Lost Man’s Lane, by Anna Katharine Green

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.

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