Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 35

Silence — And a Knock

Oswald did not succeed in finding a man to please Orlando. He suggested one person after another to the exacting inventor, but none were satisfactory to him and each in turn was turned down. It is not every one we want to have share a world-wide triumph or an ignominious defeat. And the days were passing.

He had said in a moment of elation, “I will do it alone;” but he knew even then that he could not. Two hands were necessary to start the car; afterwards, he might manage it alone. Descent was even possible, but to give the contrivance its first lift required a second mechanician. Where was he to find one to please him? And what was he to do if he did not? Conquer his prejudices against such men as he had seen, or delay the attempt, as Oswald had suggested, till he could get one of his old cronies on from New York. He could do neither. The obstinacy of his nature was such as to offer an invincible barrier against either suggestion. One alternative remained. He had heard of women aviators. If Doris could be induced to accompany him into the air, instead of clinging sodden-like to the weight of Oswald’s woe, then would the world behold a triumph which would dwarf the ecstasy of the bird’s flight and rob the eagle of his kingly pride. But Doris barely endured him as yet, and the thought was not one to be considered for a moment. Yet what other course remained? He was brooding deeply on the subject, in his hangar one evening —(it was Thursday and Saturday was but two days off) when there came a light knock at the door.

This had never occurred before. He had given strict orders, backed by his brother’s authority, that he was never to be intruded upon when in this place; and though he had sometimes encountered the prying eyes of the curious flashing from behind the trees encircling the hangar, his door had never been approached before, or his privacy encroached upon. He started then, when this low but penetrating sound struck across the turmoil of his thoughts, and cast one look in the direction from which it came; but he did not rise, or even change his position on his workman’s stool.

Then it came again, still low but with an insistence which drew his brows together and made his hand fall from the wire he had been unconsciously holding through the mental debate which was absorbing him. Still he made no response, and the knocking continued. Should he ignore it entirely, start up his motor and render himself oblivious to all other sounds? At every other point in his career he would have done this, but an unknown, and as yet unnamed, something had entered his heart during this fatal month, which made old ways impossible and oblivion a thing he dared not court too recklessly. Should this be a summons from Doris! Should (inconceivable idea, yet it seized upon him relentlessly and would not yield for the asking) should it be Doris herself!

Taking advantage of a momentary cessation of the ceaseless tap tap, he listened. Silence was never profounder than in this forest on that windless night. Earth and air seemed, to his strained ear, emptied of all sound. The clatter of his own steady, unhastened heart-beat was all that broke upon the stillness. He might be alone in the Universe for all token of life beyond these walls, or so he was saying to himself, when sharp, quick, sinister, the knocking recommenced, demanding admission, insisting upon attention, drawing him against his own will to his feet, and finally, though he made more than one stand against it, to the very door.

“Who’s there?” he asked, imperiously and with some show of anger.

No answer, but another quiet knock.

“Speak! or go from my door. No one has the right to intrude here. What is your name and business?”

Continued knocking — nothing more.

With an outburst of wrath, which made the hangar ring, Orlando lifted his fist to answer this appeal in his own fierce fashion from his own side of the door, but the impulse paused at fulfilment, and he let his arm fall again in a rush of self-hatred which it would have pained his worst enemy, even little Doris, to witness. As it reached his side, the knock came again.

It was too much. With an oath, Orlando reached for his key. But before fitting it into the lock, he cast a look behind him. The car was in plain sight, filling the central space from floor to roof. A single glance from a stranger’s eye, and its principal secret would be a secret no longer. He must not run such a risk. Before he answered this call, he must drop the curtain he had rigged up against such emergencies as these. He had but to pull a cord and a veil would fall before his treasure, concealing it as effectually as an Eastern bride is concealed behind her yashmak.

Stepping to the wall, he drew that cord, then with an impatient sigh, returned to the door.

Another quiet but insistent knock greeted him. In no fury now, but with a vague sense of portent which gave an aspect of farewell to the one quick glance he cast about the well-known spot, he fitted the key in the lock, and stood ready to turn it.

“I ask again your name and your business,” he shouted out in loud command. “Tell them or —” He meant to say, “or I do not turn this key.” But something withheld the threat. He knew that it would perish in the utterance; that he could not carry it out. He would have to open the door now, response or no response. “Speak!” was the word with which he finished his demand.

A final knock.

Pulling a pistol from his pocket, with his left hand, he turned the key with his right.

The door remained unopened.

Stepping slowly back, he stared at its unpainted boards for a moment, then he spoke up quietly, almost courteously:

“Enter.”

But the command passed unheeded; the latch was not raised, and only the slightest tap was heard.

With a bound he reached forward and pulled the door open. Then a great silence fell upon him and a rigidity as of the grave seized and stiffened his powerful frame.

The man confronting him from the darkness was Sweetwater.

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