Lost Man’s Lane, by Anna Katharine Green

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.

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