The Forsaken Inn, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 18

Mrs. Truax Talks.

OCTOBER 7, 1791.

This morning I was exceedingly startled by one of my guests suddenly asking me before several of the others, if my inn had a ghost.

“A ghost!” I cried, for the moment quite aghast.

“Yes,” was the reply; “it has the look of a house which could boast of such a luxury. Don’t you think so, Mr. Westgate?”

This is a newcomer who had just been introduced.

“Well,” observed the latter, “as I have seen only this room, and as this room is anything but ghostlike at the present moment, I hardly consider myself competent to judge.”

“But the exterior! Surely you noticed the exterior. Such a rambling old structure; such a beetling top to it, as if it had settled down here to brood over a mysterious past. I never see it, especially at twilight, that I don’t wonder what lies so heavily upon its conscience. Is it a crime? There would be nothing strange about it if it was. Such old houses rarely have a clean past.”

It was nonchalantly said, but it sank deep into my heart. Not that I felt that he had any motive in saying it — I knew the young scapegrace too well — but that I was conscious from his first word of two eyes burning on my face, which robbed me of all self-possession, though I think I sat without movement, and only paled the slightest in the world.

“A house that dates back to a time when the white men and the red fought every inch of the territory on which it stands would be an anomaly if it did not have some drops of blood upon it,” I ventured to say, as soon as I could command my emotions.

“True,” broke in a low, slow voice — that of Madame Letellier. “Do you know of any especial tragedy that makes the house memorable?”

I turned and gave her a look before replying. She was seated in the shadows of a remote corner, and had so withdrawn herself behind her daughter that I could see nothing of her face. But her hands were visible, and from the force with which she held them clasped in her lap I perceived that the subject we were discussing possessed a greater interest for her than for any one else in the room. “She has heard something of the tragedy connected with this house,” was my inward comment, as I prepared to answer her.

“There is one,” I began, and paused. Something of the instinct of the cat with the mouse had entered into me. I felt like playing with her suspense, cruel as it may seem.

“Oh, tell us!” broke in the daughter, a sudden flush of interest suffusing for a moment her white cheek. “That is, if it is not too horrible. I never like horrible stories; they frighten me. And as for a ghost — if I thought you kept such a creature about your house, I should leave it at once.”

“We have no ghosts,” I answered, with a gravity that struck even myself unpleasantly, it was in such contrast to her mellow and playful tones. “Ghosts are commonplace. We countenance nothing commonplace here.”

“Good!” broke in a voice from the crowd of young men. “The house is above such follies. It must have some wonderful secret, then. What is it, Mrs. Truax? Do you own a banshee? Have you a —”

“Mamma, you hurt me!”

The cry was involuntary. Madame had caught her daughter by the hand and was probably unaware what passion she had put into her clasp. Mademoiselle Letellier blushed again at the sound of her own voice, and prayed her mother’s pardon with the most engaging of smiles. As she did so, I caught a glimpse of that mother’s face. It was white as death. “Decidedly, she knows more than she ought to,” thought I. “And yet she wants to know more. Why?”

“The Happy–Go-Lucky Inn,” I observed, as soon as the flutter caused by this incident had subsided, “is no more haunted by a banshee than by a ghost. But that is not saying it should not be. It is old enough, it is respectable enough; it has traditions enough. I could tell you tales of its owners, and incidents connected with the coming and going of the innumerable guests who have frequented it both before and during the revolution, that would keep you here till morning. But the one story I will tell must suffice. We should lose our character of mystery if I told you all. Besides, how could I tell all? Who could ever tell the complete story of such a house as this?”

“Hear! hear!” cried another young man.

“Years ago —” I stopped again, wickedly stopped. “Madame, will you not come forward where it is lighter?”

“I thank you,” Madame Letellier responded.

She rose deliberately and came forward, tall, mute and commanding. She sat down in the light; she looked me in the face; she robbed me even of my doubts. I felt my heart turn over in my breast and wondered.

“You do not proceed,” she murmured.

“Pardon me,” said I; and assuming a nonchalance I was far from feeling, I commenced again. I had played with her fears. I would play with them further. I would see how much she could bear. I resumed:

“Years ago, when I was younger and had been mistress of this place but a short time, there entered this place one evening, at nightfall, a young couple. Did you speak, madame? Excuse me, it was your daughter, then?”

“Yes,” chimed in the latter, coming forward and taking her stand by the mother, greatly to the delight of the young gentlemen present, who asked for nothing better than an opportunity to gaze upon her modest but exquisite face. “Yes; it was I. I am interested, that is all.”

I began to hate my role, but went on stolidly.

“They were a handsome pair, and I felt an interest in them at once. But this interest immeasurably heightened when the young man, almost before the door had closed upon them, drew me apart and said: ‘Madame, we are an unhappy couple. We have been married just four hours.’”

Here I paused for breath, and to take a good look at madame.

She was fixed as a stone, but her eyes were burning. Evidently she expected the relation of a story which she knew. I would disappoint her. I would cause in her first a shock of relief, and then I would reawaken her fears and probe her very soul. Slowly, and as if it were a matter of course, I proceeded to say:

“It was a run-away match, and as the young husband remarked, ‘a great disappointment to my wife’s father, who is an English general and a great man. My wife loves me, and will never allow herself to be torn from me; but she is not of age, and her father is but a few minutes’ ride behind us. Will you let us come in? We dare not risk the encounter on the road; he would shoot me down like a dog, and that would kill my young wife. If we see him here, he may take pity on our love, and —’

“He needed to say no more. My own compassion had been excited, as much by her countenance as by his words, and I threw open the doors of this very room.

“‘Go in,’ said I, ‘I have a woman’s heart, and cannot bear to see young people in distress. When the general comes —’

“‘We shall hear him,’ cried the girl; ‘he has half a dozen horsemen with him. We saw them when we were on the brow of the hill.’

“‘Take comfort, then,’ I cried, as I closed the door, and went to see after the solitary horse which had brought them to this place.

“But before I could provide the meal with which I meant to strengthen them for the scene that must presently ensue, I heard the anticipated clattering of hoofs, and simultaneously with it, the unclosing of this door and the cry of the young wife to her husband:

“‘I cannot bear it. At his first words I should fall in a faint; and how could I resist him then? No; let me fly; let me hide myself; and when he comes in, swear that you are here alone; that you brought no bride; that she left you at the altar — anything to baffle his rage and give us time.’ And the young thing sprang out before me, and lifting her hands, prayed with great wide-open eyes that I would assist the lie, and swear to her father, when he came in, that her husband had ridden up alone.

“I was not as old then as I am now, I say, and I was very tender toward youthful lovers. Though I thought the scheme a wild one and totally impracticable, she so governed me by her looks and tones that I promised to do what she asked, saying, however, that if she hid herself she must do it well, for if she were found my reputation for reliability would be ruined. And standing there where you see that jog in the wall, she promised, and giving just one look of love to her companion, who stood white but firm on the threshold, she sped from our sight down the hall.

“A moment later the general’s foot was where hers had been, and the general’s voice was filling the house, asking for his daughter.

“‘She is not here,’ came from the young man in firm and stern accents. ‘You have been pleased to think she was with me all these miles, but you will not find her. You can search if you please. I have nothing to say against that. But it will be time wasted.’

“‘We will see about that. The girl is here, is she not?’ the father asked, turning to me.

“‘No,’ was my firm reply; ‘she is not.’

“I do not know how I managed the lie, but I did. Something in the young man’s aspect had nerved me. I began to think she would not be found, though I could see no good reason for this conclusion.

“‘Scatter!’ he now shouted to his followers. ‘Search the house well. Do not leave a nook or cranny unpenetrated. I am not General B—— for nothing.’ And turning to me, he added: ‘You have brought this on yourself by a lie. I saw my daughter in this fellow’s arms as they passed over the ridge of the hill. She is here, and in half an hour will be in my hands.’

“But the clock on the staircase struck not only the half hour, but the hour, and yet, though every room and corridor, the cellar and the garret, were searched, no token was found of the young wife’s presence. Meanwhile the husband stood like a statue on the threshold, waiting with what seemed to me a strange certitude for the return of the father from his fruitless search.

“‘Has she escaped from one of the windows?’ I asked, moved myself to a strange curiosity.

“He looked at me, but made no reply.

“‘It is dark; it is late. If the general chooses to remain here to-night —’

“‘He will not find her,’ was the reply.

“I was frightened — I know not why, but I was frightened. The young man had a supernatural air. I began to think of demon lovers, and was glad when the general finally appeared, storming and raving.

“‘It is a conspiracy!’ was his cry. ‘You are all in league to deceive me. Where is my daughter, Mrs. Truax? I ask you because you have a character to lose.’

“‘It is impossible for me to tell you,’ was my reply. ‘If she was to be found in my house, you must have found her. As you have not, there is but one conclusion to draw. She is not within these walls.’

“‘She is not outside of them. I set a watch in the beginning, at the four corners of the house. None of my men have seen so much as a flutter of her dress. She is here, I say, and I ask you to give her up.’

“‘This I am perfectly willing to do,’ I rejoined, ‘but I do not know where to find her. Let that but once be done, and I shall not stand in the way of your rights.’

“‘Very well,’ he cried. ‘I will not search further to-night; but to-morrow —’ A meaning gesture finished his sentence; he turned to the young man. ‘As for you,’ he cried, ‘you will remain here. Unpleasant as it may be for us both, we will keep each other’s company till morning. I do not insist upon conversation.’ And without waiting for a reply, the sturdy old soldier took up his station in the doorway, by which action he not only shut the young man in, but gave himself a position of vantage from which he could survey the main hall and the most prominent passages.

“The rest were under charge of his followers, whom he had stationed all through the house, just as if it were in a state of siege. One guarded the east door and another the west, and on each landing of the staircase a sentinel stood, silent but alert, like a pair of living statues.

“I did not sleep that night; the mystery of the whole affair would have kept me awake even if my indignation had let me rest. I sat in the kitchen with my girls, and when the morning came, I joined the general again with offers of a breakfast.

“But he would eat nothing till he had gone through the house again; nor would he, in fact, eat here at all; for his second search ended as vainly as his first, and he was by this time so wroth, not only at the failure to recover his child, but at the loss which his dignity had suffered by this failure, that he had no sooner reached this spot, and found the young husband still standing where he had left him, than with a smothered execration, leveled not only at him, but the whole house, he strode out through the doorway, and finding his horse ready saddled in front, mounted and rode away, followed by all his troop.

“And now comes the strangest part of the tale.

“He was no sooner gone, and the dust from his horse’s hoofs lost in the distance, than I turned to the young husband, and cried:

“‘And now where is she? Let us have her here at once. She must be hungry, and she must be cold. Bring her, my good sir.’

“‘I do not know where she is. We must be patient. She will return herself as soon as she thinks it safe.’

“I could not believe my ears.

“‘You do not know where she is?’ I repeated. ‘How could you be so self-possessed through all these hours and all this maddened searching if you did not know she was safe?’

“‘I did know she was safe. She swore to me before she set foot on your doorstep that she could so hide herself in these walls that no one could ever find her till she chose to reveal herself; and I believed her, and felt secure.’

“I did not know what to say.

“‘But she is a stranger,’ I murmured. ‘What does she know about my house?’

“‘She is a stranger to you,’ he retorted, ‘but she may not be a stranger to the house. How long have you lived here?’

“I could not say long. It was at the most but a year; so I merely shook my head, but I felt strangely nonplussed.

“This feeling, however, soon gave way to one much more serious as the moments fled by and presently the hours, and she did not come. We tried to curb our impatience, tried to believe that her delay was only owing to extra caution; but as morning waxed to noon, alarm took the place of satisfaction in our breasts, and we began to search the house ourselves, calling her name up and down the halls and through the empty rooms, till it seemed as if the very walls must open and reveal us the being so frantically desired.

“‘She is not in the house,’ I now asserted to the almost frenzied bridegroom. ‘Our lies have come back upon our heads, and it is in the river we must look for her.’

“But he would not agree with me in this, and repeated again and again: ‘She said she would hide here. She would not deceive me, nor would she have sought death alone. Leave me to look for her another hour. I must, I can, I will find her yet!’

“But he never did. After that last fond look with which she turned down that very hall you see before you, we saw her no more; and if my house owns no ghost and never echoes to the sound of a banshee’s warning, it is not because it does not own a mystery which is certainly thrilling enough to give us either.”

“Oh!” cried out several voices, as I ceased, “is that all? And what became of the poor bridegroom? And did the father ever come back? And haven’t you ever really found out where the poor thing went to? And do you think she died?”

For reply I rose. I had never taken my eye off madame, and the strain upon us both had been terrible; but I let my glance wander now, and smiling genially into the eager faces which had crowded around me, I remarked:

“I never spoil a good story by too many explanations. You have heard all you will from me to-night. So do not question me further. Am I not right, madame?”

“Perfectly,” came in her even tones. “And I am sure we are all very much obliged to you.”

I bowed and slipped away into the background. I was worn out.

An hour later I was passing through the hall above on my way to my own room. As I passed madame’s door, I saw it open, and before I had taken three steps away I felt her soft hand on my arm.

“Your pardon, Mrs. Truax,” were her words; “but my daughter has been peculiarly affected by the story you related to us below. She says it is worse than any ghost story, and that she cannot rid herself of the picture of the young wife flitting out of sight down the hall. I am really afraid it has produced a very bad effect upon her, and that she will not sleep. Is it — was it a true story, Mrs. Truax, or were you merely weaving fancies out of a too fertile brain?”

I smiled, for she was smiling, and shook my head, looking directly into her eyes.

“Your daughter need not lose her sleep,” I said, “on account of any story of mine. I saw they wanted something blood-curdling, so I made up a tale to please them. It was all imagination, madame; all imagination. I should not have told it if it had been otherwise. I think too much of my house.”

“And you had nothing to found it upon? Just drew upon your fancy?”

I smiled. Her light tone did not deceive me as to the anxiety underlying all this; but it was not in my plan to betray my powers of penetration. I preferred that she should think me her dupe.

“Oh,” I returned, as ingenuously as if I had never had a suspicious thought, “I do not find it difficult to weave a tale. Of course such a story could not be true. Why, I should be afraid to stay in the inn myself if it were. I could never abide anything mysterious. Everything with me must be as open as the day.”

“And with me,” she laughed; but there was a false note in her mirth, though I did not appear to notice it. “I did not suppose the story was real, but I thought you must have some old tradition to found it upon; some old wife’s tale or some secret history which is a part and parcel of the house, and came to you with it.”

But I shook my head, still smiling, and answered, quite at my ease:

“No old wife’s tale that I have ever heard amounts to much. I can make up a better story any day than those which come down with a house like this. It was all the work of my imagination, I assure you. I tried to please them, and I hope I did it.”

Her face changed at once. It was as if a black veil had been drawn away from it.

“My daughter will be so relieved,” she affirmed. “I don’t mind such lugubrious tales myself, but she is young and sensitive, and so tender-hearted. I am sure I thank you, Mrs. Truax, for your consideration, and beg leave to wish you a good-night.”

I returned her civility, and we passed into our several rooms. Would I could know with what thoughts, for my own were as much a mystery to me as were hers.

OCTOBER 9, 1791.

Madame never addresses her daughter by her first name. Consequently we do not know it. This is a matter of surprise to the whole house, and many are the conjectures uttered by the young men as to what it can be. I have no especial curiosity about it — I would much rather know the mother’s, and yet I frequently wonder; for it seems unnatural for a mother always to address her child as mademoiselle. Is she her mother? I sometimes think she is not. If the interest in the oak parlor is what I think it is, then she cannot be, for what mother would wish to bring peril to her child? And peril lies at the bottom of all interest there; peril to the helpless, the trusting and the ignorant. But is she as interested there as I thought her? I have observed nothing lately to assure me of it. Perhaps, after all, I have been mistaken.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37