body, but, nothing having been discovered, he was forgotten, and
everything went on as before, till suddenly public attention was again
aroused by the pouring in of letters containing inquiries in regard to a
young man who had been sent there from Duluth to collect facts in a law
case, and who after a certain date had failed to communicate with his
firm or show up at any of the places where he was known. Instantly the
village was in arms. Many remembered the young man, and some two or
three of the villagers could recall the fact of having seen him go up
the street with his hand-bag in his hand as if on his way to the
Mountain-station. The landlord of the hotel could fix the very day at
which he left his house, but inquiries at the station failed to
establish the fact that he took train from there, nor were the most
minute inquiries into his fate ever attended by the least result. He was
not known to have carried much money, but he carried a very handsome
watch and wore a ring of more than ordinary value, neither of which has
ever shown up at any pawnbroker's known to the police. This was three
years ago.

"The next occurrence of a like character did not take place till a year
after. This time it was a poor old man from Hartford, who vanished
almost as it were before the eyes of these astounded villagers. He had
come to town to get subscriptions for a valuable book issued by a
well-known publisher. He had been more or less successful, and was
looking very cheerful and contented, when one morning, after making a
sale at a certain farmhouse, he sat down to dine with the family, it
being close on to noon. He had eaten several mouthfuls and was chatting
quite freely, when suddenly they saw him pause, clap his hand to his
pocket, and rise up very much disturbed. 'I have left my pocket-book
behind me at Deacon Spear's,' he cried. 'I cannot eat with it out of my
possession. Excuse me if I go for it.' And without any further
apologies, he ran out of the house and down the road in the direction of
Deacon Spear's. He never reached Deacon Spear's, nor was he ever seen in
that village again or in his home in Hartford. This was the most
astonishing mystery of all. Within a half-mile's radius, in a populous
country town, this man disappeared as if the road had swallowed him and
closed again. It was marvellous, it was incredible, and remained so even
after the best efforts of the country police to solve the mystery had
exhausted themselves. After this, the town began to acquire a bad name,
and one or two families moved away. Yet no one was found who was willing
to admit that these various persons had been the victims of foul play
till a month later another case came to light of a young man who had
left the village for the hillside station, and had never arrived at that
or any other destination so far as could be learned. As he was a distant
relative of a wealthy cattle owner in Iowa, who came on post-haste to
inquire into his nephew's fate, the excitement ran high, and through his
efforts and that of one of the town's leading citizens, the services of
our office were called into play. But the result has been nil. We have
found neither the bodies of these men nor any clue to their fate."

"Yet _you_ have been there?" I suggested.

He nodded.

"Wonderful! And you came upon no suspicious house, no suspicious
person?"

The finger with which he was rubbing his eyeglasses went round and round
the rims with a slower and slower and still more thoughtful motion.

"Every town has its suspicious-looking houses," he slowly remarked,
"and, as for persons, the most honest often wear a lowering look in
which an unbridled imagination can see guilt. I never trust to
appearances of that kind."

"What else can you trust in, when a case is as impenetrable as this
one?" I asked.

His finger, going slower and slower, suddenly stopped.

"In my knowledge of persons," he replied. "In my knowledge of their
fears, their hopes, and their individual concerns. If I were twenty
years younger"--here he stole a glance at me in the mirror which made me
bridle; did he think I was only twenty years younger than himself?--"I
would," he went on, "make myself so acquainted with every man, woman,
and child there, that--" Here he drew himself up with a jerk. "But the
day for that is passed," said he. "I am too old and too crippled to
succeed in such an undertaking. Having been there once, I am a marked
man. My very walk betrays me. He whose good fortune it will be to get at
the bottom of these people's hearts must awaken no suspicions as to his
connection with the police. Indeed, I do not think that any man can
succeed in doing this now."

I started. This was a frank showing of his hand at least. No man! It was
then a woman's aid he was after. I laughed as I thought of it. I had not
thought him either so presumptuous or so appreciative of talents of a
character so directly in line with his own.

"Don't you agree with me, madam?"

I did agree with him; but I had a character of great dignity to
maintain, so I simply surveyed him with an air of well-tempered
severity.

"I do not know of any woman who would undertake such a task," I calmly
observed.

"No?" he smiled with that air of forbearance which is so exasperating to
me. "Well, perhaps there isn't any such woman to be found. It would take
one of very uncommon characteristics, I own."

"Pish!" I cried. "Not so very!"

"Indeed, I think you have not fully taken in the case," he urged in
quiet superiority. "The people there are of the higher order of country
folk. Many of them are of extreme refinement. One family"--here his tone
changed a trifle--"is poor enough and cultivated enough to interest even
such a woman as yourself."

"Indeed!" I ejaculated, with just a touch of my father's hauteur to hide
the stir of curiosity his words naturally evoked.

"It is in some such home," he continued with an ease that should have
warned me he had started on this pursuit with a quiet determination to
win, "that the clue will be found to the mystery we are considering.
Yes, you may well look startled, but that conclusion is the one thing I
brought away with me from--X., let us say. I regard it as one of some
moment. What do you think of it?"

"Well," I admitted, "it makes me feel like recalling that _pish_ I
uttered a few minutes ago. It would take a woman of uncommon
characteristics to assist you in this matter."

"I am glad we have got that far," said he.

"A lady," I went on.

"Most assuredly a lady."

I paused. Sometimes discreet silence is more sarcastic than speech.

"Well, what lady would lend herself to this scheme?" I demanded at last.

The tap, tap of his fingers on the rim of his glasses was my only
answer.

"I do not know of any," said I.

His eyebrows rose perhaps a hair's-breadth, but I noted the implied
sarcasm, and for an instant forgot my dignity.

"Now," said I, "this will not do. You mean me, Amelia Butterworth; a
woman who--but I do not think it is necessary to tell you either who or
what I am. You have presumed, sir--Now do not put on that look of
innocence, and above all do not attempt to deny what is so manifestly in
your thoughts, for that would make me feel like showing you the door."

"Then," he smiled, "I shall be sure to deny nothing. I am not anxious to
leave--yet. Besides, whom could I mean but you? A lady visiting friends
in this remote and beautiful region--what opportunities might she not
have to probe this important mystery if, like yourself, she had tact,
discretion, excellent understanding, and an experience which if not
broad or deep is certainly such as to give her a certain confidence in
herself, and an undoubted influence with the man fortunate enough to
receive her advice."

"Bah!" I exclaimed. It was one of his favorite expressions. That was
perhaps why I used it. "One would think I was a member of your police."

"You flatter us too deeply," was his deferential answer. "Such an honor
as that would be beyond our deserts."

To this I gave but the faintest sniff. That he should think that I,
Amelia Butterworth, could be amenable to such barefaced flattery! Then I
faced him with some asperity, and said bluntly: "You waste your time. I
have no more intention of meddling in another affair than----"

"You had in meddling in the first," he politely, too politely,
interpolated. "I understand, madam."

I was angry, but made no show of being so. I was not willing he should
see that I could be affected by anything he could say.

"The Van Burnams are my next-door neighbors," I remarked sweetly. "I had
the best of excuses for the interest I took in their affairs."

"So you had," he acquiesced. "I am glad to be reminded of the fact. I
wonder I was able to forget it."

Angry now to the point of not being able to hide it, I turned upon him
with firm determination.

"Let us talk of something else," I said.

But he was equal to the occasion. Drawing a folded paper from his
pocket, he opened it out before my eyes, observing quite naturally:
"That is a happy thought. Let us look over this sketch you were sharp
enough to ask for a few moments ago. It shows the streets of the village
and the places where each of the persons I have mentioned was last seen.
Is not that what you wanted?"

I know that I should have drawn back with a frown, that I never should
have allowed myself the satisfaction of casting so much as a glance
toward the paper, but the human nature which links me to my kind was too
much for me, and with an involuntary "Exactly!" I leaned over it with an
eagerness I strove hard, even at that exciting moment, to keep within
the bounds I thought proper to my position as a non-professional,
interested in the matter from curiosity alone.

This is what I saw:

[Illustration]

"Mr. Gryce," said I, after a few minutes' close contemplation of this
diagram, "I do not suppose you want any opinion from me."

"Madam," he retorted, "it is all you have left me free to ask for."

Receiving this as a permission to speak, I put my finger on the road
marked with a cross.

"Then," said I, "so far as I can gather from this drawing, all the
disappearances seem to have taken place in or about this especial road."

"You are as correct as usual," he returned. "What you have said is so
true, that the people of the vicinity have already given to this winding
way a special cognomen of its own. For two years now it has been called
Lost Man's Lane."

"Indeed!" I cried. "They have got the matter down as close as that, and
yet have not solved its mystery? How long is this road?"

"A half mile or so."

I must have looked my disgust, for his hands opened deprecatingly.

"The ground has undergone a thorough search," said he. "Not a square
foot in those woods you see on either side of the road, but has been
carefully examined."

"And the houses? I see there are three houses on this road."

"Oh, they are owned by most respectable people--_most_ respectable
people," he repeated, with a lingering emphasis that gave me an inward
shudder. "I think I had the honor of intimating as much to you a few
minutes ago."

I looked at him earnestly, and irresistibly drew a little nearer to him
over the diagram.

"Have none of these houses been visited by you?" I asked. "Do you mean
to say you have not seen the inside of them all?"

"Oh," he replied, "I have been in them all, of course; but a mystery
such as we are investigating is not written upon the walls of parlors or
halls."

"You freeze my blood," was my uncharacteristic rejoinder. Somehow the
sight of the homes indicated on this diagram seemed to bring me into
more intimate sympathy with the affair.

His shrug was significant.

"I told you that this was no vulgar mystery," he declared; "or why
should I be considering it with _you_? It is quite worthy of your
interest. Do you see that house marked A?"

"I do," I nodded.

"Well, that is a decayed mansion of imposing proportions, set in a
forest of overgrown shrubbery. The ladies who inhabit it----"

"Ladies!" I put in, with a small shock of horror.

"Young ladies," he explained, "of a refined if not over-prosperous
appearance. They are the interesting residue of a family of some repute.
Their father was a judge, I believe."

"And do they live there alone," I asked,--"two young ladies in a house
so large and in a neighborhood so full of mystery?"

"Oh, they have a brother with them, a lout of no great attractions," he
responded carelessly--too carelessly, I thought.

I made a note of the house A in my mind.

"And who lives in the house marked B?" I now queried.

"A Mr. Trohm. You will remember that it was through his exertions the
services of the New York police were secured. His place there is one of
the most interesting in town, and he does not wish to be forced to leave
it, but he will be obliged to do so if the road is not soon relieved of
its bad name; and so will Deacon Spear. The very children shun the road
now. I do not know of a lonelier place."

"I see a little mark made here on the verge of the woods. What does that
mean?"

"That stands for a hut--it can hardly be called a cottage--where a poor
old woman lives called Mother Jane. She is a harmless imbecile, against
whom no one has ever directed a suspicion. You may take your finger off
that mark, Miss Butterworth."

I did so, but I did not forget that it stood very near the footpath
branching off to the station.

"You entered this hut as well as the big houses?" I intimated.

"And found," was his answer, "four walls; nothing more."

I let my finger travel along the footpath I have just mentioned.

"Steep," was his comment. "Up, up, all the way, but no precipices.
Nothing but pine woods on either side, thickly carpeted with needles."

My finger came back and stopped at the house marked M.

"Why is a letter affixed to this spot?" I asked.

"Because it stands at the head of the lane. Any one sitting at the
window L can see whoever enters or leaves the lane at this end. And some
one is always sitting there. The house contains two crippled children, a
boy and a girl. One of them is always in that window."

"I see," said I. Then abruptly: "What do you think of Deacon Spear?"

"Oh, he's a well-meaning man, none too fine in his feelings. He does not
mind the neighborhood; likes quiet, he says. I hope you will know him
for yourself some day," the detective slyly added.

At this return to the forbidden subject, I held myself very much aloof.

"Your diagram is interesting," I remarked, "but it has not in the least
changed my determination. It is you who will return to X., and that,
very soon."

"Very soon?" he repeated. "Whoever goes there on this errand must go at
once; to-night, if possible; if not, to-morrow at the latest."

"To-night! to-morrow!" I expostulated. "And you thought----"

"No matter what I thought," he sighed. "It seems I had no reason for my
hopes." And folding up the map, he slowly rose. "The young man we have
left there is doing more harm than good. That is why I say that some one
of real ability must replace him immediately. The detective from New
York must seem to have left the place."

I made him my most ladylike bow of dismissal.

"I shall watch the papers," I said. "I have no doubt that I shall soon
be gratified by seeing in them some token of your success."

He cast a rueful look at his hands, took a painful step toward the door,
and dolefully shook his head.

I kept my silence undisturbed.

He took another painful step, then turned.

"By the way," he remarked, as I stood watching him with an
uncompromising air, "I have forgotten to mention the name of the town in
which these disappearances have occurred. It is called X., and it is to
be found on one of the spurs of the Berkshire Hills." And, being by this
time at the door, he bowed himself out with all the insinuating suavity
which distinguishes him at certain critical moments. The old fox was so
sure of his triumph that he did not wait to witness it. He knew--how, it
is easy enough for me to understand now--that X. was a place I had often
threatened to visit. The family of one of my dearest friends lived
there, the children of Althea Knollys. She had been my chum at school,
and when she died I had promised myself not to let many months go by
without making the acquaintance of her children. Alas! I had allowed
years to elapse.



III

I SUCCUMB


That night the tempter had his own way with me. Without much difficulty
he persuaded me that my neglect of Althea Burroughs' children was
without any excuse; that what had been my duty toward them when I knew
them to be left motherless and alone, had become an imperative demand
upon me now that the town in which they lived had become overshadowed by
a mystery which could not but affect the comfort and happiness of all
its inhabitants. I could not wait a day. I recalled all that I had heard
of poor Althea's short and none too happy marriage, and immediately felt
such a burning desire to see if her dainty but spirited beauty--how well
I remembered it--had been repeated in her daughters, that I found myself
packing my trunk before I knew it.

I had not been from home for a long time--all the more reason why I
should have a change now--and when I notified Mrs. Randolph and the
servants of my intention of leaving on the early morning train, it
created quite a sensation in the house.

But I had the best of explanations to offer. I had been thinking of my
dead friend, and my conscience would not let me neglect her dear and
possibly unhappy progeny any longer. I had purposed many times to visit
X., and now I was going to do it. When I come to a decision, it is
usually suddenly, and I never rest after having once made up my mind.

My sentiment went so far that I got down an old album and began hunting
up the pictures I had brought away with me from boarding-school. Hers
was among them, and I really did experience more or less compunction
when I saw again the delicate yet daring features which had once had a
very great influence over my mind. What a teasing sprite she was, yet
what a will she had, and how strange it was that, having been so
intimate as girls, we never knew anything of each other as women! Had it
been her fault or mine? Was her marriage to blame for it or my
spinsterhood? Difficult to tell then, impossible to tell now. I would
not even think of it again, save as a warning. Nothing must stand
between me and her children now that my attention has been called to
them again.

I did not mean to take them by surprise--that is, not entirely. The
invitation which they had sent me years ago was still in force, making
it simply necessary for me to telegraph them that I had decided to make
them a visit, and that they might expect me by the noon train. If in
times gone by they had been properly instructed by their mother in
regard to the character of her old friend, this need not put them out. I
am not a woman of unbounded expectations. I do not look for the comforts
abroad I am accustomed to find at home, and if, as I have reason to
believe, their means are not of the greatest, they would only provoke me
by any show of effort to make me feel at home in the humble cottage
suited to their fortunes.

So the telegram was sent, and my preparations completed for an early
departure.

But, resolved as I was to make this visit, my determination came near
receiving a check. Just as I was leaving the house--at the very moment,
in fact, when the hackman was carrying out my trunk, I perceived a man
approaching me with every evidence of haste. He had a letter in his
hand, which he held out to me as soon as he came within reach.

"For Miss Butterworth," he announced. "Private and immediate."

"Ah," thought I, "a communication from Mr. Gryce," and hesitated for a
moment whether to open it on the spot or to wait and read it at my
leisure on the cars. The latter course promised me less inconvenience
than the first, for my hands were cumbered with the various small
articles I consider indispensable to the comfortable enjoyment of the
shortest journey, and the glasses without which I cannot read a word,
were in the very bottom of my pocket under many other equally necessary
articles.

But something in the man's expectant look warned me that he would never
leave me till I had read the note, so with a sigh I called Lena to my
aid, and after several vain attempts to reach my glasses, succeeded at
last in pulling them out, and by their help reading the following
hurried lines:

     "DEAR MADAM:

     "I send you this by a swifter messenger than myself. Do not let
     anything that I may have said last night influence you to leave
     your comfortable home. The adventure offers too many dangers
     for a woman. Read the inclosed. G."

The inclosed was a telegram from X., sent during the night, and
evidently just received at Headquarters. Its contents were certainly not
reassuring:

     "Another person missing. Last seen in Lost Man's Lane. A
     harmless lad known as Silly Rufus. What's to be done? Wire
     orders. TROHM."

"Mr. Gryce bade me say that he would be up here some time before noon,"
said the man, seeing me look with some blankness at these words.

Nothing more was needed to restore my self-possession. Folding up the
letter, I put it in my bag.

"Say to Mr. Gryce from me that my intended visit cannot be postponed," I
replied. "I have telegraphed to my friends to expect me, and only a
great emergency would lead me to disappoint them. I will be glad to
receive Mr. Gryce on my return." And without further parley, I took my
bundles back from Lena, and proceeded at once to the carriage. Why
should I show any failure of courage at an event that was but a
repetition of the very ones which made my visit necessary? Was I a
likely person to fall victim to a mystery to which my eyes had been
opened? Had I not been sufficiently warned of the dangers of Lost Man's
Lane to keep myself at a respectable distance from the place of peril? I
was going to visit the children of my once devoted friend. If there were
perils of no ordinary nature to be encountered in so doing, was I not
all the more called upon to lend them the support of my presence?

Yes, Mr. Gryce, and nothing now should hold me back. I even felt an
increased desire to reach the scene of these mysteries, and chafed some
at the length of the journey, which was of a more tedious character than
I expected. A poor beginning for events requiring patience as well as
great moral courage; but I little knew what was before me, and only
considered that every moment spent on this hot and dusty train kept me
thus much longer from the embraces of Althea's children.

I recovered my equanimity, however, as we approached X. The scenery was
really beautiful, and the consciousness that I should soon alight at the
mountain station which had played a more or less serious part in Mr.
Gryce's narrative, awakened in me a pleasurable excitement which should
have been a sufficient warning to me that the spirit of investigation
which had led me so triumphantly through that affair next door had
seized me again in a way that meant equal absorption if not equal
success.

The number of small packages I carried gave me enough to think of at the
moment of alighting, but as soon as I was safely again on terra firma I
threw a hasty glance around to see if any of Althea's children were on
hand to meet me.

I felt that I ought to know them at first glance. Their mother had been
so characteristically pretty, she could not have failed to transmit some
of her most charming traits to her offspring. But while there were two
or three country maidens to be seen standing in and around the little
pavilion known here as the Mountain-station, I saw no one who by any
stretch of imagination could be regarded as of Althea Burroughs' blood
or breeding.

Somewhat disappointed, for I had expected different results from my
telegram, I stepped up to the station-master, and asked him whether I
would have any difficulty in procuring a carriage to take me to Miss
Knollys' house. He stared, it seemed to me, unnecessarily long, before
replying.

"Waal," said he, "Simmons is usually here, but I don't see him around
to-day. Perhaps some of these farmer lads will drive you in."

But they all drew back with a scared look, and I was beginning to tuck
up my skirts preparatory to walking, when a little old man of
exceedingly meek appearance drove up in a very old-fashioned coach, and
with a hesitating air, springing entirely from bashfulness, managed to
ask if I was Miss Butterworth. I hastened to assure him that I was that
lady, whereupon he stammered out some words about Miss Knollys, and how
sorry she was that she could not come for me herself. Then he pointed to
his coach, and made me understand that I was to step into it and go with
him.

This I had not counted upon doing, for I desired to both see and hear as
much as possible before reaching my destination. There was but one way
out of it. To his astonishment, I insisted that my belongings be put
inside the coach, while I rode on the box.

It was an inauspicious beginning to a very doubtful adventure. I
understood this when I saw the heads of the various onlookers draw
together and many curious looks directed at both us and the conveyance
that was to carry us. But I was in no mood to be daunted now, and
mounting to the box with what grace I could, prepared myself for a ride
into town.

But it seems I was not to be allowed to leave the spot without another
warning. While the old man was engaged in fetching my trunk, the
station-master approached me with great civility, and asked if it was my
intention to spend a few days with the Misses Knollys. I told him that
it was, and thinking it best to establish my position at once in the
eyes of the whole town, added with a politeness equal to his own, that I
was an old friend of the family, and had been coming to visit them for
years, but had never found it convenient till now, and that I hoped they
were all well and would be glad to see me.

His reply showed considerable embarrassment.

"Perhaps you have not heard that this village is under a cloud just
now?"

"I have heard that one or two men have disappeared from here somewhat
mysteriously," I returned. "Is that what you mean?"

"Yes, ma'am. One person, a boy, disappeared only two days ago."

"That's bad," I said. "But what has it to do with me?" I smilingly
added, for I saw that he was not at the end of his talk.

"Oh, nothing," he eagerly replied, "only I didn't know but you might be
timid----"

"Oh, I'm not at all timid," I hastened to interject. "If I were, I
should not have come here at all. Such matters don't affect me." And I
spread out my skirts and arranged myself for my ride with as much care
and precision as if the horrors he had mentioned had made no more
impression upon me than if his chat had been of the weather.

Perhaps I overdid it, for he looked at me for another moment in a
curious, lingering way; then he walked off, and I saw him enter the
circle of gossips on the platform, where he stood shaking his head as
long as we were within sight.

My companion, who was the shyest man I ever saw, did not speak a word
while we were descending the hill. I talked, and endeavored to make him
follow my example, but his replies were mere grunts or half-syllables
which conveyed no information whatever. As we cleared the thicket,
however, he allowed himself an ejaculation or two as he pointed out the
beauties of the landscape. And indeed it was well worth his admiration
and mine had my mind been free to enjoy it. But the houses, which now
began to appear on either side of the way, drew my attention from the
mountains. Though still somewhat remote from the town, we were rapidly
approaching the head of that lane of evil fame with whose awe-inspiring
history my thoughts were at this time full. I was so anxious not to pass
it without one look into its grewsome recesses that I kept my head
persistently turned that way till I felt I was attracting the attention
of my companion. As this was not desirable, I put on a nonchalant look
and began chatting about what I saw. But he had lapsed into his early
silence, and seemed wholly engrossed in his attempt to remove with the
butt-end of his whip a bit of rag which had somehow become entangled in
the spokes of one of the front wheels. The furtive look he cast me as he
succeeded in doing this struck me oddly at the moment, but it was too
small a matter to hold my attention long or to cause any cessation in
the flow of small talk with which I was endeavoring to enliven the
situation.

My desire for conversation lagged, however, as I saw rising up before us
the dark boughs of a pine thicket. We were nearing Lost Man's Lane; we
were abreast of it; we were--yes, we were turning into it!

I could not repress an exclamation of dismay.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"To Miss Knollys' house," he found words to say, with a sidelong glance
at me full of uneasy inquiry.

"Do they live on this road?" I cried, remembering with a certain shock
Mr. Gryce's suspicious description of the two young ladies who with
their brother inhabited the dilapidated mansion marked A in the map he
had shown me.

"Where else?" was his laconic answer; and, obliged to be satisfied with
this curtest of curt replies, I drew myself up with just one longing
look behind me at the cheerful highway we were so rapidly leaving. A
cottage, with an open window, in which a child's head could be seen
nodding eagerly toward me, met my eyes and filled me with quite an odd
sense of discomfort as I realized that I had caught the attention of one
of the little cripples who, according to Mr. Gryce, always kept watch
over this entrance into Lost Man's Lane. Another moment and the pine
branches had shut the vision out, but I did not soon forget that eager,
childish face and pointing hand, marking me out as a possible victim to
the horrors of this ill-reputed lane. But I was aware of no secret
flinching from the adventure into which I was plunging. On the contrary,
I felt a strange and fierce delight in thus being thrust into the very
heart of the mystery I had only expected to approach by degrees. The
warning message sent me by Mr. Gryce had acquired a deeper and more
significant meaning, as did the looks which had been cast me by the
station-master and his gossips on the hillside, but in my present mood
these very tokens of the serious nature of my undertaking only gave an
added spur to my courage. I felt my brain clear and my heart expand, as
if at this moment, before I had so much as set eyes on the faces of
these young people, I recognized the fact that they were the victims of
a web of circumstances so tragic and incomprehensible that only a woman
like myself would be able to dissipate them and restore these girls to
the confidence of the people around them.

I forgot that these girls had a brother and that--But not a word to
forestall the truth. I wish this story to grow upon you just as it did
upon me, and with just as little preparation.

The farmer who drove me, and who I afterwards learned was called
Simsbury, showed a certain dogged interest in my behavior that would
have amused me, or, at least, have awakened my disdain under
circumstances of a less thrilling nature. I saw his eye roll in a sort
of wonder over my person, which may have been held a little more stiffly
than was necessary, and settle finally on my face, with a look I might
have thought complimentary had I had any thought to bestow on such
matters. Not till we had passed the path branching up through the woods
toward the mountain did he see fit to withdraw it, nor did I fail to
find it fixed again upon me as we rode by the little hut occupied by the
old woman considered so harmless by Mr. Gryce.

Perhaps he had a reason for this, as I was very much interested in this
hut and its occupant, about whom I felt free to cherish my own secret
doubts--so interested that I cast it a very sharp glance, and was glad
when I caught a glimpse through the doorway of the old crone mumbling
over a piece of bread she was engaged in eating as we passed her.

"That's Mother Jane," explained my companion, breaking the silence of
many minutes. "And yonder is Miss Knollys' house," he added, lifting his
whip and pointing toward the half-concealed façade of a large and
pretentious dwelling a few rods farther on down the road. "She will be
powerful glad to see you, Miss. Company is scarce in these parts."

Astonished at this sudden launch into conversation by one whose reserve
I had hitherto found it impossible to penetrate, I gave him the affable
answer he evidently expected, and then looked eagerly toward the house.
It was as Mr. Gryce had intimated, exceedingly forbidding even at that
distance, and as we approached nearer and I was given a full view of its
worn and discolored front, I felt myself forced to acknowledge that
never in my life had my eyes fallen upon a habitation more given over to
neglect or less promising in its hospitality.

Had it not been for the thin circle of smoke eddying up from one of its
broken chimneys, I would have looked upon the place as one which had not
known the care or presence of man for years. There was a riot of
shrubbery in the yard, a lack of the commonest attention to order in the
way the vines drooped in tangled masses over the face of the desolate
porch, that gave to the broken pilasters and decayed window-frames of
this dreariest of façades that look of abandonment which only becomes
picturesque when nature has usurped the prerogative of man and taken
entirely to herself the empty walls and falling casements of what was
once a human dwelling. That any one should be living in it now and that
I, who have never been able to see a chair standing crooked or a curtain
awry, without a sensation of the keenest discomfort, should be on the
point of deliberately entering its doors as an inmate, filled me at the
moment with such a sense of unreality, that I descended from the
carriage in a sort of a dream and was making my way through one of the
gaps in the high antique fence that separated the yard from the gateway,
when Mr. Simsbury stopped me and pointed out the gate.

I did not think it worth while to apologize for my mistake, for the
broken palings certainly offered as good an entrance as the gate, which
had slipped from its hinges and hung but a few inches open. But I took
the course he indicated, holding up my skirts, and treading gingerly for
fear of the snails and toads that incumbered such portions of the path
as the weeds had left visible. As I proceeded on my way, something in
the silence of the spot struck me. Was I becoming over-sensitive to
impressions or was there something really uncanny in the absolute lack
of sound or movement in a dwelling of such dimensions? But I should not
have said movement, for at that instant I saw a flash in one of the
upper windows as of a curtain being stealthily drawn and as stealthily
let fall again, and though it gave me the promise of some sort of
greeting, there was a furtiveness in the action, so in keeping with the
suspicions of Mr. Gryce that I felt my nerves braced at once to mount
the half-dozen uninviting-looking steps that led to the front door.

But no sooner had I done this, with what I am fain to consider my best
air, than I suddenly collapsed with what I am bound to regard as a
comprehensible and quite excusable fear; for, while I do not quail
before men, and have a reasonable fortitude in the presence of most
dangers, corporeal and moral, I am not quite myself in face of a rampant
and barking dog. It is my one weakness, and while I usually can, and
under most circumstances do, succeed in hiding my inner trepidation
under the emergency just mentioned, I always feel that it would be a
happy relief for me if the day should ever come when these so-called
domestic animals would be banished from the affections and homes of men.
Then I think I would begin to live in good earnest and perhaps enjoy
trips into the country, which now, for all my apparent bravery, I regard
more in the light of a penance than a pleasure.

Imagine, then, how hard I found it to retain my self-possession or even
any appearance of dignity, when at the moment I was stretching forth my
hand toward the knocker of this inhospitable mansion I heard rising from
some unknown quarter a howl so keen, piercing, and prolonged that it
frightened the very birds over my head and sent them flying from the
vines in clouds.

It was the unhappiest kind of welcome for me. I did not know whether it
came from within or without, and when after a moment of indecision I saw
the door open, I am not sure whether the smile I called up to grace the
occasion had any of the real Amelia Butterworth in it, so much was my
mind divided between a desire to produce a favorable impression and a
very decided and not-to-be-hidden fear of the dog who had greeted my
arrival with such an ominous howl.

"Call off the dog!" I cried almost before I saw what sort of person I
was addressing.

Mr. Gryce, when I saw him later, declared this to be the most
significant introduction I could have made of myself upon entering the
Knollys mansion.



IV

A GHOSTLY INTERIOR


The hall into which I had stepped was so dark that for a few minutes I
could see nothing but the indistinct outline of a young woman with a
very white face. She had uttered some sort of murmur at my words, but
for some reason was strangely silent, and, if I could trust my eyes,
seemed rather to be looking back over her shoulder than into the face of
her advancing guest. This was odd, but before I could quite satisfy
myself as to the cause of her abstraction, she suddenly bethought
herself, and throwing open the door of an adjoining room, let in a
stream of light by which we were enabled to see each other and exchange
the greetings suitable to the occasion.

"Miss Butterworth, my mother's old friend," she murmured, with an almost
pitiful effort to be cordial, "we are so glad to have you visit us.
Won't you--won't you sit down?"

What did it mean? She had pointed to a chair in the sitting-room, but
her face was turned away again as if drawn irresistibly toward some
secret object of dread. Was there anyone or anything at the top of the
dim staircase I could faintly see in the distance? It would not do for
me to ask, nor was it wise for me to show that I thought this reception
a strange one. Stepping into the room she pointed out, I waited for her
to follow me, which she did with manifest reluctance. But when she was
once out of the atmosphere of the hall, or out of reach of the sight or
sound of whatever it was that frightened her, her face took on a smile
that ingratiated her with me at once and gave to her very delicate
aspect, which up to that moment had not suggested the remotest likeness
to her mother, a piquant charm and subtle fascination that were not
unworthy of the daughter of Althea Burroughs.

"You must not mind the poverty of your welcome," she said, with a
half-proud, half-apologetic look around her, which I must say the
bareness and shabby character of the room we were in fully justified.
"We have not been very well off since father died and mother left us.
Had you given us a chance we should have written you that our home would
not offer many inducements to you after your own, but you have come
unexpectedly and----"

"There, there," I put in, for I saw that her embarrassment would soon
get the better of her, "do not speak of it. I did not come to enjoy your
home, but to see you. Are you the eldest, my dear, and where are your
sister and brother?"

"I am not the eldest," she said. "I am Lucetta. My sister"--here
her head stole irresistibly back to its old position of
listening--"will--will come soon. My brother is not in the house."

"Well," said I, astonished that she did not ask me to take off my
things, "you are a pretty girl, but you do not look very strong. Are you
quite well, my dear?"

She started, looked at me eagerly, almost anxiously, for a moment, then
straightened herself and began to lose some of her abstraction.

"I am not a strong person," she smiled, "but neither am I so very weak
either. I was always small. So was my mother, you know."

I was glad to have her talk of her mother. I therefore answered her in a
way to prolong the conversation.

"Yes, your mother was small," I admitted, "but never thin or pallid. She
was like a fairy among us schoolgirls. Does it seem odd to hear so old a
woman as I speak of herself as a schoolgirl?"

"Oh, no!" she said, but there was no heart in her voice.

"I had almost forgotten those days till I happened to hear the name of
Althea mentioned the other day," I proceeded, seeing I must keep up the
conversation if we were not to sit in total silence. "Then my early
friendship with your mother recurred to me, and I started up--as I
always do when I come to any decision, my dear--and sent that telegram,
which I hope I have not followed by an unwelcome presence."

"Oh, no," she repeated, but this time with some feeling; "we need
friends, and if you will overlook our shortcomings--But you have not
taken off your hat. What will Loreen say to me?"

And with a sudden nervous action as marked as her late listlessness, she
jumped up and began busying herself over me, untying my bonnet and
laying aside my bundles, which up to this moment I had held in my hands.

"I--I am so absent-minded," she murmured. "I--I did not think--I hope
you will excuse me. Loreen would have given you a much better welcome."

"Then Loreen should have been here," I said, with a smile. I could not
restrain this slight rebuke, yet I liked the girl; notwithstanding
everything I had heard and her own odd and unaccountable behavior, there
was a sweetness in her face, when she chose to smile, that proved an
irresistible attraction. And then, for all her absent-mindedness and
abstracted ways, she was such a lady! Her plain dress, her restrained
manner, could not hide this fact. It was apparent in every line of her
thin but graceful form and in every inflection of her musical but
constrained voice. Had I seen her in my own parlor instead of between
these bare and moldering walls, I should have said the same thing: "She
is such a lady!" But this only passed through my mind at the time. I was
not studying her personality, but trying to understand why my presence
in the house had so visibly disturbed her. Was it the embarrassment of
poverty, not knowing how to meet the call made so suddenly upon it? I
hardly thought so. Fear would not enter into a sensation of this kind,
and fear was what I had seen in her face before the front door had
closed upon me. But that fear? Was it connected with me or with
something threatening her from another portion of the house?

The latter supposition seemed the probable one. The way her ear was
turned, the slight start she gave at every sound, convinced me that her
cause of dread lay elsewhere than with myself, and therefore was worthy
of my closest attention. Though I chatted and tried in every way to
arouse her confidence, I could not help asking myself between the
sentences, if the cause of her apprehension lay with her sister, her
brother, or in something entirely apart from either, and connected with
the dreadful matter which had drawn me to X. Or another supposition
still, was it merely the sign of an habitual distemper which,
misunderstood by Mr. Gryce, had given rise to the suspicions which it
was my possible mission here to dispel?

Anxious to force things a little, I remarked, with a glance at the
dismal branches that almost forced their way into the open casements:
"What a scene for young eyes like yours! Do you never get tired of these
pine-boughs and clustering shadows? Would not a little cottage in the
sunnier part of the town be preferable to all this dreary grandeur?"

She looked up with sudden wistfulness that made her smile piteous.

"Some of my happiest days have been passed here and some of my saddest.
I do not think I should like to leave it for any sunny cottage. We were
not made for bonny homes," she continued. "The sombreness of this old
house suits us."

"And of this road," I ventured. "It is the darkest and most picturesque
I ever rode through. I thought I was threading a wilderness."

For a moment she forgot her cause of anxiety and looked at me quite
intently, while a subtle shade of doubt passed slowly over her features.

"It is a solitary one," she acquiesced. "I do not wonder it struck you
as dismal. Have you heard--has any one ever told you that--that it was
not considered quite safe?"

"Safe?" I repeated, with--God forgive me!--an expression of mild wonder
in my eyes.

"Yes, it has not the best of reputations. Strange things have happened
in it. I thought that some one might have been kind enough to tell you
this at the station."

There was a gentle sort of sarcasm in the tone; only that, or so it
seemed to me at the time. I began to feel myself in a maze.

"Somebody--I suppose it was the station-master--did say something to me
about a boy lost somewhere in this portion of the woods. Do you mean
that, my dear?"

She nodded, glancing again over her shoulder and partly rising as if
moved by some instinct of flight.

"They are dark enough, for more than one person to have been lost in
their recesses," I observed with another look toward the heavily
curtained windows.

"They certainly are," she assented, reseating herself and eying me
nervously while she spoke. "We are used to the terrors they inspire in
strangers, but if you"--she leaped to her feet in manifest eagerness and
her whole face changed in a way she little realized herself--"if you
have any fear of sleeping amid such gloomy surroundings, we can procure
you a room in the village where you will be more comfortable, and where
we can visit you almost as well as we can here. Shall I do it? Shall I
call----"

My face must have assumed a very grim look, for her words tripped at
that point, and a flush, the first I had seen on her cheek, suffused her
face, giving her an appearance of great distress.

"Oh, I wish Loreen would come! I am not at all happy in my suggestions,"
she said, with a deprecatory twitch of her lip that was one of her
subtle charms. "Oh, there she is! Now I may go," she cried; and without
the least appearance of realizing that she had said anything out of
place, she rushed from the room almost before her sister had entered it.

But not before their eyes had met in a look of unusual significance.



V

A STRANGE HOUSEHOLD


Had I not surprised this look of mutual understanding, I might have
received an impression of Miss Knollys which would in a measure have
counteracted that made by the more nervous and less restrained Lucetta.
The dignified reserve of her bearing, the quiet way in which she
approached, and, above all, the even tones in which she uttered her
welcome, were such as to win my confidence and put me at my ease in the
house of which she was the nominal mistress. But that look! With that in
my memory, I was enabled to pierce below the surface of this placid
nature, and in the very constraint she put upon herself, detect the
presence of the same secret uneasiness which had been so openly, if
unconsciously, manifested by her sister.

She was more beautiful than Lucetta in form and feature, and even more
markedly elegant in her plain black gown and fine lawn ruffles, but she
lacked her sister's evanescent charm, and though admirable to all
appearance, was less lovable on a short acquaintance.

But this delays my tale, which is one of action rather than reflection.
I had naturally expected that with the appearance of the elder Miss
Knollys I should be taken to my room; but, on the contrary, she sat down
and with an apologetic air informed me that she was sorry she could not
show me the customary attentions. Circumstances over which she had no
control had made it impossible, she said, for her to offer me the
guest-chamber, but if I would be so good as to accept another for this
one night, she would endeavor to provide me with better accommodations
on the morrow.

Satisfied of the almost painful nature of their poverty and determined
to submit to privations rather than leave a house so imbued with
mystery, I hastened to assure her that any room would be acceptable to
me; and with a display of good feeling not wholly insincere, began to
gather up my wraps in anticipation of being taken at once up-stairs.

But Miss Knollys again surprised me by saying that my room was not yet
ready; that they had not been able to complete all their arrangements,
and begged me to make myself at home in the room where I was till
evening.

As this was asking a good deal of a woman of my years, fresh from a
railroad journey and with natural habits of great neatness and order, I
felt somewhat disconcerted, but hiding my feelings in consideration of
reasons before given, replaced my bundles on the table and endeavored to
make the best of a somewhat trying situation.

Launching at once into conversation, I began, as with Lucetta, to talk
about her mother. I had never known, save in the vaguest way, why Mrs.
Knollys had taken the journey which had ended in her death and burial in
a foreign land. Rumor had it that she had gone abroad for her health
which had begun to fail after the birth of Lucetta; but as Rumor had not
added why she had gone unaccompanied by her husband or children, there
remained much which these girls might willingly tell me, which would be
of the greatest interest to me. But Miss Knollys, intentionally or
unintentionally, assumed an air so cold at my well meant questions, that
I desisted from pressing them, and began to talk about myself in a way
which I hoped would establish really friendly relations between us and
make it possible for her to tell me later, if not at the present moment,
what it was that weighed so heavily upon the household, that no one
could enter this home without feeling the shadow of the secret terror
enveloping it.

But Miss Knollys, while more attentive to my remarks than her sister had
been, showed, by certain unmistakable signs, that her heart and interest
were anywhere but in that room; and while I could not regard this as
throwing any discredit upon my powers of pleasing--which have rarely
failed when I have exerted them to their utmost,--I still could not but
experience the dampening effect of her manner. I went on chatting, but
in a desultory way, noting all that was odd in her unaccountable
reception of me, but giving, as I firmly believe, no evidence of my
concern and rapidly increasing curiosity.

The peculiarities observable in this my first interview with these
interesting but by no means easily-to-be-understood sisters continued
all day. When one sister came in, the other stepped out, and when dinner
was announced and I was ushered down the bare and dismal hall into an
equally bare and unattractive dining-room, it was to find the chairs set
for four, and Lucetta only seated at the table.

"Where is Loreen?" I asked wonderingly, as I took the seat she pointed
out to me with one of her faint and quickly vanishing smiles.

"She cannot come at present," my young hostess stammered with an
unmistakable glance of distress at the large, hearty-looking woman who
had summoned me to the dining-room.

"Ah," I ejaculated, thinking that possibly Loreen had found it necessary
to assist in the preparation of the meal, "and your brother?"

It was the first time he had been mentioned since my first inquiries. I
had shrunk from the venture out of a motive of pure compassion, and they
had not seen fit to introduce his name into any of our conversations.
Consequently I awaited her response, with some anxiety, having a secret
premonition that in some way he was at the bottom of my strange
reception.

Her hasty answer, given, however, without any increase of embarrassment,
somewhat dispelled this supposition.

"Oh, he will be in presently," said she. "William is never very
punctual."

But when he did come in, I could not help seeing that her manner
instantly changed and became almost painfully anxious. Though it was my
first meeting with the real head of the house, she waited for an
interchange of looks with him before giving me the necessary
introduction, and when, this duty performed, he took his seat at the
table, her thoughts and attention remained so fixed upon him that she
well-nigh forgot the ordinary civilities of a hostess. Had it not been
for the woman I have spoken of, who in her good-natured attention to my
wants amply made up for the abstraction of her mistress, I should have
fared ill at this meal, good and ample as it was, considering the
resources of those who provided it.

She seemed to dread to have him speak, almost to have him move. She
watched him with her lips half open, ready, as it appeared, to stop any
inadvertent expression he might utter in his efforts to be agreeable.
She even kept her left hand disengaged, with the evident intention of
stretching it out in his direction if in his lumbering stupidity he
should utter a sentence calculated to open my eyes to what she so
passionately desired to have kept secret. I saw it all as plainly as I
saw his heavy indifference to her anxiety; and knowing from experience
that it is in just such stolid louts as these that the worst passions
are often hidden, I took advantage of my years and forced a conversation
in which I hoped some flash of his real self would appear, despite her
wary watch upon him.

Not liking to renew the topic of the lane itself, I asked with a very
natural show of interest, who was their nearest neighbor. It was William
who looked up and William who answered.

"Old Mother Jane is the nearest," said he; "but she's no good. We never
think of her. Mr. Trohm is the only neighbor I care for. Such peaches as
the old fellow raises! Such grapes! Such melons! He gave me two of the
nicest you ever saw this morning. By Jupiter, I taste them yet!"

Lucetta's face, which should have crimsoned with mortification, turned
most unaccountably pale. Yet not so pale as it had previously done when,
a few minutes before, he began to say, "Loreen wants some of this soup
saved for"--and stopped awkwardly, conscious perhaps that Loreen's wants
should not be mentioned before me.

"I thought you promised me that you would never again ask Mr. Trohm for
any of his fruit," remonstrated Lucetta.

"Oh, I didn't ask! I just stood at the fence and looked over. Mr. Trohm
and I are good friends. Why shouldn't I eat his fruit?"

The look she gave him might have moved a stone, but he seemed perfectly
impervious to it. Seeing him so stolid, her head drooped, and she did
not answer a word. Yet somehow I felt that even while she was so
manifestly a prey to the deepest mortification, her attention was not
wholly given over to this one emotion. There was something else she
feared. Hoping to relieve her and lighten the situation, I forced myself
to smile on the young man as I said:

"Why don't you raise melons yourself? I think if I possessed your land I
should be anxious to raise everything I could on it."

"Oh, you're a woman!" he retorted, almost roughly. "It's good business
for women; and for men, too, perhaps, who love to see fruit hang, but I
only care to eat it."

"Don't," Lucetta put in, but not with the vigor I had expected.

"I like to hunt, train dogs, and enjoy other people's fruit," he
laughed, with a nod at the blushing Lucetta. "I don't see any use in a
man's putting himself out for things he can get for the asking. Life's
too short for such folly. I mean to have a good time while I'm on this
blessed sphere."

"William!"

The cry was irresistible, yet it was not the cry I had been looking for.
Painful as was this exhibition of his stupidity and utter want of
feeling, it was not the one thing she stood in dread of, or why was her
protest so much weaker than her appearance had given token of?

"Oh!" he shouted in great amusement, while she shrunk back with a
horrified look. "Lucetta don't like to hear me say that. She thinks a
man ought to work, plow, harrow, dig, make a slave of himself, to keep
up a place that's no good anyway. But I tell her that work is something
she'll never get out of me. I was born a gentleman, and a gentleman I
will live if the place tumbles down over our heads. Perhaps it would be
the best way to get rid of it. Then I could go live with Mr. Trohm, and
have melons from early morn till late at night." And again his coarse
laugh rang out.

This, or was it his words, seemed to rouse her as nothing had done
before. Thrusting out her hand, she laid it on his mouth, with a look of
almost frenzied appeal at the woman who was standing at his back.

"Mr. William, how can you!" that woman protested; and when he would have
turned upon her angrily, she leaned over and whispered in his ear a few
words that seemed to cow him, for he gave a short grunt through his
sister's trembling fingers and, with a shrug of his heavy shoulders,
subsided into silence.

To all this I was a simple spectator, but I did not soon forget a single
feature of the scene.

The remainder of the dinner passed quietly, William and myself eating
with more or less heartiness, Lucetta tasting nothing at all. In mercy
to her I declined coffee, and as soon as William gave token of being
satisfied, we hurriedly rose. It was the most uncomfortable meal I ever
ate in my life.



VI

A SOMBRE EVENING


The evening, like the afternoon, was spent in the sitting-room with one
of the sisters. One event alone is worth recording. I had become
excessively tired of a conversation that always languished, no matter on
what topic it started, and, observing an old piano in one corner--I once
played very well--I sat down before it and impulsively struck a few
chords from the yellow keys. Instantly Lucetta--it was Lucetta who was
with me then--bounded to my side with a look of horror.

"Don't do that!" she cried, laying her hand on mine to stop me. Then,
seeing my look of dignified astonishment, she added with an appealing
smile, "I beg pardon, but every sound goes through me to-night."

"Are you not well?" I asked.

"I am never very well," she returned, and we went back to the sofa and
renewed our forced and pitiful attempts at conversation.

Promptly at nine o'clock Miss Knollys came in. She was very pale and
cast, as usual, a sad and uneasy look at her sister before she spoke to
me. Immediately Lucetta rose, and, becoming very pale herself, was
hurrying toward the door when her sister stopped her.

"You have forgotten," she said, "to say good-night to our guest."

Instantly Lucetta turned, and, with a sudden, uncontrollable impulse,
seized my hand and pressed it convulsively.

"Good-night," she cried. "I hope you will sleep well," and was gone
before I could say a word in response.

"Why does Lucetta go out of the room when you come in?" I asked,
determined to know the reason for this peculiar conduct. "Have you any
other guests in the house?"

The reply came with unexpected vehemence. "No," she cried, "why should
you think so? There is no one here but the family." And she turned away
with a dignity she must have inherited from her father, for Althea
Burroughs had every interesting quality but that. "You must be very
tired," she remarked. "If you please we will go now to your room."

I rose at once, glad of the prospect of seeing the upper portion of the
house. She took my wraps on her arm, and we passed immediately into the
hall. As we did so, I heard voices, one of them shrill and full of
distress; but the sound was so quickly smothered by a closing door that
I failed to discover whether this tone of suffering proceeded from a man
or a woman.

Miss Knollys, who was preceding me, glanced back in some alarm, but as I
gave no token of having noticed anything out of the ordinary, she
speedily resumed her way up-stairs. As the sounds I had heard proceeded
from above, I followed her with alacrity, but felt my enthusiasm
diminish somewhat when I found myself passing door after door down a
long hall to a room as remote as possible from what seemed to be the
living portion of the house.

"Is it necessary to put me off quite so far?" I asked, as my young
hostess paused and waited for me to join her on the threshold of the
most forbidding room it had ever been my fortune to enter.

The blush which mounted to her brow showed that she felt the situation
keenly.

"I am sure," she said, "that it is a matter of great regret to me to be
obliged to offer you so mean a lodging, but all our other rooms are out
of order, and I cannot accommodate you with anything better to-night."

"But isn't there some spot nearer you?" I urged. "A couch in the same
room with you would be more acceptable to me than this distant room."

"I--I hope you are not timid," she began, but I hastened to disabuse her
mind on this score.

"I am not afraid of any earthly thing but dogs," I protested warmly.
"But I do not like solitude. I came here for companionship, my dear. I
really would like to sleep with one of you."

This, to see how she would meet such urgency. She met it, as I might
have known she would, by a rebuff.

"I am very sorry," she again repeated, "but it is quite impossible. If I
could give you the comforts you are accustomed to, I should be glad, but
we are unfortunate, we girls, and--" She said no more, but began to busy
herself about the room, which held but one object that had the least
look of comfort in it. That was my trunk, which had been neatly placed
in one corner.

"I suppose you are not used to candles," she remarked, lighting what
struck me as a very short end, from the one she held in her hand.

"My dear," said I, "I can accommodate myself to much that I am not used
to. I have very few old maid's ways or notions. You shall see that I am
far from being a difficult guest."

She heaved a sigh, and then, seeing my eye travelling slowly over the
gray discolored walls which were not relieved by so much as a solitary
print, she pointed to a bell-rope near the head of the bed, and
considerately remarked:

"If you wish anything in the night, or are disturbed in any way, pull
that. It communicates with my room, and I will be only too glad to come
to you."

I glanced up at the rope, ran my eye along the wire communicating with
it, and saw that it was broken sheer off before it even entered into the
wall.

"I am afraid you will not hear me," I answered, pointing to the break.

She flushed a deep scarlet, and for a moment looked as embarrassed as
ever her sister had done.

"I did not know," she murmured. "The house is so old, everything is more
or less out of repair." And she made haste to quit the room.

I stepped after her in grim determination.

"But there is no key to the door," I objected.

She came back with a look that was as nearly desperate as her placid
features were capable of.

"I know," she said, "I know. We have nothing. But if you are not
afraid--and of what could you be afraid in this house, under our
protection, and with a good dog outside?--you will bear with things
to-night, and--Good God!" she murmured, but not so low but that my
excited sense caught every syllable, "can she have heard? Has the
reputation of this place gone abroad? Miss Butterworth," she repeated
earnestly, "the house contains no cause of terror for you. Nothing
threatens our guest, nor need you have the least concern for yourself or
us, whether the night passes in quiet or whether it is broken by
unaccountable sounds. They will have no reference to anything in which
you are interested."

"Ah, ha," thought I, "won't they! You give me credit for much
indifference, my dear." But I said nothing beyond a few soothing
phrases, which I made purposely short, seeing that every moment I
detained her was just so much unnecessary torture to her. Then I went
back to my room and carefully closed the door. My first night in this
dismal and strangely ordered house had opened anything but propitiously.



VII

THE FIRST NIGHT


I spoke with a due regard to truth when I assured Miss Knollys that I
entertained no fears at the prospect of sleeping apart from the rest of
the family. I am a woman of courage--or so I have always believed--and
at home occupy my second floor alone without the least apprehension. But
there is a difference in these two abiding-places, as I think you are
ready by this time to acknowledge, and, though I felt little of what is
called fear, I certainly did not experience my usual satisfaction in the
minute preparations with which I am accustomed to make myself
comfortable for the night. There was a gloom both within and without the
four bare walls between which I now found myself shut, which I would
have been something less than human not to feel, and though I had no
dread of being overcome by it, I was glad to add something to the cheer
of the spot by opening my trunk and taking out a few of those little
matters of personal equipment without which the brightest room looks
barren and a den like this too desolate for habitation.

Then I took a good look about me to see how I could obtain for myself
some sense of security. The bed was light and could be pulled in front
of the door. This was something. There was but one window, and that was
closely draped with some thick, dark stuff, very funereal in its
appearance. Going to it, I pulled aside the thick folds and looked out.
A mass of heavy foliage at once met my eye, obstructing the view of the
sky and adding much to the lonesomeness of the situation. I let the
curtain fall again and sat down in a chair to think.

The shortness of the candle-end with which I had been provided had
struck me as significant, so significant that I had not allowed it to
burn long after Miss Knollys had left me. If these girls, charming, no
doubt, but sly, had thought to shorten my watch by shortening my candle,
I would give them no cause to think but that their ruse had been
successful. The foresight which causes me to add a winter wrap to my
stock of clothing even when the weather is at the hottest, leads me to
place a half dozen or so of candles in my travelling trunk, and so I had
only to open a little oblong box in the upper tray to have the means at
my disposal of keeping a light all night.

So far, so good. I had a light, but had I anything else in case William
Knollys--but with this thought Miss Knollys's look and reassuring words
recurred to me. "Whatever you may hear--if you hear anything--will have
no reference to yourself and need not disturb you."

This was comforting certainly, from a selfish standpoint; but did it
relieve my mind concerning others?

Not knowing what to think of it all, and fully conscious that sleep
would not visit me under existing circumstances, I finally made up my
mind not to lie down till better assured that sleep on my part would be
desirable. So after making the various little arrangements already
alluded to, I drew over my shoulders a comfortable shawl and set myself
to listen for what I feared would be more than one dreary hour of this
not to be envied night.

And here just let me stop to mention that, carefully considered as all
my precautions were, I had forgotten one thing upon leaving home which
at this minute made me very nearly miserable. I had not included among
my effects the alcohol lamp and all the other private and particular
conveniences which I possess for making tea in my own apartment. Had I
but had them with me, and had I been able to make and sip a cup of my
own delicious tea through the ordeal of listening for whatever sounds
might come to disturb the midnight stillness of this house, what relief
it would have been to my spirits and in what a different light I might
have regarded Mr. Gryce and the mission with which I had been intrusted.
But I not only lacked this element of comfort, but the satisfaction of
thinking that it was any one's fault but my own. Lena had laid her hand
on that teapot, but I had shaken my head, fearing that the sight of it
might offend the eyes of my young hostesses. But I had not calculated
upon being put in a remote corner like this of a house large enough to
accommodate a dozen families, and if ever I travel again----

But this is a matter personal to Amelia Butterworth, and of no interest
to you. I will not inflict my little foibles upon you again.

Eleven o'clock came and went. I had heard no sound. Twelve, and I began
to think that all was not quite so still as before; that I certainly
could hear now and then faint noises as of a door creaking on its
hinges, or the smothered sound of stealthily moving feet. Yet all was so
far from being distinct, that for some time I hesitated to acknowledge
to myself that anything could be going on in the house, which was not to
be looked for in a home professing to be simply the abode of a decent
young man and two very quiet-appearing young ladies; and even after the
noises and whispering had increased to such an extent that I could even
distinguish the sullen tones of the brother from the softer and more
carefully modulated accents of Lucetta and her sister, I found myself
ready to explain the matter by any conjecture short of that which
involved these delicate young ladies in any scheme of secret wickedness.

But when I found there was likely to be no diminution in the various
noises and movements that were taking place in the front of the house,
and that only something much out of the ordinary could account for so
much disturbance in a country home so long after midnight, I decided
that only a person insensible to all sight and sound could be expected
to remain asleep under such circumstances, and that I would be perfectly
justified in their eyes in opening my door and taking a peep down the
corridor. So without further ado, I drew my bed aside and glanced out.

All was perfectly dark and silent in the great house. The only light
visible came from the candle burning in the room behind me, and as for
sound, it was almost too still--it was the stillness of intent rather
than that of natural repose.

This was so unexpected that for an instant I stood baffled and
wondering. Then my nose went up, and I laughed quietly to myself. I
could see nothing and I could hear nothing; but Amelia Butterworth, like
most of her kind, boasts of more than two senses, and happily there was
something to smell. A quickly blown-out candle leaves a witness behind
it to sensitive nostrils like mine, and this witness assured me that the
darkness was deceptive. Some one had just passed the head of my corridor
with a light, and because the light was extinguished it did not follow
that the person who held it was far away. Indeed, I thought that now I
heard a palpitating breath.

"Humph," I cried aloud, but as if in unconscious communion with myself,
"it is not often I have so vivid a dream! I was sure that I heard steps
in the hall. I fear I'm growing nervous."

Nothing moved. No one answered me.

"Miss Knollys!" I called firmly.

No reply.

"Lucetta, dear!"

I thought this appeal would go unanswered also, but when I raised my
voice for the third time, a sudden rushing sound took place down the
corridor, and Lucetta's excited figure, fully dressed, appeared in the
faint circle of light caused by my now rapidly waning candle.

"Miss Butterworth, what is the matter?" she asked, making as if she
would draw me into my room--a proceeding which I took good care she
should not succeed in.

Giving a glance at her dress, which was the same she had worn at the
supper table, I laughingly retorted:

"Isn't that a question I might better ask you? It is two o'clock by my
watch, and you, for all your apparent delicacy, are still up. What does
it mean, my dear? Have I put you out so completely by my coming that
none of you can sleep?"

Her eyes, which had fallen before mine, quickly looked up.

"I am sorry," she began, flushing and trying to take a peep into my
room, possibly to see if I had been to bed. "We did not mean to disturb
you, but--but--oh, Miss Butterworth, pray excuse our makeshifts and our
poverty. We wished to fix up another room for you, and were ashamed to
have you see how little we had to do it with, so we were moving some
things out of our own room to-night, and----"

Here her voice broke, and she burst into an almost uncontrollable flood
of tears.

"Don't," she entreated, "don't," as, quite thoroughly ashamed, I began
to utter some excuses. "I shall be all right in a moment. I am used to
humiliations. Only"--and her whole body seemed to join in the plea, it
trembled so--"do not, I pray, speak quite so loud. My brother is more
sensitive than even Loreen and myself about these things, and if he
should hear----"

Here a suppressed oath from way down the hall assured me that he did
hear, but I gave no sign of my recognition of this fact, and Lucetta
added quickly: "He would not forgive us for our carelessness in waking
you. He is rough sometimes, but so good at heart, so good."

This, with the other small matter I have just mentioned, caused a
revulsion in my feelings. He good? I did not believe it. Yet her eyes
showed no wavering when I interrogated them with mine, and feeling that
I had perhaps been doing them all an injustice, and that what I had seen
was, as she evidently meant to intimate, due to their efforts to make a
sudden guest comfortable amid their poverty, I put the best face I could
on the matter and gave the poor, pitiful, pleading face a kiss. I was
startled to feel how cold her forehead was, and, more and more
concerned, loaded her down with such assurances of appreciation as came
to my lips, and sent her back to her own room with an injunction not to
trouble herself any more about fixing up any other room for me. "Only,"
I added, as her whole face showed relief, "we will go to the locksmith
to-morrow and get a key; and after to-night you will be kind enough to
see that I have a cup of tea brought to my room just before I retire. I
am no good without my cup of tea, my dear. What keeps other people awake
makes me sleep."

"Oh, you shall have your tea!" she cried, with an eagerness that was
almost unnatural, and then, slipping from my grasp, she uttered another
hasty apology for having roused me from my sleep and ran hastily back.

I stretched out my arm for the candle guttering in my room and held it
up to light her. She seemed to shrink at sight of its rays, and the last
vision I had of her speeding figure showed me that same look of dread on
her pallid features which had aroused my interest in our first
interview.

"She may have explained why the three of them are up at this time of
night," I muttered, "but she has not explained why her every
conversation is seasoned by an expression of fear."

And thus brooding, I went back to my room and, pushing the bed again
against the door, lay down upon it and out of sheer chagrin fell fast
asleep.



VIII

ON THE STAIRS


I did not wake up till morning. The room was so dark that in all
probability I should not have wakened then, if my habits of exact
punctuality had not been aided by a gentle knock at my door.

"Who's there?" I called, for I could not say "Come in" till I had moved
my bed and made way for the door to open.

"Hannah with warm water," replied a voice, at which I made haste to
rise. Hannah was the woman who had waited on us at dinner.

The sight of her pleasant countenance, which nevertheless looked a
trifle haggard, was a welcome relief after the sombre features of the
night. Addressing her with my usual brusqueness, but with quite my usual
kindness, I asked how the young ladies were feeling this morning.

Her answer made a great show of frankness.

"Oh, they are much as usual," said she. "Miss Loreen is in the kitchen
and Miss Lucetta will soon be here to inquire how you are. I hope you
passed a good night yourself, ma'am."

I had slept more than I ought to, perhaps, and made haste to reassure
her as to my own condition. Then seeing that a little talk would not be
unwelcome to this hearty woman, tired to death possibly with life in
this dreary house, I made some excuse for keeping her a few minutes,
saying as I did so:

"What an immense dwelling this is for four persons to live in, or have
you another inmate whom I have not seen?"

I thought her buxom color showed a momentary sign of failing, but it all
came back with her answer, which was given in a round, hearty voice.

"Oh, I'm the only maid, ma'am. I cook and sweep and all. I couldn't
abide another near me. Even Mr. Simsbury, who tends the cow and horse
and who only comes in for his dinner, worries me by spells. I like to
have my own way in the kitchen, except when the young ladies choose to
come in. Is there anything more you want, ma'am, and do you prefer tea
or coffee for breakfast?"

I told her that I always drank coffee in the morning, and would have
liked to have added a question or two, but she gave me no chance. As she
went out I saw her glance at my candlestick. There was only a
half-burned end in it. She is calculating, too, how long I sat up,
thought I.

Lucetta stood at the head of the stairs as I went down.

"Will you excuse me for a few moments?" said she. "I am not quite ready
to follow you, but will be soon."

"I will take a look at the grounds."

I thought she hesitated for a moment; then her face lighted up. "Be sure
you don't encounter the dog," she cried, and slipped hastily down a side
hall I had not noticed the night before.

"Ah, a good way to keep me in," I reasoned. "But I shall see the grounds
yet if I have to poison that dog." Notwithstanding, I made no haste to
leave the house. I don't believe in tempting Providence, especially
where a dog is concerned.

Instead of that, I stood still and looked up and down the halls,
endeavoring to get some idea of their plan and of the location of my own
room in reference to the rest.

I found that the main hall ran at right angles to the long corridor down
which I had just come, and noting that the doors opening into it were of
a size and finish vastly superior to those I had passed in the corridor
just mentioned, I judged that the best bedrooms all lay front, and that
I had been quartered at the end of what had once been considered as the
servants' hall. At my right, as I looked down the stairs, ran a wall
with a break, which looked like an opening into another corridor, and
indeed I afterward learned that the long series of rooms of which mine
was the last, had its counterpart on the other side of this enormous
dwelling, giving to the house the shape of a long, square U.

I was looking in some wonderment at this opening and marvelling over the
extravagant hospitality of those old days which necessitated such a
number of rooms in a private gentleman's home, when I heard a door open
and two voices speaking. One was rough and careless, unmistakably that
of William Knollys. The other was slow and timid, and was just as
unmistakably that of the man who had driven me to this house the day
before. They were talking of some elderly person, and I had good sense
enough not to allow my indignation to blind me to the fact that by that
elderly person they meant me. This is important, for their words were
not without significance.

"How shall we keep the old girl out of the house till it is all over?"
was what I heard from William's surly lips.

"Lucetta has a plan," was the hardly distinguishable answer. "I am to
take----"

That was all I could hear; a closing door shut off the remainder.
Something, then, was going on in this house, of a dark if not mysterious
character, and the attempts made by these two interesting and devoted
girls to cover up the fact, by explanations founded on their poverty,
had been but subterfuges after all. Grieved on their account, but
inwardly grateful to the imprudence of their more than reckless brother,
for this not-to-be-mistaken glimpse into the truth, I slowly descended
the stairs, in that state of complete self-possession which is given by
a secret knowledge of the intentions formed against us by those whose
actions we have reason to suspect.

Henceforth I had but one duty--to penetrate the mystery of this
household. Whether it was the one suspected by Mr. Gryce or another of a
less evil and dangerous character hardly mattered in my eyes. While the
blight of it rested upon this family, eyes would be lowered and heads
shaken at their name. This, if I could help it, must no longer be. If
guilt lay at the bottom of all this fear, then this guilt must be known;
if innocence--I thought of the brother's lowering brow and felt it
incompatible with innocence, but remembering Mr. Gryce's remarks on this
subject, read an instant lecture to myself and, putting all conclusions
aside, devoted the few minutes in which I found myself alone in the
dining-room to a careful preparation of my mind for its duty, which was
not likely to be of the simplest character if Lucetta's keen wits were
to be pitted against mine.



IX

A NEW ACQUAINTANCE


When my mind is set free from doubt and fully settled upon any course, I
am capable of much good nature and seeming simplicity. I was therefore
able to maintain my own at the breakfast-table with some success, so
that the meal passed off without any of the disagreeable experiences of
the night before. Perhaps the fact that Loreen presided at the
coffee-urn instead of Lucetta had something to do with this. Her calm,
even looks seemed to put some restraint upon the boisterous outbursts to
which William was only too liable, while her less excitable nature
suffered less if by any chance he did break out and startle the decorous
silence by one of his rude guffaws.

I am a slow eater, but I felt forced to hurry through the meal or be
left eating alone at the end. This did not put me in the best of humor,
for I hated to risk an indigestion just when my faculties needed to be
unusually alert. I compromised by leaving the board hungry, but I did it
with such a smile that I do not think Miss Knollys knew I had not risen
from any table so ill satisfied in years.

"I will leave you to my brother for a few minutes," said she, hastily
tripping from the room. "I pray that you will not think of going to your
room till we have had an opportunity of arranging it."

I instantly made up my mind to disobey this injunction. But first, it
was necessary to see what I could make of William.

He was not a very promising subject as he turned and led the way toward
the front of the house.

"I thought you might like to see the grounds," he growled, evidently not
enjoying the rôle assigned him. "They are so attractive," he sneered.
"Children hereabout call them the jungle."

"Who's to blame for that?" I asked, with only a partial humoring of his
ill nature. "You have a sturdy pair of arms of your own, and a little
trimming here and a little trimming there would have given quite a
different appearance to this undergrowth. A gentleman usually takes
pride in his place."

"Yes, when it's all his. This belongs to my sisters as much as to me.
What's the use of my bothering myself about it?"

The man was so selfish he did not realize the extent of the exhibition
he made of it. Indeed he seemed to take pride in what he probably called
his independence. I began to feel the most intense aversion for him, and
only with the greatest difficulty could prolong this conversation
unmoved.

"I should think it would be a pleasure to give that much assistance to
your sisters. They do not seem to be sparing in their attempts to please
you."

He snapped his fingers, and I was afraid a dog or two would come leaping
around the corner of the house. But it was only his way of expressing
disdain.

"Oh, the girls are well enough," he grumbled; "but they will stick to
the place. Lucetta might have married a half-dozen times, and once I
thought she was going to, but suddenly she turned straight about and
sent her lover packing, and that made me mad beyond everything. Why
should she hang on to me like a burr when there are other folks willing
to take on the burden?"

It was the most palpable display of egotism I had ever seen and one of
the most revolting. I was so disgusted by it that I spoke up without any
too much caution.

"Perhaps she thinks she can be useful to you," I said. "I have known
sisters give up their own happiness on no better grounds."

"Useful?" he sneered. "It's a usefulness a man like me can dispense
with. Do you know what I would like?"

We were standing in one of the tangled pathways, with our faces turned
toward the house. As he spoke, he looked up and made a rude sort of
gesture toward the blank expanse of empty and curtainless windows.

"I would like that great house all to myself, to make into one huge,
bachelor's hall. I should like to feel that I could tramp from one end
of it to the other without awakening an echo I did not choose to hear
there. I should not find it too big. I should not find it too lonesome.
I and my dogs would know how to fill it, wouldn't we, Saracen? Oh, I
forgot, Saracen is locked up."

The way he mumbled the last sentence showed displeasure, but I gave
little heed to that. The gloating way in which he said he and his dogs
would fill it had given me a sort of turn. I began to have more than an
aversion for the man. He inspired me with something like terror.

"Your wishes," said I, with as little expression as possible, "seem to
leave your sisters entirely out of your calculations. How would your
mother regard that if she could see you from the place where she is
gone?"

He turned upon me with a look of anger that made his features positively
ugly.

"What do you mean by speaking to me of my mother? Have I spoken of her
to you? Is there any reason why you should lug my mother into this
conversation? If so, say so, and be----"

He did not swear at me; he did not dare to, but he came precious near to
it, and that was enough to make me recoil.

"She was my friend," said I. "I knew and loved her before you were born.
That was why I spoke of her, and I think it very natural myself."

He seemed to feel ashamed. He grumbled out some sort of apology and
looked about quite helplessly, possibly for the dog he manifestly was in
the habit of seeing forever at his heels. I took advantage of this
momentary abstraction on his part to smooth my own disturbed features.

"She was a beautiful girl," I remarked, on the principle that, the ice
once broken, one should not hesitate about jumping in. "Was your father
equally handsome for a man?"

"My father--yes, let's talk of father. He was a judge of horses, he was.
When he died, there were three mares in the stable not to be beat this
side of Albany, but those devils of executors sold them, and I--well,
you had a chance to test the speed of old Bess yesterday. You weren't
afraid of being thrown out, I take it. Great Scott, to think of a man of
my tastes owning no other horse than that!"

"You have not answered my question," I suggested, turning him about and
moving toward the gate.

"Oh, about the way my father looked! What does that matter? He was
handsome, though. Folks say that I get whatever good looks I have from
him. He was big--bigger than I am, and while he lived--What did you make
a fellow talk for?"

I don't know why I did, but I was certainly astonished at the result.
This great, huge lump of selfish clay had actually shown feeling and was
ashamed of it, like the lout he was.

"Yesterday," said I, anxious to change the subject, "I had difficulty in
getting in through that gate we are pointing for. Couldn't you set it
straight, with just a little effort?"

He paused, looked at me to see if I were in earnest, then took a dogged
step toward the gate I was still indicating with my resolute right hand,
but before he could touch it he perceived something on that deserted and
ominous highway which made him start in sudden surprise.

"Why, Trohm," he cried, "is that you? Well, it's an age since I have
seen you turn that corner on a visit to us."

"Sometime, certainly," answered a hearty and pleasant voice, and before
I could quite drop the look of severity with which I was endeavoring to
shame this young man into some decent show of interest in this place,
and assume the more becoming aspect of a lady caught unawares at an
early morning hour plucking flowers from a stunted syringa, a gentleman
stepped into sight on the other side of the fence with a look and a bow
so genial and devoid of mystery that I experienced for the first time
since entering the gloomy precincts of this town a decided sensation of
pleasure.

"Miss Butterworth," explained Mr. Knollys with a somewhat forced gesture
in my direction. "A guest of my sisters," he went on, and looked as if
he hoped I would retire, though he made no motion to welcome Mr. Trohm
in, but rather leaned a little conspicuously on the gate as if anxious
to show that he had no idea that the other's intention went any further
than the passing of a few neighborly comments at the gate.

I like to please the young even when they are no more agreeable than my
surly host, and if the gentleman who had just shown himself had been
equally immature, I would certainly have left them to have their talk
out undisturbed. But he was not. He was older; he was even of sufficient
years for his judgment to have become thoroughly matured and his every
faculty developed. I therefore could not see why my society should be
considered an intrusion by him, so I waited. His next sentence was
addressed to me.

"I am happy," said he, "to have the pleasure of a personal introduction
to Miss Butterworth. I did not expect it. The surprise is all the more
agreeable. I only anticipated being allowed to leave this package and
letter with the maid. They are addressed to you, madam, and were left at
my house by mistake."

I could not hide my astonishment.

"I live in the next house below," said he. "The boy who brought these
from the post office was a stupid lad, and I could not induce him to
come any farther up the road. I hope you will excuse the present
messenger and believe there has been no delay."

I bowed with what must have seemed an abstracted politeness. The letter
was from New York, and, as I strongly suspected, from Mr. Gryce. Somehow
this fact created in me an unmistakable embarrassment. I put both letter
and package into my pocket and endeavored to meet the gentleman's eye
with my accustomed ease in the presence of strangers. But, strange to
say, I had no sooner done so than I saw that he was no more at his ease
than myself. He smiled, glanced at William, made an offhand remark or so
about the weather, but he could not deceive eyes sharpened by such
experience as mine. Something disturbed him, something connected with
me. It made my cheek a little hot to acknowledge this even to myself,
but it was so very evident that I began to cast about for the means of
ridding ourselves of William when that blundering youth suddenly spoke:

"I suppose he was afraid to come up the lane. Do you know, I think
you're brave to attempt it, Trohm. We haven't a very good name here."
And with a sudden, perfectly unnatural burst, he broke out into one of
his huge guffaws that so shook the old gate on which he was leaning that
I thought it would tumble down with him before our eyes.

I saw Mr. Trohm start and cast him a look in which I seemed to detect
both surprise and horror, before he turned to me and with an air of
polite deprecation anxiously said:

"I am afraid Miss Butterworth will not understand your allusions, Mr.
Knollys. I hear this is her first visit in town."

As his manner showed even more feeling than the occasion seemed to
warrant, I made haste to answer that I was well acquainted with the
tradition of the lane; that its name alone showed what had happened
here.

His bearing betrayed an instant relief.

"I am glad to find you so well informed," said he. "I was afraid"--here
he cast another very strange glance at William--"that your young friends
might have shrunk, from some sense of delicacy, from telling you what
might frighten most guests from a lonely road like this. I compliment
you upon their thoughtfulness."

William bowed as if the words of the other contained no other suggestion
than that which was openly apparent. Was he so dull, or was he--I had
not time to finish my conjectures even in my own mind, for at this
moment a quick cry rose behind us, and Lucetta's light figure appeared
running toward us with every indication of excitement.

"Ah," murmured Mr. Trohm, with an appearance of great respect, "your
sister, Mr. Knollys. I had better be moving on. Good-morning, Miss
Butterworth. I am sorry that circumstances make it impossible for me to
offer you those civilities which you might reasonably expect from so
near a neighbor. Miss Lucetta and I are at swords' points over a matter
upon which I still insist she is to blame. See how shocked she is to see
me even standing at her gate."

Shocked! I would have said terrified. Nothing but fear--her old fear
aggravated to a point that made all attempt at concealment
impossible--could account for her white, drawn features and trembling
form. She looked as if her whole thought was, "Have I come in time?"

"What--what has procured us the honor of this visit?" she asked, moving
up beside William as if she would add her slight frame to his bulky one
to keep this intruder out.

"Nothing that need alarm you," said the other with a suggestive note in
his kind and mellow voice. "I was rather unexpectedly intrusted this
morning with a letter for your agreeable guest here, and I have merely
come to deliver it."

Her look of astonishment passing from him to me, I thrust my hand into
my pocket and drew out the letter which I had just received.

"From home," said I, without properly considering that this was in some
measure an untruth.

"Oh!" she murmured as if but half convinced. "William could have gone
for it," she added, still eying Mr. Trohm with a pitiful anxiety.

"I was only too happy," said the other, with a low and reassuring bow.
Then, as if he saw that her distress would only be relieved by his
departure, he raised his hat and stepped back into the open highway. "I
will not intrude again, Miss Knollys," were his parting words. "If you
want anything of Obadiah Trohm, you know where to find him. His doors
will always be open to you."

Lucetta, with a start, laid her hand on her brother's arm as if to
restrain the words she saw slowly laboring to his lips, and leaning
breathlessly forward, watched the fine figure of this perfect country
gentleman till it had withdrawn quite out of sight. Then she turned, and
with a quick abandonment of all self-control, cried out with a pitiful
gesture toward her brother, "I thought all was over; I feared he meant
to come into the house," and fell stark and seemingly lifeless at our
feet.



X

SECRET INSTRUCTIONS


For a moment William and myself stood looking at each other over this
frail and prostrate figure. Then he stooped, and with an unexpected show
of kindness raised her up and began carrying her toward the house.

"Lucetta is a fool," he cried suddenly, stopping and giving me a quick
glance over his shoulder. "Because folks are terrified of this road and
come to see us but seldom, she has got to feel a most unreasonable dread
of visitors. She was even set against your coming till we showed her
what folly it was for her to think we could always live here like
hermits. Then she doesn't like Mr. Trohm; thinks he is altogether too
friendly to me--as if that was any of her business. Am I an idiot? Have
I no sense? Cannot I be trusted to take care of my own affairs and keep
my own secrets? She's a weak, silly chit, to go and flop over like this
when, d--n it, we have enough to look after without nursing her up
and--I mean," he said, tripping himself up with an air of polite
consideration so out of keeping with his usual churlishness as to be
more than noticeable, "that it cannot add much to the pleasure of your
visit to have such things happen as this."

"Oh, don't worry about me!" I curtly responded. "Get the poor girl in.
I'll look after her."

But as if she heard these words and was startled by them, Lucetta roused
in her brother's arms and struggled passionately to her feet. "Oh! what
has happened to me?" she cried. "Have I said anything? William, have I
said anything?" she asked wildly, clinging to her brother in terror.

He gave her a look and pushed her off.

"What are you talking about?" he cried. "One would think you had
something to conceal."

She steadied herself up in an instant.

"I am the weakest of the family," said she, walking straight up to me
and taking me affectionately by the arm. "All my life I have been
delicate and these turns are nothing new to me. Sometimes I think I will
die in one of them; but I am quite restored now," she hastily added, as
I could not help showing my concern. "See! I can walk quite alone." And
she ran, rather than walked, up the few short steps of the porch, at
which we had now arrived. "Don't tell Loreen," she begged, as I followed
her into the house. "She worries so about me, and it will do no good."

William had stalked off toward the stables. We were therefore alone. I
turned and laid a finger on her arm.

"My dear," said I, "I never make foolish promises, but I can be trusted
never to heedlessly slight any one's wishes. If I see no good reason why
I should tell your sister of this fainting fit, I shall certainly hold
my peace."

She seemed moved by my manner, if not by my words.

"Oh," she cried, seizing my hand and pressing it. "If I dared to tell
you of my troubles! But it is impossible, quite impossible." And before
I could urge a plea for her confidence she was gone, leaving me in the
company of Hannah, who at this moment was busying herself with something
at the other end of the hall.

I had no wish to interfere with Hannah just then. I had my letter to
read, and did not wish to be disturbed. So I slipped into the
sitting-room and carefully closed the door. Then I opened my letter.

It was, as I supposed, from Mr. Gryce, and ran thus:

     "DEAR MISS BUTTERWORTH:

     "I am astonished at your determination, but since your desire
     to visit your friends is such as to lead you to brave the
     dangers of Lost Man's Lane, allow me to suggest certain
     precautions.

     "First.--Do not trust anybody.

     "Second.--Do not proceed anywhere alone or on foot.

     "Third.--If danger comes to you, and you find yourself in a
     condition of real peril, blow once shrilly on the whistle I
     inclose with this. If, however, the danger is slight, or you
     wish merely to call the attention of those who will be set to
     watch over you, let the blast be short, sharp, and
     repeated--twice to summon assistance, three times to call
     attention.

     "I advise you to fasten this whistle about your neck in a way
     to make it easily obtainable.

     "I have advised you to trust nobody. I should have excepted Mr.
     Trohm, but I do not think you will be given an opportunity to
     speak to him. Remember that all depends upon your not awakening
     suspicion. If, however, you wish advice or desire to make any
     communication to me or the man secretly holding charge over
     this affair in X., seek the first opportunity of riding into
     town and go at once to the hotel where you will ask for Room 3.
     It has been retained in your service, and once shown into it,
     you, may expect a visitor who will be the man you seek.

     "As you will see, every confidence is put in your judgment."

There was no signature to this--it needed none--and in the packet which
came with it was the whistle. I was glad to see it, and glad to hear
that I was not left entirely without protection in my somewhat hazardous
enterprise.

The events of the morning had been so unexpected that till this moment I
had forgotten my early determination to go to my room before any change
there could be made. Recalling it now, I started for the staircase, and
did not stop though I heard Hannah calling me back. The consequence was
that I ran full tilt against Miss Knollys coming down the hall with a
tray in her hand.

"Ah," I cried; "some one sick in the house?"

The attack was too sudden. I saw her recoil and for one instant hesitate
before replying. Then her natural self-possession came to her aid, and
she placidly remarked:

"We were all up to a late hour last night, as you know. It was necessary
for us to have some food."

I accepted the explanation and made no further remark, but as in passing
her I had detected on this tray of food supposed to have been sent up
the night before, the half-eaten portion of a certain dish we had had
for breakfast, I reserved to myself the privilege of doubting her exact
truthfulness. To me the sight of this partially consumed breakfast was
proof positive of there being in the house some person of whose presence
I was supposed to be ignorant--not a pleasant thought under the
circumstances, but quite an important fact to have established. I felt
that in this one discovery I had clutched the thread that would yet lead
me out of the labyrinth of this mystery.

Miss Knollys, who was on her way down-stairs, called Hannah to take the
tray, and, coming back, beckoned me toward a door opening into one of
the front rooms.

"This is to be your room," she announced, "but I do not know that I can
move you to-day."

She was so calm, so perfectly mistress of herself, that I could not but
admire her. Lucetta would have flushed and fidgeted, but Loreen stood as
erect and placid as if no trouble weighed upon her heart and the words
were as unimportant in their character as they seemed.

"Do not distress yourself," said I. "I told Lucetta last night that I
was perfectly comfortable and had no wish to change my quarters. I am
sorry you should have thought it necessary to disturb yourself on my
account last night. Don't do it again, I pray. A woman like myself had
rather put herself to some slight inconvenience than move.

"I am much obliged to you," said she, and came at once from the door. I
don't know but after all I like Lucetta's fidgety ways better than
Loreen's unmovable self-possession.

"Shall I order the coach for you?" she suddenly asked, as I turned
toward the corridor leading to my room.

"The coach?" I repeated.

"I thought that perhaps you might like to ride into town. Mr. Simsbury
is at leisure this morning. I regret that neither Lucetta nor myself
will be able to accompany you."

I thought what this same Mr. Simsbury had said about Lucetta's plan, and
hesitated. It was evidently their wish to have me spend my morning
elsewhere than with them. Should I humor them, or find excuses for
remaining home? Either course had its difficulties. If I went, what
might not take place in my absence! If I remained, what suspicions might
I not rouse! I decided to compromise matters, and start for town even if
I did not go there.

"I am hesitating," said I, "because of the two or three rather
threatening-looking clouds toward the east. But if you are sure Mr.
Simsbury can be spared, I think I will risk it. I really would like to
get a key for my door; and then riding in the country is so pleasant."

Miss Knollys, with a bow, passed immediately down-stairs. I went in a
state of some doubt toward my own room. "Am I surveying these
occurrences through highly magnifying glasses?" thought I. It was very
possible, yet not so possible but that I cast very curious glances at
the various closed doors I had to pass before reaching my own. Such a
little thing would make me feel like trying them. Such a little
thing--that is, added to the other things which had struck me as
unexplainable.

I found my bed made and everything in apple-pie order. I had therefore
nothing to do but to prepare for going out. This I did quickly, and was
down-stairs sooner perhaps than I was expected. At all events Lucetta
and William parted very suddenly when they saw me, she in tears and he
with a dogged shrug and some such word as this:

"You're a fool to take on so. Since it's got to be, the sooner the
better, I say. Don't you see that every minute makes less our chances of
concealment?"

It made me feel like changing my mind and staying home. But the habit of
a lifetime is not easily broken into. I kept to my first decision.



XI

MEN, WOMEN, AND GHOSTS


Mr. Simsbury gave me quite an amiable bow as I entered the buggy. This
made it easy for me to say:

"You are on hand early this morning. Do you sleep in the Knollys house?"

The stare he gave me had the least bit of suspicion in it.

"I live over yonder," he said, pointing with his whip across the
intervening woods to the main road. "I come through the marshes to my
breakfast; my old woman says they owes me three meals, and three meals I
must have."

It was the longest sentence with which he had honored me. Finding him in
a talkative mood, I prepared to make myself agreeable, a proceeding
which he seemed to appreciate, for he began to sniff and pay great
attention to his horse, which he was elaborately turning about.

"Why do you go that way?" I protested. "Isn't it the longest way to the
village?"

"It's the way I'm most accustomed to," said he. "But we can go the other
way if you like. Perhaps we will get a glimpse of Deacon Spear. He's a
widower, you know."

The leer with which he said this was intolerable. I bridled up--but no,
I will not admit that I so much as manifested by my manner that I
understood him. I merely expressed my wish to go the old way.

He whipped up the horse at once, almost laughing outright. I began to
think this man capable of most any wicked deed. He was forced, however,
to pull up suddenly. Directly in our path was the stooping figure of a
woman. She did not move as we advanced, and so we had no alternative but
to stop. Not till the horse's head touched her shoulder did she move.
Then she rose up and looked at us somewhat indignantly.

"Didn't you hear us?" I asked, willing to open conversation with the old
crone, whom I had no difficulty in recognizing as Mother Jane.

"She's deaf--deaf, as a post," muttered Mr. Simsbury. "No use shouting
at her." His tone was brusque, yet I noticed he waited with great
patience for her to hobble out of the way.

Meanwhile I was watching the old creature with much interest. She had
not a common face or a common manner. She was gray, she was toothless,
she was haggard, and she was bent, but she was not ordinary or just one
of the crowd of old women to be seen on country doorsteps. There was
force in her aged movements and a strong individuality in the glances
she shot at us as she backed slowly out of the roadway.

"Do they say she is imbecile?" I asked. "She looks far from foolish to
me."

"Hearken a bit," said he. "Don't you see she is muttering? She talks to
herself all the time." And in fact her lips were moving.

"I cannot hear her," I said. "Make her come nearer. Somehow the old
creature interests me."

He at once beckoned to the crone; but he might as well have beckoned to
the tree against which she had pushed herself. She neither answered him
nor gave any indication that she understood the gesture he had made. Yet
her eyes never moved from our faces.

"Well, well," said I, "she seems dull as well as deaf. You had better
drive on." But before he could give the necessary jerk of the reins, I
caught sight of some pennyroyal growing about the front of the cottage a
few steps beyond, and, pointing to it with some eagerness, I cried: "If
there isn't some of the very herb I want to take home with me! Do you
think she would give me a handful of it if I paid her?"

With an obliging grunt he again pulled up. "If you can make her
understand," said he.

I thought it worth the effort. Though Mr. Gryce had been at pains to
tell me there was no harm in this woman and that I need not even
consider her in any inquiries I might be called upon to make, I
remembered that Mr. Gryce had sometimes made mistakes in just such
matters as these, and that Amelia Butterworth had then felt herself
called upon to set him right. If that could happen once, why not twice?
At all events, I was not going to lose the least chance of making the
acquaintance of the people living in this lane. Had he not himself said
that only in this way could we hope to come upon the clue that had
eluded all open efforts to find it?

Knowing that the sight of money is the strongest appeal that can be made
to one living in such abject poverty as this woman, making the blind to
see and the deaf to hear, I drew out my purse and held up before her a
piece of silver. She bounded as if she had been shot, and when I held it
toward her came greedily forward and stood close beside the wheels
looking up.

"For you," I indicated, after making a motion toward the plant which had
attracted my attention.

She glanced from me to the herb and nodded with quick appreciation. As
in a flash she seemed to take in the fact that I was a stranger, a city
lady with memories of the country and this humble plant, and hurrying to
it with the same swiftness she had displayed in advancing to the
carriage, she tore off several of the sprays and brought them back to
me, holding out her hand for the money.

I had never seen greater eagerness, and I think even Mr. Simsbury was
astonished at this proof of her poverty or her greed. I was inclined to
think it the latter, for her portly figure was far from looking either
ill-fed or poorly cared for. Her dress was of decent calico, and her
pipe had evidently been lately filled, for I could smell the odor of
tobacco about her. Indeed, as I afterward heard, the good people of X.
had never allowed her to suffer. Yet her fingers closed upon that coin
as if in it she grasped the salvation of her life, and into her eyes
leaped a light that made her look almost young, though she must have
been fully eighty.

"What do you suppose she will do with that?" I asked Mr. Simsbury, as
she turned away in an evident fear I might repent of my bargain.

"Hark!" was his brief response. "She is talking now."

I did hearken, and heard these words fall from her quickly moving lips:

"Seventy; twenty-eight; and now ten."

Jargon; for I had given her twenty-five cents, an amount quite different
from any she had mentioned.

"Seventy!" She was repeating the figures again, this time in a tone of
almost frenzied elation. "Seventy; twenty-eight; and now ten! Won't
Lizzie be surprised! Seventy; twenty--" I heard no more--she had bounded
into her cottage and shut the door.

"Waal, what do you think of her now?" chuckled Mr. Simsbury, touching up
his horse. "She's always like that, saying over numbers, and muttering
about Lizzie. Lizzie was her daughter. Forty years ago she ran off with
a man from Boston, and for thirty-eight years she's been lying in a
Massachusetts grave. But her mother still thinks she is alive and is
coming back. Nothing will ever make her think different. But she's
harmless, perfectly harmless. You needn't be afeard of her."

This, because I cast a look behind me of more than ordinary curiosity, I
suppose. Why were they all so sure she was harmless? I had thought her
expression a little alarming at times, especially when she took the
money from my hand. If I had refused it or even held it back a little, I
think she would have fallen upon me tooth and nail. I wished I could
take a peep into her cottage. Mr. Gryce had described it as four walls
and nothing more, and indeed it was small and of the humblest
proportions; but the fluttering of some half-dozen pigeons about its
eaves proved it to be a home and, as such, of interest to me, who am
often able to read character from a person's habitual surroundings.

There was no yard attached to this simple building, only a small open
place in front in which a few of the commonest vegetables grew, such as
turnips, carrots, and onions. Elsewhere towered the forest--the great
pine forest through which this portion of the road ran.

Mr. Simsbury had been so talkative up to now that I was in hope he would
enter into some details about the persons and things we encountered,
which might assist me in the acquaintanceship I was anxious to make. But
his loquaciousness ended with this small adventure I have just
described. Not till we were well quit of the pines and had entered into
the main thoroughfare did he deign to respond to any of my suggestions,
and then it was in a manner totally unsatisfactory and quite
uncommunicative. The only time he deigned to offer a remark was when we
emerged from the forest and came upon the little crippled child, looking
from its window. Then he cried:

"Why, how's this? That's Sue you see there, and her time isn't till
arternoon. Rob allers sits there of a mornin'. I wonder if the little
chap's sick. S'pose I ask."

As this was just what I would have suggested if he had given me time, I
nodded complacently, and we drove up and stopped.

The piping voice of the child at once spoke up:

"How d' ye do, Mr. Simsbury? Ma's in the kitchen. Rob isn't feelin' good
to-day."

I thought her tone had a touch of mysteriousness in it. I greeted the
pale little thing, and asked if Rob was often sick.

"Never," she answered, "except, like me, he can't walk. But I'm not to
talk about it, ma says. I'd like to, but----"

Ma's face appearing at this moment over her shoulder put an end to her
innocent garrulity.

"How d' ye do, Mr. Simsbury?" came a second time from the window, but
this time in very different tones. "What's the child been saying? She's
so sot up at being allowed to take her brother's place in the winder
that she don't know how to keep her tongue still. Rob's a little
languid, that's all. You'll see him in his old place to-morrow." And she
drew back as if in polite intimation that we might drive on.

Mr. Simsbury responded to the suggestion, and in another moment we were
trotting down the road. Had we stayed a minute longer, I think the child
would have said something more or less interesting to hear.

The horse, which had brought us thus far at a pretty sharp trot, now
began to lag, which so attracted Mr. Simsbury's attention, that he
forgot to answer even by a grunt more than half of my questions. He
spent most of his time looking at the nag's hind feet, and finally, just
as we came in sight of the stores, he found his tongue sufficiently to
announce that the horse was casting a shoe and that he would be obliged
to go to the blacksmith's with her.

"Humph, and how long will that take?" I asked.

He hesitated so long, rubbing his nose with his finger, that I grew
suspicious and cast a glance at the horse's foot myself. The shoe was
loose. I began to hear it clang.

"Waal, it may be a matter of a couple of hours," he finally drawled. "We
have no blacksmith in town, and the ride up there is two miles. Sorry it
happened, ma'am, but there's all sorts of shops here, you see, and I've
allers heard that a woman can easily spend two hours haggling away in
shops."

I glanced at the two ill-furnished windows he pointed out, thought of
Arnold & Constable's, Tiffany's, and the other New York establishments I
had been in the habit of visiting, and suppressed my disdain. Either the
man was a fool or he was acting a part in the interests of Lucetta and
her family. I rather inclined to the latter supposition. If the plan was
to keep me out most of the morning why could that shoe not have been
loosened before the mare left the stable?

"I made all necessary purchases while in New York," said I, "but if you
must get the horse shod, why, take her off and do it. I suppose there is
a hotel parlor near here where I can sit."

"Oh, yes," and he made haste to point out to me where the hotel stood.
"And it's a very nice place, ma'am. Mrs. Carter, the landlady, is the
nicest sort of person. Only you won't try to go home, ma'am, on foot?
You'll wait till I come back for you?"

"It isn't likely I'll go streaking through Lost Man's Lane alone," I
exclaimed indignantly. "I'd rather sit in Mrs. Carter's parlor till
night."

"And I would advise you to," he said. "No use making gossip for the
village folks. They have enough to talk about as it is."

Not exactly seeing the force of this reasoning, but quite willing to be
left to my own devices for a little while, I pointed to a locksmith's
shop I saw near by, and bade him put me down there.

With a sniff I declined to interpret into a token of disapproval, he
drove me up to the shop and awkwardly assisted me to alight.

"Trunk key missing?" he ventured to inquire before getting back into his
seat.

I did not think it necessary to reply, but walked immediately into the
shop. He looked dissatisfied at this, but whatever his feelings were he
refrained from any expression of them, and presently mounted to his
place and drove off. I was left confronting the decent man who
represented the lock-fitting interests in X.

I found some difficulty in broaching my errand. Finally I said:

"Miss Knollys, who lives up the road, wishes a key fitted to one of her
doors. Will you come or send a man to her house to-day? She is too
occupied to see about it herself."

The man must have been struck by my appearance, for he stared at me
quite curiously for a minute. Then he gave a hem and a haw and said:

"Certainly. What kind of a door is it?" When I had answered, he gave me
another curious glance and seemed uneasy to step back to where his
assistant was working with a file.

"You will be sure to come in time to have the lock fitted before night?"
I said in that peremptory manner of mine which means simply, "I keep my
promises and expect you to keep yours."

His "Certainly" struck me as a little weaker this time, possibly because
his curiosity was excited. "Are you the lady from New York who is
staying with them?" he asked, stepping back, seemingly quite unawed by
my positive demeanor.

"Yes," said I, thawing a trifle; "I am Miss Butterworth."

He looked at me almost as if I were a curiosity.

"And did you sleep there last night?" he urged.

I thought it best to thaw still more.

"Of course," I said. "Where do you think I would sleep? The young ladies
are friends of mine."

He rapped abstractedly on the counter with a small key he was holding.

"Excuse me," said he, with some remembrance of my position toward him as
a stranger, "but weren't you afraid?"

"Afraid?" I echoed. "Afraid in Miss Knollys' house?"

"Why, then, do you want a key to your door?" he asked, with a slight
appearance of excitement. "We don't lock doors here in the village; at
least we didn't."

"I did not say it was my door," I began, but, feeling that this was a
prevarication not only unworthy of me, but one that he was entirely too
sharp to accept, I added stiffly: "It is for my door. I am not
accustomed even at home to sleep with my room unlocked."

"Oh," he murmured, totally unconvinced, "I thought you might have got a
scare. Folks somehow are afraid of that old place, it's so big and
ghost-like. I don't think you would find any one in this village who
would sleep there all night."

"A pleasing preparation for my rest to-night," I grimly laughed.
"Dangers on the road and ghosts in the house. Happily I don't believe in
the latter."

The gesture he made showed incredulity. He had ceased rapping with the
key or even to show any wish to join his assistant. All his thoughts for
the moment seemed to be concentrated on me.

"You don't know little Rob," he inquired, "the crippled lad who lives at
the head of the lane?"

"No," I said; "I haven't been in town a day yet, but I mean to know Rob
and his sister too. Two cripples in one family rouse my interest."

He did not say why he had spoken of the child, but began tapping with
his key again.

"And you are sure you saw nothing?" he whispered. "Lots of things can
happen in a lonely road like that."

"Not if everybody is as afraid to enter it as you say your villagers
are," I retorted.

But he didn't yield a jot.

"Some folks don't mind present dangers," said he. "Spirits----"

But he received no encouragement in his return to this topic. "You don't
believe in spirits?" said he. "Well, they are doubtful sort of folks,
but when honest and respectable people such as live in this town, when
children even, see what answers to nothing but phantoms, then I remember
what a wiser man than any of us once said----But perhaps you don't read
Shakespeare, madam?"

Nonplussed for the moment, but interested in the man's talk more than
was consistent with my need of haste, I said with some spirit, for it
struck me as very ridiculous that this country mechanic should question
my knowledge of the greatest dramatist of all time, "Shakespeare and the
Bible form the staple of my reading." At which he gave me a little nod
of apology and hastened to say:

"Then you know what I mean--Hamlet's remark to Horatio, madam, 'There
are more things,' etc. Your memory will readily supply you with the
words."

I signified my satisfaction and perfect comprehension of his meaning,
and, feeling that something important lay behind his words, I endeavored
to make him speak more explicitly.

"The Misses Knollys show no terror of their home," I observed. "They
cannot believe in spirits either."

"Miss Knollys is a woman of a great deal of character," said he. "But
look at Lucetta. There is a face for you, for a girl not yet out of her
twenties; and such a round-cheeked lass as she was once! Now what has
made the change? The sights and sounds of that old house, I say. Nothing
else would give her that scared look--nothing merely mortal, I mean."

This was going a step too far. I could not discuss Lucetta with this
stranger, anxious as I was to hear what he had to say about her.

"I don't know," I remonstrated, taking up my black satin bag, without
which I never stir. "One would think the terrors of the lane she lives
in might account for some appearance of fear on her part."

"So it might," he assented, but with no great heartiness. "But Lucetta
has never spoken of those dangers. The people in the lane do not seem to
fear them. Even Deacon Spear says that, set aside the wickedness of the
thing, he rather enjoys the quiet which the ill repute of the lane gives
him. I don't understand this indifference myself. I have no relish for
horrible mysteries or for ghosts either."

"You won't forget the key?" I suggested shortly, preparing to walk out,
in my dread lest he should again introduce the subject of Lucetta.

"No," said he, "I won't forget it." His tone should have warned me that
I need not expect to have a locked door that night.



XII

THE PHANTOM COACH


Ghosts! What could the fellow have meant? If I had pressed him he would
have told me, but it did not seem quite a lady's business to pick up
information in this way, especially when it involved a young lady like
Lucetta. Yet did I think I would ever come to the end of this matter
without involving Lucetta? No. Why, then, did I allow my instincts to
triumph over my judgment? Let those answer who understand the workings
of the human heart. I am simply stating facts.

Ghosts! Somehow the word startled me as if in some way it gave a rather
unwelcome confirmation to my doubts. Apparitions seen in the Knollys
mansion or in any of the houses bordering on this lane! That was a
serious charge; how serious seemed to be but half comprehended by this
man. But I comprehended it to the full, and wondered if it was on
account of such gossip as this that Mr. Gryce had persuaded me to enter
Miss Knollys' house as a guest.

I was crossing the street to the hotel as I indulged in these
conjectures, and intent as my mind was upon them, I could not but note
the curiosity and interest which my presence excited in the simple
country folk invariably to be found lounging about a country tavern.
Indeed, the whole neighborhood seemed agog, and though I would have
thought it derogatory to my dignity to notice the fact, I could not but
see how many faces were peering at me from store doors and the
half-closed blinds of adjoining cottages. No young girl in the pride of
her beauty could have awakened more interest, and this I attributed, as
was no doubt right, not to my appearance, which would not perhaps be apt
to strike these simple villagers as remarkable, or to my dress, which is
rather rich than fashionable, but to the fact that I was a stranger in
town, and, what was more extraordinary, a guest of the Misses Knollys.

My intention in approaching the hotel was not to spend a couple of
dreary hours in the parlor with Mrs. Carter, as Mr. Simsbury had
suggested, but to obtain if possible a conveyance to carry me
immediately back to the Knollys mansion. But this, which would have been
a simple matter in most towns, seemed well-nigh an impossibility in X.
The landlord was away, and Mrs. Carter, who was very frank with me, told
me it would be perfectly useless to ask one of the men to drive me
through the lane. "It's an unwholesome spot," said she, "and only Mr.
Carter and the police have the courage to brave it."

I suggested that I was willing to pay well, but it seemed to make very
little difference to her. "Money won't hire them," said she, and I had
the satisfaction of knowing that Lucetta had triumphed in her plan, and
that, after all, I must sit out the morning in the precincts of the
hotel parlor with Mrs. Carter.

It was my first signal defeat, but I was determined to make the best of
it, and if possible glean such knowledge from the talk of this woman as
would make me feel that I had lost nothing by my disappointment. She was
only too ready to talk, and the first topic was little Rob.

I saw the moment I mentioned his name that I was introducing a subject
which had already been well talked over by every eager gossip in the
village.

Her attitude of importance, the air of mystery she assumed, were
preparations I had long been accustomed to in women of this kind, and I
was not at all surprised when she announced in a way that admitted of no
dispute:

"Oh, there's no wonder the child is sick. We would be sick under the
circumstances. _He has seen the phantom coach._"

The phantom coach! So that was what the locksmith meant. A phantom
coach! I had heard of every kind of phantom but that. Somehow the idea
was a thrilling one, or would have been to a nature less practical than
mine.

"I don't know what you mean," said I. "Some superstition of the place? I
never heard of a ghostly appearance of that nature before."

"No, I expect not. It belongs to X. I never heard of it beyond these
mountains. Indeed, I have never known it to have been seen but upon one
road. I need not mention what road, madam. You can guess."

Yes, I could guess, and the guessing made me set my lips a little
grimly.

"Tell me more about this thing," I urged, half laughing. "It ought to be
of some interest to me."

She nodded, drew her chair a trifle nearer, and impetuously began:

"You see this is a very old town. It has more than one ancient country
house similar to the one you are now living in, and it has its early
traditions. One is, that an old-fashioned coach, perfectly noiseless,
drawn by horses through which you can see the moonlight, haunts the
highroad at intervals and flies through the gloomy forest road we have
christened of late years Lost Man's Lane. It is a superstition,
possibly, but you cannot find many families in town but believe in it as
a fact, for there is not an old man or woman in the place but has either
seen it in the past or has had some relative who has seen it. It passes
only at night, and it is thought to presage some disaster to those who
see it. My husband's uncle died the next morning after it flew by him on
the highway. Fortunately years elapse between its going and coming. It
is ten years, I think they say, since it was last seen. Poor little Rob!
It has frightened him almost out of his wits."

"I should think so," I cried with becoming credulity. "But how came he
to see it? I thought you said it only passed at night."

"At midnight," she repeated. "But Rob, you see, is a nervous lad, and
night before last he was so restless he could not sleep, so he begged to
be put in the window to cool off. This his mother did, and he sat there
for a good half-hour alone, looking out at the moonlight. As his mother
is an economical woman there was no candle lit in the room, so he got
his pleasure out of the shadows which the great trees made on the
highroad, when suddenly--you ought to hear the little fellow tell it--he
felt the hair rise on his forehead and all his body grow stiff with a
terror that made his tongue feel like lead in his mouth. A something he
would have called a horse and a carriage in the daytime, but which, in
this light and under the influence of the mortal terror he was in, took
on a distorted shape which made it unlike any team he was accustomed to,
was going by, not as if being driven over the earth and stones of the
road,--though there was a driver in front, a driver with an odd
three-cornered hat on his head and a cloak about his shoulders, such as
the little fellow remembered to have seen hanging in his grandmother's
closet,--but as if it floated along without sound or stir; in fact, a
spectre team which seemed to find its proper destination when it turned
into Lost Man's Lane and was lost among the shadows of that ill-reputed
road."

"Pshaw!" was my spirited comment as she paused to take her breath and
see how I was affected by this grewsome tale. "A dream of the poor
little lad! He had heard stories of this apparition and his imagination
supplied the rest."

"No; excuse me, madam, he had been carefully kept from hearing all such
tales. You could see this by the way he told his story. He hardly
believed what he had himself seen. It was not till some foolish neighbor
blurted out, 'Why, that was the phantom coach,' that he had any idea he
was not relating a dream."

My second _Pshaw!_ was no less marked than the first.

"He did know about it, notwithstanding," I insisted. "Only he had
forgotten the fact. Sleep often supplies us with these lost memories."

"Very true, and your supposition is very plausible, Miss Butterworth,
and might be regarded as correct, if he had been the only person to see
this apparition. But Mrs. Jenkins saw it too, and she is a woman to be
believed."

This was becoming serious.

"Saw it before he did or afterwards?" I asked. "Does she live on the
highway or somewhere in Lost Man's Lane?"

"She lives on the highway about a half-mile from the station. She was
sitting up with her sick husband and saw it just as it was going down
the hill. She said it made no more noise than a cloud slipping by. She
expects to lose old Rause. No one could behold such a thing as that and
not have some misfortune follow."

I laid all this up in my mind. My hour of waiting was not likely to
prove wholly unprofitable.

"You see," the good woman went on, with a relish for the marvellous that
stood me in good stead, "there is an old tradition of that road
connected with a coach. Years ago, before any of us were born, and the
house where you are now staying was a gathering-place for all the gay
young bloods of the county, a young man came up from New York to visit
Mr. Knollys. I do not mean the father or even the grandfather of the
folks you are visiting, ma'am. He was great-grandfather to Lucetta, and
a very fine gentleman, if you can trust the pictures that are left of
him. But my story has not to do with him. He had a daughter at that
time, a widow of great and sparkling attractions, and though she was
older than the young man I have mentioned, every one thought he would
marry her, she was so handsome and such an heiress.

"But he failed to pay his court to her, and though he was handsome
himself and made a fool of more than one girl in the town, every one
thought he would return as he had come, a free-hearted bachelor, when
suddenly one night the coach was missed from the stables and he from the
company, which led to the discovery that the young widow's daughter was
gone too, a chit who was barely fifteen, and without a hundredth part of
the beauty of her mother. Love only could account for this, for in those
days young ladies did not ride with gentlemen in the evening for
pleasure, and when it came to the old gentleman's ears, and, what was
worse, came to the mother's, there was a commotion in the great house,
the echoes of which, some say, have never died out. Though the pipers
were playing and the fiddles were squeaking in the great room where they
used to dance the night away, Mrs. Knollys, with her white brocade
tucked up about her waist, stood with her hand on the great front door,
waiting for the horse upon which she was determined to follow the flying
lovers. The father, who was a man of eighty years, stood by her side. He
was too old to ride himself, but he made no effort to hold her back,
though the jewels were tumbling from her hair and the moon had vanished
from the highway.

"'I will bring her back or die!' the passionate beauty exclaimed, and
not a lip said her nay, for they saw, what neither man nor woman had
been able to see up to that moment, that her very life and soul were
wrapped up in the man who had stolen away her daughter.

"Shrilly piped the pipes, squeak and hum went the fiddles, but the sound
that was sweetest to her was the pound of the horses' hoofs on the road
in front. That was music indeed, and as soon as she heard it she
bestowed one wild kiss on her father and bounded from the house. An
instant later and she was gone. One flash of her white robe at the gate,
then all was dark on the highway, and only the old father stood in the
wide-open door, waiting, as he vowed he would wait, till his daughter
returned.

"She did not go alone. A faithful groom was behind her, and from him was
learned the conclusion of that quest. For an hour and a half they rode;
then they came upon a chapel in the mountains, in which were burning
unwonted lights. At the sight the lady drew rein and almost fell from
her horse into the arms of her lackey. 'A marriage!' she murmured; 'a
marriage!' and pointed to an empty coach standing in the shadow of a
wide-spreading tree. It was their family coach. How well she knew it!
Rousing herself, she made for the chapel door. 'I will stop these
unhallowed rites!' she cried! 'I am her mother, and she is not of age.'
But the lackey drew her back by her rich white dress. 'Look!' he cried,
pointing in at one of the windows, and she looked. The man she loved
stood before the altar with her daughter. He was smiling in that
daughter's face with a look of passionate devotion. It went like a
dagger to her heart. Crushing her hands against her face, she wailed out
some fearful protest; then she dashed toward the door with 'Stop! stop!'
on her lips. But the faithful lackey at her side drew her back once
more. 'Listen!' was his word, and she listened. The minister, whose form
she had failed to note in her first hurried look, was uttering his
benediction. She had come too late. The young couple were married.

"Her servant said, or so the tradition runs, that when she realized this
she grew calm as walking death. Making her way into the chapel, she
stood ready at the door to greet them as they issued forth, and when
they saw her there, with her rich bedraggled robe and the gleam of
jewels on a neck she had not even stopped to envelop in more than the
veil from her hair, the bridegroom seemed to realize what he had done
and stopped the bride, who in her confusion would have fled back to the
altar where she had just been made a wife. 'Kneel!' he cried. 'Kneel,
Amarynth! Only thus can we ask pardon of our mother.' But at that word,
a word which seemed to push her a million miles away from these two
beings who but two hours before had been the delight of her life, the
unhappy woman gave a cry and fled from their presence. 'Go! go!' were
her parting words. 'As you have chosen, you must abide. But let no
tongue ever again call me mother.'

"They found her lying on the grass outside. As she could no longer
sustain herself on a horse, they put her into the coach, gave the reins
to her devoted lackey, and themselves rode off on horseback. One man,
the fellow who had driven them to that place, said that the clock struck
twelve from the chapel tower as the coach turned away and began its
rapid journey home. This may and may not be so. We only know that its
apparition always enters Lost Man's Lane a few minutes before one, which
is the very hour at which the real coach came back and stopped before
Mr. Knollys' gate. And now for the worst, Miss Butterworth. When the old
gentleman went down to greet the runaways, he found the lackey on the
box and his daughter sitting all alone in the coach. But the soil on the
brocaded folds of her white dress was no longer that of mud only. She
had stabbed herself to the heart with a bodkin she wore in her hair, and
it was a corpse which the faithful negro had been driving down the
highway that night."

I am not a sentimental woman, but this story as thus told gave me a
thrill I do not know as I really regret experiencing.

"What was this unhappy mother's name?" I asked.

"Lucetta," was the unexpected and none too reassuring answer.



XIII

GOSSIP


This name once mentioned called for more gossip, but of a somewhat
different nature.

"The Lucetta of to-day is not like her ancient namesake," observed Mrs.
Carter. "She may have the heart to love, but she is not capable of
showing that love by any act of daring."

"I don't know about that," I replied, astonished that I felt willing to
enter into a discussion with this woman on the very subject I had just
shrunk from talking over with the locksmith. "Girls as frail and nervous
as she is, sometimes astonish one at a pinch. I do not think Lucetta
lacks daring."

"You don't know her. Why, I have seen her jump at the sight of a spider,
and heaven knows that they are common enough among the decaying walls in
which she lives. A puny chit, Miss Butterworth; pretty enough, but weak.
The very kind to draw lovers, but not to hold them. Yet every one pities
her, her smile is so heart-broken."

"With ghosts to trouble her and a lover to bemoan, she has surely some
excuse for that," said I.

"Yes, I don't deny it. But why has she a lover to bemoan? He seemed a
proper man and much beyond the ordinary. Why let him go as she did? Even
her sister admits that she loved him."

"I am not acquainted with the circumstances," I suggested.

"Well, there isn't much of a story to it. He is a young man from over
the mountains, well educated, and with something of a fortune of his
own. He came here to visit the Spears, I believe, and seeing Lucetta
leaning one day on the gate in front of her house, he fell in love with
her and began to pay her his attentions. That was before the lane got
its present bad name, but not before one or two men had vanished from
among us. William--that is her brother, you know--has always been
anxious to have his sisters marry, so he did not stand in the way, and
no more did Miss Knollys, but after two or three weeks of doubtful
courtship, the young man went away, and that was the end of it. And a
great pity, too, say I, for once clear of that house, Lucetta would grow
into another person. Sunshine and love are necessities to most women,
Miss Butterworth, especially to such as are weakly and timid."

I thought the qualification excellent.

"You are right," I assented, "and I should like to see the result of
them upon Lucetta." Then, with an attempt to still further sound this
woman's mind and with it the united mind of the whole village, I
remarked: "The young do not usually throw aside such prospects without
excellent reasons. Have you never thought that Lucetta was governed by
principle in discarding this very excellent young man?"

"Principle? What principle could she have had in letting a desirable
husband go?"

"She may have thought the match an undesirable one for him."

"For him? Well, I never thought of that. True, she may. They are known
to be poor, but poverty don't count in such old families as theirs. I
hardly think she would be influenced by any such consideration. Now, if
this had happened since the lane got its bad name and all this stir had
been made about the disappearance of certain folks within its precincts,
I might have given some weight to your suggestion--women are so queer.
But this happened long ago and at a time when the family was highly
thought of, leastwise the girls, for William does not go for much, you
know--too stupid and too brutal."

William! Would the utterance of that name heighten my suggestion? I
surveyed her closely, but could detect no change in her somewhat puzzled
countenance.

"My allusions were not in reference to the disappearances," said I. "I
was thinking of something else. Lucetta is not well."

"Ah, I know! They say she has some kind of heart complaint, but that was
not true then. Why, her cheeks were like roses in those days, and her
figure as plump and pretty as any you could see among our village
beauties. No, Miss Butterworth, it was through her weakness she lost
him. She probably palled upon his taste. It was noticed that he held his
head very high in going out of town."

"Has he married since?" I asked.

"Not to my knowledge, ma'am."

"Then he loved her," I declared.

She looked at me quite curiously. Doubtless that word sounds a little
queer on my lips, but that shall not deter me from using it when the
circumstances seem to require. Besides, there was once a time--But
there, I promised to fall into no digressions.

"You should have been married yourself, Miss Butterworth," said she.

I was amazed, first at her daring, and secondly that I was so little
angry at this sudden turning of the tables upon myself. But then the
woman meant no offence, rather intended a compliment.

"I am very well contented as I am," I returned. "_I_ am neither sickly
nor timid."

She smiled, looked as if she thought it only common politeness to agree
with me, and tried to say so, but finding the situation too much for
her, coughed and discreetly held her peace. I came to her rescue with a
new question:

"Have the women of the Knollys family ever been successful in love? The
mother of these girls, say--she who was Miss Althea Burroughs--was her
life with her husband happy? I have always been curious to know. She and
I were schoolmates."

"You were? You knew Althea Knollys when she was a girl? Wasn't she
charming, ma'am? Did you ever see a livelier girl or one with more knack
at winning affection? Why, she couldn't sit down with you a half-hour
before you felt like sharing everything you had with her. It made no
difference whether you were man or woman, it was all the same. She had
but to turn those mischievous, pleading eyes upon you for you to become
a fool at once. Yet her end was sad, ma'am; too sad, when you remember
that she died at the very height of her beauty alone and in a foreign
land. But I have not answered your question. Were she and the judge
happy together? I have never heard to the contrary, ma'am. I'm sure he
mourned her faithfully enough. Some think that her loss killed him. He
did not survive her more than three years."

"The children do not favor her much," said I, "but I see an expression
now and then in Lucetta which reminds me of her mother."

"They are all Knollys," said she. "Even William has traits which, with a
few more brains back of them, would remind you of his grandfather, who
was the plainest of his race."

I was glad that the talk had reverted to William.

"He seems to lack heart, as well as brains," I said. "I marvel that his
sisters put up with him as well as they do."

"They cannot help it. He is not a fellow to be fooled with. Besides, he
holds third share in the house. If they could sell it! But, deary me,
who would buy an old tumble-down place like that, on a road you cannot
get folks who have any consideration for their lives to enter for love
or money? But excuse me, ma'am; I forgot that you are living just now on
that very road. I'm sure I beg a thousand pardons."

"I am living there as a guest," I returned. "I have nothing to do with
its reputation--except to brave it."

"A courageous thing to do, ma'am, and one that may do the road some
good. If you can spend a month with the Knollys girls and come out of
their house at the end as hale and hearty as you entered it, it will be
the best proof possible that there is less to be feared there than some
people think. I shall be glad if you can do it, ma'am, for I like the
girls and would be glad to have the reputation of the place restored."

"Pshaw!" was my final comment. "The credulity of the town has had as
much to do with its loss as they themselves. That educated people such
as I see here should believe in ghosts!"

I say final, for at this moment the good lady, springing up, put an end
to our conversation. She had just seen a buggy pass the window.

"It's Mr. Trohm," she exclaimed. "Ma'am, if you wish to return home
before Mr. Simsbury comes back you may be able to do so with this
gentleman. He's a most obliging man, and lives less than a quarter of a
mile from the Misses Knollys."

I did not say I had already met the gentleman. Why, I do not know. I
only drew myself up and waited with some small inner perturbation for
the result of the inquiry I saw she had gone to make.



XIV

I FORGET MY AGE, OR, RATHER, REMEMBER IT


Mr. Trohm did not disappoint my expectations. In another moment I
perceived him standing in the open doorway with the most genial smile on
his lips.

"Miss Butterworth," said he, "I feel too honored. If you will deign to
accept a seat in my buggy, I shall only be too happy to drive you home."

I have always liked the manners of country gentlemen. There is just a
touch of formality in their bearing which has been quite eliminated from
that of their city brothers. I therefore became gracious at once and
accepted the seat he offered me without any hesitation.

The heads that showed themselves at the neighboring windows warned us to
hasten on our route. Mr. Trohm, with a snap of his whip, touched up his
horse, and we rode in dignified calm away from the hotel steps into the
wide village street known as the main road. The fact that Mr. Gryce had
told me that this was the one man I could trust, joined to my own
excellent knowledge of human nature and the persons in whom explicit
confidence can be put, made the moment one of great satisfaction to me.
I was about to make my appearance at the Knollys mansion two hours
before I was expected, and thus outwit Lucetta by means of the one man
whose assistance I could conscientiously accept.

We were not slow in beginning conversation. The fine air, the prosperous
condition of the town offered themes upon which we found it quite easy
to dilate, and so naturally and easily did our acquaintanceship progress
that we had turned the corner into Lost Man's Lane before I quite
realized it. The entrance from the village offered a sharp contrast to
the one I had already traversed. There it was but a narrow opening
between sombre and unduly crowding trees. Here it was the gradual
melting of a village street into a narrow and less frequented road,
which only after passing Deacon Spear's house assumed that aspect of
wildness which a quarter of a mile farther on deepened into something
positively sombre and repellent.

I speak of Deacon Spear because he was sitting on his front doorstep
when we rode by. As he was a resident in the lane, I did not fail to
take notice of him, though guardedly and with such restraint as a
knowledge of his widowed condition rendered both wise and proper.

He was not an agreeable-looking person, at least to me. His hair was
sleek, his beard well cared for, his whole person in good if not
prosperous condition, but he had the self-satisfied expression I detest,
and looked after us with an aspect of surprise I chose to consider a
trifle impertinent. Perhaps he envied Mr. Trohm. If so, he may have had
good reason for it--it is not for me to judge.

Up to now I had seen only a few scrub bushes at the side of the road,
with here and there a solitary poplar to enliven the dead level on
either side of us; but after we had ridden by the fence which sets the
boundary to the good deacon's land, I noticed such a change in the
appearance of the lane that I could not but exclaim over the natural as
well as cultivated beauties which every passing moment was bringing
before me.

Mr. Trohm could not conceal his pleasure.

"These are my lands," said he. "I have bestowed unremitting attention
upon them for years. It is my hobby, madam. There is not a tree you see
that has not received my careful attention. Yonder orchard was set out
by me, and the fruit it yields--Madam, I hope you will remain long
enough with us to taste a certain rare and luscious peach that I brought
from France a few years ago. It gives promise of reaching its full
perfection this year, and I shall be gratified indeed if you can give it
your approval."

This was politeness indeed, especially as I knew what value men like him
set upon each individual fruit they watch ripen under their care.
Testifying my appreciation of his kindness, I endeavored to introduce
another and less harmless and perhaps less personally interesting topic
of conversation. The chimneys of his house were beginning to show over
the trees, and I had heard nothing from this man on the subject which
should have been the most interesting of all to me at this moment. And
he was the only person in town I was at liberty to really confide in,
and possibly the only man in town who could give me a reliable statement
of the reasons why the family I was visiting was regarded in a doubtful
light not only by the credulous villagers, but by the New York police. I
began by an allusion to the phantom coach.

"I hear," said I, "that this lane has other claims to attention beyond
those afforded by the mysteries connected with it. I hear that it has at
times a ghostly visitant in the shape of a spectral horse and carriage."

"Yes," he replied, with a seeming understanding that was very
flattering; "do not spare the lane one of its honors. It has its nightly
horror as well as its daily fear. I wish the one were as unreal as the
other."

"You act as if both were unreal to you," said I. "The contrast between
your appearance and that of some other members of the lane is quite
marked."

"You refer"--he seemed to hate to speak--"to the Misses Knollys, I
presume."

I endeavored to treat the subject lightly.

"To your young enemy, Lucetta," I smilingly replied.

He had been looking at me in a perfectly modest and respectful manner,
but he dropped his eyes at this and busied himself abstractedly, and yet
I thought with some intention, in removing a fly from the horse's flank
with the tip of his whip.

"I will not acknowledge her as an enemy," he quietly returned in
strictly modulated tones. "I like the girl too well."

The fly had been by this time dislodged, but he did not look up.

"And William?" I suggested. "What do you think of William?"

Slowly he straightened himself. Slowly he dropped the whip back into its
socket. I thought he was going to answer, when suddenly his whole
attitude changed and he turned upon me a beaming face full of nothing
but pleasure.

"The road takes a turn here. In another moment you will see my house."
And even while he spoke it burst upon us, and I instantly forgot that I
had just ventured on a somewhat hazardous question.

It was such a pretty place, and it was so beautifully and exquisitely
kept. There was a charm about its rose-encircled porch that is only to
be found in very old places that have been appreciatively cared for. A
high fence painted white inclosed a lawn like velvet, and the house
itself, shining with a fresh coat of yellow paint, bore signs of comfort
in its white-curtained windows not usually to be found in the solitary
dwelling of a bachelor. I found my eyes roving over each detail with
delight, and almost blushed, or, rather, had I been twenty years younger
might have been thought to blush, as I met his eyes and saw how much my
pleasure gratified him.

"You must excuse me if I express too much admiration for what I see
before me," I said, with what I have every reason to believe was a
highly successful effort to hide my confusion. "I have always had a
great leaning towards well-ordered walks and trimly kept flower-beds--a
leaning, alas! which I have found myself unable to gratify."

"Do not apologize," he hastened to say. "You but redouble my own
pleasure in thus honoring my poor efforts with your regard. I have
spared no pains, madam, I have spared no pains to render this place
beautiful, and most of what you see, I am proud to say, has been
accomplished by my own hands."

"Indeed!" I cried in some surprise, letting my eye rest with
satisfaction on the top of a long well-sweep that was one of the
picturesque features of the place.

"It may have been folly," he remarked, with a gloating sweep of his eye
over the velvet lawn and flowering shrubs--a peculiar look that seemed
to express something more than the mere delight of possession, "but I
seemed to begrudge any hired assistance in the tending of plants every
one of which seems to me like a personal friend."

"I understand," was my somewhat un-Butterworthian reply. I really did
not quite know myself. "What a contrast to the dismal grounds at the
other end of the lane!"

This was more in my usual vein. He seemed to feel the difference, for
his expression changed at my remark.

"Oh, that den!" he exclaimed, bitterly; then, seeing me look a little
shocked, he added, with an admirable return to his old manner, "I call
any place a den where flowers do not grow." And jumping from the buggy,
he gathered an exquisite bunch of heliotrope, which he pressed upon me.
"I love sunshine, beds of roses, fountains, and a sweep of lawn like
this we see before us. But do not let me bore you. You have probably
lingered long enough at the old bachelor's place and now would like to
drive on. I will be with you in a moment. Doubtful as it is whether I
shall soon again be so fortunate as to be able to offer you any
hospitality, I would like to bring you a glass of wine--or, for I see
your eyes roaming longingly toward my old-fashioned well, would you like
a draft of water fresh from the bucket?"

I assured him I did not drink wine, at which I thought his eyes
brightened, but that neither did I indulge in water when in a heat, as
at present, at which he looked disappointed and came somewhat
reluctantly back to the buggy.

He brightened up, however, the moment he was again at my side.

"Now for the woods," he exclaimed, with what was undoubtedly a forced
laugh.

I thought the opportunity one I ought not to slight.

"Do you think," said I, "that it is in those woods the disappearances
occur of which Miss Knollys has told me?"

He showed the same hesitancy as before to enter upon this subject.

"I think the less you allow your mind to dwell on this matter the
better," said he--"that is, if you are going to remain long in this
lane. I do not expend any more thought upon it than is barely necessary,
or I should not retain sufficient courage to remain among my roses and
my fruits. I wonder--pardon me the indiscretion--that you could bring
yourself to enter so ill-reputed a neighborhood. You must be a very
brave woman."

"I thought it my duty--" I began. "Althea Knollys was my friend, and I
felt I owed a duty toward her children. Besides--" Should I tell Mr.
Trohm my real errand in this place? Mr. Gryce had intimated that he was
in the confidence of the police, and if so, his assistance in case of
necessity might be of inestimable value to me. Yet if no such necessity
should arise would I want this man to know that Amelia Butterworth--No,
I would not take him into my confidence--not yet. I would only try to
get at his idea of where the blame lay--that is, if he had any.

"Besides," he suggested in polite reminder, after waiting a minute or
two for me to continue.

"Did I say besides?" was my innocent rejoinder. "I think I meant that
after seeing them my sense of the importance of that duty had increased.
William especially seems to be a young man of very doubtful amiability."

Immediately the non-commital look returned to Mr. Trohm's face.

"I have no fault to find with William," said he. "He's not the most
agreeable companion in the world perhaps, but he has a pretty fancy for
fruit--a very pretty fancy."

"One can hardly wonder at that in a neighbor of Mr. Trohm," said I,
watching his look, which was fixed somewhat gloomily upon the forest of
trees now rapidly closing in around us.

"Perhaps not, perhaps not, madam. The sight of a blossoming honeysuckle
hanging from an arbor such as runs along my south walls is a great
stimulant to one's taste, madam, I'll not deny that."

"But William?" I repeated, determined not to let the subject go; "have
you never thought he was a little indifferent to his sisters?"

"A little, madam."

"And a trifle rough to everything but his dogs?"

"A trifle, madam."

Such reticence seemed unnecessary. I was almost angry, but restrained
myself and pursued quietly, "The girls, on the contrary, seem devoted to
him?"

"Women have that weakness."

"And act as if they would do--what would they not do for him?"

"Miss Butterworth, I have never seen a more amiable woman than yourself.
Will you promise me one thing?"

His manner was respect itself, his smile genial and highly contagious. I
could not help responding to it in the way he expected.

"Do not talk to me about this family. It is a painful subject to me.
Lucetta--you know the girl, and I shall not be able to prejudice you
against her--has conceived the idea that I encourage William in an
intimacy of which she does not approve. She does not want him to talk to
me. William has a loose tongue in his head and sometimes drops unguarded
words about their doings, which if any but William spoke--But there, I
am forgetting one of the most important rules of my own life, which is
to keep my mouth from babbling and my tongue from guile. Influence of a
congenial companion, madam; it is irresistible sometimes, especially to
a man living so much alone as myself."

I considered his fault very pardonable, but did not say so lest I should
frighten his confidences away.

"I thought there was something wrong between you," I said. "Lucetta
acted almost afraid of you this morning. I should think she would be
glad of the friendship of so good a neighbor."

His face took on a very sombre look.

"She is afraid of me," he admitted, "afraid of what I have seen or may
see of--their poverty," he added, with an odd emphasis. I scarcely think
he expected to deceive me.

I did not push the subject an inch farther. I saw it had gone as far as
discretion permitted at this time.

We had reached the heart of the forest and were rapidly approaching the
Knollys house. As the tops of its great chimneys rose above the foliage,
I saw his aspect suddenly change.

"I don't know why I should so hate to leave you here," he remarked.

I myself thought the prospect of re-entering the Knollys mansion
somewhat uninviting after the pleasant ride I had had and the glimpse
which had been given me of a really cheery home and pleasant
surroundings.

"This morning I looked upon you as a somewhat daring woman, the progress
of whose stay here would be watched by me with interest, but after the
companionship of the last half-hour I am conscious of an anxiety in your
regard which makes me doubly wish that Miss Knollys had not shut me out
from her home. Are you sure you wish to enter this house again, madam?"

I was surprised--really surprised--at the feeling he showed. If my
well-disciplined heart had known how to flutter it would probably have
fluttered then, but happily the restraint of years did not fail me in
this emergency. Taking advantage of the emotion which had betrayed him
into an acknowledgment of his real feelings regarding the dangers
lurking in this home, despite the check he had endeavored to put upon
his lips, I said, with an attempt at _naïveté_ only to be excused by the
exigencies of the occasion:

"Why, I thought you considered this domicile perfectly harmless. You
like the girls and have no fault to find with William. Can it be that
this great building has another occupant? I do not allude to ghosts.
Neither of us are likely to believe in the supernatural."

"Miss Butterworth, you have me at a disadvantage. I do not know of any
other occupant which the house can hold save the three young people you
have mentioned. If I seem to feel any doubt of them--but I don't feel
any doubt. I only dread any place for you which is not watched over by
someone interested in your defence. The danger threatening the
inhabitants of this lane is such a veiled one. If we knew where it
lurked, we would no longer call it danger. Sometimes I think the ghosts
you allude to are not as innocent as mere spectres usually are. But
don't let me frighten you. Don't--" How quick his voice changed! "Ah,
William, I have brought back your guest, you see! I couldn't let her sit
out the noon hour in old Carter's parlor. That would be too much for
even so amiable a person as Miss Butterworth to endure."

I had hardly realized we were so near the gate and certainly was
surprised to find William anywhere within hearing. That his appearance
at this moment was anything but welcome, must be evident to every one.
The sentence which it interrupted might have contained the most
important advice, or at the least a warning I could ill afford to lose.
But destiny was against me, and being one who accepts the inevitable
with good grace, I prepared to alight, with Mr. Trohm's assistance.

The bunch of heliotrope I held was a little in my way or I should have
managed the jump with confidence and dignified agility. As it was, I
tripped slightly, which brought out a chuckle from William that at the
moment seemed more wicked to me than any crime. Meanwhile he had not let
matters proceed thus far without putting more than one question.

"And where's Simsbury? And why did Miss Butterworth think she had got to
sit in Carter's parlor?"

"Mr. Simsbury," said I as soon as I could recover from the mingled
exertion and embarrassment of my descent to terra firma, "felt it
necessary to take the horse to the shoer's. That is a half-day's work,
as you know, and I felt confident that he and especially you would be
glad to have me accept any means for escaping so dreary a waiting."

The grunt he uttered was eloquent of anything but satisfaction.

"I'll go tell the girls," he said. But he didn't go till he had seen Mr.
Trohm enter his buggy and drive slowly off.

That all this did not add to my liking for William goes without saying.



_BOOK II_

THE FLOWER PARLOR



XV

LUCETTA FULFILS MY EXPECTATION OF HER


It was not till Mr. Trohm had driven away that I noticed, in the shadow
of the trees on the opposite side of the road, a horse tied up, whose
empty saddle bespoke a visitor within. At any other gate and on any
other road this would not have struck me as worthy of notice, much less
of comment. But here, and after all that I had heard during the morning,
the circumstance was so unexpected I could not help showing my
astonishment.

"A visitor?" I asked.

"Some one to see Lucetta."

William had no sooner said this than I saw he was in a state of high
excitement. He had probably been in this condition when we drove up, but
my attention being directed elsewhere I had not noticed it. Now,
however, it was perfectly plain to me, and it did not seem quite the
excitement of displeasure, though hardly that of joy.

"She doesn't expect you yet," he pursued, as I turned sharply toward the
house, "and if you interrupt her--D--n it, if I thought you would
interrupt her----"

I thought it time to teach him a lesson in manners.

"Mr. Knollys," I interposed somewhat severely, "I am a lady. Why should
I interrupt your sister or give her or you a moment of pain?"

"I don't know," he muttered. "You are so very quick I was afraid you
might think it necessary to join her in the parlor. She is perfectly
able to take care of herself, Miss Butterworth, and if she don't do
it--" The rest was lost in indistinct guttural sounds.

I made no effort to answer this tirade. I took my usual course in quite
my usual way to the front steps and proceeded to mount them without so
much as looking behind me to see whether or not this uncouth
representative of the Knollys name had kept at my heels or not.

Entering the door, which was open, I came without any effort on my part
upon Lucetta and her visitor, who proved to be a young gentleman. They
were standing together in the middle of the hall and were so absorbed in
what they were saying that they neither saw nor heard me. I was
therefore enabled to catch the following sentences, which struck me as
of some moment. The first was uttered by her, and in very pleading
tones:

"A week--I only ask a week. Then perhaps I can give you an answer which
will satisfy you."

His reply, in manner if not in matter, proclaimed him the lover of whom
I had so lately heard.

"I cannot, dear girl; indeed, I cannot. My whole future depends upon my
immediately making the move in which I have asked you to join me. If I
wait a week, my opportunity will be gone, Lucetta. You know me and you
know how I love you. Then come----"

A rude hand on my shoulder distracted my attention. William stood
lowering behind me and, as I turned, whispered in my ear:

"You must come round the other way. Lucetta is so touchy, the sight of
you will drive every sensible idea out of her head."

His blundering whisper did what my presence and by no means light
footsteps had failed to do. With a start Lucetta turned and, meeting my
eye, drew back in visible confusion. The young man followed her hastily.

"Is it good-by, Lucetta?" he pleaded, with a fine, manly ignoring of our
presence that roused my admiration.

She did not answer. Her look was enough. William, seeing it, turned
furious at once, and, bounding by me, faced the young man with an oath.

"You're a fool to take no from a silly chit like that," he vociferated.
"If I loved a girl as you say you love Lucetta, I'd have her if I had to
carry her away by force. She'd stop screaming before she was well out of
the lane. I know women. While you listen to them they'll talk and talk;
but once let a man take matters into his own hands and--" A snap of his
fingers finished the sentence. I thought the fellow brutal, but scarcely
so stupid as I had heretofore considered him.

His words, however, might just as well have been uttered into empty air.
The young man he so violently addressed appeared hardly to have heard
him, and as for Lucetta, she was so nearly insensible from misery that
she had sufficient ado to keep herself from falling at her lover's feet.

"Lucetta, Lucetta, is it then good-by? You will not go with me?"

"I cannot. William, here, knows that I cannot. I must wait till----"

But here her brother seized her so violently by the wrist that she
stopped from sheer pain, I fear. However that was, she turned pale as
death under his clutch, and, when he tried to utter some hot, passionate
words into her ear, shook her head, but did not speak, though her lover
was gazing with a last, final appeal into her eyes. The delicate girl
was bearing out my estimate of her.

Seeing her thus unresponsive, William flung her hand from him and turned
upon me.

"It's your fault," he cried. "You _would_ come in----"

But, at this, Lucetta, recovering her poise in a moment, cried out
shrilly:

"For shame, William! What has Miss Butterworth to do with this? You are
not helping me with your roughness. God knows I find this hour hard
enough, without this show of anxiety on your part to be rid of me."

"There's woman's gratitude for you," was his snarling reply. "I offer to
take all the responsibilities on my own shoulders and make it right
with--with her sister, and all that, and she calls it desire to get rid
of her. Well, have your own way," he growled, storming down the hall;
"I'm done with it for one."

The young man, whose attitude of reserve, mixed with a strange and
lingering tenderness for this girl, whom he evidently loved without
fully understanding her, was every minute winning more and more of my
admiration, had meanwhile raised her trembling hand to his lips in what
was, as we all could see, a last farewell.

In another moment he was walking by us, giving me as he passed a low bow
that for all its grace did not succeed in hiding from me the deep and
heartfelt disappointment with which he quitted this house. As his figure
passed through the door, hiding for one moment the sunshine, I felt an
oppression such as has not often visited my healthy nature, and when it
passed and disappeared, something like the good spirit of the place
seemed to go with it, leaving in its place doubt, gloom, and a morbid
apprehension of that unknown something which in Lucetta's eyes had
rendered his dismissal necessary.

"Where's Saracen? I declare I'm nothing but a fool without that dog,"
shouted William. "If he has to be tied up another day--" But shame was
not entirely eliminated from his breast, for at Lucetta's reproachful
"William!" he sheepishly dropped his head and strode out, muttering some
words I was fain to accept as an apology.

I had expected to encounter a wreck in Lucetta, as, this episode in her
life closed, she turned toward me. But I did not yet know this girl,
whose frailty seemed to lie mostly in her physique. Though she was
suffering far more than her defence of me to her brother would seem to
denote, there was a spirit in her approach and a steady look in her dark
eye which assured me that I could not calculate upon any loss in
Lucetta's keenness, in case we came to an issue over the mystery that
was eating into the happiness as well as the honor of this household.

"I am glad to see you," were her unexpected words. "The gentleman who
has just gone out was a lover of mine; at least he once professed to
care for me very much, and I should have been glad to have married him,
but there were reasons which I once thought most excellent why this
seemed anything but expedient, and so I sent him away. To-day he came
without warning to ask me to go away with him, after the hastiest of
ceremonies, to South America, where a splendid prospect has suddenly
opened for him. You see, don't you, that I could not do that; that it
would be the height of selfishness in me to leave Loreen--to leave
William----"

"Who seems only too anxious to be left," I put in, as her voice trailed
off in the first evidence of embarrassment she had shown since she faced
me.

"William is a difficult man to understand," was her firm but quiet
retort. "From his talk you would judge him to be morose, if not
positively unkind, but in action--" She did not tell me how he was in
action. Perhaps her truthfulness got the better of her, or perhaps she
saw it would be hard work to prejudice me now in his favor.



XVI

LOREEN


Lucetta had said to her departing lover, that in a week she might be
able (were he willing or in a position to wait) to give him a more
satisfactory answer. Why in a week?

That her hesitation sprang from the mere dislike of leaving her sister
so suddenly, or that she had sacrificed her life's happiness to any
childish idea of decorum, I did not think probable. The spirit she had
shown, her immovable attitude under a temptation which had not only
romance to recommend it, but everything else which could affect a young
and sensitive woman, argued in my mind the existence of some uncompleted
duty of so exacting and imperative a nature that she could not even
consider the greatest interests of her own life until this one thing was
out of her way. William's rude question of the morning, "What shall we
do with the old girl till it is all over?" recurred to me in support of
this theory, making me feel that I needed no further confirmation, to be
quite certain that a crisis was approaching in this house which would
tax my powers to the utmost and call perhaps for the use of the whistle
which I had received from Mr. Gryce, and which, following his
instructions, I had tied carefully about my neck. Yet how could I
associate Lucetta with crime, or dream of the police in connection with
the serene Loreen, whose every look was a rebuke to all that was false,
vile, or even common? Easily, my readers, easily, with that great,
hulking William in my remembrance. To shield _him_, to hide perhaps his
deformity of soul from the world, even such gentle and gracious women as
these have been known to enter into acts which to an unprejudiced eye
and an unbiased conscience would seem little short of fiendish. Love for
an unworthy relative, or rather the sense of duty toward those of one's
own blood, has driven many a clear-minded woman to her ruin, as may be
seen any day in the police annals.

I am quite aware that I have not as yet put into definite words the
suspicion upon which I was now prepared to work. Up to this time it had
been too vague, or rather of too monstrous a character for me not to
consider other theories, such as, for instance, the possible connection
of old Mother Jane with the unaccountable disappearances which had taken
place in this lane. But after this scene, the increased assurance I was
hourly receiving that something extraordinary and out of keeping with
the customary appearances of the household was secretly going on in some
one of the various chambers of that long corridor I had been prevented
from entering, forced me to accept and act upon the belief that these
young women held in charge a prisoner of some kind, of whose presence in
the house they dreaded the discovery.

Now, who could this prisoner be?

Common sense supplied me with but one answer; Silly Rufus, the boy who
within a few days had vanished from among the good people of this
seemingly guileless community.

This theory once established in my mind, I applied myself to a
consideration of the means at my disposal for determining its validity.
The simplest, surest, but least satisfactory to one of my nature was to
summon the police and have the house thoroughly searched, but this
involved, in case I had been deceived by appearances--as was possible
even to a woman of my experience and discrimination,--a scandal and an
opprobrium which I would be the last to inflict upon Althea's children,
unless justice to the rest of the world demanded it.

It was in consideration of this very fact, perhaps, that I had been
chosen for this duty instead of some regular police spy. Mr. Gryce, as I
very well knew, has made it his rule of life never to risk the
reputation of any man or woman without reasons so excellent as to carry
their own exoneration with them, and should I, a woman, with full as
much heart as himself, if not quite as much brain (at least in the
estimation of people in general), by any premature exposure of my
suspicions, subject these young friends of mine to humiliations they are
far too weak and too poor to rise above?

No, rather would I trust a little longer to my own perspicacity and make
sure by the use of my own eyes that the situation called for the
interference I had, as you may say, at the end of the cord I wore about
my neck.

Lucetta had not asked me how I came to be back so much sooner than she
had reason to expect me. The unlooked-for arrival of her lover had
probably put all idea of her former plans out of her head. I therefore
gave her the shortest of explanations when we met at the dinner table.
Nothing further seemed to be necessary, for the girls were even more
abstracted than before, and William positively boorish till a warning
glance from Loreen recalled him to his better self, which meant silence.

The afternoon was spent in very much the same way as the evening before.
Neither sister remained an instant with me after the other entered my
company, and though the alternations were less frequent than at that
time, their peculiarities were more marked and less naturally accounted
for. It was while Loreen was with me that I made the suggestion which
had been hovering on my lips ever since the noon.

"I consider this," I observed, in one of the pauses of our more than
fitful conversation, "one of the most interesting houses it has ever
been my good fortune to enter. Would you mind my roaming about a bit
just to enjoy the old-time flavor of its great empty rooms? I know they
are mostly closed and possibly unfurnished, but to a connoisseur like
myself in colonial architecture, this rather adds to, than detracts
from, their interest."

"Impossible," she was going to say, but caught herself back in time and
changed the imperative word to one more conciliatory if equally
unyielding.

"I am sorry, Miss Butterworth, to deny you this gratification, but the
condition of the rooms and the unhappy excitement into which we have
been thrown by the unfortunate visit paid to Lucetta by a gentleman to
whom she is only too much attached, make it quite impossible for me to
consider any such undertaking to-day. To-morrow I may find it easier;
but, if not, be assured you shall see every nook and corner of this
house before you finally leave it."

"Thank you. I will remember that. To one of my tastes an ancient room in
a time-honored mansion like this, affords a delight not to be understood
by one who knows less of the last century's life. The legends connected
with your great drawing-room below [we were sitting in my room, I having
refused to be cooped up in their dreary side parlor, and she not having
offered me any other spot more cheerful] are sufficient in themselves to
hold me entranced for an hour. I heard one of them to-day."

"Which?"

She spoke more quickly than usual, and for her quite sharply.

"That of Lucetta's namesake," I explained. "She who rode through the
night after a daughter who had won her lover's heart away from her.

"Ah, it is a well-known tale, but I think Mrs. Carter might have left
its relation to us. Did she tell you anything else?"

"No other tradition of this place," I assured her.

"I am glad she was so considerate. But why--if you will pardon me--did
she happen to light upon that story? We have not heard those incidents
spoken of for years."

"Not since the phantom coach flew through this road the last time," I
ventured, with a smile that should have disarmed her from suspecting any
ulterior motive on my part in thus introducing a subject which could not
be altogether pleasing to her.

"The phantom coach! Have you heard of that?"

I wish it had been Lucetta who had said this and to whom my reply was
due. The opportunities would have been much greater for an injudicious
display of feeling on her part and for a suitable conclusion on mine.

But it was Loreen, and she never forgot herself. So I had to content
myself with the persuasion that her voice was just a whit less clear
than usual and her serenity enough impaired for her to look out of my
one high and dismal window instead of into my face.

"My dear,"--I had not called her this before, though the term had
frequently risen to my lips in answer to Lucetta--"you should have gone
with me into the village to-day. Then you would not need to ask if I had
heard of the phantom coach."

The probe had reached the quick at last. She looked quite startled.

"You amaze me," she said. "What do you mean, Miss Butterworth? Why
should I not have needed to ask?"

"Because you would have heard it whispered about in every lane and
corner. It is common talk in town to-day. You must know why, Miss
Knollys."

She was not looking out of the window now. She was looking at me.

"I assure you," she murmured, "I do not know at all. Nothing could be
more incomprehensible to me. Explain yourself, I entreat you. The
phantom coach is but a myth to me, interesting only as involving certain
long-vanished ancestors of mine."

"Of course," I assented. "No one of real sense could regard it in any
other light. But villagers will talk, and they say--you will soon know
what, if I do not tell you myself--that it passed through the lane on
Tuesday night."

"Tuesday night!" Her composure had been regained, but not so entirely
but that her voice slightly trembled. "That was before you came. I hope
it was not an omen."

I was in no mood for pleasantry.

"They say that the passing of this apparition denotes misfortune to
those who see it. I am therefore obviously exempt. But you--did you see
it? I am just curious to know if it is visible to those who live in the
lane. It ought to have turned in here. Were you fortunate enough to have
been awake at that moment and to have seen this spectral appearance?"

She shuddered. I was not mistaken in believing I saw this sign of
emotion, for I was watching her very closely, and the movement was
unmistakable.

"I have never seen anything ghostly in my life," said she. "I am not at
all superstitious."

If I had been ill-natured or if I had thought it wise to press her too
closely, I might have inquired why she looked so pale and trembled so
visibly.

But my natural kindness, together with an instinct of caution,
restrained me, and I only remarked:

"There you are sensible, Miss Knollys--doubly so as a denizen of this
house, which, Mrs. Carter was obliging enough to suggest to me, is
considered by many as haunted."

The straightening of Miss Knollys' lips augured no good to Mrs. Carter.

"Now I only wish it was," I laughed dryly. "I should really like to meet
a ghost, say, in your great drawing-room, which I am forbidden to
enter."

"You are not forbidden," she hastily returned. "You may explore it now
if you will excuse me from accompanying you; but you will meet no
ghosts. The hour is not propitious."

Taken aback by her sudden amenity, I hesitated for a moment. Would it be
worth while for me to search a room she was willing to have me enter?
No, and yet any knowledge which could be obtained in regard to this
house might be of use to me or to Mr. Gryce. I decided to embrace her
offer, after first testing her with one other question.

"Would you prefer to have me steal down these corridors at night and
dare their dusky recesses at a time when spectres are supposed to walk
the halls they once flitted through in happy consciousness?"

"Hardly." She made the greatest effort to sustain the jest, but her
concern and dread were manifest. "I think I had better give you the keys
now, than subject you to the drafts and chilling discomforts of this old
place at midnight."

I rose with a semblance of eager anticipation.

"I will take you at your word," said I. "The keys, my dear. I am going
to visit a haunted room for the first time in my life."

I do not think she was deceived by this feigned ebullition. Perhaps it
was too much out of keeping with my ordinary manner, but she gave no
sign of surprise and rose in her turn with an air suggestive of relief.

"Excuse me, if I precede you," she begged. "I will meet you at the head
of the corridor with the keys."

I was in hopes she would be long enough in obtaining them to allow me to
stroll along the front hall to the opening into the corridor I was so
anxious to enter. But the spryness I showed, seemed to have a
corresponding effect upon her, for she almost flew down the passageway
before me and was back at my side before I could take a step in the
coveted direction.

"These will take you into any room on the first floor," said she. "You
will meet with dust and Lucetta's abhorrence, spiders, but for these I
shall make no apologies. Girls who cannot provide comforts for the few
rooms they utilize, cannot be expected to keep in order the large and
disused apartments of a former generation."

"I hate dirt and despise spiders," was my dry retort, "but I am willing
to brave both for the pleasure of satisfying my love for the antique."
At which she handed me the keys, with a calm smile which was not without
its element of sadness.

"I will be here on your return," she said, leaning over the banisters to
speak to me as I took my first steps down. "I shall want to hear whether
you are repaid for your trouble."

I thanked her and proceeded on my way, somewhat doubtful whether by so
doing I was making the best possible use of my opportunities.



XVII

THE FLOWER PARLOR


The lower hall did not correspond exactly with the one above. It was
larger, and through its connection with the front door, presented the
shape of a letter T--that is, to the superficial observer who was not
acquainted with the size of the house and had not had the opportunity of
remarking that at the extremities of the upper hall making this T, were
two imposing doors usually found shut except at meal-times, when the
left-hand one was thrown open, disclosing a long and dismal corridor
similar to the ones above. Half-way down this corridor was the
dining-room, into which I had now been taken three times.

The right-hand one, I had no doubt, led the way into the great
drawing-room or dancing-hall which I had started out to see.

Proceeding first to the front of the house, where some glimmer of light
penetrated from the open sitting-room door, I looked the keys over and
read what was written on the several tags attached to them. They were
seven in number, and bore some such names as these: "Blue Chamber,"
"Library," "Flower Parlor," "Shell Cabinet," "Dark Parlor"--all of which
was very suggestive, and, to an antiquarian like myself, most alluring.

But it was upon a key marked "A" I first fixed my attention. This, I had
been told, would open the large door at the extremity of the upper hall,
and when I made a trial with it I found it to move easily, though
somewhat gratingly, in the lock, releasing the great doors, which in
another moment swung inward with a growling sound which might have been
startling to a nervous person filled with the legends of the place.

But in me the only emotion awakened was one of disgust at the nauseous
character of the air which instantly enveloped me. Had I wished for any
further proof than was afforded by the warning given me by the condition
of the hinges, that the foot of man had not lately invaded these
precincts, I would have had it in the mouldy atmosphere and smell of
dust that greeted me on the threshold. Neither human breath nor a ray of
outdoor sunshine seemed to have disturbed its gloomy quiet for years,
and when I moved, as I presently did, to open one of the windows I dimly
discerned at my right, I felt such a movement of something foul and
noisome amid the decaying rags of the carpet through which I was
stumbling that I had to call into use the stronger elements of my
character not to back out of a place so given over to rot and the
creatures that infest it.

"What a spot," thought I, "for Amelia Butterworth to find herself in!"
and wondered if I could ever wear again the three-dollar-a-yard silk
dress in which I was then enveloped. Of my shoes I took no account. They
were ruined, of course.

I reached the window in safety, but could not open it; neither could I
move the adjoining one. There were sixteen in all, or so I afterwards
found, and not till I reached the last (you see, I am very persistent)
did I succeed in loosening the bar that held its inner shutter in place.
This done, I was able to lift the window, and for the first time in
years, perhaps, let in a ray of light into this desolated apartment.

The result was disappointing. Mouldy walls, worm-eaten hangings, two
very ancient and quaint fireplaces, met my eyes, and nothing more. The
room was absolutely empty. For a few minutes I allowed my eyes to roam
over the great rectangular space in which so much that was curious and
interesting had once taken place, and then, with a vague sense of
defeat, turned my eyes outward, anxious to see what view could be
obtained from the window I had opened. To my astonishment, I saw before
me a high wall with here and there a window in it, all tightly barred
and closed, till by a careful inspection about me I realized that I was
looking upon the other wing of the building, and that between these
wings extended a court so narrow and long that it gave to the building
the shape, as I have before said, of the letter U. A dreary prospect,
reminding one of the view from a prison, but it had its point of
interest, for in the court below me, the brick pavement of which was
half obliterated by grass, I caught sight of William in an attitude so
different from any I had hitherto seen him assume that I found it
difficult to account for it till I caught sight of the jaws of a dog
protruding from under his arms, and then I realized he was hugging
Saracen.

The dog was tied, but the comfort which William seemed to take in just
this physical contact with his rough skin was something worth seeing. It
made me quite thoughtful for a moment.

I detest dogs, and it gives me a creepy sensation to see them fondled,
but sincerity of feeling appeals to me, and no one could watch William
Knollys with his dogs without seeing that he really loved the brutes.
Thus in one day I had witnessed the best and worst side of this man. But
wait! Had I seen the worst? I was not so sure that I had.

He had not noticed my peering, for which I was duly thankful, and after
another fruitless survey of the windows in the wall before me, I drew
back and prepared to leave the place. This was by no means a pleasant
undertaking. I could now see what I had only felt before, and to
traverse the space before me amid beetles and spiders required a
determination of no ordinary nature. I was glad when I reached the great
doors and more than glad when they closed behind me.

"So much for Room A," thought I.

The next most promising apartment was in the same corridor as the
dining-room. It was called the Dark Parlor. Entering it, I found it dark
indeed, but not because of lack of light, but because its hangings were
all of a dismal red and its furniture of the blackest ebony. As this
mainly consisted of shelves and cabinets placed against three of its
four walls, the effect was gloomy indeed, and fully accounted for the
name which the room had received. I lingered in it, however, longer than
I had in the big drawing-room, chiefly because the shelves contained
books.

Had anything better offered I might not have continued my explorations,
but not seeing exactly how I could pass away the time more profitably, I
chose out another key and began to search for the Flower Parlor. I found
it beyond the dining-room in the same hall as the Dark Parlor.

It was, as I might have expected from the name, the brightest and most
cheerful spot I had yet found in the whole house. The air in it was even
good, as if sunshine and breeze had not been altogether shut out of it,
yet I had no sooner taken one look at its flower-painted walls and
pretty furniture than I felt an oppression difficult to account for.
Something was wrong about this room. I am not superstitious and have no
faith in premonitions, but once seized by a conviction, I have never
known myself to be mistaken as to its import. Something was wrong about
this room--what, it was my business to discover.

Letting in more light, I took a closer survey of the objects I had
hitherto seen but dimly. They were many and somewhat contradictory in
character. The floor was bare--the first bare floor I had come upon--but
the shades in the windows, the chintz-covered lounges drawn up beside
tables bestrewn with books and other objects of comfort and luxury,
bespoke a place in common if not every-day use.

A faint smell of tobacco assured me in whose use, and from the minute I
recognized that this was William's sanctum, my curiosity grew unbounded
and I neglected nothing which would be likely to attract the
keenest-eyed detective in Mr. Gryce's force. There were several things
to be noted there: First, that this lumbering lout of a man read, but
only on one topic--vivisection; secondly, that he was not a reader
merely, for there were instruments in the cases heaped up on the tables
about me, and in one corner--it made me a little sick, but I persevered
in searching out the corners--a glass case with certain horrors in it
which I took care to note, but which it is not necessary for me to
describe. Another corner was blocked up by a closet which stood out in
the room in a way to convince me it had been built in after the room was
otherwise finished. As I crossed over to examine the door, which did not
appear to me to be quite closed, I noticed on the floor at my feet a
huge discoloration. This was the worst thing I had yet encountered, and
while I did not feel quite justified in giving it a name, I could not
but feel some regret for the worm-eaten rags of the drawing-room, which,
after all, are more comfortable underfoot than bare boards with such
suggestive marks upon them as these.

The door to the closet was, as I had expected, slightly ajar, a fact for
which I was profoundly grateful, for, set it down to breeding or a
natural recognition of other people's rights, I would have found it most
difficult to turn the knob of a closet door, inspection of which had not
been offered me.

But finding it open, I gave it just a little pull and found--well, it
was a surprise, much more so than the sight of a skeleton would have
been--that the whole interior was taken up by a small circular staircase
such as you find in public libraries where the books are piled up in
tiers. It stretched from the floor to the ceiling, and dark as it was I
thought I detected the outlines of a trap-door by means of which
communication was established with the room above. Anxious to be
convinced of this, I consulted with myself as to what a detective would
do in my place. The answer came readily enough: "Mount the stairs and
feel for yourself whether there is a lock there." But my delicacy
or--shall I acknowledge it for once?--an instinct of timidity seemed to
restrain me, till a remembrance of Mr. Gryce's sarcastic look which I
had seen honoring lesser occasions than these, came to nerve me, and I
put foot on the stairs which had last been trod--by whom, shall I say?
William? Let us hope by William, and William only.

Being tall, I had to mount but a few steps before reaching the ceiling.
Pausing for breath, the air being close and the stairs steep, I reached
up and felt for the hinge or clasp I had every reason to expect to
encounter. I found it almost immediately, and, satisfied now that
nothing but a board separated me from the room above, I tried that board
with my finger and was astonished to feel it yield. As this was a wholly
unexpected discovery I drew back and asked myself if it would be wise to
pursue it to the point of raising this door, and had hardly settled the
question in my own mind, when the sound of a voice raised in a soothing
murmur, revealed the fact that the room above was not empty, and that I
would be committing a grave indiscretion in thus tampering with a means
of entrance possibly under the very eye of the person speaking.

If the voice I had heard had been all that had come to my ears, I might
have ventured after a moment of hesitation to brave the displeasure of
Miss Knollys by an attempt which would have at once satisfied me as to
the correctness of the suspicions which were congealing my blood as I
stood there, but another voice--the heavy and threatening voice of
William--had broken into this murmur, and I knew that if I so much as
awakened in him the least suspicion of my whereabouts, I would have to
dread an anger that might not know where to stop.

I therefore rested from further efforts in this direction, and fearing
he might bethink him of some errand which would bring him to the
trap-door himself, I began a retreat which I made slow only from my
desire not to make any noise. I succeeded as well as if my feet had been
shod in velvet and my dress had been made of wool instead of a rustling
silk, and when once again I found myself planted in the centre of the
Flower Parlor, the closet door closed, and no evidence remaining of my
late attempt to probe this family secret, I drew a deep breath of relief
that was but a symbol of my devout thankfulness.

I did not mean to remain much longer in this spot of evil suggestions,
but spying the corner of a book protruding from under a cushion of one
of the lounges, I had a curiosity to see if it were similar to the
others I had handled. Drawing it out, I took one look at it.

I need not tell what it was, but after a hasty glance here and there
through its pages, I put it back, shuddering. If any doubt remained in
my breast that William was one of those monsters who feed their morbid
cravings by experiments upon the weak and defenceless, it had been
dispelled by what I had just seen in this book.

However, I did not leave the room immediately. As it was of the greatest
importance that I should be able to locate in which of the many
apartments on the floor above, the supposed prisoner was lodged, I cast
about me for the means of doing this through the location of the room in
which I then was. As this could only be done by affixing some token to
the window, which could be recognized from without, I thought, first, of
thrusting the end of my handkerchief through one of the slats of the
outside blinds; secondly, of simply leaving one of these blinds ajar;
and finally, of chipping off a piece with the penknife I always carry
with innumerable other small things in the bag I invariably wear at my
side. (Fashion, I hold, counts for nothing against convenience.)

This last seemed by much the best device. A handkerchief could be
discovered and pulled out, an open blind could be shut, but a sliver
once separated from the wood of the casement, nothing could replace it
or even cover it up without itself attracting attention.

Taking out my knife, I glanced at the door leading into the hall, found
it still shut and everything quiet behind it. Then I took a look into
the shrubs and bushes of the yard outside, and, observing nothing to
disturb me, snipped off a bit from one of the outer edges of the slats
and then carefully reclosed the blinds and the window.

I was crossing the threshold when I heard a rapid footstep in the hall.
Miss Knollys was hastening down the hall to my side.

"Oh, Miss Butterworth," she exclaimed, with one quick look into the room
I was leaving, "this is William's den, the one spot he never allows any
of us to enter. I don't know how the key came to be upon the string. It
never was before, and I am afraid he never will forgive me."

"He need never know that I have been the victim of such a mistake," said
I. "My feet leave no trail, and as I use no perfumes he will never
suspect that I have enjoyed a glimpse of these old-fashioned walls and
ancient cabinets."

"The slats of the blinds are a little open," she remarked, her eyes
searching my face for some sign that I am sure she did not find there.
"Were they so when you came in?"

"I hardly think so; it was very dark. Shall I put them as I found them?"

"No. He will not notice." And she hurried me out, still eying me
breathlessly as if she half distrusted my composure.

"Come, Amelia," I now whispered in self-admonition, "the time for
exertion has come. Show this young woman, who is not much behind you in
self-control, some of the lighter phases of your character. Charm her,
Amelia, charm her, or you may live to rue this invasion into family
secrets more than you may like to acknowledge at the present moment."

A task of some difficulty, but I rejoice in difficult tasks, and before
another half-hour had passed, I had the satisfaction of seeing Miss
Knollys entirely restored to that state of placid melancholy which was
the natural expression of her calm but unhappy nature.

We visited the Shell Cabinet, the Blue Parlor, and another room, the
peculiarities of which I have forgotten. Frightened by the result of
leaving me to my own devices, she did not quit me for an instant, and
when, my curiosity quite satisfied, I hinted that a short nap in my own
room would rest me for the evening, she proceeded with me to the door of
my apartment.

"The locksmith whom I saw this morning has not kept his word," I
remarked as she was turning away.

"None of the tradesmen here do that," was her cold answer. "I have given
up expecting having any attention paid to my wants."

"Humph," thought I. "Another pleasant admission. Amelia Butterworth,
this has not been a cheerful day."



XVIII

THE SECOND NIGHT


I cannot say that I looked forward to the night with any very cheerful
anticipations. The locksmith having failed to keep his appointment, I
was likely to have no more protection against intrusion than I had had
the night before, and while I cannot say that I especially feared any
unwelcome entrance into my apartment, I should have gone to my rest with
a greater sense of satisfaction if a key had been in the lock and that
key had been turned by my own hand on my own side of the door.

The atmosphere of gloom which settled down over the household after the
evening meal, seemed like the warning note of something strange and evil
awaiting us. So marked was this, that many in my situation would have
further disturbed these girls by some allusion to the fact. But that was
not the rôle I had set myself to play at this crisis. I remembered what
Mr. Gryce had said about winning their confidence, and though the
turmoil evident in Lucetta's mind and the distraction visible even in
the careful Miss Knollys led me to expect a culmination of some kind
before the night was over, I not only hid my recognition of this fact,
but succeeded in sufficiently impressing them with the contentment which
my own petty employments afforded me (I am never idle even in other
persons' houses) for them to spare me the harassment of their alternate
visits, which, in their present mood and mine promised little in the way
of increased knowledge of their purposes and much in the way of
distraction and the loss of that nerve upon which I calculated for a
successful issue out of the possible difficulties of this night.

Had I been a woman of ordinary courage, I would have sounded three
premonitory notes upon my whistle before blowing out my candle, but
while I am not lacking, I hope, in many of the finer feminine qualities
which link me to my sex, I have but few of that sex's weaknesses and
none of its instinctive reliance upon others which leads it so often to
neglect its own resources. Till I saw good reasons for summoning the
police, I proposed to preserve a discreet silence, a premature alarm
being in their eyes, as I knew from many talks with Mr. Gryce, the one
thing suggestive of a timid and inexperienced mind.

Hannah had brought me a delicious cup of tea at ten, the influence of
which was to make me very drowsy at eleven, but I shook this weakness
off and began my night's watch in a state of stern composure which I
verily believe would have awakened Mr. Gryce's admiration had it been
consonant with the proprieties for him to have seen it. Indeed the very
seriousness of the occasion was such that I could not have trembled if I
would, every nerve and faculty being strained to their utmost to make
the most of every sound which might arise in the now silent and
discreetly darkened house.

I had purposely omitted the precaution of pushing my bed against the
door of my room, as I had done the night before, being anxious to find
myself in a position to cross its threshold at the least alarm. That
this would come, I felt positive, for Hannah in leaving my room had
taken pains to say, in unconscious imitation of what Miss Knollys had
remarked the night before:

"Don't let any queer sounds you may hear disturb you, Miss Butterworth.
There's nothing to hurt you in this house; nothing at all." An
admonition which I am sure her young mistresses would not have allowed
her to utter if they had been made acquainted with her intention.

But though in a state of high expectation, and listening, as I supposed,
with every faculty alert, the sounds I apprehended delayed so long that
I began after an hour or two unaccountably to nod in my chair, and
before I knew it I was asleep, with the whistle in my hand and my feet
pressed against the panels of the door I had set myself to guard. How
deep that sleep was or how long I indulged in it, I can only judge from
the state of emotion in which I found myself when I suddenly woke. I was
sitting there still, but my usually calm frame was in a violent tremble,
and I found it difficult to stir, much more to speak. Some one or
something was at my door.

An instant and my powerful nature would have asserted itself, but before
this could happen the stealthy step drew nearer, and I heard the quiet,
almost noiseless, insertion of a key into the lock, and the quick turn
which made me a prisoner.

This, with the indignation it caused, brought me quickly to myself. So
the door had a key after all, and this was the use it was reserved for.
Rising quickly to my feet, I shouted out the names of Loreen, Lucetta,
and William, but received no other response than the rapid withdrawal of
feet down the corridor. Then I felt for the whistle, which had somehow
slipped from my hand, but failed to find it in the darkness, nor when I
went to search for the matches to relight the candle I had left standing
on a table near by, could I by any means succeed in igniting one, so
that I presently had the pleasure of finding myself shut up in my room,
with no means of communicating with the world outside and with no light
to render the situation tolerable. This was having the tables turned
upon me with a vengeance and in a way for which I could not account. I
could understand why they had locked me in the room and why they had not
heeded my cry of indignant appeal, but I could not comprehend how my
whistle came to be gone, nor why the matches, which were sufficiently
plentiful in the safe, refused one and all to perform their office.

On these points I felt it necessary to come to some sort of conclusion
before I proceeded to invent some way out of my difficulties. So,
dropping on my knees by the chair in which I had been sitting, I began a
quiet search for the petty object upon which, nevertheless, hung not my
safety perhaps, but all chances of success in an undertaking which was
every moment growing more serious. I did not find it, but I did find
where it had gone. In the floor near the door, my hand encountered a
hole which had been covered up by a rug early in the evening, but which
I now distinctly remembered having pushed aside with my feet when I took
my seat there. This aperture was not large, but it was so deep that my
hand failed to reach to the bottom of it; and into this hole by some
freak of chance had slipped the small whistle I had so indiscreetly
taken into my hand. The mystery of the matches was less easy of
solution; so I let it go after a moment of indecisive thought and bent
my energies once again to listen, when suddenly and without the least
warning there rose from somewhere in the house a cry so wild and
unearthly that I started up appalled, and for a moment could not tell
whether I was laboring under some fearful dream or a still more fearful
reality.

A rushing of feet in the distance and an involuntary murmur of voices
soon satisfied me, however, on this score, and drawing upon every energy
I possessed, I listened for a renewal of the cry which was yet curdling
my blood. But none came, and presently all was as still as if no sound
had arisen to disturb the midnight, though every fibre in my body told
me that the event I had feared--the event of which I hardly dared
mention the character even to myself--had taken place, and that I, who
was sent there to forestall it, was not only a prisoner in my room, but
a prisoner through my own folly and my inordinate love of tea.

The anger with which I contemplated this fact, and the remorse I felt at
the consequences which had befallen the innocent victim whose scream I
had just heard, made me very wide-awake indeed, and after an ineffectual
effort to make my voice heard from the window, I called my usual
philosophy to my aid and decided that since the worst had happened and
I, a prisoner, had to await events like any other weak and defenceless
woman, I might as well do it with calmness and in a way to win my own
approval at least. The dupe of William and his sisters, I would not be
the dupe of my own fears or even of my own regrets.

The consequence was a renewed equanimity and a gentle brooding over the
one event of the day which brought no regret in its train. The ride with
Mr. Trohm, and the acquaintanceship to which it had led, were topics
upon which I could rest with great soothing effect through the weary
hours stretching between me and daylight. Consequently of Mr. Trohm I
thought.

Whether the almost deathly quiet into which the house had now fallen, or
the comforting nature of my meditations held inexorably to the topic I
had chosen, acted as a soporific upon me I cannot tell, but greatly as I
dislike to admit it, feeling sure that you will expect to hear I kept
myself awake all that night, I insensibly sank from great alertness to
an easy indifference to my surroundings, and from that to vague dreams
in which beds of lilies and trellises covered with roses mingled
strangely with narrow, winding staircases whose tops ended in the
swaying branches of great trees; and so, into quiet and a nothingness
that were only broken into by a rap at my door and a cheerful:

"Eight o'clock, ma'am. The young ladies are waiting."

I bounded, literally bounded from my chair. Such a summons, after such a
night! What did it mean? I was sitting half dressed in my chair before
my door in a straightened and uncomfortable attitude, and therefore had
not dreamed that I had been upon the watch all night, yet the sunshine
in the room, the cheery tones such as I had not heard even from this
woman before, seemed to argue that my imagination had played me false
and that no horrors had come to disturb my rest or render my waking
distressing.

Stretching out my hand toward the door, I was about to open it, when I
bethought me.

"Turn the key in the lock," said I. "Somebody was careful enough of my
safety to fasten me in last night."

An exclamation of astonishment came from outside the door.

"There is no key here, ma'am. The door is not locked. Shall I open it
and come in?"

I was about to say yes in my anxiety to talk to the woman, but
remembering that nothing was to be gained by letting it be seen to what
an extent I had carried my suspicions, I hastily disrobed and crept into
bed. Pulling the coverings about me, I assumed a comfortable attitude
and then cried:

"Come in."

The door immediately opened.

"There, ma'am! What did I tell you? Locked?--this door? Why, the key has
been lost for months."

"I cannot help it," I protested, but with little if any asperity, for it
did not suit me that she should see I was moved by any extraordinary
feeling. "A key was put in that lock about midnight, and I was locked
in. It was about the time some one screamed in your own part of the
house."

"Screamed?" Her brows took a fine pucker of perplexity. "Oh, that must
have been Miss Lucetta."

"Lucetta?"

"Yes, ma'am; she had an attack, I believe. Poor Miss Lucetta! She often
has attacks like that."

Confounded, for the woman spoke so naturally that only a suspicious
nature like mine would fail to have been deceived by it, I raised myself
on my elbow and gave her an indignant look.

"Yet you said just now that the young ladies were expecting me to
breakfast."

"Yes, and why not?" Her look was absolutely guileless. "Miss Lucetta
sometimes keeps us up half the night, but she does not miss breakfast on
that account. When the turn is over, she is as well as ever she was. A
fine young lady, Miss Lucetta. I'd lose my two hands for her any day."

"She certainly is a remarkable girl," I declared, not, however, as dryly
as I felt. "I can hardly believe I dreamed about the key. Let me feel of
your pocket," I laughed.

She, without the smallest hesitancy, pulled aside her apron.

"I am sorry you put so little confidence in my word, ma'am, but Lor' me,
what you heard is nothing to what some of our guests have complained
of--in the days, I mean, when we did have guests. I have known them to
scream out themselves in the middle of the night and vow they saw white
figures creeping up and down the halls--all nonsense, ma'am, but
believed in by some folks. You don't look as if you believed in ghosts."

"And I don't," I said, "not a whit. It would be a poor way to try to
frighten me. How is Mr. William this morning?"

"Oh, he's well and feeding the dogs, ma'am. What made you think of him?"

"Politeness, Hannah," I found myself forced to say. "He's the only man
in the house. Why shouldn't I think of him?"

She fingered her apron a minute and laughed.

"I didn't know you liked him. He's so rough, it isn't everybody who
understands him," she said.

"Must one understand a person to like him?" I queried good-humoredly. I
was beginning to think I might have dreamed about that key.

"I don't know," she said, "I don't always understand Miss Lucetta, but I
like her through and through, ma'am, as I like this little finger," and
holding up this member to my inspection, she crossed the room for my
water-pitcher, which she proposed to fill with hot water.

I followed her closely with my eyes. When she came back, I saw her
attention caught by the break in the flooring, which she had not noticed
on entering.

"Oh," she exclaimed, "what a shame!" her honest face coloring as she
drew the rug back over the small black gap. "I am sure, ma'am," she
cried, "you must think very poorly of us. But I assure you, ma'am, it's
honest poverty, nothing but honest poverty as makes them so neglectful,"
and with an air as far removed from mystery as her frank, good-natured
manner seemed to be from falsehood, she slid from the room with a kind:

"Don't hurry, ma'am. It is Miss Knollys' turn in the kitchen, and she
isn't as quick as Miss Lucetta."

"Humph," thought I, "supposing I had called in the police."

But by the time she had returned with the water, my doubts had
reawakened. She was not changed in manner, though I have no doubt she
had recounted all that I had said, below, but I was, for I remembered
the matches and thought I saw a way of tripping her up in her
self-complacency.

Just as she was leaving me for the second time I called her back.

"What is the matter with your matches?" I asked. "I couldn't make them
light last night."

With a wholly undisturbed countenance she turned toward the bureau and
took up the china trinket that held the few remaining matches I had not
scraped on the piece of sandpaper I myself had fastened up alongside the
door. A sheepish cry of dismay at once escaped her.

"Why, these are old matches!" she declared, showing me the box in which
a half-dozen or so burned matches stood with their burned tops all
turned down.

"I thought they were all right. I'm afraid we are a little short of
matches."

I did not like to tell her what I thought about it, but it made me
doubly anxious to join the young ladies at breakfast and judge for
myself from their conduct and expression if I had been deceived by my
own fears into taking for realities the phantasies of a nightmare, or
whether I was correct in ascribing to fact that episode of the key with
all the possibilities that lay behind it.

I did not let my anxiety, however, stand in the way of my duty. Mr.
Gryce had bid me carry the whistle he had sent me constantly about my
person, and I felt that he would have the right to reproach me if I left
my room without making some endeavor to recover this lost article. How
to do this without aid or appliances of any kind was a problem. I knew
where it was, but I could not see it, much less reach it. Besides, they
were waiting for me--never a pleasant thought. It occurred to me that I
might lower into the hole a lighted candle hung by a string.

Looking over my effects, I chose out a hairpin, a candle, and two corset
laces, (Pardon me. I am as modest as most of my sex, but I am not
squeamish. Corset laces are strings, and as such only I present them to
your notice.) I should like to have added a button-hook to my
collection, but not having as yet discarded the neatly laced boot of my
ancestor, I could only produce a small article from my toilet-service
which shall remain unmentioned, as I presently discarded it and turned
my whole attention to the other objects I have named. A poor array, but
out of them I hoped to find the means of fishing up my lost whistle.

My intention was to lower first a lighted candle into the hole by means
of a string tied about its middle, then to drop a line on the whistle
thus discovered and draw it up with the point of a bent hairpin, which I
fondly hoped I could make do the service of a hook. To think was to try.
The candle was soon down in the hole, and by its light the whistle was
easily seen. The string and bent hairpin went down next. I was
successful in hooking the prize and proceeded to pull it up with great
care. For an instant I realized what a ridiculous figure I was cutting,
stooping over a hole in the floor on both knees, a string in each hand,
leading apparently to nowhere, and I at work cautiously steadying one
and as carefully pulling on the other. Having hooked the string holding
the whistle over the first finger of the hand holding the candle, I may
have become too self-conscious to notice the slight release of weight on
the whistle hand. Whatever the reason, when the end of the string came
in sight there was no whistle on it. The charred end showed me that the
candle had burned the cord, letting the whistle fall again out of reach.
Down went the candle again. It touched bottom, but no whistle was to be
seen. After a long and fruitless search, I concluded to abandon my
whistle-fishing excursion, and, rising from my cramped and undignified
position, I proceeded to pull up the candle. To my surprise and delight,
I found the whistle firmly stuck to the lower side of it. Some drops of
candle grease had fallen upon the whistle where it lay. The candle
coming in contact with it, the two had adhered, and I became indebted to
accident rather than to acumen for the restoration of the precious
article.



XIX

A KNOT OF CRAPE


I was prepared for some change in the appearance of my young hostesses,
but not for so great a one as I saw on entering the dining-room that
memorable morning. The blinds, which were always half closed, were now
wide open, and under the cheerful influence of the light which was thus
allowed to enter, the table and all its appointments had a much less
dreary look than before. Behind the urn sat Miss Knollys, with a smile
on her lips, and in the window William stood whistling a cheerful air,
unrebuked. Lucetta was not present, but to my great astonishment she
presently walked in with her hands laden with sprays of morning-glory,
which she flung down in the centre of the board. It was the first time I
had seen any attempt made by any of them to lighten the sombreness of
their surroundings, and it was also the first time I had seen the three
together.

I was more disconcerted by this simple show of improved spirits than I
like to acknowledge. In the first place, they were natural and not
forced; and, secondly, they were to all appearance unconscious.

They were not marked enough to show relief, and in Lucetta especially
did not serve to hide the underlying melancholy of a disappointed girl,
yet it was not what I expected from my supposed experiences of the
night, and led me to answer a little warily when, with a frank laugh,
Loreen exclaimed:

"So you have lost your character as a practical woman, Miss Butterworth?
Hannah tells me you were the victim of a ghostly visit last night."

"Hannah gossips unmercifully," was my cautious and somewhat peevish
reply. "If I chose to dream that I was locked into my room by some
erratic spectre, I cannot see why she should take the confession of my
folly out of my mouth. I was going to relate the fact myself, with all
the accompaniments of rushing steps and wild and unearthly cries which
are expected by the listeners to a veritable ghost story. But now I have
simply to defend myself from a charge of credulity. It's too bad, Miss
Knollys, much too bad. I did not come to a haunted house for this."

My manner, rather than my words, seemed to completely deceive them.
Perhaps it deceived myself, for I began to feel a loss of the depression
which had weighed upon me ever since that scream rang in my ears at
midnight. It disappeared still further when Lucetta said:

"If your ramblings through the old rooms on this floor were the occasion
of this nightmare, you must be prepared for a recurrence of the same
to-night, for I am going to take you through the upper rooms myself this
morning. Isn't that the programme, Loreen? Or have you changed your mind
and planned a drive for Miss Butterworth?"

"She shall do both," Loreen answered. "When she is tired of tramping
through dusty chambers and examining the decayed remnants of old
furniture which encumber them, William stands ready to drive her over
the hills, where she will find views well worth her attention."

"Thank you," said I. "It is a pleasant prospect." But inwardly I uttered
anything but thanks; rather asked myself if I had not played the part of
a fool in ascribing so much importance to the events of the past night,
and decided almost without an argument that I had.

However, beliefs die hard in a mind like mine, and though I was ready to
consider that an inflamed imagination may often carry us beyond the
bounds of fact and even into the realm of fancy and misconception, I yet
was not ready to give up my suspicions altogether, or to acknowledge
that I had no foundation for the fear that something uncanny if not
awful had taken place under this roof the night before. The very
naturalness I observed in this hitherto restrained trio might be the
result of the removal of some great strain, and if that was the
case--Ah, well, alertness is the motto of the truly wise. It is when
vigilance sleeps that the enemy gains the victory. I would not let
myself be deceived even at the cost of a little ridicule. Amelia
Butterworth was still awake, even under a semblance of well-laid
suspicion.

My footsteps were not dogged after this as they had hitherto been in my
movements about the house. I was allowed to go and come and even to
stray into the second long corridor, without any other let than my own
discretion and good breeding. Lucetta joined me, to be sure, after a
while, but only as guide and companion. She took me into rooms I forgot
the next minute, and into others I remember to this day as quaint
memorials of a past ever and always interesting to me. We ransacked the
house, yet after all was over and I sat down to rest in my own room, two
formidable questions rose in my mind for which I found no satisfactory
answer. Why, with so many more or less attractive bedchambers at their
command, had they chosen to put me into a hole, where the very flooring
was unsafe, and the outlook the most dismal that could be imagined? and
why, in all our peregrinations in and out of rooms, had we always passed
one door without entering? She had said that it was William's--a
sufficient explanation, if true, and I have no doubt it was,--but the
change of countenance with which she passed it and the sudden lightening
of her tread (so instinctive that she was totally unconscious of it)
marked that door as one it would be my duty to enter if fate should yet
give me the opportunity. That it was the one in communication with the
Flower Parlor I felt satisfied, but in order to make assurance doubly
sure I resolved upon a tour through the shrubbery outside, that I might
compare the location of the window having the chipped blind with that of
this room, which was, as well as I could calculate, the third from the
rear on the left-hand side.

When, therefore, William called up to know if I was ready for my drive,
I answered back that I found myself very tired and would be glad to
exchange the pleasure he offered, for a visit to the stables.

This, as I expected, caused considerable comment and some disturbance.
They wanted me to repeat my experience of the day before and spend two
if not more hours of the morning out of the house. But I did not mean to
gratify them. Indeed I felt that my duty held me to the house, and was
so persistent in my wishes, or rather in my declaration of them, that
all opposition had to give way, even in the stubborn William.

"I thought you had a dread of dogs," was the final remark with which he
endeavored to turn me aside from my purpose. "I have three in the barn
and two in the stable, and they make a great fuss when I come around, I
assure you."

"Then they will have enough to do without noticing me," said I, with a
brazen assumption of courage sufficiently surprising if I had had any
real intention of invading a place so guarded. But I had not. I no more
meant to enter the stables than to jump off the housetop, but it was
necessary that I should start for them and make the start from the left
wing of the house.

How I managed the intractable William and led him as I did from bush to
bush and shrub to shrub, up and down the length of that interminable
façade of the left wing, would make an interesting story in itself. The
curiosity I showed in plants, even such plants as had survived the
neglect that had made a wilderness of this old-time garden; the
indifference which, contrary to all my habits, I persisted in
manifesting to every inconvenience I encountered in the way of
straightforward walking to any object I set my fancy upon examining; the
knowledge I exhibited, and the interest which I took it for granted he
felt in all I discovered and all I imparted to him, would form the basis
of a farce of no ordinary merit had it not had its birth in interests
and intents bordering on the tragic.

A row of bushes of various species ran along the wall and covered in
some instances the lower ledges of the first row of windows. As I made
for a certain shrub which I had observed growing near what I supposed to
be the casement from whose blind I had chipped a small sliver, I allowed
my enthusiasm to bubble over, in my evident desire to display my
erudition.

"This," said I, "is, without any doubt at all, a stunted but undoubted
specimen of that rare tree found seldom north of the thirtieth degree,
the _Magnolia grandiflora_. I have never seen it but once before, and
that was in the botanical gardens in Washington. Note its leaves. You
have noted its flowers, smaller undoubtedly than they should be--but
then you must acknowledge it has been in a measure neglected--are they
not fine?"

Here I pulled a branch down which interfered with my view of the window.
There was no chip visible in the blinds thus discovered. Seeing this, I
let the branch go. "But the oddest feature of this tree and one with
which you are perhaps not acquainted" (I wonder if anybody is?) "is that
it will not grow within twenty feet of any plant which scatters pollen.
See for yourself. This next shrub bears no flower" (I was moving along
the wall), "nor this." I drew down a branch as I spoke, caught sight of
the mark I was looking for, and let the bough spring back. I had found
the window I wanted.

His grunts and groans during all this formed a running accompaniment
which would have afforded me great secret amusement had my purpose been
less serious. As it was, I could pay but little attention to him,
especially after I had stepped back far enough to take a glance at the
window over the one I had just located as that of the Flower Parlor. It
was, as I expected, the third one from the rear corner; but it was not
this fact which gave me a thrill of feeling so strong that I have never
had harder work to preserve my equanimity. _It was the knot of black
crape with which the shutters were tied together._



XX

QUESTIONS


I kept the promise I had made to myself and did not go to the stables.
Had I intended to go there, I could not have done so after the discovery
I have just mentioned. It awakened too many thoughts and contradictory
surmises. If this knot was a signal, for whom was this signal meant? If
it was a mere acknowledgment of death, how reconcile the sentimentality
which prompted such an acknowledgment with the monstrous and diseased
passions lying at the base of the whole dreadful occurrence? Lastly, if
it was the result of pure carelessness, a bit of crape having been
caught up and used for a purpose for which any ordinary string would
have answered, what a wonderful coincidence between it and my
thoughts,--a coincidence, indeed, amounting almost to miracle!

Marvelling at the whole affair and deciding nothing, I allowed myself to
stroll down alone to the gate, William having left me at my peremptory
refusal to drag my skirts any longer through the briers. The day being
bright and the sunshine warm, the road looked less gloomy than usual,
especially in the direction of the village and Deacon Spear's cottage.
The fact is, that anything seemed better than the grim and lowering
walls of the house behind me. If my home was there, so was my dread, and
I welcomed the sight of Mother Jane's heavy figure bent over her herbs
at the door of her hut, a few paces to my left, where the road turned.

Had she not been deaf, I believed I would have called her. As it was, I
contented myself with watching the awkward swayings of her body as she
pottered to and fro among her turnips and carrots. My eyes were still on
her when I suddenly heard the clatter of a horse's hoofs on the highway.
Looking up, I encountered the trim figure of Mr. Trohm, bending to me
from a fine sorrel.

"Good morning, Miss Butterworth. It's a great relief to me to see you in
such good health and spirits this morning," were the pleasant words with
which he endeavored, perhaps, to explain his presence in a spot more or
less under a ban.

It was certainly a surprise. What right had I to look for such
attentions from a man whose acquaintance I had made only the day before?
It touched me, little as I am in the habit of allowing myself to be
ruled by trivial sentimentalities, and though I was discreet enough to
avoid any further recognition of his kindness than was his due from a
lady of great self-respect, he was evidently sufficiently gratified by
my response to draw rein and pause for a moment's conversation under the
pine trees. This for the moment seemed so natural that I forgot that
more than one pair of eyes might be watching me from the windows behind
us--eyes which might wonder at a meeting which to the foolish
understandings of the young might have the look of premeditation. But,
pshaw! I am talking as if I were twenty instead of--Well, I will leave
you to consult our family record on that point. There are certain
secrets which even the wisest among us cannot be blamed for preserving.

"How did you pass the night?" was Mr. Trohm's first question. "I hope in
all due peace and quiet."

"Thank you," I returned, not seeing why I should increase his anxiety in
my regard. "I have nothing to complain of. I had a dream; but dreams are
to be expected where one has to pass a half-dozen empty rooms to one's
apartment."

He could not restrain his curiosity.

"A dream!" he repeated. "I do not believe in sleep that is broken by
dreams, unless they are of the most cheerful sort possible. And I judge
from what you say that yours were not cheerful."

I wanted to confide in him. I felt that in a way he had a right to know
what had happened to me, or what I thought had happened to me, under
this roof. And yet I did not speak. What I could tell would sound so
puerile in the broad sunshine that enveloped us. I merely remarked that
cheerfulness was not to be expected in a domicile so given over to the
ravages of time, and then with that lightness and versatility which
characterize me under certain exigencies, I introduced a topic we could
discuss without any embarrassment to himself or me.

"Do you see Mother Jane over there?" I asked. "I had some talk with her
yesterday. She seems like a harmless imbecile."

"Very harmless," he acquiesced; "her only fault is greed; that is
insatiable. Yet it is not strong enough to take her a quarter of a mile
from this place. Nothing could do that, I think. She believes that her
daughter Lizzie is still alive and will come back to the hut some day.
It's very sad when you think that the girl's dead, and has been dead
nearly forty years."

"Why does she harp on numbers?" I asked. "I heard her mutter certain
ones over and over."

"That is a mystery none of us have ever been able to solve," said he.
"Possibly she has no reason for it. The vagaries of the witless are
often quite unaccountable."

He remained looking at me long after he had finished speaking, not, I
felt sure, from any connection he found between what he had just said
and anything to be observed in me, but from--Well, I was glad that I had
been carefully trained in my youth to pay the greatest attention to my
morning toilets. Any woman can look well at night and many women in the
flush of a bright afternoon, but the woman who looks well in the morning
needs not always to be young to attract the appreciative gaze of a man
of real penetration. Mr. Trohm was such a man, and I did not begrudge
him the pleasure he showed in my neat gray silk and carefully adjusted
collar. But he said nothing, and a short silence ensued, which was
perhaps more of a compliment than otherwise. Then he uttered a short
sigh and lifted the reins.

"If only I were not debarred from entering," he smiled, with a short
gesture toward the house.

I did not answer. Even I understand that on occasion the tongue plays
but a sorry part in interviews of this nature.

He sighed again and uttered some short encouragement to his horse, which
started that animal up and sent him slowly pacing down the road toward
the cheerful clearing whither my own eyes were looking with what I was
determined should not be construed even by the most sanguine into a
glance of anything like wistfulness. As he went he made a bow I have
never seen surpassed in my own parlor in Gramercy Park, and upon my
bestowing upon him a return nod, glanced up at the house with an
intentness which seemed to increase as some object, invisible to me at
that moment, caught his eye. As that eye was directed toward the left
wing, and lifted as far as the second row of windows, I could not help
asking myself if he had seen the knot of crape which had produced upon
me so lugubrious an impression. Before I could make sure of this he had
passed from sight, and the highway fell again into shadow--why, I hardly
knew, for the sun certainly had been shining a few minutes before.



XXI

MOTHER JANE


"Well, well, what did Trohm want here this morning?" cried a harsh voice
from amid the tangled walks behind me. "Seems to me he finds this place
pretty interesting all of a sudden."

I turned upon the intruder with a look that should have daunted him.
I had recognized William's courteous tones and was in no mood to
endure a questioning so unbecoming in one of his age to one of mine.
But as I met his eye, which had something in it besides anger and
suspicion--something that was quizzical if not impertinent--I changed my
intention and bestowed upon him a conciliatory smile, which I hope
escaped the eye of the good angel who records against man all his small
hypocrisies and petty deceits.

"Mr. Trohm rides for his health," said I. "Seeing me looking up the road
at Mother Jane, he stopped to tell me some of the idiosyncrasies of that
old woman. A very harmless courtesy, Mr. Knollys."

"Very," he echoed, not without a touch of sarcasm. "I only hope that is
all," he muttered, with a sidelong look back at the house. "Lucetta
hasn't a particle of belief in that man's friendship, or, rather, she
believes he never goes anywhere without a particular intention, and
I do believe she's right, or why should he come spying around here
just at a time when"--he caught himself up with almost a look of
terror--"when--when you are here?" he completed lamely.

"I do not think," I retorted, more angrily than the occasion perhaps
warranted, "that the word spying applies to Mr. Trohm. But if it does,
what has he to gain from a pause at the gate and a word to such a new
acquaintance as I am?"

"I don't know," William persisted suspiciously. "Trohm's a sharp fellow.
If there was anything to see, he would see it without half looking. But
there isn't. You don't know of anything wrong here, do you, which such a
man as that, hand in glove with the police as we know him to be, might
consider himself interested in?"

Astonished both at this blundering committal of himself and at the
certain sort of anxious confidence he showed in me, I hesitated for a
moment, but only for a moment, since, if half my suspicions were true,
this man must not know that my perspicacity was more to be feared than
even Mr. Trohm's was.

"If Mr. Trohm shows an increased interest in this household during the
last two days," said I, with a heroic defiance of ridicule which I hope
Mr. Gryce has duly appreciated, "I beg leave to call your attention to
the fact that on yesterday morning he came to deliver a letter addressed
to me which had inadvertently been left at his house, and that this
morning he called to inquire how I had spent the night, which, in
consideration of the ghosts which are said to haunt this house and the
strange and uncanny apparitions which only three nights ago made the
entrance to this lane hideous to one pair of eyes at least, should not
cause a gentleman's son like yourself any astonishment. It does not seem
odd to me, I assure you."

He laughed. I meant he should, and, losing almost instantly his air of
doubt and suspicion, turned toward the gate from which I had just moved
away, muttering:

"Well, it's a small matter to me anyway. It's only the girls that are
afraid of Mr. Trohm. I am not afraid of anything but losing Saracen, who
has pined like the deuce at his long confinement in the court. Hear him
now; just hear him."

And I could hear the low and unhappy moaning of the hound distinctly. It
was not a pleasant sound, and I was almost tempted to bid William
unloose the dog, but thought better of it.

"By the way," said he, "speaking of Mother Jane, I have a message to her
from the girls. You will excuse me if I speak to the poor woman."

Alarmed by his politeness more than I ever have been by his roughness
and inconsiderate sarcasms, I surveyed him inquiringly as he left the
gate, and did not know whether to stand my ground or retreat to the
house. I decided to stand my ground; a message to this woman seeming to
me a matter of some interest.

I was glad I did, for after some five minutes' absence, during which he
had followed her into the house, I saw him come back again in a state of
sullen displeasure, which, however, partially disappeared when he saw me
still standing by the gate.

"Ah, Miss Butterworth, you can do me a favor. The old creature is in one
of her stubborn fits to-day, and won't give me a hearing. She may not be
so deaf to you; she isn't apt to be to women. Will you cross the road
and speak to her? I will go with you. You needn't be afraid."

The way he said this, the confidence he expected to inspire, had almost
a ghastly effect upon me. Did he know or suspect that the only thing I
feared in this lane was he? Evidently not, for he met my eye quite
confidently.

It would not do to shake his faith at such a moment as this, so calling
upon Providence to see me safely through this adventure, I stepped into
the highway and went with him into Mother Jane's cottage.

Had I been favored with any other companion than himself, I should have
been glad of this opportunity. As it was, I found myself ignoring any
possible danger I might be running, in my interest in the remarkable
interior to which I was thus introduced.

Having been told that Mother Jane was poor, I had expected to confront
squalor and possibly filth, but I never have entered a cleaner place or
one in which order made the poorest belongings look more decent. The
four walls were unfinished, and so were the rafters which formed the
ceiling, but the floor, neatly laid in brick, was spotless, and the
fireplace, also of brick, was as deftly swept as one could expect from
the little scrub I saw hanging by its side. Crouched within this
fireplace sat the old woman we had come to interview. Her back was to
us, and she looked helplessly and hopelessly deaf.

"Ask her," said William, pointing towards her with a rude gesture, "if
she will come to the house at sunset. My sisters have some work for her
to do. They will pay her well."

Advancing at his bidding, I passed a rocking-chair, in the cushion of
which a dozen patches met my eye. This drew my eyes toward a bed, over
which a counterpane was drawn, made up of a thousand or more pieces of
colored calico, and noticing their varied shapes and the intricacy with
which they were put together, I wondered whether she ever counted them.
The next moment I was at her back.

"Seventy," burst from her lips as I leaned over her shoulder and showed
her the coin which I had taken pains to have in my hand.

"Yours," I announced, pointing in the direction of the house, "if you
will do some work for Miss Knollys to-night."

Slowly she shook her head before burying it deeper in the shawl she wore
wrapped about her shoulders. Listening a minute, I thought I heard her
mutter: "Twenty-eight, ten, but no more. I can count no more. Go away!"

But I'm nothing if not persistent. Feeling for her hands, which were
hidden away somewhere under her shawl, I touched them with the coin and
cried again:

"This and more for a small piece of work to-night. Come, you are strong;
earn it."

"What kind of work is it?" I asked innocently, or it must have appeared
innocently, of Mr. Knollys, who was standing at my back.

He frowned, all the black devils in his heart coming into his look at
once.

"How do I know! Ask Loreen; she's the one who sent me. I don't take
account of what goes on in the kitchen."

I begged his pardon, somewhat sarcastically I own, and made another
attempt to attract the attention of the old crone, who had remained
perfectly callous to my allurements.

"I thought you liked money," I said. "For Lizzie, you know, for Lizzie."

But she only muttered in lower and lower gutturals, "I can count no
more"; and, disgusted at my failure, being one who accounts failure as
little short of disgrace, I drew back and made my way toward the door,
saying: "She's in a different mood from what she was yesterday when she
snatched a quarter from me at the first intimation it was hers. I don't
think you can get her to do any work to-night. Innocents take these
freaks. Isn't there some one else you can call in?"

The scowl that disfigured his none too handsome features was a fitting
prelude to his words.

"You talk," said he, "as if we had the whole village at our command. How
did you succeed with the locksmith yesterday? Came, didn't he? Well,
that's what we have to expect whenever we want any help."

Whirling on his heel, he led the way out of the hut, whither I would
have immediately followed him if I had not stopped to take another look
at the room, which struck me, even upon a second scrutiny, as one of the
best ordered and best kept I had ever entered. Even the strings and
strings of dried fruits and vegetables, which hung in festoons from
every beam of the roof, were free from dust and cobwebs, and though the
dishes were few and the pans scarce, they were bright and speckless,
giving to the shelf along which they were ranged a semblance of
ornament.

"Wise enough to keep her house in order," thought I, and actually found
it hard to leave, so attractive to my eyes are absolute neatness and
order.

William was pushing at his own gate when I joined him. He looked as if
he wished I had spent the morning with Mother Jane, and was barely civil
in our walk up to the house. I was not, therefore, surprised when he
burst into a volley of oaths at the doorway and turned upon me almost as
if he would forbid me the house, for tap, tap, tap, from some distant
quarter came a distinct sound like that of nails being driven into a
plank.



XXII

THE THIRD NIGHT


Mother Jane must have changed her mind after we left her. For late in
the evening I caught a glimpse of her burly figure in the kitchen as I
went to give Hannah some instructions concerning certain little changes
in the housekeeping arrangements which the girls and I had agreed were
necessary to our mutual comfort.

I wished to address the old crone, but warned, by the ill-concealed
defiance with which Hannah met my advances, that any such attempt on my
part would be met by anything but her accustomed good-nature, I
refrained from showing my interest in her strange visitor, or from even
appearing conscious of her own secret anxieties and evident
preoccupation.

Loreen and Lucetta exchanged a meaning look as I rejoined them in the
sitting-room; but my volubility in regard to the domestic affair which
had just taken me to the kitchen seemed to speedily reassure them, and
when a few minutes later I said good-night and prepared to leave the
room, it was with the conviction that I had relieved their mind at the
expense of my own. Mother Jane in the kitchen at this late hour meant
business. What that business was, I seemed to know only too well.

I had formed a plan for the night which required some courage. Recalling
Lucetta's expression of the morning, that I might expect a repetition of
the former night's experiences, I prepared to profit by the warning in a
way she little meant. Satisfied that if there was any truth in the
suspicions I had formed, there would be an act performed in this house
to-night which, if seen by me, would forever settle the question
agitating the whole countryside, I made up my mind that no locked door
should interfere with my opportunity of doing so. How I effected this
result I will presently relate.

Lucetta had accompanied me to my door with a lighted candle.

"I hear you had some trouble with matches last night," said she. "You
will find them all right now. Hannah must be blamed for some of this
carelessness." Then as I began some reassuring reply, she turned upon me
with a look that was almost fond, and, throwing out her arms, cried
entreatingly: "Won't you give me a little kiss, Miss Butterworth? We
have not given you the best of welcomes, but you are my mother's old
friend, and sometimes I feel a little lonely."

I could easily believe that, and yet I found it hard to embrace her. Too
many shadows swam between Althea's children and myself. She saw my
hesitancy (a hesitancy I could not but have shown even at the risk of
losing her confidence), and, paling slightly, dropped her hands with a
pitiful smile.

"You don't like me," she said. "I do not wonder, but I was in hopes you
would for my mother's sake. I have no claims myself."

"You are an interesting girl, and you have, what your mother had not, a
serious side to your nature that is anything but displeasing to me. But
my kisses, Lucetta, are as rare as my tears. I had rather give you good
advice, and that is a fact. Perhaps it is as strong a proof of affection
as any ordinary caress would be."

"Perhaps," she assented, but she did not encourage me to give it to her
notwithstanding. Instead of that, she drew back and bade me a gentle
good-night, which for some reason made me sadder than I wished to be at
a crisis demanding so much nerve. Then she walked quickly away, and I
was left to face the night alone.

Knowing that I should be rather weakened than helped by the omission of
any of the little acts of preparation with which I am accustomed to calm
my spirits for the night, I went through them all, with just as much
precision as if I had expected to spend the ensuing hours in rest. When
all was done and only my cup of tea remained to be quaffed, I had a
little struggle with myself, which ended in my not drinking it at all.
Nothing, not even this comfortable solace for an unsatisfactory day,
should stand in the way of my being the complete mistress of my wits
this night. Had I known that this tea contained a soporific in the shape
of a little harmless morphine, I would have found this act of
self-denial much easier.

It was now eleven. Confident that nothing would be done while my light
was burning, I blew it out, and, taking a candle and some matches in my
hand, softly opened my door and, after a moment of intense listening,
stepped out and closed it carefully behind me. Nothing could be stiller
than the house or darker than the corridor.

"Am I watched or am I not watched?" I queried, and for an instant stood
undecided. Then, seeing nothing and hearing nothing, I slipped down the
hall to the door beyond mine and, opening it with all the care possible,
stepped inside.

I knew the room. I had taken especial note of it in my visit of the
morning. I knew that it was nearly empty and that there was a key in the
lock which I could turn. I therefore felt more or less safe in it,
especially as its window was undarkened by the branches that hung so
thickly across my own casement, shutting me in, or seeming to shut me
in, from all communication with the outside world and the unknown
guardian which I had been assured constantly attended my summons.

That I might strengthen my spirits by one glimpse of this same outside
world, before settling down for the watch I had set for myself, I
stepped softly to the window and took one lingering look without. A belt
of forest illumined by a gibbous moon met my eyes; nothing else. Yet
this sight was welcome, and it was only after I had been struck by the
possibility of my own figure being seen at the casement by some possible
watcher in the shadows below, that I found the hardihood necessary to
withdraw into the darker precincts of the room, and begin that lonely
watch which my doubts and expectations rendered necessary.

This was the third I had been forced to keep, and it was by far the most
dismal; for though the bolted door between me and the hall promised me
personal safety, there presently rose in some far-off place a smothered
repetition of that same tap, tap, tap which had sent the shudders over
me upon my sudden entrance into the house early in the morning. Heard
now, it caused me to tremble in a way I had not supposed possible to one
of my hardy nature, and while with this recognition of my feminine
susceptibility to impressions there came a certain pride in the
stanchness of purpose which led me to restrain all acknowledgment of
fear, by any recourse to my whistle, I was more than glad when even this
sound ceased, and I had only to expect the swishing noise of a skirt
down the hall, and that stealthy locking of the door of the room I had
taken the precaution of leaving.

It came sooner than I expected, came just in the way it had previously
done, only that the person paused a moment to listen before hastening
back. The silence within must have satisfied her, for I heard a low sigh
like that of relief, before the steps took themselves back. That they
would turn my way gave me a momentary concern, but I had too completely
lulled my young hostesses' suspicions, or (let me be faithful to all the
possibilities of the case) they had put too much confidence in the
powder with which they had seasoned my nightly cup of tea, for them to
doubt that I was soundly asleep in my own quarters.

Three minutes later I followed those steps as far down the corridor as I
dared to go. For, since my last appearance in it, a candle had been lit
in the main hall, and faint as was its glimmer, it was still a glimmer
into the circle of which I felt it would be foolhardiness for me to
step. At some twenty paces, then, from the opening, I paused and gave
myself up to listening. Alas, there was plenty now for me to hear.

You have heard the sound; we all have heard the sound, but few of us in
such a desolate structure and at the hour and under the influences of
midnight! The measured tread of men struggling under a heavy weight, and
that weight--how well I knew it! as well as if I had seen it, as I
really did in my imagination.

They advanced from the adjoining corridor, from the room I had as yet
found no opportunity of entering, and they approached surely and slowly
the main hall near which I was standing in such a position as rendered
it impossible for me to see anything if they took the direct course to
the head of the stairs and so down, as there was every reason to expect
they would. I did not dare to draw nearer, however, so concentrated my
faculties anew upon listening, when suddenly I perceived on the great
white wall in front of me--the wall of the main hall, I mean, toward
which the opening looked--the shapeless outline of a drooping head, and
realized that the candle had been placed in such a position that the
wall must receive the full shadow of the passing cortège.

And thus it was I saw it, huge, distorted, and suggestive beyond any
picture I ever beheld,--the passing of a body to its long home, carried
by six anxious figures, four of which seemed to be those of women.

But that long home! Where was it located--in the house or in the
grounds? It was a question so important that for a moment I could think
of nothing but how I could follow the small procession, without running
the risk of discovery. It had reached the head of the stairs by this
time, and I heard Miss Knollys' low, firm voice enjoining silence. Then
the six bearers began to descend with their burden.

Ere they reached the foot, a doubt struck me. Would it be better to
follow them or to take the opportunity afforded by every member of the
household being engaged in this task, to take a peep into the room where
the death had occurred? I had not decided, when I heard them take the
forward course from the foot of the stairs to what, to my straining ear,
seemed to be the entrance to the dining-room corridor. But as in my
anxiety to determine this fact I slipped far enough forward to make sure
that their destination lay somewhere within reach of the Flower Parlor,
I was so struck by the advantages to be gained by a cautious use of the
trap-door in William's room, that I hesitated no longer, but sped with
what swiftness I could toward the spot from which I had so lately heard
this strange procession advance.

A narrow band of light lying across the upper end of the long corridor,
proved that the door was not only ajar, but that a second candle was
burning in the room I was about to invade; but this was scarcely to
be regretted, since there could be no question of the emptiness of
the room. The six figures I had seen go by embraced every one who
by any possibility could be considered as having part in this
transaction--William, Mr. Simsbury, Miss Knollys, Lucetta, Hannah, and
Mother Jane. No one else was left to guard this room, so I pushed the
door open quite boldly and entered.

What I saw there I will relate later, or, rather, I will but hint at
now. A bed with a sheet thrown back, a stand covered with vials, a
bureau with a man's shaving paraphernalia upon it, and on the wall such
pictures as only sporting gentlemen delight in. The candle was guttering
on a small table upon which, to my astonishment, a Bible lay open. Not
having my glasses with me, I could not see what portion of the sacred
word was thus disclosed, but I took the precaution to indent the upper
leaf with my thumb-nail, so that I might find it again in case of future
opportunity. My attention was attracted by other small matters that
would be food for thought at a more propitious moment, but at that
instant the sound of voices coming distinctly to my ear from below,
warned me that a halt had been made at the Flower Parlor, and that the
duty of the moment was to locate the trap-door and if possible determine
the means of raising it.

This was less difficult than I anticipated. Either this room was
regarded as so safe from intrusion that a secret like this could be
safely left unguarded, or the door which was plainly to be seen in one
corner had been so lately lifted, that it had hardly sunk back into its
place. I found it, if the expression may be used of a horizontal object,
slightly ajar and needing but the slightest pull to make it spring
upright.

The hole thus disclosed was filled with the little staircase up which I
had partly mounted in my daring explorations of the day before. It was
dark now, darker than it was then, but I felt that I must descend by it,
for plainly to be heard now through the crack in the closet door, which
seemed to have a knack of standing partly open, I could hear the heavy
tread of the six bearers as they entered the parlor below, still
carrying their burden, concerning the destination of which I was so
anxious to be informed.

That it could be in the room itself was too improbable for
consideration. Yet if they took up their stand in this room it was for a
purpose, and what that purpose was I was determined to know. The noise
their feet made on the bare boards of the floor and the few words I now
heard uttered in William's stolid tones and Lucetta's musical treble
assured me that my own light steps would no more be heard, than my dark
gown of quiet wool would be seen through the narrow slit through which I
was preparing to peer. Yet it took no small degree of what my father
used to call pluck, for me to put foot on this winding staircase and
descend almost, as it were, into the midst of what I must regard as the
last wicked act of a most cowardly and brutal murder.

I did it, however, and after a short but grim communion with my own
heart, which would persist in beating somewhat noisily, I leaned forward
with all the precaution possible and let my gaze traverse the chamber in
which I had previously seen such horrors as should have prepared me for
this last and greatest one.

In a moment I understood the whole. A long square hole in the floor,
lately sawed, provided an opening through which the plain plank coffin,
of which I now caught sight, was to be lowered into the cellar and so
into the grave which had doubtless been dug there. The ropes in the
hands of the six persons, in whose identity I had made no mistake, was
proof enough of their intention; and, satisfied as I now was of the
means and mode of the interment which had been such a boundless mystery
to me, I shrank a step upward, fearing lest my indignation and the
horror I could not but feel, from this moment on, of Althea's children,
would betray me into some exclamation which might lead to my discovery
and a similar fate.

One other short glance, in which I saw them all ranged around the dark
opening, and I was up out of their reach, Lucetta's face and Lucetta's
one sob as the ropes began to creak, being the one memory which followed
me the most persistently. She, at least, was overwhelmed with remorse
for a deed she was perhaps only answerable for in that she failed to
make known to the world her brother's madness and the horrible crimes to
which it gave rise.

I took one other look around his room before I fled to my own, or
rather, to the one in which I had taken refuge while my own was under
lock and key. That I spent the next two hours on my knees no one can
wonder. When my own room was unlocked, as it was before the day broke, I
hastened to enter it and lay my head with all its unhappy knowledge on
my pillow. But I did not sleep; and, what was stranger still, never once
thought of sounding a single note on the whistle which would have
brought the police into this abode of crime. Perhaps it was a wise
omission. I had seen enough that was horrible that night without
beholding Althea's children arrested before my eyes.



_BOOK III_

FORWARD AND BACK



XXIII

ROOM 3, HOTEL CARTER


I rose at my usual hour. I dressed myself with my usual care. I was, to
a superficial observer at least, in all respects my usual self when
Hannah came to my door to ask what she could do for me. As there was
nothing I wanted but to get out of this house, which had become
unbearable to me, I replied with the utmost cheerfulness that my wants
were all supplied and that I would soon be down, at which she answered
that in that case she must bestir herself or the breakfast would not be
ready, and hurried away.

There was no one in the dining-room when I entered, and judging from
appearances that several minutes must elapse before breakfast would be
ready, I took occasion to stroll through the grounds and glance up at
the window of William's room. The knot of crape was gone.

I would have gone farther, but just then I heard a great rushing and
scampering, and, looking up, saw an enormous dog approaching at full
gallop from the stables. Saracen was loose.

I did not scream or give way to other feminine expressions of fear, but
I did return as quickly as possible to the house, where I now saw I must
remain till William chose to take me into town.

This I was determined should take place as soon after breakfast as
practicable. The knowledge which I now possessed warranted, nay,
demanded, instant consultation with the police, and as this could best
be effected by following out the orders I had received from Mr. Gryce, I
did not consider any other plan than that of meeting the man on duty in
Room No. 3 at the hotel.

Loreen, Lucetta, and William were awaiting me in the hall, and made no
apology for the flurry into which I had been thrown by my rapid escape
from Saracen. Indeed I doubt if they noticed it, for with all the
attempt they made to seem gay and at ease, the anxieties and fatigue of
the foregoing nights were telling upon them, and from Miss Knollys down,
they looked physically exhausted. But they also looked mentally
relieved. In the clear depths of Lucetta's eye there was now no
wavering, and the head which was always turning in anxious anticipation
over her shoulder rested firm, though not as erect as her sister's, who
had less cause perhaps for regret and sorrow.

William was joyful to a degree, but it was a forced joviality which only
became real when he heard a sudden, quick bark under the window and the
sound of scraping paws against the mastic coating of the wall outside.
Then he broke out into a loud laugh of unrestrained pleasure, crying out
thoughtlessly:

"There's Saracen. How quick he knows----"

A warning look from Lucetta stopped him.

"I mean," he stammered, "it's a dull dog that cannot find his master.
Miss Butterworth, you will have to overcome your fear of dogs if you
stay with us long. Saracen is unbound this morning, and"--he used a
great oath--"he's going to remain so."

By which I came to understand that it was not out of consideration for
me he had been tied up in the court till now, but for reasons connected
with their own safety and the preservation of the secret which they so
evidently believed had been buried with the body, which I did not like
to remember lay at that very minute too nearly under our feet for my own
individual comfort.

However, this has nothing to do with the reply I made to William.

"I hope he does not run with the buggy," I objected. "I want to take a
ride very much this morning and could get small pleasure out of it if
that dog must be our companion."

"I cannot go out this morning," William began, but changed his sentence,
possibly at the touch of his sister's foot under the table, into: "But
if you say I must, why, I must. You women folks are so plagued
unreasonable."

Had he been ten years younger I would have boxed his ears; had he been
that much older I would have taken cue and packed my trunk before he
could have finished the cup of coffee he was drinking. But he was just
too old to reprimand in the way just mentioned, and not old enough to
appreciate any display of personal dignity or self-respect on the part
of the person he had offended. Besides, he was a knave; so I just let
his impertinence pass with the remark:

"I have purchases to make in the village": and so that matter ended,
manifestly to the two girls' relief, who naturally did not like to see
me insulted, even if they did not possess sufficient power over their
brother to prevent it.

One other small episode and then I will take you with me to the village.
As we were leaving the table, where I ate less than common,
notwithstanding all my efforts to seem perfectly unconcerned, Lucetta,
who had waited for her brother to go out, took me gently by the arm,
and, eying me closely, said:

"Did you have any dreams last night, Miss Butterworth? You know I
promised you some."

The question disconcerted me, and for a moment I felt like taking the
two girls into my confidence and bidding them fly from the shame and
doom so soon to fall upon their brother; but the real principle
underlying all such momentary impulses on my part deterred me, and in as
light a tone as I could command and not be an absolute hypocrite, I
replied that I was sorry to disappoint her, but I had had no dreams,
which seemed to please her more than it should, for if I had had no
dreams I certainly had suffered from the most frightful realities.

I will not describe our ride into town. Saracen did go with us, and
indignation not only rendered me speechless, but gave to my thoughts a
turn which made that half-hour of very little value to me. Mother Jane's
burly figure crouching in her doorway might otherwise have given me
opportunity for remark, and so might the dubious looks of people we met
on the highroad--looks to which I am so wholly unaccustomed that I had
difficulty in recognizing myself as the butt of so much doubt and
possibly dislike. I attributed this, however, all to the ill repute
under which William so deservedly labored, and did not allow myself to
more than notice it. Indeed, I could only be sorry for people who did
not know in what consideration I was held at home, and who, either
through ignorance or prejudice, allowed themselves privileges they would
be the first to regret did they know the heart and mind of Amelia
Butterworth.

Once in the village, I took the direction of affairs.

"Set me down at the hotel," I commanded, "and then go about such
business as you may have here in town. I am not going to allow myself to
be tracked all over by that dog."

"I have no business," was the surly reply.

"Then make some," was my sharp retort. "I want to see the
locksmith--that locksmith who wouldn't come to do an honest piece of
work for me in your house; and I want to buy dimities and wools and
sewing silks at the dry-goods store over there. Indeed I have a thousand
things to do, and expect to spend half the morning before the counters.
Why, man, I haven't done any shopping for a week."

He gaped at me perfectly aghast (as I meant he should), and, having but
little experience of city ladies, took me at my word and prepared to
beat an honorable retreat. As a result, I found myself ten minutes later
standing on the top step of the hotel porch, watching William driving
away with Saracen perched on the seat beside him. Then I realized that
the village held no companions for him, and did not know whether I felt
glad or sorry.

To the clerk who came to meet me, I said quietly, "Room No. 3, if you
please," at which he gave a nod of intelligence and led me as
unostentatiously as possible into a small hall, at the end of which I
saw a door with the aforesaid number on it.

"If you will take a seat inside," said he, "I will send you whatever you
may desire for your comfort."

"I think you know what that is," I rejoined, at which he nodded again
and left me, closing the door carefully behind him as he went.

The few minutes which elapsed before my quiet was disturbed were spent
by me in thinking. There were many little questions to settle in my own
mind, for which a spell of uninterrupted contemplation was necessary.
One of these was whether, in the event of finding the police amenable, I
should reveal or hide from these children of my old friend, the fact
that it was through my instrumentality that their nefarious secret had
been discovered. I wished--nay, I hoped--that the affair might be so
concluded, but the possibility of doing so seemed so problematical,
especially since Mr. Gryce was not on hand to direct matters, that I
spent very little time on the subject, deep and important as it was to
all concerned.

What most occupied me was the necessity of telling my story in such a
way as to exonerate the girls as much as possible. They were mistaken in
their devotion and most unhappy in the exercise of it, but they were not
innately wicked and should not be made to appear so. Perhaps the one
thing for which I should yet have the best cause to congratulate myself,
would be the opportunity I had gained of giving to their connection with
this affair its true and proper coloring.

I was still dwelling on this thought when there came a knock at my door
which advised me that the visitor I expected had arrived. To open and
admit him was the work of a moment, but it took more than a moment for
me to overcome my surprise at seeing in my visitor no lesser person than
Mr. Gryce himself, who in our parting interview had assured me he was
too old and too feeble for further detective work and must therefore
delegate it to me.

"Ah!" I ejaculated slowly. "It is you, is it? Well, I am not surprised."
(I shouldn't have been.) "When you say you are old, you mean old enough
to pull the wool over other people's eyes, and when you say you are
lame, you mean that you only halt long enough to let others get far
enough ahead for them not to see how fast you hobble up behind them. But
do not think I am not happy to see you. I am, Mr. Gryce, for I have
discovered the secret of Lost Man's Lane, and find it somewhat too heavy
a one for my own handling."

To my surprise he showed this was more than he expected.

"You have?" he asked, with just that shade of incredulity which it is so
tantalizing to encounter. "Then I suppose congratulations are in order.
But are you sure, Miss Butterworth, that you really have obtained a clue
to the many strange and fearful disappearances which have given to this
lane its name?"

"Quite sure," I returned, nettled. "Why do you doubt it? Because I have
kept so quiet and not sounded one note of alarm from my whistle?"

"No," said he. "Knowing your self-restraint so well, I cannot say that
that is my reason."

"What is it, then?" I urged.

"Well," said he, "my real reason for doubting if you have been quite as
successful as you think, is that we ourselves have come upon a clue
about which there can be no question. Can you say the same of yours?"

You will expect my answer to have been a decided "Yes," uttered with all
the positiveness of which you know me capable. But for some reason,
perhaps because of the strange influence this man's personality
exercises upon all--yes, all--who do not absolutely steel themselves
against him, I faltered just long enough for him to cry:

"I thought not. The clue is outside the Knollys house, not in it, Miss
Butterworth, for which, of course, you are not to be blamed or your
services scorned. I have no doubt they have been invaluable in
unearthing _a_ secret, if not _the_ secret."

"Thank you," was my quiet retort. I thought his presumption beyond all
bounds, and would at that moment have felt justified in snapping my
fingers at the clue he boasted of, had it not been for one thing. What
that thing is I am not ready yet to state.

"You and I have come to issue over such matters before," said he, "and
therefore need not take too much account of the feelings it is likely to
engender. I will merely state that my clue points to Mother Jane, and
ask if you have found in the visit she paid at the house last night
anything which would go to strengthen the suspicion against her."

"Perhaps," said I, in a state of disdain that was more or less
unpardonable, considering that my own suspicions previous to my
discovery of the real tragedy enacted under my eyes at the Knollys
mansion had played more or less about this old crone.

"Only perhaps?" He smiled, with a playful forbearance for which I should
have been truly grateful to him.

"She was there for no good purpose," said I, "and yet if you had not
characterized her as the person most responsible for the crimes we are
here to investigate, I should have said from all that I then saw of her
conduct that she acted as a supernumerary rather than principal, and
that it is to me you should look for the correct clue to the criminal,
notwithstanding your confidence in your own theories and my momentary
hesitation to assert that there was no possible defect in mine."

"Miss Butterworth,"--I thought he looked a trifle shaken,--"what did
Mother Jane do in that closely shuttered house last night?"

Mother Jane? Well! Did he think I was going to introduce my tragic story
by telling what Mother Jane did? I must have looked irritated, and
indeed I think I had cause.

"Mother Jane ate her supper," I snapped out angrily. "Miss Knollys gave
it to her. Then she helped a little with a piece of work they had on
hand. It will not interest you to know what. It has nothing to do with
your clue, I warrant."

He did not get angry. He has an admirable temper, has Mr. Gryce, but he
did stop a minute to consider.

"Miss Butterworth," he said at last, "most detectives would have held
their peace and let you go on with what you have to tell without a hint
that it was either unwelcome or unnecessary, but I have consideration
for persons' feelings and for persons' secrets so long as they do not
come in collision with the law, and my opinion is, or was when I entered
this room, that such discoveries as you have made at your old friend's
house" (Why need he emphasize friend--did he think I forgot for a moment
that Althea was my friend?) "were connected rather with some family
difficulty than with the dreadful affair we are considering. That is why
I hastened to tell you that we had found a clue to the disappearances in
Mother Jane's cottage. I wished to save the Misses Knollys."

If he had thought to mollify me by this assertion, he did not succeed.
He saw it and made haste to say:

"Not that I doubt your consideration for them, only the justness of your
conclusions."

"You have doubted those before and with more reason," I replied, "yet
they were not altogether false."

"That I am willing to acknowledge, so willing that if you still think
after I have told my story that yours is _apropos_, then I will listen
to it only too eagerly. My object is to find the real criminal in this
matter. I say at the present moment it is Mother Jane."

"God grant you are right," I said, influenced in spite of myself by the
calm assurance of his manner. "If she was at the house night before last
between eleven and twelve, then perhaps she is all you think her. But I
see no reason to believe it--not yet, Mr. Gryce. Supposing you give me
one. It would be better than all this controversy. One small reason, Mr.
Gryce, as good as"--I did not say what, but the fillip it gave to his
intention stood me in good stead, for he launched immediately into the
matter with no further play upon my curiosity, which was now, as you can
believe, thoroughly aroused, though I could not believe that anything he
had to bring up against Mother Jane could for a moment stand against the
death and the burial I had witnessed in Miss Knollys' house during the
two previous nights.



XXIV

THE ENIGMA OF NUMBERS


"When in our first conversation on this topic I told you that Mother
Jane was not to be considered in this matter, I meant she was not to be
considered by you. She was a subject to be handled by the police, and we
have handled her. Yesterday afternoon I made a search of her cabin."
Here Mr. Gryce paused and eyed me quizzically. He sometimes does eye me,
which same I cannot regard as a compliment, considering how fond he is
of concentrating all his wisdom upon small and insignificant objects.

"I wonder," said he, "what you would have done in such a search as that.
It was no common one, I assure you. There are not many hiding-places
between Mother Jane's four walls."

I felt myself begin to tremble, with eagerness, of course.

"I wish I had been given the opportunity," said I--"that is, if anything
was to be found there."

He seemed to be in a sympathetic mood toward me, or perhaps--and this is
the likelier supposition--he had a minute of leisure and thought he
could afford to give himself a little quiet amusement. However that was,
he answered me by saying:

"The opportunity is not lost. You have been in her cabin and have noted,
I have no doubt, its extreme simplicity. Yet it contains, or rather did
contain up till last night, distinct evidences of more than one of the
crimes which have been perpetrated in this lane."

"Good! And you want me to guess where you found them? Well, it's not
fair."

"Ah, and why not?"

"Because you probably did not find them on your first attempt. You had
time to look about. I am asked to guess at once and without second trial
what I warrant it took you several trials to determine."

He could not help but laugh. "And why do you think it took me several
trials?"

"Because there is more than one thing in that room made up of parts."

"Parts?" He attempted to look puzzled, but I would not have it.

"You know what I mean," I declared; "seventy parts, twenty-eight, or
whatever the numbers are she so constantly mutters."

His admiration was unqualified and sincere.

"Miss Butterworth," said he, "you are a woman after my own heart. How
came you to think that her mutterings had anything to do with a
hiding-place?"

"Because it did not have anything to do with the amount of money I gave
her. When I handed her twenty-five cents, she cried, 'Seventy,
twenty-eight, and now ten!' Ten what? Not ten cents or ten dollars, but
ten----"

"Why do you stop?"

"I do not want to risk my reputation on a guess. There is a quilt on the
bed made up of innumerable pieces. There is a floor of neatly laid
brick----"

"And there is a Bible on the stand whose leaves number many over
seventy."

"Ah, it was in the Bible you found----"

His smile put mine quite to shame.

"I must acknowledge," he cried, "that I looked in the Bible, but I found
nothing there beyond what we all seek when we open its sacred covers.
Shall I tell my story?"

He was evidently bursting with pride. You would think that after a
half-century of just such successes, a man would take his honors more
quietly. But pshaw! Human nature is just the same in the old as in the
young. He was no more tired of compliment or of awakening the
astonishment of those he confided in, than when he aroused the
admiration of the force by his triumphant handling of the Leavenworth
Case. Of course in presence of such weakness I could do nothing less
than give him a sympathetic ear. I may be old myself some day. Besides,
his story was likely to prove more or less interesting.

"Tell your story?" I repeated. "Don't you see that I am"--I was going to
say "on pins and needles till I hear it," but the expression is too
vulgar for a woman of my breeding; so I altered the words, happily
before they were spoken, into "that I am in a state of the liveliest
curiosity concerning the whole matter? Tell your story, of course."

"Well, Miss Butterworth, if I do, it is because I know you will
appreciate it. You, like myself, placed weight upon the numbers she is
forever running over, and you, like myself, have conceived the
possibility of these numbers having reference to something in the one
room she inhabits. At first glance the extreme bareness of the spot
seemed to promise nothing to my curiosity. I looked at the floor and
detected no signs of any disturbance having taken place in its
symmetrically laid bricks for years. Yet I counted up to seventy one way
and twenty-eight the other, and marking the brick thus selected, began
to pry it out. It came with difficulty and showed me nothing underneath
but green mold and innumerable frightened insects. Then I counted the
bricks the other way, but nothing came of it. The floor does not appear
to have been disturbed for years. Turning my attention away from the
floor, I began upon the quilt. This was a worse job than the other, and
it took me an hour to rip apart the block I settled upon as the
suspicious one, but my labor was entirely wasted. There was no hidden
treasure in the quilt. Then I searched the walls, using the measurements
seventy by twenty-eight, but no result followed these endeavors,
and--well, what do you think I did then?"

"You will tell me," I said, "if I give you one more minute to do it in."

"Very well," said he. "I see you do not know, madam. Having searched
below and around me, I next turned my attention overhead. Do you
remember the strings and strings of dried vegetables that decorate the
beams above?"

"I do," I replied, not stinting any of the astonishment I really felt.

"Well, I began to count them next, and when I reached the seventieth
onion from the open doorway, I crushed it between my fingers and--these
fell out, madam--worthless trinkets, as you will immediately see,
but----"

"Well, well," I urged.

"They have been identified as belonging to the peddler who was one of
the victims in whose fate we are interested."

"Ah, ah!" I ejaculated, somewhat amazed, I own. "And number
twenty-eight?"

"That was a carrot, and it held a really valuable ring--a ruby
surrounded by diamonds. If you remember, I once spoke to you of this
ring. It was the property of young Mr. Chittenden and worn by him while
he was in this village. He disappeared on his way to the railway
station, having taken, as many can vouch, the short detour by Lost Man's
Lane, which would lead him directly by Mother Jane's cottage."

"You thrill me," said I, keeping down with admirable self-possession my
own thoughts in regard to this matter. "And what of No. ten, beyond
which she said she could not count?"

"In ten was your twenty-five-cent piece, and in various other
vegetables, small coins, whose value taken collectively would not amount
to a dollar. The only numbers which seemed to make any impression on her
mind were those connected with these crimes. Very good evidence, Miss
Butterworth, that Mother Jane holds the clue to this matter, even if she
is not responsible for the death of the individuals represented by this
property."

"Certainly," I acquiesced, "and if you examined her after her return
from the Knollys mansion last night you would probably have found upon
her some similar evidence of her complicity in the last crime of this
terrible series. It would needs have been small, as Silly Rufus neither
indulged in the brass trinkets sold by the old peddler nor the real
jewelry of a well-to-do man like Mr. Chittenden."

"Silly Rufus?"

"He was the last to disappear from these parts, was he not?"

"Yes, madam."

"And as such, should have left some clue to his fate in the hands of
this old crone, if her motive in removing him was, as you seem to think,
entirely that of gain."

"I did not say it was entirely so. Silly Rufus would be the last person
any one, even such a _non compos mentis_ as Mother Jane, would destroy
for hope of gain."

"But what other motive could she have? And, Mr. Gryce, where could she
bestow the bodies of so many unfortunate victims, even if by her great
strength she could succeed in killing them?"

"There you have me," said he. "We have not been able as yet to unearth
any bodies. Have you?"

"No," said I, with some little show of triumph showing through my
disdain, "but I can show _you_ where to unearth one."

He should have been startled, profoundly startled. Why wasn't he? I
asked this of myself over and over in the one instant he weighed his
words before answering.

"You have made some definite discoveries, then," he declared. "You have
come across a grave or a mound which you have taken for a grave."

I shook my head.

"No mound," said I. Why should I not play for an instant or more with
his curiosity? He had with mine.

"Ah, then, why do you talk of unearthing? No one has told you where you
can lay hand on Silly Rufus' body, I take it."

"No," said I. "The Knollys house is not inclined to give up its
secrets."

He started, glancing almost remorsefully first at the tip, then at the
head of the cane he was balancing in his hand.

"It's too bad," he muttered, "but you've been led astray, Miss
Butterworth,--excusably, I acknowledge, quite excusably, but yet in a
way to give you quite wrong conclusions. The secret of the Knollys
house--But wait a moment. Then you were not locked up in your room last
night?"

"Scarcely," I returned, wavering between the doubts he had awakened by
his first sentence and the surprise which his last could not fail to
give me.

"I might have known they would not be likely to catch you in a trap," he
remarked. "So you were up and in the halls?"

"I was up," I acknowledged, "and in the halls. May I ask where you
were?"

He paid no heed to the last sentence. "This complicates matters," said
he, "and yet perhaps it is as well. I understand you now, and in a few
minutes you will understand me. You thought it was Silly Rufus who was
buried last night. That was rather an awful thought, Miss Butterworth. I
wonder, with that in your mind, you look as well as you do this morning,
madam. Truly you are a wonderful woman--a very wonderful woman."

"A truce to compliments," I begged. "If you know as much as your words
imply of what went on in that ill-omened house last night, you ought to
show some degree of emotion yourself, for if it was not Silly Rufus who
was laid away under the Flower Parlor, who, then, was it? No one for
whom tears could openly be shed or of whose death public acknowledgment
could be made, or we would not be sitting here talking away at cross
purposes the morning after his burial."

"Tears are not shed or public acknowledgment made for the subject of a
half-crazy man's love for scientific investigation. It was no human
being whom you saw buried, madam, but a victim of Mr. Knollys' passion
for vivisection."

"You are playing with me," was my indignant answer; "outrageously and
inexcusably playing with me. Only a human being would be laid away in
such secrecy and with such manifestations of feeling as I was witness
to. You must think me in my dotage, or else----"

"We will take the rest of the sentence for granted," he dryly
interpolated. "You know that I can have no wish to insult your
intelligence, Miss Butterworth, and that if I advance a theory on my own
account I must have ample reasons for it. Now can you say the same for
yours? Can you adduce irrefutable proof that the body we buried last
night was that of a man? If you can, there is no more to be said, or,
rather, there is everything to be said, for this would give to the
transaction a very dreadful and tragic significance which at present I
am not disposed to ascribe to it."

Taken aback by his persistence, but determined not to acknowledge defeat
until forced to it, I stolidly replied: "You have made an assertion, and
it is for you to adduce proof. It will be time enough for me to talk
when your own theory is proved untenable."

He was not angry: fellow-feeling for my disappointment made him
unusually gentle. His voice was therefore very kind when he said:

"Madam, if you know it to have been a man, say so. I do not wish to
waste my time."

"I do not know it."

"Very well, then, I will tell you why I think my supposition true. Mr.
Knollys, as you probably have already discovered, is a man with a secret
passion for vivisection."

"Yes, I have discovered that."

"It is known to his family, and it is known to a very few others, but it
is not known to the world at large, not even to his fellow-villagers.'

"I can believe it," said I.

"His sisters, who are gentle girls, regard the matter as the
gentle-hearted usually do. They have tried in every way to influence him
to abandon it, but unsuccessfully so far, for he is not only entirely
unamenable to persuasion, but has a nature of such brutality he could
not live without some such excitement to help away his life in this
dreary house. All they can do, then, is to conceal these cruelties from
the eyes of the people who already execrate him for his many roughnesses
and the undoubted shadow under which he lives. Time was when I thought
this shadow had a substance worth our investigation, but a further
knowledge of his real fault and a completer knowledge of his sisters'
virtues turned my inquiries in a new direction, where I have found, as I
have told you, actual reason for arresting Mother Jane. Have you
anything to say against these conclusions? Cannot you see that all your
suspicions can be explained by the brother's cruel impulses and the
sisters' horror of having those impulses known?"

I thought a moment; then I cried out boldly: "No, I cannot, Mr. Gryce.
The anxiety, the fear, which I have seen depicted on these sisters'
faces for days might be explained perhaps by this theory; but the knot
of crape on the window-shutter, the open Bible in the room of
death--William's room, Mr. Gryce,--proclaim that it was a human being,
and nothing less, for whom Lucetta's sobs went up."

"I do not follow you," he said, moved for the first time from his
composure. "What do you mean by a knot of crape, and when was it you
obtained entrance into William's room?"

"Ah," I exclaimed in dry retort; "you are beginning to see that I have
something as interesting to report as yourself. Did you think me a
superficial egotist, without facts to back my assertions?"

"I should not have done you that injustice."

"I have penetrated, I think, deeper than even yourself, into William's
character. I think him capable--But do satisfy my curiosity on one
point first, Mr. Gryce. How came you to know as much as you do about
last night's proceedings? You could not have been in the house. Did
Mother Jane talk after she got back?"

The tip of his cane was up, and he frowned at it. Then the handle took
its place, and he gave it a good-natured smile.

"Miss Butterworth," said he, "I have not succeeded in making Mother Jane
at any time go beyond her numerical monologue. But you have been more
successful." And with a sudden marvellous change of expression, pose,
and manner he threw over his head my shawl, which had fallen to the
floor in my astonishment, and, rocking himself to and fro before me,
muttered grimly:

"Seventy! Twenty-eight! Ten! No more! I can count no more! Go."

"Mr. Gryce, it was you----"

"Whom you interviewed in Mother Jane's cottage with Mr. Knollys," he
finished. "And it was _I_ who helped to bury what you now declare, to my
real terror and astonishment, to have been a human being. Miss
Butterworth, what about the knot of crape? Tell me."



XXV

TRIFLES, BUT NOT TRIFLING


I was so astounded I hardly took in this final question.

_He_ had been the sixth party in the funeral cortège I had seen pause in
the Flower Parlor. Well, what might I not expect from this man next!

But I am methodical even under the greatest excitement and at the most
critical instants, as those who have read _That Affair Next Door_ have
had ample opportunity to know. Once having taken in the startling fact
he mentioned, I found it impossible to proceed to establish my
standpoint till I knew a little more about his.

"Wait," I said; "tell me first if I have ever seen the real Mother Jane;
or were you the person I saw stooping in the road, and of whom I bought
the pennyroyal?"

"No," he replied; "that was the old woman herself. My appearance in the
cottage dates from yesterday noon. I felt the need of being secretly
near you, and I also wished for an opportunity to examine this humble
interior unsuspected and unobserved. So I prevailed upon the old woman
to exchange places with me; she taking up her abode in the woods for the
night and I her old stool on the hearthstone. She was the more willing
to do this from the promise I gave her to watch out for Lizzie. That I
would don her own Sunday suit and personate her in her own home she
evidently did not suspect. Had not wit enough, I suppose. At the present
moment she is back in her old place."

I nodded my thanks for this explanation, but was not deterred from
pressing the point I was anxious to have elucidated.

"If," I went on to urge, "you took advantage of your disguise to act as
assistant in the burial which took place last night, you are in a much
better situation than myself to decide the question we are at present
considering. Was it because of any secret knowledge thus gained you
declare so positively that it was not a human being you helped lower in
its grave?"

"Partially. Having some skill in these disguises, especially where my
own infirmities can have full play, as in the case of this strong but
half-bent woman, I had no reason to think my own identity was suspected,
much less discovered. Therefore I could trust to what I saw and heard as
being just what Mother Jane herself would be allowed to see or hear
under the same circumstances. If, therefore, these young people and this
old crone had been, as you seem to think they are, in league for murder,
Lucetta would hardly have greeted me as she did when she came down to
meet me in the kitchen."

"And how was that? What did she say?"

"She said: 'Ah, Mother Jane, we have a piece of work for you. You are
strong, are you not?'"

"Humph!"

"And then she commiserated me a bit and gave me food which, upon my
word, I found hard to eat, though I had saved my appetite for the
occasion. Before she left me she bade me sit in the inglenook till she
wanted me, adding in Hannah's ear as she passed her: 'There is no use
trying to explain anything to her. Show her when the time comes what
there is to do and trust to her short memory to forget it before she
leaves the house. She could not understand my brother's propensity or
our shame in pandering to it. So attempt nothing, Hannah. Only keep the
money in her view.'"

"So, and that gave you no idea?"

"It gave me the idea I have imparted to you, or, rather, added to the
idea which had been instilled in me by others."

"And this idea was not affected by what you saw afterwards?"

"Not in the least--rather strengthened. Of the few words I overheard,
one was uttered in reference to yourself by Miss Knollys. She said: 'I
have locked Miss Butterworth again into her room. If she accuses me of
having done so, I shall tell her our whole story. Better she should know
the family's disgrace than imagine us guilty of crimes of which we are
utterly incapable.'"

"So! so!" I cried, "you heard that?"

"Yes, madam, I heard that, and I do not think she knew she was dropping
that word into the ear of a detective, but on this point you are, of
course, at liberty to differ with me."

"I am not yet ready to avail myself of the privilege," I retorted. "What
else did these girls let fall in your hearing?"

"Not much. It was Hannah who led me into the upper hall, and Hannah who
by signs and signals rather than words showed me what was expected of
me. However, when, after the box was lowered into the cellar, Hannah was
drawing me away, Lucetta stepped up and whispered in her ear: 'Don't
give her the biggest coin. Give her the little one, or she may mistake
our reasons for secrecy. I wouldn't like even a fool to do that even for
the moment it would remain lodged in Mother Jane's mind.'"

"Well, well," I again cried, certainly puzzled, for these stray
expressions of the sisters were in a measure contradictory not only of
the suspicions I entertained, but of the facts which had seemingly come
to my attention.

Mr. Gryce, who was probably watching my face more closely than he did
the cane with whose movements he was apparently engrossed, stopped to
give a caressing rub to the knob of that same cane before remarking:

"One such peep behind the scenes is worth any amount of surmise expended
on the wrong side of the curtain. I let you share my knowledge because
it is your due. Now if you feel willing to explain what you mean by a
knot of crape on the shutter, I am at your service, madam."

I felt that it would be cruel to delay my story longer, and so I began
it. It was evidently more interesting than he expected, and as I dilated
upon the special features which had led me to believe that it was a
thinking, suffering mortal like ourselves who had been shut up in
William's room and afterwards buried in the cellar under the Flower
Parlor, I saw his face lengthen and doubt take the place of the quiet
assurance with which he had received my various intimations up to this
time. The cane was laid aside, and from the action of his right
forefinger on the palm of his left hand I judged that I was making no
small impression on his mind. When I had finished, he sat for a minute
silent; then he said:

"Thanks, Miss Butterworth; you have more than fulfilled my hopes. What
we buried was undoubtedly human, and the question now is, Who was it,
and of what death did he die?" Then, after a meaning pause: "_You_ think
it was Silly Rufus."

I will astonish you with my reply. "No," said I, "I do not. That is
where you make a mistake, Mr. Gryce."



XXVI

A POINT GAINED


He was surprised, for all his attempts to conceal it.

"No?" said he. "Who, then? You are becoming interesting, Miss
Butterworth."

This I thought I could afford to ignore.

"Yesterday," I proceeded, "I would have declared it to be Silly Rufus,
in the face of God and man, but after what I saw in William's room
during the hurried survey I gave it, I am inclined to doubt if the
explanation we have to give to this affair is so simple as that would
make it. Mr. Gryce, in one corner of that room, from which the victim
had so lately been carried, was a pair of shoes that could never have
been worn by any boy-tramp I have ever seen or known of."

"They were Loreen's, or possibly Lucetta's."

"No, Loreen and Lucetta both have trim feet, but these were the shoes of
a child of ten, very dainty at that, and of a cut and make worn by
women, or rather, I should say, by girls. Now, what do you make of
that?"

He did not seem to know what to make of it. Tap, tap went his finger on
his seasoned palm, and as I watched the slowness with which it fell, I
said to myself, "I have proposed a problem this time that will tax even
Mr. Gryce's powers of deduction."

And I had. It was minutes before he ventured an opinion, and then it was
with a shade of doubt in his tone that I acknowledge to have felt some
pride in producing.

"They were Lucetta's shoes. The emotions under which you labored--very
pardonable emotions, madam, considering the circumstances and the
hour----"

"Excuse me," said I. "We do not want to waste a moment. I was excited,
suitably and duly excited, or I would have been a stone. But I never
lose my head under excitement, nor do I part with my sense of
proportion. The shoes were not Lucetta's. She never wore any approaching
them in smallness since her tenth year."

"Has Simsbury a daughter? Has there not been a child about the house
some time to assist the cook in errands and so on?"

"No, or I should have seen her. Besides, how would the shoes of such a
person come into William's room?"

"Easily. Secrecy was required. You were not to be disturbed; so shoes
were taken off that quiet might result."

"Was Lucetta shoeless or William or even Mother Jane? You have not told
me that you were requested to walk in stocking feet up the hall. No, Mr.
Gryce, the shoes were the shoes of a girl. I know it because it was
matched by a dress I saw hanging up in a sort of wardrobe."

"Ah! You looked into the wardrobe?"

"I did and felt justified in doing so. It was after I had spied the
shoes."

"Very good. And you saw a dress?"

"A little dress; a dress with a short skirt. It was of silk too; another
anomaly--and the color, I think, was blue, but I cannot swear to that
point. I was in great haste and took the briefest glance. But my brief
glances can be trusted, Mr. Gryce. That, I think, you are beginning to
know."

"Certainly," said he, "and as proof of it we will now act upon these two
premises--that the victim in whose burial I was an innocent partaker was
a human being and that this human being was a girl-child who came into
the house well dressed. Now where does that lead us? Into a maze, I
fear."

"We are accustomed to mazes," I observed.

"Yes," he answered somewhat gloomily, "but they are not exactly
desirable in this case. I want to find the Knollys family innocent."

"And I. But William's character, I fear, will make that impossible."

"But this girl? Who is she, and where did she come from? No girl has
been reported to us as missing from this neighborhood."

"I supposed not."

"A visitor--But no visitor could enter this house without it being known
far and wide. Why, I heard of your arrival here before I left the train
on which I followed you. Had we allowed ourselves to be influenced by
what the people about here say, we would have turned the Knollys house
inside out a week ago. But I don't believe in putting too much
confidence in the prejudice of country people. The idea they suggested,
and which you suggest without putting it too clearly into words, is much
too horrible to be acted upon without the best of reasons. Perhaps we
have found those reasons, yet I still feel like asking, Where did this
girl come from and how could she have become a prisoner in the Knollys
house without the knowledge of--Madam, have you met Mr. Trohm?"

The question was so sudden I had not time to collect myself. But perhaps
it was not necessary that I should, for the simple affirmation I used
seemed to satisfy Mr. Gryce, who went on to say:

"It is he who first summoned us here, and it is he who has the greatest
interest in locating the source of these disappearances, yet he has seen
no child come here."

"Mr. Trohm is not a spy," said I, but the remark, happily, fell
unheeded.

"No one has," he pursued. "We must give another turn to our
suppositions."

Suddenly a silence fell upon us both. His finger ceased to lay down the
law, and my gaze, which had been searching his face inquiringly, became
fixed. At the same moment and in much the same tone of voice we both
spoke, he saying, "Humph!" and I, "Ah!" as a prelude to the simultaneous
exclamation:

"The phantom coach!"

We were so pleased with this discovery that we allowed a moment to pass
in silent contemplation of each other's satisfaction. Then he quietly
added:

"Which on the evening preceding your arrival came from the mountains and
passed into Lost Man's Lane, from which no one ever saw it emerge."

"It was no phantom," I put in.

"It was their own old coach bringing to the house a fresh victim."

This sounded so startling we both sat still for a moment, lost in the
horror of it, then I spoke:

"People living in remote and isolated quarters like this are naturally
superstitious. The Knollys family know this, and, remembering the old
legend, forbore to contradict the conclusions of their neighbors.
Loreen's emotion when the topic was broached to her is explained by this
theory."

"It is not a pleasant one, but we cannot be wrong in contemplating it."

"Not at all. This apparition, as they call it, was seen by two persons;
therefore it was no apparition but a real coach. It came from the
mountains, that is, from the Mountain Station, and it glided--ah!"

"Well?"

"Mr. Gryce, it was its noiselessness that gave it its spectral
appearance. Now I remember a petty circumstance which I dare you to
match, in corroboration of our suspicions."

"You do?"

I could not repress a slight toss of my head. "Yes, I do," I repeated.

He smiled and made the slightest of deprecatory gestures.

"You have had advantages----" he began.

"And disadvantages," I finished, determined that he should award me my
full meed of praise. "You are probably not afraid of dogs. I am. You
could visit the stables."

"And did; but I found nothing there."

"I thought not!" I could not help the exclamation. It is so seldom one
can really triumph over this man. "Not having the cue, you would not be
apt to see what gives this whole thing away. I would never have thought
of it again if we had not had this talk. Is Mr. Simsbury a neat man?"

"A neat man? Madam, what do you mean?"

"Something important, Mr. Gryce. If Mr. Simsbury is a neat man, he will
have thrown away the old rags which, I dare promise you, cumbered his
stable floor the morning after the phantom coach was seen to enter the
lane. If he is not, you may still find them there. One of them, I know,
you will not find. He pulled it off of his wheel with his whip the
afternoon he drove me down from the station. I can see the sly look he
gave me as he did it. It made no impression on me then, but now----"

"Madam, you have supplied the one link necessary to the establishment of
this theory. Allow me to felicitate you upon it. But whatever our
satisfaction may be from a professional standpoint, we cannot but feel
the unhappy nature of the responsibility incurred by these discoveries.
If this seemingly respectable family stooped to such subterfuge, going
to the length of winding rags around the wheels of their lumbering old
coach to make it noiseless, and even tying up their horse's feet for
this same purpose, they must have had a motive dark enough to warrant
your worst suspicions. And William was not the only one involved.
Simsbury, at least, had a hand in it, nor does it look as if the girls
were as innocent as we would like to consider them."

"I cannot stop to consider the girls," I declared. "I can no longer
consider the girls."

"Nor I," he gloomily assented. "Our duty requires us to sift this
matter, and it shall be sifted. We must first find if any child alighted
from the cars at the Mountain Station on that especial night, or, what
is more probable, from the little station at C., five miles farther back
in the mountains."

"And--" I urged, seeing that he had still something to say.

"We must make sure who lies buried under the floor of the room you call
the Flower Parlor. You may expect me at the Knollys house some time
to-day. I shall come quietly, but in my own proper person. You are not
to know me, and, unless you desire it, need not appear in the matter."

"I do not desire it."

"Then good-morning, Miss Butterworth. My respect for your abilities has
risen even higher than before. We part in a similar frame of mind for
once."

And this he expected me to regard as a compliment.



XXVII

THE TEXT WITNESSETH


I have a grim will when I choose to exert it. After Mr. Gryce left the
hotel, I took a cup of tea with the landlady and then made a round of
the stores. I bought dimity, sewing silk, and what not, as I said I
would, but this did not occupy me long (to the regret probably of the
country merchants, who expected to make a fool of me and found it a by
no means easy task), and was quite ready for William when he finally
drove up.

The ride home was a more or less silent one. I had conceived such a
horror of the man beside me, that talking for talk's sake was
impossible, while he was in a mood which it would be charity to call
non-communicative. It may be that my own reticence was at the bottom of
this, but I rather think not. The remark he made in passing Deacon
Spear's house showed that something more than spite was working in his
slow but vindictive brain.

"There's a man of your own sort," he cried. "You won't find him doing
anything out of the way; oh, no. Pity your visit wasn't paid there.
You'd have got a better impression of the lane."

To this I made no reply.

At Mr. Trohm's he spoke again:

"I suppose that you and Trohm had the devil of a say about Lucetta and
the rest of us. I don't know why, but the whole neighborhood seems to
feel they've a right to use our name as they choose. But it isn't going
to be so, long. We have played poor and pinched and starved all I'm
going to. I'm going to have a new horse, and Lucetta shall have a dress,
and that mighty quick too. I'm tired of all this shabbiness, and mean to
have a change."

I wanted to say, "No change yet; change under the present circumstances
would be the worst thing possible for you all," but I felt that this
would be treason to Mr. Gryce, and refrained, saying simply, as he
looked sideways at me for a word:

"Lucetta needs a new dress. That no one can deny. But you had better let
me get it for her, or perhaps that is what you mean."

The grunt which was my only answer might be interpreted in any way. I
took it, however, for assent.

As soon as I was relieved of his presence and found myself again with
the girls, I altered my whole manner and cried out in querulous tones:

"Mrs. Carter and I have had a difference." (This was true. We did have a
difference over our cup of tea. I did not think it necessary to say this
difference was a forced one. Some things we are perfectly justified in
keeping to ourselves.) "She remembers a certain verse in the New
Testament one way and I in another. We had not time to settle it by a
consultation with the sacred word, but I cannot rest till it is settled,
so will you bring your Bible to me, my dear, that I may look that verse
up?"

We were in the upper hall, where I had taken a seat on the old-fashioned
sofa there. Lucetta, who was standing before me, started immediately to
do my bidding, without stopping to think, poor child, that it was very
strange I did not go to my own room and consult my own Bible as any good
Presbyterian would be expected to do. As she was turning toward the
large front room I stopped her with the quiet injunction:

"Get me one with good print, Lucetta. My eyes won't bear much
straining."

At which she turned and to my great relief hurried down the corridor
toward William's room, from which she presently returned, bringing the
very volume I was anxious to consult.

Meanwhile I had laid aside my hat. I felt flurried and unhappy, and
showed it. Lucetta's pitiful face had a strange sweetness in it this
morning, and I felt sure as I took the sacred book from her hand that
her thoughts were all with the lover she had sent from her side and not
at all with me or with what at the moment occupied me. Yet my thoughts
at this moment involved, without doubt, the very deepest interests of
her life, if not that very lover she was brooding over in her darkened
and resigned mind. As I realized this I heaved an involuntary sigh,
which seemed to startle her, for she turned and gave me a quick look as
she was slipping away to join her sister, who was busy at the other end
of the hall.

The Bible I held was an old one, of medium size and most excellent
print. I had no difficulty in finding the text and settling the question
which had been my ostensible reason for wanting the book, but it took me
longer to discover the indentation which I had made in one of its pages;
but when I did, you may imagine my awe and the turmoil into which my
mind was cast, when I found that it marked those great verses in
Corinthians which are so universally read at funerals:

"Behold I shew you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all
be changed."

"In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye----"



XXVIII

AN INTRUSION


I was so moved by this discovery that I was not myself for several
moments.

The reading of these words over the body which had been laid away under
the Flower Parlor was in keeping with the knot of crape on the
window-shutter and argued something more than remorse on the part of
some one of the Knollys family. Who was this one, and why, with such
feelings in the breast of any of the three, had the deceit and crime to
which I had been witness succeeded to such a point as to demand the
attention of the police? An impossible problem of which I dared seek no
solution, even in the faces of these seemingly innocent girls.

I was, of course, in no position to determine what plan Mr. Gryce
intended to pursue. I only knew what course I myself meant to follow,
which was to remain quiet and sustain the part I had already played in
this house as visitor and friend. It was therefore as such both in heart
and manner that I hastened from my room late in the afternoon to inquire
the meaning of the cry I had just heard issue from Lucetta's lips. It
had come from the front of the house, and, as I hastened thither, I met
the two Misses Knollys, looking more openly anxious and distraught than
at any former time of anxiety and trouble.

As they looked up and saw my face, Loreen paused and laid her hand on
Lucetta's arm. But Lucetta was not to be restrained.

"He has dared to enter our gates, bringing a police officer with him,"
was her hoarse and almost unintelligible cry. "We know that the man with
him is a police officer because he was here once before, and though he
was kind enough then, he cannot have come the second time except to----"

Here the pressure of Loreen's hand was so strong as to make the feeble
Lucetta quiver. She stopped, and Miss Knollys took up her words:

"Except to make us talk on subjects much better buried in oblivion. Miss
Butterworth, will you go down with us? Your presence may act as a
restraint. Mr. Trohm seems to have some respect for you."

"Mr. Trohm?"

"Yes. It is his coming which has so agitated Lucetta. He and a man named
Gryce are just coming up the walk. There goes the knocker. Lucetta, you
must control yourself or leave me to face these unwelcome visitors
alone."

Lucetta, with a sudden fierce effort, subdued her trembling.

"If he must be met," said she, "my anger and disdain may give some
weight to your quiet acceptance of the family's disgrace. I shall not
accept his denunciations quietly, Loreen. You must expect me to show
some of the feelings that I have held in check all these years." And
without waiting for reply, without waiting even to see what effect these
strange words might have upon me, she dashed down the stairs and pulled
open the front door.

We had followed rapidly, too rapidly for speech ourselves, and were
therefore in the hall when the door swung back, revealing the two
persons I had been led to expect. Mr. Trohm spoke first, evidently in
answer to the defiance to be seen in Lucetta's face.

"Miss Knollys, a thousand pardons. I know I am transgressing, but, I
assure you, the occasion warrants it. I am certain you will acknowledge
this when you hear what my errand is."

"Your errand? What can your errand be but to----"

Why did she pause? Mr. Gryce had not looked at her. Yet that it was
under his influence she ceased to commit herself I am as convinced as we
can be of anything in a world which is half deceit.

"Let us hear your errand," put in Loreen, with that gentle emphasis
which is no sign of weakness.

"I will let this gentleman speak for me," returned Mr. Trohm. "You have
seen him before--a New York detective of whose business in this town you
cannot be ignorant."

Lucetta turned a cold eye upon Mr. Gryce and quietly remarked:

"When he visited this lane a few days ago, he professed to be seeking a
clue to the many disappearances which have unfortunately taken place
within its precincts."

Mr. Trohm's nod was one of acquiescence. But Lucetta was still looking
at the detective.

"Is that your business now?" she asked, appealing directly to Mr. Gryce.

His fatherly accents when he answered her were a great relief after the
alternate iciness and fire with which she had addressed his companion
and himself.

"I hardly know how to reply without arousing your just anger. If your
brother is in----"

"My brother would face you with less patience than we. Tell us your
errand, Mr. Gryce, and do not think of calling in my brother till we
have failed to answer your questions or satisfy your demands."

"Very well," said he. "The quickest explanation is the kindest in these
cases. I merely wish, as a police officer whose business it is to locate
the disappearances which have made this lane notorious, and who believes
the surest way to do this is to find out once and for all where they did
not and could not have taken place, to make an official search of these
premises as I already have those of Mother Jane and of Deacon Spear."

"And my errand here," interposed Mr. Trohm, "is to make everything easier
by the assurance that my house will be the next to undergo a complete
investigation. As all the houses in the lane will be visited alike, none
of us need complain or feel our good name attacked."

This was certainly thoughtful of him, but knowing how much they had to
fear, I could not expect Loreen or Lucetta to show any great sense
either of his kindness or Mr. Gryce's consideration. They were in no
position to have a search made of their premises, and, serene as was
Loreen's nature and powerful as was Lucetta's will, the apprehension
under which they labored was evident to us all, though neither of them
attempted either subterfuge or evasion.

"If the police wish to search this house, it is open to them," said
Loreen.

"But not to Mr. Trohm," quoth Lucetta, quickly. "Our poverty should be
our protection from the curiosity of neighbors."

"Mr. Trohm has no wish to intrude," was Mr. Gryce's conciliatory remark;
but Mr. Trohm said nothing. He probably understood why Lucetta wished to
curtail his stay in this house better than Mr. Gryce did.



XXIX

IN THE CELLAR


I had meanwhile stood silent. There was no reason for me to obtrude
myself, and I was happy not to do so. This does not mean, however, that
my presence was not noticed. Mr. Trohm honored me with more than one
glance during these trying moments, in which I read the anxiety he felt
lest my peace of mind should be too much disturbed, and when, in
response to the undoubted dismissal he had received from Lucetta, he
prepared to take his leave, it was upon me he bestowed his final look
and most deferential bow. It was a tribute to my position and character
which all seemed to feel, and I was not at all surprised when Lucetta,
after carefully watching his departure, turned to me with childlike
impetuosity, saying:

"This must be very unpleasant for you, Miss Butterworth, yet must we ask
you to stand our friend. God knows we need one."

"I shall never forget I occupied that position toward your mother," was
my straightforward reply, and I did not forget it, not for a moment.

"I shall begin with the cellar," Mr. Gryce announced.

Both girls quivered. Then Loreen lifted her proud head and said quietly:

"The whole house is at your disposal. Only I pray you to be as
expeditious as possible. My sister is not well, and the sooner our
humiliation is over, the better it will be for her."

And, indeed, Lucetta was in a state that aroused even Mr. Gryce's
anxiety. But when she saw us all hovering over her she roused herself
with an extraordinary effort, and, waving us aside, led the way to the
kitchen, from which, as I gathered, the only direct access could be had
to the cellar. Mr. Gryce immediately followed, and behind him came
Loreen and myself, both too much agitated to speak. At the Flower Parlor
Mr. Gryce paused as if he had forgotten something, but Lucetta urged him
feverishly on, and before long we were all standing in the kitchen. Here
a surprise awaited us. Two men were sitting there who appeared to be
strangers to Hannah, from the lowering looks she cast them as she
pretended to be busy over her stove. This was so out of keeping with her
usual good humor as to attract the attention even of her young mistress.

"What is the matter, Hannah?" asked Lucetta. "And who are these men?"

"They are my men," said Mr. Gryce. "The job I have undertaken cannot be
carried on alone."

The quick look the two sisters interchanged did not escape me, or the
quiet air of resignation which was settling slowly over Loreen.

"Must they go into the cellar too?" she asked.

Mr. Gryce smiled his most fatherly smile as he said:

"My dear young ladies, these men are interested in but one thing; they
are searching for a clue to the disappearances that have occurred in
this lane. As they will not find this in your cellar, nothing else that
they may see there will remain in their minds for a moment."

Lucetta said no more. Even her indomitable spirit was giving way before
the inevitable discovery that threatened them.

"Do not let William know," were the low words with which she passed
Hannah; but from the short glimpse I caught of William's burly figure
standing in the stable door, under the guardianship of two detectives, I
felt this injunction to be quite superfluous. William evidently did
know.

I was not going to descend the cellar stairs, but the girls made me.

"We want you with us," Loreen declared in no ordinary tones, while
Lucetta paused and would not go on till I followed. This surprised me. I
no longer seemed to have any clue to their motives; but I was glad to be
one of the party.

Hannah, under Loreen's orders, had furnished one of the men with a
lighted lantern, and upon our descent into the dark labyrinth below, it
became his duty to lead the way, which he did with due circumspection.
What all this underground space into which we were thus introduced had
ever been used for, it would be difficult to tell. At present it was
mostly empty. After passing a small collection of stores, a wine-cellar,
the very door of which was unhinged and lay across the cellar bottom, we
struck into a hollow void, in which there was nothing worth an instant's
investigation save the earth under our feet.

This the two foremost detectives examined very carefully, detaining us
often longer, I thought, than Mr. Gryce desired or Lucetta had patience
for. But nothing was said in protest nor did the older detective give an
order or manifest any special interest in the investigation till he saw
the men in front stoop and throw out of the way a coil of rope, when he
immediately hurried forward and called upon the party to stop.

The girls, who were on either side of me, crossed glances at this
command, and Lucetta, who had been tottering for the last few minutes,
fell upon her knees and hid her face in the hollow of her two hands.
Loreen came around and stood by her, and I do not know which of them
presented the most striking picture of despair, the shrinking Lucetta or
Loreen with her quivering form uplifted to meet the shafts of fate
without a droop of her eyelids or a murmur from her lips. The light of
the one lantern which, intentionally or unintentionally, was
concentrated on this pathetic group, made it stand out from the midst of
the surrounding darkness in a way to draw the gaze of Mr. Gryce upon
them. He looked, and his own brow became overcast. Evidently we were not
far from the cause of their fears.

Ordering the candle lifted, he surveyed the ceiling above, at which
Loreen's lips opened slightly in secret dread and amazement. Then he
commanded the men to move on slowly, while he himself looked overhead
rather than underneath, which seemed to astonish his associates, who
evidently had heard nothing of the hole which had been cut in the floor
of the Flower Parlor.

Suddenly I heard a slight gasp from Lucetta, who had not moved forward
with the rest of us. Then her rushing figure flew by us and took up its
stand by Mr. Gryce, who had himself paused and was pointing with an
imperious forefinger to the ground under his feet.

"You will dig here," said he, not heeding her, though I am sure he was
as well acquainted with her proximity as we.

"Dig?" repeated Loreen, in what we all saw was a final effort to stave
off disgrace and misery.

"My duty demands it," said he. "Some one else has been digging here
within a very few days, Miss Knollys. That is as evident as is the fact
that a communication has been made with this place through an opening
into the room above. See!" And taking the lantern from the man at his
side, he held it up toward the ceiling.

There was no hole there now, but there were ample evidences of there
having been one, and that within a very short time. Loreen made no
further attempt to stay him.

"The house is at your disposal," she reiterated, but I do not think she
knew what she said. The man with the bundle in his arms was already
unrolling it on the cellar bottom. A spade came to light, together with
some other tools. Lifting the spade, he thrust it smartly into the
ground toward which Mr. Gryce's inexorable finger still pointed. At the
sight and the sound it made, a thrill passed through Lucetta which made
her another creature. Dashing forward, she flung herself down upon the
spot with lifted head and outstretched arms.

"Stop your desecrating hand!" she cried. "This is a grave--the grave,
sirs, of our mother!"



XXX

INVESTIGATION


The shock of these words--if false, most horrible; if true, still more
horrible--threw us all aback and made even Mr. Gryce's features assume
an aspect quite uncommon to them.

"Your mother's grave?" said he, looking from her to Loreen with very
evident doubt. "I thought your mother died seven or more years ago, and
this grave has been dug within three days."

"I know," she whispered. "To the world my mother has been dead many,
many years, but not to us. We closed her eyes night before last, and it
was to preserve this secret, which involves others affecting our family
honor, that we resorted to expedients which have perhaps attracted the
notice of the police and drawn this humiliation down upon us. I can
conceive no other reason for this visit, ushered in as it was by Mr.
Trohm."

"Miss Lucetta"--Mr. Gryce spoke quickly; if he had not I certainly could
not have restrained some expression of the emotions awakened in my own
breast by this astounding revelation--"Miss Lucetta, it is not necessary
to bring Mr. Trohm's name into this matter or that of any other person
than myself. I saw the coffin lowered here, which you say contained the
body of your mother. Thinking this a strange place of burial and not
knowing it was your mother to whom you were paying these last dutiful
rites, I took advantage of my position as detective to satisfy myself
that nothing wrong lay behind so mysterious a death and burial. Can you
blame me, Miss? Would I have been a man to trust if I had let such an
event as this go by unchallenged?"

She did not answer. She had heard but one sentence of all this long
speech.

"You saw my mother's coffin lowered? Where were you that you should see
that? In some of these dark passages, let in by I know not what traitor
to our peace of mind." And her eyes, which seemed to have grown almost
supernaturally large and bright under her emotions, turned slowly in
their sockets till they rested with something like doubtful accusation
upon mine. But not to remain there, for Mr. Gryce recalled them almost
instantly by this short, sharp negative.

"No, I was nearer than that. I lent my strength to this burial. If you
had thought to look under Mother Jane's hood, you would have seen what
would have forced these explanations then and there."

"And you----"

"I was Mother Jane for the nonce. Not from choice, Miss, but from
necessity. I was impersonating the old woman when your brother came to
the cottage. I could not give away my plans by refusing the task your
brother offered me."

"It is well." Lucetta had risen and was now standing by the side of
Loreen. "Such a secret as ours defies concealment. Even Providence takes
part against us. What you want to know we must tell, but I assure you it
has nothing to do with the business you profess to be chiefly interested
in--nothing at all."

"Then perhaps you and your sister will retire," said he. "Distracted as
you are by family griefs, I would not wish to add one iota to your
distress. This lady, whom you seem to regard with more or less favor as
friend or relative, will stay to see that no dishonor is paid to your
mother's remains. But your mother's face we must see, Miss Lucetta, if
only to lighten the explanations you will doubtless feel called upon to
make."

It was Loreen who answered this.

"If it must be," said she, "remember your own mother and deal reverently
with ours." Which entreaty and the way it was uttered, gave me my first
distinct conviction that these girls were speaking the truth, and that
the diminutive body we had come to unearth was that of Althea Knollys,
whose fairy-like form I had so long supposed commingled with foreign
soil.

The thought was almost too much for my self-possession, and I advanced
upon Loreen with a dozen burning questions on my lips when the voice of
Mr. Gryce stopped me.

"Explanations later," said he. "For the present we want you here."

It was no easy task for me to linger there with all my doubts unsolved,
waiting for the decisive moment when Mr. Gryce should say: "Come! Look!
Is it she?" But the will that had already sustained me through so many
trying experiences did not fail me now, and, grievous as was the ordeal,
I passed steadily through it, being able to say, though not without some
emotion, I own: "It is Althea Knollys! Changed almost beyond conception,
but still these girls' mother!" which was a happier end to this
adventure than that we had first feared, mysterious as the event was,
not only to myself, but, as I could see, to the acute detective as well.

The girls had withdrawn long before this, just as Mr. Gryce had desired,
and I now expected to be allowed to join them, but Mr. Gryce detained me
till the grave was refilled and made decent again, when he turned and to
my intense astonishment--for I had thought the matter was all over and
the exoneration of this household complete--said softly and with telling
emphasis in my ear:

"Our work is not done yet. They who make graves so readily in cellars
must have been more or less accustomed to the work. We have still some
digging to do."



XXXI

STRATEGY


I was overwhelmed.

"What," said I, "you still doubt?"

"I always doubt," he gravely replied. "This cellar bottom offers a wide
field for speculation. Too wide, perhaps, but, then, I have a plan."

Here he leaned over and whispered a few concise sentences into my ear in
a tone so low I should feel that I was betraying his confidence in
repeating them. But their import will soon become apparent from what
presently occurred.

"Light Miss Butterworth to the stairway," Mr. Gryce now commanded one of
the men, and thus accompanied I found my way back to the kitchen, where
Hannah was bemoaning uncomforted the shame which had come upon the
house.

I did not stop to soothe her. That was not my cue, nor would it have
answered my purpose. On the contrary, I broke into angry ejaculations as
I passed her:

"What a shame! Those wretches cannot be got away from the cellar. What
do you suppose they expect to find there? I left them poking hither and
thither in a way that will be very irritating to Miss Knollys when she
finds it out. I wonder William stands it."

What she said in reply I do not know. I was half way down the hall
before my own words were finished.

My next move was to go to my room and take from my trunk a tiny hammer
and some very small, sharp-pointed tacks. Curious articles, you will
think, for a woman to carry on her travels, but I am a woman of
experience, and have known only too often what it was to want these
petty conveniences and not be able to get them. They were to serve me an
odd turn now. Taking a half-dozen tacks in one hand and concealing the
hammer in my bag, I started boldly for William's room. I knew that the
girls were not there, for I had heard them talking together in the
sitting-room as I came up. Besides, if they were, I had a ready answer
for any demand they might make.

Searching out his boots, I turned them over, and into the sole of each I
drove one of my small tacks. Then I put them back in the same place and
position in which I found them. Task number one was accomplished.

When I issued from the room, I went as quickly as I could below. I was
now ready for a talk with the girls, whom I found as I had anticipated,
talking and weeping together in the sitting-room.

They rose as I came in, awaiting my first words in evident anxiety. They
had not heard me go up-stairs. I immediately allowed my anxiety and
profound interest in this matter to have full play.

"My poor girls! What is the meaning of this? Your mother just dead, and
the matter kept from me, her friend! It is astounding--incomprehensible!
I do not know what to make of it or of you."

"It has a strange look," Loreen gravely admitted; "but we had reasons
for this deception, Miss Butterworth. Our mother, charming and sweet as
you remember her, has not always done right, or, what you will better
understand, she committed a criminal act against a person in this town,
the penalty of which is state's prison."

With difficulty the words came out. With difficulty she kept down the
flush of shame which threatened to overwhelm her and did overwhelm her
more sensitive sister. But her self-control was great, and she went
bravely on, while I, in faint imitation of her courage, restrained my
own surprise and intolerable sense of shock and bitter sorrow under a
guise of simple sympathy.

"It was forgery," she explained. "This has never before passed our lips.
Though a cherished wife and a beloved mother, she longed for many things
my father could not give her, and in an evil hour she imitated the name
of a rich man here and took the check thus signed to New York. The fraud
was not detected, and she received the money, but ultimately the rich
man whose money she had spent, discovered the use she had made of his
name, and, if she had not escaped, would have had her arrested. But she
left the country, and the only revenge he took, was to swear that if she
ever set foot again in X., he would call the police down upon her. Yes,
if she were dying, and they had to drag her from the brink of the grave.
And he would have done it; and knowing this, we have lived under the
shadow of this fear for eleven years. My father died under it, and my
mother--ah, she spent all the remaining years of her life under foreign
skies, but when she felt the hand of death upon her, her affection for
her own flesh and blood triumphed over her discretion, and she came,
secretly, I own, but still with that horror menacing her, to these
doors, and begging our forgiveness, lay down under the roof where we
were born, and died with the halo of our love about her."

"Ah," said I, thinking of all that had happened since I had come into
this house and finding nothing but confirmation of what she was saying,
"I begin to understand."

But Lucetta shook her head.

"No," said she, "you cannot understand yet. We who had worn mourning for
her because my father wished to make this very return impossible, knew
nothing of what was in store for us till a letter came saying she would
be at the C. station on the very night we received it. To acknowledge
our deception, to seek and bring her home openly to this house, could
not be thought of for a moment. How, then, could we satisfy her dying
wishes without compromising her memory and ourselves? Perhaps you have
guessed, Miss Butterworth. You have had time since we revealed the
unhappy secret of this household."

"Yes," said I. "I have guessed."

Lucetta, with her hand laid on mine, looked wistfully into my face.

"Don't blame us!" she cried. "Our mother's good name is everything to
us, and we knew no other way to preserve it than by making use of the
one superstition of this place. Alas! our efforts were in vain. The
phantom coach brought our mother safely to us, but the circumstances
which led to our doors being opened to outsiders, rendered it impossible
for us to carry out our plans unsuspected. Her grave has been discovered
and desecrated, and we----"

She stopped, choked. Loreen took advantage of her silence to pursue the
explanations she seemed to think necessary.

"It was Simsbury who undertook to bring our dying mother from C. station
to our door. He has a crafty spirit under his meek ways, and dressed
himself in a way to lend color to the superstition he hoped to awaken.
William, who did not dare to accompany him for fear of arousing gossip,
was at the gate when the coach drove in. It was he who lifted our mother
out, and it was while she still clung to him with her face pressed close
to his breast that we saw her first. Ah! what a pitiable sight it was!
She was so wan, so feeble, and yet so radiantly happy.

"She looked up at Lucetta, and her face grew wonderful in its unearthly
beauty. She was not the mother we remembered, but a mother whose life
had culminated in the one desire to see and clasp her children again.
When she could tear her eyes away from Lucetta, she looked at me, and
then the tears came, and we all wept together, even William; and thus
weeping and murmuring words of welcome and cheer, we carried her
up-stairs and laid her in the great front chamber. Alas! we did not
foresee what would happen the very next morning--I mean the arrival of
your telegram, to be followed so soon by yourself."

"Poor girls! Poor girls!" It was all I could say. I was completely
overwhelmed.

"The first night after your arrival we moved her into William's room as
being more remote and thus a safer refuge for her. The next night she
died. The dream which you had of being locked in your room was no dream.
Lucetta did that in foolish precaution against your trying to search us
out in the night. It would have been better if we had taken you into our
confidence."

"Yes," I assented, "that would have been better." But I did not say how
much better. That would have been giving away my secret.

Lucetta had now recovered sufficiently to go on with the story.

"William, who is naturally colder than we and less sensitive in regard
to our mother's good name, has shown some little impatience at the
restraint imposed upon him by her presence, and this was an extra
burden, Miss Butterworth, but that and all the others we have been
forced to bear" (the generous girl did not speak of her own special
grief and loss) "have all been rendered useless by the unhappy chance
which has brought into our midst this agent of the police. Ah, if I only
knew whether this was the providence of God rebuking us for years of
deception, or just the malice of man seeking to rob us of our one best
treasure, a mother's untarnished name!"

"Mr. Gryce acts from no malice--" I began, but I saw they were not
listening.

"Have they finished down below?" asked Lucetta.

"Does the man you call Gryce seem satisfied?" asked Loreen.

I drew myself up physically and mentally. My second task was about to
begin.

"I do not understand those men," said I. "They seem to want to look
farther than the sacred spot where we left them. If they are going
through a form, they are doing it very thoroughly."

"That is their duty," observed Loreen, but Lucetta took it less calmly.

"It is an unhappy day for us!" cried she. "Shame after shame, disgrace
upon disgrace! I wish we had all died in our childhood. Loreen, I must
see William. He will be doing some foolish thing, swearing or----"

"My dear, let me go to William," I urgently put in. "He may not like me
overmuch, but I will at least prove a restraint to him. You are too
feeble. See, you ought to be lying on the couch instead of trying to
drag yourself out to the stables."

And indeed at that moment Lucetta's strength gave suddenly out, and she
sank into Loreen's arms insensible.

When she was restored, I hurried away to the stables, still in pursuit
of the task which I had not yet completed. I found William sitting
doggedly on a stool in the open doorway, grunting out short sentences to
the two men who lounged in his vicinity on either side. He was angry,
but not as angry as I had seen him many times before. The men were
townsfolk and listened eagerly to his broken sentences. One or two of
these reached my ears.

"Let 'em go it. It won't be now or to-day they'll settle this business.
It's the devil's work, and devils are sly. My house won't give up that
secret, or any other house they'll be likely to visit. The place I
would ransack--But Loreen would say I was babbling. Goodness knows a
fellow's got to talk about something when his fellow-townsfolk come to
see him." And here his laugh broke in, harsh, cruel, and insulting. I
felt it did him no good, and made haste to show myself.

Immediately his whole appearance changed. He was so astonished to see me
there that for a moment he was absolutely silent; then he broke out
again into another loud guffaw, but this time in a different tone.

"Why, it's Miss Butterworth," he laughed. "Here, Saracen! Come, pay your
respects to the lady who likes you so well."

And Saracen came, but I did not forsake my ground. I had espied in one
corner just what I had hoped to see there, and Saracen's presence
afforded me the opportunity of indulging in one or two rather curious
antics.

"I am not afraid of the dog," I declared, with marked loftiness,
shrinking toward the pail of water I had already marked with my eye.
"Not at all afraid," I continued, catching up the pail and putting it
before me as the dog made a wild rush in my direction. "These gentlemen
will not see me hurt." And though they all laughed--they would have been
fools if they had not--and the dog jumped the pail and I jumped--not a
pail, but a broom-handle that was lying amid all the rest of the
disorder on the floor--they did not see that I had succeeded in doing
what I wished, which was to place that pail so near to William's feet
that--But wait a moment; everything in its own time. I escaped the dog,
and next moment had my eye on him. He did not move after that, which
rather put a stop to the laughter, which observing, I drew very near to
William, and with a sly gesture to the two men, which for some reason
they seemed to understand, whispered in the rude fellow's ear:

"They've found your mother's grave under the Flower Parlor. Your sisters
told me to tell you. But that is not all. They're trampling hither and
yon through all the secret places in the cellar, turning up the earth
with their spades. I know they won't find anything, but we thought you
ought to know----"

Here I made a feint of being startled, and ceased. My second task was
done. The third only remained. Fortunately at that moment Mr. Gryce and
his followers showed themselves in the garden. They had just come from
the cellar and played their part in the same spirit I had mine. Though
they were too far off for their words to be heard, the air of secrecy
they maintained and the dubious looks they cast towards the stable,
could not but evince even to William's dull understanding that their
investigations had resulted in a doubt which left them far from
satisfied; but, once this impression made, they did not linger long
together. The man with the lantern moved off, and Mr. Gryce turned
towards us, changing his whole appearance as he advanced, till no one
could look more cheerful and good-humored.

"Well, that is over," he sighed, with a forced air of infinite relief.
"Mere form, Mr. Knollys--mere form. We have to go through these
pretended investigations at times, and good people like yourself have to
submit; but I assure you it is not pleasant, and under the present
circumstances--I am sure you understand me, Mr. Knollys--the task has
occasioned me a feeling almost of remorse; but that is inseparable from
a detective's life. He is obliged every day of his life to ride over the
tenderest emotions. Forgive me! And now, boys, scatter till I call you
together again. I hope our next search will be without such sorrowful
accompaniments."

It succeeded. William stared at him and stared at the men slowly filing
off down the yard, but was not for a moment deceived by these
overflowing expressions. On the contrary, he looked more concerned than
he had while seated between the two men manifestly set to guard him.

"The deuce!" he cried, with a shrug of his shoulders that expressed
anything but satisfaction. "Lucetta always said--" But even he knew
enough not to finish that sentence, low as he had mumbled it. Watching
him and watching Mr. Gryce, who at that moment turned to follow his men,
I thought the time had come for action. Making another spring as if in
fresh terror of Saracen, who, by the way, was eying me with the meekness
of a lamb, I tipped over that pail with such suddenness and with such
dexterity that its whole contents poured in one flood over William's
feet. My third task was accomplished.

The oath he uttered and the excuses which I volubly poured forth could
not have reached Mr. Gryce's ears, for he did not return. And yet from
the way his shoulders shook as he disappeared around the corner of the
house, I judge that he was not entirely ignorant of the subterfuge by
which I hoped to force this blundering booby of ours to change the boots
he wore for one of the pairs into which I had driven those little tacks.



XXXII

RELIEF


The plan succeeded. Mr. Gryce's plans usually do. William went
immediately to his room, and in a little while came down and hastened
into the cellar.

"I want to see what mischief they have done," said he.

When he came back, his face was beaming.

"All right," he shouted to his sisters, who had come into the hall to
meet him. "Your secret's out, but mine----"

"There, there!" interposed Loreen, "you had better go up-stairs and
prepare for supper. We must eat, William, or rather, Miss Butterworth
must eat, whatever our sorrows or disappointments."

He took the rebuke with a grunt and relieved us of his company. Little
did he think as he went whistling up the stairs that he had just shown
Mr. Gryce where to search for whatever might be lying under the broad
sweep of that cellar-bottom.

That night--it was after supper, which I did not eat for all my natural
stoicism--Hannah came rushing in where we all sat silent, for the girls
showed no disposition to enlarge their confidences in regard to their
mother, and no other topic seemed possible, and, closing the door behind
her, said quickly and with evident chagrin:

"Those men are here again. They say they forgot something. What do you
think it means, Miss Loreen? They have spades and lanterns and----"

"They are the police, Hannah. If they forgot something, they have the
right to return. Don't work yourself up about that. The secret they have
already found out was our worst. There is nothing to fear after that."
And she dismissed Hannah, merely bidding her let us know when the house
was quite clear.

Was she right? Was there nothing worse for them to fear? I longed to
leave these trembling sisters, longed to join the party below and follow
in the track of the tiny impressions made by the tacks I had driven into
William's soles. If there was anything hidden under the cellar-bottom,
natural anxiety would carry him to the spot he had most to fear; so they
would only have to dig at the places where these impressions took a
sharp turn.

But was there anything hidden there? From the sisters' words and actions
I judged there was nothing serious, but would they know? William was
quite capable of deceiving them. Had he done so? It was a question.

It was solved for us by Mr. Gryce's reappearance in the room an hour or
so later. From the moment the light fell upon his kindly features I knew
that I might breathe again freely. It was not the face he showed in the
house of a criminal, nor did his bow contain any of the false deference
with which he sometimes tries to hide his secret doubt or contempt.

"I have come to trouble you for the last time, ladies. We have made a
double search through this house and through the stables, and feel
perfectly justified in saying that our duty henceforth will lead us
elsewhere. The secrets we have surprised are your own, and if possible
shall remain so. Your brother's propensity for vivisection and the
return and death of your mother bear so little on the real question
which interests this community that we may be able to prevent their
spread as gossip through the town. That this may be done
conscientiously, however, I ought to know something more of the latter
circumstance. If Miss Butterworth will then be good enough to grant me a
few minutes' conference with these ladies, I may be able to satisfy
myself to such an extent as to let this matter rest where it is."

I rose with right good will. A mountain weight had been lifted from me,
proof positive that I had really come to love these girls.

What they told him, whether it was less or more than they told me, I
cannot say, and for the moment did not know. That it had not shaken his
faith in them was evident, for when he came out to where I was waiting
in the hall his aspect was even more encouraging than it had been
before.

"No guile in those girls," he whispered as he passed me. "The clue given
by what seemed mysterious in this house has come to naught. To-morrow we
take up another. The trinkets found in Mother Jane's cottage are
something real. You may sleep soundly to-night, Miss Butterworth. Your
part has been well played, but I know you are glad that it has failed."

And I knew that I was glad, too, which is the best proof that there is
something in me besides the detective instinct.

The front door had scarcely closed behind him when William came storming
in. He had been gossiping over the fence with Mr. Trohm, and had been
beguiled into taking a glass of wine in his house. This was evident
without his speaking of it.

"Those sneaks!" cried he. "I hear they've been back again, digging and
stirring up our cellar-bottom like mad. That's because you're so
dreadful shy, you girls. You're afraid of this, you're afraid of that.
You don't want folks to know that mother once--Well, well, there it is
now! If you had not tried to keep this wretched secret, it would have
been an old matter by this time, and my affairs would have been left
untouched. But now every fool will cry out at me in this staid,
puritanical old town, and all because a few bones have been found of
animals which have died in the cause of science. I say it's all your
fault! Not that I have anything to be ashamed of, because I haven't, but
because this other thing, this d--d wicked series of disappearances,
taking place, for aught we know, a dozen rods from our gates (though I
think--but no matter what I think--you all like, or say you like, old
Deacon Spear), has made every one so touchy in this pharisaical town
that to kill a fly has become a crime even if it is to save oneself from
poison. I'm going to see if I cannot make folks blink askance at some
other man than me. I'm going to find out who or what causes these
disappearances."

This was a declaration to make us all stare and look a little bit
foolish. William playing the detective! Well, what might I not live to
see next! But the next moment an overpowering thought struck me. Might
this Deacon Spear by any chance be the rich man whose animosity Althea
Knollys had awakened?



_BOOK IV_

THE BIRDS OF THE AIR



XXXIII

LUCETTA


The next morning I rose with the lark. I had slept well, and all my old
vigor had returned. A new problem was before me; a problem of surpassing
interest, now that the Knollys family had been eliminated from the list
of persons regarded with suspicion by the police. Mother Jane and the
jewels were to be Mr. Gryce's starting-point for future investigation.
Should they be mine? My decision on this point halted, and thinking it
might be helped by a breath of fresh air, I decided upon an early stroll
as a means of settling this momentous question.

There was silence in the house when I passed through it on my way to the
front door. But that silence had lost its terrors and the old house its
absorbing mystery. Yet it was not robbed of its interest. When I
realized that Althea Knollys, the Althea of my youth, had just died
within its walls as ignorant of my proximity as I of hers, I felt that
no old-time romance, nor any terror brought by flitting ghost or
stalking apparition, could compare with the wonder of this return and
the strange and thrilling circumstances which had attended it. And the
end was not yet. Peaceful as everything now looked, I still felt that
the end had not come.

The fact that Saracen was loose in the yard gave me some slight concern
as I opened the great front door and looked out. But the control under
which I had held him the day before encouraged me in my venture, and
after a few words with Hannah, who was careful not to let me slip away
unnoticed, I boldly stepped forth and took my solitary way down to the
gate.

It was not yet eight, and the grass was still heavy with dew. At the
gate I paused. I wished to go farther, but Mr. Gryce's injunction had
been imperative about venturing into the lane alone. Besides--No, that
was not a horse's hoof. There could be no one on the road so early as
this. I was alarming myself unnecessarily, yet--Well, I held my place, a
little awkwardly, perhaps. Self-consciousness is always awkward, and I
could not help being a trifle self-conscious at a meeting so unexpected
and--But the more I attempt to explain, the more confused my expressions
become, so I will just say that, by this very strange chance, I was
leaning over the gate when Mr. Trohm rode up for the second time and
found me there.

I did not attempt any excuses. He is gentleman enough to understand that
a woman of my temperament rises early and must have the morning air.
That he should feel the same necessity is a coincidence, natural
perhaps, but still a coincidence. So there was nothing to be said about
it.

But had there been, I would not have spoken, for he seemed so gratified
at finding me enjoying nature at this early hour that any words from me
would have been quite superfluous. He did not dismount--that would have
shown intention--but he stopped, and--well, we have both passed the age
of romance, and what he said cannot be of interest to the general
public, especially as it did not deal with the disappearances or with
the discoveries made in the Knollys house the day before, or with any of
those questions which have absorbed our attention up to this time.

That we were engaged more than five minutes in this conversation I
cannot believe. I have always been extremely accurate in regard to time,
yet a good half-hour was lost by me that morning for which I have never
been able to account. Perhaps it was spent in the short discussion which
terminated our interview; a discussion which may be of interest to you,
for it was upon the action of the police.

"Nothing came of the investigations made by Mr. Gryce yesterday, I
perceive," Mr. Trohm had remarked, with some reluctance, as he gathered
up his reins to depart. "Well, that is not strange. How could he have
hoped to find any clue to such a mystery as he is engaged to unearth, in
a house presided over by Miss Knollys?"

"How could he, indeed! Yet," I added, determined to allay this man's
suspicions, which, notwithstanding the openness of his remark, were
still observable in his tones, "you say that with an air I should hardly
expect from so good a neighbor and friend. Why is this, Mr. Trohm?
Surely you do not associate crime with the Misses Knollys?"

"Crime? Oh, no, certainly not. No one could associate crime with the
Misses Knollys. If my tone was at fault, it was due perhaps to my
embarrassment--this meeting, your kindness, the beauty of the day, and
the feeling these all call forth. Well, I may be pardoned if my tones
are not quite true in discussing other topics. My thoughts were with the
one I addressed."

"Then that tone of doubt was all the more misplaced," I retorted. "I am
so frank, I cannot bear innuendo in others. Besides, Mr. Trohm, the
worst folly of this home was laid bare yesterday in a way to set at rest
all darker suspicions. You knew that William indulged in vivisection.
Well, that is bad, but it cannot be called criminal. Let us do him
justice, then, and, for his sisters' sake, see how we can re-establish
him in the good graces of the community."

But Mr. Trohm, who for all our short acquaintance was not without a very
decided appreciation for certain points in my character, shook his head
and with a smiling air returned:

"You are asking the impossible not only of the community, but yourself.
William can never re-establish himself. He is of too rude a make. The
girls may recover the esteem they seem to have lost, but William--Why,
if the cause of those disappearances was found to-day, and found at the
remotest end of this road or even up in the mountains, where no one
seems to have looked for it, William would still be known throughout the
county as a rough and cruel man. I have tried to stand his friend, but
it's been against odds, Miss Butterworth. Even his sisters recognize
this, and show their lack of confidence in our friendship. But I would
like to oblige you."

I knew he ought to go. I knew that if he had simply lingered the five
minutes which common courtesy allowed, that curious eyes would be
looking from Loreen's window, and that at any minute I might expect some
interference from Lucetta, who had read through this man's forbearance
toward William the very natural distrust he could not but feel toward so
uncertain a character. Yet with such an opportunity at my command, how
could I let him go without another question?

"Mr. Trohm," said I, "you have the kindest heart and the closest lips,
but have you ever thought that Deacon Spear----"

He stopped me with a really horrified look. "Deacon Spear's house was
thoroughly examined yesterday," said he, "as mine will be to-day. Don't
insinuate anything against him! Leave that for foolish William." Then
with the most charming return to his old manner, for I felt myself in a
measure rebuked, he lifted his hat and urged his horse forward. But,
having withdrawn himself a step or two, he paused and with the slightest
gesture toward the little hut he was facing, added in a much lower tone
than any he had yet used: "Besides, Deacon Spear is much too far away
from Mother Jane's cottage. Don't you remember that I told you she never
could be got to go more than forty rods from her own doorstep?" And,
breaking into a quick canter, he rode away.

I was left to think over his words and the impossibility of my picking
up any other clue than that given me by Mr. Gryce.

I was turning toward the house when I heard a slight noise at my feet.
Looking down, I encountered the eyes of Saracen. He was crouching at my
side, and as I turned toward him, his tail actually wagged. It was a
sight to call the color up to my cheek; not that I blushed at this sign
of good-will, astonishing as it was, considering my feeling toward dogs,
but at his being there at all without my knowing it. So palpable a proof
that no woman--I make no exceptions--can listen more than one minute to
the expressions of a man's sincere admiration without losing a little of
her watchfulness, was not to be disregarded by one as inexorable to her
own mistakes as to those of others. I saw myself the victim of vanity,
and while somewhat abashed by the discovery, I could not but realize
that this solitary proof of feminine weakness was not really to be
deplored in one who has not yet passed the line beyond which any such
display is ridiculous.

Lucetta met me at the door just as I had expected her to. Giving me a
short look, she spoke eagerly but with a latent anxiety, for which I was
more or less prepared.

"I am glad to see you looking so bright this morning," she declared. "We
are all feeling better now that the incubus of secrecy is removed.
But"--here she hesitated--"I would not like to think you told Mr. Trohm
what happened to us yesterday."

"Lucetta," said I, "there may be women of my age who delight in
gossiping about family affairs with comparative strangers, but I am not
that kind of woman. Mr. Trohm, friendly as he has proved himself and
worthy as he undoubtedly is of your confidence and trust, will have to
learn from some other person than myself anything which you may wish to
have withheld from him."

For reply she gave me an impulsive kiss. "I thought I could trust you,"
she cried. Then, with a dubious look, half daring, half shrinking, she
added:

"When you come to know and like us better, you will not care so much to
talk to neighbors. They never can understand us or do us justice, Mr.
Trohm, especially."

This was a remark I could not let pass.

"Why?" I demanded. "Why do you think Mr. Trohm cherishes such animosity
towards you? Has he ever----"

But Lucetta could exercise a repellent dignity when she chose. I did not
finish my sentence, though I must have looked the inquiry I thought
better not to put into words.

"Mr. Trohm is a man of blameless reputation," she avowed. "If he has
allowed himself to cherish suspicions in our regard, he has doubtless
had his reasons for it."

And with these quiet words she left me to my thoughts, and I must say to
my doubts, which were all the more painful that I saw no immediate
opportunity for clearing them up.

Late in the afternoon William burst in with news from the other end of
the lane.

"Such a lark!" he cried. "The investigation at Deacon Spear's house was
a mere farce, and I just made them repeat it with a few frills. They had
dug up my cellar, and I was determined they should dig up his. Oh, the
fun it was! The old fellow kicked, but I had my way. They couldn't
refuse me, you know; I hadn't refused them. So that man's cellar-bottom
has had a stir up. They didn't find anything, but it did me a lot of
good, and that's something. I do hate Deacon Spear--couldn't hate him
worse if he'd killed and buried ten men under his hearthstone."

"There is no harm in Deacon Spear," said Lucetta, quickly.

"Did they submit Mr. Trohm's house to a search also?" asked Loreen,
ashamed of William's heat and anxious to avert any further display of
it.

"Yes, they went through that too. I was with them. Glad I was too. I
say, girls, I could have laughed to see all the comforts that old
bachelor has about him. Never saw such fixings. Why, that house is as
neat and pretty from top to bottom as any old maid's. It's silly, of
course, for a man, and I'd rather live in an old rookery like this,
where I can walk from room to room in muddy boots if I want to, and
train my dogs and live in freedom like the man I am. Yet I couldn't help
thinking it mighty comfortable, too, for an old fellow like him who
likes such things and don't have chick or child to meddle. Why, he had
pincushions on all his bureaus, and they had pins in them."

The laugh with which he delivered this last sentence might have been
heard a quarter of a mile away. Lucetta looked at Loreen and Loreen
looked at me, but none of us joined in the mirth, which seemed to me
very ill-timed.

Suddenly Lucetta asked:

"Did they dig up Mr. Trohm's cellar?"

William stopped laughing long enough to say:

"His cellar? Why, it's cemented as hard as an oak floor. No, they didn't
polish their spades in his house, which was another source of
satisfaction to me. Deacon Spear hasn't even that to comfort him. Oh,
how I did enjoy that old fellow's face when they began to root up his
old fungi!"

Lucetta turned away with a certain odd constraint I could not but
notice.

"It's a humiliating day for the lane," said she. "And what is worse,"
she suddenly added, "nothing will ever come of it. It will take more
than a band of police to reach the root of this matter."

I thought her manner odd, and, moving towards her, took her by the hand
with something of a relative's familiarity.

"What makes you say that? Mr. Gryce seems a very capable man."

"Yes, yes, but capability has nothing to do with it. Chance might and
pluck might, but wit and experience not. Otherwise the mystery would
have been settled long ago. I wish I----"

"Well?" Her hand was trembling violently.

"Nothing. I don't know why I have allowed myself to talk on this
subject. Loreen and I once made a compact never to give any opinion upon
it. You see how I have kept it."

She had drawn her hand away and suddenly had become quite composed. I
turned my attention toward Loreen, but she was looking out of the window
and showed no intention of further pursuing the conversation. William
had strolled out.

"Well," said I, "if ever a girl had reason for breaking such a compact
you are certainly that girl. I could never have been as silent as you
have been--that is, if I had any suspicions on so serious a subject.
Why, your own good name is impugned--yours and that of every other
person living in this lane."

"Miss Butterworth," she replied, "I have gone too far. Besides, you have
misunderstood me. I have no more knowledge than anybody else as to the
source of these terrible tragedies. I only know that an almost
superhuman cunning lies at the bottom of so many unaccountable
disappearances, a cunning so great that only a crazy person----"

"Ah," I murmured eagerly, "Mother Jane!"

She did not answer. Instantly I took a resolution.

"Lucetta," said I, "is Deacon Spear a rich man?"

Starting violently, she looked at me amazed.

"If he is, I should like to hazard the guess that he is the man who has
held you in such thraldom for years."

"And if he were?" said she.

"I could understand William's antipathy to him and also his suspicions."

She gave me a strange look, then without answering walked over and took
Loreen by the hand. "Hush!" I thought I heard her whisper. At all events
the two sisters were silent for more than a moment. Then Lucetta said:

"Deacon Spear is well off, but nothing will ever make me accuse living
man of crime so dreadful." And she walked away, drawing Loreen after
her. In another moment she was out of the room, leaving me in a state of
great excitement.

"This girl holds the secret to the whole situation," I inwardly decided.
"The belief that nothing more can be learned from her is a false one. I
must see Mr. Gryce. William's rodomontades are so much empty air, but
Lucetta's silence has a meaning we cannot afford to ignore."

So impressed was I by this, that I took the first opportunity which
presented itself of seeing the detective. This was early the next
morning. He and several of the townspeople had made their appearance at
Mother Jane's cottage, with spades and picks, and the sight had
naturally drawn us all down to the gate, where we stood watching
operations in a silence which would have been considered unnatural by
any one who did not realize the conflicting nature of the emotions
underlying it. William, to whom the death of his mother seemed to be a
great deliverance, had been inclined to be more or less jocular, but his
sallies meeting with no response, he had sauntered away to have it out
with his dogs, leaving me alone with the two girls and Hannah.

The latter seemed to be absorbed entirely by the aspect of Mother Jane,
who stood upon her doorstep in an attitude so menacing that it was
little short of tragic. Her hood, for the first time in the memory of
those present, had fallen away from her head, revealing a wealth of gray
hair which flew away from her head like a weird halo. Her features we
could not distinguish, but the emotion which inspired her, breathed in
every gesture of her uplifted arms and swaying body. It was wrath
personified, and yet an unreasoning wrath. One could see she was as much
dazed as outraged. Her lares and penates were being attacked, and she
had come from the heart of her solitude to defend them.

"I declare!" Hannah protested. "It is pitiful. She has nothing in the
world but that garden, and now they are going to root that up."

"Do you think that the sight of a little money would appease her?" I
inquired, anxious for an excuse to drop a word into the ear of Mr.
Gryce.

"Perhaps," said Hannah. "She dearly loves money, but it will not take
away her fright."

"It will if she has nothing to be frightened about," said I; and turning
to the girls, I asked them, somewhat mincingly for me, if they thought I
would make myself conspicuous if I crossed the road on this errand, and
when Loreen answered that that would not deter her if she had the money,
and Lucetta added that the sight of such misery was too painful for any
mere personal consideration, I took advantage of their complaisance, and
hastily made my way over to the group, who were debating as to the point
they would attack first.

"Gentlemen," said I, "good-morning. I am here on an errand of mercy.
Poor old Mother Jane is half imbecile and does not understand why you
invade her premises with these implements. Will you object if I endeavor
to distract her mind with a little piece of gold I happen to have in my
pocket? She may not deserve it, but it will make your task easier and
save us some possible concern."

Half of the men at once took off their hats. The other half nudged each
other's elbows, and whispered and grimaced like the fools they were. The
first half were gentlemen, though not all of them wore gentlemen's
clothes.

It was Mr. Gryce who spoke:

"Certainly, madam. Give the old woman anything you please, but--" And
here he stepped up to me and began to whisper; "You have something to
say. What is it?"

I answered in the same quick way: "The mine you thought exhausted has
possibilities in it yet. Question Lucetta. It may prove a more fruitful
task than turning up this soil."

The bow he made was more for the onlookers than for the suggestion I had
given him. Yet he was not ungrateful for the latter, as I, who was
beginning to understand him, could see.

"Be as generous as you please!" he cried aloud. "We would not disturb
the old crone if it were not for one of her well-known follies. Nothing
will take her over forty rods away from her home. Now what lies within
those forty rods? These men think we ought to see."

The shrug I gave answered both the apparent and the concealed question.
Satisfied that he would understand it so, I hurried away from him and
approached Mother Jane.

"See!" said I, astonished at the regularity of her features, now that I
had a good opportunity of observing them. "I have brought you money. Let
them dig up your turnips if they will."

She did not seem to perceive me. Her eyes were wild with dismay and her
lips trembling with a passion far beyond my power to comfort.

"Lizzie!" she cried. "Lizzie! She will come back and find no home. Oh,
my poor girl! My poor, poor girl!"

It was pitiable. I could not doubt her anguish or her sincerity. The
delirium of a broken heart cannot be simulated. And this heart was not
controlled by reason; that was equally apparent. Immediately my heart,
which goes out slowly, but none the less truly on that account, was
touched by something more than the surface sympathy of the moment. She
may have stolen, she may have done worse, she may even have been at the
bottom of the horrible crimes which have given its name to the lane we
were in, but her acts, if acts they were, were the result of a clouded
mind fixed forever upon the fancied needs of another, and not the
expression of personal turpitude or even of personal longing or avarice.
Therefore I could pity her, and I did.

Making another appeal, I pressed the coin hard into one of her hands
till the contact effected what my words had been unable to do, and she
finally looked down and saw what she was clutching. Then indeed her
aspect changed, and in a few minutes of slowly growing comprehension she
became so quiet and absorbed that she forgot to look at the men and even
forgot me, who was probably nothing more than a flitting shadow to her.

"A silk gown," she murmured. "It will buy Lizzie a silk gown. Oh! where
did it come from, the good, good gold, the beautiful gold; such a little
piece, yet enough to make her look fine, my Lizzie, my pretty, pretty
Lizzie?"

No numbers this time. The gift was too overpowering for her even to
remember that it must be hidden away.

I walked away while her delight was still voluble. Somehow it eased my
mind to have done her this little act of kindness, and I think it eased
the minds of the men too. At all events, every hat was off when I
repassed them on my way back to the Knollys gateway.

I had left both the girls there, but I found only one awaiting me.
Lucetta had gone in, and so had Hannah. On what errand I was soon to
know.

"What do you suppose that detective wants of Lucetta now?" asked Loreen
as I took my station again at her side. "While you were talking to
Mother Jane he stepped over here, and with a word or two induced Lucetta
to walk away with him toward the house. See, there they are in those
thick shrubs near the right wing. He seems to be pleading with her. Do
you think I ought to join them and find out what he is urging upon her
so earnestly? I don't like to seem intrusive, but Lucetta is easily
agitated, you know, and his business cannot be of an indifferent nature
after all he has discovered concerning our affairs."

"No," I agreed, "and yet I think Lucetta will be strong enough to
sustain the conversation, judging from the very erect attitude she is
holding now. Perhaps he thinks she can tell him where to dig. They seem
a little at sea over there, and living, as you do, a few rods from
Mother Jane, he may imagine that Lucetta can direct him where to first
plant the spade."

"It's an insult," Loreen protested. "All these talks and visits are
insults. To be sure, this detective has some excuse, but----"

"Keep your eye on Lucetta," I interrupted. "She is shaking her head and
looking very positive. She will prove to him it is an insult. We need
not interfere, I think."

But Loreen had grown pensive and did not heed my suggestion. A look that
was almost wistful had supplanted the expression of indignant revolt
with which she had addressed me, and when next moment the two we had
been watching turned and came slowly toward us, it was with decided
energy she bounded forward and joined them.

"What is the matter now?" she asked. "What does Mr. Gryce want,
Lucetta?"

Mr. Gryce himself spoke.

"I simply want her," said he, "to assist me with a clue from her inmost
thoughts. When I was in your house," he explained with a praiseworthy
consideration for me and my relations to these girls for which I cannot
be too grateful, "I saw in this young lady something which convinced me
that, as a dweller in this lane, she was not without her suspicions as
to the secret cause of the fatal mysteries which I have been sent here
to clear up. To-day I have frankly accused her of this, and asked her to
confide in me. But she refuses to do so, Miss Loreen. Yet her face shows
even at this moment that my old eyes were not at fault in my reading of
her. She does suspect somebody, and it is not Mother Jane."

"How can you say that?" began Lucetta, but the eyes which Loreen that
moment turned upon her seemed to trouble her, for she did not attempt to
say any more--only looked equally obstinate and distressed.

"If Lucetta suspects any one," Loreen now steadily remarked, "then I
think she ought to tell you who it is."

"You do. Then perhaps you--" commenced Mr. Gryce--"can persuade her as
to her duty," he finished, as he saw her head rise in protest of what he
evidently had intended to demand.

"Lucetta will not yield to persuasion," was her quiet reply. "Nothing
short of conviction will move the sweetest-natured but the most
determined of all my mother's children. What she thinks is right, she
will do. I will not attempt to influence her."

Mr. Gryce, with one comprehensive survey of the two, hesitated no
longer. I saw the rising of the blood into his forehead, which always
precedes the beginning of one of his great moves, and, filled with a
sudden excitement, I awaited his next words as a tyro awaits the first
unfolding of the plan he has seen working in the brain of some famous
strategist.

"Miss Lucetta,"--his very tone was changed, changed in a way to make us
all start notwithstanding the preparation his momentary silence had
given us--"I have been thus pressing and perhaps rude in my appeal,
because of something which has come to my knowledge which cannot but
make you of all persons extremely anxious as to the meaning of this
terrible mystery. I am an old man, and you will not mind my bluntness. I
have been told--and your agitation convinces me there is truth in the
report--that you have a lover, a Mr. Ostrander----"

"Ah!" She had sunk as if crushed by one overwhelming blow to the earth.
The eyes, the lips, the whole pitiful face that was upturned to us,
remain in my memory to-day as the most terrible and yet the most moving
spectacle that has come into my by no means uneventful life. "What has
happened to him? Quick, quick, tell me!"

For answer Mr. Gryce drew out a telegram.

"From the master of the ship on which he was to sail," he explained. "It
asks if Mr. Ostrander left this town on Tuesday last, as no news has
been received of him."

"Loreen! Loreen! When he left us he passed down that way!" shrieked the
girl, rising like a spirit and pointing east toward Deacon Spear's. "He
is gone! He is lost! But his fate shall not remain a mystery. I will
dare its solution. I--I--To-night you will hear from me again."

And without another glance at any of us she turned and fled toward the
house.



XXXIV

CONDITIONS


But in another moment she was back, her eyes dilated and her whole
person exhaling a terrible purpose.

"Do not look at me, do not notice me!" she cried, but in a voice so
hoarse no one but Mr. Gryce could fully understand her. "I am for no
one's eyes but God's. Pray that he may have mercy upon me." Then as she
saw us all instinctively fall back, she controlled herself, and,
pointing toward Mother Jane's cottage, said more distinctly: "As for
those men, let them dig. Let them dig the whole day long. Secrecy must
be kept, a secrecy so absolute that not even the birds of the air must
see that our thoughts range beyond the forty rods surrounding Mother
Jane's cottage."

She turned and would have fled away for the second time, but Mr. Gryce
stopped her. "You have set yourself a task beyond your strength. Can you
perform it?"

"I can perform it," she said. "If Loreen does not talk, and I am allowed
to spend the day in solitude."

I had never seen Mr. Gryce so agitated--no, not when he left Olive
Randolph's bedside after an hour of vain pleading. "But to wait all day!
Is it necessary for you to wait all day?"

"It is necessary." She spoke like an automaton. "To-night at twilight,
when the sun is setting, meet me at the great tree just where the road
turns. Not a minute sooner, not an hour later. I will be calmer then."
And waiting now for nothing, not for a word from Loreen nor a detaining
touch from Mr. Gryce, she flew away for the second time. This time
Loreen followed her.

"Well, that is the hardest thing I ever had to do," said Mr. Gryce,
wiping his forehead and speaking in a tone of real grief and anxiety.
"Do you think her delicate frame can stand it? Will she survive this day
and carry through whatever it is she has set herself to accomplish?"

"She has no organic disease," said I, "but she loved that young man very
much, and the day will be a terrible one to her."

Mr. Gryce sighed.

"I wish I had not been obliged to resort to such means," said he, "but
women like that only work under excitement, and she does know the secret
of this affair."

"Do you mean," I demanded, almost aghast, "that you have deceived her
with a false telegram; that that slip of paper you hold----"

"Read it," he cried, holding it out toward me.

I did read it. Alas, there was no deception in it. It read as he said.

"However--" I began.

But he had pocketed the telegram and was several steps away before I had
finished my sentence.

"I am going to start these men up," said he. "You will breathe no word
to Miss Lucetta of my sympathy nor let your own interests slack in the
investigations which are going on under our noses."

And with a quick, sharp bow, he made his way to the gate, whither I
followed him in time to see him set his foot upon a patch of sage.

"You will begin at this place," he cried, "and work east; and,
gentlemen, something tells me that we shall be successful."

With almost a simultaneous sound a dozen spades and picks struck the
ground. The digging up of Mother Jane's garden had begun in earnest.



XXXV

THE DOVE


I remained at the gate. I had been bidden to show my interest in what
was going on in Mother Jane's garden, and this was the way I did it. But
my thoughts were not with the diggers. I knew, as well then as later,
that they would find nothing worth the trouble they were taking; and,
having made up my mind to this, I was free to follow the lead of my own
thoughts.

They were not happy ones; I was neither satisfied with myself nor with
the prospect of the long day of cruel suspense that awaited us. When I
undertook to come to X., it was with the latent expectation of making
myself useful in ferreting out its mystery. And how had I succeeded? I
had been the means through which one of its secrets had been discovered,
but not _the_ secret; and while Mr. Gryce was good enough, or wise
enough, to show no diminution in his respect for me, I knew that I had
sunk a peg in his estimation from the consciousness I had of having sunk
two, if not three pegs, in my own.

This was a galling thought to me. But it was not the only one which
disturbed me. Happily or unhappily, I have as much heart as pride, and
Lucetta's despair, and the desperate resolve to which it had led, had
made an impression upon me which I could not shake off.

Whether she knew the criminal or only suspected him; whether in the heat
of her sudden anguish she had promised more or less than she could
perform, the fact remained that we (by whom I mean first and above all,
Mr. Gryce, the ablest detective on the New York force, and myself, who,
if no detective, am at least a factor of more or less importance in an
inquiry like this) were awaiting the action of a weak and suffering girl
to discover what our own experience should be able to obtain for us
unassisted.

That Mr. Gryce felt that he was playing a great card in thus enlisting
her despair in our service, did not comfort me. I am not fond of games
in which real hearts take the place of painted ones; and, besides, I was
not ready to acknowledge that my own capacity for ferreting out this
mystery was quite exhausted, or that I ought to remain idle while
Lucetta bent under a task so much beyond her strength. So deeply was I
impressed by this latter consideration, that I found myself, even in the
midst of my apparent interest in what was going on at Mother Jane's
cottage, asking if I was bound to accept the defeat pronounced upon my
efforts by Mr. Gryce, and if there was not yet time to retrieve myself
and save Lucetta. One happy thought, or clever linking of cause to
effect, might lead me yet to the clue which we had hitherto sought in
vain. And then who would have more right to triumph than Amelia
Butterworth, or who more reason to apologize than Ebenezar Gryce! But
where was I to get my happy thought, and by what stroke of fortune could
I reasonably hope to light upon a clue which had escaped the penetrating
eye of my quondam colleague? Lucetta's gesture and Lucetta's
exclamation, "He passed that way!" indicated that her suspicions pointed
in the direction of Deacon Spear's cottage; so did William's wandering
accusations: but this was little help to me, confined as I was to the
Knollys demesnes, both by Mr. Gryce's command and by my own sense of
propriety. No, I must light on something more tangible; something
practical enough to justify me in my own eyes for any interference I
might meditate. In short, I must start from a fact, and not from a
suspicion. But what fact? Why, there was but one, and that was the
finding of certain indisputable tokens of crime in Mother Jane's
keeping. That was a clue, a clue, to be sure, which Mr. Gryce, while
ostensibly following it in his present action, really felt to lead
nowhere, but which I--Here my thoughts paused. I dare not promise myself
too satisfactory results to my efforts, even while conscious of that
vague elation which presages success, and which I could only overcome by
resorting again to reasoning. This time I started with a question. Had
Mother Jane committed these crimes herself? I did not think so; neither
did Mr. Gryce, for all the persistence he showed in having the ground
about her humble dwelling-place turned over. Then, how had the ring of
Mr. Chittenden come to be in her possession, when, as all agreed, she
never was known to wander more than forty rods away from home? If the
crime by which this young gentleman had perished had taken place up the
road, as Lucetta's denouncing finger plainly indicated, then this token
of Mother Jane's complicity in it had been carried across the
intervening space by other means than Mother Jane herself. In other
words, it was brought to her by the perpetrator, or it was placed where
she could lay hand on it; neither supposition implying guilt on her
part, she being in all probability as innocent of wrong as she was of
sense. At all events, such should be my theory for the nonce, old
theories having exploded or become of little avail in the present aspect
of things. To discover, then, the source of crime, I must discover the
means by which this ring reached Mother Jane--an almost hopeless task,
but not to be despaired of on that account: had I not wrung the truth in
times gone by from that piece of obstinate stolidity the Van Burnam
scrub-woman? and if I could do this, might I not hope to win an equal
confidence from this half-demented creature, with a heart so passionate
it beat to but one tune, her Lizzie? I meant at least to try, and, under
the impulse of this resolve, I left my position at the gate and
recrossed the road to Mother Jane, whose figure I could dimly discern on
the farther side of her little house.

Mr. Gryce barely looked up as I passed him, and the men not at all. They
were deep in their work, and probably did not see me. Neither did Mother
Jane at first. She had not yet wearied of the shining gold she held,
though she had begun again upon that chanting of numbers the secret of
which Mr. Gryce had discovered in his investigation of her house.

I therefore found it hard to make her hear me when I attempted to speak.
She had fixed upon the new number fifteen and seemed never to tire of
repeating it. At last I took cue from her speech, and shouted out the
word _ten_. It was the number of the vegetable in which Mr. Chittenden's
ring had been hidden, and it made her start violently.

"Ten! ten!" I reiterated, catching her eye. "He who brought it has
carried it away; come into the house and look."

It was a desperate attempt. I felt myself quake inwardly as I realized
how near Mr. Gryce was standing, and what his anger would be if he
surprised me at this move after he had cried "Halt!"

But neither my own perturbation nor the thought of his possible anger
could restrain the spirit of investigation which had returned to me with
the above words; and when I saw that they had not fallen upon deaf ears,
but that Mother Jane heard and in a measure understood them, I led the
way into the hut and pointed to the string from which the one precious
vegetable had been torn.

She gave a spring toward it that was well-nigh maniacal in its fury, and
for an instant I thought she was going to rend the air with one of her
wild yells, when there came a swishing of wings at one of the open
windows, and a dove flew in and nestled in her breast, diverting her
attention so, that she dropped the empty husk of the onion she had just
grasped and seized the bird in its stead. It was a violent clutch, so
violent that the poor dove panted and struggled under it till its head
flopped over and I looked to see it die in her hands.

"Stop!" I cried, horrified at a sight I was so unprepared to expect from
one who was supposed to cherish these birds most tenderly.

But she heard me no more than she saw the gesture of indignant appeal I
made her. All her attention, as well as all her fury, was fixed upon the
dove, over whose neck and under whose wings she ran her trembling
fingers with the desperation of one looking for something he failed to
find.

"Ten! ten!" it was now her turn to shout, as her eyes passed in angry
menace from the bird to the empty husk that dangled over her head. "You
brought it, did you, and you've taken it, have you? There, then! You'll
never bring or carry any more!" And lifting up her hand, she flung the
bird to the other side of the room, and would have turned upon me, in
which contingency I would for once have met my match, if, in releasing
the bird from her hands, she had not at the same time released the coin
which she had hitherto managed to hold through all her passionate
gestures.

The sight of this piece of gold, which she had evidently forgotten for
the moment, turned her thoughts back to the joys it promised her.
Recapturing it once more, she sank again into her old ecstasy, upon
which I proceeded to pick up the poor, senseless dove, and leave the hut
with a devout feeling of gratitude for my undoubted escape.

That I did this quietly and with the dove hidden under my little cape,
no one who knows me well will doubt. I had brought something from the
hut besides this victim of the old imbecile's fury, and I was no more
willing that Mr. Gryce should see the one than detect the other. I had
brought away a clue.

"The birds of the air shall carry it." So the Scripture runs. This bird,
this pigeon, who now lay panting out his life in my arms had brought her
the ring which in Mr. Gryce's eyes had seemed to connect her with the
disappearance of young Mr. Chittenden.



XXXVI

AN HOUR OF STARTLING EXPERIENCES


Not till I was safely back in the Knollys grounds, not, indeed, till I
had put one or two large and healthy shrubs between me and a certain
pair of very prying eyes, did I bring the dove out from under my cape
and examine the poor bird for any sign which might be of help to me in
the search to which I was newly committed.

But I found nothing, and was obliged to resort to my old plan of
reasoning to make anything out of the situation in which I thus so
unexpectedly found myself. The dove had brought the ring into old Mother
Jane's hands, but whence and through whose agency? This was as much a
secret as before, but the longer I contemplated it, the more I realized
that it need not remain a secret long; that we had simply to watch the
other doves, note where they lighted, and in whose barn-doors they were
welcome, for us to draw inferences that might lead to revelations before
the day was out. If Deacon Spear--But Deacon Spear's house had been
examined as well as that of every other resident in the lane. This I
knew, but it had not been examined by me, and unwilling as I was to
challenge the accuracy or thoroughness of a search led on by such a man
as Mr. Gryce, I could not but feel that, with such a hint as I had
received from the episode in the hut, it would be a great relief to my
mind to submit these same premises to my own somewhat penetrating
survey, no man in my judgment having the same quickness of eyesight in
matters domestic as a woman trained to know every inch of a house and to
measure by a hair's-breadth every fall of drapery within it.

But how in the name of goodness was I to obtain an opportunity for this
survey. Had we not one and all been bidden to confine our attention to
what was going on in Mother Jane's cottage, and would it not be treason
to Lucetta to run the least risk of awakening apprehension in any
possibly guilty mind at the other end of the road? Yes, but for all that
I could not keep still if fate, or my own ingenuity, offered me the
least chance of pursuing the clue I had wrung from our imbecile neighbor
at the risk of my life. It was not in my nature to do so, any more than
it was in my nature to yield up my present advantage to Mr. Gryce
without making a personal effort to utilize it. I forgot that I failed
in this once before in my career, or rather I recalled this failure,
perhaps, and felt the great need of retrieving myself.

When, therefore, in my slow stroll towards the house I encountered
William in the shrubbery, I could not forbear accosting him with a
question or two.

"William," I remarked, gently rubbing the side of my nose with an
irresolute forefinger and looking at him from under my lids, "that was a
scurvy trick you played Deacon Spear yesterday."

He stood amazed, then burst into one of his loud laughs.

"You think so?" he cried. "Well, I don't. He only got what he deserved,
the hard, sanctimonious sneak!"

"Do you say that," I inquired, with some spirit, "because you dislike
the man, or because you really believe him to be worthy of hatred?"

William's amusement at this argued little for my hopes.

"_We_ are very much interested in the Deacon," he suggested, with a
leer; which insolence I allowed to pass unnoticed, because it best
suited my plan.

"You have not answered my question," I remarked, with a forced air of
anxiety.

"Oh, no," he cried, "so I haven't"; and he tried to look serious too.
"Well, well, to be just, I have nothing really against the man but his
mean ways. Still, if I were going to risk my life on a hazard as to who
is the evil spirit of this lane, I should say Spear and done with it, he
has such cursed small eyes."

"_I_ don't think his eyes are too small," I returned loftily. Then with
a sudden change of manner, I suggested anxiously: "And my opinion is
shared by your sisters. They evidently think very well of him."

"Oh!" he sneered; "girls are no judges. They don't know a good man when
they see him, and they don't know a bad. You mustn't go by what they
say."

I had it on the tip of my tongue to ask if he did not think Lucetta
sufficiently understood herself to be trusted in what she contemplated
doing that night. But this was neither in accordance with my plan, nor
did it seem quite loyal to Lucetta, who, so far as I knew, had not
communicated her intentions to this booby brother. I therefore changed
this question into a repetition of my first remark:

"Well, I still think the trick you played Deacon Spear yesterday a poor
one; and I advise you, as a gentleman, to go and ask his pardon."

This was such a preposterous proposition, he could not hold his peace.

"_I ask his pardon!_" he snorted. "Well, Saracen, did you ever hear the
like of that! _I_ ask Deacon Spear's pardon for obliging him to be
treated with as great attention as I had been myself."

"If you do not," I went on, unmoved, "I shall go and do it myself. I
think that is what my friendship for you warrants. I am determined that
while I am a visitor in your house no one shall be able to pick a flaw
in your conduct."

He stared (as he might well do), tried to read my face, then my
intentions, and failing to do both, which was not strange, broke into
noisy mirth.

"Oh, ho!" he laughed. "So that is your game, is it! Well, I never!
Saracen, Miss Butterworth wants to reform me; wants to make one of her
sleek city chaps out of William Knollys. She'll have hard work of it,
won't she? But then we're beginning to like her well enough to let her
try. Miss Butterworth, I'll go with you to Deacon Spear. I haven't had
so much chance for fun in a twelve-month."

I had not expected such success, and was duly thankful. But I made no
reference to it aloud. On the contrary, I took his complaisance as a
matter of course, and, hiding all token of triumph, suggested quietly
that we should make as little ado as possible over our errand, seeing
that Mr. Gryce was something of a meddler and _might_ take it into his
head to interfere. Which suggestion had all the effect I anticipated,
for at the double prospect of amusing himself at the Deacon's expense,
and of outwitting the man whose business it was to outwit us, he became
not only willing but eager to undertake the adventure offered him. So
with the understanding that I was to be ready to drive into town as soon
as he could hitch up the horse, we parted on the most amicable terms, he
proceeding towards the stable and I towards the house, where I hoped to
learn something new about Lucetta.

But Loreen, from whom alone I could hope to glean any information, was
shut in her room, and did not come out, though I called her more than
once, which, if it left my curiosity unsatisfied, at least allowed me to
quit the house without awakening hers.

William was waiting for me at the gate when I descended. He was in the
best of humors, and helped me into the buggy he had resurrected from
some corner of the old stable, with a grimace of suppressed mirth which
argued well for the peace of our proposed drive. The horse's head was
turned away from the quarter we were bound for, but as we were
ostensibly on our way to the village, this showed but common prudence on
William's part, and, as such, met with my entire approbation.

Mr. Gryce and his men were hard at work when we passed them. Knowing the
detective so well, and rating at its full value his undoubted talent for
reading the motives of those about him, I made no attempt at cajolery in
the explanation I proffered of our sudden departure, but merely said, in
my old, peremptory way, that I found waiting at the gate so tedious that
I had accepted William's invitation to drive into town. Which, while it
astonished the old gentleman, did not really arouse his suspicions, as a
more conciliatory manner and speech might have done. This disposed of,
we drove rapidly away.

William's sense of humor once aroused was not easily allayed. He seemed
so pleased with his errand that he could talk of nothing else, and
turned the subject over and over in his clumsy way, till I began to
wonder if he had seen through the object of our proposed visit and was
making _me_ the butt of his none too brilliant wit.

But no, he was really amused at the part he was called upon to play,
and, once convinced of this, I let his humor run on without check till
we had re-entered Lost Man's Lane from the other end and were in sight
of the low sloping roof of Deacon Spear's old-fashioned farmhouse.

Then I thought it time to speak.

"William," said I, "Deacon Spear is too good a man, and, as I take it,
is in possession of too great worldly advantages for you to be at enmity
with him. Remember that he is a neighbor, and that you are a landed
proprietor in this lane."

"Good for you!" was the elegant reply with which this young boor honored
me. "I didn't think you had such an eye for the main chance."

"Deacon Spear is rich, is he not?" I pursued, with an ulterior motive he
was far from suspecting.

"Rich? Why, I don't know; that depends upon what you city ladies call
rich; _I_ shouldn't call him so, but then, as you say, I am a landed
proprietor myself."

His laugh was boisterously loud, and as we were then nearly in front of
the Deacon's house, it rang in through the open windows, causing such
surprise, that more than one head bobbed up from within to see who dared
to laugh like that in Lost Man's Lane. While I noted these heads and
various other small matters about the house and place, William tied up
the horse and held out his hand for me to descend.

"I begin to suspect," he whispered as he helped me out, "why you are so
anxious to have me on good terms with the Deacon." At which insinuation
I attempted to smile, but only succeeded in forcing a grim twitch or two
to my lips, for at that moment and before I could take one step towards
the house, a couple of pigeons rose up from behind the house and flew
away in a bee-line for Mother Jane's cottage.

"Ha!" thought I; "my instinct has not failed me. Behold the link between
this house and the hut in which those tokens of crime were found," and
was for the moment so overwhelmed by this confirmation of my secret
suspicions, that I quite forgot to advance, and stood stupidly staring
after these birds now rapidly disappearing in the distance.

William's voice aroused me.

"Come!" he cried. "Don't be bashful. I don't think much of Deacon Spear
myself, but if _you_ do--Why, what's the matter now?" he asked, with a
startled look at me. I had clutched him by the arm.

"Nothing," I protested, "only--you see that window over there? The one
in the gable of the barn, I mean. I thought I saw a hand thrust out,--a
white hand that dropped crumbs. Have they a child on this place?"

"No," replied William, in an odd voice and with an odd look toward the
window I have mentioned. "Did you really see a hand there?"

"I most certainly did," I answered, with an air of indifference I was
far from feeling. "Some one is up in the hay-loft; perhaps it is Deacon
Spear himself. If so, he will have to come down, for now that we are
here, I am determined you shall do your duty."

"Deacon Spear can't climb that hay-loft," was the perplexed answer I
received in a hardly intelligible mutter. "I've been there, and I know;
only a boy or a very agile young man could crawl along the beams that
lead to that window. It is the one hiding-place in this part of the
lane; and when I said yesterday that if I were the police and had the
same search to make which they have, I knew where I would look, I meant
that same little platform up behind the hay, whose only outlook is
yonder window. But I forgot that _you_ have no suspicions of our good
Deacon; that _you_ are here on quite a different errand than to search
for Silly Rufus. So come along and----"

But I resisted his impelling hand. He was so much in earnest and so
evidently under the excitement of what appeared to him a great
discovery, that he seemed quite another man. This made my own suspicions
less hazardous, and also added to the situation fresh difficulties which
could only be met by an appearance on my part of perfect ingenuousness.

Turning back to the buggy as if I had forgotten something, and thus
accounting to any one who might be watching us, for the delay we showed
in entering the house, I said to William: "You have reasons for thinking
this man a villain, or you wouldn't be so ready to suspect him. Now what
if I should tell you that I agree with you, and that this is why I have
dragged you here this fine morning?"

"I should say you were a deuced smart woman," was his ready answer. "But
what can you do here?"

"What have we already done?" I asked. "Discovered that they have some
one in hiding in what you call an inaccessible place in the barn. But
didn't the police examine the whole place yesterday? They certainly told
me they had searched the premises thoroughly."

"Yes," he repeated, with great disdain, "they said and they said; but
they didn't climb up to the one hiding-place in sight. That old fellow
Gryce declared it wasn't worth their while; that only birds could reach
that loophole."

"Oh," I returned, somewhat taken aback; "you called his attention to it,
then?"

To which William answered with a vigorous nod and the grumbling words:

"I don't believe in the police. I think they're often in league with the
very rogues they----"

But here the necessity of approaching the house became too apparent for
further delay. Deacon Spear had shown himself at the front door, and the
sight of his astonished face twisted into a grimace of doubtful welcome
drove every other thought away than how we were to acquit ourselves in
the coming interview. Seeing that William was more or less nonplussed by
the situation, I caught him by the arm, and whispering, "Let us keep to
our first programme," led him up the walk with much the air of a
triumphant captain bringing in a recalcitrant prisoner.

My introduction under these circumstances can be imagined by those who
have followed William's awkward ways. But the Deacon, who was probably
the most surprised, if not the most disconcerted member of the group,
possessed a natural fund of conceit and self-complacency that prevented
any outward manifestation of his feelings, though I could not help
detecting a carefully suppressed antagonism in his eye when he allowed
it to fall upon William, which warned me to exercise my full arts in the
manipulation of the matter before me. I accordingly spoke first and with
all the prim courtesy such a man might naturally expect from an intruder
of my sex and appearance.

"Deacon Spear," said I, as soon as we were seated in his stiff
old-fashioned parlor, "you are astonished to see us here, no doubt,
especially after the display of animosity shown towards you yesterday by
this graceless young friend of mine. But it is on account of this
unfortunate occurrence that we are here. After a little reflection and a
few hints, I may add, from one who has seen more of life than himself,
William felt that he had cause to be ashamed of himself for his show of
sport in yesterday's proceedings, and accordingly he has come in my
company to tender his apologies and entreat your forbearance. Am I not
right, William?"

The fellow is a clown under all and every circumstance, and serious as
our real purpose was, and dreadful as was the suspicion he professed to
cherish against the suave and seemingly respectable member of the
community we were addressing, he could not help laughing, as he
blunderingly replied:

"That you are, Miss Butterworth! She's always right, Deacon. I did act
like a fool yesterday." And seeming to think that, with this one
sentence he had played his part out to perfection, he jumped up and
strolled out of the house, almost pushing down as he did so the two
daughters of the house, who had crept into the hall from the
sitting-room to listen.

"Well, well!" exclaimed the Deacon, "you have done wonders, Miss
Butterworth, to bring him to even so small an acknowledgment as that!
He's a vicious one, is William Knollys, and if _I_ were not such a lover
of peace and concord, he should not long be the only aggressive one. But
_I_ have no taste for strife, and so you may both regard his apology as
accepted. But why do you rise, madam? Sit down, I pray, and let me do
the honors. Martha! Jemima!"

But I would not allow him to summon his daughters. The man inspired me
with too much dislike, if not fear; besides, I was anxious about
William. What was he doing, and of what blunder might he not be guilty
without my judicious guidance?

"I am obliged to you," I returned; "but I cannot wait to meet your
daughters now. Another time, Deacon. There is important business going
on at the other end of the lane, and William's presence there may be
required."

"Ah," he observed, following me to the door, "they are digging up Mother
Jane's garden."

I nodded, restraining myself with difficulty.

"Fool's work!" he muttered. Then with a curious look which made me
instinctively draw back, he added, "These things must inconvenience you,
madam. I wish you had made your visit to the lane in happier times."

There was a smirk on his face which made him positively repellent. I
could scarcely bow my acknowledgments, his look and attitude made the
interview so obnoxious. Looking about for William, I stepped down from
the stoop. The Deacon followed me.

"Where is William?" I asked.

The Deacon ran his eye over the place, and suddenly frowned with
ill-concealed vexation.

"The scapegrace!" he murmured. "What business has he in my barn?"

I immediately forced a smile which, in days long past (I've almost
forgotten them now), used to do some execution.

"Oh, he's a boy!" I exclaimed. "Do not mind his pranks, I pray. What a
comfortable place you have here!"

Instantly a change passed over the Deacon, and he turned to me with an
air of great interest, broken now and then by an uneasy glance behind
him at the barn.

"I am glad you like the place," he insinuated, keeping close at my side
as I stepped somewhat briskly down the walk. "It is a nice place, worthy
of the commendation of so competent a judge as yourself." (It was a
barren, hard-worked farm, without one attractive feature.) "I have lived
on it now forty years, thirty-two of them with my beloved wife Caroline,
and two--" Here he stopped and wiped a tear from the dryest eye I ever
saw. "Miss Butterworth, I am a widower."

I hastened my steps. I here duly and with the strictest regard for the
truth aver, that I decidedly hastened my steps at this very unnecessary
announcement. But he, with another covert glance behind him towards the
barn, from which, to my surprise and increasing anxiety, William had not
yet emerged, kept well up to me, and only paused when I paused at the
side of the road near the buggy.

"Miss Butterworth," he began, undeterred by the air of dignity I
assumed, "I have been thinking that your visit here is a rebuke to my
unneighborliness. But the business which has occupied the lane these
last few days has put us all into such a state of unpleasantness that it
was useless to attempt sociability."

His voice was so smooth, his eyes so small and twinkling, that if I
could have thought of anything except William's possible discoveries in
the barn, I should have taken delight in measuring my wits against his
egotism.

But as it was, I said nothing, possibly because I only half heard what
he was saying.

"I am no lady's man,"--these were the next words I heard,--"but then I
judge you're not anxious for flattery, but prefer the square thing
uttered by a square man without delay or circumlocution. Madam, I am
fifty-three, and I have been a widower two years. I am not fitted for a
solitary life, and I am fitted for the companionship of an affectionate
wife who will keep my hearth clean and my affections in good working
order. Will you be that wife? You see my home,"--here his eye stole
behind him with that uneasy look towards the barn which William's
presence in it certainly warranted,--"a home which I can offer you
unencumbered, if you----"

"Desire to live in Lost Man's Lane," I put in, subduing both my surprise
and my disgust at this preposterous proposal, in order to throw all the
sarcasm of which I was capable into this single sentence.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, "you don't like the neighborhood. Well, we could go
elsewhere. I am not set against the city myself----"

Astounded at his presumption, regarding him as a possible criminal, who
was endeavoring to beguile me for purposes of his own, I could no longer
repress either my indignation or the wrath with which such impromptu
addresses naturally inspired me. Cutting him short with a gesture which
made him open his small eyes, I exclaimed in continuation of his remark:

"Nor, as I take it, are you set against the comfortable little income
somebody has told you I possessed. I see your disinterestedness, Deacon,
but I should be sorry to profit by it. Why, man, I never spoke to you
before in my life, and do you think----"

"Oh!" he suavely insinuated, with a suppressed chuckle which even his
increasing uneasiness as to William could not altogether repress, "I see
you are _not_ above the flattery that pleases other women. Well, madam,
I know a tremendous fine woman when I see her, and from the moment I saw
you riding by the other day, I made up my mind I would have you for the
second Mrs. Spear, if persistence and a proper advocacy of my cause
could accomplish it. Madam, I was going to visit you with this proposal
to-night, but seeing you here, the temptation was too great for my
discretion, and so I have addressed you on the spot. But you need not
answer me at once. I don't need to know any more about _you_ than what I
can take in with my two eyes, but if you would like a little more
acquaintance with _me_, why I can wait a couple of weeks till we've
rubbed the edges off our strangeness, when----"

"When you think I will be so charmed with Deacon Spear that I will be
ready to settle down with him in Lost Man's Lane, or if that will not
do, carry him off to Gramercy Park, where he will be the admiration of
all New York and Brooklyn to boot. Why, man, if I was so easily
satisfied as that, I would not be in a position to-day for you to honor
me with this proposal. I am not easy to suit, so I advise you to turn
your attention to some one much more anxious to be married than I am.
But"--and here I allowed some of my real feelings to appear--"if you
value your own reputation or the happiness of the lady you propose to
inveigle into an union with you, do not venture too far in the
matrimonial way till the mystery is dispelled which shrouds Lost Man's
Lane in horror. If you were an honest man you would ask no one to share
your fortunes whilst the least doubt rests upon your reputation."

"_My_ reputation?" He had started very visibly at these words. "Madam,
be careful. I admire you, but----"

"No offence," said I. "For a stranger I have been, perhaps, unduly
frank. I only mean that any one who lives in this lane must feel himself
more or less enveloped by the shadow which rests upon it. When that is
lifted, each and every one of you will feel himself a man again. From
indications to be seen in the lane to-day, that time may not be far
distant. Mother Jane is a likely source for the mysteries that agitate
us. She knows just enough to have no proper idea of the value of a human
life."

The Deacon's retort was instantaneous. "Madam," said he, with a snap of
his fingers, "I have not that much interest in what is going on down
there. If men have been killed in this lane (which I do not believe),
old Mother Jane has had no hand in it. My opinion is--and you may value
it or not, just as you please--that what the people hereabout call
crimes are so many coincidences, which some day or other will receive
their due explanation. Every one who has disappeared in this vicinity
has disappeared naturally. No one has been killed. That is my theory,
and you will find it correct. On this point I have expended more than a
little thought."

I was irate. I was also dumfounded at his audacity. Did he think I was
the woman to be deceived by any such balderdash as that? But I shut my
lips tightly lest I should say something, and he, not finding this
agreeable, being no conversationalist himself, drew himself up with a
pompously expressed hope that he would see me again after his reputation
was cleared, when his attention as well as my own was diverted by seeing
William's slouching figure appear in the barn door and make slowly
towards us.

Instantly the Deacon forgot me in his interest in William's approach,
which was so slow as to be tantalizing to us both.

When he was within speaking distance, Deacon Spear started towards him.

"Well!" he cried; "one would think you had gone back a dozen or so years
and were again robbing your neighbor's hen-roosts. Been in the hay, eh?"
he added, leaning forward and plucking a wisp or two from my companion's
clothes. "Well, what did you find there?"

In trembling fear for what the lout might answer, I put my hand on the
buggy rail and struggled anxiously to my seat. William stepped forward
and loosened the horse before speaking. Then with a leer he dived into
his pocket, and remarking slowly, "I found _this_," brought to light a
small riding-whip which we both recognized as one he often carried. "I
flung it up in the hay yesterday in one of my fits of laughing, so just
thought I would bring it down to-day. You know it isn't the first time
I've climbed about those rafters, Deacon, as you have been good enough
to insinuate."

The Deacon, evidently taken aback, eyed the young fellow with a leer in
which I saw something more serious than mere suspicion.

"Was that all?" he began, but evidently thought better than to finish,
whilst William, with a nonchalance that surprised me, blunderingly
avoided his eye, and, bounding into the buggy beside me, started up the
horse and drove slowly off.

"Ta, ta, Deacon," he called back; "if you want to see fun, come up to
our end of the lane; there's precious little here." And thus, with a
laugh, terminated an interview which, all things considered, was the
most exciting as well as the most humiliating I have ever taken part in.

"William," I began, but stopped. The two pigeons whose departure I had
watched a little while before were coming back, and, as I spoke,
fluttered up to the window before mentioned, where they alighted and
began picking up the crumbs which I had seen scattered for them. "See!"
I suddenly exclaimed, pointing them out to William. "Was I mistaken when
I thought I saw a hand drop crumbs from that window?"

The answer was a very grave one for him.

"No," said he, "for I have seen more than a hand, through the loophole I
made in the hay. I saw a man's leg stretched out as if he were lying on
the floor with his head toward the window. It was but a glimpse I got,
but the leg moved as I looked at it, and so I know that some one lies
hid in that little nook up under the roof. Now it isn't any one
belonging to the lane, for I know where every one of us is or ought to
be at this blessed moment; and it isn't a detective, for I heard a sound
like heavy sobbing as I crouched there. Then who is it? Silly Rufus, I
say; and if that hay was all lifted, we would see sights that would make
us ashamed of the apologies we uttered to the old sneak just now."

"I want to get home," said I. "Drive fast! Your sisters ought to know
this."

"The girls?" he cried. "Yes, it will be a triumph over them. They never
would believe I had an atom of judgment. But we'll show them, if William
Knollys is altogether a fool."

We were now near to Mr. Trohm's hospitable gateway. Coming from the
excitements of my late interview, it was a relief to perceive the genial
owner of this beautiful place wandering among his vines and testing the
condition of his fruit by a careful touch here and there. As he heard
our wheels he turned, and seeing who we were, threw up his hands in
ill-restrained pleasure, and came buoyantly forward. There was nothing
to do but to stop, so we stopped.

"Why, William! Why, Miss Butterworth, what a pleasure!" Such was his
amiable greeting. "I thought you were all busy at your end of the lane;
but I see you have just come from town. Had an errand there, I suppose?"

"Yes," William grumbled, eying the luscious pear Mr. Trohm held in his
hand.

The look drew a smile from that gentleman.

"Admiring the first fruits?" he observed. "Well, it is a handsome
specimen," he admitted, handing it to me with his own peculiar grace. "I
beg you will take it, Miss Butterworth. You look tired; pardon me if I
mention it." (He is the only person I know who detects any signs of
suffering or fatigue on my part.)

"I am worried by the mysteries of this lane," I ventured to remark. "I
hate to see Mother Jane's garden uprooted."

"Ah!" he acquiesced, with much evidence of good feeling, "it is a
distressing thing to witness. I wish she might have been spared.
William, there are other pears on the tree this came from. Tie up the
horse, I pray, and gather a dozen or so of these for your sisters. They
will never be in better condition for plucking than they are to-day."

William, whose mouth and eyes were both watering for a taste of the fine
fruit thus offered, moved with alacrity to obey this invitation, while
I, more startled than pleased--or, rather, as much startled as
pleased--by the prospect of a momentary _tête-à-tête_ with our agreeable
neighbor, sat uneasily eying the luscious fruit in my hand, and wishing
I was ten years younger, that the blush I felt slowly stealing up my
cheek might seem more appropriate to the occasion.

But Mr. Trohm appeared not to share my wish. He was evidently so
satisfied with me as I was, that he found it difficult to speak at
first, and when he did--But tut! tut! you have no desire to hear any
such confidences as these, I am sure. A middle-aged gentleman's
expressions of admiration for a middle-aged lady may savor of romance to
her, but hardly to the rest of the world, so I will pass this
conversation by, with the single admission that it ended in a question
to which I felt obliged to return a reluctant _No_.

Mr. Trohm was just recovering from the disappointment of this, when
William sauntered back with his hands and pockets full.

"Ah!" that graceless scamp chuckled, with a suspicious look at our
downcast faces, "been improving the opportunity, eh?"

Mr. Trohm, who had fallen back against his old well-curb, surveyed his
young neighbor for the first time with a look of anger. But it vanished
almost as quickly as it appeared, and he contented himself with a low
bow, in which I read real grief.

This was too much for me, and I was about to open my lips with a kind
phrase or two, when a flutter took place over our heads, and the two
pigeons whose flight I had watched more than once during the last hour,
flew down and settled upon Mr. Trohm's arm and shoulders.

"Oh!" I exclaimed, with a sudden shrinking that I hardly understood
myself. And though I covered up the exclamation with as brisk a good-by
as my inward perturbation would allow, that sight and the involuntary
ejaculation I had uttered, were all I saw or heard during our hasty
drive homeward.



XXXVII

I ASTONISH MR. GRYCE AND HE ASTONISHES ME


But as we approached the group of curious people which now filled up the
whole highway in front of Mother Jane's cottage, I broke from the
nightmare into which this last discovery had thrown me, and, turning to
William, said with a resolute air:

"You and your sisters are not of one mind regarding these
disappearances. You ascribe them to Deacon Spear, but they--whom do they
ascribe them to?"

"I shouldn't think it would take a woman of your wit to answer that
question."

The rebuke was deserved. I had wit, but I had refused to exercise it; my
blind partiality for a man of pleasing exterior and magnetic address had
prevented the cool play of my usual judgment, due to the occasion and
the trust which had been imposed in me by Mr. Gryce. Resolved that this
should end, no matter at what cost to my feelings, I quietly said:

"You allude to Mr. Trohm."

"That is the name," he carelessly assented. "Girls, you know, let their
prejudices run away with them. An old grudge----"

"Yes," I tentatively put in; "he persecuted your mother, and so they
think him capable of any wickedness."

The growl which William gave was not one of dissent.

"But I don't care what they think," said he, looking down at the heap of
fruit which lay between us. "I'm Trohm's friend, and don't believe one
word they choose to insinuate against him. What if he didn't like what
my mother did! We didn't like it either, and----"

"William," I calmly remarked, "if your sisters knew that Silly Rufus had
been found in Deacon Spear's barn they would no longer do Mr. Trohm this
injustice."

"No; that would settle them; that would give me a triumph which would
last long after this matter was out of the way."

"Very well, then," said I, "I am going to bring about this triumph. I am
going to tell Mr. Gryce at once what we have discovered in Deacon
Spear's barn."

And without waiting for his ah, yes, or no, I jumped from the buggy and
made my way to the detective's side.

His welcome was somewhat unexpected. "Ah, fresh news!" he exclaimed. "I
see it in your eye. What have you chanced upon, madam, in your
disinterested drive into town?"

I thought I had eliminated all expression from my face, and that my
words would bring a certain surprise with them. But it is useless to try
to surprise Mr. Gryce.

"You read me like a book," said I; "I have something to add to the
situation. Mr. Gryce, I have just come from the other end of the lane,
where I found a clue which may shorten the suspense of this weary day,
and possibly save Lucetta from the painful task she has undertaken in
our interests. Mr. Chittenden's ring----"

I paused for the exclamation of encouragement he is accustomed to give
on such occasions, and while I paused, prepared for my accustomed
triumph. He did not fail me in the exclamation, nor did I miss my
expected triumph.

"Was not found by Mother Jane, or even brought to her in any ordinary
way or by any ordinary messenger. It came to her on a pigeon's neck, the
pigeon you will find lying dead among the bushes in the Knollys yard."

He was amazed. He controlled himself, but he was very visibly amazed.
His exclamations proved it.

"Madam! Miss Butterworth! This ring--Mr. Chittenden's ring, whose
presence in her hut we thought an evidence of guilt, was brought to her
by one of her pigeons?"

"So she told me. I aroused her fury by showing her the empty husk in
which it had been concealed. In her rage at its loss, she revealed the
fact I have just mentioned. It is a curious one, sir, and one I am a
little proud to have discovered."

"Curious? It is more than curious; it is bizarre, and will rank, I am
safe in prophesying, as one of the most remarkable facts that have ever
adorned the annals of the police. Madam, when I say I envy you the honor
of its discovery, you will appreciate my estimate of it--and you. But
when did you find this out, and what explanation are you able to give of
the presence of this ring on a pigeon's neck?"

"Sir, to your first question I need only reply that I was here two hours
or so ago, and to the second that everything points to the fact that the
ring was attached to the bird by the victim himself, as an appeal for
succor to whoever might be fortunate enough to find it. Unhappily it
fell into the wrong hands. That is the ill-luck which often befalls
prisoners."

"Prisoners?"

"Yes. Cannot you imagine a person shut up in an inaccessible place
making some such attempt to communicate with his fellow-creatures?"

"But what inaccessible place have we in----"

"Wait," said I. "You have been in Deacon Spear's barn."

"Certainly, many times." But the answer, glib as it was, showed shock. I
began to gather courage.

"Well," said I, "there is a hiding-place in that barn which I dare
declare you have not penetrated."

"Do you think so, madam?"

"A little loft way up under the eaves, which can only be reached by
clambering over the rafters. Didn't Deacon Spear tell you there was such
a place?"

"No, but----"

"William, then?" I inexorably pursued. "He says he pointed such a spot
out to you, and that you pooh-poohed at it as inaccessible and not worth
the searching."

"William is a--Madam, I beg your pardon, but William has just wit enough
to make trouble."

"But there is such a place there," I urged; "and, what is more, there is
some one hidden in it now. I saw him myself."

"_You_ saw him?"

"Saw a part of him; in short, saw his hand. He was engaged in scattering
crumbs for the pigeons."

"That does not look like starvation," smiled Mr. Gryce, with the first
hint of sarcasm he had allowed himself to make use of in this interview.

"No," said I; "but the time may not have come to inflict this penalty on
Silly Rufus. He has been there but a few days, and--well, what have I
said now?"

"Nothing, ma'am, nothing. But what made you think the hand you saw
belonged to Silly Rufus?"

"Because he was the last person to disappear from this lane. The
last--what am I saying? He wasn't the last. Lucetta's lover was the
last. Mr. Gryce, could that hand have belonged to Mr. Ostrander?"

I was intensely excited; so much so that Mr. Gryce made me a warning
gesture.

"Hush!" he whispered; "you are attracting attention. That hand _was_ the
hand of Mr. Ostrander; and the reason why I did not accept William
Knollys' suggestion to search the Deacon's barn-loft was because I knew
it had been chosen as a place of refuge by this missing lover of
Lucetta."



XXXVIII

A FEW WORDS


Never have keener or more conflicting emotions been awakened in my
breast than by these simple words. But alive to the necessity of hiding
my feelings from those about me, I gave no token of my surprise, but
rather turned a stonier face than common upon the man who had caused it.

"Refuge?" I repeated. "He is there, then, of his own free will--or
yours?" I sarcastically added, not being able to quite keep down this
reproach as I remembered the deception practised upon Lucetta.

"Mr. Ostrander, madam, has been spending the week with Deacon
Spear--they are old friends, you know. That he should spend it quietly
and, to a degree, in hiding, was as much his plan as mine. For while he
found it impossible to leave Lucetta in the doubtful position in which
she and her family at present stand, he did not wish to aggravate her
misery by the thought that he was thus jeopardizing the position on
which all his hopes of future advancement depended. He preferred to
watch and wait in secret, seeing which, I did what I could to further
his wishes. His usual lodging was with the family, but when the search
was instituted, I suggested that he should remove himself to that eyrie
back of the hay where you were sharp enough to detect him to-day."

"Don't attempt any of your flatteries upon me," I protested. "They will
not make me forget that I have not been treated fairly. And Lucetta--oh!
may I not tell Lucetta----"

"And spoil our entire prospect of solving this mystery? No, madam, you
may not tell Lucetta. When Fate has put such a card into our hands as I
played with that telegram to-day, we would be flying in the face of
Providence not to profit by it. Lucetta's despair makes her bold; upon
that boldness we depend to discover and bring to justice a great
criminal."

I felt myself turn pale; for that very reason, perhaps, I assumed a
still sterner air, and composedly said:

"If Mr. Ostrander is in hiding at the Deacon's, and he and his host are
both in your confidence, then the only man whom _you_ can designate in
your thoughts by this dreadful title must be Mr. Trohm."

I had perhaps hoped he would recoil at this or give some other evidence
of his amazement at an assumption which to me seemed preposterous. But
he did not, and I saw, with what feelings may be imagined, that this
conclusion, which was half bravado with me, had been accepted by him
long enough for no emotion to follow its utterance.

"Oh!" I exclaimed, "how can you reconcile such a suspicion with the
attitude you have always preserved towards Mr. Trohm?"

"Madam," said he, "do not criticise my attitude without taking into
account existing appearances. They are undoubtedly in Mr. Trohm's
favor."

"I am glad to hear you say so," said I, "I am glad to hear you say so.
Why, it was in response to his appeal that you came to X. at all."

Mr. Gryce's smile conveyed a reproach which I could not but acknowledge
I amply merited. Had he spent evening after evening at my house,
entertaining me with tales of the devices and the many inconsistencies
of criminals, to be met now by such a puerile disclaimer as this? But
beyond that smile he said nothing; on the contrary, he continued as if I
had not spoken at all.

"But appearances," he declared, "will not stand before the insight of a
girl like Lucetta. She has marked the man as guilty, and we will give
her the opportunity of proving the correctness of her instinct."

"But Mr. Trohm's house has been searched, and you have found
nothing--nothing," I argued somewhat feebly.

"That is the reason we find ourselves forced to yield our judgment to
Lucetta's intuitions," was his quick reply. And smiling upon me with his
blandest air, he obligingly added: "Miss Butterworth is a woman of too
much character not to abide the event with all her accustomed
composure." And with this final suggestion, I was as yet too crushed to
resent, he dismissed me to an afternoon of unparalleled suspense and
many contradictory emotions.



XXXIX

UNDER A CRIMSON SKY


When, in the course of events, the current of my thoughts receive a
decided check and I find myself forced to change former conclusions or
habituate myself to new ideas and a fresh standpoint, I do it, as I do
everything else, with determination and a total disregard of my own
previous predilections. Before the afternoon was well over I was ready
for any revelations which might follow Lucetta's contemplated action,
merely reserving a vague hope that my judgment would yet be found
superior to her instinct.

At five o'clock the diggers began to go home. Nothing had been found
under the soil of Mother Jane's garden, and the excitement of search
which had animated them early in the day had given place to a dull
resentment mainly directed towards the Knollys family, if one could
judge of these men's feelings by the heavy scowls and significant
gestures with which they passed our broken-down gateway.

By six the last man had filed by, leaving Mr. Gryce free for the work
which lay before him.

I had retired long before this to my room, where I awaited the hour set
by Lucetta with a feverish impatience quite new to me. As none of us
could eat, the supper table had not been laid, and though I had no means
of knowing what was in store for us, the sombre silence and oppression
under which the whole house lay seemed a portent that was by no means
encouraging.

Suddenly I heard a knock at my door. Rising hastily, I opened it. Loreen
stood before me, with parted lips and terror in all her looks.

"Come!" she cried. "Come and see what I have found in Lucetta's room."

"Then she's gone?" I cried.

"Yes, she's gone, but come and see what she has left behind her."

Hastening after Loreen, who was by this time half-way down the hall, I
soon found myself on the threshold of the room I knew to be Lucetta's.

"She made me promise," cried Loreen, halting to look back at me, "that I
would let her go alone, and that I would not enter the highway till an
hour after her departure. But with these evidences of the extent of her
dread before us, how can we stay in this house?" And dragging me to a
table, she showed me lying on its top a folded paper and two letters.
The folded paper was Lucetta's Will, and the letters were directed
severally to Loreen and to myself with the injunction that they were not
to be read till she had been gone six hours.

"She has prepared herself for death!" I exclaimed, shocked to my heart's
core, but determinedly hiding it. "But you need not fear any such event.
Is she not accompanied by Mr. Gryce?"

"I do not know; I do not think so. How could she accomplish her task if
not alone? Miss Butterworth, Miss Butterworth, she has gone to brave Mr.
Trohm, our mother's persecutor and our life-long enemy, thinking,
hoping, believing that in so doing she will rouse his criminal
instincts, if he has them, and so lead to the discovery of his crimes
and the means by which he has been enabled to carry them out so long
undetected. It is noble, it is heroic, it is martyr-like, but--oh! Miss
Butterworth, I have never broken a promise to any one before in all my
life, but I am going to break the one I made her. Come, let us fly after
her! She has her lover's memory, but I have nothing in all the world but
her."

I immediately turned and hastened down the stairs in a state of
humiliation which should have made ample amends for any show of
arrogance I may have indulged in in my more fortunate moments.

Loreen followed me, and when we were in the lower hall she gave me a
look and said:

"My promise was not to enter the highway. Would you be afraid to follow
me by another road--a secret road--all overgrown with thistles and
blackberry bushes which have not been trimmed up for years?"

I thought of my thin shoes, my neat silk dress, but only to forget them
the next moment.

"I will go anywhere," said I.

But Loreen was already too far in advance of me to answer. She was young
and lithe, and had reached the kitchen before I had passed the Flower
Parlor. But when we had sped clear of the house I found that my progress
bade fair to be as rapid as hers, for her agitation was a hindrance to
her, while excitement always brings out my powers and heightens both my
wits and my judgment.

Our way lay past the stables, from which I expected every minute to see
two or three dogs jump. But William, who had been discreetly sent out of
the way early in the afternoon, had taken Saracen with him, and possibly
the rest, so our passing by disturbed nothing, not even ourselves. The
next moment we were in a field of prickers, through which we both
struggled till we came into a sort of swamp. Here was bad going, but we
floundered on, edging continually toward a distant fence beyond which
rose the symmetrical lines of an orchard--Mr. Trohm's orchard, in which
those pleasant fruits grew which--Bah! should I ever be able to get the
taste of them out of my mouth!

At a tiny gateway covered with vines, Loreen stopped.

"I do not believe this has been opened for years, but it must be opened
now." And, throwing her whole weight against it, she burst it through,
and bidding me pass, hastened after me over the trailing branches and
made, without a word, for the winding path we now saw clearly defined on
the edge of the orchard before us.

"Oh!" exclaimed Loreen, stopping one moment to catch her breath, "I do
not know what I fear or to what our steps will bring us. I only know
that I must hunt for Lucetta till I find her. If there is danger where
she is, I must share it. You can rest here or come farther on."

I went farther on.

Suddenly we both started; a man had sprung up from behind the hedgerow
that ran parallel with the fence that surrounded Mr. Trohm's place.

"Silence!" he whispered, putting his finger on his lips. "If you are
looking for Miss Knollys," he added, seeing us both pause aghast, "she
is on the lawn beyond, talking to Mr. Trohm. If you will step here, you
can see her. She is in no kind of danger, but if she were, Mr. Gryce is
in the first row of trees to the back there, and a call from me----"

That made me remember my whistle. It was still round my neck, but my
hand, which had instinctively gone to it, fell again in extraordinary
emotion as I realized the situation and compared it with that of the
morning when, blinded by egotism and foolish prejudice in favor of this
man, I ate of his fruit and hearkened to his outrageous addresses.

"Come!" beckoned Loreen, happily too absorbed in her own emotions to
notice mine. "Let us get nearer. If Mr. Trohm is the wicked man we fear,
there is no telling what the means are which he uses to get rid of his
victims. There was nothing to be found in his house, but who knows where
the danger may lurk, and that it may not be near her now? It was
evidently to dare it she came, to offer herself as a martyr, that we
might know----"

"Hush!" I whispered, controlling my own fears roused against my will by
this display of terror in this usually calmest of natures. "No danger
can menace her where they stand, unless he is a common assassin and
carries a pistol----"

"No pistol," murmured the man, who had crept again near us. "Pistols
make a noise. He will not use a pistol."

"Good God!" I whispered. "_You_ do not share her sister's fears that it
is in the heart of this man to kill Lucetta?"

"Five strong men have disappeared hereabout," said the fellow, never
moving his eye from the couple before us. "Why not one weak girl?"

With a cry Loreen started forward. "Run!" she whispered. "Run!"

But as this word left her lips, a slight movement took place in the belt
of trees where we had been told Mr. Gryce lay in hiding, and we could
see him issue for a moment into sight with his finger like that of his
man laid warningly on his lips. Loreen trembled and drew back, seeing
which, the man beside us pointed to the hedge and whispered softly:

"There is just room between it and the fence for a person to pass
sideways. If you and this lady want to get nearer to Miss Knollys, you
might take that road. But Mr. Gryce will expect you to be very quiet.
The young lady expressly said, before she came into this place, that she
could do nothing if for any reason Mr. Trohm should suspect they were
not alone."

"We will be quiet," I assured him, anxious to hide my face, which I felt
twitch at every mention of Mr. Trohm's name. Loreen was already behind
the hedge.

The evening was one of those which are made for peace. The sun, which
had set in crimson, had left a glow on the branches of the forest which
had not yet faded into the gray of twilight. The lawn, around which we
were skirting, had not lost the mellow brilliancy which made it sparkle,
nor had the cluster of varied-hued hollyhocks which set their
gorgeousness against the neat yellow of the peaceful doorposts, shown
any dimness in their glory, which was on a par with that of the setting
sun. But though I saw all this, it no longer appeared to me desirable.
Lucetta and Lucetta's fate, the mystery and the impossibility of its
being explained out here in the midst of turf and blossoms, filled all
my thoughts, and made me forget my own secret cause for shame and
humiliation.

Loreen, who had wormed her way along till she crouched nearly opposite
to the place where her sister stood, plucked me by the gown as I
approached her, and, pointing to the hedge, which pressed up so close it
nearly touched our faces, seemed to bid me look through. Searching for a
spot where there was a small opening, I put my eye to this and
immediately drew back.

"They are moving nearer the gate," I signalled to Loreen, at which she
crept along a few paces, but with a stealth so great that, alert as I
was, I could not hear a twig snap. I endeavored to imitate her, but not
with as much success as I could wish. The sense of horror which had all
at once settled upon me, the supernatural dread of something which I
could not see, but which I felt, had seized me for the first time and
made the ruddy sky and the broad stretch of velvet turf with the shadows
playing over it of swaying tree-tops and clustered oleanders, more
thrilling and awesome to me than the dim halls of the haunted house of
the Knollys family in that midnight hour when I saw a body carried out
for burial amid trouble and hush and a mystery so great it would have
daunted most spirits for the remainder of their lives.

The very sweetness of the scene made its horror. Never have I had such
sensations, never have I felt so deeply the power of the unseen, yet it
seemed so impossible that anything could happen here, anything which
would explain the total disappearance of several persons at different
times, without a trace of their fate being left to the eye, that I could
but liken my state to that of nightmare, where visions take the place of
realities and often overwhelm them.

I had pressed too close against the hedge as I struggled with these
feelings, and the sound I made struck me as distinct, if not alarming;
but the tree-tops were rustling overhead, and, while Lucetta might have
heard the hedge-branches crack, her companion gave no evidence of doing
so. We could distinguish what they were saying now, and realizing this,
we stopped moving and gave our whole attention to listening. Mr. Trohm
was speaking. I could hardly believe it was his voice, it had so changed
in tone, nor could I perceive in his features, distorted as they now
were by every evil passion, the once quiet and dignified countenance
which had so lately imposed upon me.

"Lucetta, my little Lucetta," he was saying, "so she has come to see me,
come to taunt me with the loss of her lover, whom she says I have robbed
her of almost before her eyes! I rob her! How can I rob her or any one
of a man with a voice and arm of his own stronger than mine? Am I a
wizard to dissipate his body in vapor? Yet can you find it in my house
or on my lawn? You are a fool, Lucetta; so are all these men about here
fools! It is in your house----"

"Hush!" she cried, her slight figure rising till we forgot it was the
feeble Lucetta we were gazing at. "No more accusations directed against
us. It is you who must expect them now. Mr. Trohm, your evil practices
are discovered. To-morrow you will have the police here in earnest. They
did but play with you when they were here before."

"You child!" he gasped, striving, however, to restrain all evidences of
shock and terror. "Why, who was it called in the police and set them
working in Lost Man's Lane? Was it not I----"

"Yes, that they might not suspect you, and perhaps that they might
suspect us. But it was useless, Obadiah Trohm. Althea Knollys' children
have been long-suffering, but the limit of their forbearance has been
reached. When you laid your hand upon my lover, you roused a spirit in
me that nothing but your own destruction can satisfy. Where is he, Mr.
Trohm? and where is Silly Rufus and all the rest who have vanished
between Deacon Spear's house and the little home of the cripples on the
highroad? They have asked me this question, but if any one in Lost Man's
Lane can answer, it is you, persecutor of my mother, and traducer of
ourselves, whom I here denounce in face of these skies where God reigns
and this earth where man lives to harry and condemn."

And then I saw that the instinct of this girl had accomplished what our
united acumen and skill had failed to do. The old man--indeed he seemed
an old man now--cringed, and the wrinkles came out in his face till he
was demoniacally ugly.

"You viper!" he shrieked. "How dare you accuse me of crime--you whose
mother would have died in jail but for my forbearance? Have you ever
seen me set my foot upon a worm? Look at my fruit and flowers, look at
my home, without a spot or blemish to mar its neatness and propriety.
Can a man who loves these things stomach the destruction of a man, much
less of a silly, yawping boy? Lucetta, you are mad!"

"Mad or sane, my accusation will have its results, Mr. Trohm. I believe
too deeply in your guilt not to make others do so."

"Ah," said he, "then you have not done so yet? You believe this and
that, but you have not told any one what your suspicions are?"

"No," she calmly returned, though her face blanched to the colorlessness
of wax, "I have not said what I think of you yet."

Oh, the cunning that crept into his face!

"She has not said. Oh, the little Lucetta, the wise, the careful little
Lucetta!"

"But I will," she cried, meeting his eye with the courage and constancy
of a martyr, "though I bring destruction upon myself. I will denounce
you and do it before the night has settled down upon us. I have a lover
to avenge, a brother to defend. Besides, the earth should be rid of such
a monster as you."

"Such a monster as I? Well, my pretty one,"--his voice grown suddenly
wheedling, his face a study of mingled passions,--"we will see about
that. Come just a step nearer, Lucetta. I want to see if you are really
the little girl I used to dandle on my knee."

They were now near the gateway. They had been moving all this time. His
hand was on the curb of the old well. His face, so turned that it caught
the full glare of the setting sun, leaned toward the girl, exerting a
fascinating influence upon her. She took the step he asked, and before
we could shriek out "Beware!" we saw him bend forward with a sudden
quick motion and then start upright again, while her form, which but an
instant before had stood there in all its frail and inspired beauty,
tottered as if the ground were bending under it, and in another moment
disappeared from our appalled sight, swallowed in some dreadful cavern
that for an instant yawned in the smoothly cut lawn before us, and then
vanished again from sight as if it had never been.

A shriek from my whistle mingled with a simultaneous cry of agony from
Loreen. We heard Mr. Gryce rush from behind us, but we ourselves found
it impossible to stir, paralyzed as we were by the sight of the old
man's demoniacal delight. He was leaping to and fro over the turf,
holding up his fingers in the red sunset glare.

"Six!" he shrieked. "Six! and room for two more! Oh, it's a merry life I
lead! Flowers and fruit and love-making" (oh, how I cringed at that!),
"and now and then a little spice like this! But where is my pretty
Lucetta? Surely she was here a moment ago. How could she have vanished,
then, so quickly? I do not see her form amid the trees, there is no
trace of her presence upon the lawn, and if they search the house from
top to bottom and from bottom to top they will find nothing of her--no,
not so much as a print of her footstep or the scent of the violets she
so often wears tucked into her hair."

These last words, uttered in a different voice from the rest, gave the
clue to the whole situation. We saw, even while we all bounded forward
to the rescue of the devoted maiden, that he was one of those maniacs
who have perfect control over themselves and pass for very decent sort
of men except in the moment of triumph; and, noting his look of sinister
delight, perceived that half his pleasure and almost his sole reward for
the horrible crimes he had perpetrated, was in the mystery surrounding
his victims and the entire immunity from suspicion which up to this time
he had enjoyed.

Meantime Mr. Gryce had covered the wretch with his pistol, and his man,
who succeeded in reaching the place even sooner than ourselves, hampered
as we were by the almost impenetrable hedge behind which we had
crouched, tried to lift the grass-covered lid we could faintly discern
there. But this was impossible until I, with almost superhuman
self-possession, considering the imperative nature of the emergency,
found the spring hidden in the well-curb which worked the deadly
mechanism. A yell from the writhing creature cowering under the
detective's pistol guided me unconsciously in its action, and in another
moment we saw the fatal lid tip and disclose what appeared to be the
remains of a second well, long ago dried up and abandoned for the other.

The rescue of Lucetta followed. As she had fainted in falling she had
not suffered much, and soon we had the supreme delight of seeing her
eyes unclose.

"Ah," she murmured, in a voice whose echo pierced to every heart save
that of the guilty wretch now lying handcuffed on the sward, "I thought
I saw Albert! He was not dead, and I----"

But here Mr. Gryce, with an air at once contrite and yet strangely
triumphant, interposed his benevolent face between hers and her weeping
sister's and whispered something in her ear which turned her pallid
cheek to a glowing scarlet. Rising up, she threw her arms around his
neck and let him lift her. As he carried her--where was his rheumatism
now?--out of those baleful grounds and away from the reach of the
maniac's mingled laughs and cries, her face was peace itself. But
his--well, his was a study.



XL

EXPLANATIONS


The hour we all spent together late that night in the old house was
unlike any hour which that place had seen for years. Mr. Ostrander,
Lucetta, Loreen, William, Mr. Gryce, and myself, all were there, and as
an especial grace, Saracen was allowed to enter, that there might not be
a cloud upon a single face there assembled. Though it is a small matter,
I will add that this dog persisted in lying down by my side, not
yielding even to the wiles of his master, whose amusement over this fact
kept him good-natured to the last adieu.

There were too few candles in the house to make it bright, but Lucetta's
unearthly beauty, the peace in Loreen's soft eyes, made us forget the
sombreness of our surroundings and the meagreness of the entertainment
Hannah attempted to offer us. It was the promise of coming joy, and
when, our two guests departed, I bade good-night to the girls in their
grim upper hall, it was with feelings which found their best expression
in the two letters I hastened to write as soon as I gained the refuge of
my own apartment. I will admit you sufficiently into my confidence to
let you read those letters. The first of them ran thus:

     "DEAR OLIVE:

     "To make others happy is the best way to forget our own
     misfortunes. A sudden wedding is to take place in this house.
     Order at once for me from the shops you know me to be in the
     habit of patronizing, a wedding gown of dainty white taffeta [I
     did this not to recall too painfully to herself the wedding
     dress I helped her buy, and which was, as you may remember, of
     creamy satin], with chiffon trimmings, and a wedding veil of
     tulle. Add to this a dress suitable for ocean travel and a
     half-dozen costumes adapted to a southern climate. Let
     everything be suitable for a delicate but spirited girl who has
     seen trouble, but who is going to be happy now if a little
     attention and money can make her so. Do not spare expense, yet
     show no extravagance, for she is a shy bird, easily frightened.
     The measurements you will find enclosed; also those of another
     young lady, her sister, who must also be supplied with a white
     dress, the material of which, however, had better be of crape.

     "All these things must be here by Wednesday evening, my own
     best dress included. On Saturday evening you may look for my
     return. I shall bring the latter young lady with me, so your
     present loneliness will be forgotten in the pleasure of
     entertaining an agreeable guest. Faithfully yours,

     "AMELIA BUTTERWORTH."

The second letter was a longer and more important one. It was directed
to the president of the company which had proposed to send Mr. Ostrander
to South America. In it I related enough of the circumstances which had
kept Mr. Ostrander in X. to interest him in the young couple personally,
and then I told him that if he would forgive Mr. Ostrander this delay
and allow him to sail with his young bride by the next steamer, I myself
would undertake to advance whatever sums might have been lost by this
change of arrangement.

I did not know then that Mr. Gryce had already made this matter good
with this same gentleman.

The next morning we all took a walk in the lane. (I say nothing about
the night. If I did not choose to sleep, or if I had any cause not to
feel quite as elevated in spirit as the young people about me, there is
surely no reason why I should dwell upon it with you or even apologize
for a weakness which you will regard, I hope, as an exception setting
off my customary strength.)

Now a walk in this lane was an event. To feel at liberty to stroll among
its shadows without fear, to know that the danger had been so located
that we all felt free to inhale the autumn air and to enjoy the beauties
of the place without a thought of peril lurking in its sweetest nooks
and most attractive coverts, gave to this short half-hour a distinctive
delight aptly expressed by Loreen when she said:

"I never knew the place was so beautiful. Why, I think I can be happy
here now." At which Lucetta grew pensive, till I roused her by saying:

"So much for a constitutional, girls. Now we must to work. This house,
as you see it now, has to be prepared for a wedding. William, your
business will be to see that these grounds are put in as good order as
possible in the short time allotted to you. I will bear the expense, and
Loreen----"

But William had a word to say for himself.

"Miss Butterworth," said he, "you're a right good sort of woman, as
Saracen has found out, and we, too, in these last few plaguy days. But
I'm not such a bad lot either, and if I do like my own way, which may
not be other people's way, and if I am sometimes short with the girls
for some of their d--d nonsense, I have a little decency about me, too,
and I promise to fix these grounds, and out of my own money, too. Now
that nine tenths of our income does not have to go abroad, we'll have
chink enough to let us live in a respectable manner once more in a place
where one horse, if he's good enough, will give a fellow a standing and
make him the envy of those who, for some other pesky reasons, may think
themselves called upon to fight shy of him. I don't begrudge the old
place a few dollars, especially as I mean to live and die in it; so look
out, you three women folks, and work as lively as you can on the inside
of the old rookery, or the slickness of the outside will put you to open
shame, and that would never please Loreen, nor, as I take it, Miss
Butterworth either."

It was a challenge we were glad to accept, especially as from the number
of persons we now saw come flocking into the lane, it was very apparent
that we should experience no further difficulty in obtaining any help we
might need to carry out our undertakings.

Meantime my thoughts were not altogether concentrated upon these
pleasing plans for Lucetta's benefit. There were certain points yet to
be made clear in the matter just terminated, and there was a confession
for me to make, without which I could not face Mr. Gryce with all that
unwavering composure which our peculiar relations seemed to demand.

The explanations came first. They were volunteered by Mr. Gryce, whom I
met in the course of the morning at Mother Jane's cottage. That old
crone had been perfectly happy all night, sleeping with the coin in her
hand and waking to again devour it with her greedy but loving eyes. As I
was alternately watching her and Mr. Gryce, who was directing with his
hand the movements of the men who had come to smooth down her garden and
make it presentable again, the detective spoke:

"I suppose you have found it difficult, in the light of these new
discoveries, to explain to yourself how Mother Jane happened to have
those trinkets from the peddler's pack, and also how the ring, which you
very naturally thought must have been entrusted to the dove by Mr.
Chittenden himself, came to be about its neck when it flew home that day
of Mr. Chittenden's disappearance. Madam, we think old Mother Jane must
have helped herself out of the peddler's pack before it was found in the
woods there back of her hut, and of the other matter our explanation is
this:

"One day a young man, equipped for travelling, paused for a glass of
water at the famous well in Mr. Trohm's garden just as Mother Jane's
pigeons were picking up the corn scattered for them by the former, whose
tastes are not confined to the cultivation of fruits and flowers, but
extend to dumb animals, to whom he is uniformly kind. The young man wore
a ring, and, being nervous, was fiddling with it as he talked to the
pleasant old gentleman who was lowering the bucket for him. As he
fiddled with it, the earth fell from under him, and as the daylight
vanished above his head, the ring flew from his up-thrown hand, and lay,
the only token of his now blotted-out existence, upon the emerald sward
he had but a moment before pressed with his unsuspicious feet. It
burned--this ruby burned like a drop of blood in the grass, when that
demon came again to his senses, and being a tell-tale evidence of crime
in the eyes of one who had allowed nothing to ever speak against him in
these matters, he stared at it as at a deadly thing directed against
himself and to be got rid of at once and by means which by no
possibility could recoil back upon himself as its author.

"The pigeons stalking near offered to his abnormally acute understanding
the only solution which would leave him absolutely devoid of fear. He
might have swung open the lid of the well once more and flung it after
its owner, but this meant an aftermath of experience from which he
shrank, his delight being in the thought that the victims he saw vanish
before his eyes were so many encumbrances wiped off the face of the
earth by a sweep of the hand. To see or hear them again would be
destructive of this notion. He preferred the subtler way and to take
advantage of old Mother Jane's characteristics, so he caught one of the
pigeons (he has always been able to lure birds into his hands), and
tying the ring around the neck of the bird with a blade of grass plucked
up from the highway, he let it fly, and so was rid of the bauble which
to Mother Jane's eyes, of course, was a direct gift from the heavens
through which the bird had flown before lighting on her doorstep."

"Wonderful!" I exclaimed, almost overwhelmed with humiliation, but
preserving a brave front. "What invention and what audacity!--the
invention and the audacity of a man totally irresponsible for his deeds,
was it not?" I asked. "There is no doubt, is there, about his being an
absolute maniac?"

"No, madam." What a relief I felt at that word! "Since we entrapped him
yesterday and he found himself fully discovered, he has lost all grip
upon himself and fills the room we put him in with the unmistakable
ravings of a madman. It was through these I learned the facts I have
just mentioned."

I drew a deep breath. We were standing in the sight of several men, and
their presence there seemed intolerable. Unconsciously I began to walk
away. Unconsciously Mr. Gryce followed me. At the end of several paces
we both stopped. We were no longer visible to the crowd, and I felt I
could speak the words I had been burning to say ever since I saw the
true nature of Mr. Trohm's character exposed.

"Mr. Gryce," said I, flushing scarlet--which I here solemnly declare is
something which has not happened to me before in years, and if I can
help it shall never happen to me again,--"I am interested in what you
say, because yesterday, at his own gateway, Mr. Trohm proposed to me,
and----"

"You did not accept him?"

"No. What do you think I am made of, Mr. Gryce? I did not accept him,
but I made the refusal a gentle one, and--this is not easy work, Mr.
Gryce," I interrupted myself to say with suitable grimness--"the same
thing took place between me and Deacon Spear, and to him I gave a
response such as I thought his presumption warranted. The discrimination
does not argue well for my astuteness, Mr. Gryce. You see, I crave no
credit that I do not deserve. Perhaps you cannot understand that, but it
is a part of my nature."

"Madam," said he, and I must own I thought his conduct perfect, "had I
not been as completely deceived as yourself I might find words of
criticism for this possibly unprofessional partiality. But when an old
hand like myself can listen to the insinuations of a maniac, and repose,
as I must say I did repose, more or less confidence in the statements he
chose to make me, and which were true enough as to the facts he
mentioned, but wickedly false and preposterously wrong in suggestion, I
can have no words of blame for a woman who, whatever her understanding
and whatever her experience, necessarily has seen less of human nature
and its incalculable surprises. As to the more delicate matter you have
been good enough to confide to me, madam, I have but one remark to make.
With such an example of womanhood suddenly brought to their notice in
such a wild as this, how could you expect them, sane or insane, to do
otherwise than they did? I know many a worthy man who would like to
follow their example." And with a bow that left me speechless, Mr. Gryce
laid his hand on his heart and softly withdrew.



EPILOGUE

SOME STRAY LEAFLETS FROM AN OLD DIARY OF ALTHEA KNOLLYS, FOUND BY ME IN
THE PACKET LEFT IN MY CHARGE BY HER DAUGHTER LUCETTA.


I never thought I should do so foolish a thing as begin a diary. When in
my boarding-school days (which I am very glad to be rid of) I used to
see Meeley Butterworth sit down every night of her life over a little
book which she called the repository of her daily actions, I thought
that if ever I reached that point of imbecility I would deserve to have
fewer lovers and more sense, just as she so frequently advised me to.
And yet here I am, pencil in hand, jotting down the nothings of the
moment, and with every prospect of continuing to do so for two weeks at
least. For (why was I born such a chatterbox!) I have seen my fate, and
must talk to some one about him, if only to myself, nature never having
meant me to keep silence on any living topic that interests me.

Yes, with lovers in Boston, lovers in New York, and a most determined
suitor on the other side of our own home-walls in Peekskill, I have
fallen victim to the grave face and methodical ways of a person I need
not name, since he is the only gentleman in this whole town, except--But
I won't except anybody. Charles Knollys has no peer here or anywhere,
and this I am ready to declare, after only one sight of his face and one
look from his eye, though to no one but you, my secret, non-committal
confidant--for to acknowledge to any human being that my admiration
could be caught, or my heart touched, by a person who had not sued two
years at my feet, would be to abdicate an ascendency I am so accustomed
to I could not see it vanish without pain. Besides, who knows how I
shall feel to-morrow? Meeley Butterworth never shows any hesitation in
uttering her opinion either of men or things, but then her opinion never
changes, whilst mine is a very thistle-down, blowing hither and thither
till I cannot follow its wanderings myself. It is one of my charms,
certain fools say, but that is nonsense. If my cheeks lacked color and
my eyes were without sparkle, or even if I were two inches taller
instead of being the tiniest bit of mortal flesh to be found amongst all
the young ladies of my age in our so-called society, I doubt if the
lightness of my mind would meet with the approbation of even the warmest
woman-lovers of this time. As it is, it just passes, and sometimes, as
to-night, for instance, when I can hardly see to inscribe these lines on
this page for the vision of two grave, if not quietly reproving eyes
which float between it and me, I almost wish I had some of Meeley's
responsible characteristics, instead of being the airiest, merriest, and
most volatile being that ever tried to laugh down the grandeur of this
dreary old house with its century of memories.

Ah! that allusion has given me something to say. This house. What is
there about it except its size to make a stranger like me look back
continually over her shoulder in going down the long halls, or even when
nestling comfortably by the great wood-fire in the immense drawing-room?
_I_ am not one of your fanciful ones; but I can no more help doing this,
than I can help wishing Judge Knollys lived in a less roomy mansion with
fewer echoing corners in its innumerable passages. _I_ like brightness
and cheer, at least in my surroundings. If I must have gloom, or a
seriousness which some would call gloom, let me have it in individuals
where there is some prospect of a blithe, careless-hearted little midget
effecting a change, and not in great towering walls and endless floors
which no amount of sunshine or laughter could ever render homelike, or
even comfortable.

But there! If one has the man, one must have the home, so I had better
say no more against the home till I am quite sure I do not want the man.
For--Well, well, I am not a fool, but I _did_ hear something just then,
a something which makes me tremble yet, though I have spent five good
minutes trilling the gayest songs I know.

I think it is very inconsiderate of the witches to bother thus a
harmless mite like myself, who only asks for love, light, and money
enough to buy a ribbon or a jewel when the fancy takes her, which is not
as often as my enemies declare. And now a question! Why are my enemies
always to be found among the girls, and among the plainest of them too?
I never heard a man say anything against me, though I have sometimes
surprised a look on their faces (I saw it to-day) which might signify
reproof if it were not accompanied by a smile showing anything but
displeasure.

But this is a digression, as Meeley would say. What I want to do, but
which I seem to find it very difficult to do, is to tell how I came to
be here, and what I have seen since I came. First, then, to be very
short about the matter, I am here because the old folks--that is, my
father and Mr. Knollys, have decided Charles and I should know each
other. In thought, I courtesy to the decision; I think we ought to too.
For while many other men are handsomer or better known, or have more
money, alas! than he, he alone has a way of drawing up to one's side
with an air that captivates the eye and sets the heart trembling, a
heart, moreover, that never knew before it could tremble, except in the
presence of great worldly prosperity and beautiful, beautiful things.
So, as this experience is new, I am dutifully obliged for the excitement
it gives me, and am glad to be here, awesome as the place is, and
destitute of any such pleasures as I have been accustomed to in the gay
cities where I have hitherto spent most of my time.

But there! I am rambling again. I have come to X., as you now see, for
good and sufficient reasons, and while this house is one of consequence
and has been the resort of many notable people, it is a little lonesome,
our only neighbor being a young man who has a fine enough appearance,
but who has already shown his admiration of me so plainly--of course he
was in the road when I drove up to the house--that I lost all interest
in him at once, such a nonsensical liking at first sight being, as I
take it, a tribute only to my audacious little travelling bonnet and the
curl or two which will fall out on my cheek when I move my head about
too quickly, as I certainly could not be blamed for doing, in driving
into a place where I was expected to make myself happy for two weeks.

He, then, is out of these chronicles. When I say his name is Obadiah
Trohm, you will probably be duly thankful. But he is not as stiff and
biblical as his name would lead you to expect. On the contrary, he is
lithe, graceful, and suave to a point which makes Charles Knollys'
judicial face a positive relief to the eye and such little understanding
as has been accorded me.

I cannot write another word. It is twelve o'clock, and though I have the
cosiest room in the house, all chintz and decorated china, I find myself
listening and peering just as I did down-stairs in their great barn of a
drawing-room. I wonder if any very dreadful things ever happened in this
house? I will ask old Mr. Knollys to-morrow, or--or Mr. Charles.

       *       *       *       *       *

I am sorry I was so inquisitive; for the stories Charles told me--I
thought I had better not trouble the old gentleman--have only served to
people the shadows of this rambling old house with figures of whose
acquaintance I am likely to be more or less shy. One tale in particular
gave me the shivers. It was about a mother and daughter who both loved
the same man (it seems incredible, girls so seldom seeing with the eyes
of their mothers), and it was the daughter who married him, while the
mother, broken-hearted, fled from the wedding and was driven up to the
great door, here, in a coach, dead. They say that the coach still
travels the road just before some calamity to the family,--a phantom
coach which floats along in shadow, turning the air about it to mist
that chills the marrow in the bones of the unfortunate who sees it. I am
going to see it myself some day, the real coach, I mean, in which this
tragic event took place. It is still in the stable, Charles tells me. I
wonder if I will have the courage to sit where that poor devoted mother
breathed out her miserable existence. I shall endeavor to do so if only
to defy the fate which seems to be closing in upon me.

Charles is an able lawyer, but his argument in favor of close bonnets
_versus_ bewitching little pokes with a rose or two in front, was very
weak, I thought, to-day. He seemed to think so himself, after a while;
for when, as the only means of convincing him of the weakness of the
cause he was advocating, I ran up-stairs and put on a poke similar to
the aforesaid, he retracted at once and let the case go by default. For
which I, and the poke, made suitable acknowledgments, to the great
amusement of papa Knollys, who was on my side from the first.

Not much going on to-day. Yet I have never felt merrier. Oh, ye hideous,
bare old walls! Won't I make you ring if----

       *       *       *       *       *

I won't have it! I won't have that smooth, persistent hypocrite pushing
his way into my presence, when my whole heart and attention belong to a
man who would love me if he only could get his own leave to do so.
Obadiah Trohm has been here to-day, on one pretext or another, three
times. Once he came to bring some very choice apples--as if I cared for
apples! The second time he had a question of great importance, no doubt,
to put to Charles, and as Charles was in my company, the whole interview
lasted, let us say, a good half-hour at least. The third time he came,
it was to see _me_, which, as it was now evening, meant talk, talk, talk
in the great drawing-room, with just a song interpolated now and then,
instead of a cosy chat in the window-seat of the pretty Flower Parlor,
with only one pair of ears to please and one pair of eyes to watch.
Master Trohm was intrusive, and, if no one felt it but myself, it is
because Charles Knollys has set himself up an ideal of womanhood to
which I am a contradiction. But that will not affect the end. A woman
may be such a contradiction and yet win, if her heart is in the struggle
and she has, besides, a certain individuality of her own which appeals
to the eye and heart if not to the understanding. I do not despair of
seeing Charles Knollys' forehead taking a very deep frown at sight of
his handsome and most attentive neighbor. Heigho! why don't I answer
Meeley Butterworth's last letter? Am I ashamed to tell her that I have
to limit my effusion to just four pages because I have commenced a
diary?

       *       *       *       *       *

I declare I begin to regard it a misfortune to have dimples. I never
have regarded it so before when I have seen man after man succumb to
them, but _now_ they have become my bane, for they attract two admirers,
just at the time they should attract but one, and it is upon the wrong
man they flash the oftenest; why, I leave it to all true lovers to
explain. As a consequence, Master Trohm is beginning to assume an air of
superiority, and Charles, who may not believe in dimples, but who on
that very account, perhaps, seems to be always on the lookout for them,
shrinks more or less into the background, as is not becoming in a man
with so many claims to respect, if not to love. _I_ want to feel that
each one of these precious fourteen days contains all that it can of
delight and satisfaction, and how can I when Obadiah--oh, the charming
and romantic name!--holds my crewels, instead of Charles, and whispers
words which, coming from other lips, would do more than waken my
dimples!

But if I must have a suitor, just when a suitor is not wanted, let me at
least make him useful. Charles shall read his own heart in this man's
passion.

       *       *       *       *       *

I don't know why, but I have taken a dislike to the Flower Parlor. It
now vies with the great drawing-room in my disregard. Yesterday, in
crossing it, I felt a chill, so sudden and so penetrating, that I
irresistibly thought of the old saying, "Some one is walking over my
grave." _My grave!_ where lies it, and why should I feel the shudder of
it now? Am I destined to an early death? The bounding life in my veins
says no. But I never again shall like that room. It has made me think.

       *       *       *       *       *

I have not only sat in the old coach, but I had (let me drop the words
slowly, they are so precious) I--I have had--a _kiss_--given me there.
Charles gave me this kiss; he could not help it. I was sitting on the
seat in front, in a sort of mock mirth he was endeavoring to frown upon,
when suddenly I glanced up and our eyes met, and--He says it was the
sauciness of my dimples (oh, those old dimples! they seem to have stood
me in good stead after all); but I say it was my sincere affection which
drew him, for he stooped like a man forgetful of everything in the whole
wide world but the little trembling, panting being before him, and gave
me one of those caresses which seals a woman's fate forever, and made
me, the feather-brained and thoughtless coquette, a slave to this
large-minded and true-hearted man for all my life hereafter.

Why I should be so happy over this event is beyond my understanding.
That he should be in the seventh heaven of delight is only to be
expected, but that I should find myself tripping through this gloomy old
house like one treading on air is a mystery, to the elucidation of which
I can only give my dimples. My reason can make nothing out of it. I, who
thought of nothing short of a grand establishment in Boston, money,
servants, and a husband who would love me blindly whatever my faults,
have given my troth--you will say my lips, but the one means the
other--to a man who will never be known outside of his own county, never
be rich, never be blind even, for he frowns upon me as often as he
smiles, and, worst of all, who lives in a house so vast and so full of
tragic suggestion that it might well awaken doleful anticipations in
much more serious-minded persons than myself.

And yet I am happy, so happy that I have even attempted to make the
acquaintance of the grim old portraits and weak pastels which line the
walls of many of these bedrooms. Old Mr. Knollys caught me courtesying
just now before one of these ancestral beauties, whose face seemed to
hold a faint prophecy of my own, and perceiving by my blushes that this
was something more than a mere childish freak on my part, he chucked me
under the chin and laughingly asked, how long it was likely to be before
he might have the honor of adding my pretty face to the collection.
Which should have made me indignant, only I am not in an indignant mood
just now.

       *       *       *       *       *

Why have I been so foolish? Why did I not let my over-fond neighbor know
from the beginning that I detested him, instead of--But what have I done
anyway? A smile, a nod, a laughing word mean nothing. When one has eyes
which persist in dancing in spite of one's every effort to keep them
demure, men who become fools are apt to call one a coquette, when a
little good sense would teach them that the woman who smiles always has
some other way of showing her regard to the man she really favors. I
could not help being on merry terms with Mr. Trohm, if only to hide the
effect another's presence has on me. But he thinks otherwise, and to-day
I had ample reason for seeing why his good looks and easy manners have
invariably awakened distrust in me rather than admiration. Master Trohm
is vindictive, and I should be afraid of him, if I had not observed in
him the presence of another passion which will soon engross all his
attention and make him forget me as soon as ever I become Charles' wife.
Money is his idol, and as fortune seems to favor him, he will soon be
happy in the mere pleasure of accumulation. But this is not relating
what happened to-day.

We were walking in the shrubbery (by _we_ I naturally mean Charles and
myself), and he was saying things which made me at the same time happy
and a bit serious, when I suddenly felt myself under the spell of some
baleful influence that filled me with a dismay I could neither
understand nor escape from.

As this could not proceed from Charles, I turned to look about me, when
I encountered the eyes of Obadiah Trohm, who was leaning on the fence
separating his grounds from those of Mr. Knollys, looking directly at
us. If I flinched at this surveillance, it was but the natural
expression of my indignation. His face wore a look calculated to
frighten any one, and though he did not respond to the gesture I made
him, I felt that my only chance of escaping a scene was to induce
Charles to leave me before he should see what I saw in the lowering
countenance of his intrusive neighbor. As the situation demanded
self-possession and the exercise of a ready wit, and as these are
qualities in which I am not altogether deficient, I succeeded in
carrying out my intention sooner even than I expected. Charles hurried
from my presence at the first word, and proceeded towards the house
without seeing Trohm, and I, quivering with dread, turned towards the
man whom I felt, rather than saw, approaching me.

He met me with a look I shall never forget. I have had lovers--too many
of them,--and this is not the first man I have been compelled to meet
with rebuff and disdain, but never in the whole course of my none too
extended existence have I been confronted by such passion or overwhelmed
with such bitter recrimination. He seemed like a man beside himself, yet
he was quiet, too quiet, and while his voice did not rise above a
whisper, and he approached no nearer than the demands of courtesy
required, he produced so terrifying an effect upon me that I longed to
cry for help, and would have done so, but that my throat closed with
fright, and I could only gurgle forth a remonstrance, too faint even for
him to hear.

"You have played with a man's best feelings," he said. "You have led me
to believe that I had only to speak to have you for my own. Are you
simply foolish, or are you wicked? Did you care for me at all, or was it
only your wish to increase the number of men in your train? This one"
(here his hand pointed quiveringly towards the house) "has enjoyed a
happiness denied me. His hand has touched yours, his lips--" Here his
words became almost unintelligible till his purpose gave him strength,
and he cried: "But notwithstanding this, notwithstanding any vows you
may have exchanged, I have claims upon you that I will not yield. I who
have loved no woman before you, will have such a hand in your fate that
you will never be able to separate yourself from the influence I shall
exert over you. I will not intrude between you and your lover; I will
not affect dislike or disturb your outer life with any vain display of
my hatred or my passion, but I will work upon your secret thoughts, and
create a slowly increasing dread in the inner sanctuary of your heart
till you wish you had called up the deadliest of serpents in your
pathway rather than the latent fury of Obadiah Trohm. You are a girl
now; when you are married and become a mother, you will understand me.
For the present I leave you. The shadow of this old house which has
never seen much happiness within it will soon rest upon your thoughtless
head. What that will not do, your own inherent weakness will. The woman
who trifles with a strong man's heart has a flaw in her nature which
will work out her own destruction in time. I can afford to let you enjoy
your prospective honeymoon in peace. Afterwards--" He cast a threatening
look towards the decaying structure behind me, and was silent. But that
silence did not unloose my tongue. I was absolutely speechless.

"Ten brides have crossed yonder threshold," he presently went on in a
low musing tone freighted with horrible fatality. "One--and she was the
girl whose mother was driven up to these doors dead--lived to take her
grandchildren on her knees. The rest died early, and most of them
unhappily. Oh, I have studied the traditions of your future home! _You_
will live, but of all the brides who have triumphed in the honorable
name of Knollys, you will lead the saddest life and meet the gloomiest
end notwithstanding you stand before me now, with loose locks flying in
the wind, and a heart so gay that even my despair can barely pale the
roses on your cheek."

This was the raving of a madman. I recognized it as such, and took a
little heart. How could he see into my future? How could he prophesy
evil to one over whom he will have no control? to one watched over and
beloved by a man like Charles? He is a dreamer, a fanatic. His talk
about the flaw in my nature is nonsense, and as for the fate lowering
over my head, in the shadows falling from the toppling old house in
which I am likely to take up my abode--that is only frenzy, and I would
be unworthy of happiness to heed it. As I realized this, my indignation
grew, and, uttering a few contemptuous words, I was hurrying away when
he stopped me with a final warning.

"Wait!" he said, "women like you cannot keep either their joys or their
miseries to themselves. But I advise you not to take Charles Knollys
into your confidence. If you do, a duel will follow, and if I have not
the legal acumen of your intended, I have an eye and a hand before which
he must fall, if our passions come to an issue. So beware! never while
you live betray what has passed between us at this interview, unless the
weariness of a misplaced affection should come to you, and with it the
desire to be rid of your husband."

A frightful threat which, unfortunately perhaps, has sealed my lips. Oh,
why should such monsters live!

       *       *       *       *       *

I have been all through the house to-day with old Mr. Knollys. Every
room was opened for my inspection, and I was bidden to choose which
should be refurnished for my benefit. It was a gruesome trip, from which
I have returned to my own little nook of chintz as to a refuge. Great
rooms which for years have been the abode of spiders, are not much to my
liking, but I chose out two which at least have fireplaces in them, and
these are to be made as cheerful as circumstances will permit. I hope
when I again see them, it will not be by the light of a waning November
afternoon, when the few leaves still left to flutter from the trees
blow, soggy and wet, against the panes of the solitary windows, or lie
in sodden masses at the foot of the bare trunks, which cluster so
thickly on the lawn as to hide all view of the highroad. I was meant for
laughter and joy, flashing lights, and the splendors of ballrooms. Why
have I chosen, then, to give up the great world and settle down in this
grimmest of grim old houses in a none too lively village? I think it is
because I love Charles Knollys, and so, no matter how my heart sinks in
the dim shadows that haunt every spot I stray into, I will be merry,
will think of Charles instead of myself, and so live down the unhappy
prophecies uttered by the wretch who, with his venomous words, has
robbed the future of whatever charm my love was likely to cast upon it.
The fact that this man left the town to-day for a lengthy trip abroad
should raise my spirits more than it has. If we were going now, Charles
and I--But why dream of a Paradise whose doors remain closed to you? It
is here our honeymoon is destined to be passed; within these walls and
in sight of the bare boughs rattling at this moment against the panes.

I made a misstatement when I said that I had gone into all the rooms of
the house this afternoon. _I did not enter the Flower Parlor._

       *       *       *       *       *

I had been married a month and had, as I thought, no further use for
this foolish diary. So one evening when Charles was away, I attempted to
burn it.

But when I had flung myself down before the blazing logs of my bedroom
fire (I was then young enough to love to crouch for hours on the rug in
my lonely room, seeking for all I delighted in and longed for in the
glowing embers), some instinct, or was it a premonition? made me
withhold from destruction a record which coming events might make worthy
of preservation. That was five years ago, and to-day I have reopened the
secret drawer in which this simple book has so long lain undisturbed,
and am once more penning lines destined perhaps to pass into oblivion
together with the others. Why? I do not know. There is no change in my
married life. I have no trouble, no anxiety, no reason for dread;
yet--Well, well, some women are made for the simple round of domestic
duties, and others are as out of place in the nursery and kitchen as
butterflies in a granary. I want just the things Charles cannot give me.
I have home, love, children, all that some women most crave, and while I
idolize my husband and know of nothing sweeter than my babies, I yet
have spells of such wretched weariness, that it would be a relief to me
to be a little less comfortable if only I might enjoy a more brilliant
existence. But Charles is not rich; sometimes I think he is poor, and
however much I may desire change, I cannot have it. Heigho! and, what is
worse, I haven't had a new dress in a year; I who so love dress, and
become it so well! Why, if it is my lot to go shabby, and tie up my
dancing ringlets with faded ribbons, was I made with the figure of a
fairy and given a temperament which, without any effort on my part,
makes me, diminutive as I am, the centre of every group I enter? If I
were plain, or shy, or even self-contained, I might be happy here, but
now--There! there! I will go kiss little William, and lay Loreen's baby
arm about my neck and see if the wicked demons will fly away. Charles is
too busy for me to intrude upon him in that horrid Flower Parlor.

       *       *       *       *       *

I was never superstitious till I entered this house; but now I believe
in every sort of thing a sane woman should not. Yesterday, after a
neglect of five years, I brought out my diary. To-day I have to record
in it that there was a reason for my doing so. Obadiah Trohm has
returned home. I saw him this morning leaning over his fence in the same
place and in very much the same attitude as on that day when he
frightened me so, a month before my wedding.

But he did not frighten me to-day. He merely looked at me very sharply
and with a less offensive admiration than in the early days of our first
acquaintance. At which I made him my best courtesy. I was not going to
remind him of the past in our new relations, and he, thankful perhaps
for this, took off his hat with a smile I am trying even yet to explain
to myself. Then we began to talk. He had travelled everywhere and I had
been nowhere; he wore the dress and displayed the manners of the great
world, while I had only a hungry desire to do the same. As for fashion,
I needed all my beauty and the fading sparkle of my old animation to
enable me to hold up my head before him.

But as for liking him, I did not. I could admire his appearance, but he
himself attracted me no more than when he had words of angry fury on his
tongue. He is a gentleman, and one who has seen the world, but in other
ways he is no more to be compared with my Charles than his pert new
house, built in his absence, with the grand old structure with whose
fatality he once threatened me.

I do not think he wants to threaten me with disaster now. Time closes
such wounds as his very effectually. I wish we had some of his money.

       *       *       *       *       *

I have always heard that the wives of the Knollys, whatever their
misfortune, have always loved their husbands. I do not think I am any
exception to the rule. When Charles has leisure to give me an hour from
his musty old books, the place here seems lively enough, and the
children's voices do not sound so shrill. But these hours are so
infrequent. If it were not for Mr. Trohm's journal (Did I mention that
he had lent me a journal of his travels?) I should often eat my heart
out with loneliness. I am beginning to like the man better as I follow
him from city to city of the old world. If he had ever mentioned me in
its pages, I would not read another line in it, but he seems to have
expended both his love and spite when he bade me farewell in the garden
underlying these bleak old walls.

       *       *       *       *       *

I am becoming as well acquainted with Mr. Trohm's handwriting as with my
own. I read and read and read in his journal, and only stop when the
dreaded midnight hour comes with its ghostly suggestions and the
unaccountable noises which make this old dwelling so uncanny. Charles
often finds me curled up over this book, and when he does he sighs. Why?

       *       *       *       *       *

I have been teaching Loreen to dance. Oh, how merry it has made me! I
think I will be happier now. We have the large upper hall to take steps
in, and when she makes a misstep we laugh, and that is a good sound to
hear in this old place. If I could only have a little money to buy her a
fresh frock and some ribbons, I would feel perfectly satisfied; but I do
believe Charles is getting poorer and poorer every day; the place costs
so much to keep up, he says, and when his father died there were debts
to be paid which leaves us, his innocent inheritors, very straitened.
Master Trohm has no such difficulties. He has money enough. But I don't
like the man for all that, polite as he is to us all. He seems to quite
adore Loreen, and as to William, he pets him till I feel almost
uncomfortable at times.

       *       *       *       *       *

What shall I do? I am invited to New York, _I_, and Charles says I may
go, too--only I have nothing to wear. Oh, for some money! a little
money! it is my right to have some money; but Charles tells me he can
only spare enough to pay my expenses, that my Sunday frock looks very
well, and that, even if it did not, I am pretty enough to do without
fine clothes, and other nonsense like that,--sweet enough, but totally
without point, in fact. If I am pretty, all the more I need a little
finery to set me off, and, besides, to go to New York without
money--why, I should be perfectly miserable. Charles himself ought to
realize this, and be willing to sell his old books before he would let
me go into this whirl of temptation without a dollar to spend. As he
don't, I must devise some plan of my own for obtaining a little money,
for I won't give up my trip--the first offered me since I was
married,--and neither will I go away and come back without a gift for my
two girls, who have grown to womanhood without a jewel to adorn them or
a silk dress to make them look like gentlemen's children. But how get
money without Charles knowing it? Mr. Trohm is such a good friend, he
might lend me a little, but I don't know how to ask him without
recalling to his mind certain words long since forgotten by him perhaps,
but never to be forgotten by me, feather-brained as many people think
me. Is there any one else?

       *       *       *       *       *

I wonder if some things are as wicked as people say they are. I----

       *       *       *       *       *

Here the diary breaks off abruptly. But we know what followed. The
forgery, the discovery of it by her suave but secret enemy, his
unnatural revenge, and the never-dying enmity which led to the tragic
events it has been my unhappy fortune to relate at such length. Poor
Althea! with thy name I write _finis_ to these pages. May the dust lie
lightly on thy breast under the shadow of the Flower Parlor, through
which thy footsteps passed with such dread in the old days of thy
youthful beauty and innocence!


THE END



WORKS BY Anna Katharine Green

    The Leavenworth Case.
    A Strange Disappearance.
    The Sword of Damocles.
    Hand and Ring.
    The Mill Mystery.
    Behind Closed Doors.
    Cynthia Wakeham's Money.
    Marked "Personal."
    Miss Hurd: An Enigma.
    Dr. Izard.
    That Affair Next Door.
    Lost Man's Lane.
    Agatha Webb.
    The Old Stone House.
    The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock.
    X. Y. Z. A Detective Story.
    7 to 12. A Detective Story.
    The Defence of the Bride.
    Risifi's Daughter. A Drama.





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