Lost Man’s Lane, by Anna Katharine Green

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.

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Last updated Friday, February 28, 2014 at 11:57